Academic journal article Peer Review

Effective Teaching to Counter Misinformation and Negative Stereotypes: The Example of Islam

Academic journal article Peer Review

Effective Teaching to Counter Misinformation and Negative Stereotypes: The Example of Islam

Article excerpt

A challenge for faculty striving to broaden and update their courses is how to introduce new material about which many students may be relatively ignorant and misinformed and hold incorrect and negative stereotypes (e.g., evolution, racism, workers' unions, immigration, gender differences, socialism, sexual orientation). I faced this challenge recently while teaching a course in which I wanted to strengthen students' understanding of the religion of Islam. I considered how to minimize student resistance to engaging with Islam or any eruption of emotions in the classroom, as these could be obstacles to attaining student learning objectives. Yet I wondered whether a modest and cautious approach to teaching about Islam would be sufficient for attaining those objectives. Fortunately, the answer is yes: devoting only a few classes to learning about Islam can bring about critical thinking and substantial changes in students' understanding.

Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions globally, in the United States, and among students on college and university campuses. Yet Islam continues to be portrayed by many American political and religious leaders and in the popular media with false and negative stereotypes, as a religion of violence, extremism, and terrorism. Muslims are often portrayed as violent and un-American and as fair targets for prejudice and discrimination. According to a 2006 Washington Post and ABC News poll, roughly half of Americans view Islam negatively, a third have heard prejudiced comments about Muslims recendy, and a quarter admit to being prejudiced against Muslims. Negative attitudes and prejudice toward any religious or ethnic group corrode and destroy civic life in our democracy. Higher education shares America's responsibility and has an important role in changing such attitudes. Fortunately, the study of Islam can easily be integrated into general education courses that address essential learning outcomes such as civic and intercultural knowledge, as well as into advanced courses in comparative literature, history, political science, art history, religious studies, philosophy, and economics.

Yet misinformation and negative stereotypes, whatever the topic, can make some faculty reluctant to incorporate updated, relevant material into their courses. Doing so could open the classroom to students' questions (both sincere and disruptive) that faculty might not be prepared to answer, or to students' opinions and emotions they might not know how to handle. So, to take Islam as an example, some faculty choose not to teach this topic at all, hoping that elsewhere on campus other faculty are taking up this responsibility. And other faculty, while recognizing the importance of Islam in their courses, hope students will learn sufficiently from the textbook - assuming the textbook provides depth and balance - and avoid discussing Islam in the classroom. In contrast, using my teaching about Islam as an example, I'll describe how I engaged students on a topic about which many were initially ignorant and misinformed and likely held negative views.

My goal was to strengthen the students' understanding of Islam and Islamic history and culture in World Civilizations, a general education course with about four hundred students. I supplemented the textbook by adding three to four lectures on Islam, the Qur'an, and the history of Islamic civilizations and by focusing two of the weekly recitation classes on discussing selections from the Qur'an. Of course, the student learning goal was not to encourage students to agree with the tenets of Islam or to convert. Instead, the goal was merely for students to become more knowledgeable about Islam, to become familiar with what Muslims believe and do, and to recognize and reject common stereotypes and misunderstandings. (in a chapter in Diversity across the Curriculum, I listed five student learning objectives and some verses from the Quran that I asked students to read. …

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