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Effective Teaching to Counter Misinformation and Negative Stereotypes: The Example of Islam
A challenge for faculty striving to broaden and update their courses is how to introduce new material about which many students may be relatively ignorant and misinformed and hold incorrect and negative stereotypes (e.g., evolution, racism, workers’ unions, immigration, gender differences, socialism, sexual orientation). I faced this challenge recently while teaching a course in which I wanted to strengthen students’ understanding of the religion of Islam. I considered how to minimize student resistance to engaging with Islam or any eruption of emotions in the classroom, as these could be obstacles to attaining student learning objectives. Yet I wondered whether a modest and cautious approach to teaching about Islam would be sufficient for attaining those objectives. Fortunately, the answer is yes: devoting only a few classes to learning about Islam can bring about critical thinking and substantial changes in students’ understanding.
Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions globally, in the United States, and among students on college and university campuses. Yet Islam continues to be portrayed by many American political and religious leaders and in the popular media with false and negative stereotypes, as a religion of violence, extremism, and terrorism. Muslims are often portrayed as violent and un-American and as fair targets for prejudice and discrimination. According to a 2006 Washington Post and ABC News poll, roughly half of Americans view Islam negatively, a third have heard prejudiced comments about Muslims recently, and a quarter admit to being prejudiced against Muslims. Negative attitudes and prejudice toward any religious or ethnic group corrode and destroy civic life in our democracy. Higher education shares America’s responsibility and has an important role in changing such attitudes. Fortunately, the study of Islam can easily be integrated into general education courses that address essential learning outcomes such as civic and intercultural knowledge, as well as into advanced courses in comparative literature, history, political science, art history, religious studies, philosophy, and economics.
Yet misinformation and negative stereotypes, whatever the topic, can make some faculty reluctant to incorporate updated, relevant material into their courses. Doing so could open the classroom to students’ questions (both sincere and disruptive) that faculty might not be prepared to answer, or to students’ opinions and emotions they might not know how to handle. So, to take Islam as an example, some faculty choose not to teach this topic at all, hoping that elsewhere on campus other faculty are taking up this responsibility. And other faculty, while recognizing the importance of Islam in their courses, hope students will learn sufficiently from the textbook—assuming the textbook provides depth and balance—and avoid discussing Islam in the classroom. In contrast, using my teaching about Islam as an example, I’ll describe how I engaged students on a topic about which many were initially ignorant and misinformed and likely held negative views.
My goal was to strengthen the students’ understanding of Islam and Islamic history and culture in World Civilizations, a general education course with about four hundred students. I supplemented the textbook by adding three to four lectures on Islam, the Qur’an, and the history of Islamic civilizations and by focusing two of the weekly recitation classes on discussing selections from the Qur’an. Of course, the student learning goal was not to encourage students to agree with the tenets of Islam or to convert. Instead, the goal was merely for students to become more knowledgeable about Islam, to become familiar with what Muslims believe and do, and to recognize and reject common stereotypes and misunderstandings. (In a chapter in Diversity across the Curriculum, I listed five student learning objectives and some verses from the Qur’an that I asked students to read.)
Suggestions for Countering Misinformation and Stereotypes
Here’s what guided my thinking as I considered how to transform my teaching and facilitate students’ learning about Islam:
- I started with small steps, strengthening my teaching about Islam while gradually expanding my own understanding, rather than committing to teach an entire course on Islamic history and culture. Similarly, I had modest goals for student learning, aiming merely to increase their familiarity with and knowledge about Islam.
- I sought to legitimize the place of Islam in the course by treating this topic similarly to how I would be teaching other world religions. I introduced each religion in the same way: with a short list of common questions (for example, when and how did the core texts first appear in written form?). If, in contrast, I had introduced Islam in a special way, for example, as “controversial” or as “an issue,” this would have reinforced the negative stereotypes that some students held. I believe standardizing the teaching of religion in this way encouraged many students to be more open toward learning about Islam.
