The Balancing Act of Major Design

Prior to undertaking a department-wide redesign of our major, I never would have realized how complex the conversation can be between the opportunities and constraints of institutional context and parameters. Although it sounds obvious in retrospect, one’s ideals about how best to instill in undergraduates robust and critical understandings of our discipline must be balanced with institutional concerns that may arise on a variety of levels. In this post, I take a pragmatic approach in considering the nuts and bolts of a religion major. While this approach does raise the issue of theoretical concerns of defining the discipline in conversation with learning goals that we decide we ought to instill in students, I approach these matters from the bottom up, so to speak.

Balancing Act

A quick refresher on the details of my institutional context is in order: I teach in a small department at a small, non-religiously-affiliated liberal arts college. By “small department,” I mean that my department currently contains 4.5 tenure lines (one of these is a position shared with another department, there are no half humans teaching my department) and by “small college,” I mean that we serve a student body of about 1500 students. I specify that the institution is not religiously affiliated because often schools of about this size that are religiously affiliated have a religion requirement, so the program and size of the department looks quite different in a way that reflects the specifics of the institutional mission. So while my words here—as always—reflect the particularities of my context and perspective, they may also reflect trends and concerns at other institutions, or disciplinary trends as well.

At the end of the last academic year, my department started the process of redesigning our major program. The most immediate institutional concern at hand was that we needed to design a major flexible enough to avoid having to request visiting positions when one department member is on sabbatical. Many small liberal arts colleges value the “teacher-scholar model”; what that may look like on an individual level of course varies a great deal, but in our case it means that there is a fairly regular rotation of tenure line and tenured faculty as we take advantage of the institution’s sabbatical program in order to devote attention to our research. While this may seem like an extremely specific concern, I suggest that it is likely a common symptom of teaching in a small department such as my own. When thinking of the shape and requirements of a new major, we could not conceive of any requirements so specific that would mean that faculty sabbaticals could get in the way of student learning, or of students being able to complete the major. The details are complex, but the bottom line in broad strokes is that my department cannot request sabbatical replacement positions (visiting positions) unless more than one of us is away at once. In order to understand the impact of this issue, a brief discussion of the various models of liberal arts religion majors is necessary.

While researching religion majors at comparable institutions, my colleagues and I noticed that a small handful of models tended to appear over and over again in various forms. The first of these could be understood as the “world religions” model, in which a department is composed of faculty with expertise in different religious traditions. There may be a Christianity box, an Islam box, a Buddhism box, and so on and so forth, with each tenure line being defined as a “box.”

Cats in Box

In such a model, there may be a breadth requirement, stipulating that students take courses in a certain number of traditions, with a depth requirement forcing expertise in area. Before our major redesign, this was more or less the model at my institution. And while many have launched fair and insightful critiques of the world religions model in recent years, there are some real advantages to such a model in major design. (I should add that my colleague-in-blogging Joy Brennan gracefully tackled the world religions course “problem” in her post The Impossible is Possible! and many of the points she makes in that post carry over to major design as well.) Mainly, I maintain that it is reasonable to expect that religion majors would learn about more than one religious tradition, and even that no student should complete a religion major having only learned a great deal about one or two traditions only. And such a model is not mutually exclusive from instilling students with knowledge of the history of the discipline, and the tools needed to understand and critique the genealogy of the world religions model. But I should remind you that this model, in addition, poses a serious pragmatic concern when considering the stipulation of flexibility vis-a-vis faculty sabbaticals; if I, the Islamicist, am away for a full year on sabbatical, we cannot reasonably require students to have a course in Islam specifically, when there is no other person or course in my department that could fulfill this requirement.

We noticed a second type of model when researching majors, which is a more modular major with requirements both in different traditions in addition to themes that are key concerns within the discipline. In such a model, students must take courses that represent breadth in both of these areas—both in terms of traditions covered in addition to the variety of types of perspectives on may take in the discipline (for example, religion and politics, “lived” religion through an anthropological or sociological lens, religious thought, and so on). Such a model does allow for some flexibility in that students often do not have to “check every box,” so to speak. If there are, say, 5 traditions represented in the department, they would not necessarily have to have courses in all of these.

While this type of model addresses the concern of flexibility to some degree, there are some nagging disciplinary concerns. What about religion faculty who don’t fit into the traditional “boxes”? What about people who do not understand their expertise as pertaining primarily to a specific tradition, but as being defined more by approach, theme, or problem? And what about students whose interests may be described in this way as well? These questions are what led my department to, in the end, design a major with maximal flexibility, the ilk of which we had seen on some other department websites. In the end, we designed a major that had a core set of required courses specifically on theory and method (the upper levels of which existed before the redesign as well, in that they steered students into the process of writing the senior thesis), and required a certain number of “elective” credits in the major, with some stipulations about the distribution of the levels of these courses. Our students are still required to write a senior thesis (a key component of major design that I do not have space to address in this post!), and in developing thesis topics, they will identify a core set of courses that demonstrate the background they have received that will prepare them to think about the research question that will drive their thesis.

In the end, a word is necessary about the broad disciplinary considerations that I mentioned at the beginning of this post, particularly with reference to student learning goals. In the end, the key goals of the religion major—in this case—remained the same, and I assume are the touchstones of many religion majors. While we do still expect our students to gain skills in the areas that are, admittedly, becoming increasingly over-used humanities buzzwords—critical thinking, writing and argumentation, etc.—by ridding ourselves of the tradition-specific “boxes” of the world religions model, we at once accommodated an institutional-administrative concern, but also created a model that reflects what may be an increasing trend in the study and teaching of religion: that of expertise and interests that are not defined by tradition-specificity, but by the methods and themes that drive our discipline.

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