13 December 2009

Teaching the Baha’i Faith on College Campuses: Part One

Before, launching into this essay, I’d just like to express how happy I am to be writing again. For the better part of two years I was writing on a nearly regular basis. But this ceased when three months ago, I threw myself wholeheartedly back into studying Arabic. I’ve now progressed to the point where I’ve received an offer to assist in translating the vast body of untranslated Baha’i Writings during my free time. Granted, there are amazing resources that make this relatively simple, and the fine-tuning of these translations would be done by experts. There’s more people doing this sort of work than you might first think. So, it’s not like I have to be extremely proficient in the language to pull this off. Nonetheless, it’s another sign that God confirms us when we show forth effort and hope for his assistance. Then, just recently, I began to return to philosophy, which is another great passion of mine, and my on-going theological project: grounding a vision of the broad mission of the Baha’i Faith in rigorous inquests into the historical development of its lines of action. What follows is the product of some personal reflections. Undoubtedly they have been influenced by that broader project.

Tonight, I’ve had some thoughts running through my head about teaching the Baha’i Faith among college students. This is in large part sparked by a brief stopover at the Earlham College website. Photographs, course listings, and a student blog reminded me of the school we Earlhamites love to hate, hate to love, but to which we feel indissolubly linked because we are, in fact, it. I know many people who read this blog are Baha’is who either are or were recently attending college. So teaching the Baha’i Faith in such a setting is something to which many readers here have given thought. Furthermore, in a previous generation college campuses were the most fertile field for teaching that Western Baha’i communities had encountered on their own soil. Reviving that luster is certainly a worthy project. I think I’ve hit upon a reasonably systematic approach. At the very least, I think it’s a good start. I’d like to hear everyone else’s thoughts on this, especially if you’ve had recent experience in this area of teaching.

Firstly, such efforts should be as fully informed as possible by systematic teaching efforts happening in other parts of the world. The framework for action developed and set in motion since 1996 maximizes the capacity to learn from other individuals, communities, and institutions. There’s no need for Baha’i students to re-invent the wheel. For many of us, this may seem like common-sense. But at least for me personally, it took years for to come around to this view. Even after graduation I still clung to the idea that college campuses were so different from other settings that it was best for college clubs to start nearly from scratch.

Secondly, plans of action should be devised with respect to the natural rhythm of college life. One consequence of this is that dividing the year into four three month cycles, as in most other settings, could be counter-productive. The school year is already divided into its own periods, and the natural transitions between those should be taken into account. Every year begins with Fall semester (about 4 months). Then after a short break (3-4 weeks). Following that there is Spring semester (another 4 months). And then there is a relatively long summer break in which a significant number of the student body is absent (about 3 months). If student life is well-integrated into the broader community and there is already a vibrant teaching process among this latter population, then a standard plan of four three-months cycles may be quite sufficient. However, if student life is heavily organized around the academic calendar, then the best method is likely to be approaching each semester as one cycle in an Intensive Program of Growth (IPG). The semester would begin with an expansion phase. Most of the semester would consist of consolidation. And finally towards the end, participants would engage in a period of reflection and planning.

Such an approach would take advantage of the wide fluctuation in receptivity clearly linked to the cycle of the academic year. The beginning of a semester is a time for starting anew. This is especially the case with incoming freshman. It’s a time when student’s schedules are the most free. Homework, extracurriculars, and bad habits haven’t begun piling up. There’s still time in the week to join a study circle or get involved with a new service activity, conducted in the broader community, such as a children’s class or a Junior Youth group. It’s also a time, and this is especially the case with incoming freshman, for exploring a new spiritual path, and perhaps committing oneself to a new religious community. Intensive efforts to expand the scale of Baha’i community life can then naturally transition into a steady consolidation process as daily routines settle over the campus. In my experience, receptivity to core activities and to the fundamental verities of the Baha’i Faith tends to crash within just a few weeks of the start of the semester. New activities can be consolidated and new believers can be confirmed over the course of an entire semester. But that requires getting off on the right foot early on.

I’m covering a lot of ground with this essay. So I’ve decided to break it into two parts. This doesn’t actually make it easier to read. But it sure feels like it when the webpage loads. It continues with a post entitled, Teaching the Baha’i Faith on College Campuses: Part Two. It should be pretty easy to find.

1 comment:

  1. I was active in the UNM Baha'i club for about 6 years. Perhaps the biggest challenge we faced was one of timing. We would start off the semester with a lot of energy, and plan for really big things later in the semester, coinciding with the time students were the most stressed out with school. Your ideas are very interesting, to treat a semester like a cycle of growth and have all the most strenous activity at the beginning. I feel like we probably missed a lot of opportunities. Thanks for bringing this up for exploration.