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Faculty Insights for Teaching Interfaith Online

 In Tips for Teaching Interfaith Online, four faculty discuss challenges, opportunities, and best practices for teaching interfaith topics virtually.  In reflecting on their own experience, they share insights, strategies, and resources for facilitating excellent online learning experiences.  

“Students love to use tech, and if you give them three or four methods, it is possible to do all the things you would do in the classroom.” - Dr. Barbara McGraw, Professor of Social Ethics, Law, and Public Life and founding director of the Center for Engaged Religious Pluralism at Saint Mary’s College of California  

 “The challenge is to remain both effective and authentic in online environments.” -Professor Dawn Moore, the Business Faculty Lead at Martin University  

“I encourage my students to engage the religious diversity around them. As the teacher, I have to remain flexible and nimble in order to meet students where they are, even if that means revising assignments at the last minute.” -Dr. Hans Gustafson, the director of the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at the University of St. Thomas 

“The biggest challenge for me was figuring out how to navigate religious differences when we were not face-to-face.” -Dr. Younus Mirza, Visiting Researcher at Georgetown University and Director of the Barzinji Project at Shenandoah University.

Transcript: 

» Carolyn: Good afternoon or good morning, depending on where you are joining us from. We appreciate you taking the time to be with us for what we think is going to be a really exciting and interesting conversation.   

I want to start with a recognition of what is a really painful, chaotic, uncertain time.  Our minds, our hearts, and our spirits are in many places today, consumed with all manners of grief, fear, exhaustion, anger, maybe hope. All that to say, I invite you to come as you are, to bring whatever you can, and to say that I'm glad that you are here, that we're all glad that you're here.   

This is a conversation, as you know, about interfaith competencies and how to teach them online.  As you may know, the field of interfaith studies has grown over the last ten years from a niche conversation largely among religious studies scholars to what we think of as a distinctly interdisciplinary field.  

At that point, IFYC has tracked over 400 courses across the country and 50 programs including majors, minors, certificates and concentrations, all across the country and in different kinds of institutions. So as the COVID-19 crisis pushed higher education into online learning, faculty and staff were faced with the question how do we facilitate interfaith learning and interfaith leadership in a virtual space?     

Some folks have been doing this for a while, and many ever us are pretty new to it.  The faculty that we invited to serve as panelists today all have wisdom to share about the ways to do this well. They're going to speak about common challenges, pedagogues that are effective, things they still have questions about.  I'm going to ask them a series of questions and let them respond, probably for the next 30 to 40 minutes.  And then we'll open it up to your questions.   

While all of you participants are muted during this conversation, we do want to hear from you.  So if you hover over your zoom screen at the bottom, you'll have options to open the chat and share ideas and comments with all attendees and you can activate the Q&A.  Here here's where we encourage you to share your questions for any of the panelists or the group as a whole.   

Please note, you can type in your questions at any point during the webinar, during the conversation, and that actually helps us track how many questions we have and where's the most appropriate place to insert them.  We'll track those. So type it at any time. Finally, we're grateful to Lisa. Thank you, for providing our closed captioning today.  If you want to view that, click on the closed captioning link at the bottom of the zoom screen, and you'll receive an emaia day from now with a recording of the webinar.  So let's get started.   

I want to invite each of you panelists to first tell us briefly about your online teaching experiences. For example, the platforms you have used, the topics you have taught, how large your class typically is and how long that you have -- how long you have taught online.  Why don't we start with Younus.    

» Younus: Thanks so much, Carolyn for organizing this and moderating the session.  I appreciate your words also about this moment, and this time.  To answer your question, I've been teaching online for several years now, three, four years, and I've been primarily using canvas and Zoom. Those are the platforms that have been working well for me and my institution.  Some of the challenges that we have faced in the online learning environment, especially this last semester was regarding going from in-person to an actual virtual classroom.  I didn't sign to teach online courses, and we found ourselves all online as a court.  That was a big challenge for all of us.   

I think a lot of the students missed that campus environment.  A lot of us took it for granted that we’re together and actually see Interreligious, interfaith work going on our campus.  

