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Do I need to remember all of the details on the passages for the examination?

The passages on the examination are taken from the ones assigned in the Study Guide. However, I would work more on the method of analysis than trying to memorize information on particular passages. When you look at a passage can you:

  1. identify which tradition it comes from;
  2. identify the main themes;
  3. relate the way those themes are discussed in the passage to what you know of the religious tradition as it is discussed in the course materials.

If so, there is not much else you need to do to do well on the text section of the examination.

How can I access my grades?

To have a look at your grades:

  1. Log in to myAU at the top of the University’s home page (www.athabascau.ca) by entering your student ID number and password in the appropriate places.
  2. Under the “My Courses” heading select “Grades” and follow the prompts. Through myAU, you can also view personal information, such as library accounts, and take care of administrative matters, such as booking examinations, submitting assignments, applying for extensions, registering for courses, and so on.

In the study questions, I have to comment in writing about two passages. One of the questions, as a guideline, is: Do the concerns expressed enable you to identify a thinker or school of thought? I am wondering what this means? How can I identify the thinker or school of thought?

The school of thought is not always easy to determine. The best approach is to examine what the passage is recommending and then ask whether this is a novel recommendation for that religious tradition or is it just part of that tradition’s general teaching. If the passage is proposing a unique or sectarian view, then you can identify it as having an identifiable tendency or belonging to a school of thought. Don’t be too concerned about putting the correct label on what you observe, just note the differences and any important features. Thus, for example, if a text suggests that following the dietary laws of Judaism is not important, it is taking a position that is not generally held in that religion. In your response, you would simply note that the author(s) “deviate from the normal dietary practices of Judaism and see following kosher laws as a matter of choice rather than obligation.” That is really all that you need to say, unless there is a recognized school of thought (e.g., Protestant as opposed to Roman Catholic Christianity). In many cases, you will want to say more about the importance of the school of thought in the history of the religious tradition. Once you have described or identified the school of thought, say something about its importance.

Also, when commenting on passages, I am supposed to reflect on religious themes and practices. What is the difference between religious themes and practices?

Themes are ideas or concepts that characterize a religious tradition. I suppose that the difference between a theme and an idea is matter of frequency and integration. Various ideas are found sporadically in sacred texts but are not well integrated into the key patterns of thought in that tradition; themes are key ideas that are addressed frequently and are integral to the tradition. There are many cases where judgment calls have to be made; just what constitutes a theme and what is an idea is not written in stone. Themes are frequently addressed in sacred stories. Christianity, for example, places great emphasis on the theme of forgiveness. Practices are what people do in response to the teachings of the religion or its longstanding traditions. An example of a practice would be the Muslim practice of praying five times daily. Often there is some area of overlap between themes and practices. The Christian theme of forgiveness may be expressed in the practice of reconciling oneself to those one has offended before participation in the Eucharist.

How should I prepare for the quiz?

The quiz on Unit 1 involves discussing the contents of the unit. I am always particularly interested to hear about any points in the readings and questions that students may find difficult or unclear, so you might want to make up a list of those as you go through the unit. As you work through Unit 1, make note of any areas of difficulty and any questions that you have on the material. We usually begin the quiz with a discussion of such items. After you have finished Unit 1, you are ready for the quiz. Do not spend a lot of extra time studying the unit for the quiz; the quiz is based on your written responses and does not have anything to do with your mark in the course.

How should I get ready for the examination?

The exam is a very even representation of what you have encountered in the study guide. Note that the structure of the exam is described in the Student Manual. Give ninety per cent of your emphasis in studying to the questions in the Study Guide and in Ludwig (as assigned in the Study Guide). Ten per cent of your effort should go towards the passages. With regard to the latter, focus on developing your skills in interpretation rather than trying to memorize facts about the passages. The main point is to be able to identify the religious tradition that a passage is drawn from and make some informed comments about the themes and practices that it deals with. In other words, be able to connect the passage with what you have learned about that religious tradition in this course.

What is a research paper, exactly?

A research paper is essentially a lengthy response to a specific question. The response is based on evidence and sound argumentation. Formulating a key question about a single religious tradition is absolutely crucial for a research paper in Religious Studies. The question should be very specific, focusing on one particular aspect of a religious tradition. Questions such as “what are the factors that led to the rise of Christianity?” are far too general. Once you formulate a question you should contact your tutor and discuss your chosen topic.

