Wednesday, May 30, 2012

If It's Not Against Your Religion, Please Offer Some Comments

Fellow Bloggers and Followers Alike:

I apparently teach in a part of the country where I am against students' religion.  God's truth.  Nearly every classroom activity in which I have ever engaged with my students has at one point or another been against my students' religion.

That reading I assigned last week?

Against someone's religion.

That five-minute clip of that network television show I screened in class?

Against someone's religion.

That novel I assigned?

Against someone's religion.

That piece of artwork I showed to the class?

Against someone's religion.

That conversation we were having in class about that real world issue that's in the news right now?

Against someone's religion.

Let me be fair.  I am assembling various bits of conversation from over the years into some kind of composite classroom picture.  So it's not like all of this happened just this week.  Still, I've received comments like the above on enough occasions to surmise that somewhere there must be a religious text that portrays me--Dr. Nicholas Nothaughty--as the most sinful and evil man in all of Creation.

I'm flattered.

And confused.

See, to be even fairer, I grew up in a religious family, and I was marched off to church for all of the time that I lived with my parents.  I was also forced into a variety of religious schools in my time as a student, which means that I actually know a thing or two about this religion stuff.  Or, I at least know a thing or two about what people think they know about this religion stuff.  Moreover, I actually do struggle on occasion to mesh some loose faith-based beliefs with my somewhat nihilistic view of humanity.  All of which is to say that I don't write off overtly religious students as Bible-thumping loonies (and nor should you).

Nevertheless, I can't stand the inanity of the conversations that I have had with students who object to portions of my curriculum on religious grounds.  I also can't stand the fact that, quite frequently, I will have these conversations after the students in question walk out of my Satanic rituals (read: discussions of Mark Twain) mid-bloodletting (read: overview of comma usage).  Here's what I mean:

-Sorry, Dr. Nick, for leaving class the other day, but that television clip you showed was against my religion.

-You mean the clip from Mad Men, the award-winning television drama?  The five-minute clip that I brought in to supplement our discussions of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar?

-Yes, that clip.

-How was that clip against your religion?

-I don't believe in sex outside of marriage.

-Okay. . . There wasn't any sex in that clip, though.  I just showed the scene where Betty Draper was suffering the scrutiny of a male therapist under the direction of her husband.

-Yes, but there is sex in the show.  And I don't believe in that.
-Okay.  But you do realize that even if we watched a scene with sex in it—which is the reason that both of us exist, BTW—the show would merely be representing sex and would not be forcing you to have it.  You do realize that this is a class about representation, right?

-Yes, but I just don't believe in sex outside of a marriage.
I've had iterations of this conversation more times than I'd like to admit over the years.  I've had students request alternate books to read because they "don't believe in the subject matter in the ones that I teach."  In one case, the subject was the Vietnam War, and the book was The Things They Carried.  (Mind you, I was required to teach this particular book.   There are much better fictionalized accounts of war.)  Again, who can rationally say, "I don't believe in the Vietnam War," and why do I have to accept that lazy argumentation?
I've had to bicker with students who miss deadlines and then blame their late work on not being able to do homework between X and Y time on the two days before the assignment was due.  When I remind them that I provided the assignment in question six weeks prior to the two days prior to when the assignment was due, it comes to nothing.  If I push them, my precarious adjunct gig would come to an end because I would be a paragon of insensitivity and intolerance. 
Or, to put it the way that one of the religious counselors on my campus responded when I posed these questions to her: I would need some education.
. . .
So, anyone got any thoughts—God-fearing or demon conjuring?  I'd appreciate hearing them.
Just be gentle.  Virgin eyes and all.
P.S.  And just so we don't oversimplify things, no, not all of these students have been Christians.

53 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. It just so happens that my religion doesn't believe in things being against religion. You think I could respond with that?

    "A free and responsible search for truth and meaning"

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  3. Well, "precarious adjunct gig," though against my religion, kind of says it all. I'm not sure I see a way out, given that.

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  4. That bullshit is just a way for students to think they can get out of doing the required work. And I say that as a pretty religious, Nicene Creed reading Christian. (Hah, I know you don't believe it but it's true).

