Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Diversity Digest Volume 8, Number 3

Diversity Digest
Volume 8,
Number 3
(2005)

Download our print issue (PDF)
Curricular Transformation
Shared Futures: Global Learning and Social Responsibility
Recasting Religious Studies at Beloit College
Hybrid Student Identities: A Resource
for Global Learning
Global Education Continuum—
Four Phases
New Global Studies Degree Combines Liberal Arts and Preprofessional Disciplines
Globalizing the Curriculum
Campus-Community Involvement
Student Civic Engagement at Home
and Abroad
Looking Within to See the World
Institutional Leadership
Shared Futures? The Interconnections
of Global and U.S. Diversity
Connecting the Global and the Local: The Experience of Arcadia University
Partnership in Education for a Sustainable Future
Student Experience
Engaging Diversity on the Homogeneous Campus: The Power
of Immersion Experiences
Resources
Crossing Borders: Interdisciplinary Centers and Global Learning
Resources for Shared Futures
Research
The Curricular Disconnect
 

Recasting Religious Studies at Beloit College

By Georgia Duerst-Lahti, professor of political science, Beloit College

To deepen students’ global understanding and engagement in the larger world, Beloit College has dramatically redesigned its religious studies major. Instead of using the traditional east versus west architecture, the major is now organized to explore the dynamic local and global manifestations of religions. Moving away from a rigid dichotomy based on the ostensible origins of religious traditions refocuses attention on the dynamic pluralism in both local and global communities. At the same time, such a topical framework makes explicit the constantly shifting loci of our own religious landscape.
A religious studies class at Beloit College

A religious studies class at Beloit College

The redesign has also prompted interrogation of the putative status of secularism as a bias-free lens. Students are encouraged to analyze whether secularism is actually free from the “taint” of faith-based assumptions and secure in its factual emphasis and scientisms. Teaching students to recognize such historical and cultural limitations in a given worldview is central to the ethos of Beloit’s religious studies program. So, too, is the college’s commitment to fostering students’ sense of global interdependence and global citizenship.

These changes in the conceptualization of the religious studies major were influenced by Beloit’s involvement in Liberal Education and Global Citizenship: The Arts of Democracy, a project of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. For students new to the discipline of religious studies, Beloit offers two foundational courses—“Understanding Religious Traditions in a Global Context” and “Understanding Religious Traditions in Multicultural America”—through which students consider the historical diversity of religious expressions in both global and local contexts. The primary goals of these courses are (1) to enable students to develop critical perspectives on diverse religious phenomena and the power of religious worldviews in a global context and in the North American environment, and (2) to encourage students to exercise their global citizenship and civic responsibility by engaging in experiential learning projects.

Most of the intermediate courses are topical. Rather than simply offering set courses dealing with specific traditions or regional religious complexes, the new curriculum provides the flexibility necessary to address the volatility of the contemporary religious landscape. It also allows students to examine debates about what constitutes the “canon,” and to recognize the impact of culture, race, and identity on the study of religion. In specific courses arranged under the general topics of “The Comparative Study of Religious Communities,” “Religion and Acculturation,” “Religious Thought,” “Religious Practice,” and “Religious Language and Literature,” students are offered both foundations for understanding the history and practice of particular traditions and a variety of lenses for interpreting the role of those traditions in the ongoing construction of competing visions of our world.

While courses that focus on specific traditions, societies, and regions continue to be offered under the topic of “The Comparative Study of Religious Communities,” such courses now emphasize the dynamic, constantly changing character and internal diversity of different traditions and peoples. There are standard course offerings such as “Islam,” “Religious Traditions in the Middle East,” “Buddhisms,” or “East Asian Religious Traditions.” But there are also courses that compare traditions in terms of critical contemporary or historical trends, such as “Fundamentalisms,” so that students learn to think across the boundaries separating traditions and become aware of the lived experiences of diverse groups of people.

Under “Religion and Acculturation,” faculty are designing courses that grapple with the complex relationship between the ongoing transformation of religious traditions and the ongoing transformation of the cultural, historical, and political contexts in which those traditions are situated. Courses such as “The Black Church in the U.S.,” “Colonialism and Religion,” and “Cyberreligions” help students develop a more nuanced appreciation of the impact of religious traditions and interpretations of those traditions on global forces. Conversely, students learn to analyze the impact of global forces on religious traditions.

Courses taught under the topics of “Religious Thought” (for example, “Theologizing Harry Potter,” “Violence and Non-Violence,” “Comparative Religious Ethics,” “Liberation Theologies,” and “Human Rights and Human Responsibilities”) and “Religious Practice” (including “Gender in Religious Practice,” “Religion in Daily Life,” and “Art and Performance in Religious Traditions”) promote an active, constructive engagement with religious worldviews and practices. They do so not only in terms of learning about others, but also in terms of learning from them—a crucial orientation for students to develop in our pluralistic and interdependent world.

To emphasize the centrality of the production and interpretation of texts in many religious traditions, the final topic, “Religious Language and Literature,” introduces distinctive religious conceptions of language (oral, written, and/or embodied). It also offers a wide range of religious literature and develops appropriate methods of scholarly interpretation of value both for the study of religion and for any encounter with a text. Because much of religious literature is performative, prescriptive, and contextual, its study helps students to analyze texts not only in terms of content, but also in terms of potential impact upon an audience.

The methods course, “Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Religion,” considers diverse academic approaches to studying religion as well as the nature, meaning, and function of religion in a diverse world. The goals of this course are (1) to enable students to understand and explore diverse angles of vision through which they can view and shape their future endeavors in relation to their current studies, and (2) when applicable, to encourage students to exercise their global citizenship and civic responsibility by engaging in experiential learning projects.

Finally, in “Religious Perspectives on Contemporary Problems,” juniors and seniors are offered the opportunity to examine how particular religious perspectives provide alternative lenses through which to view contemporary concern. In this way, they are challenged to use what they have learned as a resource for thinking about the world and acting to transform it. As appropriate, students are encouraged to engage in experiential learning projects to acquire hands-on experience in the practice of global citizenship.

In deciding to recast the major as a whole rather than simply altering a course or set of courses, faculty came to consensus as a department about the ultimate learning goals for students. As a result of their decision, global learning for informed and responsible citizenship has become a central dimension of Beloit’s religious studies major.

Questions, comments, and suggestions regarding Diversity & Democracy should be directed to Kathryn Peltier Campbell at campbell@aacu.org.
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