By Melanie Howard, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Biblical & Religious Studies, Fresno Pacific University
“Do you wear your hair like that for religious reasons?” a student asked me, after she had seen me with my hair styled in low bun for the first several weeks of class.
“No,” I replied with a smile, “I just don’t like having hair fall in my face.”
This unusual exchange led me to wonder whether and how a professor’s own religious commitments should overtly enter the classroom. As an Assistant Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies, I cannot escape questions about religious identity in my classes. On the first day of class, I assure students that I do not grade on the basis of what they personally believe. Rather, I am interested in their ability to evaluate religious traditions critically and to consider the place of those traditions within contemporary culture.
I also practice transparency with my students by disclosing my own religious identification. “I am a Mennonite,” I tell them. “Since I cannot distance myself from my religious identity, I just want you to be aware of my own predispositions. If you have questions about what I believe, I am happy to talk with you outside of class. However, the classroom is not the space where we will be discussing what we personally believe. This is a space for critical thinking.”
I imagine that it was this opening speech that inspired my student to inquire about my hairstyle. Many people struggle to understand Mennonite beliefs, and so it was natural for my student to guess that religious motives fueled my conservative coiffure. However, I still have several questions: What is the place in the classroom for the religious professor? Can I ever distance my identity as “professor” from that as “person of faith”? Even if I can, should I?
On the one hand, the critical detachment that is prized in the modern quest for truth would seem to discourage the professor from being forthright about her private religion. Should she disclose her convictions, she could risk biasing students to prefer her expressed beliefs in the hope that demonstrating agreement will translate into a higher grade.
On the other hand, the professor is always inherently a person. Just as the professor qua person is teaching a classroom full of students qua persons, it seems reasonable to embrace the totality of personhood by admitting to one’s religious convictions. Furthermore, many university mission statements insist that one of higher education’s purposes is the formation of leaders who will serve society and pursue excellence. Such an ambitious goal cannot be limited to the sphere of the classroom.
In my own classroom, I am more comfortable with being forthcoming about my religion without proselytizing students to agree with me. I can no more change my identity as a person of faith than I can change the color of my eyes. While I try not to let either my faith or my eye color be a distraction to learning, these are not elements of my identity that I can discard at will. In disclosing my religion, I model for students one way of integrating religious identity with scholarship.
Students often use their college years to grow into cohesive persons who hold in tension several aspects of their identities (e.g. gender, religious beliefs, athletic abilities, familial relationships, political views). It is inevitable that those identities accompany students into the classroom, even though these characteristics do not always cohere comfortably either with one another or with course material. Nonetheless, these facets of identity are inescapable. It sounds absurd to prohibit a student from sharing his position as a linebacker on the football team. Therefore, why should I discourage him (or me) from disclosing a religious affiliation that contributes to another aspect of identity?
Personal transparency regarding religious beliefs might not be comfortable or advisable for every professor. I am in the position of belonging to a widely accepted religion in the country in which I teach. Were I, for example, a Sikh or a Wiccan, I might be more reluctant to publicly acknowledge my religious views.
Thus, I am not offering here a one-size-fits-all approach to professors who are grappling with the question of how transparent they should be about their beliefs in the classroom setting. However, I am suggesting that professors afford themselves the same respect that they offer to their students. Although I expect my students’ critical engagement with course material, I would never expect a student to cease being a man, son, football player, and Methodist simply because he walked into the classroom. Likewise, the professor does not cease being a person of faith simply because she writes on the blackboard. Rather, by being transparent about her own identity, she is able to model for her students a method of integrating the whole person into the process of learning.