Project to Teach Religious Diversity Underway
Rabia Gregory, an associate professor of religious studies at MU, says certain things come up in the classroom during the first couple weeks of the semester so often as to be predictable. The department teaches about religion from a secular perspective, but Gregory says that is a perspective that few students are exposed to before leaving home for college.
“Students have to negotiate the exercise of saying, ‘Ok, we’re not studying about religion in terms of which one is the best or which one is morally correct;’ instead we ask them to reserve judgment and try to understand religion from the perspective of the moment or the period of the place we are looking at,” Gregory says. She says there can be a steep learning curve for young faculty or graduate teaching assistants who have never confronted those student experiences in the classroom. Gregory is embarking on a two-year project to increase awareness of religious diversity in the classroom and across the state.
Listening to Student Voices
She recently received a $30,000 grant from the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology & Religion, which is funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. and located at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, to develop a more reflective approach to teaching about religious diversity on campus and across the state. Gregory says the process will begin with a series of open forums so students can talk freely about what it’s like to be a student at Mizzou.
“What are their experiences? Have they ever felt discriminated against on campus because of their religious views? Do they spend time with people from other religious groups? We’re going to listen to our students about how their faith backgrounds may be shaping their responses to anything from class assignments to encounters with peers and professors,” Gregory says.
The following year, Gregory says her team will host monthly workshops to consider revisions to class assignments, changes to a syllabus, or trying to solve common teaching problems. All of the information gathered from the workshops will then be posted online for free as a “best practices” introduction of how to teach at a public university in light of the religious diversity at such institutions.
Applications Across Campus
Gregory says many of the issues that confront instructors in the Department of Religious Studies come up in other classrooms as well, from students reading a work of literature to learning about history or studying evolutionary biology.
“One of our goals is to help students and faculty understand how to negotiate those conversations and work past the confusion and resistance that encountering a different way of thinking about religion can create,” she says.
Another goal is to conduct more outreach about religion in Missouri. Gregory notes that most of the faculty and graduate students at MU are not Missouri natives and are unaware that Missouri is a large, religiously diverse state. She says the grant will facilitate faculty workshops and retreats where faculty can learn about religion in Missouri. According to the Association of Religious Data Archives, the largest denominations in Missouri by number of adherents in 2010 were the Southern Baptist Convention, the Roman Catholic Church, and the United Methodist Church. Other large denominations in the state include Lutherans, Assemblies of God, Presbyterians, Mormons, Jews, Disciples of Christ, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Unitarians.
“People are coming to this university from every county in the state, every state in the nation, and over 100 countries, and they are meeting new people and don’t necessarily have the communication tools to handle those encounters,” Gregory says. “We want to learn what we can do as a department to bring some of the things that we have going on in our classrooms to the campus community and to the state at large in terms of understanding religious diversity and studying religion from a secular perspective.”