Ramadan was last semester.  I was hoping to talk them to an Iftar, take them to the chapel, and have some programming.  However, we were unable to do that.  I think that's where some of the big challenges was for us not knowing, not understanding that this crisis was going to happen, transitioning to an online platform pretty quickly.  We used canvas pretty regularly at Shenandoah University  

The challenge for some of the students is that some had great Wi-Fi access and great houses with loving environments but some of them felt really isolated.  Some of them have to drive to get Wi-Fi at the local library, and there was a question of equity and access that appeared.  So these are some of the things that appeared last semester for me. Thanks once again for putting this together. 

» Carolyn: I forgot to share where you're at.  Younus is at Shenandoah University.  All right.  Dawn.  

» Dawn: Thanks so much.  Thank you, again, too, for inviting me to this call as well.  This is definitely a great opportunity in terms of just having the opportunity to share with other online teachers in regards to our work.  My experience comes from several years ago at Trine University in Angola university where there was about 3,000 students, so the online format for those students normally six to 30 students at a time, and 30 students was probably the largest class, but normally, in between six to 30 students at Trine University, we utilized Moodle.  I am now currently at Martin University, where it is a predominantly black institution with only about 300 students.     

So we just went to the online learning format during the COVID-19 outbreak and transitioned online and did not honestly have a learning management system and are now being trained on Canvas.  So we will be utilizing that format. I also had the opportunity, honestly, in the beginning, to learn or to begin online teaching as a store manager for Walmart where we actually utilized online learning for diversity events, normally for women, African Americans, and different things.  So that actually helped me to start that process in the online learning initiative.  

» Carolyn: Thanks, Dawn. Barbara.     

»Barbara: Hello.  Yes, I'm with the Saint Mary's College of California, and I began teaching graduate students in the MBA program online on adobe connect which I absolutely hated.  When zoom kind of got its act together, I advocated for zoom, and we have all been on zoom for about the last three years. And it's been improving greatly.  My institution has had online learning almost longer than anyone else in the country.  So we have a lot of expertise, although mine isn't as extensive as others.   

The big challenge, teaching graduate students is different because they're used to having online meetings and they are used to protocols as you know, don't show up in your pajamas and things like that. I had only taught online with undergrads. If I went to a conference or something. I learned right away if you don't tell them how to behave online, they'll show up in their pajamas and be laying in bed.  They'll be, you know, on the couch, petting the cat or whatever.  So the big challenge for me was to get undergraduate students to realize it's still a classroom and to take it seriously.   

And so that what I've come up with.  I'm super strict about this, but I think it's very conducive to very good conversations online.  The other thing is there was this attitude oh, it's all going to be worse if we're online, and the reality is that there are some things that are better online than in the classroom.  Online, some students respond more than they do in the classroom. And some the reverse.  So somethings are lost and some things are gained.  I think it's absolutely possible to have very robust conversations, teamwork, and all kinds of things and I'll be sharing some of that with everyone.     

» Carolyn: Thanks for queueing up those important discussions and points.  You're getting some amens about online etiquette. Last but not least, Hans, would you like to introduce yourself?    

» Hans: Thank you, Carolyn, and for putting this together and convening all of us here together these challenging times.  I've had the pleasure of getting to know and learn from Barbara and Younus over the years and I look forward to learning from Dawn today as well.  I teach a course called Interreligious Encounter at the University of St. Thomas which if I use the correct words I use here, is a large urban comprehensive Catholic private university with a liberal arts foundation.    

We have about 6,000 undergraduates, bachelor-degree seeking students, and another 4,000 graduate students at St. Thomas.  I also direct the Jay Phillips Center for Interreligious Studies. This particular course, Interreligious Encounter, I've taught in several formats, traditional face-to-face, traditional 14-week semester course, I've taught it as a unique, year-long leadership cohort format.  In fact, that particular format transitioned to online with COVID in early March, and we continued to meet on Zoom for the rest of the semester, and in fact, we were able to do some things we hadn't done before like bring in speakers from around the country.   

But, of course, we could have done it before but it wasn't on our radar screen.  And online. I teach this course online. I've taught it as a 6-week course in the summer and as a 4-week intensive J term course (January term course) and it's asynchronous.  We don't have any live sessions where all of the students come together.     