Can you say a bit more about selecting a topic for a research paper?

Choosing a topic for a research paper is sometimes a tricky enterprise. From my perspective, the best topics for religious studies papers are those that have something to do with your other interests. Students who are interested in the Health Sciences, for example, might choose a religious studies topic that relates to some medical-ethical issue that they find particularly interesting. For this course, that would involve focusing on a single religious tradition or perhaps an even smaller group (say a denomination). Such a student might end up with a provisional paper topic like: “Perspectives on Euthanasia in the Liberal Christian Tradition” or “Birth Rituals in the Hindu Tradition.” As you can see (and may already assume) the topics for research papers in RELS 204 should be descriptive rather than normative (e.g., topics such as “Why Euthanasia is Morally Wrong,” etc.). Describe the thoughts, aspirations, practices, rituals or some other aspect of a particular group, Don’t focus on how things ought to be in the world or in that tradition. Sometimes there is a fine line between normative and descriptive accounts. Many students are interested in exploring the contradictions within a tradition, for example. That is a good thing to do; just make sure that you do not lapse into a normative mode of expression. For example, you might conclude that “there is a serious contradiction between the Christian ideal of unconditional love and the idea of a just war.” You should feel free to explore such problems and draw such conclusions. Avoid the (admittedly tempting) theological statements or moral prescriptions based on your reflections, for example, “thus Christians should really abandon the idea of the just war, since it is clearly contrary to the will of God.”

The best topics usually take the form of a question, for example, Why do many liberal Jewish rabbis refuse to marry Jews to non-Jews? Or, what is the religious rationale for sati (self-immolation) in the Hindu tradition and how does that relate to the injunction against taking a life? In your research, you will search for information that relates to your question. In your essay you will present this information and make the strongest argument you can for the conclusions that you have drawn from you research.

After you have reflected on the issues or ideas that you are interested in exploring further, make a list of topics of interest and call your tutor to discuss them. Usually this consultation will result at least in providing you with a general topic. As you proceed, always keep an eye out for helpful ways that you might focus and refine your topic. As you read and research, a better focus or perspective on your area of interest may occur to you. Feel free to discuss these with your tutor as well.

Can I submit my assignments via email?

Yes, that’s not a problem. The only things to remember are:

  1. include your surname in the filename of the document (e.g., Singh TME 1.doc or Jones paper 1.doc).
  2. I am using Word 2000: send files in a format that can be read by that program. Any previous version of Word will do and most others work too. If in doubt, send the file in RTF (Rich Text Format).
  3. note in the subject line that you are submitting an assignment.
  4. include a complete Tutor-marked Exercise form, available through the Athabasca University Website.

How do I document the use of information from the Internet in my papers?

  1. include the most specific URL possible for the page and location that you are referring to.
  2. to really impress [: )], hyperlink that reference to the page.
  3. it you believe it would be helpful or interesting, include a few lines of the text of the page or an image from the site in your footnotes.
  4. for further information, refer to the current edition of the MLA Style Manual or other style guide for the correct format for documenting Internet sources. Alternatively, go to AU Library Help Centre Web page and select “Citing & Referencing.”

How do I sort through the internet for reliable information on religious studies issues?

That’s a perennial question. One of the reasons that some people take this course is so that they can answer questions like this. Some suggestions follow.

  1. Balance your use of critical-thinking with an unwillingness to be dismissive. Of course, one should be careful not to use information from the Flat Earth Society to as an authority on planetary motion or navigation. Still, it is possible that a FES Web page might provide good information on soil science or a map of a local area or cooking or ancient druidic rites where the curvature of the earth is not significant. Many organizations with clear institutional-religious commitments provide very fine information about themselves and other religious traditions.
  2. Be aware of the biases that each of the major disciplines of academia brings to the study of religion (see Unit 1 on this). For example, no natural science has anything directly to say about questions of good and evil, the existence or non-existence of sacred reality, or right and wrong. Decisions about such matters lie outside the scope of scientific inquiry.
  3. Consciously work on developing a “nose” for bias and a tolerance for ambiguity. There is no such thing as a pure description, and final pronouncements on any subject have a very nasty habit of being wrong or incomplete. Beware of your own ideological and other commitments, there is no better way cultivate and enhance them.