Religion Department update

Hannah Hofheinz discusses how the department supports students' quest to answer life's big questions.

May 1, 2020
Hannah Hofheinz

Hannah Hofheinz received a degree in art history from Denison University and a master’s from Union Theological Seminary. Fascinated by the ethics of faith and its role in politics and society, she continued her studies, earning a doctorate from Harvard Divinity School. Prior to joining Exeter’s faculty in 2017, she taught at Ecumenical Theological Seminary. Hofheinz continues to be a guest lecturer at Boston University, Harvard, the University of Edinburgh and several other universities.

Hofheinz helps students explore life’s big questions about identity and sense of self. “So much of adolescence is about, ‘How do I fit in?’” she says. “I’m sitting with these kids at a pivotal point in their lives. It’s a joy for me to be with them to discuss religion broadly construed.”

To create educated citizens, we need religious literacy."
Hannah Hofheinz

In Hofheinz’s course Criticizing Religion, students from different faith backgrounds probe their own feelings and understanding of other perspectives. “Part of my work in designing and teaching this class is to create an environment in which students develop their ability to have meaningful conversations with one another on topics about which they feel strongly, even when they’re in conflict,” Hofheinz says. Readings by social and cultural theorists Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche set the foundation for vigorous discussions about atheism, religion and secularism, as well as contemporary issues like creationism in education and charter funding for faith-based schools. “With the current polarization of political and public speech, this work is all the more important as it gives the students techniques to move beyond the ruts.”

The department’s ability to facilitate complex conversations in a rapidly changing geopolitical environment is its strength. “We’ve invested resources on a sustained basis to help faculty stay up to speed with everything happening in the world,” she says. “We pay attention to what adolescents are experiencing now, how social media affects their search for identity and more. We think about those questions and learn how to speak to them.”



Department quick takes

Asking big questions

Students are given the space to investigate basic questions of self in interesting ways. A group of seniors, for example, recently developed a course examining death and dying through grief, rituals and traditions in different cultures. Another student explored questions about herself and her body by choreographing a dance against a mirror, reflecting how she thought others saw her. “Through dance,” Hofheinz says, “she interpreted these questions and made them her own.”

Visiting speakers

Speakers at the global intersection of religion and human rights come to campus to share their experiences. In 2020 students heard from social justice comedian Negin Farsad on confronting prejudice with humor. Other recent visitors have included activist and scholar Zilka Spahić Šiljak and musician Merima Kljuco. Šiljak spoke to students about her research on women who saved lives during the Bosnian War. Kljuco, an accordionist, presented her composition “The Sarajevo Haggadah,” which explores religious and cultural coexistence in a destructive world.

Studying abroad

Global travel opportunities allow students to study firsthand cultures and religions in different countries. In 2019 Hofheinz, together with Director of Equity and Inclusion Stephanie Bramlett, chaperoned a spring break trip to India where students visited the Sikh temple Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, Mahatma Gandhi’s home and Islamic sites like the Jama Masjid mosque. “Being in these places allows students to understand the culture in a different way and open a new conversation with themselves and others,” Hofheinz says.

Meaningful collaborations

In 27 unique course offerings, students can delve deeply into topics outside of traditional religion. One groundbreaking course, Silicon Valley Ethics: Case Studies in the World of High Tech, brings students and alumni together to consider the complex ways that technology has altered not only their daily lives but also their values. Exonians currently working in the technology field help design the class syllabus and collaborate one-on-one with students during the term, acting as mentors and resources for developing case studies.