Friday, October 13, 2017

Explaining A Religious Studies Degree

We recently asked educators to weigh in on a problem some students face while completing their religious studies degree: figuring out how to explain to parents and friends that their degree does not mean they are entering the ministry. 

Q: Students sometimes ask how they can explain to family members or friends that their decision to complete a degree in religious studies does not mean they are pursing a career in ministry. Have you responded to these concerns before? If so, how did you frame your answer?

Brad Stoddard, McDaniel College

As an historian (of American religious history), I suggest that my students stress the historical aspects of their work (when describing it to parents, family members, or even their peers). They can choose a historical event like World War I and use it as an example. One can study the causes, the results, and the motives of people who participated in World War I without having participated in it themselves or even without taking sides in the war. 

Now apply that logic to a religious event, group, or person, and perhaps the parent can understand the academic study of religion as we teach it at McDaniel. This is short and pithy response, but students have found it useful when they describe their studies to mom and dad.

Ian Alexander Cuthbertson, Queen's University

I sometimes take a similar approach to the one Brad uses and explain to students that one needn't be a communist to study communism (or a manatee to study marine biology, for that matter) and so one need not be religious to be interested in studying religion. 

I also sometimes position myself as an atheist (which I am, though I often resist inhabiting this label) and use myself as an example of someone who is very interested in 'religion' while having no religious commitments of my own. 

But the structure of the full-year intro course I've taught at Queen's for the last few years is such that by January most of my students realize that we're not actually studying religion but rather the processes according to which some institutions, practices etc., are labeled religious and others are not. This means that (for me at least) the academic study of religion is less about understanding religion that it is understanding how and why we split up the world into 'religion' and 'not religion' and the consequences of this splitting. 

I don't know if any of this helps students explain that they don't want to become ministers to anyone else, but I hope it helps them frame religious studies in their own minds as a field that is (at least sometimes) interested the practical consequences of categorization rather than the mystery of god or how various religions are similar to or different from one another. 

Richard Newton, Elizabethtown College

I work solely with undergraduates, so you might say that my job depends on my ability to provide a response to this question. And it is a case that must be pressed in other parts of my institutional ecosystem. College applicants, their caretakers, enrolled students seeking general education requirements, and the bureaucratic entities that approve my department are asking this too. To date, my answer to the question comes in three parts.

Part I: Establish what we do.

The first has to do with establishing that we study "religion" as a human activity. Given that the particular name has a history and is used to cover a wide range of expressions and effects, our enterprise is to make sense of what is going on in and around this activity. Given all that our disciplinarians have gleaned, we can also examine instances of human activity that appear comparable to what we have studied--even when the term "religion" is not being used to describe it by us or our objects of study. Though titles like “the history of religion” or “the science of religion” are less fashionable than they once were, I find that it actually helps create points of reference for those inquiring. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, declared “the world [his] parish.” I need people to understand that in religious studies, the news is our Petri dish.

Part 2: Tell them what is it good for?

We have to recognize that people want to know their kids are getting "the goods. " A pre-med program is not intrinsically better at professional outcomes because of the subject. It just looks that way because of program development and the premium our society places on institutional medicine. There's no religious studies industry to subsidize our work. But I think we can equip students with skills and content knowledge such that they become attractive to a number of industries. I've tried to advise undergrads to start working now--in internships, web-publishing, professional research, journalism, etc. I want them leaving with portfolios that constitute the first step to where they want to go. This is part of the impetus of my student-scholar collaborative website, Sowing the Seed. When I can tell prospective families that my students have had these enviable experiences and that my program is dedicated to helping students chart a path, the "what are you going to do with that degree" changes to "I want that, and I want it for my kid." It's a long game to be sure, but I think there's a bright future for religious studies programs that commit to getting students into the creation of knowledge in communicable ways.

Part 3: Help make their dreams come true.

Lastly, students need to commit to thinking for themselves about what their program has equipped them to do, what they wan to do, and what they have yet to do to manifest those dreams. This is the heart of my junior/senior capstone. Instead of insisting on a traditional thesis, I have them create something that will signal to potential employers/benefactors that they are already doing the job. It could be a literature review or a research proposal for the graduate school-bound, but it could be a pilot for a political satire that knows there are deeper critiques to be made about religion in public life. Maybe it will be volunteering at a community organization or NGO. I want my undergrad students to have the confidence of an MBA, the fortitude of an MD, but the hustle of a graduate from the school of hard knocks.

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