Review: Northey, et. al., “Making Sense in Religious Studies: A Student’s Guide to Research and Writing”

Title: Making Sense in Religious Studies: A Student’s Guide to Research and Writing
Authors: Margot Northey, Bradford A. Anderson, Joel N. Lohr
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: Religion/Research
Year: 2011
Pages: 240
Binding: Paperback
ISBN13: 9780195439526
Price: $19.95

Had I never hopped into post-secondary education, this book would give me a good sense of the practical things I was missing out on. The operative word in the title Making Sense in Religious Studies is “in,” rather than “of.” Like the other volumes in Oxford University Press’s “Making Sense” series, this book is more pedagogical than theoretical. In addition to being concise and inexpensive, each book in the series provides students with “clear, concise, and readable guidelines” which are narrow enough to capture the essence of a particular focus of study, but broad enough to improve a student’s general academic performance (vii). This volume covers “subject-specific” and “big-picture” aspects of undergraduate education in religious studies (vii).

The authors begin at the most basic level by briefly telling readers what to expect in post-secondary education by defining “thinking” and “research” (1-3). The rest of the introductory chapter focuses on three aspects of religious studies in particular: the importance of religion in everyday life, which presumably justifies the study (4); the “diverse nature” of religious studies, which includes content like film, sacred texts, behavior, communities and approaches like history, linguistics, anthropology, psychology, and sexuality studies (5-7); and problems facing students including motives and presuppositions (7-10).

This last point on motives and presuppositions is particularly interesting to read about in an introductory book. The authors call attention to the non/religious affiliation of schools, “confessional” versus “consciously neutral” perspectives, and the importance of being “self-aware,” which they say goes for “‘non-religious’ persons” as much as anyone else (9). Then they cut to the chase: Religious views are often deeply tied together with ones own identity, thus “religious views are not easily negotiated or reconfigured, and often people feel threatened when others disagree with or challenge their views about God” (9). Rather than issuing a call for “objectivity,” the authors believe “it is impossible to ‘bracket off’ one’s personal beliefs completely in the study of religion,” thus we always speak from a certain perspective, “points of bias.” The goal is to “limit their influence in order to engage with a subject more fully” (9). The ghost of objectivity still haunts the halls a bit, but throughout the rest of the book the authors hint at ways students might do make a more balanced approach—advice on evaluating sources (33), paying attention to bias-loaded language (26), using proper tone (25; 105-106), etc. In a future post I’ll try to explore more particularly how “bracketing” might work on the ground according to these authors.

A comparison of the chapters in the Religious Studies volume with others in the series hints at what the authors/editors see as distinguishing characteristics. (So far these include Psychology, Social Sciences, Life Sciences, Engineering, and Geography. Notice again how this book seems to follow on the tail of books for so-called harder sciences, as with OUP’s Teaching Undergraduate Research in Religious Studies.) Each volume focuses heavily on the mechanics of higher education regarding writing style, grammar, spelling, punctuation, documentation, citation, and general research skills. They typically have useful sections on formulating research questions, essay structuring, dealing with writers block, and making oral presentations. Checklists for draft creation and evaluation, example chapters and essays, evaluation and grading rubrics, a glossary, and other bits will likely be useful for students, and teachers can get access to online resources to supplement the book.

These basic research and writing techniques reflect the purposes of the series’s initial volume, Making Sense: A Guide to Research and WritingBut whereas the other volumes in the series have sections on topics like quantitative and qualitative data, writing a lab report, or working in groups, the Religious Studies volume has sections on writing book reviews and chapter summaries, learning foreign languages, properly approaching sacred texts, and formulating interpretive essays.

As with my last review, I’m especially interested to see what people already involved in teaching religious studies have to say about the possible utility of Making Sense in Religious Studies: A Student’s Guide to Research and Writing. I’m also happy (actually, more like hopeful) to answer more specific questions about the content of this book in order to gauge how effective this volume might be seen by people in the field. Do you think the sections pertaining specifically to religious studies might actually get in the way of professors who already have an introductory curriculum in mind, and only desire a basic research/writing guide?

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