As a teacher of Buddhist Studies and Asian religious traditions, I am aware that for many students, my courses may provide their first – or only – encounters with non-EuroAmerican practices and ways of thinking. With this in mind, my primary goal as an educator is to encourage students to think critically about new and unfamiliar material, while fostering respect for ways of thinking that are dissimilar to their own. I achieve this goal by broadening students’ ideas of what constitutes “text” and “reading,” by facilitating engagement with course content outside of a formal classroom setting, and by connecting students with religious communities outside of campus.

My ongoing research in South Asia informs my teaching. Living and working in Himalayan communities has afforded me the opportunity to engage with different modes of conveying religious ideals, ranging from listening to oral teachings by a village priest in India, to reading Tibetan manuscripts in a monastery in Nepal, to analyzing murals on temple walls in Bhutan. Each of these modes of conveying information can be understood as a type of text that must be read and interpreted, and it is this broad view of text and reading that I work to convey in all of my classes. For example, in my Introduction to Religious Studies course at Lawrence, students explore and analyze items in the university’s art museum in order to learn about religious traditions with which they are not yet familiar. This activity gives students first-hand experience with religious material culture in a very concrete sense; the museum allows students to wear gloves and actually handle many of the materials in its holdings. By enabling students to engage with diverse materials in this way, they can begin to understand the lived and embodied aspects of the religious traditions that we study in class.

When teaching at the introductory level, I encourage students to investigate the complex relationships between religious texts and practices, in order to see the potential differences between what religious texts instruct, and what people actually do with those instructions. While I enjoy pushing students to learn how to carefully read primary sources, I also strive to show students that the ancient texts that we study continue to have tangible impacts on religious communities. In my Religion in South Asia class in 2016, we studied Hindu goddess traditions by analyzing both traditional and contemporary texts about the goddess Durga. We then visited the Hindu Temple of Northeast Wisconsin during Navaratri, a Hindu holiday that celebrates Durga. After the prayer ceremony, students had a conversation with the temple priest and shared a meal with congregants. By emphasizing connections between textual traditions and some of their lived interpretations, I encourage students to reflect critically on textual sources, and to see the relevance of seemingly foreign ways of thinking to their own lives.

In addition to the diverse materials and experiences that I incorporate into my courses, I also structure class activities to encourage critical and respectful dialogue among students. Many of my courses involve a significant component of online interaction outside of class through course blogs. Before each class meeting, several students are required to respond to assigned readings on a blog, and their classmates are asked to comment on these posts. (Occasionally, I also invite the authors of some of our assigned readings to comment on students’ responses.) Using blogs in class results in three positive outcomes for students: When writing online, students tend to feel comfortable being more creative in their writing than they might be in a formal paper, incorporating references to videos or other digital sources to convey their ideas in innovative ways. Students also tend to write more carefully when they know that their peers are reading their work, which results in clearer writing and more astute thinking overall. Finally, asking students to respond to their classmates’ ideas outside of class facilitates discussion in the classroom, even among quieter students. By encouraging students to interact with each other outside of class, I am able to create a lively and engaged classroom environment in which students feel comfortable speaking with one another.

When possible, I design courses in order to connect students with communities outside of campus. At Smith College in 2015, for example, I taught a course on Buddhism in America, which drew on the rich diversity of Buddhist communities in the surrounding area. Students researched and interviewed local Buddhist groups and teachers, and then worked with Smith’s Spatial Analysis Lab to collectively produce an interactive map-based guide to Buddhism in Western Massachusetts. Last year at Lawrence, I developed a two-term course on Buddhism in Nepal, which included a 15-day trip to Kathmandu during the break between terms. While in Nepal, we lived in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, and students were instructed in philosophy and meditation by monastic teachers.

I genuinely enjoy teaching, as well as thinking about how to be a more effective teacher. I have participated in a number of conferences and discussion groups focused on pedagogy, and I continue to have conversations with colleagues about teaching strategies, learning from others about what works ­– and what doesn’t – in the classroom.