Most of my students in these online courses tend to be working either full-time day or night, so a common time to come together just doesn't work.  We use Canvas, and I understand that's kind of one of these platforms that are really taking over this space, although I have used Moodle and blackboard and some of these other platforms but not specifically with an online course.  Typical class size is about 25 students.  

My experience teaching online, I taught online about a decade ago tinkering with some blended formats.  I really didn't do much with it until about a year ago.  I came back to it.  And I've taught three sections of this interreligious encounter course.  I'm teaching another three right now as we speak this summer.  

So some of the topics we cover, introduction to the concept of religion, the study of religion, engaging religious diversity and pluralism and Some basic religious literacy around the big-five religions, secular humanism and non-religious identities, modes of dialogue and building bridges and we do some stuff but not enough in my opinion on religious conflict, violence, and peacebuilding.  That gives you some sense of what I'm up to.     

» Carolyn: Thank you, Hans.  So all of you have begun to get at this question, but I want to invite you to share a bit more about the challenges that you have faced in teaching interfaith topics or religious topics online or the challenges you're worried about or anticipate.  Why don't we start with Barbara?     

» Barbara: [Laughter] That is the question I told you not to start me with. But I'll go with it. I've been teaching interfaith leadership since 2014, and I teach it to -- as a professional kind, of course, leadership in the profession.  So it's interfaith leadership in the business and professions.  And I've been doing that all these years. However, I am now currently putting that course together for the fall.  And so I haven't taught online yet for interfaith, but I have been teaching a globalization course that also wraps religion issues in as well.  Like I was saying earlier, the biggest challenge for me is how do I do all the things I wanted to do in person online, which is the big question.  And I have found there's -- if you are creative -- you don't have to give up much.   

Presentations, for example, getting your students to do group work.  So we still put all the groups together.  We still have teams.  We still have them work together.  Sometimes in the classroom.  Sometimes on their own, which really helps them to still maintain community as well with each other.  It's still possible to have them work in the classroom together using a Google doc, and there's a way of doing a breakout session in Zoom, and I assume in other platforms as well.  And they can work on a Google doc together. There's a drawing function on there. And so there are whole ways of doing things that you might do in the classroom. 

In the classroom, I have students get up and put things on the board, work on something in a group, and then put it on the board and then do a mini-presentation. All of that is still possible to do online.  And it can even be super fun, because the students love to use tech, as we all know, and if you give them three or four methods for doing all of that, it's still possible. So I have this really interactive way of doing my interfaith leadership class, and I'm looking forward to using the methods that I've used in the globalization class in the interfaith leadership class in some of these ways I'm talking about.     

» Carolyn: Great.  See, you did perfectly fine going first on that one.  All right.  Dawn, do you want to share?     

» Dawn: Good.  Thank you.  And I guess I should have prefaced as well during my introduction that I mainly teach business classes, and a lot of the classes as well, my field or expertise was in marketing and/or retail management. So for the most part, when I think about the challenges to face online, just in general, it's really about remaining effective and authentic in terms of not having that face-to-face interaction with the students.   

At the same token, I believe that the online format gives teachers the opportunity to better facilitate and allow students their input and different things that normally in a face-to-face interaction, as teachers, We have the opportunity to call on students and allow them to engage and let their values or morals come out in their responses in different things.     

I think the challenge for me just with online learning specifically is how to remain inclusive and not intrusive in terms of being face-to-face but not physically.      

» Carolyn: Thanks, Dawn. That's a helpful way of thinking about inclusive but not intrusive. Thanks for introducing that frame to me. Hans, would you like to share some of the particular challenges you've begun to get?  And I heard you speak to elsewhere that were really helpful. 

» Hans: Sure. I'll do my best.   

The course is “Interreligious Encounter.  At first, I was fair -- maybe a lot of us are this way.  I was fairly resistant to teaching this particular course online, as I wasn't confident or I wasn't quite sure how to ensure that encounter would take place, at least outside the classroom. I always tell my students in a course like this, if they're not encountering or engaging religion, I have somehow failed them. I'm talking beyond the textbook.   

