New religion course wins national grant

Students will delve into learning about collapsed cultures in next semester’s new religion class “Encountering Despair and Radical Hope.”  The class was awarded a grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities last March.

“We’ll look at the way individuals have responded to radical cultural breakdown,” said Stewart Herman, professor of religion and one of the creators of the course. Linda Johnson, professor of history, is the other course designer. The class will be centered on classic texts and more recent narratives about the devastation of war, imperialism and natural disaster.

The class will be taught every semester, alternatingly as a history course and a religion course. This spring, Johnson will teach the class, and it will count as a 300-level history course.

“We’ll focus on real life situations in which people find themselves deeply perplexed,” Johnson said.

The course received an Enduring Questions Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency dedicated to supporting the humanities. Twenty-two awards were given out this year from about 200 applications. The award provides a $25,000 grant that is used towards funding the class and compensating the creators of the course. The class will use its grant money to subsidize guest speakers and pay for the students to go on a field trip.

A representative of the New Sudanese Community Association of Fargo plans to guest lecture, and the class is planned to include travel to Bena, Minn. to visit the Niigaane Ojibwe Language Immersion program.

“It’s an opportunity to think about the radical hope involved in preserving the culture of the Ojibwe,” Johnson said.

The creation of the course wasn’t a spur of the moment decision; Johnson and Herman have been talking about creating this course for fifteen years. The inspiration course came from Herman’s personal experience.  He spent two years in Vietnam during the Vietnamese Civil War, which he says was the seed of the course.

Herman stressed the emotional difficulty of the class.

“Teaching about the end isn’t an upbeat, easy opportunity,” he said. “We’re accustomed to think ‘how can we make it better?’—but what happens when we can’t do that?”

This article was submitted by contributing writer Emma Connell. She can be reached at

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