A Convening on the Case Method: Building a Cohort, Building Capacity in the Field (2019)

This January, educators from across the country came together in Cambridge, MA for a weekend-long convening to learn about and discuss an innovative teaching method developed by the Harvard Business School and employed by the Pluralism Project for the last two decades. The method is based on case studies, which students absorb and inhabit in order to consider how different actors might respond in challenging real-life situations. For the Pluralism Project, these cases focus on dilemmas, conflicts and tensions surrounding religious pluralism in America. (Learn more about the Case Study initiative here.)

With generous grants from the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Pluralism Project was able to bring together more than 50 professors, scholars and teachers who have been or are interested in using the case study method to educate about issues of religious pluralism.

Educators came from all over the world to learn from one another and from master case study teachers like Larry Susskind (Ford Professor of Environmental and Urban Planning at MIT), Willis Emmons (Senior Lecturer and Director of the C. Roland Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard Business School) and Diana Eck (Founder and Director of the Pluralism Project and Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard University). Sessions focused on practical applications and demonstrations with ample time for discussion and feedback.

“I really enjoyed going through the cases and seeing the modeling for how to teach [them],” Celene Ibrahim, Muslim chaplain for Tufts University in Somerville, MA, shared. Ibrahim also commented that she appreciated the chance “to hear about strategies for teaching from the business [and] mediation worlds.”

In feedback surveys after the event, 100% of surveyed participants said they gained specific ideas that they can implement in their classroom or work setting, and 75% of surveyed participants said they gained more confidence about teaching with case studies. Pluralism Project Research Associate Harry Hall, who helped plan the event, was pleased to see the diverse ways in which scholars and educators have applied the case method—and he noticed the impact this diversity had on convening participants. “Many attendees noted at the end of the conference that their biggest challenge consisted of finding more room in syllabi for case study engagement,” he explains. “I think that as more scholars discover the case method, it will become easier for professors to integrate this pedagogy into their course materials.”

Over the last twenty years, the Pluralism Project has produced dozens of case studies of real events from around the world—from a town debating the construction of a new mosque, to a Christian pastor proselytizing at a Sikh parade, to a Buddhist leader who wants to join a Jewish synagogue. These case studies consider the perspectives of multiple parties involved in each issue, the current cultural climate in the community, and the broader implications of the issue for religious pluralism in America. Case studies are a unique teaching model that has been used in college classrooms, interfaith nonprofit settings and everything in between.

But teaching with the case study model is not simple or easy, and there is considerable room for growth in using the method. That’s why this convening was such a significant opportunity, especially given that many of the educators who attended had, up until this point, been operating largely on their own—accessing case study resources online and developing their own individual curriculums. As such, Pluralism Project staff were particularly heartened to learn from feedback surveys that 97% of surveyed participants said they made a new professional connection with a colleague as a result of the gathering.

One attendee, Polly Hamlen, who works for the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, commented, “It was wonderful to be in a room with people addressing the same challenges and opportunities: using case studies in the field of religion.” Rahel Fischbach, Associate Professor for Islamic studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA, also appreciated the collegial atmosphere of the event: “It was remarkable that every single person […] was fully engaged, open to learn, and generous in sharing their knowledge and experience.”

Interspersed throughout the intensive education and discussion sections were meals from a variety of local restaurants, small group conversations, and a screening of a short film that encouraged attendees to think about art-as-case. These non-session times gave participants the chance to get to know one another and consider their own applications of the case study method in a more informal setting. “The ethos was fantastic—relaxed enough to settle into really learning, but packed enough with dense, helpful, deep learning,” said Trina Janiec Jones, Associate Provost for Curriculum and Co-Curriculum and Associate Professor of Religion at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.

Reflecting on her takeaways from the event, Julie Hiebert, Visiting Assistant Professor in Religious and Theological Studies at St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX, said, “I am inspired to keep fine-tuning how I teach, what I teach, and why I teach.”