Friday, October 24, 2008


One of the things we mentioned in passing at a recent meeting was accomodating students with "a sincere religious feeling or belief." The phrase stuck in my head all the rest of the day, and not in a good way.

You might think that I, a pretty open athiest, would have problems with accomodating students' religious needs (we're talking about dealing with students who need to skip class for a religious observance and such, primarily). But I have no problem with that. For one thing, it almost never comes up; the state holidays pretty much cover the big Christian holidays, and most of our students are at least nominally Christian. I've had a few students here skip Ash Wednesday morning class and a few students need to not attend something for another religious observance. For the other thing, it's usually one or two students who are easily accomodated. We simply whatever plan what work needs to be done ahead of time, and in every case, the student has handled his/her part well.

But the part that stuck in my head was about the "sincere." How am I supposed to judge a student's religious sincerity? And why do I care? Because, honestly, if a student wants to celebrate Talk like a Pirate Day, then why not? And if there's nothing sincere beyond a strong sense of humor and irony, well, why not?

But in my life, every time I've seen someone's religious sincerity questioned, it's been someone with relatively little power who is exploring a non-Judeo-Christian tradition whose sincerity is questioned by someone from the dominant Judeo-Christian tradition. It's the student who is beginning to practice Buddhism or Baha'i who gets questioned, and who has little defense because s/he is trying to understand a new, complex tradition without family or community support.

I would like to see more students exploring different traditions seriously, working to understand the value in those traditions, and using whatever insights s/he gains to think critically about Judeo-Christian traditions.

And even more, I'd love for a student to want to celebrate Talk like a Pirate Day.


  1. Anonymous9:15 AM

    It's a funny thing...I've heard professors at my institution complain about jewish students (about half our undergrads are jewish) who want to miss class for Jewish holidays but they don't *seem* Jewish, so it's like they think it's really just an excuse to skip. It drives me crazy. The semester is designed to avoid major christian festivals but the high holy days are really inconveniently located in the middle of fall semester. and so what if this kid doesn't keep kashrut or show up for shabbat services, if her mom wants her home for sukkot, i don't feel like I should interrogate that. of course she can go. whether she believes in God or not. I mean, how is it my business?

    point being, I always let students out of class, penalty free, for religious observance. maybe that makes it an unimpeachable excuse for missing class that students might abuse. I don't see any other reasonable and ethical way to accommodate religious observance, especially for non-Christian students.

    this is funny...the captcha letters spell "crybrat"

  2. Anonymous2:43 PM

    I have a student who celebrates a not-so-mainstream Christian version of the high holy days. I believe she missed 5 of the first eight class meetings. I was clearly dismayed when she came in to tell me she would be gone for 10 days--which I feel a little bit bad about--but, seriously, 10 days? Anyhow, I don't differentiate on why students miss class (unless I have uni or medical paperwork)--you can make it up within a week, so the reason doesn't matter to me--and in this case, the student can't make up all the days. I'd feel more guilty about being annoyed and not letting her make it up if she had exerted some effort to make up the class she had already missed, when she came in to tell me she'd be missing three more. And if she had been more proactive about setting up that make-up meeting.

    She said none of her other profs blinked an eye, though.

  3. i like anastasia's take! and think that if a student takes time off for whatever is holy [or family-required, or whatever for him/her], she/he should check in advance about getting the classwork done.

    better to put the onus on students to get the work done, than to expect teachers to evaluate the genuineness of the excuse.

  4. which is to say, dance's student did not do what she needed to do. [and -- it is possible that NOT all the other teachers said "ok, fine."]

  5. Anonymous3:15 PM

    I feel as university students are adult learners, adult rules should apply. With minor exceptions, I don't care about attendance. You miss class, you face the consequences. Of course, if you're the guy who missed the last four weeks of class, and didn't get the announcement of when the final was going to be held, it sucks to be you.

  6. This IS an odd phrase...I hardly think it's MY call to judge a student's faith "level"--whether sincere, questioning, doubting, struggling, etc. That's a highly personal thing, and faith can't be measured with a faith-o-meter (although some of my more evangelical students sure tried to do so...carry a Bible, 5 points; wear a Jesus t-shirt, 2 points; pray at meals, 10 points).

    At most of my universities, it's been pretty easy to follow my religious beliefs and practices, because the academic calendar is pretty much accommodating of Easter, Christmas, and other Christian holy days. But other faiths? Not so much. I always felt sorry about my fellow students who had to awkwardly ask for Yom Kippur, for example, especially when a test or concert was scheduled.

    I do think that students need to make their own arrangements in advance, whenever possible. For example, years ago in grad school, a fellow student gave a concert on Ash Wednesday, and another friend was participating in a religious service that night. So my classmate went to the dress rehearsal and then attended her church service. It worked out fine (it's actually really helpful to have someone in the audience for a dress rehearsal), although the prof was annoyed. (I think the prof overreacted. The student with the religious conflict came up with what seems like a very reasonable--and thoughtful--solution.)

    Here in the Bible Belt I do think it must be very, very difficult to be in the religious minority--whether that means a non-Christian religion, or no religion at all. There aren't a lot of options for exploring other faiths. And frankly, our Christian students would gain some perspective from exploring other faith traditions.

  7. Anonymous5:56 AM

    I was also going to say that I would get my butt hauled into the chair's office for a lecture if I scheduled anything important on yom kippur at my grad institution. She's a jew. :)