Religious Studies Launches Graduate Degree

The Graduate Group in the Study of Religion has received final approval from the Office of the President to establish a M.A. / Ph.D. program. It will admit its first students for the 2013-14 academic year.

“I am delighted that this new graduate group has been approved,” said Jessie Ann Owens, dean of the Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies. “The graduate group in the Study of Religion emerged, along with Performance Studies, as the leading candidates in our divisional planning process, based both on the constellation of faculty at UC Davis and clear evidence of student demand.”

The idea of launching a graduate program in the study of religion received a significant boost in 2007, when the religious studies program hired four new faculty members (roughly doubling its size at that time). Professors Mark Elmore and Catherine Chin spearheaded the initiative, with additional assistance and resources from faculty and staff across the university. The initial planning was funded through a planning grant provided by the dean’s office.

“We really wanted the program to fit the needs of students and faculty members,” said Flagg Miller, an associate professor in religious studies. Faculty members spent significant time evaluating the graduate programs in religion offered at other UC campuses, namely UC Riverside and UC Santa Barbara. “We invited guest speakers from those programs to come to UC Davis, review our plans and offer their advice and critique,” said Miller.

The proposal was first vetted by senate committees on the UC Davis campus, and approved by the Council of Deans and Vice Chancellors. It then moved to system-wide review. By the end of the spring quarter 2011, the Coordinating Committee of Graduate Affairs had completed its review and the graduate group received final approval.

Naomi Janowitz, professor of religious studies and former director of the program, believes some of the success of the program is due to the new faculty hires that the program had made over the past few years. “The hires are all outstanding young scholars with many ideas about graduate education. We could invent a graduate program from the bottom up based on taking the best ideas from all of the outstanding graduate programs that produced our new hires.”

The program at UC Davis will be unique in its structural approach. Divided into three regional blocks, American religious cultures, Mediterranean religions and Asian religions, the program is then further subdivided into six thematic clusters.

Each cluster allows students to examine religion comparatively, and in different contexts. The first cluster emphasizes values, ethics and human rights whereas the second looks at modernity and secularism.

The program also incorporates visual culture, media and technology into the thematic clusters, and offers a focus on language, rhetoric and performance. “Religious studies is a very interdisciplinary field,” said Miller. “It has emerged in the post-Vietnam era (especially the 1970s) as a way to think about religion in light of cross-cultural and global encounters. Whereas divinity school faculties focus on faith-building initiatives, or the study of religion from within given traditions, our religion program is explicitly comparative. We look at how people think about religion and culture historically.”

The Ph.D. program will not train students for careers in professional ministry, but will instead provide a professional approach that will allow them to pursue careers in academia, non-government organizations, or governmental organizations.

Besides offering an advantage to religious studies undergraduates in the form of additional resources and programs with challenging intellectual content, faculty members have high hopes for the graduate group.

“Religion has become absolutely central to how people think about the world and their own communities, and we’ll be aiming to train our graduate students to help others think through the complexities of religion as a faith and as a force for positive change,” said Miller.

Promotion of the new graduate group has just begun, and applications for admission to the program will be reviewed in the winter of 2013. The graduate group will seek students whose interests and strengths match the program’s own. Funding for graduate students has already gotten a boost. The Castelfranco Fund for Graduate Education in Religious Studies – founded by gifts from Naomi Janowitz and her husband Andrew Lazarus as well as an anonymous donor, and matched by the Soderquist Matching Fund Initiative for Graduate Student Support – is helping to fund graduate students. The program hopes to eventually have fellowship funding for every student in the program.

“I am very proud of the faculty in the Religious Studies Program, as well as faculty across the division who work in this field, for their leadership in bringing this important program into existence,” said Owens.

Janowitz echoed the sentiment. “The study of religion demands expertise in a variety of modes of study (history, sociology, psychology) and our program is built on that foundation. As is so often commented to me, we have a very collaborative spirit in the program and work together as well as any group of academics I have ever been part of. It’s full speed ahead for us.”