Engaging with students’ spirituality

Students’ religious convictions need not hinder the learning environment; treated respectfully and inclusively, their presence may enhance the experience for all

April 10, 2008

While lecturers who take an anti-religious stance are entitled to express robust views on the subject, handling students with strong religious convictions demands listening and respect.

“The most important factor is to make it clear to students that they can approach you about these issues,” says Simon Smith, associate director of the Higher Education Academy's subject centre for philosophical and religious studies.

He says it is vital to become aware of possible cultural sensitivities so that you have the confidence to address difficulties, “but at the same time to treat all students as individuals and avoid stereotyping”.

Gregory Barker, acting head of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Trinity College, Carmarthen, who has interviewed students from a number of different faiths about this issue, says lecturers’ fears about teaching students committed to a particular religion are often unfounded.

First, such students are unlikely to take courses in subjects with which they fundamentally disagree – philosophy with Richard Dawkins, say. Second, most would consider few, if any, topics to be out of bounds. Barker argues that difficulties usually involve international students and are more to do with culture than religion.

In fact, he suggests that strong religious convictions can often make for particularly good students. Not only do these students tend to avoid the distractions of sex and drinking, but he says that sometimes their convictions will give them an ethic about doing well for their God.

Linda Woodhead, professor and head of the department of religious studies at Lancaster University, says that in her experience students who are committed to a religion are very useful in a seminar because they give other students exposure to a deeply felt religious position, “and thus reveal the contingent and contestable nature of the majority beliefs”.

Woodhead says her broad principle is to allow students with such deep conviction the space to articulate their view and have it interrogated by other students – and vice versa – “in a way that is respectful of all parties”. If students are so immersed in their faith that they cannot have a debate, there is a problem, she says. But she has found this rare.

Richard Cunningham, director of the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, says: “University is a great time for all students to have their world-views challenged vigorously. It is important that teaching staff should never feel unduly constrained in the content of what they teach by the sensibilities of those with strong religious convictions.”

In a recent issue of the journal Discourse: Learning and Teaching in Philosophy and Religious Studies, Dee Amy-Chinn writes that where modules involve discussion of topics likely to be controversial because of students’ religious or other beliefs, you need an agreed strategy for dealing with moments of tension.

She suggests using the first seminar to ask students what they think will make the course a success, such as being challenged by new ideas, and things that might threaten this success, such as being afraid to express an opinion. From this, students can come up with ground rules for discussions, such as encouraging everyone to contribute and respecting all contributions.

Faisal Hanjra, a spokesman for the Federation of Student Islamic Societies in the UK and Ireland, says there are a number of things unique to Muslim students and that lecturers need to be sensitive to this. For example, Muslim students may fall slightly behind with deadlines during Ramadan when they will be fasting and increasing their praying.

In the Faith Guide to Islam, authors Amjad Hussain and Kate El-Alami discuss the impact of belief on Muslim students’ attitudes towards field trips and social events that involve drinking or close contact between the sexes.

But their key message is tolerance. They write: “Muslims, like any other group or individual, would prefer to be able to study in a tolerant environment where they are treated the same way as their peers.”

Links:

• Faith Guides to Sikhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism, produced by the Higher Education Academy, HEA Faith Guides, http://www.prs.heacademy.ac.uk/publications/faith_guides.html

Christian Unions www.uccf.org.uk

Federation of Student Islamic Societies in the UK and Ireland www.fosis.org.uk

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