The Religious Engagements of American Undergraduates

July 3, 2007

Practices and Pedagogy
By Sam Speers - Vassar College
In a course I recently co-taught with geographer Joseph Nevins on the U.S.-Mexico border, one of the themes was to help students gain a better understanding of the different commitments—including religious ones—informing present struggles over the border region. The course included a 12-day study trip to the states of Arizona and Sonora (Mexico), where we met with migrants, community leaders, church leaders, Border Patrol agents, Minutemen, maquiladora workers, artists, and activists. In their journals for the course, students from a considerable diversity of religious and secular backgrounds were encouraged to consider the sources for their own developing commitments about the issues we were studying—following scholars like Charles Taylor and Jeffrey Stout, we wanted our students to work at articulating reasons for the social and political goods they envisioned for the region. It was striking to read how much the study trip opened many of the students to want to learn more about the role of religion in public life, and particularly its (ambivalent) relation to movements for democratic change. For some students, seeing secular humanists’ admiration for religiously-inspired activists helped them think more complexly about the multiple forms religious commitments take in civic life. For others, hearing and seeing firsthand the dilemmas migrants face became an occasion for students to question their privilege and deepen their own commitments to spiritual or ethical practices. For many students, and perhaps especially for those with little religious background, the contact with others’ spiritual practices was critical, because in seeing how different people live out their beliefs, religion became more than an institutional authority, more than a question of intellectual assent to (outmoded) traditions.

Obviously a study trip component is more the exception than the norm for most courses. Yet if it’s true, as Robert Wuthnow and others indicate, that we’re in the midst of a far-reaching shift in the kinds of spiritualities students recognize as authentic, then exposing students to a range of religious practices becomes a way of examining religious engagements—and a pedagogy that can take many forms on or near campus. Seemingly accessible practices become an occasion for students to reflect critically on both the intellectual and affective dimensions that come together, implicitly and explicitly, in specific practices people carry out. Moreover, studying other people’s practices provides a way for students to consider their own commitments as they learn to examine others’.

I write about this experience co-teaching a course to respond directly to the question Bob Connor has asked us about classroom pedagogy; yet as the Director of my college’s Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, I have more experience outside the classroom than in it in helping students integrate their commitments into their learning. Thanks to the Teagle Foundation, I’m part of a faculty-chaplains Working Group on Secularity and the Liberal Arts that is directly taking up the question of the capacities and limits of the classroom for examining students’ commitments. We’re seeing, as Connor’s question understands, that student (and faculty) interest in religion is showing up in more than religion courses. Senior faculty members have helped our Working Group itself become a forum for faculty from a range of disciplines to consider difficult teaching situations—and the ways that these awkward moments reveal gaps needing more attention. Our faculty are asking questions about what commitments frame the relation between belief and inquiry. They wonder: how do faculty stimulate or stifle conversation by being explicit about their own points of view? What kind of community is needed for critical reflection on values—and is the classroom the place where this happens? William Connolly has observed how much democratic discourse requires discussants to acknowledge, without resentment, the “contestable character” of our deepest commitments. Connolly’s point highlights how much is at stake in helping students experience the liberal arts as a practice in critically engaging their beliefs.

Sam Speers is director of the Religious and Spiritual Life Office at Vassar College and leader of a Teagle Big Questions working group, On Secularity and Liberal Education.

July 1, 2007

Religion at a State College
By Celia Chazelle - The College of New Jersey
Much attention has been paid of late to the apparent increase of interest in religion on the part of American undergraduates. College administrators, like political candidates, are paying more attention to religion, no longer assuming it will just fade away. But what does this mean for the individual faculty member, especially those in fields other than religious studies? Are there pedagogies that respond to students’ engagement in, or curiosity about religion in ways that enrich their liberal education?

I was at a conference recently in Frankfurt where I had a conversation with a scholar of medieval liturgy (an interest I share). He noted that he had been a monk for eight years before he turned to the scholarly study of religion. He also noted his surprise, on a recent visit to the US, at the hostility toward religious belief among the American academics he met. Antipathy toward religious faith, they seemed to think, was a hallmark of scholarly seriousness. Thus they stressed their own secularism and the need to draw a clear line between the alleged neutrality of the subject matter they covered in courses and the religious beliefs of their students. Such attitudes, he suggested, were foreign to his experience in Germany.

