Faculty Profile: Community in the Classroom

Amanda Mbuvi

What is community, and how do we find our identity?

These are profound questions for Dr. Amanda Mbuvi, assistant professor of religion. They are pivotal to her scholarship, and she finds that students are curious about them too.

Mbuvi’s classes on biblical studies, Jewish studies, and religion and literature are spaces for students to explore these questions. They bring students from different backgrounds and points of view together and require them to consider perspectives different from their own.

“My undergraduate years were a time of profound growth during which I began to ask the personal and intellectual questions that still preoccupy me,” she says. “It seems appropriate that continuing that journey should be bound up in helping others along theirs.”

Mbuvi’s own background and perspective are her motivation for mentoring students and encouraging their growth. Born into an interracial family, she grew up Jewish in the black church, an experience that immersed her in multiple streams of tradition. She also lived in Columbia, Maryland, a planned community that brought people of different economic backgrounds together.

From these experiences, Mbuvi developed an interest in the relationship between identity and religion, which is reflected in her book, “Belonging in Genesis: Biblical Israel and the Politics of Identity Formation.” She also learned important lessons she takes to heart as she nurtures community in her classroom.

“I encourage students to take ownership of their learning and of their lives in general,” Mbuvi says. “I love coming alongside them as they step into the role of responsible adults, helping them think about the contribution they want to make to the world.”

She also challenges students’ pre-held ideas of the learning process. She helps them develop a growth mindset — one in which they don’t have all the right answers but are willing to share their ideas and listen to others.

“Helping students reconceptualize what learning looks like is a big part of introducing them to college-level humanities,” Mbuvi says. “Sometimes a good day means leaving class with more uncertainty than going in, because they traded an easy answer for a question that reflects a fuller understanding of the world.”

Mbuvi, who joined the faculty in fall 2016, is looking for opportunities to apply this perspective more broadly in her classes, especially when it comes to the topic of diversity.

“The fixed mindset that exists in public conversations about diversity makes it difficult for students to learn and grow,” she says. “I want to make the classroom a space where respecting others doesn’t keep students from experiencing freedom to talk about and even fail at diversity. When students from all backgrounds come together in such a constructive space, they’ll be able to hear and understand each other on a whole new level.”

That is true community.

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