At St. Thomas, even prior to COVID there was a growing demand for online courses so I eventually threw my hat in the ring and said let's try this course.  And so I had to think about how to provide opportunities for students to encounter religious diversity given now that my students were scattered -- in theory all over the world.  In reality, most of them were scattered throughout Minnesota, living at home with parents, away from campus. 

In the face-to-face setting, I would have students work in groups or on their own and pick a local interfaith organization or community outside their home tradition or at least the tradition they were raised in and simply go there,  visit, be present, attend the public events, listen to the language that's being used, the issues being discussed and so on to be present in these spaces. 

But not just once but they would go again and again and again much it's kind of like a -- a reiterative multiple site visit.  That you're just going to one site over and over. Sometimes there's an option to did interviews if students want to do that.  We're in Minneapolis and St. Paul with significant diversity for our region—religious diversity.  This isn't a challenge for students to find places to engage.  But now, with students scattered, this type of group work, I appreciate Barbara's comment on online group work.

This type of group work where they go as a group to these sites, this became a challenge. So I asked students to engage with local diversity of wherever they happen to be.  And it's usually isn't a problem, again for students who happen to be in larger urban centers that have this diversity.  

But I have a lot of students in small rural Minnesota farm communities, you know, they would send me a list of ten churches and eight of them are Lutheran and they would ask me, which one could they go to. This is a challenge especially since most of my students, especially from small-town rural Minnesota were raised in Christian and often Lutheran traditions. The assignment is on interreligious encounter, not intra-Christian encounter so we’d have to get creative.  

Some students would drive to the next big town over, I suppose, if they had access to a vehicle.  I had one student who told me the only diversity seemed to be at the small strip mall at his downtown at the intersection. It had about ten shops much we changed the assignment to why don't you interview the shopkeepers about religion in the workplace and religion in their town.  That turned out well and the student realized he had more religious diversity than he realized in his town.     

Another quick example, this past January, I had two students who decided to take this class, and they were traveling during the month of January.  They were traveling as ski bums for a month.  They were between Colorado, Utah, and California. And they were wondering how to engage in religious diversity at these quite affluent ski resorts.   

We devised a project they will interview folks on the chairlift.  Why don't you interview them or strike up conversations or investigate the religious diversity that happens to be in these towns?  And so they did that, and that worked.   

And the final example I can share with this week, with the tragic killing of George Floyd here in Minneapolis, I have several students now, who are like, all of us, understandably deeply disturbed by what they are seeing in the police and the riots.  There is a very real tension that is surrounding them here. We've had a few events, and I suspect we'll have more of interfaith gathering, vigils, and protests.  

Some students have decided to attend these and use these as their site engagement.  Some are attending these online. A lot of online now.  I guess the lesson here -- the challenge is getting students to find a religious diversity around them that can be an asset to leverage because they're bringing it back into the classroom.  The lesson for me is to remain flexible and nimble and be willing to deal with students where they're at and not being afraid to rethink or revise an assignment, you know, at the last minute.  

So yeah.  I'll stop there.  But that continues to be a challenge, but I take it as it comes, a case-by-case basis and work with the students. 

» Carolyn: That's great.  I really appreciate about that example, the challenge afforded the opportunity to demonstrate one of the most important things about interfaith studies, which is, that religiosity shows up in the civic and encourage your students to look for religion in nontraditional places. I appreciate that example, and it indicates that there's an asset, as you said, to the online learning space.

And then Younus, do you want to tell us about the challenges you've encountered?  

» Younus: That's a great question.  Similar to Barbara, Dawn, and Hans, that when I have taught online, I was thinking about the challenge of building a community.  So, how do you navigate religious differences when you're not face-to-face as Dawn was mentioning.  I teach a course -- I taught this course last semester at Shenandoah on the BibleWhich was made possible by a generous IFYC course grant?

 It's a very text-heavy course. So we look at different texts from the Quran and Bible and particular figures. Whether it's Mary in the Bible and the Quran or Abraham.  So I show them how do these figures come to life.  How do people still find meaning in these figures?  The online environment actually helped in several ways.  Barbara mentioned the breakout rooms. 

