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Thomson-Bunn, Heather. When religion and academic norms conflict. CE, Jan. 2017. Posted 01/19/2017.

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Thomson-Bunn, Heather. “Mediating Discursive Worlds: When Academic Norms and Religious Belief Conflict.” College English 79.3 (2017): 276-96. Web. 10 Jan 2017.

Heather Thomson-Bunn describes a study on the reactions of composition instructors to students who incorporate their religious views into their writing coursework. Forty lecturers or graduate student instructors at a large “Public Midwestern University” responded to a survey and seven experienced instructors also participated in interviews (278-79).

The discussion focuses on Christian students because, Thomson-Bunn hypothesizes, the Christian religion intersects with higher education in especially salient ways, with the result that it is with these students that “instructors appear to have the most frequent conflicts” (278). She defines Christians as “followers and/or worshippers of Jesus Christ, whose commitment to their faith is a significant (if not the significant) dimension of identity” (278). Thomson-Bunn refrains from modifying “Christian” with other labels because in her findings, the students themselves did not claim these labels (279).

In her literature review, Thomson-Bunn explores previous composition scholarship on religious discourse in academic settings, citing several recent volumes to contend that the topic is “an increasingly visible area of scholarship” (276). Views range from rejection of the possibility that religious discourse can find a place within academic norms to the contention that instructors should help students find appropriate ways to examine and articulate their positions (276-77).

The survey and interviews revealed ways in which instructors felt that Christian students often had difficulty with “academic norms,” in particular those associated with “critical thinking,” “audience awareness,” “appropriate use of evidence,” and “tolerance” (280).

Difficulties involving critical thinking, according to Thomson-Bunn’s findings, revolved around differences in the kinds of discourses religious students found meaningful and the kinds composition instructors felt were appropriate in secular writing classrooms. Citing Thomas Amorose, Thomson-Bunn notes that religious discourse “privileges received meaning over constructed or contested meaning” (278; emphasis original). Similarly, citing Douglas Downs, she explores the claim that religious discourses are “discourses of affirmation,” while those of the composition classroom are “discourses of inquiry” (280). Instructors in her sample seem to find Christian students struggling to see their views as fluid and context-based and to consider them in the light of a range of perspectives, practices that the instructors saw as central to successful academic work (281).

Thomson-Bunn suggests that teachers may not always fully articulate their definitions of critical thinking so that students understand why they are being asked to develop certain habits of thought (281). The result, she finds, can be that students feel that their teachers are rejecting them personally or their faith specifically, rather than advocating for a useful approach to academic tasks (282-83). Teachers’ attitudes, Thomson-Bunn posits, may reflect a sense that their relationship with Christian discourses is a “battle” to be won, an approach that may obscure the more productive uses of critical thinking (283).

Issues involving audience awareness emerged as instructors answered a question as to whether it was “appropriate to incorporate religious beliefs into academic writing” (283). Ninety-eight percent of the participants “answered with a version of “it depends’” (283). Instructors suggested that issues of faith were more appropriate to “personal narratives,” which they tended to contrast with other forms of writing deemed more specific to academic discourse, such as argumentative writing (283). Thomson-Bunn quotes an instructor who postulates that some religious students may not realize that the tenets of their faith are not “a fact for everyone” (qtd. in Thomson-Bunn 285) and thus do not recognize the need to “accommodate” an audience as diverse as that of academia (284). Thomson-Bunn offers examples of Muslim graduate students who were able to incorporate an examination of their religious beliefs into academically appropriate intellectual work (284), but suggests that many students lack the “rhetorical dexterity” such accomplishments require (286). Study participants expressed concern about how to respect students’ values while simultaneously requiring them to adhere to academic norms (285).

Instructors expressed similar concerns about how to address students’ use of personal experience and/or Biblical material as evidence in argumentative writing. Thomson-Bunn notes that personal experience has been considered legitimate argumentative evidence by many groups, such as “women, ethnic minorities, LGBT communities” (286). Instructors find premises based on Biblical infallibility problematic because such arguments may assume that “received meanings and values” should be “automatically accepted” (287) rather than subjected to critical evaluation.

Thomson-Bunn notes an instructor who bases judgments about the acceptability of evidence on its effectiveness in a “specific rhetorical context”; this move, Thomson-Bunn argues, eliminates the question of whether or not the student’s “beliefs are correct” (288). Religious students, she points out, share with all students a need for help in determining how to choose evidence for specific situations (288).

Thomson-Bunn finds that “tolerance” for diverse views has become, at least implicitly, “one of the purposes of instruction within the academy” (288). This particular academic norm is of concern in her study because the question, “What characteristics come to mind when you think of a Christian student?” (288) generated responses like “Judgmental,” “Not very open-minded,” and “Suspicious of ideas that challenge their faith” (288-89). No contrasting terms, such as “very open-minded,” emerged (289).

Thomson-Bunn reports a study participant who was taken aback by an intolerant statement from a religious student but who also worried that she responded by “shutting down the conversation” and avoiding “teaching ‘gay’ texts for two years,” responses that she deemed, in fact, emblematic of her own intolerance (289). Thomson-Bunn finds that many instructors respond to the expression of intolerance from religious students by declaring certain topics off limits in their classes (289).

Thomson-Bunn encourages “work[ing] through discursive conflict, rather than avoid[ing] it or inflam[ing] it” (290). She cites one study participant who felt that “critical responsibility [for helping students through such conflict] lies with the instructor” (qtd. in Thomson-Bunn 290). Following Beth Daniell, she suggests that what may look like resistance may be students’ efforts to “work through new ideas” (291).

One instructor addresses the use of the Bible as evidence by conducting a full-class discussion rather than one-on-one conversations with specific students. This tactic, according to the instructor, allows other students to make audience responses and differing interpretations of the text visible and to allow Christian students to examine audience further by re-imagining themselves as audiences for the religious texts of other faiths (292).

Another strategy involves helping students analyze texts that do meet academic norms while drawing on faith, such as the 1805 text “Red Jacket Defends Native American Religion” and “A Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. Through such texts, students can analyze the rhetorical power of specific textual moves to alienate or appeal to diverse audiences (293).

Finally, Thomson-Bunn argues that by finding ways to respond constructively to religious values in the composition classroom, teachers can “model the very kinds of tolerance and critical thinking we want all students to exhibit” (294; emphasis original).

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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