Is it a prayer before class?
A discussion of God and evolution?
Or maybe how religion influenced the Founding Fathers?
A $2-million grant from the Lilly Foundation engineered by the Center for Faith and Learning has sparked a resurgent interest in ensuring that faith is integrated into every Pepperdine class from general education requirements to capstone major courses.
But how do professors ensure that God is finding his way into the curriculum, and how are students reacting to the renewed interest in faith integration?
THE PROFESSORS’ STRUGGLE
Professors say that the concept isn’t an easy one.
“It’s not an overt thing,” Assistant Professor of Business Dr. Regan Schaffer said. “But if I am a Christian, and I am a professor, I hope that they’re not mutually exclusive.”
Schaffer said her personal faith interjected into her perception of leadership defines a course of action to intertwine faith and leadership.
She said students can see how religion plays a role in what she sees as her vocation — teaching. Schaffer said she believes that the first step in her classes is to form genuine relationships with students.
“Jesus developed relationships with people first,” she said.
Then Shaffer concentrates on service. She requires students in her Service Leadership class as well as in her freshman seminar to perform service regularly.
Finally, Shaffer attempts to guide her students to understanding and finding a meaningful life.
“When you can find a sense of vocation, you can find meaningful work,” she said.
But a clearer definition of how she integrates the Christian faith into her classes, she said, is harder to come by.
“I don’t write it into my lesson plans,” she said. “It’s highly personal. Different Christians have different viewpoints.”
Shaffer, who teaches Service Leadership and freshman seminar courses, said she prefers to work faith into the professional equation by asking students to define what faith means to them and what role it can play in their lives in a final paper.
But in her attempts to guide students, she said, forcing faith is not an option.
“Jesus wasn’t heavy-handed,” she said. “So I can’t be either. I tell them, ‘I can’t do that for you, it’s something you have to figure our for yourself.’ ”
And that’s something that even Schaffer is still doing.
“I’m on the journey, but I haven’t arrived yet,” she said.
But while it may work for business classes like Shaffer’s, other professors find it more difficult to integrate something as ephemeral as faith into their subjects.
“It’s easier to do in some courses than in others,” said Dr. Lee Kats, professor of Biology and assistant dean of Seaver College. “The tradition out there is that it’s more difficult in the sciences.”
Kats, whose subjects include the environment and ecology, said that even in such technical fields, the opportunity exists to expose students to faith. For example, Kats teaches undergraduates to be good stewards of the environment.
“It’s not scripted into my courses,” Kats said, “though some have made a movement to script it into syllabi under the assumption that we have to start somewhere.
“But I do hope it comes across,” he continued.
Kats said he not only welcomes faith-based questions in class, but on excursions like the one to the Mojave Desert he takes his ecology students on, he asks them to reflect on faith issues.
“How can you take them to the middle of the desert, sit them on a rock and not think about faith?” he asked.
He does admit, however, that some classes, especially science courses that deal with evolution, are not as conducive to a Christian message. Still, he maintains that opportunities still exist.
“In instances like that, I teach the science straightforward, then I talk about my own journey,” said Kats, who came from a conservative Christian family and studied at Calvin College.
Other professors agree. Some, like assistant professors Dr. Jeanne Heffernan and Dr. Stuart Davenport, even pray with their students before class.
Professors agree that while the Center for Faith and Learning offers literature and assistance to help educators understand how to integrate faith, it is, in practice, a subjective process.
“I don’t even know if I’m doing it right,” Schaffer said. “ I don’t think anyone does. I don’t even think there’s a right way to do it.”
THE STUDENTS’ PERCEPTION
As professors struggle to incorporate faith and their curriculum, students are often noticing their teachers’ subtle efforts.
Junior Jovita McCleod noticed the difference in Heffernan’s Political Science 200 class last semester.
“Often (faith and politics) go hand-in-hand,” the theater and acting major said. “(Dr. Heffernan) welcomed the discussion, but she didn’t dwell on it and didn’t bring any theology into the situation.
“I’ve never had a teacher treat religion like it’s not important to the discussion,” she continued. “I think that’s the key, finding a balance between the two.”
McCleod emphasizes, however, that the balance wouldn’t exist without respect.
“It’s important for professors to create an environment in which students feel free to express their faith, but I don’t think it should go any further than that,” she said. “That’s the balance.”
Other students, however, said that they haven’t noticed any special efforts to integrate faith and learning inside the classroom.
“The professors make it clear that they are Christian and they believe in God,” freshman Mike Merliss said. “But they don’t make an effort to talk about it.”
Merliss, however, acknowledged that while the message is unspoken, it does influence the content of the class.
“I think teachers make it known in their morals and ethics,” he said.
Shaffer, the business professor, agreed.
“I try to lead by example,” she said. “If I act on my faith, I hope my students will too.”
“I don’t know that the student body’s changing, but I’m not getting much resistance,” Schaffer said.
Some translate that lack of resistance into a change in the student body.
Numbers in volunteer programs like this weekend’s Campus Ministry service trip to San Felipe, Mexico, have skyrocketed. The trip in the past rallied around 70 volunteers. According to Campus Minister Scott Lambert, this weekend’s trip estimates a record 130 students making the seven-hour trek. An additional 40 students paid $240 dollars to attend the World Mission Workshop in Abilene, Texas. Both numbers are unprecedented at the university.
The Center for Faith and Learning will give professors like Schaffer and Kats more to chew on this weekend, Oct. 3-5, at the inaugural faculty conference of the Center for Faith and Learning. During the conference titled “Sharing Stories of Vocation: How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind, Enhance Our Scholarship and Invigorate Our Classroom Teaching,” faculty will hear from world-renowned scholars who come from faith-based institutions. Scholars including Parker Palmer, author of “The Courage to Teach” and “Let Your Life Speak,” and Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, will offer their perspectives on vocation.
“It’s a tough concept,” said Shaffer, who is scheduled to speak at the conference. “I only hope that this opportunity will help give professors a solid foundation for combining the two.”
Submitted October 03, 2002