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Misconceptions and new directions for Religious Studies

At a faculty forum, Professors Sonya Maria Johnson and Natalie Gummer centered on addressing the misconceptions surrounding the field of Religious Studies in academia.

On Feb. 5, Sonya Maria Johnson and Natalie Gummer presented the first faculty forum of the semester centered on addressing the misconceptions surrounding the field of Religious Studies in academia. The presentation was titled “The Study of Religion: Disciplinary History, Epistemological and Ethical Challenges, New Directions at Beloit College”, and was held in Pearsons Hall. The lecture began with a surprise introduction from former professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Debra Majeed, who spoke on the partnership between the two, and their “transformative” teaching.

Johnson began by providing an overview of the presentation, starting with common assumptions about the field of religious studies. She debunked some of these myths, such as the field is “the study of what people believe,” or “entails the study of sacred texts.” Instead, she said that the department disrupts the assumption that religious studies courses focus on “the Motown Three: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.”

Gummer discussed the “modern colonial creation of religion and its study,” meaning how the modern colonial perspective has shaped ideas of global religions. She then described an exercise she uses in her class to help students become aware of the preconceptions they already have, as well as the way those notions are racialized. One column is labeled “west,” and other “east/rest,” and the students are to write the words or ideas they associate with that part of the world. Students often write “rational” and “secular” in the West column and “mystical” and “backward” in the east/rest column. Gummer also uses this exercise for other topics, such as religious/secular, modern/pre-modern, and sometimes white/non-white.

Johnson brought the notion of “finding ways to continually enhance our own practice,” and described an interaction with students as a new professor at Beloit, in which she was asked by a student to allow them to introduce themselves with their preferred gender pronouns. Johnson did stated this practice allowed the students to signal what was important to them. Afterwards, she attended a safe zone training and educating herself about the culture surrounding this method.

Both professors discussed “reading the room,” a new teaching tactic in which they do their best to evaluate the students level of comfort with the subject. Johnson characterized this as a “sense” of feeling if students in the classroom of certain identities (such as students of color, transgender students, etc., ) feel safe enough in the environment to participate in content related to oppression or mistreatment of these identities.

Alana Schacher’22
February 21, 2020

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