    In my sophomore lit surveys, I have my students sign a contract, one point of which is an acknowledgement that the class is for adults, and some of the reading material may have violence or sexual content, and that some of the discussions will be of an adult nature as well. They have to acknowlege that they understand this and are willing to participate in the course. Sophomore lit surveys are basically core courses that can be interchanged with others across the university, so I also say, "If you can't cope with adult material, you need to choose another class."

    I had an incident a few years ago that prompted me to include this. I don't think one person has dropped because of the contract, but before that several students complained because what I taught, and how I taught it, was not in line with "how they were raised," whatever that means.

    Now, no fuss, no muss. Don't like reading novels about adulterous sex and poems about shit? Don't take my course, you queasy little butthole. It's right there in black and white.

    I protect myself from nearly all student garbage with a 20-page syllabus and a contract. I used to add to it significantly every year, because every year some little shit finds a tiny hole that I have to then plug up. But after a couple of decades it's pretty tight now. I'm just tinkering with it.

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    1. Mary and Joseph on a tandem bicycle! How do your students get through Dante? There's more scatology and sex in The Inferno than in all of 19th-Century American Lit.

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    2. And there's quite a bit in 19th-Century American Lit, if you know where to look (and even more if you know how to read between the lines, as I'm pretty sure 19th-century Americans did).

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  5. "Still, I've received comments like the above on enough occasions to surmise that somewhere there must be a religious text that portrays me--Dr. Nicholas Nothaughty--as the most sinful and evil man in all of Creation."

    That sounds like what Aleister Crowley was called. The wickedest man on Earth? Ehhhhh... It's kind of tough to compete with Adolf Hitler or Idi Amin, you know?

    In my general-ed, intro astronomy course for 100 non-majors each semester, about once per semester, I get an objection to Darwin or the age of Earth or the Big Bang (once these people come for biology, geology and astronomy will be next: just ask Galileo). I find these distinctively peaked in late 2005, with the court case in Dover, PA, but still, there's one in every crowd. As Mencken observed during the Scopes trial, "You can travel anywhere in America and heave an egg out of a Pullman car, and hit a fundamentalist."

    I still word questions on exams to deflect a blowup about this, by playing the "scientists say" game. The questions say, for example, "Why do scientists think that Earth is 4.6 billion years old?" or "Why do scientists think the Universe began in a hot, dense state, widely referred to as the Big Bang?" (Yes, I know Georges Lemaitre was a Catholic priest.)

    I had one student who would briefly walk out of every class, "to pray." She would not sit through an exam. Ordinarily I don't let students back into the room if they walk out during an exam, but I let her use a little room adjoining the classroom for this, which I could check to see whether anything had been hidden. I wanted to, but did not, ask her to ask her religious leader whether there was an emergency procedure, to be used in conflicts with people outside her religion: if so, she should evoke it here. She was also a miserable student, one of those engineers who can't see the usefulness or value of physics, and was vocal about it. I hope I don't get another extremist like that.

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    1. I had another student who insisted that Earth was created in six days (she didn't say whether they were 24 hour days) in 4004 B.C., who walked out during a showing of "Who Speaks for Earth?", the last of Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" TV series, during the part about the destruction of the Library at Alexandria. (Yes, I know it wasn't as simple as Sagan portrayed it, having happened in at least three steps.) (Sagan, of course, grew up in Brooklyn as a nice Jewish boy: he discussed this in a couple of his other shows.)

      Because of her, I put the exercise where students plot cosmic history on three timelines toward the end of the course, after too much has made too much sense. I also put an out clause on it, "We’ve covered many of these events over the semester. If you don’t want to believe any of it, fine, you don’t have to: I don’t require belief. This is a science class: it isn’t about believing, it’s about knowing. You therefore do have to know what scientists think, and why they think what they think."

      I also discuss how "believe" has two very different connotations. One means to accept purely on faith, without evidence; the other is its exact opposite, to accept only on the basis of evidence. I therefore avoid using the word "believe." A better word for the second connotation is "think."

      This is much like how I avoid the word "created" (which denotes intent), when discussing cosmology. Don't say, "the Universe was created 13.7 billion years ago." Say, "the Universe originated 13.7 billion years ago, and traces of this are still with us today."

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    2. The problem of the girl praying during the test is solved by adding this to your syllabus.

      "Communicating with anybody, including divine beings, during an exam with the intent to gain answers to questions is strictly prohibited."

