Religious studies major Kathryn Banakis ’03 said she is in the best major at Yale.
“When I get out of here my skills will be no more marketable than any other [liberal] arts major, but I will be schooled in learning about people’s beliefs which is so much more delicate than people’s theories or ponderings,” Banakis said.
The department, however, still sees room for improvement, and will implement changes to the structure of the undergraduate major this fall. The changes may help to alleviate criticisms leveled by some students about the small size of the major and the narrow focus of the courses offered.
Doug Hibbard ’03 said in an e-mail that religious studies appeals to many people.
“Religious studies classes are actually quite popular here, probably because religion is important, or at least interesting, to almost everyone,” Hibbard said.
Changes to the major
The department approved changes to the undergraduate curriculum in January which will take effect in the fall, Director of Undergraduate Studies Christine Hayes said in an e-mail.
Hayes said the revamped curriculum will be divided into four groups — comparative, thematic surveys; broad introductions to particular religious traditions; introductory and intermediate specialized religious studies courses; and advanced specialized topics.
“The revamped curriculum emphasizes the interdisciplinary nature of individual courses as well as the major as a whole,” Hayes said. “The reconfiguration of existing courses and the addition of several new courses are guided by the principle that the study of religion investigates religious traditions, institutions, cultural practices, texts and ideas in many different ways.”
Professor Marilyn Adams said the department and Hayes have rationalized the undergraduate program.
“We’re giving the major some structure,” Adams said. “We had an amorphous group of courses. We’ll continue to give the undergraduate program more attention than it’s received in years — I think that we have underarticulated the undergraduate major.”
Extra attention, limited selection?
Hayes said there are currently 27 junior and senior religious studies majors.
Rebecca Friedman ’02 said in an e-mail that the small size brings students and professors together.
“The fact that it is so small is fantastic because all the teachers and other students know who you are,” Friedman said.
Kate Epstein ’03 said in an e-mail that she likes the small size of the department.
“I think the department’s a gem,” Epstein said. “The size gives me a feeling, whether illusive or real, that it’s more intimate and less impersonal. I like the feeling of familiarity with the people who take classes in the department and the professors.”
But not all students think the small size is one of the department’s assets. Hibbard said there are not enough courses at the undergraduate level.
“The small size is one of its greatest faults,” Hibbard said. “There seems to be an overrepresentation of Judaism in the course offerings — I know there are many people who would like to see more courses in eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, which are pretty scarce relative to the course offerings in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.”
Epstein agreed that the absence of classes on Buddhism and Hinduism is an issue the department needed to address.
Sean Crummie ’02 said in an e-mail that he agreed one drawback to the small size is the limited number of courses from which to chose.
“There are, however, numerous classes that cover all three major monotheistic faiths and the interaction between them,” Crummie said. “It would be good though to offer more classes to broaden the field of study further.”
Hayes said there would be several new courses next fall, including two introductory courses on “World Religions,” and said the department would like to expand its course offerings.
“Students interested in non-monotheistic traditions will find courses on Buddhism and Hinduism offered by professor Jonathan Silk, [Silliman College] Dean Hugh Flick and a visitor to be announced,” Hayes said. “In future years we hope to expand our faculty resources and course offerings in these areas.”
A rare promotion from within
As the department reorganizes the major, it has also granted tenure to Hayes, a move students praise. Hayes will be on sabbatical next year, and the new DUS will be Frank Griffel, a specialist in Islam.
Adams said Hayes is an excellent teacher.
“It’s not very common at Yale that people get tenure from within, but she was a clear case from the start,” Adams said.
Banakis said Hayes influenced her to become a religious studies major.
“She is hands down the finest professor I’ve had at Yale,” Banakis said.
Epstein said Hayes is a phenomenal lecturer who communicates her knowledge eloquently.
“Yale should probably consider canonizing her,” Epstein said.