by Abiya Ahmed

Since 2010, The Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies (EDJS) at the Stanford School of Education has been a home for the creation and enhancement of research that spans the social sciences, humanities, and education. The Concentration is led by Professor Ari Kelman. In this Jim Joseph Foundation Guest Blog series, “Shaping the field of Jewish education,” we hear from three current students in the program pursuing their PhDs.

Before I started my Stanford doctoral program, I was a middle school English teacher at a Bay Area Islamic school. My experience there formed my research interests, which led me to a search for suitable doctoral programs that would allow me to research the intersection of religion and education. Few schools of education in the country offer such a program, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that Stanford had an Education and Jewish Studies (EDJS) concentration that could possibly fit my own academic pursuits. I met with Ari Kelman, the Jim Joseph Chair in Education and Jewish Studies, to indicate my research interests regarding Islamic and Jewish education specifically as well as religion and education broadly. He encouraged me to apply, and here I am three years later, a doctoral candidate now halfway through my program.

My experience thus far has exceeded my expectations in that I’ve been able to not only pursue my research interests but also expand them, while exploring opportunities I had not expected. I have learned significantly from being part of research teams and working on projects like exploring Jewish students’ experiences in relation to political activism on campus, or how people learn to be religious and develop religious commitments. For my own research, I have done long-term ethnography of an Islamic high school to explore what makes it Islamic, and I am currently developing my dissertation proposal around how Muslim college students negotiate traditional religious authority with their lived experience of being Muslim at various higher education institutions. In attempting to understand how Jewish students might navigate similar terrain, this is an important comparison case.

In terms of opportunities, being in this program at Stanford has exposed me via conferences to other academics and graduate students exploring issues of religion and education, as well as the chance to apply for related grants. This year, Ilana Horwitz (another Jim Joseph Foundation awardee and my colleague) and I received the IDEALS grant from Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), through which we are examining the role of social class in students’ interfaith engagement. While all of these projects are distinct in some ways, they are also interconnected in ways that I had not imagined, drawing on sociological and anthropological literature related to religion, religious practices, belief, belonging, and associated issues of identity, power, authenticity, and authority.

In this way, working on religion and education broadly, per the EDJS concentration’s approach, allows me to consider both universals and particulars within categories of religion and education and within their intersection. For instance, examining Jewish education / Jewish students highlights issues specific to the American Jewish experience, while exploring other traditions such as Islamic education / Muslim students, or examining other American religions and religious communities (including those who identfty as atheists, agnostics, or as religious Nones) allows for comparability across various traditions in terms of both historical trajectories and current realities. Additionally, bringing in other variables such as race, gender, and class and their intersection with religion nuances the research to offer perspectives that might not have been considered before.

Perhaps this is one of the most fruitful outcomes of being part of the EDJS concentration: acquiring the knowledge and skills to be able to examine a tradition or phenomenon in its own terms while also comparing it with significant others to draw nuanced conclusions and say something about each of those. My work has thus far been interdisciplinary cutting across sociology, anthropology, but also religious studies and education. In future I hope to continue researching and writing across these fields and exploring issues of religion and education, construing them both broadly in terms of institutional and non-institutional settings, and across various kinds of religious communities. Needless to say, I have come a long way from being a middle school English teacher: in that setting, my “on-the-ground” reality surely set the tone for my future work, but it’s only after exploring religion and education in terms of historical and contemporary factors and via various disciplinary lenses have I been able to better grasp those realities.

For all that I’ve been able to learn so far, I can say this with enthusiastic confidence: there’s so much more where that’s coming from, and I find myself at the cusp of more exciting personal opportunities as well as (hopefully) meaningful contributions to academia and practice.

Abiya Ahmed is a doctoral candidate at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, where she studies the intersection of religion and education from anthropological and sociological perspectives. Her work addresses various American religions and religious communities, with a focus on the American Jewish and the American Muslim experience. 

Cross-posted from the Jim Joseph Foundation Blog