When more than 500 students signed a diversity and inclusion petition co-authored by Han Sayles ’15 and Amairani Alamillo ’16 and submitted it to campus administrators last spring, the guiding message was in regard to curriculum. The first point of the petition read: “The College needs a diverse curriculum; a commitment to including marginalized and/or outsider perspectives needs to be reflected in the syllabi of every single department or program on Colorado College’s campus.”
The college’s written response, via a letter co-signed by President Jill Tiefenthaler and three faculty members, stated that while some faculty do include these perspectives in their syllabi and some engage the topics of race, class, gender, and ability in their courses, “departments can certainly do more to expand and diversify the authorities and literatures they teach and to include and examine the formation and evolution of their disciplines.” The letter also stated that, within the college’s base value of academic freedom, “we will encourage and support department plans to initiate these discussions and we will facilitate conversations across departments and programs.”
One department that has been identified as a model — both by students and the administration — is the Religion Department. Chaired by Professor Tracy Coleman, the department currently consists of one part-time and five full-time faculty members, who together offer expertise in a wide variety of religious traditions and geographic areas. Religion classes are cross-listed profusely with programs across campus, ranging from Asian Studies and Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies, to Feminist and Gender Studies and Classics.
Coleman is extremely clear about one thing when it comes to being held in high regard: “I think we have one of the most diverse curricula on the college campus, but it didn’t all happen since I became the chair. It’s been happening for a long time. … It came from the will of the faculty based on what we thought was important in our discipline and in the world today and also what we considered to be genuine student interest.”
“About 20 years ago, our department was very different,” she added. “Faculty were all men, all white, all Christian, and all formally trained in a field within Christian studies, some ordained in a Christian denomination as well.”
In the late 90s, when Professor Doug Fox, who had been with the department since 1963, planned to retire, Coleman said faculty wrote a proposal stating its hopes that with his retirement, two new positions could be created — one for East Asia, and one for South Asia, a net addition of one full-time position for the department.
It was approved. David Gardiner, who specializes in East Asian religions and Buddhism, came on in 1998. A professor in South Asian religions was hired shortly after, though she was wooed away by another college. Coleman would replace her in 2001, with expertise in South Asia and Hinduism.
And then 9/11 hit.
“The first time I taught Introduction to Islam was in Block 3 of 2001, so very shortly after 9/11, when the teaching of Islam became far more challenging for everybody whether they were formally trained in Islamic studies or not. I had some training but not enough, I felt,” Coleman said. “Students had all kinds of questions about contemporary politics that they normally wouldn’t have brought to the religious studies classroom. It was definitely hard. So over time, after I taught the class for a few years, I suggested maybe we should think about hiring an Islamicist.”
There was some resistance among her colleagues, she said, not because they didn’t see the value, but because they thought the department wouldn’t get another new position.
But the proposal was submitted. Finances were a concern so it was denied for a few years until a retirement in another department opened up funds to hire Peter Wright in 2008, expanding the faculty to five full-time members. Wright is associate professor of religion, specializing in Islamic studies.
The next department retirement to take place was that of David Weddle (now professor emeritus), an expert in Christianity and American religious traditions. Faculty had many conversations about how they wanted to replace that position. The decision was to bring in someone who specialized in global Christianities, with expertise in the global south — Latin America, Asia, Africa, etc., where Christianity is expanding today.
This wasn’t the only focus faculty decided they wanted to integrate into the Religion Department, though.
“We wanted to diversify our department methodologically as well. Most of us are textualists, even though we have spent significant time in the countries in question,” Coleman said. “So we wanted to hire an anthropologist or a sociologist. Someone who works in the field with living people who are representatives of these religious traditions, because our students were really interested in contemporary practices. We therefore wanted somebody who had expertise in social scientific methods and who could help students if they wanted to engage in field research for their senior theses, for example. Or if they wanted to go to graduate school and do that kind of work in the future.”
The conversations and planning paid off. In 2013, CC hired Devaka Premawardhana, assistant professor of religion, and an anthropologist who specializes in global Christianities with expertise in Africa and South America. A year later Pam Reaves would be hired to fill a vacancy and round out the team, as an assistant professor focusing on early Christianity and biblical studies. Reaves, too, emphasizes the diversity of beliefs and practices found in early Christian communities.
“We really span the globe,” said Coleman. “Our linguistic expertise is quite diverse, geographic expertise diverse, expertise in religious traditions — world religions if you want to call them that — is quite diverse.” But it took almost 20 years and a committed desire to change, “because course offerings are based on faculty expertise.”
It also took some different thinking about what a college department can be.
Coleman explained that one of the things that makes the Religion Department different, both at CC and from other colleges and institutions, is that faculty doesn’t focus primarily on Europe and the United States. “We don’t privilege the West or the Western canon, if you will.”
Instead, people who have expertise in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and South and East Asia all “have an equal place at the table. An equal voice in departmental decisions, an equal voice in curricular development, an equal voice in assessing student interest and in deciding what and how we should teach in order to exemplify the values of our discipline and to educate students responsibly for life, and for whatever professions they might undertake.”
She added that in looking at religion departments around the country, this kind of equality is “pretty radical.”
“People sometimes cling tenaciously to a more traditional model of academia that privileges the West,” said Coleman. “We let that model go in favor of the wider world. We’re glad we did, and so are our invested students.”