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MU Religious Studies department tackles big questions

On December 11, 2012

The Religious Studies department at Marshall University is one of the smaller departments on campus, but the department offers courses that tackle big questions.

Clayton McNearney, the Chair of the Religious Studies department, has been teaching at Marshall since 1972 and said the department attracts exceptional students who are interested in religion and learning about other cultures.

Among our students, we have as strong a group of students as you will find on campus, McNearney said.

McNearney said religion, along with literature, is one of the places that universities deal with questions and issues like what it means to be fully human or a part of society and how to find meaning in both individual a social life.

These questions are at the heart of all religions, McNearney said. Religious Studies courses are a place where students can engage these questions.

Jeffrey Ruff, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, joined the staff in 2002 and offers courses in Asian cultures and religions.

Ruff said students enter Religious Studies classes and soon find out they are not like the Sunday school they grew up in.

It has an effect of peaking their interest because it is something different than what they thought it would be, Ruff said. Many students become intrigued when they find out there is so much more going on in the study of religion. Students usually leave the class with a different level of interest.

McNearney said despite student interest, all of the colleges except for the College of Liberal Arts have done away with 400 level requirements in Humanities courses and only requires three hours of an intro class.

Three hours in Humanities is not a foundation for critical thinking and it is not a foundation for an educated citizenry, McNearney said. Its a shame that general education is moving in that direction.

McNearney said with fewer requirements the Religious Studies department has not been allowed to grow.

Ruff said there are many universities the size of Marshall that have six or seven full-time religious studies professors on staff.

Marshall currently employs only two full-time professors.

McNearney said the department has between six and seven adjunct professors each semester and that the department would not be able to function without them.

The fact that we have been able to survive as a distinct and independent department has been very important, McNearney said.

Ruff said he and Professor McNearney have more time to spend advising each student because of the departments small size and that Religious Studies students have left Marshall and have seen success in various fields.

Samuel Speciale can be contacted at

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