Course Syllabus

Introduction to Religious Studies

RELS 1113 section 004
University of Oklahoma, College of Arts and Sciences
Spring 2018

Tuesdays and Thursdays, 3:00-4:15 in Adams 104


David Vishanoff
vishanoff at ou dot edu
(405) 325-1150
Robertson 119
Office hours: 4:30-5:30 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, or by appointment. I am usually free after class on Thursdays as well, and you are welcome to walk back to my office with me and talk.


The work of this class consists in figuring out and articulating the assumptions, values, and goals that shape your education and your thinking about religions, and what approaches to understanding religions make the most sense for you in light of that intellectual and personal self-awareness. Perhaps you could figure all that out on your own, but you will do it better if you are in conversation with others–with your fellow students, with your professors, and with some really smart people who have studied various religions in different ways. So we are going to read four very different books about religion, assess each author’s assumptions, values, goals, and methods, and keep reassessing and developing your own approach to understanding religions in light of each book. Along the way, you will have the opportunity to gain many new insights into textual, doctrinal, institutional, and ritual dimensions of several religions. My biggest hope is that this class will help you to become more self-aware and articulate about who you are, intellectually and personally, so that you can approach all your studies more critically and with greater integrity.

This course counts toward General Education requirement IV-WC (Humanities, Western Civilization and Culture).


  • Huston Smith, The World’s Religions. HarperOne, 2009, $16.99, ISBN 978-0061660184
    • You will need this book for the second week of class, so I suggest ordering it in advance.
  • Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels. Vintage, 1989, $15.00, ISBN 978-0679724537
  • David Haberman, Journey Through the Twelve Forests: An Encounter with Krishna. Oxford, 1994, $45.95, ISBN 978-0195084795
  • Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Lethal: The Explosive Mix of Politics and Religion in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Jossey-Bass, 2011, $27.95, ISBN 978-0470581902

Course Goals

  • Articulate the assumptions, values, and goals that you want to have shape your education.
  • Become skilled at reading textbooks critically, discerning unstated assumptions, values, and goals.
  • Identify what approaches to understanding religions make the most sense for you given your own assumptions, values, and goals.
  • Develop increased intellectual humility, purposefulness, self-awareness, charity, and the ability to listen well.


Preparation and contribution (40%)

There are two main ways to demonstrate your preparation and contribute to this class:

  1. By speaking up in class. Oral contributions in class are often the most helpful for the rest of us–but only if what you say is clear, concise, relevant to where we are or where we need to go in our conversation, and well grounded in the assigned readings. Don’t talk just to fill silence!
  2. By submitting written comments in Canvas, as a reply to the day's assignment, at least one hour before class, in response to my questions about the assigned readings. These comments should be concise, should refer to specific parts of the readings, and should present just one idea in response to just one of the questions raised in the assignment.

If you are shy, or have trouble formulating ideas quickly enough to speak up, I suggest you start out with written comments; then, when you have found your voice in writing, start looking for opportunities to bring up your ideas in class.

You can choose how much you speak and how much you contribute online, but either way, aim to make a substantial contribution about once a week. Your grade for “preparation and contribution” will be based on the depth, insightfulness, clarity, and conciseness of your contributions, and especially on how well they reflect careful reading of the assigned texts. It will also be affected by little indications of preparation and engagement such as bringing the assigned texts to class, and by how well you help us to maintain a focused intellectual atmosphere in the classroom by doing things like staying alert and engaged, respecting others, refraining from any use of electronic devices, and avoiding anything else that might disrupt, distract, or discourage others from staying focused.

Please note that I just said not to use electronic devices. That means hard copy textbooks only, and no reading, watching, listening, or communicating on any kind of device. This may seem like a silly policy, but I have found it to be necessary in my introductory classes, where some students still need help learning to focus and be fully present for a whole hour and fifteen minutes. And if one person looks distracted, others will lose focus too. We need to be fully present for each other! If I notice you wearing headphones or looking at a device, I will not call you out on it, I will just silently reduce your grade every time, down to an F if you persist. So if you see others using devices, that doesn't mean they're getting away with it, or that you can too; it just means I'm silently reducing their grades every time I notice it.

Four response papers (10% each)

Following our study of each book, you will write and submit in Canvas a brief essay (around 600 words) assessing how the author’s assumptions, values, and goals relate to your own, and what you can learn from this author’s approach that will help you in your understanding of religions and in your education more broadly.

Final exam (20%)

An essay exam articulating the assumptions, values, and goals that guide your own education and your understanding of religions, and what aspects of the four approaches we have encountered this term you can embrace, reject, or learn from.

