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In Religious Studies, Students Curate Their Educations with Independent Scholarship

What are William & Mary students gaining from their classes in Religious Studies? What kinds of questions have courses in the department introduced, and how are students seeking answers? Majors and minors are exposed to a plethora of religious traditions in a variety of introductory and advanced classes, from Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, to Hinduism, Judaism, and East Asian religion. Introductory courses in particular serve as an excellent gateway through which non-majors may engage with the field. Major or not, such courses ideally foster a sense of curiosity in students about the nuances of the world around them, and even help in identifying a particular thematic focus for their academic careers. Niche, upper-level courses serve as one avenue for young scholars to do so. But beyond that, for driven William & Mary students aiming to truly curate their educations, there is also the option of independent study.  

Religious Studies is an inherently interdisciplinary field, so it’s no wonder that students from a variety of majors and minors have chosen to pursue independent studies in the department. Government major Katya Pedyash, for instance, is writing a paper on their internship with the Center for Faith, Justice, and Reconciliation for an independent study with Professor Patton Burchett. They acquired the internship after having met director Dr. Sabrina Dent at a panel organized by Professor Burchett for his Summer in D.C. course “Religion & Politics in the U.S.” They are thrilled that the course has led them to be part of an organization working towards open dialogue with the greater community about the relationship between religious freedom, intersectionality, and social justice in the United States. 

However, Katya had not initially expected to develop such a keen interest in the role that religion plays in politics. Despite having originally taken the course to fulfill the COLL 350 requirement and as an elective for their government major, they soon were hooked on class discussions about the first amendment and the wide range of faith communities in the U.S., especially among people of color. Katya recollected their thoughts while taking the course: “I remember thinking, ‘Wow! This is a really interesting engagement with aspects of religious freedom that aren’t typically discussed.’” Although this was Katya’s first formal engagement in the field, it has deeply informed how they approach their coursework in other departments. “Religion is so personal,” they emphasized, and the study of it has provided a humane and nuanced lens with which to critique policy issues.  

Although they enrolled in an independent study with Religious Studies faculty Professor Kevin Vose, Chitra Singh and Aravind Sreeram’s academic specializations lie outside the humanities. Chitra, a junior, is majoring in Biology and Aravind is a senior neuroscience major. Their research, Chitra explained, focuses on how women’s physical and mental health is affected by a patriarchal environment. The paper contains a literature review and original research performed by William & Mary students from the organization Swastha Nepal. In 2019, the group had conducted interviews and surveys with women from the HerFarm community, a non-profit women’s empowerment organization located in Goganpani, Nepal. Chitra and Aravind both have research backgrounds, and upon joining Swastha Nepal recognized the unique nature of the data that had been collected. While pre-existing literature would indicate the prevalence of conservative and patriarchal culture in Nepal, the women at HerFarm departed from this in their values, beliefs, and practices.  

The duo decided to pursue the project within an independent study with Professor Vose, whose own scholarship focuses on the formation of Buddhist philosophical traditions in Tibet. Regarding the oft perceived hard boundary between the sciences and humanities, Aravind noted that “people imagine it to be more prevalent than it actually is; I think there’s a lot of overlap.” They hope to publish their findings soon. 

Like Katya, Terry Flannery and Travis Slocumb drew inspiration for their independent studies from their coursework in Religious Studies, especially from Professor Alexander Angelov’s course “Eastern Christianity.” Terry is a junior History major and Travis a senior majoring in Religious Studies with a minor in Philosophy, but both frequented Professor Angelov’s office hours during the semester in which they were enrolled in his class. Their conversations there resulted in a joint independent study reading Karl Barth’s grossly influential Church Dogmatics. Ultimately, they found differing interests in subsets of Barth’s philosophy and decided to pursue independent studies separately. 

Terry’s project examines 20th century German thought, specifically the dialogue between the Frankfurt School and Karl Barth. Barth was a Protestant theologian recognized as a strong theological force across a variety of Christian, and even Judaic traditions, though he wrote from a Calvinist perspective. Barth, Terry explained, “is saying that freedom is this kind of submission. You’re submitting to a higher power and you’re just at peace with that.” The Frankfurt School believed this perspective to be problematic. “All this is in the context of the rise of fascism. Both are trying to oppose fascism but they’re expressing it in different ways.” While Barth believed that submission to a higher power allows humans to ignore the laws of man and devalue the state, the Frankfurt School maintained that this very mindset would enable the spread of fascism.  

With a focus on Calvinist theology, this project is slightly outside the bounds of Terry’s usual interests, Reformation history and Luther. A serendipitous overlap in course content sparked his interest in Barth and the Frankfurt School. “When I was taking Eastern Christianity with Professor Angelov, the class immediately followed it was a German studies course on German intellectual history. So, I would sit in Professor Angelov’s class and read all about Christian ideas and history, and then go to German, where we would read Luther. But then we also would read the Frankfurt School. So those ideas were always in dialogue.”  

Terry also frequently went to office hours with Travis Slocumb, whose own research deals with Barth but diverges from the theme of freedom and focuses instead on eschatology and hope. However, as he continued reading, the subject of Travis’s paper took a slight turn. “Honestly, the way my thesis is forming, it’s slowly moving away from talking about hope and its forming into an argument about what authentic love is.” While taking Eastern Christianity and speaking with Professor Angelov in office hours has informed his independent study, so has his study abroad experience at St. Andrews. Travis initially came to William & Mary with the intent of focusing on Philosophy. At St. Andrews he took a course on Christian Theology, and this experience led him to major in Religious Studies with a minor in Philosophy instead. The texts he encountered in Scotland have served as part of the foundation for his current work.  

After he completes this independent study, Travis is thinking of pursuing one with Professor Randi Rashkover, and another with Professor Angelov. To any student remotely considering taking on an independent study, Travis advises, “Absolutely do it. It’s so much more fulfilling than any class I’ve ever taken because it’s just pulling books off the shelf,” pursuing one fascination to another. Similarly, Terry reflected, “It’s just coming easier because it’s an independent study. I’m enjoying what I’m writing about, and it doesn’t really feel like work; I can actually enjoy what I’m doing.”