Building and Assessing a Culture of Interfaith Learning

by Dr. Jeffrey Carlson

This article was originally published in Diversity & Democracy Summer 2013, Vol. 16, No. 3.

by Dr. Jeffrey Carlson

This article was originally published in Diversity & Democracy Summer 2013, Vol. 16, No. 3.

Considerations of religious, spiritual, and value-based worldviews should be essential to liberal learning. Although higher education has not always prioritized these considerations, any institution can develop and assess a culture of interfaith learning—which includes not only learning about different religions, but also learning about the relationships among them.

Dominican University in suburban Chicago recently completed a third year of partnership with the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) to advance interfaith learning. We began our partnership in 2010 by surveying students, faculty, and staff regarding their attitudes and behaviors related to religious identity, diversity, and interfaith cooperation. Task groups also conducted a year-long exercise to map campus assets for interfaith learning across programs, curricula, communications, policies, and mission.

Our resulting analyses led us to establish a permanent oversight committee responsible for developing multiple strategies for infusing religious diversity across the curriculum and cocurriculum. The Interfaith Cooperation Committee includes faculty, staff, and students in four working groups (on curriculum development, programs and events, community partnerships, and assessment). As dean of the college of arts and sciences, I cochair the committee with a colleague in university ministry. Based on our efforts, I would recommend the following actions to campuses interested in building and assessing a culture of interfaith learning.

Adopt a Strategy of Infusion

Find ways to embed interfaith learning in what you already value and do, starting with your institutional mission. Dominican is a Catholic university, and the Second Vatican Council urged Christians to engage in discussion and collaboration with members of other religions. Other religiously affiliated schools can find similar resources within their own traditions. But any college or university, religious or secular, should recognize the value of religious literacy. One cannot claim genuine knowledge of human cultures or practice authentic civic engagement (two Essential Learning Outcomes identified by the Association of American Colleges and Universities) without addressing the religious dimensions of culture and religious movements in society.

If your institution has a diversity plan, determine whether it includes religious diversity. In connection with its diversity plan, Dominican conducted a curriculum audit and developed Diversity in Courses grants to encourage faculty to incorporate engagement with diversity into coursework where such engagement was low. The next round of grants will focus on religious diversity, and grant recipients will form a learning community that will use a faculty resource guide currently being developed by the Interfaith Cooperation Committee and IFYC.

Address religious diversity through endowed chairs, special lectures, and campus-wide rituals or events. At Dominican, Eboo Patel, founder and president of IFYC, energized our interfaith efforts as a liberal arts and sciences endowed chair in fall 2011. Our cherished Candle and Rose ceremony for graduating seniors now incorporates religiously diverse prayers and student speakers, and our annual daylong Caritas Veritas Symposium, which explores how the work of faculty, staff, and students embodies the Catholic Dominican mission, now opens with multireligious readings and music and includes academic panels exploring religious diversity.

Support new projects that promote interfaith exchange. As a result of a space audit, the Interfaith Cooperation Committee collaborated with the university art gallery to create a juried interfaith art exhibit in a high-traffic location on campus. Saudi students hosted an Eid al-Adha celebration, and Tibetan monks created a mandala in our library as part of annual International Week events. Students hosted an innovative "speedfaithing" session connected with our endowed chair lecture by Eboo Patel. Faculty in business and theology spent a year reading about and discussing Muslim and Christian approaches to economic issues.

What are the opportunities for infusion on your campus?

Develop Learning Outcomes

The Interfaith Cooperation Committee drafted explicit interfaith learning outcomes, appropriate for graduates and undergraduates and for both curricular and cocurricular initiatives (see sidebar). The committee is now sharing these outcomes broadly, inviting different schools and academic departments to adapt them and develop rubrics for their respective areas.

The interfaith learning outcomes provide a basis for pre/post surveys conducted in targeted courses, including some identified through the university-wide curriculum audit. The assessment working group of the Interfaith Cooperation Committee is collaborating with faculty in these courses to conduct direct assessments of student learning based on specific course assignments.

Several units are incorporating interfaith competencies into their disciplinary learning outcomes, including graduate and professional programs that prepare students to work with and serve religiously diverse populations. The assessment working group has also developed and implemented tools for assessing the effectiveness of cocurricular interfaith events.

What would interfaith learning outcomes look like on your campus?

Interfaith Learning Outcomes at Dominican University

Attitudes

  • Demonstrates willingness to respond to questions regarding one's own religious, spiritual, or value-based (RSV) worldview
  • Demonstrates willingness to participate in educational or celebratory events of various traditions as appropriate
  • Seeks out information and dialogue on various RSV worldviews
  • Seeks to establish common ground while acknowledging conflict as it arises

Knowledge

  • Identifies gaps in one's own knowledge about one's own and others' RSV worldviews and knows how to access resources to increase knowledge
  • Identifies key facts and positive facets of multiple RSV-based histories, traditions, and practices, including one's own
  • Explains the value of interfaith cooperation and its importance for the Catholic Dominican tradition
  • Explains why knowledge about RSV worldviews is important for the students' chosen field of study or future profession
  • Critically evaluates the role one's own RSV worldview has played socially, culturally, and historically
  • Analyzes the role of religion, spirituality, and value-based worldviews in significant current and historical events

Skills

  • Communicates in ways that can build relationships and foster dialogue with various others

Actions

  • Initiates informed and appreciative interfaith dialogue
  • Acknowledges mistakes and takes corrective action when one's behavior has harmed another
  • Collaborates with others from different RSV worldviews to address contemporary social concerns

Create Curricular Anchors

The Interfaith Cooperation Committee has worked with faculty teaching Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) Seminars, a key feature of our undergraduate core curriculum. Students take one integrative seminar each year on a specified topic: The Examined Life (freshman seminar), Life in Community (sophomore seminar), A Life's Work (junior seminar), and The Good Life (senior seminar). Several of these seminars' common texts now explicitly emphasize interfaith themes.

In recent years, many students in the first-year seminar have visited a local Buddhist center in conjunction with their course. Students in other courses have collected and delivered refugee welcome packs for religiously diverse, newly-arrived refugees in Chicago. Some faculty are creating experiential learning opportunities linked to relationships developed by the community partnerships working group.

Does your institution have courses that most students take, and can these include interfaith engagement?

An Embedded Approach

Much of Dominican's work to advance interfaith learning is embedded explicitly in the university's current reaccreditation process, through which we are measuring our effectiveness in developing "Globally Positioned Students." Thus, at Dominican, building and assessing a culture of interfaith learning is part and parcel of our institution-wide approach to student learning. The Interfaith Cooperation Committee has created a website to share our interfaith work with the broader community (http://www.dom.edu/interfaith).

When we conduct our curriculum audit again in a few years, we expect to see an increase in the pervasiveness of opportunities for interfaith learning and engagement, and an increase in student learning based on our interfaith outcomes. This is how we are building and assessing a culture of interfaith learning at Dominican University.

Published with the author’s permission.

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