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Sample Course Descriptions

The Study of Religion as Vocation

Robert Orsi

This seminar addresses the question of what it means to be a scholar of religion(s)—as opposed, or in addition, to being a scholar of Catholicism, for instance, or Islam, or Judaism, or US religions, or queer religion, etc.—in the contemporary academic and social context. What habits of mind and heart ought/might the scholar of religion cultivate? How are these habits best nourished? Beginning with an old and out-of-date, but learned and thorough, history of the discipline, Sharpe’s Comparative Religion: A History (selections), we will read excerpts from texts that proved essential in the making of the contemporary study of religion. The point is not to develop a genealogy, let alone a history  (although what this would be like might be one of our topics), but a kind of exigent dialogue across generations. The whole seminar will be haunted by planetary climate crisis, and we will end with a reading of Ghosh’s The Great Derangement in order to consider how we might not only avoid derangement, but enlarge our vocation in response to it. In advance of our first meeting, students are asked to read Max Weber, “The Scholar’s Work.”

Religion 481-1 GRADUATE SEMINAR:
Classical Theories of Religion

Brannon Ingram

This course offers a critical examination of scholars – the Comparative Religions “canon” – who played major roles in the formation of Religious Studies as a discipline in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The course begins by interrogating the very notion of a canon. What is a canon for? How do they get formed? For what purpose and by whom? Are they still relevant? Can we form new canons? We then proceed to approach the “canon” through a series of modules, focusing on the work, legacies, and scholarly interlocutors of William James, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Mircea Eliade.

Sin, Salvation, and Racialization

Michelle Molina

The vibrant culture of an Indigenous people, the import of African slaves with their varied traditions, and the domination of a European Christian settler class: these are all factors shared by Latin America and the United States. Despite these common factors, racializing practices and the emergence of "race" are quite different in the two regions. Focusing primarily on Mexico, we see how religion and race are intertwined, beginning with the formative colonial period. To understand the complicated permutations of race in Latin America, we study three realms: Spanish law, the institutional Catholic church, and, the devotional lives of historical actors, from the colonial period through the twentieth century.

Religion 481-2 GRADUATE SEMINAR:

Secularities: Thinking with, through, and against 'Religion'

Brannon Ingram

This course will introduce graduate students to a range of approaches to theorizing the category of “religion” in recent interdisciplinary scholarship. In this course, these approaches will revolve primary around theories of secularity – that is, theories of how the category of “religion” is produced, negotiated, maintained, and/or contested in its intersections with other domains of human life against which it is often defined, e.g. “culture,” “society,” and so on. We will also see some of the ways scholars have approached the ways that the category of religion informs, or intersects with, law and politics. We will begin with pioneering work in this subject from Talal Asad, Gauri Viswanathan, Winnifred Sullivan, and Saba Mahmoud. We will then proceed to explore how a second wave of scholars on secularity put these foundational texts in conversation with a range of archives, drawing on scholars such as Elizabeth Hurd, Courtney Bender, and Hussein Agrama. Finally, we turn our attention to the most recent scholarship in this vein from the likes of Joseph Blankholm, Elayne Oliphant, John Modern, and Charles McCrary.


Michelle Molina

This seminar explores theoretical approaches to the problems of embodiment/materiality/affect. One aim of the course is to examine various methodological approaches to embodiment, materiality and affect, making use of sociology and philosophy (Pierre Bourdieu, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Spinoza, Massumi). The second and closely related aim is to situate bodies in time and place, that is, in history. Here we look to the particular circumstances that shaped the manner in which historical actors experienced their bodies in the Christian west (Peter Brown, Caroline Bynum, Mary Carruthers, Michel de Certeau, Michel Foucault). Ultimately, we will be examining theoretical tools while we put them to work. The goal: how to use these thinkers to write more dynamic, creative, interesting scholarship? 



Christine Helmer

This course explores the central place the concept of “religion” hasoccupied in the development of critical theory and, in turn, the rolecritical theory has played in reframing “religion” in modernity and in thecontemporary geopolitical moment. We take up the question, “Is critiquesecular,” as we consider the contributions, potential and actual, of“religion” to social transformation. 



Sarah Jacoby

Not a how-to course, this class will explore the significance of tantra in Tibetan history, doxography, and scholarship. The course will pay particular attention to placing tantra within its broader religious and social context(s) in Tibet, as well as to a range of issues pertaining to the ethics and politics of translating tantric texts into non-Tibetan cultural and linguistic spaces, such as varying understandings of secrecy, initiation, the guru-disciple relationship, the roles and representations of women, the body as a site of spiritual realization, consort practices, and interpretations of antinomian rhetoric.



Elizabeth Shakman Hurd

This seminar is an experiment in studying the intersections of religion, race, and politics in global and imperial perspective. We discuss how particular understandings of religion and race inform contemporary scholarship and shape national and international legal and governmental practice. 

Landscapes of the Sacred

Sarah McFarland Taylor

This course explores the multifaceted connections between place and the construction of personal and spiritual identities in American culture. What is the idea of “place”? What are the tensions between American notions of “space” and “place”? How are certain places deemed “sacred” in America, and how are these places contested over time, by whom, and to what ends? How are mythical landscapes recreated in physical landscapes, and what drives such recreations? How are “sacred places” symbolically represented over time? What is the relationship between sacred narratives and the “storied landscape” for a variety of native peoples in North America? How are certain religious experiences understood “through place” in diverse communities (urban, suburban, rural, etc.)? And how do displacement, alienation from place, and the fragmentation of place affect spiritual understandings of self, nature, and nationhood? Theoretical perspectives for this course will be drawn from religious studies, landscape studies, and cultural studies. We will analyze a series of case studies (derived from primary and secondary sources) throughout the quarter.

Religion and American Popular Culture

Sarah McFarland Taylor

This seminar is geared to graduate students in Religious Studies, but advanced undergraduates in Religious Studies, American Studies, and related areas are welcome.; Admission for undergraduates is by instructor approval, and Religion majors and American Studies majors will receive priority. In this course, we will examine religion and popular culture in theoretical perspective, self-reflexively considering what counts as "religion" and what counts as “popular culture” in America and why. How might these definitions change over time, and who has the authority to decide what kind of phenonmena falls into which category? What is the purpose of studying popular culture and what methodologies might be most useful and appropriate for doing so? What might the study of popular culture contribute to our understanding of how Americans experience the “religious”? Students will be asked to problematize "high culture" versus "low culture” distinctions, theoretical divisions between what is labeled "religious" and "secular," and classifications of “religion” and “culture.” Examining a series of case studies drawn from film, television, popular music and art, consumer items, kitsch, and other sources, we will explore different scholarly approaches to the study of religion and popular culture. Students then compare and evaluate these approaches, choosing their own approach as they conduct original research for the final seminar project.



Mark McClish

This course explores key works on religion from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with a view to understanding the historical foundations of the academic study of religion. We will read works from "canonical" theorists of religion, such as Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Otto, as well as from contemporaries whose work on religion engaged subjects such as race, indigeneity, and gender. Taking a historical-critical perspective, we will explore the significance of these thinkers in their own time as well as the afterlife of their theories, methods, and frameworks. 


*Not all courses listed here will be offered every quarter