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Experiential and Engaged Learning in Interfaith and Interreligious Studies Courses

Engagement between people who orient around religion differently is a key trait of Interfaith and Interreligious Studies courses. While instructors use academic texts to introduce and analyze interreligious encounter, learning through engagement—which can be exemplified by experiential learning activities or other active learning pedagogies—can bring to life some of the concepts that students learn in the classroom. These types of learning opportunities come in many forms; they range from robust, longer-term undertakings (such as internships and service learning programs) to more accessible, one-off projects (such as site visits and interview assignments). Created in partnership with college and university faculty across the country, this resource highlights seven ways that scholars and educators have integrated experiential and engaged learning opportunities into courses that explore religious diversity:

  1. Internships
  2. Service Learning
  3. Travel Seminars + Multi-Day Field Trips
  4. Site Visits
  5. Classroom Visitors
  6. Interview Assignments
  7. Case Studies + Role-Play Exercises

1. Internships

Internships can offer students the opportunity to translate what they study in the classroom into community and professional settings. Faith-based organizations, organizations and companies seeking to tackle religious diversity, or interfaith non-profits can all provide fruitful internship opportunities that further student learning. Because internships often take place in professional settings, students receive beneficial experiences that they can list on their resumes, further connecting interfaith skills and competencies to their own professional goals. Colleges and universities approach internship programs in various ways, sometimes offering course credit. Students not receiving credit may be compensated in other ways, such as certified volunteer hours or even payment for their work.

Example from the Field

Professor Sarah Gagnebin created an interfaith-focused internship course at California State University, Chico, where students work for a local interfaith organization—such as the Chico Area Interfaith Council, the Center for the Public Understanding of Religion, or the California Pluralism Project—for a full semester. Students typically spend about 9 hours per week conducting fieldwork, meeting with their internship coordinator, and completing assigned readings and written work. At the end of the semester, student interns develop and execute a plan that focuses on improved interreligious competency for the organization and/or its constituents (i.e. a training module or workshop, web resources, or a community dialogue event).


2. Service Learning

Service learning (also referred to as experiential learning or community engagement) offers similar benefits to internship experiences, insofar as students can build relationships with an organization and come to understand some of the real-world applications of their classroom training. In interfaith-focused courses, students are often asked to partner with a community organization or non-profit that is housed within a religious or philosophical tradition, such as a Christian homeless shelter or a Buddhist meditation and community center. While this may be a semester-long commitment for students, it may not require as many hours—or be as rigorous—as an internship experience. Service learning requirements are often made possible by partnerships that professors or college/university staff make within the community, and in this regard can create a beneficial campus-community relationship.

Example from the Field

As part of his “Interreligious Encounter” course at the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, MN), Dr. Hans Gustafson asks students to complete 15+ hours of service for a chosen community partner. Service opportunities include volunteering at a local Jewish senior and assisted living center, tutoring elementary students at a Muslim after-school program, or working with teens at a local interfaith organization. When their service requirement is complete, students write reflection papers that integrate classroom readings with their experiences in the community.


3. Travel Seminars and Multi-Day Field Trips

Travel seminars or field trips provide students with an immersive experience, but usually over a shorter period (days or weeks as compared to a full semester). Local trips to interfaith centers, non-profits, and religiously-affiliated civic service institutions expose students to the positive changes that organizations can make within a community. For colleges and universities located in areas that lack religious diversity and/or relevant organizations to visit, travel seminars farther away provide the opportunity to think bigger, allowing students to consider interfaith issues across in the U.S. more broadly or even internationally.

Example from the Field

Dr. Matthew Cressler created a course at the College of Charleston (Charleston, SC) called “Interfaith Atlanta Across the Color Line,” which examines the intersections of racial justice and interfaith cooperation in a 15-day summer seminar. After one week of course work, students spend a week in Atlanta, GA, visiting centers and organizations that historically have approached activism across interracial and interreligious lines (i.e. Habitat for Humanity, Interfaith Community Initiatives, Koinonia Farm, the Center for Civil and Human Rights, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change). The course concludes with a final essay about the possibilities and/or tensions between racial justice and interfaith activism,as informed by the students’ visits in Atlanta.