Attendance (crucial)

The work of this course consists in thinking and reaching conclusions together in class, not learning information on your own. This is only possible with your consistent preparation, attendance, and participation. There is therefore a severe grade penalty for excessive absences. If you will not be able to attend regularly, please drop the course. You will be allowed to miss up to four classes without penalty, after the deadline for adding classes. Every absence beyond your first four will result in a reduction of your final course grade by one half of a letter grade. For example, if your course grade would have been a B, but you missed six classes (two more than allowed), you would be down to a C. Please note that there is no limit to this penalty, so if you miss enough classes you will quickly drop down to an F in the course, regardless of your grades on papers and the exam. I fully expect that you will occasionally (up to four times) be unable to attend class for one reason or another, so it is not necessary to apologize or provide any excuse for your absences. On the other hand, if a serious ongoing personal or health situation will result in four or more absences during the term, please do talk to me about it, and I will be as supportive as I can. Absences that result from religious observances will be not be counted, and exams or work falling on religious holidays may be rescheduled without penalty; please let me know in advance, as soon as you are able to determine that a holiday may conflict with class.

Please note that I will usually take attendance just before class begins, so if you arrive after class has begun you will be irrevocably recorded as absent unless you check in with me after class, in which case I will record you as merely late. Please don’t be embarrassed about doing this; I’m not offended by your lateness. Nevertheless, since arriving late can undermine your learning and can be distracting to other students, I may decide to count each lateness as a fraction of an absence if lateness becomes a recurring problem.

Academic honesty (all or nothing)

In my estimation, any form of deceit, however “mild,” warrants a final course grade of F. Individual instances of suspected academic dishonesty will be referred to the appropriate University authorities, who will investigate and determine appropriate penalties (which may include grade penalties, extra classes, suspension, expulsion, and/or other penalties). In my estimation, academic dishonesty includes (but is not limited to) turning in writing not created by yourself solely for this class, plagiarism (reproducing or paraphrasing someone else’s words or ideas without citing them), failing to document sources as required in an assignment, helping other students to avoid doing their own reading or thinking or writing, selling a paper or exam essay or sharing it with someone who might use it instead of doing his or her own work, submitting answers or comments online without having studied the relevant materials for yourself, and false excuses for absences or late or missed assignments. You have no need to invent excuses, because unmet requirements will affect only my evaluation of your work; they will not affect my respect for you as a person; so false excuses mean that you are attempting to falsify your grade, which in my estimation warrants a course grade of F. See for information on student rights and responsibilities with regards to academic misconduct.

Course evaluation (a moral requirement)

At the end of the term you will have the opportunity to answer the university-mandated online questions about this class at This may seem like a meaningless exercise, but I actually care a great deal about the insights that students give me in these surveys about themselves, their learning experiences, and my own teaching. There is no way for me to formally require completion of these evaluations, and I never find out which students do and do not fill them out (unless they mention their names in their answers, which can help me understand their comments better). But I hope you will agree, when you see how much of myself I poor into this class over the course of the term, that you owe me ten minutes of your time and some honest answers about the class! I sincerely want and expect every student to fill out an evaluation. Thank you; my future students and I will all be grateful that you did.

General policies

  • Assignments may or may not be accepted late, at the instructor’s discretion. Unless arranged in advance, any such lateness will be penalized one letter grade for each interval between class periods (or any fraction thereof) that elapses after the scheduled date.
  • No extra-credit work will be assigned or accepted; please do not ask. To benefit from this class, you need to do the work as it is assigned, not do other work later.
  • In order to help alleviate the stress of "dead week" or "pre-finals week," I have designed the schedule so that all our reading and papers are completed before the last week of classes. We will spend the last week reflecting back on the thinking we did during the term, tying together our thoughts, and preparing outlines for the final exam essay. (For specific provisions of OU's official pre-finals week policy see
  • Any student who has a disability that may prevent him or her from fully demonstrating his or her abilities should contact me personally as soon as possible; I will be very glad to make accommodations to help you participate and learn more effectively. If you are unsure whether you should request some kind of accommodation, or what kind of accommodation might be most helpful for you, consult the staff at the Disability Resource Center who will be able to help figure out what is best and whether you should formally register with the Center (730 College Avenue, 325-3852, TDD 325-4173).
  • Title IX Resources and Reporting Requirement: For any concerns regarding gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual assault, dating/domestic violence, or stalking, the University offers a variety of resources. To learn more or to report an incident, please contact the Sexual Misconduct Office at 405/325-2215 (8 to 5, M-F) or Incidents can also be reported confidentially to OU Advocates at 405/615-0013 (phones are answered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week). Also, please be advised that a professor/GA/TA is required to report instances of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or discrimination to the Sexual Misconduct Office. Inquiries regarding non-discrimination policies may be directed to: Bobby J. Mason, University Equal Opportunity Officer and Title IX Coordinator at 405/325-3546 or For more information, visit
  • Adjustments for Pregnancy/Childbirth Related Issues: Should you need modifications or adjustments to your course requirements because of documented pregnancy-related or childbirth-related issues, please contact your professor or the Disability Resource Center at 405/325-3852 as soon as possible. Also, see for answers to commonly asked questions.

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