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    3. That's exactly the sort of catch-22 which I used to adore when I was considering a theology minor: if the instructor doesn't believe, then they shouldn't have any grounds for forbidding it; if the student does believe it efficacious, then they should, as a matter of fairness, eschew it. It's not objectionable as a violation of freedom of religion because it applies to all faiths equally and is based on a specific situational requirement.

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    4. "That sounds like what Aleister Crowley was called. The wickedest man on Earth?"

      - Froderick Frankenstien from Fresno

      You speak of the Wickedest Man in the World, the Great Beast 666, the man who gave L. Ron Hubbard ideas.

      You teach Reality; Crowley taught how to bend reality to the Adept's will (or destroy his mind; that matters on your point of view.)

      As for your sniveling students, do as J.R. "Bob" Dobbs instructed the SubGenii: "Fuck `em if they can't take a joke."

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    6. "Fuck `em if they can't take a joke."

      I tried taking that attitude. It doesn't work. It's much like trying to tell a student who wants an A but doesn't deserve one, "A 'B' is a good grade, it means 'good'." But then, didn't Winston Churchill say that "A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject"?

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    7. Strel, I LOVE Rev.Dobbs!! Thanks for reminding me of him.

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  6. Stella, I love your solution! And you've made Froderick look like a slacker. His syllabus is only 16 pages.

    I'm wondering if students aren't just cluing each other in on how to pass (sorry, slide through) a class. "Yeah, I had Dr. Nothaughty last year. Just tell him it's against your religion and you won't have to do it."

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    1. "Stella, I love your solution! And you've made Froderick look like a slacker. His syllabus is only 16 pages."

      Just you wait!

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    2. Next semester, just to spite my fucktard colleagues, I will have a 314-page syllabus covering everything under the sun. Or maybe I should make it 501 pages, so that each syllabus uses more than a ream of paper. I can already imagine the dean giving me a pat on the back and saying, "Good job, Dr. Bubba. Good job. I appreciate your devotion to the principles of this school."

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  7. Five years ago, I taught _The Unbearable Lightness of Being_, wherein among other things, the narrator ponders the idea that if God eats, He must therefore also shit.

    The adultery/womanizing bothered them, too, but it was the stuff about God that really wound them up.

    A few of them were vocal in their opposition to being made to read "garbage"--until the kid who'd graduated from the --get this-- seminary HS came to my defense. He told them that if they were strong in their faith, examining this text would do nothing to shake it--and in fact might strengthen their convictions. He went on to be a philosophy major.

    I don't have any statements about being an adult in my syllabi, but I'm starting to wonder if I should.

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    1. I have one, which I adapted from a religion/philosophy colleague a couple of years back. I don't know if they notice it, but it makes me feel better.

      I haven't gotten a lot of objections on the grounds of religion -- though I also have, to be honest, deflected some of the trickier bits by using videos instead of doing lectures myself -- but it does seep into their source analysis now and then.

      I pride myself on the fact that, while I have a religious tradition myself towards which I am theologically agnostic but culturally active, I have had quite a few students of varying religious persuasions both thank me for the fairness of my religious discussions, and guess wrong about my religious affiliation on that basis.

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    2. YES to the "strong in your faith" bit.

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    3. graduated from the --get this-- seminary HS

      Why the tone of disbelief? A (presumably) Catholic seminary high school is going to be much more effective in teaching philosophy, theology and the attitude that one can learn from everything and anything, than your typical public high school (or "non-denominational Christian" school).

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  8. Didn't Milton say "I cannot praise a cloistered virtue"? Wasn't he a kinda tightass religious type?

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  9. A few years ago a couple of students complained because what I teach goes against what the bible (Proverbs 13:24) teaches them.

    I had another student who refused to read an assigned book because it was against her religion. She told me that she could not possibly read the book because it was about homosexuality. Really?

    Why are they so afraid to hear anything that opposes what their religion teaches? They might learn that not everything religion/culture teaches us is appropriate. They might even realize that they have brains that can make choices. I think that is too much to hope for.

    I'm in the deep South. I wonder if it's different elsewhere?

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    1. The deep south is full of fundies who do not have a tradition of highly educated pastors, and who as well distrust any sort of secular education at all. Churches sprout everywhere, often led by the kind of guy that never got a degree in anything, but just felt "led" to preach.