A lot of my students like the breakout rooms.  They said usually in class we sit next to our friends or people we know and if we have a small group discussion we would talk to them.  The breakout rooms allow everyone -- most time they're random and they have people they've never spoke to in class. 

The polling was also very helpful just to really gauge the temperature of the class, what do you think about this subject and that leads to specific discussions.  Those are things I hadn't done in person. Also the challenge of going to a religious site.  IFYC has a great resource I’ll share about going to a religious institutions and learning about it.  So I was really nervous.  How can we do this in this online environment? 

I did a virtual tour of a mosque, and that virtual tour, we got to look at mosques throughout the world in Iran, Turkey and Europe, and the United States and they found that really interesting.  That's something I wouldn't have done.  I probably would have gone to my local mosque and they would just go there and see that place, and that would be their only impression of what a mosque looked like.  I was planning this wonderful Iftar with this wonderful food from around the world, middle eastern desserts and so forth.   

Unfortunately, because of the COVID, we decided to do actually a virtual forum, and our campus made a virtual Iftar.  Part of my project here at Shenandoah is to do global exchange with folks in Malaysia and Bosnia.  So we had a forum where every one of our partners spoke Ramadan and how Ramadan is practiced. I think we never would have done such a forum where everyone would be learning on where the different practices in Malaysia versus Bosnia, if we had not transitioned to the online.  

» Carolyn: Great, yeah, Barbara.

» Barbara: I want to make a comment building on that.  I discovered a number of things from teaching online undergrads that I'm going to incorporate when I get back to the classroom.  And I'm sure you are too, Younus, some of these things you're talking about. One of the things I did is in the course that I was teaching in the spring, on globalization, I thought it would be super -- I normally have these little lectures and then there's interactive stuff with them in the classroom. So it's dynamic.  There's little PowerPoints and so forth.  I just thought the PowerPoint thing is completely boring showing a PowerPoint online.  You should avoid it like the plague.   

I made these little short 10-minute, 15-minute zoom videos, and I assigned them as homework.  And then what I did was I went through all the reading, and I developed a lot of study questions.  And so I had them watch the video, do the reading, think about the study questions and then come to the classroom. So it's completely flipped classroom is what it is.  I have to say, this semester, I had more dynamic conversations around the readings with my undergrad students online than I've ever had in the classroom.  Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not in the classroom as we all know depending on the group, et cetera.  I was really surprised, and so I'm actually going to use that same method when I'm back in the classroom.    

So we learn things online, like, your virtual tour idea, going around the world, and then havinthe encounter in their community as well.  Right?  So it's exciting, really.     

» Carolyn: That's a great transition to the next question, which is, opportunities afforded. Before you say more about that, can you, for the sake of literacy, can you tell the group what a flipped classroom is and give a little more clarity around what that is?     

» Barbara: Sorry about that. It's when the lecture -- there's no lecture.  Everything is part of homework, and then the whole classroom is discussion.  At my institution, engaging students in the classroom is really the whole methodologyBut we do have a little bit of that. We have almost a flipped classroom type of methodology generally that the lecture is somewhere off online or there's additional readings or whatever, and then you're just in conversation.  And the way that I did it with these little videos, it really worked.  I'm going to continue it when I get back in the classroom, and I may end up teaching some more of my courses online in the future anyway now that we've all had this experience.  

» Carolyn: Great.  Thanks. That's very helpful.  Let's go to you, Younus.  Beyond what you shared, which is already great, do you have any other opportunities that have been afforded by online learning?   That the online space gives you opportunities to do new and different things.  Due to time, I'm going to ask you at the same moment if you have particular assignments or activities that you found to be really exciting and effective in online space?     

» Younus: That's a wonderful question.  One thing I did this semester, and online environment, and it was actually building on some of the IFYC research.  There's a really nice book I would recommend and I'll share that resource on Interfaith/interreligious studies and the finding in the new field. Barbara has a chapter in there, and there's one specific chapter assigned to my students called Interfaith Studies and the Professions: Could Heightened Religious Understanding Seed Success within Secular Careers? by Mark Hanshaw with Usra Ghazi. 

