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Seminar in taxonomy?

10 January 2014

Jeremy Clines reads a survey and study of student religion

Christianity and the University Experience: Understanding student faith
Mathew Guest, Kristin Aune, Sonya Sharma and Rob Warner
Bloomsbury £21.99
Church Times Bookshop £19.79 (Use code CT604 )

THIS book is "the major published outcome" of a three-year Religion and Society social-scientific research project (Features, 13 September). It looks at experiences of higher education by students who self-identify as Christian. The research was undertaken in two main ways: quantitatively, by means of questionnaires completed by more than 4500 students (not just Christians), and qualitatively, through interviews with 75 Christian students, as well as 25 university managers, student Christian society leaders, and chaplaincy staff.

Chapters one and two look, respectively, at the identities of universities and the identities of Christian students. The survey responses of these students are then related to: the versions of Christianity expressed by students (chapter 2); the effect that different sorts of higher-education institutions have on the Christian student experience (chapter 3); and whether a university-type course has a secularising influence on students who are Christian (chapter 4). The latter section delves further into the Christian student experience: looking at the challenges that Christian students face (chapter 5); Christian activities on campus (chapter 6); and the ethnic, gender, and class profiles of these students (chapter 7).

As a university chaplain, I enjoyed having the opportunity to engage with a carefully planned study of Christian students, and was pleased to read results that confirmed what I imagined to be true. Nearly four times as many students regard a chaplaincy as being "central" to their university experience compared with those who at any one point are regularly participating in chaplaincy events. I was encouraged that, in my instance, that means that more than 800 students think the university chaplaincy really matters to them. My reading of these statistics on chaplaincy, however, is more positive than the authors'.

The book contains many intriguing stories about Christian students' experiences, and leaves many intriguing questions about the unconfessed ideologies and decisions taken on how to classify students. That meant that I was taken by surprise when, suddenly, in chapter 2, three students were introduced whose Christian experiences were analysed and judged concerning their behaviours and beliefs.

The selection of questions included in the survey and the analysis of the dialogues with the students interviewed came with little justification of method. I was similarly surprised that at no one point were the contents of the survey explained, even though results from it were scattered across all chapters of the book in a mixture of tablature and narrative form.

Perhaps it was not just the authors but also the publisher who desired a compelling narrative about the Christian student experience more than a thorough presentation of research methods and analysis. When a survey question is included asking students whether "homosexual sex 'is always wrong'", I am left wondering whether that tells us more about the authors' struggle to quantify Christian student identity than it can tell us about the respondents.

To analyse large data sets by classifying Christian students into types, and to determine this, in part, by students' views on various topics, doesn't sit comfortably with my commitment to taking one by one the vast array of student experiences that I encounter.

The Revd Dr Jeremy M. S. Clines is the Anglican Chaplain at the University of Sheffield.

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