      Let's just put it this way--most of the students that complain are not Catholic, or Episcopalian, or Lutheran, Methodist, or Presbyterian, etc. They are from Baptist churches, Church of Christ, and bunches of smallish churches where Pastor Billy Bob tells them outright to openly distrust their teachers.

      People without an education who nevertheless want others to accept their authority and "knowledge" always have problems with truly educated people who are capable of thinking critically, and actually have research degrees to back up their assertions.

      This is why the Jesuits don't warn teenagers against the evil secular university, and dumbass preachers who just feel "called" nearly always do. They resent and fear the educated, and they resent and fear the student that might open their mind, becuase if that student then comes back with questions, those questions cannot be answered. That student will then see that the emperor has no clothes,and the emperor will be revealed for the fool he is.

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    2. I bet she's heard far more discussion of homosexuality in her church than I ever have in mine. That might be partly because we're a bit uptight, but it's mostly because we don't think consensual, responsible same-sex relationships are big deal.

      So I don't think reading/talking about homosexuality is the problem; it's talking about it without condemning it in every sentence, or "normalizing" homosexuality (in accordance with, oh, say, the current APA take on the subject, which recognizes that homosexuality is, in fact, a normal variation of the human experience) that's the problem. But many students really aren't very well able to articulate their own faith tradition's views -- which, yes, is a failure of said faith tradition.

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    3. And "amen" to Stella. I think it is regional, and denominational. The more intellectually-inclined traditions are not going to be disturbed by the idea of their young people encountering, and grapping with, other ways of thinking. Some of us are doing a better job of preparing young people to encounter such situations, and to explain their faith in a variety of contexts, but we recognize it as our job, not the university's.

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  10. Oh, I love the "this is a test of your faith" answer. Brilliant.

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    1. "A faith that cannot survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets." Arthur C. Clarke

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  11. As someone who was raised in a very severe household, I'll let you know what I would have wished someone had done growing up. Tell me they respect my beliefs and understand if I feel compelled to give up points in order to uphold my faith.

    It is a sacrifice they make for their faith, which will be rewarded in heaven. Not your classroom.

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    1. AM, I say versions of this all the time (another version goes: if your mental health issues are keeping you from doing well in my class, they are far more important and you should take care of them and not worry about your GPA).

      Amazingly, they find ways to suspend their faith/personal problems long enough to get the points.

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  12. Monkey, you're kidding, right?

    If they can't handle being outside of their comfort zone, why are they in college?

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  13. Over the years, I've been raked over the coals in my evals because reading the following items are "against [the student's] religion":

    The Koran

    a passage from Breath, Eyes, Memory (describes female genital mutilation)

    "Happy Endings" (an essay by Margaret Atwood which references adultery)

    Angels in America (portraying gay people in a positive light)

    Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (profanity)

    "The Story of An Hour" (adultery again)

    "A Jury of Her Peers" (condoning murder)

    I always tell them up front we'll be dealing with a wide variety of content which they may not like but will learn to appreciate given the literary and rhetorical tools they'll be using throughout the course. I have come to believe "against my religion" is just code for "I found this offensive" or "I don't want to be exposed to anything that is against my current beliefs." Some of them honestly think college is just job training. Dealing with people, situations, or ideas that differ from one's own couldn't POSSIBLY be a necessary skill set for daily life.

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    1. The irony: I teach at a conservative Christian SLAC and have used these readings (and more) and rarely get any student complaints. If I do get complaints, it's usually for something I hadn't anticipated (the fact that Achebe ends Things Fall Apart in such a depressing manner, for example).

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  14. I give students who object to knowledge on religious grounds two options. They can either take a zero on the assignment or do it for whatever credit they earn. Not one of these students has ever taken the first option.

    I'm not sympathetic to beliefs that contradict reality. Disabusing students from the confines of narrow and faulty worldviews is one of the primary responsibilities of professors. My first day of college told me that I didn't know shit and I'd better pay attention and get to work. Too many of today's students think they know shit without any valid justification and we need to pound that idea right out of their deluded skulls.

