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To understand today's world, more students should study religion (essay)

“I often say that if I headed back to college today, I would major in comparative religions rather than political science … because religious actors and institutions are playing an influential role in every region of the world …”

This quote from Secretary of State John Kerry has been posted to my office door since last fall, when it appeared in an op-ed he wrote in America: The National Catholic Review. Of course, the idea of understanding religion and religious individuals resonated strongly with me, a professor of religious studies at a liberal arts college. But I believe the reasons for this sentiment are lost in the public discourse around both education and religion in the contemporary United States.

Turn on the evening news, open the morning newspaper or log on to any news page online and you will find a wide variety of stories that have some reference to religion. Syrian immigrants, evangelical voters, the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in India, anti-Muslim rhetoric, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, neo-Catholicism under Pope Francis -- all of these recent stories and more would be fundamentally illuminated if viewers and readers had knowledge of the religious actors. Contemporary discourse in America, both in the public domain and in academe, is often quick to posit that these stories are “really” about politics, power, class, social standing and the like, and people often refuse to take the religious aspects of the narrative seriously. Yes, of course, any of these issues can be understood within a broader context of social and cultural concerns. Nevertheless, this contextualization does not give license to disregard the religious angle as superficial or otherwise unimportant.

Whether we like it or not, individuals and communities are inspired by their religious identities to take action in the world. Those actions can have positive effects on the world, such as social outreach or providing a sense of community to adherents, or negative ones, including violence against rivals or intolerance for others. The fact remains, however, that their actions are often rooted in religious ideals, or their worldview. The principal concern of religious studies is to expose differences in those worldviews so that we might understand the beliefs and practices of a wide variety of cultural actors. Different religious groups imagine the world differently, and that affects how they respond to contemporary concerns.

The academic discipline of religious studies does not train students to be Catholics or Buddhists or Jews any more than political science trains students to be Democrats or Republicans. Even though I teach at an institution that is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, my department is not wedded to Lutheran doctrine or even Christian identity, but to a scholarly desire to understand the world’s inhabitants and cultures. We train our students to read closely, think deeply, write cogently and, above all, analyze carefully the important -- and sometimes decisive -- role that religion plays in the lives of cultural actors across the globe. I often tell my students that it is our responsibility to use a “dispassionate third-party perspective” when viewing the religious phenomena, to understand and analyze while withholding judgment.

If the only people who understand Christianity are Christian, or Islam are Muslims, or Hinduism are Hindus, we are condemned to a world of misunderstanding, conflict and sectarianism. If we cede understanding of religious ideas to religious individuals, we lose the capacity to comprehend the motivations behind the thoughts and actions of anyone beyond our own religious tradition.

Don’t get me wrong, the discipline of religious studies is not imagined as a substitute for religious training. Faith communities will always have a strong desire and need to train members and leaders for service in their own religious communities; that enterprise is a permanent fixture in traditional religious practice.

However, for those aspiring to leadership in the 21st century, knowledge of the religions of the world from a nonconfessional perspective is not a luxury but a necessity. Study of the variety of religious traditions around the world makes it abundantly clear that different people operate under different assumptions about the way the world works. To understand their actions, we must also understand their motivations.

That distinction between the discipline of religious studies and training within religious communities is often lost when considering the topic of religion in an educational setting. But, as Thomas Clark, a former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote in the majority opinion of Abington v. Schempp, “It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion …” This sentiment is, perhaps, more true now than when Justice Clark wrote it in 1963.

This “complete” education that Clark mentions includes the habits of mind that we cultivate in our students. By combining the ability to understand motivations beyond ourselves with other disciplinary perspectives within the liberal arts, we train students to interact with the world in a responsible and informed way. The broader context of this type of education opens our students to a wide variety of skills, including language study, quantitative and scientific reasoning, and the various perspectives offered by the social sciences. All those tools and disciplinary lenses contribute to a nuanced view of the world that goes beyond vocational training. It also equips our graduates with agile minds that can solve problems and understand perspectives that we are yet to encounter.

In an environment that increasingly stresses skills that are immediately marketable, humanities departments often feel that we must justify our existence and our usefulness to employers. Consequently, you see the publication of brochures and the creation of websites that emphasize problem solving, critical thinking and cogent writing. Those are fine goals and, I would argue, our curriculum equips our graduates with these skills.

But the most important attribute that the academic study of religion offers to our students is even more vital and far more concrete: the ability to understand others. In a world in which we are increasingly exposed to difference of all types, what could be a more vital skill for navigating the future?

