Dr. Matthew Hotham, an assistant professor of religious studies, considers an understanding of world religions to be incredibly important for Ball State University students. He says it’s part of what makes them good citizens and future employees, and basic education about Islam, particularly, is a crucial part of 21st century learning.
Although a comfortable component of his own curriculum, Hotham says, in recent years he’s become more aware that incorporating the subject of Islam into classroom discussions doesn’t always happen so easily for students or professors around campus.
“Students were mentioning that there’s a lot of teaching about Islam and Muslims happening around the University,” Hotham said. “They had questions when they were coming in and taking my Islam classes about how trustworthy—or about the quality of—the information they were getting from other classes was.” Several of Hotham’s colleagues in other departments were expressing discomfort, too. There was a feeling that Islam was a subject needing to be taught, though many felt they weren’t trained or familiar enough to do so within their curricula.
In November 2018, Hotham sent out a University-wide survey to get a sense of who was teaching about Islam. Around 70 faculty members responded, and a majority reported teaching topics related to Islam, Muslims, or the Muslim world in their classes. Half of those who reported teaching these topics said they didn’t have confidence in their ability to teach the subject matter.
“And that’s where the idea for the program kind of came from,” Hotham said. “My goal became helping faculty to have a community of people that they could bounce ideas off of, strategize, and share resources with, so that they didn’t feel so alone.”
My goal became helping faculty to have a community of people that they could bounce ideas off of, strategize, and share resources with, so that they didn’t feel so alone.” —Dr. Matthew Hotham
In 2018, the Wabash Center For Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion provided funding for Hotham’s proposal, “Teaching Islam Across the Curriculum.” The project invited 10 faculty members from across the University, selected through an application process, to participate in an intensive one-week workshop. The Summer 2019 workshop was geared toward faculty members whose teaching, though not research expertise, touches on Islam in some way. Selected faculty came from the English, sociology, and hospitality management programs, among others.
Each participant was tasked with bringing a lesson plan, syllabus, homework assignment, or some other teaching component that either already incorporated teaching about Islam or that the participant thought would benefit from its addition. Through reading assignments, workshop attendees learned about teaching Islam in contemporary American college classrooms, particularly across different disciplines. Discussions allowed faculty members to brainstorm and share ideas before revising their lesson plans in a way that accurately and appropriately incorporated Islam. In return, faculty participants received small stipends.
With the improved curricula implemented in Fall 2019 classes, Hotham wanted to continue the conversations and collaboration among the workshop participants. So he established the Faculty Learning Community, a space for the 10 faculty members to meet throughout the semester and provide updates about their classes. Hotham says it also provides opportunities to share any changes the educators are seeing in student outcomes.
At the end of the semester, the faculty concluded the program with a reflection on their experience. Hotham says he’s also asking the participants to survey their students, gauging their learning about Islam or Muslims in the courses. “Ideally,” Hotham said, “I would want to run this pretty much every year and build a larger and larger community.”
…if they’re going to learn about Islam, a lot of that’s going to happen outside of my classes, outside of religious studies.” —Dr. Matthew Hotham
Although he’s unsure if initial funding will be available, Hotham’s vision also includes an online database with resources and discussion spaces for faculty members. Further down the line, he hopes to host a conference that would bring together those who have participated in the program at Ball State with faculty from other universities to discuss the challenges of teaching about Islam outside of religious studies.
Hotham’s goal is to support his colleagues who are teaching about critically important topics outside their areas of expertise. “While I might have 120 students come through my classes each semester, that’s only a small subset of all the students at Ball State. So, if they’re going to learn about Islam, a lot of that’s going to happen outside of my classes, outside of religious studies. It’s why I think this program is important. I think it can do a lot of good.”
Article written by Casey Smith