The Curriculum Game

Suppose you had a free hand to design a religious studies undergraduate curriculum from scratch – what would it be? One answer: a dialectic between theory and praxis, between parlor game and reality.

For me, this is not a hypothetical question; I have been engaged in just this exercise for some time, and am currently working on a proposal for a bachelor of arts in religious studies. Thus I was happy to see (and be able to listen to) Professor Brian Britt’s recent presentation, “Curricula and Criticism in Religious Studies.”* His opening discussion of the connections between one’s research life and institutional context has many ramifications, and the focus on interview presentation that appreciates local contexts is certainly the area of most immediate concern for job-seekers. I would like to take up this theme from another angle, and with a long view in mind.

Before going to the parlor game, here are a few thoughts on why grad students, especially job candidates, should think about curriculum.

Curriculum is a practice of theory. Here I mean “theory” in its etymological sense of visual perspective: a view that perceives the composition of various activities, that is, the way the parts fit together into the whole; or, more dynamically, a view of how the parts and whole mutually generate each other. How may this perspective then be separated into parts (courses), such that someone walking through the installation (curriculum) and interacting with it, gains both a knowledge of the field and at least some practice in how to put it together? In this metaphor of three-dimensional visual arts, curriculum is a complex installation, sequentially experienced, that communicates both itself and how to make it.

More practically, job candidates are likely to be asked about course development. It’s tempting to see this in the highly individualistic mode of translating one’s research and study into a set of courses. This view is important, but it’s only one piece. One must also move from thinking of one’s research in relation to the field, to thinking of one’s courses in relation to a curriculum. This is far from an exact mapping, but the structural relationships are roughly analogous. Nor is theory an add-on. In my view, it should be holographic – present everywhere in the curriculum, and urgently so in religious studies. So the parlor game can lead you to useful interview presentations, in response to certain questions. Much later, perhaps, it can lead to building, with colleagues, something that students will actually encounter.

So here are a few thought experiments. Have fun.

  1. The University of Utopia. What is your ideal religious studies curriculum, in a panoptic university with unlimited resources? You’ll find that you have to impose structure (i.e. limits) if you don’t want to get lost in a Borgesian infinite library, but let’s pretend that you get to choose those limits.
  2. The Smallest Possible Thing That Could Work. Could you design a curriculum for a major, with the fewest possible staff members providing the maximum possible orientation to the field? Start with four professors and a requirement of ten semester courses required for the major, that is, to be chosen from a somewhat bigger palette. Pay attention to the relationships between professional fields of specialization and course offerings. Put another way, what are the conditions for density that would provide enough for a major?
  3. The Teleological Approach. Suppose that none of your majors will go on to graduate school in the field. Yes, none means none. All of them will leave for, or continue, some other kind of work or activity in the big social world. What do you want them to be able to take with them? What curriculum can best inform their own lives and, through them, the life of society?

Actual conditions may vary.

First, it is vanishingly unlikely that anyone will get to design a curriculum ex nihilo. Leaving aside the fact that, to do so, you would have to create a new universe first, all of us are already nodes in a long and complex discourse. Our knowledge of that past and of what others have done would inform us deeply, even if someone were to just give us the commission to design from scratch.

Not that that will happen, either. In rare cases, it might be approximated. Even if you go (as I did) where there is no religion major or department, you will be in some context: a department in another discipline, perhaps a few courses, limited resources, students with certain interests, limited resources, and various people to persuade. And limited resources. You are one of those limited resources. Here, then, are two more realistic scenarios to consider:

  1. What Planet Is This? Suppose that religious studies is not an independent department, but is part of a multi-disciplinary department. What disciplines do you think it best goes with? How might the other discipline influence the development of the religion curriculum? What sort of joint hires seem exciting – or cumbersome? For the job candidate: what are the positive aspects of religious studies in alignment with specific other disciplines?
  2. Advanced Terraforming. Suppose you have to justify to various committees why religious studies is “needed.” “Need” does not mean that a person’s education is incomplete without some knowledge of religions – of course it is, but that won’t fly as justification for a major. The question is this: what do graduates of the major take out into the world, that the world both wants and needs? What kind of jobs will graduates do?

Number 5 isn’t exactly a scenario – it’s my life right now. Yes, it’s the nitty-gritty committee work from which Professor Britt warned young assistant professors, and which any responsible department would go lightly on with new hires. But if you stick around, it’s coming. I didn’t think at all about such questions in graduate school, and I certainly didn’t imagine that I would one day address such questions, not as a parlor game, but with something actually at stake. It’s a bit daunting, frankly.

The sooner you include these questions in your thought about your place in the field, the better. Theory can turn into praxis in surprising ways, and real conditions are not barriers but the building material.

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