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ACM Professors Will Use FaCE Grant to Advance Islamic Studies

ACM Professors Will Use FaCE Grant to Advance Islamic Studies August 30, 2010

Four religious studies professors will use a grant from the ACM Faculty Career Enhancement (FaCE) Project to form a working group to address key issues in teaching Islamic Studies, a field that has been rapidly expanding at colleges and universities across the U.S.

“We formed our working group to pool scholarly resources and pedagogical talent in order to address the unique challenges of teaching Islam in the liberal arts curriculum,” said Peter Wright (Colorado College), who took the lead in forming the group and applying for the FaCE grant.

For more about the Islamic Studies working group, read the interview with Peter Wright

According to Wright and his colleagues in the working group – Robert Shedinger (Luther College), Noah Salomon (Carleton College), and Brett Wilson (Macalester College) – the demand to study Islam has grown so rapidly that it has outpaced the scholarship on teaching and learning in the subject.

The professors expect that their collaborative process will produce immediate results for their own teaching practices, as well as suggest ways in which colleagues at any liberal arts college or within the humanities divisions of research universities might create more effective and substantial learning for their students.

“Ultimately,” Wright said, “I think that this project will significantly raise the national profile of ACM schools where Islamic Studies are concerned.”

The FaCE grant was awarded in the project’s spring 2010 funding cycle. Supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the ACM FaCE Project invites competitive proposals from faculty at ACM colleges, offering funding for research, meetings, development of internet-based outreach tools, and evaluation activities. December 1, 2010 is the next deadline to apply for FaCE grants.

The Islamic Studies working group is slated to have their first official meeting at Colorado College in late September. Faculty at ACM colleges who are interested in the working group should contact Peter Wright. For more information about the working group, read the following interview with Professor Wright.

Interview with Peter Wright

Assistant Professor of Religion, Colorado College

ACM: Are there benefits of collaboration with other ACM institutions that would have been unavailable otherwise?

PW: Prior to 9/11, Islamic Studies in U.S. higher education was largely confined to research institutions and a handful of elite private colleges. Post-9/11, student demand for Islamic Studies has grown exponentially and new scholars have entered the field. Consequently, opportunities for the study of Islam in the U.S. have also expanded. ACM institutions, like other colleges and universities across the country, are responding to the shift in student interest and educational priorities. We formed our working group to pool scholarly resources and pedagogical talent in order to address the unique challenges of teaching Islam in the liberal arts curriculum.

Peter WrightProfessor Peter Wright, Colorado College

The benefit of collaborating with other ACM schools is that our sister institutions share compatible educational missions and draw from a similar pool of students. We therefore anticipate that Islamic Studies faculty at ACM schools will have faced common sets of problems and attempted solutions to those problems that (in theory, at least) should be applicable across institutions. This does not mean that we hope to produce a “one-size-fits-all” pedagogy — one of the joys of teaching at a liberal arts college is the discovery that one’s own institution has a unique “personality” that arises organically from the symbiotic relations of faculty, administration, student body, alumni, institutional history, location, etc. Even so, we expect to encounter enough common ground to support the development of an Islamic Studies pedagogy appropriate to the American liberal arts college of the 21st century.

ACM: What are the ultimate goals of the working group? What kind of conclusions about the future of Islamic Studies do you and the group hope to reach?

PW: The ultimate goals of the working group are, like the group itself, a work in progress. At present, with one important exception, the faculty involved are junior faculty. The senior member of the group (Bob Shedinger of Luther College) has recently published a book (Was Jesus A Muslim?: Questioning categories in the study of religion. Fortress Press, 2009) which features a provocative approach to the study of Islam at the college level. Professor Shedinger’s training and research interests, however, are heavily weighted towards Biblical Studies. He is not an Islamicist, per se. The junior faculty are all trained Islamicists. This should make for a very interesting group dynamic and, we are hoping, a creative one when it comes to posing pedagogical problems and addressing them. So our posture is one of openness to what such a group might produce.

ACM: How will the FaCE grant help your mission?

PW: The FaCE grant is what has made the formation of this group possible. Without the grant, there would be no working group and no real progress towards addressing Islamic Studies pedagogy in the liberal arts curriculum beyond what casual conversations at the margins of academic conferences can afford. We are hoping, therefore, that the formation of our group might yield some sort of consensus among the participants as to effective ways to teach our shared subject in similar institutional settings. We are also open to the possibility that this working group might form a core of liberal arts Islamic Studies faculty who could act as a resource for others similarly situated across the country.

ACM: Why are the questions this group plans to raise particularly important now? What are the gaps in the current pedagogy of Islamic Studies that the group plans to address and how do these gaps affect today’s students and/or our collective understanding of Islam?

PW: Professor Shedinger’s book addresses a problem that plagues the non-sectarian academic study of religion: how does one teach about religion when the question of what constitutes a religious tradition remains undecided? Religious Studies scholars have a variety of tools at their disposal to try to tackle this question — tools which they have largely adapted from other fields (history, literature, the social sciences) — though none of these tools can answer the threshold question of what constitutes a religious tradition nor the ancillary question that faces Islamicists: how do we approach Islam as a religious tradition? As these questions are basic to the enterprise of Religious and Islamic Studies, it is crucial that teaching-scholars find adequate ways of addressing them and of helping students to address them as well. That is the primary problematic that inspired the formation of this group. We expect, however, to address a variety of other issues as well: we are living, after all, in post-9/11 America. The teaching of Islam in the present socio-political and cultural environment complicates our attempts to arrive at the threshold questions we have identified. It is really a very rich set of issues that we face.

In the past, Islam was frequently classified under the rubric of “World Religions” and taught by scholars of “Asian Religions” — whose expertise may or may not have included Islam. At present, like many other schools across the country, ACM colleges are making room for Islamic Studies as an independent field within the general religious studies curriculum. This is a welcome change. As ACM schools continue to make new faculty hires of trained Islamicists, they will participate more and more fully in the future of Islamic Studies in the U.S.

That said, we anticipate that liberal arts faculties will continue to include figures like Professor Shedinger — scholars who are able, in very fruitful ways, to bring to bear upon the study of Islam both their general training as scholars of religion and their primary area of expertise.

ACM: What is the current stature of ACM institutions within the field of Islamic Studies? Do you see that changing in the next few years? If so, how?

PW: As word about our project gets out and our working group expands, we believe its composition will continue to reflect a variety of approaches to teaching Islam at liberal arts colleges. Assuming this happens, our work will remain relevant to the field and to the students and institutions we serve. Ultimately, I think that this project will significantly raise the national profile of ACM schools where Islamic Studies are concerned.

E-mail interview with Professor Wright conducted by Matt Tzuker, ACM Graduate Intern.



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