Many of us are taught to avoid topics such as religion, politics, race, sexuality and economic disparity in polite conversation. This adage may hold true for some people in some social situations, but not in my classroom! Starting in introductory courses and continuing through graduate studies, I encourage and teach students how to discuss “uncomfortable” matters that profoundly affect many people in their daily lives. Trained as a sociologist, I am a religious studies professor and department chair at Wilfrid Laurier University.
For the past 17 years, I have taught courses in such subject areas as the development of religious traditions in the African diaspora, religion and post-colonial thought, and religion and popular culture. In teaching these courses, controversial topics involving the use and abuse of power, and others involving emotional and deeply personal beliefs, are often featured. The focus in my courses is on students learning to research, write about and discuss—in face-to-face encounters with each other and with guest speakers—controversial issues. In fact, the development of these communication skills are as important as the subject matter for a specific course. The term “controversy” means differential (including opposing or conflicting) viewpoints. The course topics are the fuel that drives this focus on engaged students as listeners, speakers, writers and researchers. In my courses, students are required to apply thoughtful analysis to controversy. These skills are applicable to a variety of situations in the classroom and beyond.
I encourage student engagement in learning about religion through focusing on people’s life stories in written texts, personal religious narratives, as well as storytelling, music, dance, and in film and video. This emphasis on the arts, stories and storytelling involves exploring a variety of literary genres and media. Students are also encouraged to become aware of their own stories and of others around them. Guest speakers from a variety of religious communities, scholarly experts and artists, dancers, musicians and writers, such as award-winning author Lawrence Hill, are regularly invited to participate in my courses. Their participation takes place through in-class visits, literary readings, art exhibits at Laurier’s gallery, as well as online media interaction with authors of course books. Instead of viewing technology in the classroom as a distraction from student learning, I strive to encourage students to use technology, including smartphones, laptop computers and social media to enhance their learning.
A part of my job as a professor is to introduce students at the start of their journey at university to the value of investing in a broad-based educational experience that includes religious studies, social sciences and the humanities. In a world of rapid change and globalization, it is imperative that the study of important questions about being human, which have historically been addressed by religious studies, other humanities and social sciences, are not lost in the digital noise. Interdisciplinary education is key to preparing students to face challenges now and in the future. What I aim to teach students are the valuable skills of self-learning, research, collaboration and effective communication, in addition to the subject matter of the course. Learning is a collaborative enterprise between teachers, students and communities. Effective communication across and through differences is a valuable skill that religious studies and liberal arts offers students. Preparation for the job market is important for students, but preparation for wider social contributions, including informed social engagement, is also an important aspect of readiness. University in the 21st century has the opportunity and the responsibility to define itself as more than job preparation by narrowly trained specialists. While there is a role for specialized training, there is also a need for students to learn how to ask and engage the “tough” questions.
Carol Duncan is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Religion and Culture at Wilfrid Laurier University.