William "Chip" Gruen is an associate professor of religion studies at Muhlenberg College.

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Instructor charged in murder of faculty member

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Missouri State places instructor on leave after he is charged with stabbing to death a fellow instructor.

Another argument against laptops in the classroom (essay)

So, with all the controversy swirling around students’ use of laptops in the classroom, have you decided to prohibit them or not?

Advocates of allowing laptops took a took a punch in the gut with a recent study out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology finding that students -- unable to resist the Sirens of the internet during class -- performed better when laptops were not permitted in the classroom.

Of course, as with critical-thinking courses and outcomes assessment, everyone and their dean has a theory on the subject. As a longtime advocate of permitting laptops, my intuition has been that we who took notes by hand back in the age of pens and paper simply can’t appreciate that keyboard note taking is more efficient for today’s students weaned on computers. I concede the high distractibility quotient of laptops and can accept the MIT study’s claim that they depress performance. I’m just not persuaded that our students are scampering around cyberspace at a much higher rate and to a significantly worse effect than in the days of yore when we daydreamed, doodled and passed notes in class.

And I’m not convinced that, at the level of higher education, efforts to enforce attention aren’t a bit too paternalistic. Perhaps banning laptops deprives the internet surfer of the important life lesson that, in the end, cutting corners has consequences.

Given that, why have I now changed my mind and defected to the opponents of laptops in the classroom?

Because, almost without fail, when I call on a student who’s been clacking away taking notes during class to apply a rule or concept under discussion, their eyes instantly dart down to the laptop screen in front of them as they scroll through the notes they’ve just taken to find the answer. One would have thought I’d asked a court reporter to read the last sentence back. Since the question normally requires the student to use, rather than simply repeat, material they’ve just typed into their machine, they do not find the answer and set off on a futile treasure hunt through all their notes to locate it.

My best guess is that today’s students’ keyboard skills are sufficient to allow them to mindlessly record what’s said in class, like a secretary too hurriedly taking dictation to think about what’s actually being said.

I haven’t been a student myself lately (as the allusion to secretaries taking dictation makes pretty clear), but I don’t recall being able by hand to record verbatim what was being discussed in class. Instead, I believe we were forced -- due to the relatively slow rate at which one can take handwritten notes -- to grasp, paraphrase and summarize in more or less outline form the information we were taking down. Laptops may, in other words, convert students into tape recorders whereby learning is postponed till whenever the transcript of a class is reviewed, corrupted by imperfections in the transcripts and impeded by the resultant inability to ask questions in class. Paradoxically then, inefficiency in the speed of note taking may help infuse an understanding of the subject matter into the notes.

I will break the news of my defection to the dark side of the laptop issue to future classes in the following way: effective note taking is not a one-step process where classroom content travels directly into your laptop via your hands, which, it appears to me, is the natural route of laptop note taking. Instead, it is a two-step process where the material must first travel through your mind, to be inspected and rewrapped, and only then recorded via your hands.

A neuroscientist may well cringe at my explanation. On the other hand, without the benefit of the better of the two note-taking methods, he or she may have had a harder time becoming a neuroscientist in the first place.

Jay Sterling Silver is a law professor at St. Thomas University School of Law.

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Working through major misfortunes rather than against them (essay)

Life can change drastically in an instant, but instead of struggling against a misfortune, one must to try to harness whatever it may have to offer, writes Margaret Meningioma.

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Study: Most Ontario Adjuncts Are Would-Be Full-Timers

A new survey of part-time faculty members in Ontario offers additional evidence that most adjunct instructors are no longer professionals who teach on the side. The typical instructor surveyed was female (60 percent), with 66 percent reporting having finished a Ph.D. That’s a big shift from a similar, previous survey conducted in the early 1990s, which found that most part-time faculty were male professionals who taught a course or two for fun, fulfillment or service. The involuntary part-timers in the new survey reported working four to five years on short-term contracts and wanting to find full-time academic work with benefits.

The report also notes that among these “precarious sessionals” are those who have “given up” on academe and are seeking any full-time position and those who have taken up work in other fields but who are “in waiting” for a full-time academic position. “A Survey of Sessional Faculty in Ontario Publicly Funded Universities” was written by Cynthia Field, a Ph.D. candidate in education at the University of Toronto, and Glen A. Jones, the Ontario Research Chair in Postsecondary Education Policy and Measurement and a professor of higher education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at Toronto.