I run into similar attitudes all the time, both at my institution and at other colleges and universities. Where I teach, though, a state college, they are probably even more pronounced than at many institutions because we have to abide by legislation intended to maintain the separation between “church” and state. One consequence is a lack of funding at the college for campus ministries, and thus a near-total absence of ministers except from conservative evangelical groups seeking to proselytize. There is no Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu representation, for example, and a Buddhist association has only recently started thanks to a volunteer faculty member. As a consequence, “ecumenical” gatherings (for instance, prayer services) that extend beyond Protestant groups are rare, and some that have taken place have been marked by overt acts of intolerance.

This situation, it seems to me, precisely demonstrates the importance of studying religious issues in the classroom, and not only in established religious studies courses. In fact, on my campus there is little as yet in the way of a regular religious studies program—though we’re working to change that—largely because of the long-lived assumption that religion is not an appropriate subject of liberal education at a NJ state college. The onus almost entirely falls on faculty in other departments of the humanities and social sciences to offset the narrowness and rigidity of the discussions concerning religion (as some students complain) that occur elsewhere on campus. It’s up to us to familiarize them, from the scholarly perspectives of history, literature, art, etc., with the diversity of religion and its myriad forms of cultural expression, and also with the tragic histories of religious conflict, violence, and oppression. I find that the students very much want to learn about these topics as a counterweight to what they experience on the outside, where they are far less likely to be exposed, in a reasonably neutral fashion, to a range of alternative viewpoints. Our classes are small enough for easy discussion. Since I teach courses on premodern history, religion is necessarily a theme just about every week of the semester. Often lectures and discussions directly concern the history of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, the most common religious backgrounds of my students (especially Christianity). The best practice, I generally find, is to allow anyone who wants to do so to draw comparisons with their own beliefs or with their assumptions (however misconceived) about other belief systems. I try to create an atmosphere where the students can feel comfortable doing this, and to respond to their questions and comments by illustrating other ways of thought through lectures, assigned readings, or films, and by encouraging other students to share their knowledge and experience. If we get off topic because of the discussion, so be it. My one rule is that the classroom atmosphere must always remain civil so that we can learn from one another. In my view, that’s the defining feature of a liberal educational program.

Celia Chazelle is professor of history at The College of New Jersey.

June 26, 2007

When Religion and Politics Collide in the Classroom
By Stanley N. Katz - Princeton University
I suppose it matters quite a lot what one is teaching undergraduates. I am trained as an English and American historian, though it has been quite some time since I gave a course in the History Department at Princeton (I now teach public policy in the Woodrow Wilson School). My field was early American history, and of course my subject matter was deeply involved with the history of Christianity, belief and practice, in the development of American societies before the Revolution. It never occurred to me that there was a problem in talking about Puritanism or other sectarian views, and I do not recall awkward situations in the classroom—although it was probably clear to at least some of the students that I am not myself a Christian. More recently I have taught law and public policy, in which religion is frequently a major concern. My standard undergraduate course now is called "Civil Society and Public Policy," and I have found an increasing (and explicit) demand from my students to include more material on the relationship of religion and civil society. I quite regularly ask my students if they belong to faith organizations (just as I ask if they belong to other civil society organizations), and I cannot think of an instance in which students have failed to respond—I also talk about my own religious commitments. I sense no resistance, and the anonymous course evaluations have never commented on this aspect of the course.

In my own work, the potentially contentious aspect of religious content comes at the intersection of religion and politics—particularly in student attitudes toward the Bush administration's Faith Based Initiative. I find, frankly, that students are more reluctant to discuss their political than their religious commitments, and the combination of the two can be volatile. This is particularly true on campuses like my own, on which there are conservative political organizations that have (sometimes covert) religious commitments. When religion is implied and not explicit, open discourse is difficult.

