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.
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.”
In what is perhaps his most popular course—Faith, Doubt, and God—Cutsinger invites students to tackle the question of whether there is a God. And he issues a guarantee that, no doubt, adds to the course’s popularity: he will prove by semester’s end that God exists.
“I limit enrollment in that course to 75, and it’s like playing several boards of chess simultaneously,” he said. “I take stances and say off-the-wall things to get the conversation started. Sometimes I play the role of atheist if they’re getting too comfortable in the theist camp.”
Cutsinger has written or edited 13 books, including several translations of works by the Swiss philosopher of religion Frithjof Schuon. He’s also written extensively about epistemology, the study of the origin, nature, and scope of knowledge.
“Many religious studies professors assume that a scientific epistemology is the only paradigm under which we should operate in an academic setting: I think that’s nonsense,” said Cutsinger, who refers to himself as the University’s epistemology diversity officer. “I’m not a Luddite or opposed to the scientific method, but I am saying there are other ways of knowing.”
Cutsinger’s interest in solid writing carries over into his teaching: he issues his own Breviary of English Usage as a style guide for students and devotes endless hours to critiquing their assigned essays.
Cutsinger was fresh out of Harvard’s graduate school when he came to USC. He was so young looking, in fact, that while placing a textbook order he was told by a bookstore staffer that his professor would have to order the book. Thirty-one years and a few gray hairs later, Cutsinger seems as energetic as when he arrived.
“Every day I teach is different. I’m not bored after 60 semesters,” he said. “It’s really kind of ridiculous to get an award for something that you love to do.”
What his students say…
“Professor Cutsinger does an incredible job of bringing complicated material to life in a way that engages our minds. He makes us think critically about our opinions and beliefs and truly evaluate them in depth. He adroitly handles the material he teaches with equal amounts of information and wit, one of the best ways to keep us engaged."
"I've never had a teacher [who] knew so much or at least expressed it so well. He has a passion for teaching and it shows. He loves opposing opinions and approaches teaching religion in a new and honestly challenging way."
"Professor Cutsinger is the reason why I can say I am happy to have majored in the humanities. He does not simply teach material: he teaches new ways of thinking."
Other 2011 faculty award recipients include:
Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentor Award -- Melissa Moss, department of chemical engineering; Edward Callen, department of psychology (USC Aiken).
Ada B. Thomas Outstanding Faculty Advisor -- Thomas J. Hilbish, department of biological sciences.
Russell Research Award for Humanities and Social Sciences -- Elena Osokina, department of history.
Russell Research Award for Science, Mathematics and Engineering -- Ralph E. White, department of chemical engineering.
USC Educational Foundation Research Award for Health Sciences -- Lawrence P. Reagan, department of pharmacology, physiology and neuroscience.
USC Educational Foundation Award for Humanities and Social Sciences -- Robert Brinkmeyer, department of English.
USC Educational Foundation Award for Science, Mathematics and Engineering -- James T. Morris, department of biological sciences.
USC Educational Foundation Outstanding Service Award -- Elizabeth G. Patterson, School of Law.
Carolina Trustee Professorships -- Ann E. Kingsolver, department of anthropology; Roger A. Dougal, department of electrical engineering.
John J. Duffy Excellence in Teaching Award (2011) -- Pearl Fernandes, Division of Science, Mathematics and Engineering (USC Sumter).
John J. Duffy Excellence in Teaching Award (2010) -- Sarah Miller, Division of Social Sciences (USC Salkehatchie).
Clinical Practice Teaching Award -- Elizabeth Blake, department of clinical pharmacy and outcomes sciences; Rachel Brown, department of family and preventive medicine.
Michael J. Mungo Undergraduate Teaching Award -- Catherine Keyser, department of English; Erin Connolly, department of biological sciences; Sara Schneckloth, department of art; Thomas Crawford, department of physics and astronomy.
Michael J. Mungo Graduate Teaching Award -- Mark Smith, department of history.