- Interdisciplinarity and Theology:Accidentally Queering the Curriculum in a Master's Seminar
interdisciplinarity, teaching religion and gender, Marcella Althaus-Reid
Reflecting on the experience of teaching a specific master's level course in religion and gender, in this paper I examine the connections between interdisciplinarity, queering the curriculum, and the ambiguous or ambivalent placing of theology within the curriculum of a British public university. I focus on two issues: first, the connection between interdisciplinarity and the queering of the curriculum, and second, the implications of this for teaching queer perspectives in Christian theology specifically (using the example of the work of Marcella Althaus-Reid). The seminar is characterized and used by students as a space in which disciplinary "silences," around religion as well as around gender, can be broken, and in which different disciplinary schemes for categorization become mutually destabilizing.
The teaching practices and experiences recounted here have developed organically over several years, in a highly collaborative teaching process in which course and even seminar design have rarely been the sole responsibility of any member of academic staff—and in which the boundaries between student and staff groups have themselves not always been obvious, with senior graduate students presenting seminars and on one occasion, an invited outside "expert" becoming a student.1 The "queering of the curriculum" recounted here is thus not a deliberate policy but rather an accidental process discovered in retrospect. [End Page 117]
Part of the master's level program for theology and religious studies (TRS) at the University of Leeds is a module entitled Contemporary Issues in Religion and Gender. This module has been on the books since at least the early 2000s, and my involvement with it dates from 2007. It was originally conceived as and has remained highly interdisciplinary, drawing on the strengths of a diverse TRS team; the focus on "religion and gender" establishes the subject matter but not the range of permitted disciplinary approaches, nor yet, indeed, any geographical or tradition-specific focus. Its stated objectives are: "To familiarise students with contemporary debates on religion and gender; to develop advanced critical skills in theology, history and sociology of religions; to teach students to think and express themselves independently about the issues involved."2 The module is taught in seminar format, focused on set readings, and is examined by extended essay; essay titles are negotiated by the students with the module leader, developed from broad suggested themes.
The student body has varied considerably in size and composition. A significant feature, from the point of view of this special section, is that Contemporary Issues in Religion and Gender tends to recruit students from outside TRS; indeed, in many years, "outside" students have been the majority. They come from programs run by the university's Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies (which themselves range across development studies, social policy, and cultural studies as well as gender studies and queer studies), and increasingly over the last few years, from Arabic, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies. Quite apart from the diversity of disciplinary backgrounds, as master's students the participants range from, on the one hand, people in their early twenties coming straight through the education system to, on the other, middle-aged or retired people with one or more careers behind them.
The net effect of all this is that I enter the seminar room on the first day of this course to find a group of postgraduate students some of whom have never studied religion before but know a lot about studying gender, some of whom have never studied gender before but know a lot about studying religion (from various perspectives), and a few of whom have relatively little background in either. From this stems what I have termed the accidental queering of the curriculum.
I find, asking around the seminar, that many of the students are excited about this class. They have come here for something that they know is important but (so it is expressed) they cannot find elsewhere in the academy—maybe even something they are not supposed to talk about in their other courses. Is it possible—I ask myself as I look around the seminar room—that...