Academic journal article College English

Mediating Discursive Worlds: When Academic Norms and Religious Belief Conflict

Academic journal article College English

Mediating Discursive Worlds: When Academic Norms and Religious Belief Conflict

Article excerpt

Tensions between religion and higher education in the United States are well documented in both popular and academic media, and they have not faded quietly into history, even as the official divide between religion and public education has widened (Marsden 6, 414; Nord 86, 96; Willard 10). Over the past fifteen years, religion has become an increasingly visible area of scholarship within English studies, with the emergence of books such as Negotiating Religious Faith in the Composition Classroom (Vander Lei and kyburz); Toward a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism (Crowley); Renovating Rhetoric in Christian Tradition (Vander Lei et al.); and Mapping Christian Rhetorics (DePalma and Ringer), and with journals like College English, Composition Studies, Pedagogy, and College Composition and Communication publishing a number of religion-focused articles.

Some scholars remain wary of religious ideology, especially as it relates to intellectual work. David Bleich, for example, writes that "[r]eligious views collaborate with the ideology of individualism and with sexism to censor the full capability of what people can say and write" (qtd. in Hairston 182). For Bleich, religion is just a differently spelled "-ism" to be avoided in a free intellectual environment. Others critique this view, challenging the "intellectual distrust" that many academics harbor toward religious students (Stenberg 271) and asserting the academic benefits of helping students to "articulate their commitments" and determine how those commitments relate to inquiry (Chapell 49). As students begin to articulate their commitments, however, they often struggle to do so in an academically appropriate way. In a 2013 College English article focusing on an evangelical Christian student's navigation of academic norms such as pluralism, Jeffrey Ringer suggests that instructors need to help these students develop "the ability to recognize how, when, and for what ends they might (not) make certain discourse choices, particularly in terms of the values and beliefs with which they hope to align themselves or avoid" (274). The question of what that help might look like is complicated, sometimes frustrating, and of great importance to instructors as they work with students who are learning how to navigate academic discourses.

TJ Geiger, in that same issue of College English, analyzes the work of two students in a course that explored the intersections of religion and sexuality, and he goes so far as to suggest that we view "religion as both a personal commitment and a discursive field with which believers and nonbelievers alike can (and, at times, must) engage" (250). Treating religion as a "discursive field," rather than simply a private commitment, makes it everyone's rhetorical business-and responsibility. The notion of a shared rhetorical responsibility is reinforced by Kristine Hansen, who writes:

The changing landscape of American politics and the diversity of our society will require rhetorical sensitivity and dexterity if we are to engage religiously motivated arguments while promoting understanding . . . We and our students need to know more about the origins, nature, and purposes of religious political discourse; how to create such discourse if it seems necessary or desirable to do so; and how to receive and evaluate it. (32)

Of course, such work is difficult when religious discourses clash (or appear to clash) with the academic discourses with which they come into contact. Bronwyn Williams directs attention to the potential conflicts between discourses that reflect the "culture and values of the institution" and students' "discursive beliefs" that do not reflect that culture or those values. He writes, "Teachers expect students to recognize their authority through the adoption of the culture and values of the institution . . . At the same time, the course is expected to help them overcome the cultural and discursive beliefs and habits that are unacceptable to the mainstream of the academy" (590). …

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