It is a really nice chapter because it talks about how this one program interfaith studies led to this graduate and how she got a job, which is wonderful with our students getting jobs in interreligious/interfaith studies and how that background helped her in her job as an employee of the city Boston and incorporating immigrants into that society. So I assigned that chapter and the students found it really interesting.   

A lot of my students are not religious as majors and taking general education requirement.  They found this revolutionary.  Wow, this course is actually going to help me in my nursing career or my business career or my job as a computer scientist.  They had never really thought about that. So that article encouraged me to do a competition with my students.  They said look, let's try to implement this religious diversity here.   

I had a class of students and they divided into three groups and I want you to propose a religious diversity training for Shenandoah University. You're consultants, you’re a consulting firm going to do training for Shenandoah and we're going to have a competition, we're going to invite the deans and assistant provosts and you will present your plan for religious diversity and we'll see who wins the contract.   

The students got really excited which reading text is really exciting to me—reading the Bible and the Quran and comparing them.  But this competition element really made them enthusiastic, and it was toward the end of the semester, a lot of students were feeling a little is lackadaisical about this online environment, but they really came alive, and they really put a lot of effort and used a lot of the resources that Barbara, Dawn, and Hans talked about.  Google docs and did Canvastheir own zoom calls and they presented to our deans and there was a winner that was awarded quoteunquote this hypothetical contract.     

There was a way to take these kinds of theoretical ideas about religious diversity and about texts and theology and make it really tangible.  And it was, I think, a wonderful way to end the semester thinking about how religious diversity can help them in their career.     

» Carolyn: That's great, Younus. I really appreciate that example, because of what you said.  It connects the interfaith studies and in your case, it's particular interfaith studies that is a textural practice and an intellectual exercise to a real campus context and professional competency.  Thank you for sharing that.  That's a great example. 

Dawn, would you like to share particular opportunities afforded by online education and any questions, pedagogues, practices that you think are really effective.

» Dawn: Good.  Thank you.  Just enjoying the conversation with you all, and I believe Hans mentioned earlier about, you know, we are now in an online space because of COVID-19 and we are now opening our minds to resources that have always been there. And then like the goals of Barbara and Younus in terms of kind of bringing up, you know, our responsibility as faculty in terms of developing leaders of our students and using that innovation and creativity in the classroom as much as we did -- I mean using it online as much as we did in the classroom. 

So when I think about the interfaith format and the reason I came across IFYC how do we, you know, connect with that faith-based learning in terms of online and given the opportunities to put faith into the classroom.  And one of the courses at Martin University, we have women and the Bible, and one of the things I wanted to do was to utilize daughters of dignity about tying in African Americans in the Bible, and their virtual womanhood.  There are so many different angles in terms of inter-religion, diversity, and all those different things that not only as teachers but as students.  They are still teaching us how to make sure that we're allowing a space or an environment for them that helps them to increase their faith and their values and their morals and still be able to stay on task and make sure they're learning what they need to.    

» Carolyn: That's great.  Thank you, Dawn.  Hans.  Any opportunities or additional assignments you think are particularly effective?  

» Hans: Sure.  Thank you.  These are all great comments.  I'm quickly writing down notes from my three colleagues here.  I've mentioned the advantage of already -- or potentially having students all over the region or country or maybe the world for some of you and their own unique context. 

For me, it's a way -- it's about finding a way to leverage that in the classroom as an asset now instead of a supposed liability. So finding ways to encourage these students to bring their context into the classroom.  I don't know whether that's calling on specific students to write about it in class discussions or presentations or having them deliver presentations using the kind of growing number of technological apps we have with zoom and PowerPoint.  

