Theology and Religion

Summary

The new undergraduate curriculum for Theology and Religion was approved in 2014 and students will begin the new course in Michaelmas 2016. In short, the new curriculum aims to embed the study of a wider range of religions centrally within the degree and to increase the opportunity for student choice.

Motivations for reform

There were two main motivations for redesigning the course. The first motivation was that the Theology and Religion faculty wanted to offer a curriculum that would be attractive to a wide range of potential students in Britain today, whatever their personal religious backgrounds might be. Since the country has become much more religiously diverse in recent years, it was important to have an undergraduate programme that informed about religion in its variety, both in the UK and on a global scale. The new diversity of the course is reflected by the way in which Theology and Religion is being marketed to potential applicants, such as on the undergraduate admissions website. The second motivation behind redesigning the curriculum was that the Theology and Religion department had undergone a considerable change in senior staff and researchers. It was desirable to bring in academics with different research areas, such as in global religion, and the faculty wanted these newly appointed researchers to contribute to undergraduate teaching. It was therefore necessary to develop a curriculum that would be appropriate to the diverse interests both of potential students and of the staff themselves.

The review process

After the faculty jointly decided that it wanted a radical overhaul of the curriculum, the review process lasted five years. This process involved many meetings and specific working parties, but most importantly, several successful away days were organised. These away days were open to all faculty members and included plenary sessions, breakout sessions and sub-groups as the faculty came together to discuss how an undergraduate curriculum in the 21st century ought to look. Undergraduate students were involved in the discussions, but the involvement of students proved difficult because they tended to have other priorities. Moreover, since the review process took five years and the undergraduate programme was only three years long, it was impossible to be in discussion with the same students throughout the process and these students were not going to benefit from the changes. Development had to be led by the senior members of the faculty, for the reason that they were most likely to be in the department throughout the time of the review and after the review when the syllabus would be put into practice.

The new curriculum

The change to curriculum concerns the nature of the course as a whole, including not only the papers on offer but also the structure of the course, teaching delivery and types of examination. The first-year Theology and Religion papers are all newly designed and Preliminary Examinations are sat at the end of three terms rather than two terms as previously. The track system of the previous Final Honour School (FHS) component of the course has been removed so that the four core papers in Christian theology are no longer compulsory and there is now a compulsory thesis for third year students. Consequently, the course is now much more adaptable and flexible; in second and third year students are able to choose for themselves where they want to focus their study depending on their own interests. Students who have an interest in classical and traditional Christianity are still able to study these topics under the new curriculum, but the new curriculum also enables students with interests in non-Christian religions and various approaches to religion to organise their FHS around these topics.

For example, Student A might choose to focus on the study of Christianity by opting for 'The Narrative World of the Hebrew Bible', 'The Poetic World of the Hebrew Bible', 'History of Doctrine' and 'Ethics I: Christian Moral Reasoning' in second year, followed by a thesis and 'Analytic Philosophy and Christian Theology', 'From Nicaea to Chalcedon' and 'Saints and Sanctity in the Age of Bede' in third year. Student B, on the other hand, might choose to avoid the study of Christianity entirely, opting instead for 'Foundations of Buddhism', 'Hinduism: Sources and Formations', 'Modern Judaism' and 'Islam in Contemporary Society' in second year, followed by a thesis and 'Mysticism', 'The Psychology of Religion' and 'The Sociology of Religion' in third year. That is not to say that the study of Christianity and the study of other topics are polarised; Student C might equally choose to study a combination of papers that includes Christianity, a range of non-Christian religions and approaches to religion for their FHS.

Some new interdisciplinary papers have also been introduced, such as 'Contemporary Theology and Culture' and 'Feminist Approaches to Theology and Religion'. Although these are noteworthy, they are not as significant for the diversity of the new curriculum as the new structure of the course, since they could have been simply introduced as options under the old curriculum. Rather than merely adding these new papers as options, the new curriculum promotes the study of new and existing papers by removing the compulsory Christian theology papers for the FHS, which enables a greater scope for choice. The new curriculum retains the traditional focus on Christianity in the first year, with two compulsory papers on Christianity, but introduces in a much more central way a focus on the broader study of religion with the compulsory 'Religion and Religions' paper.

Problems with the process

The length of time required for change was an overarching problem. Certain members of the faculty who were involved in redesigning the curriculum have moved on to other institutions in the time that it has taken to introduce the new curriculum, with the result that they are unable to teach the papers which they proposed. There were also difficulties involving the relationship between colleges and the faculty, since the distribution of teaching across the colleges needed to be arranged for the new material. And, inevitably, there were differences of opinion. Introducing the study of global religion was felt to detract from the study of more traditional research areas, since the devotion of a part of the curriculum to one subject takes away from the study of another. In the end, in spite of these difficulties, the faculty succeeded in reaching a solution, thus highlighting the paramount importance of continuous and inclusive discussion. Clearly, willingness to accept a challenge is another important component of successful curriculum reform, since it involves a considerable commitment of time and energy to achieve such a considerable change as this.

Conclusion

The overhaul of the Theology and Religion curriculum has received attention from the media, with articles published by The Telegraph ('Oxford theology students can skip Christianity lessons'), The Times ('Oxford theology students allowed to skip Christianity') and The Daily Mail ('Oxford theology students won't have to study Christianity throughout their degree - but dons deny it's being 'marginalised'') on the subject. As a consequence, it has been very visible globally and has received positive responses from people all over the world. Evidently, a great deal of work has been devoted to the reform of the curriculum and this has made an impression. The next step will be to see how the new curriculum is received by students and staff when it comes into effect in the next academic year.