Teaching Religion and Media

By: Dr. Michael A. Longinow
Department of Journalism and Integrated Media
Biola University


Teaching thrives on predictability: clear syllabi, thorough rubrics, links to good parallel documents.

But even in a good semester, you know to watch for danger signs — like fear and worry in students’ eyes. An anxious classroom slows everything down. And the aftershocks of Election 2016 have created fear on college and university campuses in ways we haven’t seen in decades. It’s not just our students who are uneasy. We’re as troubled as they are.

The primaries, the debates, the election cycle, election night — all of it created uncertainty for us as educators of media, journalism and communications about religion in public life. National news media got their predictions wrong in epic proportions. Christians have been, and still are divided about support for a Trump presidency. Muslims who feared a Trump presidency could happen are afraid in new ways. A post-election wave of hate incidents, though eventually denounced by Trump, has affected our students in ways we can’t ignore.

We lament the fear. But like anything, it has a flip side: it’s the beginning of teaching we could not otherwise do. Below is a short-list that might help you in the classroom in coming months.

Teach by numbers. Data really matters when approaching faith, religious motivation and action — and it’s easy to get it wrong. Your students are attentive to religion within data now in ways they weren’t when faith at street level was merely a concept. Who claims to be Christian? How do Muslims vote? Is hate crime mostly elsewhere? Some, by hard personal experience, know perhaps for the first time what data collectors know: that numbers on hate incidents are probably understated. Build numeracy into your teaching, maybe with help from statistics faculty. Religion data is available: use it to help students craft good (or just better) questions.

Talking is learning. Each of your sections and courses is a unique chemistry. No syllabus can bring effective learning to every type of student with the baggage each brings to the learning experience. Truth be told, many students don’t know who they are or what they think about religion in an unfolding 2017. Hate, in any context including religion, scares them. This link from a Ball State University project brings in some ideas, but the point is to get students talking about it — to each other, in groups, in panels that dialogue about issues, and in ways that get at their feelings about faith, fear, and the ambiguities of belief.

Let students’ media be their listening device. Students are never so facile with the tools we’ve taught them as when they’re passionate. Put aside quizzes and tests and emphasize projects that allow your students to find the stories of fear and anxiety (or confidence) among people of faith in their worlds. What they find might impress learning on them in ways neither they, nor you, had anticipated. This professor used that approach on the day after the election.

It helped the students, but helped the professor as well.









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