- Given the widespread misinformation and negative stereotypes about Islam, it seemed to be the ideal time to engage my students with an original text, that is, for us to go together to the ultimate source, the Qur’an, and see what is in fact written there. Much of the Qur’an is quite readable, familiar, and readily understandable for students, especially the later and shorter chapters. A very good translation and a Penguin classic is The Koran, edited by Dawood (2004). This inexpensive edition also shows verse numbers on the page margins, making it easy for students to locate assigned readings, especially during classroom discussions. In contrast—given widespread misinformation and negative stereotypes—if I had merely lectured to students about Islam based on my own reading, it would have been too easy for students to discount what I said as selective and biased and so hold to what they initially believed. Similarly, if I had asked students to read from secondary sources about Islam, they could have minimized the significance of their reading by assuming that other contradicting secondary sources exist that would still support their own beliefs. The advantage of having students read from original sources is that they can’t dismiss these as biased, inaccurate, or incomplete. Instead, they must move forward to reflect upon what they have read and consider critically what they now think. Furthermore, reading from original sources empowers students as firsthand authorities; that is, they can say to their friends, “I know what Islam is about because I’ve read this myself in the Qur’an.”
- I organized the sequence of topics to begin with “cool,” neutral topics and delay any “hot” topics until most students had acquired a minimal yet foundational understanding of Islam, a prerequisite for further discussion (see Meacham 1995). I began by addressing common misunderstandings, such as where Muslims live and what they believe and do and what the Qur’an says about relations between Muslims and people of other faiths. Only later did we discuss, for example, what the Qur’an says about equality of women with men and the rights of women in Muslim society.
- I held an informal workshop with my teaching assistants to explain why teaching about Islam was being emphasized in our course and what the student learning objectives were. Also, I wanted to make certain that they understood why I had chosen particular verses from the Qur’an to assign for reading; and I provided them with suggestions for how they could guide student discussion of these verses.
- I set aside ample time in lecture to present my rationale for why Islam and Islamic history and culture should have greater emphasis in the course than what the textbook alone would be providing.
- I resisted the temptation to strengthen the presence of Islam in this course by inviting as a guest speaker someone more knowledgeable and credible. Of course, there are many gaps and errors in my understanding of Islam. Yet I wanted to convey to students that knowing about Islam is so important that we shouldn’t rely on others to tell us what to believe. Instead, seeking a better understanding of Islam is a responsibility of all citizens in a democracy such as ours. And so I tried to be a good model for my students, that is, someone who is not Muslim and yet is struggling to better understand Islam. If I had merely brought an expert on Islam into the classroom, the implicit message would have been that the students, too, could abdicate their responsibility for learning and simply trust presumed authorities to tell them what to think.
- I did my best not to tell the students what to think about Islam and, instead, trusted that if they could themselves read directly from the Qur’an and discuss what they had read and share their insights with peers, they would be able to come to a better understanding. Efforts to counter misinformation and negative stereotypes by simply telling students what we believe to be correct will not lead to changes in knowledge and attitudes that last beyond the end of a class or course. In contrast, providing students with opportunities to engage with new ideas and discuss these with their peers, to be active in confronting and resolving dissonances in what they believe, and to reflect upon what they are learning and construct their own enhanced understanding can lead to enduring changes in knowledge and attitudes.
- I included a short writing assignment as a further opportunity for students to review, reflect upon, and integrate what they had been learning about Islam. These assignment topics were quite open-ended; for example, What surprised you, if anything, in these verses from the Qur’an, and why? Or, What has been the main change in your understanding of Islam and its place in history and the present? These short papers counted for very little in the course grading scheme, and so I hoped that students would feel free to explore their own ideas, raise questions, and write what they were truly thinking.
- I planned how to assess whether this approach to teaching about Islam would have any impact on the students. I constructed a questionnaire for students to assess their own understanding of various course topics. A few questions inquired into students’ understanding of Islam and other world religions. I asked students to complete this questionnaire anonymously at the beginning and end of the course. Also, I made photocopies of the students’ short papers, so that I could read these again later and consider more thoughtfully how the students were responding to my teaching and what they were learning about Islam.
A Cautious Approach Can Be Effective
Can such a modest, cautious approach—only a few classes, moderate student learning goals, focusing on cool or neutral topics, trusting the students to construct their own understanding—be effective in changing students’ knowledge and attitudes when the topic is one for which students have likely come to class with misinformation and negative stereotypes? The answer is “yes,” in this example of teaching about Islam.
At the beginning of the course, three quarters of the students agreed on the questionnaire that they could describe, explain, and give examples of Christianity. In contrast, only a quarter agreed that they could describe, explain, and give examples of Islam, and even fewer that they could do so for Islamic history and culture. At the end of the course, three quarters of the students now agreed that they could describe, explain, and give examples of Islam, and slightly more than half that they could do so for Islamic history and culture. Thus a relatively modest amount of teaching about Islam was sufficient to increase by threefold the number of students who felt more knowledgeable about Islam. (As a control question, students were asked to assess their understanding of the practices of science, a topic not taught in this course. There were no changes from the beginning to end of the course, suggesting that students were in fact thoughtful and careful in responding to the questions.)
