The Major in Religious Studies

The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania offers both a broad introduction to the study of religion and highly specialized training in several religious traditions and theoretical approaches. There are eight core and over 30 affiliated professors teaching courses on Religious Studies. Majors will work with them and have the advantage of being at an institution that teaches over 65 languages and houses some of the finest libraries and museums in the country. These resources allow new majors to begin their studies with a great deal of guidance, as well as offering them the opportunity to conduct serious research. The goal of the departmental faculty is to design a plan of study for each student that will not only give them the foundations in the field, but also suit their individual ambitions and interests. To this end, instead of dictating which courses a student must take and at which level, the major is designed in consultation with each individual.

Each student meets with the Undergraduate Chair when first declaring a major and devises a “plan of study” that both suits her/his interests and the stated goals of the Department of Religious Studies. The Undergraduate Chair helps the student plan courses and introduces them early on to professors with the expertise to assist them in shaping their undergraduate learning experience at Penn. For example, if a student is primarily interested in historical methods and approaches and wants to study Islamic traditions, the Undergraduate Chair calls a meeting with professors of the history of Islam at Penn and helps the student develop a “plan of study” not only in Religious Studies as an academic discipline, but also in Islamic Studies. If a student wants to work on anthropological approaches to American religious practices, the undergraduate calls a meeting with Penn professors focused on this topic, and the like.

After this initial meeting, the student presents a short written statement of the objectives and interests along with a list of the component courses (the “plan of study”) for approval by the undergraduate chair. The plan is expected to encompass the study of at least two religious traditions (one tradition in-depth—at least three courses), one classical or modern language (often covered by the existing College requirement of two years of language study) and a solid background in the approaches and methods of the discipline of Religious Studies. The plan of study must take account of more than one approach to the study of religion (historical, anthropological, philological, art historical, etc.) and contain at least two intermediate-high level courses (200-500 level courses). We encourage students to be both creative and discerning, and as the student explores the field of Religious Studies, she/he may revisit her or his choices and foci in consultation with the Undergraduate Chair. The plan of study is not set in stone; it is intended to guide the student and can be altered as their interests grow and change.

A Religious Studies Major requires twelve courses including (not in addition to) the Major Colloquium and the Culminating Experience (see below). Ideally, at least four of the twelve courses must be taken with core Department faculty (Butler, Durmaz, Elias, McDaniel, Robb, Schaefer, Thomas, and Weitzman), and up to six may be cross-listed with relevant courses taught by Religious Studies Graduate Group Faculty. The Religious Studies core faculty works closely with departments and programs such as Ancient History, Art History, Classical Studies, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, South Asia Studies, Jewish Studies, History and Sociology of Science and Medicine, and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, among others. Study abroad courses are highly encouraged, but not required, in the Religious Studies major.

Of the twelve courses, there are two required courses every major must take (with exceptions made in special cases pending consultation with the Undergraduate Chair and the student’s adviser):

1. Majors' Colloquium

All students in the Religious Studies Department are required to take the Majors Colloquium, generally in their junior or senior year. This course, offered annually, surveys important theoretical and methodological approaches to the academic study of religion. This course will also often involve field trips, guest speakers, and a semi-independent research project. In many cases this Majors Colloquium will also be offered as a Benjamin Franklin Seminar, and majors will be given permission to take the course even if they are not Benjamin Franklin scholars. Minors in Religious Studies will, in most cases, also be permitted to enroll in this course. The Majors Colloquium is designed to be a small and highly interactive way for majors to work together.

2. Culminating Experience or Honors Thesis

Each student majoring in Religious Studies is required to undertake a “culminating experience” course or independent research project, (usually in their senior year). In some cases, and upon approval by the department, the student may choose to write an honors thesis as their culminating experience. In other cases, a student will conduct an independent research project or advanced one-on-one reading course with a professor of her/his choosing. Two or three students may even suggest to design a joint “culminating experience” course in which they conduct an ethnographic field project, work on a documentary film, interview several important religious figures or scholars, and the like. These projects or theses will be publically presented to the faculty and other majors at the annual Department pre-graduation symposium and awards ceremony. This symposium is not a final examination or public defense of a thesis, but an exciting event in which each graduating major presents their work in a casual atmosphere.

To receive Honors, a student must have at least a high B in the concentration and at least a high B on the honors thesis and must be pre-approved by the department to undertake Honors requirements beyond the regular major.

In the final semester before graduation, and after completing all required courses, including the Majors Colloquium and Culminating Experience, each student will prepare and present a portfolio and conduct an exit interview with the undergraduate chair. Before the official interview, each student must complete the short survey and compile a portfolio featuring at least three works from their undergraduate courses of which they are most proud. This could be research papers, course presentations, film or art projects, field reports, book reviews, or other assignments. In the interview they not only orally respond to survey questions, but describe these three works and why they chose them.  The Graduating Senior Survey is an open-ended questionnaire which asks graduating seniors to evaluate their experiences in the program and to propose improvements. We find that suggestions from our majors on how to improve the program greatly benefits future students.

After graduation, majors will be given the option to participate in an Alumni Survey on a regular, ongoing basis. This is a questionnaire which asks alumnae and alumni to evaluate their experiences in the program in the context of their "real-world" experiences.