University of South Florida

In Fall of 2018, Professor Garrett Potts at the University of South Florida (USF) began teaching “World Religions for Healthcare Professionals,” using a textbook of the same name. Over the next two years, enrollment in the course grew rapidly––from one section of 45 students to a lecture course of 150 to multiple online and in-person sections totaling over 700 per semester. They found that students were not only interested in a single, standalone course, but rather expressed the desire to continue studying at the intersection of healthcare and religion. 

This prompted Potts, along with department chair Michael DeJonge and faculty colleague Tori Lockler, to consider what a minor in Religion and Health might look like. Departmental leadership had already been having conversations with the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Eric Eisenberg, about how to develop a distinctive identity that was not dependent upon the traditional coverage model of Religious Studies. Furthermore, the dean of the College of Public Health, Claudia Cooperman, had been approached by healthcare leaders, who had identified an “empathy problem” in their field and asked for help in fixing it. The Religion and Health minor therefore addressed two separate but pressing issues, as well as the related student demand for greater balance in their educations between the pre-professional, STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, Medicine) fields many of them were majoring in and the humanities.

The resulting minor, according to Lockler, creates an interdisciplinary niche for students who hope to “do healthcare better” for their patients. The 15 credit program includes two core courses, “World Religions for Healthcare Professionals” and the more traditional “Introduction to Religious Studies.” Students then select three additional courses from a short list of electives, which include options like “Health, Ethics, and Religion” and “Religious Perspectives on Health, Death, and Dying.”

The minor aims to increase empathy, understanding, cultural awareness, and religious literacy in healthcare, which is an enormous part of the local economy. One example of this is Lockler’s course on health, death, and dying, which includes an experiential learning component in which students visit a morgue. They are able to discuss in a very practical way such questions as: What is the environment like? What are some of the cultural concerns that someone working in a morgue might encounter? Although the program does not have the capacity to require an internship or practicum, faculty members frequently integrate experiential elements into their courses, so that students are in the field and able to understand first hand the ways religion and healthcare intersect.

In addition to field trips, faculty members have collaborated with Interfaith America to develop cutting edge case studies for use in classrooms. Interfaith America had begun developing its own interest in religion and healthcare before COVID-19, and that interest became increasingly salient during the pandemic. Potts began working with Suzanne Henderson, Senior Director of Faith and Health, as well as Kaytlin Butler, a hospital chaplain in New York City, to create case studies. Interfaith America created a landing page for the case studies and offered course development funds to USF and other institutions to facilitate integrating them into the curriculum. Most recently, these case studies have been introduced into the latest edition of World Religions for Healthcare Professionals, a foundational textbook used in courses all across the country.

Through working with the case studies, Potts and Lockler say, students come to realize that patient-centered care is negotiable and nuanced. Students spend a great deal of time discussing the case studies in class; faculty members are careful to frame the conversation so that contentious issues are spoken about in a way that centers the beliefs of the case study’s subject, rather than the students’ own. Controversial topics are treated with respect and discussions rarely devolve, even in online discussion boards. 

The high quality of these discussions illustrates that teaching the humanities in their applied form does not mean watering down or compromising the material. DeJonge notes that faculty are seeing a continued need for humanities education and learning––it just needs to be packaged in a way that matters more to students and helps them think about their lives and their work. 

Certainly students at USF––who are largely preprofessional in their orientation––have responded well to the minor. It quickly surpassed the department’s more traditional Religious Studies minor in terms of enrollment. At this point, the minor is constrained primarily by resources, but several recent strategic hires at the intersection of religion and health will hopefully help them meet demand. Another partner, the Life Worth Living (LWL) Network at Yale University, recently granted the department funds to hire a postdoc to teach courses at the intersection of religion and health, and to develop a LWL hub at USF

Potts says that his sections of the World Religions for Healthcare Professionals course are always the highest rated of any courses he teaches; in their evaluations, students express that they have already been able to put the material into practice with patients and colleagues. The course has an immediate effect on the quality of care that they’re able to give, and, moreover, on their ability to address questions of meaning and purpose in their own lives. These are, DeJonge points out, “humanities questions.”  

  • Partnership both inside and beyond the university is critical for an interdisciplinary program like this. Faculty and major advisors in other disciplines have to know about the program and encourage their students to take advantage of it. It takes time to build those relationships and that level of trust. Beyond the university, it is extremely beneficial to connect with organizations and institutions doing similar work for collaboration and the sharing of resources. 
  • Look for champions, especially in unexpected places. The dean of the College of Arts and Sciences was supportive of the program from the start, but the deans of other colleges that are focused on healthcare have also become extremely supportive of the program. 
  • Work within your local ecosystem and economy. Healthcare is a huge industry in South Florida, and USF has four colleges dedicated to it (Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, and Public Health). A minor in Religion and Health made sense under those circumstances.
  • Develop a program that supports both application and rigor, and provides space for students to reflect upon their experiences. Students are hungry for meaning, and the humanities are well-positioned to help them find it.
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