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Religious-studies prof Cutsinger earns top award

Belief in God is not a prerequisite to signing up for the courses taught by religious studies professor James Cutsinger.

James Cutsinger
James Cutsinger

Atheists, agnostics, and adherents of various religious persuasions all are drawn to his classes, which often sport such curiosity-inducing titles as Faith, Doubt, and God; Evil, Sin, and Suffering; and Yogis, Mystics, Monks, and Zen Masters.

The fact that the popular electives are often oversubscribed is testament to Cutsinger’s winsome teaching style, which has been recognized by the Honors College’s Distinguished Professor of the Year Award, the Mungo Undergraduate Teaching Award, and the Mortar Board Excellence in Teaching Award, the latter three times. Add to that impressive list the 2011 Michael J. Mungo Distinguished Professor of the Year, USC’s most prestigious faculty award.

“Partly because we’re in the Bible Belt, I don’t have to create enthusiasm ex nihilo for these courses,” said Cutsinger, who joined the Department of Religious Studies’ faculty in 1980. “The challenge is to get the students to look outside of the box.”

Even in large classes, Cutsinger uses the Socratic method, posing questions about pre-assigned readings and cultivating debate and discussion no matter how disparate the students’ viewpoints.        

“Part of the trick of teaching Socratically is that so much depends on the students,” he said. “I can have a lot of ideas, but if they’re not engaging in the discussion, it might go nowhere. That’s when I insert my own fomenting words.”

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