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Teaching Religious Studies in Stand-alone MA Programs: Guest Editor's Introduction - Pedagogical Strategies Highlighted in This Issue PDF-NOTE: Internet Explorer Users, right click the PDF Icon and choose [save target as] if you are experiencing problems with clicking. Print

Our reflection on issues of teaching and learning in stand-alone MA programs in religious studies begins with the essay by Kent L. Brintnall, who discusses the need for teachers to consider the distinctive contexts and goals of their MA students when designing a course or mentoring their advisees. He urges us to consider the diversity of student background and objectives in stand-alone MA programs, and also to resist the temptation of viewing them as "little doctoral students."

The next several essays deal with approaches used in courses that are regularly offered in MA programs in religious studies. Liz Wilson examines the topic of "split-level" courses, which necessitate having to develop ways to engage both undergraduate and master’s students in a single classroom. She outlines some of the challenges as well as benefits of teaching such courses, giving special consideration to how a teacher can facilitate peer-level mentoring to take place among the students. Carolyn M. Jones Medine picks up the same theme of split-level courses and focuses on a teaching strategy whereby she assigns master’s and undergraduate students to form reading communities that are tasked with analyzing selected excerpts from texts and forming interpretations in collaboration with each other. Turning attention to the "capstone course," William Lindsey discusses a new approach that he and his colleagues are developing for the purpose of improving student learning. Rather than offer a single capstone course on theory and method in religion, he advocates developing a number of "critical issues seminars" that give MA students repeated exposure to certain methodological perspectives and theoretical models in the context of coursework that is organized around selected topics. Split-level and capstone courses often form critical parts of the curriculum in stand-alone MA programs, and these essays model important reflections on how to improve the teaching and learning that take place in these contexts.

In addition to regular course offerings, stand-alone MA programs sometimes incorporate additional components to meet student needs. One such feature that figures prominently is the independent study course, which helps stand-alone MA programs to expand upon their typical menu of course offerings. Holly Gayley shares information about how she has developed additional language courses at her university to equip her students with a skill needed for advanced research in the field. Borrowing from the model of Directed Independent Language Study (DILS), she shows how it is possible for stand-alone MA programs with limited numbers of faculty and students to offer less commonly taught languages as a part of their curricula. Another component that can be featured in stand-alone MA programs is pedagogical training for Master’s students. Brian C. Wilson and Stephen G. Covell discuss how their institution has developed a program to train MA students how to teach effectively. Through mentoring and enrollment in a semester-long course on pedagogy, their MA students are able to develop their own teaching skills that they can put to use in introductory undergraduate courses and in their future careers.

Given that not every student who enrolls in a stand-alone MA program intends to go on for a doctorate, it is particularly important for us to equip our students with skills to succeed in a variety of vocations. Andrea L. Stanton discusses how her program is developing a community engagement/service learning component for MA students. In response to a university mandate, they are launching a course to train MA students in grant writing as a form of research and community engagement. Such training may prove helpful to MA students for developing their research and intellectual skills, as well as for seeking various types of employment.

Finally, as students approach the end of an MA program in religious studies, they are often made to complete some large project to fulfill the requirements of their degree. The “exit rituals” used by stand-alone MA programs can differ somewhat, but there is often a written thesis that can be required or optional for students. Martha L. Finch discusses some tips on how to help MA students to finish their theses. She focuses particularly on the technique of holding MA thesis-writing workshops, in which Master’s students write, present, and collectively discuss one another’s work, while adhering to a timeline that leads them closer to completing their theses.

Each of these essays reveals significant insights into how stand-alone MA programs can enhance the education of their students while responding to the realities of diverse student populations and limited faculty or institutional resources. Despite these challenges, the teachers who work in stand-alone MA programs display the dedication and creativity to enhance the value of a Master’s degree in religious studies, which will likely become an increasingly important degree in this field, as it has in many others.

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The importance of the MA degree in religion has been recognized by the American Academy of Religion, which in 2011 approved the formation of the Stand-alone MA Programs in Religion Seminar as a part of the Academy’s Annual Meeting.


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