Inviting Religion Into the Classroom
One spring day in 2019, in an introductory class on world religions, it became apparent that we needed to talk about religion—really talk about religion. Not just the messiness of academic definitions, the ways to study it, or the fuzziness of its boundaries, but what religion means for young adults in the midst of forming their own identities and commitments. Logging on to the class discussion board that Friday morning, I found students reacting to course materials for the week — abook about Muslim teenage boys coming of age in the United States and adocumentary about a play produced at CUNY LaGuardia in which Muslim students told stories about their religious identities in the context of the post-9/11 era — with deep, searching questions about their own identities and experiences. One of my students wondered if they were a bad representative of their own tradition when they didn’t shut down jokes or slurs made at the expense of that tradition by friends. Another recounted being met at a mosque during an Eid celebration by people with torches and not understanding their animosity. Others mused about the tensions between individual identity and religious identities, especially in multicultural contexts. The complexity my students were encountering in the course, and in life, was exciting and scary. Disconcerting. Perplexing in the Socratic sense of the term. They needed space to start working it out.
Those students are not unique. A 2018 study by the Interfaith Youth Core showed that students come to college looking for interfaith experiences, but actually have less of them the further along they get in their time on campus. At the same time, the Pew American Religious Landscape survey shows that Americans who pursue degrees in postsecondary settings are about as likely as those who do not to attend religious services in adulthood. Though Americans as a whole are becoming less religiously affiliated, college students remain interested, and active, in religious formations of selves, others, and societal institutions.
Like other identities and experiences that give depth, texture, and meaning to our shared social and educational contexts, then, religion is in our classrooms. And like other identities and experiences, how religion is in our classrooms is, in large part, up to us. How will we invite religion into class activities, what do we want to support in doing so, and what might we want to discourage as being counterproductive, silencing, or antithetical to the goals of education, be they specific to the course, the institution, or the overarching enterprise of learning and student formation?
In that introductory course, which is geared toward literacy in world traditions and ways to study them, one of the stated goals of the class was to explore religious identities in a globalized world. This starts with some theoretical work explaining that religion is a category invented for the sake of classification. Just as students have never seen a plant (they’ve seen roses and thistles and oak trees, etc.), they’ve never encountered religion, but rather Judaism, Catholicism, Jainism, and so on (J.Z. Smith, “Introduction,” Imagining Religion; William Paden, “Introduction,” Religious Worlds). (A copy of the complete syllabus is available here.) This is a construct that continues on smaller scales as there is no one way to be Jewish, or Muslim, or Buddhist. In this regard, religion is like other diversity markers. There is no one way to be male, or Black, or straight, or Asian. Good conversations, and good scholarship, about those identity markers focus on how and why they have and do matter for people.
In my experience, effective classrooms that invite religion across academic disciplines do the same. I’ve been privileged for the past six years to be on a team developing dialogic classrooms — classrooms that use structure, carefully crafted questions, and an emphasis on listening to understand and speaking to be understood to invite connection, curiosity, intellectual humility, and conviction — as a pedagogical approach with faculty from sociology, philosophy, biological sciences, and social work, and as an instructor of the approach at campuses across the country. Some principles from that work are relevant here:
- Understand why inviting identities and experiences, including religious ones, into the room is important for the class. Communicate this to students. Invite them to think about what may be important for them or where they may have hesitations or concerns.
- Understand what you mean by “religion” and where your blind spots may be. Protestant Christians, for example, tend to emphasize faith or belief as central to religious life, while other traditions may place more importance on obligation or ritual.
- Structure the space. How are students expected to speak and listen to diverse experiences and viewpoints? How will you be sure they share airtime and that everyone’s voice is heard? Make that explicit. Build it in with communication agreements and structured speaking and listening.
- Ask open-ended questions aimed at experience. Useful questions aim to understand why religious experiences and understandings matter to people and how those experiences relate to values and beliefs. They may also ask where the pressure points are. Simply asking when someone’s religious identity really mattered to them may open up this conversation.
- Create space for curious follow-up questions.
- Link the conversation back to your initial purpose. Maybe this is understanding where science and religion intersect with things such as stem cell research or the origins of the universe, learning about the civil rights movement, or exploring themes in literature. While few of us are trained in religious studies (or in difficult conversations in classroom settings), religion is, to quote one of my students, “freaking everywhere.” Becoming comfortable in recognizing its existence, and therefore its relevance for courses that do not focus on it specifically, opens up possibilities for seeing the world as it often presents itself — as a place where religion may influence architecture or politics or what one can or cannot do in the course of scientific exploration. Inviting these connections does not come naturally to many of us in academia, both because we’ve been specialized into disciplinary fields (I always get a little nervous when raising scientific issues in my classes) and because of the way most of us have been socialized to think of religion as “mysterious” or separated from reason and academic discourse. What dialogic structures allow are ways of operating that can overcome these obstacles in the name of meeting a greater pedagogical purpose.
On that spring 2019 day, meeting the moment for a greater pedagogical purpose meant reconfiguring our time. Rather than have students do the planned class activity, I asked them to think about a time when some part of their identity that matters to them had been misrepresented. What happened? How did they react? What might they have done differently? What do they want others to know or understand? Not all of the stories my students told that day focused on religion, though one talked about feeling negatively stereotyped for their Christian faith in high school and another felt misunderstood on our campus for atheistic beliefs. One talked about an incident that stereotyped cheerleaders negatively, another talked about being from an immigrant background, and another talked about being female in a male-dominated field. At the end of class, I asked them to link that conversation to their discussion posts and to course materials. They did so, intelligently and constructively. They wondered, together, about ways to draw on those experiences to meet challenges on campus and in their communities. They could do all this because we had created a space where they felt they would be listened to and supported in listening to others, even across differences.
All of which is to say, inviting religion into the classroom isn’t actually about inviting religion per se, but about creating spaces where all the complexities of life and becoming have a place to sit, where students are given space to explore what might make their education relevant and meaningful. How do they want to be in the world? How will they use what they are learning to accomplish that? How can we, as educators, support the process?
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