If you sign up a course with religion professor Stephen Stern, be forewarned - he's going to mess with your head.
Take his Introduction to Religion class, for example.
"What is sacred?" he asks on the first day. Shrugs ripple through the room. "Is the American flag sacred?"
"Yes," students respond almost unanimously.
"Because of what it symbolizes," someone says, and others nod.
"Would you be offended if it's burned?"
"Yes, absolutely," most reply.
"But isn't freedom of expression one of the things it symbolizes?" Stern prods. "And if that's the case, shouldn't you allow someone to burn it?"
You get the idea. Throughout the discussion, Stern takes great pains not to reveal his perspective. You argue one side, he'll push back on the other. "The whole goal is to show them that life is paradoxical," he says. "They get very confused and they get really passionate, but they're hooked - and they love the discussion that follows."
"The art of good teaching is making information relevant to students and challenging their assumptions," he says. "It doesn't matter if the subject is Islam, or Judaism, or secular philosophy. If you can make it relevant, they'll be drawn to the courses."
In one course, the Holocaust becomes a starting point for a broader discussion of discrimination. Students come to understand how discrimination manifests itself in black-white relations on America's streets, or even among different groups on campus, often in ways they don't realize. "It's easy to hate the Nazis and feel sorry for the Jews," Stern says. "The hard part is to look at the Holocaust and see what lessons we can learn for our daily lives."
In a course on the Hebrew Bible, most students say they think Eve seduced Adam into eating the apple. But Stern challenges them to find evidence of this in the text. When they can't - because, he says, it isn't there - conversation turns to how our views are shaped and what the implications are for our lives. "It creates a really interesting dilemma," he says. "But that's what college is all about."
The point, Stern emphasizes, is not to get students to agree with his or any other point of view, but to help them ask good questions, listen to others' perspectives, and develop informed opinions about things that matter.
"I get satisfaction when students articulate what they have to say and do it well," he says. "I like it when students realize that they're smart. When they get engaged and you see the brains popping, that's exciting."