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Ohio State research focuses on interactions among people of different faiths

Engaging with contrasting views can promote mutual appreciation, researcher says

Interacting on a consistent basis with people who hold different beliefs can expand one’s worldview, according to Matthew J. Mayhew, professor of higher education in The Ohio State University College of Education and Human Ecology.

Mayhew has received a $1.2 million grant from the Templeton Religious Trust to study how spiritual beliefs among faculty at colleges and universities across the nation inform their effectiveness in the classroom. The project is known as InFORM – Including Faculty on Religious, Spiritual, and Secular Mattering.

With InFORM, “we really want to highlight that word, including faculty in the conversation, having inclusive voices,” Mayhew said. “It’s making sure that faculty across disciplines are included, faculty across religious identification patterns are included.” 

Matthew J. MayhewMayhew is the recipient of the American Educational Research Association Religion and Education SIG Emerging Scholar Award. In addition to InFORM, he administered the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) through a partnership with North Carolina State University Professor Alyssa Rockenbach and Interfaith America, a Chicago-based nonprofit.

IDEALS, a multimillion-dollar grant funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Fetzer Institute, among others, studies how college life affects students’ attitudes toward individuals from different backgrounds.

“If you become friends with somebody who holds a different religious perspective than you do – real friends – that opens your world to all religions,” Mayhew said. “Not just your friend’s (religion), but all of them.”

IDEALS has gathered feedback from students at more than 120 schools nationwide, Mayhew said. Students responded that one of the most important things that a faculty member can do is to begin the semester by letting students know that accommodations will be made for students’ spiritual practices.

“That’s very important for students to hear,” Mayhew said. “When they hear that in the classroom – even if the class isn’t about religion at all – it does open their minds to the idea of, this faculty member is trying to include all perspectives, is open to differences and all the things that come with that.”

Interacting with people of different faiths has numerous benefits, both within and beyond the classroom, said Tarunjit Singh Butalia, an Ohio State professor, affiliate with the university’s Center for the Study of Religion and administrator with the University Interfaith Council. 

“We live in a global world,” he said. “We are trying to educate our students and make them ready for a global world, which requires we fully embrace the diversity that we have on campus in terms of those who are religious, as well as those who may not be religious.”

The Rev. Karl Stevens, who co-chairs the University Interfaith Council with the Rev. Trip Porch, said spirituality can encompass mindfulness practices such as meditation and communing with nature. Stevens cited the example of a biology professor who conducted an exercise with his students in which they went outside and observed nature for 30 minutes.

The assignment was designed to help students develop “an understanding that it is a contemplative practice to sit still and look at nature,” Stevens said. “The intellectual life, the formation of the mind, is not purely or not solely served by writing papers and reading … but has also much to do with the way that we can reach beyond ourselves.”

The University Interfaith Council’s website has a variety of resources, including links to campus faith communities, a library of videos about world religions, a speaker’s bureau that can provide speakers from diverse faith traditions and a list of campus rooms that are available for quiet reflection. 

“One of the things that we in the Interfaith Council have recognized is that people want to reach out,” Butalia said. “This information is made available to students as they would like to engage.”

Just as IDEALS gathered responses from students, InFORM will solicit feedback from faculty through a comprehensive survey.

“What we’re trying to do is understand how faculty think about their religious and spiritual selves in light of what they do for research,” Mayhew said, “how they teach in the classroom and the service opportunities that they engage in.”

After collecting and analyzing faculty responses, InFORM will publish its research, Mayhew said.

“My real hypothesis is a lot of us get into the work of being a faculty member because we want to change the world one baby step at a time,” he said. “And whether that’s a chemistry professor or a professor in business or a professor in law, I think the reason we choose the professoriate, it has to do with a kind of passion for changing the world for the next generation, to really take things on and make it their own and change it in a positive way.”

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