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Teaching the Twenty-first Century Undergrad: A Conversation with Caryn Riswold

Recent literature and conversation about contemporary undergraduate students and emerging adults inspired one college professor to explore their faith identity and Christian privilege.  I had a chance to sit down with Caryn Riswold and discuss these issues which appear in her new article, “Teaching the College “Nones”: Christian Privilege and the Religion Professor,” in the April 2015 issue of Teaching Theology & Religion.

Mary Beth: Your recent article in Teaching Theology and Religion focuses on teaching an undergraduate population that increasingly identifies themselves without a religious affiliation. They are the “Nones,” a term popularized in Patricia O’Connell Killen and Mark Silk’s edited book, Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest (2004).  How new is the concentration of Nones in the classroom?

Caryn: In my fifteen years of teaching undergraduates, I have seen a steady increase in students who don’t identify with any religious tradition.  I think this is for a variety of reasons, and there are plenty of scholars of church and generations writing about it.  The word “none” is of course contested and complicated, as I talk about in my article.  It might mean not religious, or not a believer, or something else entirely.

It seems that I have always talked with young people who proclaim themselves to be “spiritual, but not religious” … and inevitably some of them think that they invented the concept!  Linda Mercadante’s recent book, Belief Without Borders, is pretty instructive on this phenomenon, actually.  What I have noticed in recent years is that students are more likely and more comfortable actually saying they are agnostic or atheist.  A few years ago in particular, there were several students who talked about this identity in one of my classes, and it made a noticeable difference in discussions.  A good one.  For those of us who have been reading and talking about millennials for a while now, this is one of many things that makes them distinctive, and I think presents an interesting challenge to conventional pedagogies of religion.

MB: You were a Postdoctoral Lilly Fellow.  In what way did your experience as a fellow help you think about who and how you were teaching?

C: I think that the experience of being a Postdoctoral Lilly Fellow means that I ALWAYS think about who I teach, along with how I teach and why I teach the ways that I do.  Because of the LFP, I assume that discernment and reflection on the life of a teacher-scholar is essential.  If teaching is a vocation, and I do think it is, then it bears the responsibility of a calling to do work that matters in other peoples’ lives.  I still have hanging over my desk a simple page of “some quotations on teaching” that Arlin Meyer (LFP program director in my postdoc years) shared with us.  One that I regularly remind myself of is: “Teaching is fundamentally about relationships, about not imposing oneself upon the subject or upon the learners, but in fashioning an appropriate response to both.”  That’s from Mary Boys’ essay on “The Grace of Teaching” in a 1996 issue of The Cresset.  And that is some of the spirit I carry with me into the classroom and my work with students, primarily because of the LFP.

MB: Your article talks specifically about teaching in a religion (or theology) classroom.  Do you think how we understand who college students are today applies to other classrooms, say like history, mathematics, or biology?

C: I think that every one of us who works with college students is able to do our job better when we know something about our students – both as a generation and as individuals.  It helps us understand why they actually might like talking to their parents every day (while we cranky GenXers would rather have done anything other than that!), why they respond to direction and instruction they way they do (or don’t), and so on.  The religious piece of it is simply another window into the world that they bring with them into any and every classroom.  A history professor might not be able to presume that all of her students know something about Christianity in U.S. history through their personal experience with a church;  a biology professor might be relieved to know that students aren’t necessarily taking literal biblical creationism seriously as a rule.

MB: At the same time you speak of Nones, you also identify Christian privilege.  What is this?  Early women’s historians spoke of decentering the male narrative. How can identifying Christian privilege and decentering the Christian narrative change our classrooms?

C: Decentering the Christian narrative makes room for more narratives to be in the room.  And it is a fact that there are more narratives in the classroom these days, the ones that students bring in with them.  It is also a fact that students are part of a world in which they already encounter multiple narratives, religious worldviews, belief systems, and so if we don’t make space for all of that in the classroom, we are doing a disservice to their current lives and their future work.

Christian privilege is, to echo Peggy McIntosh’s analogous description of white privilege, an invisible package of assets and assumptions that I carry with me, that I can use to my own advantage in a social setting, that I don’t really know I have.

Naming Christian privilege can have the same effect that naming white privilege and male privilege had on movements toward multicultural awareness on campuses and in communities.  It educates those of us in the norm that we are assuming things that might not be true, and things that are not true for other people.  In terms of Christian privilege, examples of those assumptions are things like this that a student (or a professor) might think:  Other people in this class have been in a place of worship like my own;  Other people in this class know what I’m talking about when I talk about my sacred text;  Devotion to my faith, including wearing symbols associated with it, will be understood by others in this class and mostly viewed favorably.

The fact is that if you are anything other than Christian on a college or university campus in the U.S., those things (and many more) are not true.  This includes identifying with another religion and it also includes as identifying as nonreligious or atheist.

MB: Is this something more than being ecumenically minded in the classroom? I have Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core in mind when I ask this question.

C: I think of this as being aware of the social, political, and theological structures around the classroom.  Understanding those things that students as well as teachers bring in with them that end up advantaging and disadvantaging each of us.  It is more than being ecumenically- and interfaith-minded (though it includes those things) because it takes seriously the power that systems of privilege and inequality have.

MB: You talk about becoming an ally to students, stating, “[t]o be an ally in the context of teaching and learning is to be on the side of the student, to work for her or his learning, growth, and development as an engaged citizen.” (p.139)  How have you thought about this in your own work as a theologian and as a teacher?

C: The Mary Boys quote from earlier seems appropriate to this question as well.  The way I think about this is that each student not only brings something unique into the classroom, s/he needs something unique while in the classroom.  Perhaps one student needs to be allowed to question the rigid dogma she’s learned by memory, while another student needs to be introduced to the rich tradition of Christianity.  Maybe a different student needs to see how to read the Hebrew Bible on its own terms, while the person sitting next to him needs to be able to articulate a response to the Islamophobia that he hears from others on campus.

MB: One thing I enjoy about your article is that you give practical examples of how one can be an ally to her students.  How did you develop the “Trial of the Garden of Eden?”

C: I’ve been doing it for so long I’m not exactly sure anymore!  I think it was in conversation with a colleague in my department who has worked with the Reacting to the Past curriculum in his teaching … as a way to get students actively engaged with historical material in more interesting ways.  I decided to play with the ways that I try to get students to see what is – and  isn’t! – in Genesis 2-3 as one example of close textual reading and discussion about how religious traditions indirectly emerge out of texts.  This also ends up decentering the Christian narrative insofar as it challenges assumptions about what happens there, and whose “fault” it really is.

Caryn Riswold was a postdoctoral fellow for the Lilly Fellows Program from 2000-2002. She also serves on the board of the Lilly Fellows Program National Network. Riswold is a Professor of Religion and Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois.  She is the author of several books, including Feminism and Christianity:  Questions and Answers in the Third Wave, and Two Reformers:  Martin Luther and Mary Daly as Political Theologians. To learn more about Caryn see her blog at Patheos, Feminismxianity

Posted by Mary Beth Fraser Connolly

 

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