Islam in the Classroom: How Diversity Amplified a UF Religion Course
Things did not begin well. In fact, the first few “Islamic Traditions” classes at The University of Findlay prompted a return to the pedagogical drawing board.
But Dr. Song-Chong Lee, Ph.D., who taught the course in 2013, described it as the most positive experience of his teaching career, and said his students were similarly impacted. Indelible skills that focused on civility, tolerance and appreciation of differences have now given all involved valuable perspectives as extremism and violence continue to make headlines.
The primary lesson learned: “We are all connected,” Lee said.
It could easily have been one of the most divisive and volatile courses that the religion department had ever offered.
There was a feminist, a veteran of the first Gulf War, an Indian American, a Korean, Saudi Arabians who were Muslims, white Americans and a few religion majors specializing in Christianity to become pastors. None of the 15 total, all had differing religious beliefs and came from different backgrounds had previously expressed their views about Islam to such a diverse audience, but the class required it, and therein lay the challenge.
A South Asian Muslim and second-generation Indian American woman often challenged Islamic orthodoxy, while a Korean student was “a Christian formed in a Confucian mindset,” Lee, an associate professor of religious studies and philosophy, explained.
Lee himself is a Korean native who was born into a Confucion Buddhist family and converted to evangelical Christianity as a teenager.
In the political forefront at that time was the Syrian Civil War, which had been raging for two years but which kicked into higher gear with the formation of the Islamic Front, and the entrance of Hezbollah and jihadist militant groups.
Arguments erupted during the first class, including among the Muslim students who were divided into Islamic Sunni and Shi’a sects. The Saudi Arabians were intent on making sure their religion was taught “correctly.” The American students, including the Operation Desert Storm veteran, wanted to share their thoughts and ask questions, but were hesitant for fear of offending anyone. Some simply remained silent and later approached Lee in his office with their concerns.
Even the purpose of reading assignments was subject to misinterpretation. Lee had to explain that he was using the material academically, and not for devotional means.
“This racial diversity alone made me extremely uncomfortable because, after the first class, I immediately realized that I had to deal with not only three different races and an additional religion but also a whole set of issues touching on culture, economy, politics and even the validity of the academic study of religion itself,” wrote Lee in a post for the Wabash Center titled “In the Classroom, Race is More Than Race,” which can be read in its entirety here: http://tinyurl.com/orc4lug
“After two classes, I stopped the schedule,” Lee said. His teaching basics and traditional methodology used for previous religion courses weren’t working for this one. So he restructured the classes to focus less on lectures and presentations, and more on discussion.
Lee established verbal participation ground rules based on respect and courtesy. The students were encouraged to ask questions “as long as they had a good motive for doing so,” he said. The course became more student-driven. “Formulating good questions – that was my job,” he said.
In the process, assumptions, preconceived notions and prejudices were aired. Students were encouraged to explain their rationale for opinions and to hear others out.
Middle Eastern politics, so intertwined with religion, makes people uncomfortable, Lee said. “It causes controversy and emotional unrest, but let’s face it, many issues were emotionally challenging, but once they were able to deal with them, they learned a lot. Sometimes you become changed. Listening is important.”
As the fog cleared, some understanding was reached. There sometimes are “no clear answers,” participants found, only ideas. The discussions “ultimately led to civility,” and showed how to get along with people in the 21st century. We are all connected.
“It was a successful class because the students were really engaged in the issues. I learned a lot. We feel we learned a lot from each other. It’s still inspiring me,” Lee said of the class. He’s now incorporating methodologies from it into his “Religions of China and Japan” course this semester, which has 25 students who are also very diverse.
Teaching “Islamic Traditions” also had him recalling a graduate school experience that, in retrospect, he thinks he could’ve handled better.
“One time a Muslim friend asked me, as an evangelical Christian, if I really believed that people who aren’t believers will go to hell. At the time I didn’t know how to respond. I said, ‘Yes, even you will go to hell.’ He got quiet, really quiet. Many years later I called him and apologized.”
“By being exposed to people of different faiths, I’ve become a better person. That doesn’t mean I compromise my faith, but I handle those controversial issues better. There are many, many different ways to get along with each other,” said Lee.