The Newberry Library in Chicago received an NEH award  in 2012 to support a two-year professional development program on religious pluralism for twenty community college faculty.
To learn more about this program of seminars and mentorship, we talked with project co-director Daniel Greene, the Newberry’s Vice President for Research and Academic Programs.
1. Why did you choose American religious pluralism as the topic for your Bridging Cultures at Community Colleges project?
It’s our scholarly interest. Project co-director Christopher Cantwell writes about the rise of evangelical Christianity in the nineteenth century in Chicago; I’ve written on Jewish intellectuals and the origins of cultural pluralism in the United States.
Second, it’s a deep Newberry collection strength. Within the American context, we have strengths in abolition and its relation to religion in the antebellum period. A number of collections speak to religion in Chicago or the Midwest more broadly, and a number of local history and genealogy sources relate to religion.
Finally, it’s a critical issue in American society to better understand religious pluralism and its relationship with democracy. We have a core value that goes back to the nation’s founding of freedom of religion. But that doesn’t tell us all how to live together or address the challenges of religious diversity in the twenty-first century.
Community college faculty are teaching religiously diverse populations, and we thought bringing religious diversity into the humanities curriculum could spur students to think differently about the American experience, both present and past. Religion is one of the fastest growing fields of inquiry within the humanities, especially within history. We’re hoping to help community college faculty who are overburdened keep up with the state of the field and recognize where it is headed.
2. Have there been any particular challenges of designing and implementing a project on this topic?
We wanted to make sure that we could have civil discourse about religious diversity. I think we’ve been able to do that in large part because participants have been so willing and able to move beyond a simple dichotomy of a religious right and secular left. We’ve been continually impressed with their depth of knowledge about religious diversity in America’s past, and also by what they bring as teachers to talking about the challenges they face in the classroom today in addressing these topics.
3. What do you hope that community college faculty will gain from participating?
As Chris and I were designing this grant application, we tried to articulate how a program on religious pluralism would be meaningful across humanities disciplines. Not just for scholars who are teaching a survey course in religious studies, but faculty in art history, philosophy, literature, music. Even if community college faculty might not have the luxury to design a survey course in American religious history, they might think of a (new) theme for a humanities survey course, for example. And we also wanted this to be both a teaching and research program, so we have provided time for community college faculty to dig deeply into the Newberry collection for primary sources to use in their teaching and their writing. Chris and I both have been so impressed with the sources that the community college faculty have surfaced from within the library.
4. Who are the presenting scholars and what have they brought to the project?
We chose five faculty members, not only because of their fields and publications, but because we knew them to be good and generous teachers with community college faculty. We also have been fortunate that scholars who truly have helped shape the field of American religious history have been able to participate. Last summer, Martin Marty from the University of Chicago Divinity School gave a talk that was open to the public and led a session with the community college faculty. Marty spoke about the multiple varieties and meanings of American pluralisms, rather than a singular pluralism. We had Kevin Schultz from University of Illinois at Chicago, who has written on tri-faith America–Protestants, Catholics, Jews–talking about how that model emerged in mid-twentieth century and who that includes and who that leaves out. We had Tisa Wenger from Yale University, who talked about American religious freedom in relation to specific events, such as the Pueblo Indian sacred dance controversy in the 1920s. With Aziz Huq from University of Chicago Law School, we dug deeply into thinking about religious pluralism and freedom as laid out in the Constitution and challenges that made their way to the Supreme Court. This summer, Diana Eck from Harvard’s Pluralism Project will give a talk and lead a private session with the twenty participants.
5. What has emerged from the project thus far – for example, new or revised courses, online resources, campus programming, or conference presentations?
We’re in the midst of a program that runs through June of 2014. Chris and I moderated and commented on a panel at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) meeting in November that included four participants, and we have a second panel at the AAR meeting in November 2013 in Baltimore.
Many of the participants are basing their research on topics of local interest, and that should mean something right off the bat to their students. The group from Georgia Perimeter has a research project on religious diversity in Atlanta, for example. The group in El Paso is researching missions in the Southwest; the group from Ivy Tech in Indianapolis is doing intensive research on Islam in the Midwest.
There’s also been a lot of campus programming that has emerged already as a result of this program. Ivy Tech has had multiple panels to present research on Islam and the Midwest, and has also successfully applied for the NEH Muslim Journeys Bookshelf . We know of the intention among the some of the community college faculty participating to design new courses. Many of them have modified existing courses already, whether an introductory humanities course or an American literature course, but I know of some who have already petitioned administrators to get a new course on the books on American religious history. Online resources may come later as well.
The community college faculty and scholars have participated in a closed blog where we’ve presented work-in-progress and had an ongoing conversation. Next year we plan to launch a more public website about the project. We hope to demonstrate that at the AAR meeting this fall.
6. Any memorable moments during the project activities?
There’s been a deep sense of collegiality. This group came together with different religious backgrounds and different regional backgrounds, and quickly became a cohort and a community that has stuck together even through the twelve months between coming together at the Newberry in the summers.
Professor Marty’s private seminar stands out as well. What happened in the seminar that morning was such a free exchange of ideas and such a deep sense of support from him for post-secondary teaching that I think those community college faculty walked away with a renewed sense of themselves as scholars and as teachers. There was this breaking down of a divide between community college faculty and university faculty that I hope continues over the course of the project.