Students are having rich experiences, and they can -- it would be a shame not to have those shared with the others. You know, one way to begin --  one way I found a way to begin this, to at least start this is to have students open the classes, the course with having them submit -- I would say a rather longer than usual introduction and video of themselves, ideally a video if they can create a video of introducing themselves right away to the class. You'll discover at least this is what I found.  You'll discover of course why they're taking the course.  Why they're there to learn but also where they are and what they're up to.  Maybe they're in a full-time job or unique internship and knowing this can help prepare for anticipating any challenges they might have come down the road.  It also might help you to think ahead about how can they then use that context, like the two students I have been traveling to different ski resorts.  I knew this would be a challenge, so I started early in starting to help them think about how they might tackle that assignment and want how might they use what they're doing to their advantage.  For teaching leadership, you know, maybe that students -- it seems to be, my students who are taking an online course, well, before COVID.   

I know we're all online now.     

But before COVID, many of us students in online courses seem to be working full-time or doing an internship or research, or they're very busy.  So maybe it's an opportunity to design an assignment that lends a reflection on or makes them use that experience in the workplace or the industry or profession or whatever they're doing with leadership practices or skills or religion in the workplace. 

If they're learning in the class can directly apply what they spend their day doing, my guess, is it can be more relevant and interesting and have a longer-term impact on them. This summer, now, and I'll just end with this.  This summer, it's been a real challenge now with COVID.  Usually, I have students engaging a local religious diversity around them.  

Now, as you know, for a long time, students weren't even going out of the house.  So it's challenging.   

I know that there are some religious communities that have lifted restrictions around people gathering.   

I decided I'm not comfortable with requiring or pushing my students into these public spaces during a pandemic.   

So what's happening online?  We know religion is still happening.  

How does this impact religious encounters?  It's very experimental.  

This summer, I have 75 or so students throughout the summer who will be supposedly attending or virtually visiting or encountering religion online through, ideally, live public events put on by communities or organizations or at least recordings.  If all goes well, I'll try to curate at end of this some kind of -- they have to write up these public narratives or stories about their encounter. 

I'll try to get this on a GIS story for the world to see.  Stay tuned for that.  We'll see how it works out. 

» Dawn: I wanted to add one more thing.  The question was what type of assignments and piggyback off of Hans, that reflective essays, reflective journaling, all of those things are something that definitely allow our students to share their spiritual values and different things in terms of their personal perspective and then how they apply that to their everyday life in terms of what they're doing.  So I think it's very important that that's part of assignments and different things that we do, is that reflective opportunity for them. 

» Carolyn: Thanks, Dawn.  And some of you are used to hear me say this.  We have found that having a piece that is about --  having a partner that is actually about students' individual reflection and learning is a really important part.  It's going to happen anyway.  It's really important to create some space for that and to acknowledge that's an important part of the process. 

Barbara, I wanted to go back to you in case you had additional either opportunities supported by online education or assignments that have been really effective. 

» Barbara: Yeah.  I wanted to say, one of the assignments I have in the classroom, I thought how am I going to be able to do this?  I call it the undebate. It's -- they take a particular topic, and they have two sides. But the goal is not to win the debate.  The goal is for mutual edification from both sides. They're not supposed to try to get over on one another.  I thought how am I going to do that online when I normally have people in the classroom on two sides, and then we have an audience and all that.  

We had everybody who wasn't “un-debating” turn off their camera then zoom throws everybody who is not on camera off the main screen.  And then we had the students wear something different.  I said you can be creative.  One team does hats and the other one doesn't or one wears white and one wears black.  They had ways they did that.  And then they have a conversation back and forth.     

And it actually worked just as well online as it did in the classroom.  And so I try not to give up anything.  The other one I'm contemplating for the fall and that is at the end of the semester, our course interfaith leadership for business in the professions fulfills our core curriculum requirement for community engagement.  It can be a community within the college or outside.  I do religious encounters during the semester as well.  This project is, we take several different professions, and then how is interfaith leadership relevant to happening, et cetera, some profession, the police, whatever, right? HR in Silicon Valley.  And then they research that.  So what I'm contemplating for that is to have kind of an online forum for student residents at Saint Mary's.  I think it will also translate really, really well.  I don't think we have to give up a lot so  we just have to get really creative and know how to use methods that are kind of behind the screen to get students engaged, and it really works.   

» Carolyn: That's great.  Very important encouragement.  We have about seven minutes left.     

