One of the newest courses at Athabasca University is Religious Studies 211 ? Death and Dying in World Religions. Marie Well spoke with the course designer to get a little more insight into this course for students who might be considering taking it.
The course designer, Dr. Shandip Saha, completed his master’s degree at Harvard University, and his Ph.D. in Religious Studies, as well as some post-doctorate work in the subject, at the University of Ottawa. Dr. Saha is now with AU’s Centre for Humanities as an assistant professor in Religious Studies and the course co-ordinator of AU’s Religious Studies courses.
What is the course Religious Studies 211?Death and Dying in World Religions about?
Dr. Saha: Religious Studies 211 is a course about how different religious traditions, in this case Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam look at death and the afterlife. The course also takes a look at the cultural and religious practices around dying. So, we look at death rituals and mourning rituals in different religions. We also look at how death rituals have been adapted to a North American context and hospices for palliative care.
There is one unit on near death experiences (NDE) which I thought was kind of important to include because, for many people it’s a deeply spiritual and religious experience of God or a higher power. There are those, however, who believe that NDE’s are largely chemical reactions in the brain. I’m not taking any particular side on the issue. Students can decide for themselves.
What inspired you to make this course?
Dr. Saha: I noticed in my course called Introduction to World Religions (RELS 204), that I had a lot of nursing students taking the course for cultural sensitivity training. RELS 204 can provide some of that understanding, but I decided to do something a little more in-depth that may address the needs of nursing students by focusing on different mourning traditions and the connection between religion and palliative care. The course, however, is not directly squared at nursing students or people in the medical profession. The course is open to anybody and one does not need prior knowledge of world religions.
I’ll emphasize that RELS 211 is not a course on morality and ethics. Even though issues of euthanasia or abortion are in a way related to how religions look at death, that’s really not a part of what I want to look at. I want students to think deeply about how cultural and religious beliefs shape our views on mortality and how we prepare for death.
When was this course created?
Dr. Saha: I’ve been working on it for a long while and I was able to put the course through the development process at AU last year. The course opened in January 2016 so, this is an absolutely brand new course offering.
What was the process for getting the course made?
Dr. Saha: Although I do teach general introductory courses on world religions, I by no means consider myself to be an expert on what world religions say about everything. I read a lot and think about appropriate and accessible readings before I write the study guide which contains the different units of the course. I also had to develop the assignments and exam that will help to evaluate how well students have mastered the course material.
Once all that is done, the course materials are sent to the team assigned to my course in the Center for Learning Design and Development (CLDD). They are a very crucial part of the course development process because they not only do the visual design of the course and produce the final product students see online, but they do crucial editorial work, deal with copyright issues, look at potential library resources, and play an important role in helping to develop novel ways of creating assignments that will help students meet their learning objectives.
Is this an e-text course? And have you heard of any issues with the e-text that students might want to be prepared for?
Dr. Saha: The core textbook is not an e-text. In the case of the other readings, I have tried to ensure that they can be found online through the Athabasca University Library. There are also two DVDs included with the textbook and one documentary that students can watch as streaming video on the course website.
About how many students do you anticipate will take this course?
Dr. Saha: I hate answering questions like that. Let’s just say I hope for lots and lots and lots of students.
What kind of learning style is it? For instance, is it very open ended or does it give fairly detailed instructions?
Dr. Saha: It’s kind of a disciplined course, the way that I wrote it. As much as possible, every unit will build on the one that proceeds it. That’s the first part. So, in that way there is a logical progression for how the course works from a structural point-of-view. The second thing about the course is that you can’t get away with just reading either the additional readings or just the units on the course Website. In order to get the full picture, you need to do both. So, again, that’s just a way of helping students fully engage with the material so they have that sort of full perspective.
In terms of the essay for the course, part of the component is that students have two meetings with me on the phone or in some shape or form or by email?at least twice. One is to provide me with an outline?to discuss their topic with me and give me an idea of where they are going, to give me a tentative bibliography and a kind of an outline of where they are going with the essay.
That’s done to make sure students are on the right track and to make sure they get their thoughts sort of organized and together, and hopefully give them a sort of scheduling framework as well.
There is a suggested study guide for the course, and the reason for having the students do the outline part of the essay is to make sure they are on the right track. I know this is going to be really, really different for everybody in many ways, and I want to make sure they got the right sources and they are understanding the basic concepts that they are working with before they go out and write the paper.
If this course isn’t a requirement of their program, why should students take it as an elective?
Dr. Saha: The point of an education is to expand your mind and not shrink it to the size of a pea. Diversity, as one my professors in graduate school said, is meant to be embraced and not rejected. So, whether a student is in the humanities or the sciences or whatever, it’s important to have a well-rounded perspective on life by having an understanding of different cultural and intellectual perspectives. I hope this course will help students to achieve that by exploring the religious and cultural beliefs that shape what is truly a universal part of the human experience.
What part or concept in the course do you think the students will have the most trouble with?
Dr. Saha: I think probably the first half of the course might be a little bit difficult because that is the stage at which students are being introduced to the basic beliefs of world religions and how they view the afterlife.
Students will feel a little bit more at ease with the three western monotheistic religions, but once we get into the Sanskrit terms associated with Buddhism and Hinduism, it will become a bit more challenging. If students need help or have questions, all they have to do is call or email me. Once students get that foundational knowledge down, the rest of the course will become a lot easier.
Are the assignments fairly similar in the amount of work required, or are some of them much larger?
Dr. Saha: The assignments consist, in part, of quizzes to ensure that student’s have their basic vocabulary down. There is also an essay which the students will work on after consulting with me. There is also a final exam which is three hours.
Is there a part of the course you think students will really enjoy? What is it?
Dr. Saha: Well, I hope they enjoy the entire course–not just a part of it. I think, however, that students will have a little fun pondering near death experiences and understanding the cultural concepts about death that have now made it into the popular imagination. If you look at the new Bond movie, SPECTRE, for example, the opening shot of the movie takes place in the middle of a Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. Many people have heard of this festival, but not many understand what it is about and why it is practiced.
Is there an exam? And what is it like?
Dr. Saha: The exam is three hours, cumulative for the entire course. It will be a combination of short answers and long essays. There aren’t any multiple choice or true and false type of questions.
What would you change to make the course even better if you could?
Dr. Saha: Do a really amazing party trick where I resurrect someone from the dead on You Tube? Honestly, I really do not know yet because the course just opened up in January. Right now, I just want to see how students respond to the material.
In your opinion, do you think this course is a harder one or an easier one than the average at AU?
Dr. Saha: I cannot speak to whether it is harder or easier than the average course. I like to think that it is a fair course. The reading amount is suitable for a 3-credit course and if students are able to follow the suggested study schedule and they are able to discipline themselves, they will be fine.