4. Site Visits

Site visits provide a relatively accessible way for students to learn more about local religious or non-religious institutions, practices, and cultures. Usually ranging from 1-2 hours, site visits are short but memorable ways to experience an unfamiliar community or group. Although attending a worship service is one option, it is not the only way to organize a site visit; it could be the case that tours of the space or conversations with a resident educator are just as informative (or even preferred). It’s worthwhile to think outside of the box for site visits – your community might also have non-profits or educational/cultural centers that provide exciting site visit opportunities.

Example from the Field

In her “Interfaith Studies” course at Illinois College (Jacksonville, IL), Dr. Caryn Riswold requires students to attend worship services at a local synagogue, mosque, and church. Before visiting, students complete a “Religious Literacy Report” about Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, to ensure that they have some level of familiarity before entering each respective sacred space. Together, the site visits and Religious Literacy Reports achieve the goal of integrating classroom knowledge about interfaith cooperation with concrete experiences in the local community.


5. Classroom Visitors

If physically leaving the classroom is difficult, one option is to bring a representative of a particular worldview to your classroom for a presentation and/or conversation with students. This representative can be a designated leader in their community, especially relevant for teaching students about the structure and role of religious institutions. At times, however, it might be preferred to talk with a lay member or practitioner who can provide nuance to— or perhaps even disagree with—the “official” teachings of their institution/tradition. If the person you want to invite to your classroom is not local, online (and free) video conferencing tools like Skype provide a digital option for this type of engagement.

Example from the Field

In Dr. Jacqueline Bussie’s “Faith in Dialogue: Interfaith Leadership” course at Concordia College (Moorhead, MN), guest speakers come to class throughout the semester to discuss their worldview orientations, which often intersects with and informs their professional work. In this particular course, speakers include a Muslim teacher of non-violent communication, a Jewish leader of an interfaith center, a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, a Native American cultural and arts planner, and an Atheist interfaith organizer. Before each guest visits the class, students prepare three questions for the speaker to address during their visit.


6. Interview Assignments

Interview assignments provide another relatively accessible strategy for experiential learning, and don’t necessarily require the use of class meeting time. Through interviews, students can learn directly from someone of a different faith background, and can take ownership of crafting thoughtful and respectful questions to ask during the interview itself. Some professors ask students to interview professionals in their future fields, as a means to understand how interfaith skill sets and competencies may be useful in their careers post-graduation. 

Example from the Field

In Dr. Miriam Rosalyn Diamond’s “Understanding and Valuing Spiritual and Religious Diversity at Work for Professional Success” course at Simmons College (Boston, MA), students consider how to be effective professionals—across a diverse range of fields—in cooperating and connecting with colleagues, patients, or clients whose worldviews, beliefs, and customs may differ vastly from their own. To best investigate the role of interfaith competencies in their future field, students interview at least two professionals to learn how an organization or company engage issues of spiritual or religious diversity. After also researching official company literature (annual reports, websites, policies and procedures manuals, etc.), students write an integrated report, including recommendations for how the organization can enhance their religio-spiritual inclusivity or effectiveness.


7. Case Studies and Role-Play Exercises

Within the classroom itself, case studies and role-play exercises provide a concrete way for students to experience scenarios that deal with interfaith tension or cooperation, without the added challenge of doing so off campus. Case studies allow students to identify the complex ways that religious diversity plays out in a given situation, analyze the responses of various actors in such situations, and demonstrate application of theories they have studied in course texts. Role-play activities similarly allow students to “inhabit” a character, challenging them to defend an idea or perspective they perhaps normally wouldn’t maintain.

Example from the Field

In Dr. Kevin Minister’s “World Religions” course at Shenandoah University (Winchester, PA), case study methodology is utilized to ground the study of religious traditions and help students develop the skills needed to successfully navigate personal, professional, and political situations that deal with religious diversity. Throughout the semester, students workshop four case studies as small groups in class by analyzing the conflict, creating action plans based on assigned roles, and articulating ethical justifications for their action plans. Students identify what they need to learn about the traditions involved to be better equipped to respond to the conflict which guides our subsequent study of the relevant religious traditions. In a summative essay, students return to one of these case studies as an example to guide their answers to the questions “How do we disagree well in a religiously diverse world?” and “How do we promote cooperation amongst religiously diverse persons and groups?”