What We’re Learning About Learning Podcast: Religious and Spiritual Diversity in the Classroom

Religious and spiritual identity is a complex, often invisible, and important element in the diversity of our students; our approach to this diversity can powerfully shape a student’s experiences in our courses. As we explore in the current episode of our podcast, What We’re Learning About Learning, some choices can help all of our students feel welcome, whereas other choices can cause affected students to check out of the learning experience altogether.

The episode brings together three clergy from Campus Ministry at Georgetown University to talk about the good and bad experiences students regularly share with them: Rabbi Rachel Gartner, the most recent Director for Jewish Life; Imam Yahya Hendi, the Director for Muslim Life; and Brahmachari Sharan, the Director for Dharmic Life and Hindu Spiritual Advisor for Campus Ministry. Georgetown is a Jesuit university committed to religious inclusion, yet, despite good intentions, some students from marginalized religious and spiritual traditions are encountering biases and discrimination in our classrooms.

Some of the more harmful experiences happen in an offhand way: jokes about religious clothing and dietary practices; casual references to religiously and historically significant people, events, and symbols; making assumptions about which students belong to which traditions and singling them out to represent their entire traditions; and leaning unconsciously on stereotypes. Even these accidental incidents can do lasting damage. “Not only is it a wound,” Rabbi Gartner told us, “they can’t learn. You become less effective in the classroom.” Other missteps are more deeply rooted in pedagogy, from choices about subject matter to the sources we use to inform what we teach, some of which can be shaped by biases that persist in the discipline itself. “When students in the classroom hear things that were peddled by politicians or regurgitated from missionaries,” said Brahmachari Sharan, “it just puts them in a place where they want to either be swallowed whole by the earth, reject anything to do with their identity, or just switch off altogether.”

The episode also talks about what we can do to push in the other direction, making the classroom less alienating and in fact more welcoming. You can reflect on your own possible areas of bias and gaps in your knowledge, for example, and you can be humble enough to address those biases and gaps. If you’re interested in student identity, you can ask about it in an open-ended way. If you need help, find experts. In the words of Imam Hendi, “We are not far away. We are just a building away from you.” Our guests give examples of how one can take on these approaches and others in an effort to create a truly inclusive classroom. 

As Rabbi Gartner said, “This is hard. It’s messy. It’s confusing.” With support, however—and we intend the current episode to deliver some of this kind of support—“You’ll get better and better at this just along with the rest of us.”