Twelve Ontario colleges and universities participated in the survey, with response rates among temporary faculty members varying by institution, from 16 percent to 48 percent. The overall response rate among 7,814 instructors surveyed was 21.5 percent. In addition to demographic data, the survey sought open-ended answers to questions about how learning environments can be improved as part-time-faculty numbers continue to increase.

Respondents said that hiring faculty to more stable positions would reduce stress and enable instructors to better prepare for upcoming courses, according to the report. Many said that undergraduate class sizes were too big for providing opportunities for critical thinking and student engagement, and others said they worried classrooms were poorly laid out for learning. Some wanted private meeting spaces. Others reported wanting more opportunities for professional engagement, as well as more pedagogy and classroom training in their own graduate programs as preparation for teaching. Another concern was a perceived increased need to spend classroom time on remedial work in first-year courses, such as on essay structure.

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How your dissertation can influence your teaching (essay)

My dissertation influences my teaching not so much through its content but by the lessons I learned writing it, says Peter Wayne Moe.

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History is in vogue in the media even as college majors decline (essay)

Within a span of 24 hours, four articles appeared in my Twitter feed that featured historians in major media outlets.

The New York Times ran a story about biographer David McCullough and documentarian Ken Burns. The two have asked distinguished historians to state their case on why Donald Trump is, perhaps, the most troubling presidential candidate ever. The videos on Facebook have been viewed tens of thousands of times.

Politico asked several historians to comment on whether the recent Republican convention was the worst in history. (Answer: it may have been. It was certainly on par with the worst. )

USA Today asked the president of the American Historical Association if 2016 has been an unusual year for violence -- to which he wrote that violence begets violence and as such it tends to ebb and flow.

And Slate, in a piece by history writer Rebecca Onion, asked several historians to comment on whether 2016 is simply the worst year ever. (Answer: it has nothing on 1347.)

Donald Trump’s ascendance to being the Republican Party's nominee for president has served as a particular boon for historians. Not only McCullough and Burns, but historians at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center for Public Affairs, such as Barbara Perry, co-chair of the Presidential Oral History Program, and Nicole Hemmer, assistant professor in presidential studies, have contributed pieces on Trump and conservative politics to USA Today, U.S. News & World Report and The Atlantic. The Facebook group Historians Against Trump has spurred a petition with several hundred historian signatories. Historians are helping to answer how we got to where we are, and they are being heard.

History is hot right now. In the midst of a traumatic and turmoil-filled year -- weekly violence, racial tensions, political upheaval, a shifting world order and wars with no ends in sight -- we are crying out for historical perspective. Publications from The Wall Street Journal to Foreign Affairs are asking historians to tell their readers if (a) yes, it’s really as bad as it seems or if (b) it has, at times, been worse and humanity has survived. Historians are the dispassionate voice amid the din that gets us to calmly sit down in our chairs and reflect.

A recent piece in Patheos asks what exactly historians think we contribute in these trying times. Do we have special insights? Do we know lessons from the past that others don’t? Are we the true conscience of the nation? After all, self-examination about the role of the historian is a time-honored custom in our profession.

The author, a historian, was unsure. Yet even if we ourselves are unsure of what we contribute, the news media seems to think we offer much. They are not looking to sociologists, anthropologists or linguistic scholars for perspective -- although a few philosophers have also chimed in. They’re turning to historians. Enthusiastic viewer comments on the Historians Against Trump Facebook page seem to agree that historians’ voices contribute something meaningful. This is our time in the spotlight, whether we know exactly why or not.

What makes this interesting is that it occurs during a time of deep anxiety and concern about the future of history. According to the American Historical Association, the number of undergraduate students earning degrees in history is dropping sharply, even as the number of students earning degrees in all fields continues to rise. History degrees now account for less than 2 percent of all undergraduate degrees earned.

History majors are not as diverse as they could be either: African-Americans were just 5 percent of those completing history degrees in 2014. Latinos made up 9.7 percent and Asians and Pacific Islanders were 3 percent. In a country projected to be minority majority by the middle of this century, history remains relatively homogenous.

And just this month, Lincoln University, a historically black institution in Missouri, deactivated its history program due to low numbers of graduates, low career demand and low student demand. Other HBCUs and regional colleges have threatened to follow suit.

