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Five Trends in Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education Research

March 6, 2019 Kevin Singer

NASPA 2019: Five Trends in Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education Research

2018-2019 has been an exciting academic year for the field of spirituality and religion in higher education. One highlight was the 2018 NASPA Religious, Secular, and Spiritual Identities Convergence in New Orleans, which featured plenary talks from Abdullah Antepli, Chief Representative of Muslim Affairs at Duke University; Monica Nixon, Assistant Vice President for Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice at NASPA; and Reverend Jennifer Bailey, Founder and Executive Director of Faith Matters Network.

Another highlight was the February 2019 release of the highly anticipated book Educating about Religious Diversity and Interfaith Engagement: A Handbook for Student Affairs (Stylus), edited by Kathleen Goodman, Mary Ellen Geiss, and Eboo Patel, with forwards written by NASPA President Kevin Kruger and ACPA Executive Director Cindi Love. Citing the little preparation and guidance that campus professionals receive to broach spirituality with students, the book’s aim is to provide student affairs practitioners and faculty with the tools and practical guidance they need to facilitate productive interactions around religious diversity.

This year was also notable because of the emergence of several intriguing new trends in scholarship. These new trends demonstrate that spirituality and religion in higher education is a quickly growing and evolving field with exciting developments happening all the time. There is an eagerness in our knowledge community to apply our passion for this work to the challenges and opportunities of our time, as we know humanity’s greatest achievements and struggles are closely intertwined with how people and communities answer life’s biggest questions. As student affairs professionals work to support all the identities that students bring to the table, it is important that they remain up to speed with the latest discoveries in and best practices for encouraging students’ religious, spiritual, and nonreligious identity formation:

1) Connecting Spirituality to Mindfulness Practices and Thriving in College

Colleges and universities are increasingly offering mindfulness workshops that give students tools to cope with stress, evaluate their priorities, and cultivate disciplines that will help them to be successful in college. In many mindfulness workshops, facilitators encourage students to consider the resources they might draw from to find balance, clarity, and a sense of purpose. For many students, their spiritual, religious, or non-religious tradition is one well from which to draw, prompting scholarly reflection on how to nurture this connection even further.

Recommended resource: Colleges teach students how to think. Should they also teach them how to thrive? (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2018).

Learn more at NASPA 2019: Collaborating to Create a Comprehensive Campus Mindfulness Program - Joseph Pritchett and Kathy Babb, Franklin & Marshall College.

2) Religious Beliefs in STEM Education

The oft-assumed connection between religion and the humanities has resulted in a need for greater reflection on how students are negotiating religiosity in STEM fields. Research is showing that although barriers exist in STEM for students to express their spirituality (e.g. unsupportive faculty or inhospitable disciplinary norms), students are persistent to maintain authenticity in their beliefs and seek out support in community.

Recommended resource: Latina undergraduate students in STEM: The role of religious beliefs and STEM identity by Sarah Rodriguez et. al (Journal of College and Character, 2019).

3) The Intersection of Spirituality and Other Identities

Scholars and researchers continue to discover that spirituality does not operate in a vacuum, but expresses itself in concert with other identity categories such as race, gender, and sexuality. These pronouncements have only ramped up over the last year, as some have called for greater equity and inclusion in interfaith spaces. A critical tradition of scholarship is slowly beginning to emerge that is asking how current practices for addressing spirituality in higher education are centering Whiteness, Christian privilege, heteronormativity, and cisnormativity, and how these might be deconstructed.

Recommended resource: For interfaith engagement succeed, White religiosity must seek solidarity with people of color by Kevin Singer (Journal of College and Character, 2019).

Learn more at NASPA 2019: Wearing Different Hats: How LGBQ+ Undergraduates Navigate Their Spiritual and Sexual Orientation Identities - Ashley Jones, The University of Texas at Austin.

4) Religious Freedom and Free Speech Issues

America is experiencing unprecedented levels of social and political polarization, and higher education is no exception. Both progressives and conservatives perceive their values and rights to be under threat. Scholars are unpacking the delicate balance between church and state, freedom and antidiscrimination law, and safe spaces and brave spaces on campus. To what degree can/should student affairs professionals attempt to regulate religious affairs on campus? Should exclusive religious groups be kicked off campus? Questions like these are becoming increasingly relevant, demanding informed and measured responses.

Recommended resource: Safe spaces, brave spaces, and student appreciation of other worldviews by Kevin Singer (Heterodox Academy Blog, 2018).

Learn more at NASPA 2019: Let’s Talk About Worldview: Techniques for Conversations that Matter - Lori Durako Fisher, North Carolina State University; Janett Cordovés, Interfaith Youth Core; Zach Hooten, The Ohio State University; Matthew Mayhew, The Ohio State University; Alyssa Rockenbach, North Carolina State University.

5) Embedding Interfaith in New Curricular and Co-curricular Spaces

Religion has a storied history in higher education, from the Protestant roots of America’s first colonial colleges, through a time of privatization, to the embrace of religious pluralism that has emerged in last two decades. With a fresh vision to identify commonalities and appreciate differences between religious and non-religious groups, religion is slowly being welcomed back into curricular and cocurricular spaces in new and exciting ways. This includes first-year orientation programming, interfaith residence hall communities, and interfaith majors/certificates.

Recommended resource: Best practices for interfaith learning and development in the first year of college by Alyssa Rockenbach et al. (IDEALS and Interfaith Youth Core, 2018).

Learn more at NASPA 2019: CAFE: A Path to Creating Interfaith-inspired Civic Engagement on College Campuses - Shelby Carpenter and Zachary Cole, Tufts University.

Far from being a niche interest for religious professionals, spirituality and religious diversity are being re-established as powerful currents in higher education that, when stewarded appropriately, can have a formidable impact on student outcomes, campus climate, and the college experience as a whole. As student affairs professionals facilitate programming on diversity and multiculturalism, they are being asked more and more, “What about religion?”. By familiarizing ourselves with current trends in scholarship and practice, we are better prepared to tell students about the great resources on campus to meet their spiritual needs.

Kevin Singer is a PhD student in higher education and Research Associate for the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) at NC State University. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @kevinsinger0.