Losing Faith

Religion Faculty Will Not Teach New Hum Curriculum

Alongside enthusiastic lecture attendance and assiduous note-taking, something else will be conspicuously absent from the second semester of Hum 110: Reed’s Religion Department.

Reed’s Religion Department has unanimously decided against teaching the spring semester of Humanities 110, a decision made in light of the course syllabus changes announced in April 2018. The new version of the course is organized into four modules: the fall semester consists of the Ancient Mediterranean, including Mesopotamia, Jerusalem, and Athens, while the spring semester will introduce new modules on Mexico from the fifteenth through twentieth centuries and Harlem from 1919 to 1952. While faculty from the Religion Department will give lectures and host conferences during the fall semester, they will not teach in the spring.

In an official statement released in February 2018, members of the department expressed concern that the new, modular curriculum not only diverges from the ways in which they conceive of religion as an academic discipline, but “runs diametrically opposed to how religion works.”

The statement argues that the Religion Department is, at its a core, interested in examining the complicated and intertwined relationalities between different people, societies, and cultures. Such understandings, in turn, require a continuous analysis of “close proximities of time and space” that the new Hum 110 syllabus, which dedicates only six weeks to each respective module, cannot adequately provide.

This decision has been met with criticism, from both students and faculty. Emma McNeel ‘21 commented, “Hum has always ventured into various realms of academy; it’s standard to hear lectures from professors in political science, English, and art history in just one week. That’s the fun of it. I assume religion will be present in these texts –– why should we miss the opportunity to get a feel for religion in Mexico City and Harlem, but not the Ancient Mediterranean? I am unsure of the department’s motives.”

Pancho Savery told the Quest in an interview last spring that he believes “it’s problematic to not have religion in the course, and the people in the Religion Department were hired just like everyone else, to be religion and Hum, and I think it’s a loss for students.” Savery added that when he asked the religion faculty about their decision, they assured him there was no racial motivation.

The department’s statement goes on to clarify that the department is not opposed to changing the Hum 110 curriculum and that they recognize the importance of inclusivity and diversity. In their view, it is not the changes themselves, but rather the modular nature of the new course, that is fundamentally incompatible with the way religion operates both at Reed and as a general academic discipline. In this light, the statement suggested the creation of a two-track spring semester for Hum 110. Such a syllabus would allow students to choose between a modular course centered around Mexico City and Harlem, and a tighter, more theory-driven option which would delve deeply into one specific time period and location. Their suggestion, however, was never formally proposed to the faculty at large.

In an interview with the Quest conducted last year, Ken Brashier, chair of the Religion Department, emphasized the inherent tensions between the discipline of religion as an academic field and the new, modular Hum 110 curriculum.

“If Hum 110 had focused on only the Mediterranean, Africa, or South America for an extended framework, religion would be fine with full participation,” Brashier said. Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, a professor of religion who has taught at Reed since 2002, expressed similar concerns. GhaneaBassiri is the only member of the five-person department who is currently teaching fall semester Hum 110. In the spring, he will step aside, and another faculty member will take over his conference.

To GhaneaBassiri, the decision of whether or not to teach spring semester Hum 110 posed “ethical issues.” On the one hand, he believes that the approach of the religious discipline, which emphasizes human relationships and connections, plays a critical role in shining a light on the nuances and complexities inherent in the study of the humanities. However, like Brashier, he is primarily worried that the modular curriculum, which jumps from one city and time period to the next, would misrepresent the ways in which religion operates as an academic field. “Religion isn’t just a set of static beliefs,” GhaneaBassiri explained. “Religion is always about human relationships. You need a density of time and space to see how those relationships are constructed and maintained. ... If you impose a [city-based] framework of understanding upon the ways in which people see themselves, that could cause problems.”  

Furthermore, while GhaneaBassiri supports the push toward increased diversity within the Hum 110 syllabus, he believes that there are many potential approaches which do not involve a modular curriculum. For example, GhaneaBassiri envisions a syllabus which focuses on the ways in which the Persian empire connected the disparate cultures of India, Central Asia, Greece, and Egypt. Such a course would examine the rise of certain beliefs and practices, such as the rise of Buddhism in South Asia, through the lens of intercultural “connectivity and entanglement.”

“It’s important to think of diversity not only in terms of representation,” GhaneaBassiri said. “We can incorporate diversity by teaching [students] how to think about pluralism, differences, and how people understand and approach differences. This can be done in any model which delves deeply and follows through [on] relations, connections, and interactions.”

However, it is noteworthy that most of the explanations provided for the Religion Department’s absence from the second semester are based on critiques of the modular nature of the course, though the fall semester is also modular, with one module focused on Mesopotamia and Jerusalem and one focused on Greece, and the department is participating. When asked about this, GhaneaBassiri replied that the first semester, which is largely unchanged from last year’s syllabus, is relatively more focused on a specific time and place.

Margot Minardi, the current Hum 110 chair, recognizes that the Hum 110 changes have been met with both positive and negative reactions. Nonetheless, she highlighted the greater flexibility provided by the new, modular curriculum and emphasized that the reform is an ongoing process.

“As we get accustomed to this new approach to the curriculum, I hope we can work to accentuate the positive and to develop a vision for the course that will be embraced by the whole faculty and by our students,” Minardi said. “I know that all members of the faculty are committed to ensuring that Hum 110 gives first-year students a strong intellectual foundation for their Reed careers, as well as for their lives beyond Reed.”