Teaching as religious minority can be difficult, professor says

by Shara Tibken


Simpson College may be a Methodist-affiliated institution, but many faculty members at the college aren’t Methodist.

“Religion is a funny word in a way because religion to some people means adherence to a certain set of rules,” said Professor of Chemistry Ron Warnet. “Religion has a bad name these days because it’s in the name of religion that lots of people do really stupid things, violent things.”

Faculty members come from a wide variety of faiths and religious ideals, and some don’t fall into just one religious group.

Assistant Professor of Religion Eun Hee Shin said she has a “multi-religious identity” – she’s Christian, but also practices Buddhism, Shamanism and other Korean cultural faiths.

“I’m Korean, and Shamanism is a traditional Korean belief,” Shin said. “I grew up not only in a Christian family but in the Korean culture. I can’t really separate these kinds of things … I can’t really deny my own culture simply because I’m Christian.”

Her different religious ideas play a role in how she teaches her students.

Shin uses her firsthand knowledge of Buddhism and Shamanism when teaching.

“Of course, this is Iowa and most of the students aren’t exposed to other religious traditions,” Shin said. “I think some of them were shocked when I would talk about the multi-religious identity and claim I’m Christian. In their view, that’s not Christian.”

At times, Shin feels backlash from students.

“They don’t appreciate this kind of thing,” Shin said. “When we talk about religious pluralism, they feel very offended, I think. Obviously, they show some distaste. Every class and every semester, I have it.”

Shin said it could be challenging.

“Sometimes I get discouraged and wonder what I’m doing here – it’s very hard, especially working here as a minority.”

Some faculty members are constantly affected by their faith and cannot separate it from other aspects of their lives. Assistant professor of geology Steve Emerman practices Hassidic Judaism.

“Religion is something that I think about all the time,” said Emerman. “In senior colloquium, I talk about it all the time because that’s the subject matter. In other classes, it kind of depends on what the students want to talk about.”

Other faculty members fall somewhere in the middle.

“You can go to all of my classes and find that it never comes up in an explicit sort of way,” Warnet said. “We talk a little about science and religion and the presumed conflict there. I don’t see a conflict … One illuminates the other.”

Faculty members generally don’t have many problems with teaching at a Methodist-affiliated institution.

“The good part about being part of a Methodist institution is that Methodism has always been a great supporter of open inquiry and of exploration,” Warnet said. “I don’t feel like I have to curb what I say because Methodism doesn’t agree with it. There’s tremendous support for the kind of education I believe in.”