All students should receive the same learning opportunities, regardless of religion or level of observance. While this principle may be easy enough to profess, creating classes that support students who aren’t present because of religious observances may, at first, seem difficult and time-consuming. We’d like to suggest some pedagogical tools and strategies to meet this challenge, and help faculty better ensure spiritual inclusion in the classroom.
While it may seem purely administrative, designing a syllabus with religious holidays and fasting periods in mind is also a pedagogical act. Many faculty, for instance, already take spring break into account when developing their spring semester syllabi. Similar pedagogical crafting around religious observances may not only avoid the need for alternative test dates, but may also prevent students from experiencing the syllabus as something designed without their needs in mind. Other special dates during the course can likewise be accounted for: class outings, guest speakers, screenings, etc.
When scheduling your semester, refer to an interfaith calendar that includes the dates of the major religious holidays. (The calendar linked—for 2018-19—includes brief descriptions of each holiday.)
Thoughtful planning might also be necessary for longer class sessions spanning multiple hours, such as labs and workshops, that potentially conflict with midday prayers. For such sessions, consider offering a short break of around 10 minutes to accommodate those who are observing prayer times.
Slides and typed notes can be made available to students on a regular basis. If you don’t normally use slides or notes, consider developing these materials for occasions when multiple students are expected to be absent.
Lecturers can also designate a class scribe to take detailed notes for absent students. Similarly, one or two students with a record of accomplishment could serve as peer tutors for the course through the University Learning Center.
Sharing video recordingsof missed lectures is among the simpler options—either through classroom-based course capture technology or, more likely, tools such as NYU Stream, a media service that enables users to upload, record via webcam, manage, and share video clips.
Worksheets can encourage students to ask themselves the questions that a missed lecture was designed to ask (e.g., “Read Chapter 5.2 in the textbook. In what ways does this section build on the thinking in Chapter 3.7? In what ways does it contradict it?”). This practice may, of course, be linked with any of the preceding suggestions. The goal is to foster active learning and guided connection-making.
Seminars and Workshops
Selecting a scribe—or several—is more complicated for a discussion-based class. How do students keep track of, and report out, various conversational threads? Some disciplines (e.g. ethnography, historiography, social work) even acknowledge the difficulty of this type of work, and it may be useful to review the methods they’ve developed to gather information from interviews and other kinds of oral records.
One way to help students capture the content of a discussion is through end-of-class-writing, which, as is true for many of the strategies already described in this post, can be as beneficial for the students in class as it is for those absent. Near the end of class, students are provided several minutes to write. This writing could be metacognitive reflection, or writing designed to synthesize the content of the seminar session, both of which can help students process and remember what they’ve learned. These pieces of writing can then be shared with absent students, who will produce writing of their own in response (Google Forms are a useful way to collate writing).
Another variation of the scribe approach is to offer absent students the opportunity, at the start of the session following one they missed, to ask three questionsof those who had been present. This practice raises the intellectual accountability of those who were present, while welcoming back into the community those who were absent.
Finally, where possible, faculty can provide an outline of the major discussion points. For instance, while a 2-hour discussion of a novel can’t be easily reproduced for an absent student, explaining that the conversation revolved largely around the novel’s opening chapter, the death scene on p.75, and the marriage scene on p.239 provides some semblance of the content covered. Indeed, class sessions that fall on religious holidays can be planned around topics or pieces of evidence that are easily communicated to those not present. Absent students can then be asked to respond to key pieces of evidence, in writing, the way the class responded in dialogue. Such writing could be collected and commented on, merely collected, or distributed to peers for review. The goal is to replicate, as much as possible, the collaborative work that takes place within the seminar itself.
As a nonsectarian, inclusive institution, NYU strives to create a community where all students know that they are valued, regardless of their religious worldview or level of religious observance. In support of this goal, NYU policy permits members of any religious group to absent themselves from classes without penalty when required for compliance with their religious obligations. The policy and principles to be followed by students and faculty may be found on The University Calendar Policy on Religious Holidays.
For more information, visit NYU’s Office of Global Spiritual Life.
Ethan Youngerman is a Senior Language Lecturer in the Expository Writing Program and Faculty Senator.