Addressing Religious Diversity

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Coexist [bumper sticker] by Patrick Byrne on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licenseAs I mentioned in September, I am a member of a year-long cohort that focuses on inclusive pedagogical practices. Each week, we have discussion questions to consider, and I thought I would share one of the recent questions and my response with everyone this week.

The Questions

How do you prepare for religious diversity in your class? How does religious diversity intersect with the particular nature of your course or discipline?

My Response

Since I teach professional writing courses, the content matter of my classes has little to do with religious matters. There are ways that we can focus on religious diversity (more on that below), but you can easily teach a writing class without discussing religion with students in any depth or detail. Nonetheless, religion does come into the class because students often have religious practices that can impact the activities that we complete. I’ve broken my discussion into three sections: at the beginning of the term, as holidays occur, and religion in writing assignments.

At the Beginning of the Term

I try to model openness about religious matters by addressing religious holidays specifically in my class policies at the beginning of the term. I use the following statement on my syllabus:

Religious Holidays: Please take advantage of the grace period explained in the Late Policy section above if the due date for any work in this class coincides with a religious holiday that you celebrate. Please let me know before the holiday if the grace period will not be adequate, and we will come up with an alternative plan.

The grace period I mention is part of my late policy. To explain briefly, I announce a due date for each activity, but I also allow a grace period during which students can still turn in their work with no penalty. The policy is explained in more detail in a Bits post from 2013, Due Dates, Deadlines, and My Late Policy. I have varied the length of the grace period from three days to a week. Even the shorter three-day grace period takes care of most holidays and religious events.

As Holidays Occur in the Calendar

When a holiday draws near, I address it directly by reminding students to let me know if they need more time than the grace period allows. Occasionally, I also extend the grace period, when it seems likely that students may need more time.

I use class announcements to update students on holidays and class work. I see these announcements as serving a dual purpose: reminding students to think about time management, and educating the class on holidays that they may not know about. For instance, for Yom Kippur, I posted the following information:

I have extended the grace period for the Labor Log due on Friday, September 29, by one day. The grace period now ends at 11:59PM on Tuesday, October 3.

Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) begins at sundown on Friday and lasts until nightfall on Saturday. I know that some of you may be traveling home to mark the holiday with family or participating in special events here in town. As a result, I wanted to give anyone who needs it extra time so that the assignment does not interfere with your religious holiday.

If you need more than one day, please email me to arrange what you need.

It would usually be off-topic for me to talk about religious holidays at length, so I like this compromise that lets me provide a bit of information in contexts that fit with the course. Additionally, these reminder announcements take care of any extensions students may need. I’ve found that being up front and accepting of students’ needs allows me to avoid any complications.

Religion in Writing Assignments

Religion can come up naturally during class discussions of audience analysis. Just as students consider demographic categories like race, class, and gender, they can explore how an audience’s religious affiliation and practices influence a writing situation. In many business writing and technical writing situations, the reader’s religion isn’t relevant. A technical description of a chemical process, for example, won’t change because of the religion the reader follows.

There are rhetorical situations and writing assignments where religion of the audience does influence the work students do. Likewise, there are situations where religious practices directly effect the writing topic itself, not just the audience. Here are some examples:

  • Compose an internal memo, to be distributed on December 1, that explains the company’s policy on holiday decorations in the workplace. The student writing such a memo has to consider how coworkers’s religious beliefs and practices will influence their acceptance of the policy.
  • Write a leave policy for your company’s employee manual. Your company has paid holidays for all major U.S. holidays. Generally speaking, if the post office closes for the holiday, so does your company. Your policy needs to outline the holidays that the company observes, sick leave, family leave, bereavement, and any other situations specific to your industry. The company’s owner strongly believes in supporting employees’s religious beliefs, so she has asked you to draft a policy that proposes how employees can observe the holidays of their faith if they are not covered in the list of U.S. holidays when the company is closed.
  • You work for a regional collective of farms that wants to expand into food processing and sales. Up to this point, the collective has only sold their produce to manufacturers. Because of the regional popularity of your fruits and vegetables, many of the farm owners are interested in testing the production of simple food products that can be made with local ingredients. For instance, the collective includes a number of apple orchards, and there has been interest in manufacturing locally-sourced applesauce, apple butter, and apple cider. The collective wants to maximize sales opportunities by creating a product that meets the needs of a wide customer base. You have been asked to conduct a research project that investigates how religious requirements affect food processing and packaging. Once your research is complete, write a report that explains your findings and makes recommendations for practices the collective can adopt to ensure that their products meet the needs of customers from a variety of faiths.
  • Your company has always focused exclusively (and quite successfully) on domestic business. Because of the recent popularity of a new product, to which your company owns all patents, the board of directors has called for research on expansion into international markets. Choose a country and investigate the possibility of manufacturing and marketing products there. You can decide what your product it. Using your research on your country, write a recommendation report to the board of directors that explains the requirements for manufacturing and marketing your product in that location. Your report should include information on financing in the country, any specific regulations, taxes, or fees that would apply to your product, how the country’s population would respond to the introduction of your product, including consideration of how race, class, gender, cultural norms, and religious practices in the country would be likely to impact manufacturing and sales. Conclude your report with a recommendation on whether the board should consider the country further as a potential market.

Final Thoughts

Working through these ideas, I still believe that religious considerations need not be a large part of a professional writing course; however, there are certainly options for including religious diversity. It’s imperative for my class policies to support students’s religious practices. Students should also be asked to consider the religion of their audiences when they complete audience analysis of rhetorical situations. Including specific assignments that incorporate a religious dimension seems less of a requirement however. It’s doable, as the example assignments above demonstrate; yet it would need to fit the overarching goals of the course and fit into the progression of assignments. I would not add an otherwise unrelated or unnecessary assignment simply to add religious content to these writing courses.

That’s my take on the topic. How do you prepare for religious diversity in your class? How does religious diversity intersect with the particular nature of your course or discipline? Can you suggest writing assignments or class activities that incorporate religious diversity? Please leave me a comment below to share your ideas.


Credit: Coexist by Patrick Byrne on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license.

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.