Diversity and Democracy

Speaking of Religion: Facilitating Difficult Dialogues

“I don’t believe I am familiar enough with other religions to do justice to any such discussion... I am afraid that I would be less skillful at successfully facilitating these discussions.”

As comments like this suggest, faculty at many public colleges and universities tend to avoid the subject of religion. Instead of creating safe spaces for the free speech and religious expression necessary to conversations about faith and spirituality, the academy has created an “invisible barrier” that thwarts opportunities for dialogue. By breaching that barrier, we educators deepen our understanding of our students’ lives, clarify misconceptions about faith and religion, and expand our own knowledge of the interdependent world in which we live.

At LaGuardia Community College, where students come from 160 countries and speak more than one hundred languages, our faculty and staff have always celebrated and embraced the diversity of our student body. But like most colleges, LaGuardia had never tackled the daunting subject of religion in the classroom on an institutional scale. The Difficult Dialogues Project provided us with an opportunity to change this. Through a yearlong faculty pedagogy seminar funded as part of the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues initiative, the college sought to address the challenges that faculty members face when assuming the role of “neutral facilitator” on a topic that is anything but neutral. By providing faculty members with a safe space to examine the challenges of bringing religion into academia, the seminar expanded the faculty’s ability to explore difficult topics not only in the classroom, but also in the surrounding community.

Preparing Faculty for Difficult Dialogues

The pedagogy seminar included fifteen faculty members from various disciplines, including math, science, history, psychology, art history, English, and English as a Second Language (both credit and non-credit programs). These faculty members shared a common fear of bringing religion into the classroom. They acknowledged that speaking about religion and faith requires knowledge, sensitivity, and an ability to finesse extremely uncomfortable moments—preparation that they felt they did not have. For faculty members in some disciplines, religion arose naturally in class discussions (in relation to theories of the origin of the universe in a science course, or in a discussion of the Reformation in a Western civilization class). Others found that when religion was not an explicit part of the curriculum, it entered the classroom in other ways, and they questioned how they might respond when topics related to faith and spirituality arose without warning.

Participants genuinely wanted to learn how to handle discussions of religion, but they were deeply apprehensive about discussing religion in the classroom. Faculty members felt generally unprepared to facilitate dialogue about religion, and they were often unfamiliar with the different religions represented at the college. They felt that they lacked expertise in managing conflict and feared losing control of the classroom. They wanted to present a “balanced” discourse that would respect the views of religious as well as “nonreligious” or “questioning” students while preserving their students’ privacy and the academic freedom of all involved. Faculty members also worried that by inviting religious discourse, they would have to reveal their own personal views—and they feared the possible impact on the student-teacher relationship. These and other concerns formed the barriers we hoped to address through the Difficult Dialogues project.

The pedagogy seminar used a multilayered approach to help faculty consider questions of faith. Seminar elements provided a starting point for faculty to examine their relationships with religion, to learn about the religions practiced by the LaGuardia student body, to develop skills for facilitating difficult dialogues in the classroom, and to develop resources for the larger community.

Taking Difficult Dialogues into the Community

In a companion piece to the faculty seminar, LaGuardia initiated a series of dialogues on religion in the community of Queens. Arguably the most diverse place on the planet, Queens is home to hundreds of faith communities housed in a range of settings, from living rooms to store fronts to cathedrals. College leaders envisioned dialogue sessions as a way to learn more about the students and community, while providing a neutral space in which participants might safely explore religious differences and academic freedom.

Trained faculty and staff volunteers from the campus spoke about the project at more than 50 churches, synagogues, temples and mosques. Campus representatives and community faith leaders held interfaith dialogue breakfasts, as well as a series of conversation circles on campus and at diverse community locations such as a Mormon temple, a Catholic church, and an Islamic school. Facilitators invited participants to share their personal religious and spiritual journeys, their perspectives, and their visions of the future, and guided them in developing ideas for further action.

More than 300 faculty, staff, students, and community members took part in these “difficult dialogues.” Many participants said it was the first time they had met or discussed religion with people of particular beliefs and nonbeliefs. They found they had more in common than they expected, including a shared desire for Queens to be a place where all people are respected and can safely practice their religion and express their personal beliefs. Many participants made plans to continue their conversations and visit each other’s houses of worship. They voiced strong support for the College’s role as a neutral convener in this project.

While our work is hardly complete, we hope that our efforts will have lasting effects. We do not assume that we are now “experts” in handling religion in the classroom and community, but trust that by creating opportunities for inquiry, exchange, and self reflection, we are laying the foundation for transforming our academic spaces—creating institutions where academic freedom and religious expression can stand side by side.

Vanessa Bing is an associate professor of psychology and Rosemary Talmadge is special assistant for organizational development—both at LaGuardia Community College

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