I want to pose a question to professors in religious studies: do you share your “religious” identity or affiliation (or disaffiliation) with students? Why or why not? Have you had positive of negative experiences as a result of sharing?
I currently don’t share with students, primarily because I don’t want them to project a bias onto me. Of course I don’t think any instructor is “neutral”—that strikes me as a naive goal—but I don’t want students to be simply dismissive of what I say in class because of their stereotypes of my identity or affiliation.
I’m not sure this is the best policy, and it’s something I think about revising every year. What say you?
I don’t if they don’t ask, but if someone asks, I feel I have to. Not to answer would invite too much wild speculation (what’s he hiding?). Mind you, my answer takes about 15 minutes to deliver, because it comes with a lecture about how they likely wouldn’t ask their Eng. Lit. professor the same question, about how insiders do not have a monopoly on knowledge, about confessional vs. academic study of religion. They’re usually sorry they asked!
I’m not a professor of religious studies but teach an anthropology of religion course at two universities. I have thought about this and been asked about it by students, but I decline to disclose this information. I think my declination forces me to be as objective as possible, and my goal is to have students continue guessing even after the course is completed.
On Craig’s Facebook page I posted this comment below his link to this blog post:
If you’re trying to historicize a particular taxonomy, then using it as a form of self-identification simply re-authorizes it and undermines your very efforts… As if we all know that you gotta choose between fruit or vegetable, so what is the tomato really… Bringing the student to the point where they understand that their very question concerning the instructor’s identity is itself the object of study is the trick, of course…
I debate this issue with myself frequently, though Russell’s comment above adds a deeper dimension to my reflection. I do not self-identify in the classroom, although my Protestant background sometimes comes out in off-the-cuff anecdotes. I do not want my own position to be seen as a model of what I want them to be or as a stumbling block because of their stereotypes. When I repeatedly insist on their critical reflection on the agenda and position of their sources of information, though, I have qualms that my refusal to state my own position is then problematic.
For a different approach, and thoughtful responses to it, see the article by Martin Jaffee and responses from faculty at Alabama, published in the Bulletin, of all places, in 2004. I am currently working on an edited volume related to this Alabama lecture series, so I have reread Jaffee’s piece recently and found it thought-provoking. http://as.ua.edu/rel/cssrbulletin.html.
Great post on a great question. I wrestle with it too. I’ve tried keeping it out of class altogether and refusing to say, I’ve tried only telling students if they ask, and I’ve tried dropping hints and eventually mentioning it. I’m not persuaded that any of those is inherently better than the others.
I suspect that whatever one does, unless one has a homogeneous group of students, some will be curious, some disappointed, and some dismayed, no matter which route we go. And the reactions will differ depending on what identity we eventually disclose.
in jewish studies, it’s pretty obvious. i don’t have to come out as a jew or stay in the closet. the trick is to get students to understand that i am neither a rabbi nor a hebrew school teacher. for me this means highlighting the secular character of jewish religion and culture and what, in a western-protestant culture, stands out as the pecuiliar nature of jewish religiosity. i get the sense that most of our students tend to appreciate the opportunity to think critically about judaism, which they tend to look at sentimentally. i always keep my cards close as to revealing actual practice or theological committments. this is easy since i’m not orthodox and don’t wear a kippah or tzizit. on the other hand, i take off the first day of all the jewish holidays, even what is for them the relatively obscure ones. regarding the subject matter, i tell my students that i’m always with the text, which i try to present as charitably as possible. so one day i’m a maimonidean rationalist and the next day a kabbalisht, and then a reform jew and then a modern orthodox one, etc. perhaps more interesting is that professors of jewish studies who are not jewish will have a more complex stance, as they overcome the proclivity to look at academic jewish studies as internal to the clan. that represents the chief challenge for all of us.
I’ve talked about my experience of being the first non-catholic religious studies prof. in my university, and other aspects of academic life (e.g. working for the United Church), but the closest I get to taking a confessional stance is when I talk about the 1919General Strike. I also tell my classes about Matilda Joslyn Gage scandalizing an American Woman Suffrage meeting (Gage was one of the “triumverate” with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony). After being instructed that she was expected to open the meeting with a prayer, she did so – to the Goddess. (gotta love those late 19th c. rebels – check out her Woman, Church and State, 1898 I believe.) In any case, I never tell my students what, if anything, I believe in terms of what might be called a “faith” or religious (dis)affiliation. “Why do you want to know?” I ask them. “We want to understand you better, to know where you’re coming from” they say. Bingo. And thence the conversation begins.
The question is an interesting one for religious studies. I am a bit surprised by the responses that a dilemma exist when self-identifying one’s religious preference. As a pastoral care educator and certified clinical pastoral educator (CPE), I self-disclose at the beginning of each unit of CPE. We all have biases and our biases can help us look at the assumptions we bring to our opinions. Additionally, when we identify our religious preferences we help students to become critical thinkers as Brookfield (2010) would suggest. Sometimes we feel when someone challenges our religious convictions they are challenging our god. The challenge makes us think about why we support our beliefs or religious preferences. In my teaching of ministers, the discussions about religious preferences have been vital to the learning experience. However, there are rules regarding the discussions. Students must be respectful and courteous. And, we all learn something new in the end!
Brookfield, S. D. (2010). Developing Critical Thinkers: Challenging Adults to Explore Alternative Ways of Thinking and Acting. San Francisico, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, Inc.