If there are any questions from participants, now is the time to please add them to the question and answer button on the bottom of your zoom screen.  While we wait for any of those, I want to invite any of you panelists, if you have anything to add or ask each other, you're welcome to.  

» Barbara: I'll just say protocol, the thing I was talking about early on, and this is for any course. I think it's really important to be super strict about it.  We do have the issue of equitable access, so some students don't have the best internet connection, et cetera.   

But if you have a whole bunch of blank, you know, nobody with video or a couple, you really can't do anything dynamic.  So insisting that students try to find a way or get ahold of you and have your college help them find a way to actually be engaged is really important and all the protocols around -- this is still the classroom.  Sit in a chair.  

Be at a table or a desk as best as you possibly can.  Everybody with video.  And then lots of people have different ways of managing the conversation.  But I found that students could get really used to being muted and unmuting themselves pretty quicklyThey got really fast with that.   

A combination of hand raising and unmuting and then the conversation can become really quite dynamic. And then the other thing, I want to add is that our students today, and I don't know if this is true for the rest of you, but I think it is this generation.  They're very very kind to one another. 

So they don't want to shame other students or get over on them or whatever.  One of the ways I get conversations started online is to say, all right, somebody's got to step up to get this conversation going.  Otherwise, I'm going to have to call on somebody.  You don't want me to cold call one of your colleagues.  You know.  Somebody step up. And every time, somebody will step up and start the conversation. And that's been a real challenge is to get that started and that method has worked. 

» Carolyn: Thanks, Barbara.  We have one question from someone at a small Christian campus. They're interested in how to get started on this sort of interfaith work when they're not a faculty member but rather director of diversity.  Any advice from you all? 

Hans: I can jump in here and try my best with this question if I understand it properly.

How to get started just with --   if I understand the question, fostering interfaith engagement, encounter, interreligious learning on campus, outside the classroom or not as a faculty member. So I wear a couple of different roles at my institution, directing an academic center.  Barbara wears all these hats as well.  And then teaching courses.  But for a long time, I'm a big advocate for interfaith engagement happening in all sectors of the institution.  And so at my institution that I'm at, something that I'm really happy about has happened over the past five, six, seven years.  We've seen interfaith engagement and learning still takes place in the classroom of course and in different pockets of departments.  It's really blossomed under student affairs and student diversity services and they've kind of taken the reins and realized this is something we can do too.  We can create programs.  They've developed incredible programs that faculty members can tap into and send students to and learn from.  You could create programs with students or I think if you're the director of diversity, that's an appropriate position to be creating interfaith programs.  And you know, I think if the faculty at the university are like me, I'm always looking for opportunities for students to engage in religious diversity on campus.  If there are students I can send students to as part of pedagogy. You're creating for students to engage on campus and not just off-campus.  

That's quick off the top of my head.  Maybe some of the other folks here have better wisdom.

» Barbara: I would say it was easier to get it started outside of the classroom at my institution. That's because in student life and in diversity in mission & ministry and the center I direct coordinating and interacting, we also have an intercultural center.  There was a way of partnering all across the student life experience to develop programming along the lines of what you were saying. 

One thing I would just add with what you said that was so perfect is having programming in the residence halls. So we have all kinds of programmings and learnings and so forth and so on.  And then having someone who is heading up diversity on campus, including that in the residence halls is one thing. Also just ditto everything Hans just said.  

» Carolyn: There's one question about whether any of you have advocated or encouraged your students to set up a different space in their own homes to designate it as a space of learning?  So to recreate a sort of physical space.  

» Barbara: I would say no because their situations are really different.  Some of them are sharing a room, and they can't do anything about somebody walking in and out. It's really hard on them.  I think if they had signed up for an online course, it would be a different situation.  You might be able to say hey, designate this.  But we just do the best we can.  Not everyone has their own room. Some people live in tiny apartments.  We have to, you know, demand those protocols as best we can but then be a little flexible around the edges. 

» Carolyn: Thank you all so much. I'm going to end our time together. Thank you to the panelists.  You were fantastic. 

To any of you who are attendees, feel free to reach out to me or my colleague Becca on the call and we'll be in touch with additional resources. Thank you all.      

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.