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  15. I had a class of 16 year old rejects from the Sweat Hogs at a Hebrew school. They couldn't add two numbers on their fingers if it was a test question, but holy shit did they latch on to "if the speed of light is... and that is... away, then you're saying...". They played dumb until there was an opportunity to rebel rouse and then they were a house of fire with the god damned (no pun intended) mental math.

    One kid threw a holy tantrum about it, then 5 minutes later was lifting his shirt, flexing for the cute girl in the back row, flipping his kippah in the air and saying in a normal voice, as though only his BFF could hear him "Can you believe these people [points to pair of rabis in the hall] believe all this bullshit about tzitzis and touching girls and that shit?"

    Kids are totally offended as a matter of convenience.


    I probably told this one already, but tangentially related is the following anecdote: I had a carefully (to the second) planned out lesson for this class. It involved the Universe video about Jupiter. ADD Boy (half the class had IEPs for ADHD, but one was known as ADD Boy) was actually my pet, though I had him on detention a few times every month because he just couldn't keep his frigging fingers off of things he wasn't supposed to touch, or his ass on things it was supposed to touch (his seat). I found tthat if I let him operate the smart board when we watched videos, it kept him out of trouble. But this lesson was planned to the second. I pretended I was too interested to vacate the seat and made him sit next to the piano. I anticipated he'd play the piano. He didn't play the piano. He was really into the lesson. He was so into it, in fact, that when I turned, with video paused, to repeat a sentence in a way that would hint to a future quiz answer, he jumped up and ran it back and hit play. Before I could stop him, he had gotten it right back to a clip of about 8 seconds that I'd deliberately jumped, where it is suggested that the Star of Bethleham was Jupiter, and a painting of the baby Jesus being held up to a night sky is shown. I got the sound off before the narrator said what the painting was, and ADD Boy panicked and hit pause. So the image froze and someone said "What's that? We didn't see that part before, what is that?" I was silent and trying to jump back ahead. A math teacher who'd been watching through my door peaked in and said "That's for scale. Jupiter is about the size of a baby." and left. It confused them enough that we just moved on. The truly sad part is, several of them wrote that down and had no way to judge whether or not that could be true. To this day, there are a half dozen 20 somethings with honors diplomas from my state, walking around thinking Jupiter is about the size of a baby.

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    1. Wombat, all this time, I didn't realize you were teaching minors. A lot of what you've written makes sense when thinking about teenage students. :o)

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    2. I wish all of my student anecdotes could be chalked up to youth, but no, mostly I taught college. For a while, as an "adjunct", before being a "visitor", I was college in the morning, secular classes at the Hebrew school in the afternoon. Except on Fridays when they skipped secular classes to be home for sun down. Then I was a full timer, but not TT, and left the private high schools and worked college only b/c it was finally enough to pay the bills.

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    3. "Jupiter is about the size of a baby." Great story, and great colleague for saving your keister.

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  16. I haven't run across this issue (yet), but I also have a clause in my syllabus that reads something like "This class is rated R. Some material may contain adult themes and language. Act like an adult while discussing it." During the first class period I tell them that there won't be NUDITY or anything, but we'll be watching clips of, say, *The Daily Show,* for discussion and they need to be able to deal with profanity without giggling like a bunch of 12-year-olds.

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  17. I teach a course in which there is nudity. I make an announcement similar to Snarky Writer's: deal with it or drop. There are no alternatives.

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  18. Like Stella, I'm a theologically-conservative, every-word-of-the-Nicene-Creed Christian. The only time I've had a student complain -- it was a non-trad; the fundie trad students just "blip" over such things and regurgitate for the exam -- she asked me how it was consistent with a Christian college for me to be teaching that the universe is 15 billion years old.

    I replied, rather forcefully, something to the effect that God created Nature and intends us to use our minds, 'cause He gave them to us. I may also have thrown something like the following into the mix:

    The Doctors of the Church (Augustine in particular, but Thomas Aquinas as well) scooped Darwin by about 1500 years, and (as Frod pointed out) the Big Bang was posited by a Catholic priest, and it didn't cause them problems. Folks need to get over it.

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    1. Didn't St. Paul warn against taking scripture too literally? I sure wish I knew the book, chapter, and verse for that.

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    2. Some Hellenic scholars had concepts of evolution as well. What Darwin added -- that Augustine and Aquinas missed -- was the concept of random mutation and natural selection.