Further evidence of the effectiveness of this approach to teaching comes from student papers: The most common theme that emerges is the students’ discovery of similarities among Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. For example, one student wrote, “I thought that Muslims were very different from Christians, but reading the Qur’an reminds me of the Bible in many ways.” A theme in about a fifth of the papers is that Islam is a peaceful and tolerant religion. For several students, this insight was a marked change from what they had previously believed: “Before learning about Islam in this course I was under the impression that the Islamic faith had violent roots in its religious beliefs and was intolerant of other religions. But after reading parts of the Qur’an and learning more about the Islamic faith, I see that this could not be further from the truth.”
The theme of another fifth of the papers is that the place of women in Islam is more positive than what these students had been expecting. Several students wrote that the main change in their understanding of Islam was learning that Muslim women have rights equal to or similar to those of men and that these rights, for example, with respect to inheritance and divorce, were greater than for most Christian women and for most centuries, until recently. For example, one student wrote that “I used to think that Islam was a lot more oppressive of women than it really is.” About a tenth of the students focused on what the Qur’an says about how Muslims should live their lives. For example, one student wrote: “The main change in my understanding of Islam would be how much attention Muslims give to doing the right thing. Before taking this course I didn’t know how much the Qur’an talks about doing things with a kind heart and good will toward others.”
About a tenth of the students (overlapping with the groups above) chose to write not merely about changes in their knowledge but also about changes in their attitudes toward Islam and Muslims. And several students took advantage of this writing opportunity to be reflective and engage in critical thinking, both about themselves and about American media and society. Here are some examples:
“To try and summarize my understanding about Islam, based on the few days we spent on this subject, seems exceptionally naïve. Obviously, there’s a lot I don’t know and would probably never understand in a lifetime. I questioned a pastor friend who teaches at another college about his understanding of the Qur’an and he said that he didn’t know much about it. This speaks volumes to me about our need as a global society to gain appreciation and understanding of one another’s diversities. Although I may not agree with Muhammad’s revelation from God, I certainly need to respect those who do.”
“I used to think that Islam was a religion for savages and terrorists. I know now that this is not the truth. Islam is more than that, it is a religion of real, honest people, just like Christianity—only different.”
“The several lectures that were given about Islam opened my eyes into the true side of Islam, a side I did not know because the media portrays it in a certain way. The media portrays Islam only from the side of the fundamentalists; only the violence of the religion is shown, isolating it from other religions. What I have learned is that Islam is similar to Judaism and Christianity.”
“The Qur’an is a very useful tool in disproving the stereotypes about Islam that I once had. After reading selections from the Qur’an I feel that the religion is about being faithful to God and living a good, truthful, and honest life.”
“My understanding of Islam and its place in history has changed. I knew that Islam had been part of different nations. Yet I failed to realize that it is more than that. It is the way people live. What is so scary about Islam? I don’t find anything.”
“After spending much time studying Islam and passages from the Qur’an, I have learned that many of the prejudices that are held by people regarding Islam are quite simply false.”
Thus both the questionnaire results and what the students wrote in their short papers provide evidence of the effectiveness of a cautious, modest approach to teaching on topics for which there can be misinformation and negative stereotypes. As important is that the students and I were able to engage, discuss, and learn about Islam without noticeable student resistance. Only three or four students, out of several hundred, provided negative comments about my teaching of Islam in end-of-semester course evaluations.
I am confident that the great majority of today’s students accept that the goal of a liberal education is to prepare them to live in a rapidly changing and shrinking world and that becoming free from ignorance requires that they learn more about historical and cultural contexts other than their own. With an approach to teaching similar to what I have outlined above, students can be encouraged to listen, read, discuss, and reflect. They then find that engaged learning and critical thinking can be worthwhile.
Dawood, N. J. (trans.). 2004. The Koran. Rev. ed.. New York, NY: Penguin.
Meacham, J. A. 1995. Conflict in multiculturalism courses: Too much heat or too little? Liberal Education 81(4), 24–29.
Meacham, J. A. 2007. Introducing students to Islam and the Qur’an. In Diversity Across the Curriculum: A guide for faculty in higher education, ed. J. Branche, J. W. Mullennix, and E. R. Cohn, 213–218. Bolton, MA: Anker.
Jack Meacham is the SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus at the University at Buffalo–State University of New York.