Religion Professor One of 12 in Nation Selected for Middle East Seminar

Studying religion is like studying foreign language: its good to know more than one, says religion professor Rita Lester.

That’s why she will travel to Amman, Jordan in January to attend the seminar “Teaching About Islam and Middle Eastern Culture.” She is just one of 12 professors in the nation selected for the seminar sponsored by the Council of American Overseas Research Centers and the Council of Independent Colleges.

“I went to school back when one could get a degree in religion, but really only study one religion, or even just a part of one religion,” said Lester. “The study of religion is more like the study of languages these days, people should know more than one and knowing other ones may even help you to better know your own and yourself.”

Lester said the knowledge and experience she will gain in Jordan will only enhance her classroom experience. She teaches four courses that prominently feature Islam including World Religions, Understanding Religion: Christians and Muslims, Women and Religion, and Contemporary Religious Studies. While she lacks formal training in Islam, Lester prepares for her classes by reading North American Islamic scholars and visiting Islamic community centers and mosques, which were part of her 2007 sabbatical at the Encounter World Religions Centre in Toronto.

In her 10 years as a religion professor at NWU, Lester said she’s seen an increasing demand for courses on Islam in both Wesleyan’s undergraduate and adult programs.

“The general population interest in Islam after September 11 coincided with the shift in many North American universities from a seminary to a comparative model in the study of religion,” she said.

To better prepare for the seminar in Jordan, Lester recently attended the North American Muslim section of the American Academy of Religion in Montreal. Upon her return from Jordan, she will teach three courses next semester that include significant studies of Islam.

And Lester’s honors will continue beyond her experience in Jordan. Next summer she hopes to travel to China on a Fulbright-Hayes grant and attend lectures taught by an expert on Muslims in China and take a guided tour of Xi’an’s Great Mosque. In summer 2011, Lester plans to enroll in the International Faculty Development Seminar “Religious Diversity and Conflict in France.”

“Being a participant in this seminar would help me to expand and formalize my informal education in this area,” Lester said in her essay application for the Jordan seminar. “Most importantly, it would help me to better educate students about Islam and Middle Eastern cultures — subjects that are woefully lacking on my small, liberal arts, midwestern campus.”