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    3. God created Nature and intends us to use our minds, 'cause He gave them to us

      Amen. I tend to think that many forms of scientific (and other) study count as "glorifying God and enjoying [God] forever" (answer to the 1st question in the Westminster Catechism, which asks "what is the chief end of man?," gender-neutralized).

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    4. "Some Hellenic scholars had concepts of evolution as well."

      Such as Empedocles, who postulated that random body parts came together to form creatures, and that the better-formed animals beat out the freaks. He also had a primitive form of the Big Bang where Strife overcame Love and the universe emerged from the explosion.

      The master of talking real fast with an Australian accent, S. Peter Davies, has a three-minute video on him over at Waste-O-Time-Tube:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmdA4geRo_w

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    5. Frod:

      Closest I know is this bit from St. Augustine - "If it happens that the authority of Sacred Scripture is set in opposition to clear and certain reasoning, this must mean that the person who interprets Scripture does not understand it correctly. It is not the meaning of Scripture which is opposed to the truth but the meaning which he has wanted to give to it. That which is opposed to Scripture is not what is in Scripture but what he has placed there himself, believing that this is what Scripture meant."

      Or, basically, "If reality and the book conflict, you're reading the damn thing upside down, dumbass!"

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  19. The only time I ran into this problem was some years ago, when a student objected to the use of the word "fucking" (as an intensifying adjective, not a verb) in a poem. I can't remember exactly what I said, but it was probably some version of the we're adults/we study a range of linguistic expressions/people really talk like that, so the poet was accurately reflecting life. I've never heard a peep from my Muslim students, even the one who was entirely veiled except for her eyes.

    Of course, for the most part they're choosing their own topics and readings, but students of all faiths, and no apparent faith, surprise me regularly with their choices. If someone takes a tack that differs from my own views, I may end up suggesting a few counterarguments (especially if the student is, as happened this spring, a young woman wanting to make what struck me as rather alarmist claims about the potential deleterious health effect of "birth control," with no apparent awareness that there are many forms of birth control. We did a bit of topic-narrowing to "hormonal forms of birth control" on that, and then she looked into the actual science). But for the most part I do my best to help them make a strong argument, even if I disagree with that argument.

    I do tell students they can't write research papers interpreting the Bible, because they're not qualified to do so in an academic context -- not enough knowledge of the original language and culture. In this case, the academic approach happens to match pretty closely my own Reformed denomination's approach to interpretation (give or take the role of the holy spirit), but I think (hope) that's beside the point. The answer is the same for the Koran, the sayings of Buddha, etc., etc. They may be able to look into contemporary uses to which such things are put, but they're really not in a position to engage in direct interpretation of holy books.

    Most other potentially-sticky topics can be vetoed on the grounds that they are fundamentally ethical, and we're doing (or reviewing, depending on the class) empirical research.

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    1. I get away from dealing with religious topics in my researched argument papers by telling my students (via the Hacker Pocket Style Manual) that their research question(and the thesis that derives from it) must be narrow, challenging, and grounded. I tell them that speculative questions about morality, ethics, and religion are fine and jim-dandy--in a philosophy class where they've been studying those things, but they aren't really appropriate for a RESEARCH paper, which must be grounded in FACTS, not beliefs. So far, since instituting this as a general policy, I do not get papers saying that IVF (or birth control, or whatever) is against God.

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    2. We use Hacker, too, and since I AM at a Christian SLAC, I thank Hacker for having the presence of mind to limit research topics to factual-based, rather than belief-based ones.

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  20. We had a student who refused to watch an R-rated film in class and demanded an alternative assignment. The prof refused. The student went to the dept. head and dean, who both sided with the prof. The student dropped the class just to stand on principle.
    I wonder how she's going to get through college.

    Since then, I've put a note in my own syllabus stating that no alternative assignments will be given. I should probably explain it further.

    I also believe that every incoming student should be told that this is not Burger King College, where they get to have everything Their Way.

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  21. The two mothers (as in women with children) in my class were the only ones who complained this quarter about the fact that the two movies (as extra credit options) that I allowed showed children either being exploited or killed (it's a class on colonialism). They went to the Academic Dean to complain that I had "assaulted" their sensibilities as parents.

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