Such statistics and anecdotes prompted James Grossman, the executive director of the AHA, to write an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times arguing that history is not a “useless” major. Whether students and parents will listen is yet to be known. USA Today has reported that student decisions regarding majors most often come down to money: the ability to find employment and the earning power once employed. History has yet to convincingly make the case that its students will find employment, earn high salaries and be able to pay back student loans in a reasonable amount of time.

Thus we come to a fork in the road. On the one hand, historians are in high demand for the perspective they offer in our moments of deep societal anxiety and rupture. On the other, there are very real questions about who will serve as that voice in future crises. Can this period of spotlight do anything to help save the profession?

One obvious way is the rise in visibility. Many young Americans may, for the first time, be hearing from historians and be seeing them on a regular basis in major news media outlets. Historians certainly appear in the press all the time, but the difference now is the stage. During a presidential election, nearly all of America is paying attention to media, and particularly in such a divisive and unusual election as this one. It is an especially good time to be visible.

While being visible, we also can demonstrate the core values of our profession. We can continue to showcase the dispassionate wisdom and clarity of thought that is treasured by those of us in the discipline and sought by those outside it. In a climate of constant shouting and bickering, contemplative thought may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it can offer a refreshing alternative and inspire younger folks that they, too, can be an impactful voice of reason when America needs it most.

The AHA, History Relevance Campaign and others have put forth many ideas on how to address declining enrollments. I won’t recite those here. But I will offer a few more suggestions for our current moment that may help contribute to the discussion:

  • In moments when we have greater exposure, let’s put forth as diverse a set of faces and voices as we can. Let’s ensure that minorities see historians not solely of one race, one gender, one religion and one socioeconomic background, but many.
  • In these moments, let’s also put forth a diversity of ages. Millennials tend to want to see immediate results in their work and seek speedy advancement in their fields. History, in contrast, has an entrenched hierarchy that slowly promotes its own, often does not offer immediate results and often privileges those most senior in their careers. Let’s ensure young people see young historians succeeding, being heard and contributing meaningfully.
  • Let’s find new ways to communicate, even as we’re holding true to our values. To draw on historical facts and speak from a place of deep knowledge does not limit us to prepared remarks or formal prose. Let’s use this opportunity to evolve how we communicate -- colloquially, vividly, through images as well as words and across all platforms available to us -- both for the good of our audiences and for the enthusiasm of new entrants into the field.

Some of these things are already happening, and I hope they continue with even greater intentionality. Historians have an opportunity this year to showcase the best and brightest aspects of our profession. Recognizing that we do so against an uncertain backdrop of our own field, we can use this moment to help inspire the next generation of historians. After all, when calamity strikes, it is we as historians that society turns to.

Jason Steinhauer is a public historian in Washington, D.C., and creator of the field of history communication. On Twitter: @JasonSteinhauer.

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Wayne State's School of Medicine to Cut 37 Faculty Jobs

Wayne State University is trying to shed medical faculty members it views as “underproductive or unproductive,” The Detroit News reported. In a letter to faculty members that followed an earlier announcement about faculty productivity, Jack Sobel, dean of the School of Medicine, said 37 faculty appointments may be terminated or lost to retirement. Some 18 professors already have agreed to retire, accept phased retirement or received notice of nonrenewal of their contracts, Sobel wrote, while eight additional professors have agreed to separate from the institution. Another 11 faculty members will be recommended for dismissal. Sobel assured due process for tenured faculty members. 

Charles Parrish, president of Wayne State’s faculty union affiliated with the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers, said all of those affected are researchers in the basic sciences and clinical departments. He said decreased grant funding by the National Institutes of Health has affected some faculty members’ ability to do their work. “This will have an impact on what the medical school is able to do in terms of moving forward in research and teaching,” Parrish told The Detroit News.

A university spokesperson declined comment. Wayne State’s medical school reportedly said last year that it was dealing with a serious budget gap that would take three years to close. Sobel said in his letter that the cuts are a “critical and necessary step toward allowing our many productive faculty members to thrive, and will result in our emerging stronger as one of the nation’s most robust urban medical colleges and centers of research.”

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What to do with a bad third-year review (essay)

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It can be challenging to receive criticism, writes Kerry Ann Rockquemore, but it can also provide an opportunity to discern the difference between how you believe things should be and how they actually are.

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Three ways to make teaching evaluations more effective (essay)

Talk to any instructor about student evaluations, and our shared unease is almost universally immediate, writes Annelise Heinz, who provides three basic recommendation to improve the evaluation process.

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