A Discussion with Lauve Steenhuisen, Theology Professor, Georgetown University

By: Emily Coccia

October 28, 2015

For her final project as part of the Doyle Undergraduate Program, Emily Coccia conducted interviews with Georgetown faculty members to explore new paradigms for how to teach diversity.

: On April 10, 2015, Emily Coccia, an undergraduate fellow in the Doyle Engaging Difference Program and member of the Georgetown College class of 2015, interviewed Dr. Lauve Steenhuisen, who has served as a professor in Theology and Women’s Studies since 1995. She is a scholar of American theologies and religious movements, specializing in feminist and sociological analyses. In this interview, Steenhuisen discusses her experiences, challenges, and joys in working to create a deliberately inclusive classroom atmosphere.

In your class, “Religion in American Political Life,” you’ve clearly integrated many current events that deal with diversity—be it differences in religion, sexual orientation, or gender. How do you approach some of these topics, which can be quite personal, in a way that opens up discussion without making students feel uncomfortable or silenced?

I think intentionality is key in balancing these competing demands. I aim to create a classroom atmosphere that is low in conflict and personal tension, but that encourages students to be piercingly intellectually curious. For many students, especially freshmen, this class is the first time they’re talking about some of these issues in an academic setting, so I try to create a sense of trust and safety in the classroom. For the first few weeks of class, I tend to dominate class with lectures and readings to establish the boundaries of respectful discussion and acceptable behavior. After that period, though, I intentionally pull back and shift into my role as facilitator to push students to work through the issues and develop their opinions without a sense of what the professor thinks the right answer is. I intervene primarily to thwart consensus, which impedes careful consideration and nuanced answers, by posing new questions.  

Have you found any methods to be particularly useful?

One of the main strategies I have employed is making myself available outside of class. I hope that students come in to bounce ideas off of me—be they quiet students who feel hurt or upset by something that has been said or extroverted students who feel they have not gotten to voice all the opinions they wanted to explain. I want my students to know that I care, and to that end, I value protecting students and will respectfully shift the conversation if it veers off topic or correct anything egregiously out of line. Over my years of teaching, I’ve learned ways to shift the conversation in a more respectful direction without shutting it down entirely. This was the critical skill during my time abroad at the McGhee Center in Alanya, Turkey. With only nine students, we had to develop a real sense of trust in each other.

I aim to create a classroom of ideological diversity, which necessitates having controversial opinions voiced and oppositional positions taken. I have learned to use certain tools to bring these voices into the classroom as something to grapple with, even when students in the class don’t hold these opinions. One of the main ways I’ve done so is to place an emphasis on identifying the stakeholders in any issue. By making these players visible, we avoid dismissing certain voices in favor of a respect for their rationale in any issue. I’ve received training in Edward De Bono lateral thinking. Assumptions about what we expect to happen or expect to hear block our minds from creative thinking. In class, I listen for the silences and ask: What perspectives aren’t being heard? I aim to illuminate those silences, even if it means that students will hear opinions that differ from their own.  

In our class it definitely seems like most students understand the balance of voicing their opinions and respecting others in the classroom. How do you deal with classes that, for some reason or another, miss the balance?

I’ve certainly had classes that are less conducive to open dialogue than others, but over time, I’ve learned how better to maintain that balance. Before class, I always try to clear my head and avoid entering the room with any outside emotions or tensions. During discussions, I see my role as holding space; I want to make sure that I recognize those students who really want to talk or respond to someone, even if they’re not being overly vocal about it. Students should never leave class feeling frustrated or angry. If I can make myself open, I hope that students will come talk to me if they ever feel silenced or unheard in the classroom.  

I thought those goals came across from the first day when we signed the Class Covenant. How did you come up with that idea?

As you know, I teach a lot of contentious issues, but I want students to express their opinions and listen to one another. The covenant asks students to promise not only to be respectful, but also to be vocal and open to having their opinions change and develop over the course of the semester. As part of “Religion in American Political Life,” I have the students debate issues that include the LDS Church’s involvement in that Proposition 8 ballot initiative, prisoners’ rights to practice their religion while incarcerated, and business owners’ rights to deny services based on religious beliefs. In debating these highly politicized issues, I hope students will learn how to disagree with collegiality. Of course, I provide a list of behaviors and responses that are not tolerated—shaming and ad hominem attacks, for example—but those boundaries actually allow the classroom to become a space of radical academic freedom. We’re all enriched by a diversity of opinions, especially those that are most different from our own, because they force us to confront our own beliefs and acknowledge areas where they might have gaps. The ground rules for debate and the Class Covenant put us all in a position of listening, as opposed to just waiting for our turn to speak, that pushes us to actually respond to what has been said.  

What have been the biggest difficulties you’ve experienced while teaching?

I’ve been fairly lucky to have students that are quite respectful of each other, but I have had challenges with making sure all students speak and develop their opinions. My first time teaching “Religion in American Political Life,” I had one student, a staunch libertarian, who wanted to add her opinion to every conversation. While she had a unique opinion that deserved to be heard over the course of the semester, I needed to find a way to balance letting her speak and allowing other students to find their own voices and develop their own opinions. I didn’t want the quiet students to feel disempowered or silenced. Ultimately, I reached out to her and scheduled monthly meetings for us to talk about the month’s issues together outside of class time. In class, I tried to call on her as much as other students, especially in situations where I knew a libertarian opinion could be useful, but otherwise, I pushed quieter students to speak more. I’ve found that I look for tools that work in service of the greater good while balancing competing demands as best as possible.

To avoid focusing only on the challenges, I always like to ask: what have you found rewarding about creating an inclusive classroom space?

I'm used to listening to un-nuanced ideological positions at times due to friends and family. It seems that no one ever changes their minds or even listens to the other person. The classroom tends to be a more neutral space—a space for learning—where students can open up without the righteous anger that fuels political debates. While we all have our own opinions, I call on students to be “neutralizers” to maintain a respectful atmosphere in which we can all learn from each other. It’s always so rewarding to hear students’ passion coming out in the class and to watch them evolve in their thinking over the course of the semester.  

Finally, in a more general sense, how have you thought about intentionally crafting diversity into your classes—be it sculpting syllabi or writing questions with certain issues in mind?

First, I want to talk about an example of a class where I’ve had to change my approach after realizing that I wasn’t really engaging difference in a thorough way. I’ve taught “Feminist Theology as Lived Religion” twice now. In developing this class, I wanted to avoid only bringing in the perspectives of white feminist theologians. Reflecting on the first time I taught the class, I realized that I used other voices just to show the evolution of feminist theology to make a point that we’re all theologians and use our perspectives to make our own theory. Then, as a faculty Doyle Fellow, I realized that the readings brought in voices that weren’t just white feminist theologians, but the speakers did not. I like to think I did a better job the second time by bringing in African American, Hispanic, and Asian speakers. I wanted to ensure that we had a true presence of diverse voices and opinions, rather than simply talking about them as readings in a series.

Ultimately, from my work in promoting ideological diversity in the classroom to displacing power from my hands into the students’, I try to embody the philosophy of the “Peaceable Classroom,” a feminist theory on pedagogy. The main idea is that as a teacher, I have a glowing sword in the classroom that I must use for bullies or students who attempt to dominate discussion without listening to other perspectives or allowing their fellow students to contribute and actively engage with the materials. I have tried to learn to be a feminist in a classroom using power equitably.

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A Discussion with Lauve Steenhuisen, Theology Professor, Georgetown University