From my perspective, the convergence of conservative politics and evangelical Christianity sometimes create extremely tense situations in and out of the classroom, especially when sponsored by prominent faculty members. This can and does lead to situations of misunderstanding and mistrust. As the director of an undergraduate program, I have more than once had to try to mediate conflicts between teacher and student that arose out of perceived tension between scholarly and religious values. In my judgment, this is the most serious area for concern about the role of religion in undergraduate education at the present moment.

Stanley N. Katz is Lecturer with the rank of Professor in Public and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School. He also directs Princeton's Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies.

June 20, 2007

Teaching History not Religion
By Sydney Watts - The University of Richmond
Much attention has been paid of late to the apparent increase of interest in religion on the part of American undergraduates. College administrators, like political candidates, are paying more attention to religion, no longer assuming it will just fade away. But what does this mean for the individual faculty member, especially those in fields other than religious studies? Are there pedagogies that respond to students’ engagement in, or curiosity about religion in ways that enrich their liberal education?

I think there is a great deal of resistance to pedagogies that respond to students’ interest in religion, especially in the field of history. This may be a stretch, but I would guess that most professors of history, unless they are in religion departments, would most likely never admit to teaching religion, even though they may engage in questions of belief, faith traditions, and even theology in their courses on a daily basis. It may seem as if these instructors (especially those who teach the Reformation or the medieval church) misrepresent what they do, but the distinction remains an important one for a field that still holds to ethical standards of objectivity and critical distance. In fact, it is this critical distance that enforces a kind of pedagogy of disassociation—holding the object of our study at arms length, not caring what relationship we have to that object of study or what relationship (or beliefs) our students hold.

Let me give an example. I teach courses on 16th-17th century Europe where Christianity is central to the world view of the historical actors we study. Many classes begin with an explanation of what beliefs and values these people held and how the Church (or other minority religious communities) structured their daily lives. My aim is to give students a sense of the past that includes not just a chain of events but the meaning of these events and explanations for change. The work I do also includes painting a mental landscape of time periods and cultures that are distinct from our own; it is meant to engage the historical imagination of our students—to imagine what sin and salvation really meant for these people who lived in a “world we have lost.”

This approach to historical studies, summed up by the “father” of historical profession, Leopold Ranke in late-19th Germany is to show history “wie es eigentlich gewesen” (as it really was). Ranke held to this dictum, training generations of fact-finding archivists to uncover the evidentiary truth of the past. “The cultural turn” in the historical profession (with the influence of anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz) helped develop the methodology further to get historians to see “how natives think.” Yet, for many historians the postmodern critique of our own subject-position never entered the discussion of historical method. Instead, historians held to the desire to paint as accurate picture of the past as possible and enter into another way of thinking and believing without thinking of how our own values and beliefs might cloud (or further) the questions we ask, as if we were some unbiased, time-traveling investigators with no agenda of our own. This claim of objectivity is crumbling, even among Reformation historians who have been accused of carrying their own secular bias into their research. (Brad S. Gregory, “The Other Confessional History: On Secular Bias in the Study of Religion,” History and Theory 45 (Dec 2006): 132-49.)

Yet, even as we historians go through a kind of self-analysis for our own research purposes, I am constantly surprised by colleagues who find great discomfort in hearing what their students believe, or who ignore their students’ evaluative statements about theological positions of Luther or the Pope Gregory VII, still more by those who tell their students, “I don’t care what you believe. Let’s focus on what these folks did and thought” as if what these historical actors think and believe has no bearing on our own beliefs. It seems as if dismissing these comments and questions cuts our teaching short, especially as these questions of belief become more pressing to students in college today. By refusing to engage in these conversations, we forego opportunities to draw our students into the material, to engage them intellectually, and perhaps, a moment to have them re-examine their own beliefs. Maybe giving historians some training in religious studies would change this approach, what I am calling “a pedagogy of disassociation.” Maybe we need to let go of that critical distance, even for a moment.

Sydney Watts is assistant professor of history at the University of Richmond and leader of a Teagle Big Questions working group on The Pedagogy of Belief and Doubt.