Friday Faculty Lunch Series: Sabbaticals, Elmo, and better textbooks

Friday Faculty LunchColin Rivera, Staff Writer


The faculty lunch is a weekly opportunity for members of the staff to get together and discuss their projects and methodology. All of this goes towards the goal of creating a better curriculum for students. Every Friday, a professor will present on a project they have been working on to the attendees. Ian Werrett Ph.D., professor of religious studies, gave a presentation on the topic of his recent sabbatical, which primarily consisted of watching Elmo with his son, and pitching his new book to publishers. 

This new book seeks to replace the textbooks that are currently used in his religious studies classes. Werrett notes some of the major issues he has come across when using the current volume. The first issue pertains to how the books convey the information. The “history of religions” approach expresses the information as an old and encyclopedic database, where every chapter covers one subject or religion in a dry and unengaging way. 

Werrett noticed a lack of engagement in his classes; with many students telling him they never read, or in some cases, never even owned copies of the books. Werrett found that the material resonated with the class when it was conveyed in a story-like format. He believes that the allure of the text is robbed from the audience by the way that the textbooks are written, so he decided he would write his own textbook. 

Werrett went into making his book with three distinct goals in mind. The first is that the book should be shorter than those previously used, specifically around 300 to 350 pages, because that is what he views as a feasible length for students to read. The next goal is for the book to be reasonably priced in the $30 to $40 range. However, his most important goal is to have the book be a narrative that the readers can follow from beginning to end. 

“There’s something in the narrative that captivates them…when I’m in the classroom and I am presenting material about various religions, the one time when students lift their heads and their eyes get bright and they are into it is when I jump into a story.” 

He speculates if the experience could be translated into a textbook, it would make a difference in learning the material.

The book covers “the story of humanity’s religious imagination,” and is separated into chapters by time period. It starts in prehistory and supposes that the tools necessary for religion are present, even though there are no written records. It then proceeds to march forward through history and shows the evolution of religion from animism, to polytheism, and monotheism; and culminates in a look at religion in the world today as well as where it could go tomorrow. “Religion is like a tree, with its roots in the distant past and with its canopy in the present, and continuing to grow into the future,” said Werrett.

Partnered with his colleague Reza Aslan, a published religious scholar, they will both collaborate as writers for the book. Werrett then goes through the process of publishing the book by dropping off samples at different publishing houses. The book has recently been picked up by UC Press who are giving Werrett and Aslan the ability to make the book in the way they deem fit. 

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