Thoughts Upon Losing My Religion (Major)

Students working on a group assignemt in an Intro class Kathryn D. Blanchard is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Religious Studies at Alma College, where she has taught undergraduates since 2006.

I’ll start by making a long story short: the Religious Studies department at my institution has been shrinking for years, and this year the major was cut. The minor survives, for now (we got off lucky compared to French, German, and Anthropology), mostly because I—the lone faculty member—have tenure, our classes are generally full, and the college has a Presbyterian affiliation.

When other schools cut or threaten to cut religious studies, I pay attention to how folks defend it. Most defenses revolve around a few themes: religious studies prepares people for successful careers; it prepares people for responsible citizenship; and it is central to the liberal arts and the purposes of higher education, so no self-respecting institution should be without it—especially because it is so popular/relevant/cheap. Some of these arguments can be applied to the humanities more broadly, while others carve out a special place for religion. This very thorough recent statement from the American Academy of Religion covers all the bases, as does a fine blog post on this site by a current master’s student. Perhaps my favorite is from Megan Goodwin, who writes so eloquently, “Humanities cutbacks make us dumber, crueler, and less likely to survive as a species.” Continue reading

The Relevance of Religious Studies is Not that We Study Religion

Students working together in the Religious Studies classroom

Jacob Barrett is a first year M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. From Colorado Springs, he earned his B.A. from Nebraska Wesleyan University in Philosophy & Religion and Biology. In the Spring he will present his research at the southeast regional meeting of the American Academy of Religion.

Junior year of my undergraduate degree, I was asked by the chair of the Religious Studies department to represent the major at an event where first year students would more-or-less speed date with different departments to start deciding what they wanted to major in. I was paired with the new Religion professor and together we set out to convince first year students to begin thinking about why participating in our department (whether that be majoring, minoring, or just taking several classes) was advantageous to them. I started with the typical “The faculty are so supportive and amazing” and “The major is pretty flexible so if you are a double major it is really easy to fit in” and “The classes are really fun and they also cover a lot of the requirements in the curriculum, so you can kill two birds with one stone by taking a course.” When the professor started his part, he said something so simple yet so important: “We teach you how to think, how to write, how to talk about things in ways that other departments don’t.”

With universities proposing cuts to Religious Studies departments becoming more and more of a regular occurrence, there is the feeling that we (those who consider ourselves members of “the field”) must defend the importance and relevance of what we do and what we offer. Religious Studies departments are often not producing majors or bringing in money in the same numbers as larger departments, so they become an easy target when universities need to find ways to save money. How, then, do we convince a university to keep our departments? Continue reading

A Moving Target

Logo for the University of Vermont's Department of Religious StudiesLong ago, at the start of a Fall semester, I was speaking with someone newer to our Department about whether it was likely that we would have a tenure-track search that year; we had recently had a faculty member depart for another university, leaving our then small Department with no one covering Asia. We hoped to fill that gap, of course, but one can never be sure if requests for lines (whether replacements or new) will be granted by the University. “But surely Asia is important” I was told in reply, the person assuming that the University administration would agree.

I replied by asking whether they thought that the 22 other Departments in the College of Arts & Sciences also had unfilled lines and uncovered areas of importance to them — such as Modern Languages and Criminal Justice, or Chemistry, Biology, and Political Science. For while I may not think that another Elizabethan specialist is really needed in the English Department I can easily imagine how important such a line might be to someone over there (thus making its way into their rationale for requesting the position). So I suggested that if I were the Dean or the Provost I’d likely not be making these decisions — after all, resources are limited and not everyone will get what they want — based on the scale of value used by each Department in making their staffing requests but, instead, I’d probably come up with some other set of criteria, one that I could use across units that each employed their own local, different, and sometimes competing or even contradictory criteria for what was important or valuable. Continue reading