Saturday, November 9, 2013

Teaching Students with Diverse Religious Backgrounds

Hi Everyone! My name is Sara Ronis and I’m a fifth-year PhD candidate in Religious Studies. Modern classrooms are global and cosmopolitan spaces, and our students represent a diversity of race, class, gender-identities, sexual orientations, and religions. Today I wanted to talk about an issue that comes up in Religious Studies, but also in the sciences, social sciences, and the humanities more broadly: the diversity of religious traditions and faiths that our students bring to the classroom.  

Talking about religious diversity is not just an issue of minimizing conflict or damage control. It’s a powerful opportunity to bring different perspectives and values in conversation with each other and improve everyone’s learning. 

Religious issues come up when we as teachers are not familiar with the needs or expectations of our students (for example, religious clothing, prohibitions, holy days, and times of fasting).  Students may ask for a test to be moved, or an assignment deferred, for a religious event.  They also may not be comfortable with activities that involve specific food items, or have certain modesty restrictions that affect dress or physical behavior.  A great resource here at Yale is the Chaplain’s office, which puts out a calendar with all religious holidays, and is happy to talk through religious issues with any student or teacher.

Religious issues also, and perhaps most prominently, come up when students may not be comfortable with our fields’ approaches to issues that touch on religion and religious values (whether that is in a course on the Hebrew bible, a course on evolutionary biology, or a course on politics or history). 

But religious issues around student expectations can for the most part be avoided with a little reflection and planning before the semester even starts.  In order to shape informed, engaged students in a classroom marked by open inquiry and mutual respect, we need to understand where our students are coming from and make sure not to come across as flippant or dismissive. While issues may come up over the course of the semester, a little prevention goes a long way.
  1.  Know your audience. Are your students mostly religious or not? Do they come from a particular denominational background?  Are they a diverse group of people, or a relatively homogenous group? What does authority look like to them?  Ask colleagues in your department who have taught at your institution before about the demographics of their courses.*  
  2.     Know your institution.  Are you teaching at a public college, a private college, or a divinity school or seminary? Does your institution have particular religious expectations of faculty?  Read the university websites and talk to administrators to find out. 
  3.   Know yourself. Are you someone who is comfortable sharing their own religious affiliations and journeys, if you’ve had them? Can you use those experiences in ways that enhance student learning without missionizing?  Would you prefer not to talk about religion at all?
  4. Know potential issues that might come up. What are some of the common conflicts that come up in your field? How prepared are you for addressing them as they come up? How would you react if a student said something offensive or inaccurate about another religion in class? Talk to mentors and colleagues in your field for ideas.  
So, if you’re teaching political science at a small private religious college, your approach to various issues in political theory might be different than if you were teaching at a large public state university. But this is not to suggest that you should ever censor yourself or your field! That is worth repeating: You do not need to censor yourself. But you do need to plan ahead to be able explain to students the stakes of the disagreements in your field, and why the scholarship has taken the shape that it has. If your work disagrees with a particular religious tradition, you need to be able to explain why your scholarly approach differs, and what it has to offer.   

Bottom line: don’t be afraid to teach religiously diverse groups. Different perspectives will make you look at your work in different ways, and articulate why the work you do is important.The rewards of having a broad range of students with their own passions getting engaged in the subjects you teach far outweigh the time it takes to prepare to teach such a diverse cohort of students.  

Feel free to share concerns, experiences and ideas in the comments section below!

*Note: According to a lawyer I spoke to, it may be illegal in some states to ask students about their religious backgrounds in a public classroom setting. So don’t do that.


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