As a teacher of Buddhist thought and Asian religious traditions, I am aware that for many students, my courses may provide their only encounter with “Eastern” practices and ways of thinking. With this in mind, my primary goal as a teacher 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,” and by enabling students to articulate their own views skillfully and articulately in speech and writing.
My research in India and Nepal has informed my teaching. Working and studying in Himalayan communities has provided me with first-hand experience analyzing a number of different modes of conveying religious ideals, whether they have been listening to oral teachings by a village priest in Kinnaur, reading fifteenth-century manuscripts in a Tibetan monastery, or inspecting elaborate murals painted on temple walls in the Kathmandu Valley. All of these modes of conveying religious ideals can be understood as different types of “texts” that must be “read” and interpreted by their readers, and it is this broad view of text and reading that I work to convey in all of my classes.
In the classroom, I draw on my experiences abroad and present to students a wide variety of texts (many of which I have acquired while in Asia), encouraging them to read critically in all cases. In addition to primary texts and journal articles, I assign films, comic books, and art for students to study. By incorporating such diverse materials into my courses, students learn to analyze different types of readings in nuanced and sophisticated ways. In an upper-level Buddhist Philosophy course that I taught at Smith College, for example, I assigned a documentary film about the transmission of Tibetan Buddhism to the West. My students analyzed the film with an acute awareness of its subjects and intended audience: predominantly white, college-educated Americans who practice meditation. This led to a discussion about the importance of considering a text’s intended audience, and how this might inform an author’s implicit assumptions and biases when creating a text. Over the course of the rest of the semester, my students continued to investigate the materials that we read and discussed with the same critical eye toward a text’s intended audience – whether that audience was fifteenth-century monks in Tibet or American meditators in the 1960’s – and they were able to interrogate those texts in more nuanced ways as a result.
When analyzing religious traditions, I teach my students that texts do not always neatly correspond to what people actually do with those texts. This is particularly important when teaching Asian religious traditions, which can easily seem removed from students’ day-to-day experiences in both space and time. In order to provide concrete examples of the living traditions in my courses, I incorporate field trips and guest speakers when possible. My course on American Buddhism this fall, for example, will involve field trips to the Leverett Peace Pagoda and Pioneer Valley Shambhala Center, and will feature guest speakers including a Zen priest and a neuroscientist who researches meditation and the brain. Drawing connections between ancient traditions and some of their contemporary interpretations enables students to reflect critically on the teachings of those traditions, and helps them to see the relevance of seemingly foreign ways of thinking to their own lives and to other areas of study.
In addition to the diverse materials 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 class blog; instead of asking students to write response papers and submit them only to me, I ask students to write blog posts that they share with their classmates. Classmates, in turn, are asked to comment on these blog posts. I have found that these activities result in three positive outcomes for students: Firstly, because blog posts exist online, students tend to feel more comfortable being creative in their writing than they might be in a formal paper, incorporating references to videos, music, or other materials to convey their ideas. Secondly, students tend to write more carefully when they know that their peers are reading their work, resulting in better writing overall. Finally, asking students to read and comment on each other’s ideas 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 environment in the classroom, in which students feel comfortable speaking with one another.
I facilitate dialogue in the classroom by asking questions and breaking students into small groups to discuss these questions among themselves. This allows students to work through difficult ideas with each other, and enables them to share insights in a smaller environment before posing them to the class as a whole. I have found that this strategy works particularly well when I assign students specific tasks to groups with a clear purpose in mind. I employed this method in a course on Budhist Thought, for example, when we covered Tibetan philosophy. I began one class session by showing students a short video of Tibetan nuns debating – a lively process full of hand-clapping, foot-stomping, and shouting. I then split the class in half, assigning each group to a particular Tibetan philosopher who we had studied in the previous week, and asked them to review the major points of their philosopher’s position. When we regrouped as a whole, the two groups of students debated with each other, mimicking the actions of the nuns. While the students clearly enjoyed this activity, they were also able to analyze the material with much more nuance than they otherwise might have, analyzing complex ideas from multiple perspectives.
When I ask students to write essays, I often break down the writing process into smaller, more manageable steps, requiring thesis statements and drafts to be submitted in advance of the final version. While this strategy has the obvious benefit of ensuring that students don’t simply wait until the night before an assignment is due to begin a paper, it also encourages students to think deeply about their own writing process, and provides them with a chance to receive feedback from me before submitting a substantial writing assignment. Students who have written papers in my courses have frequently commented that my feedback during the writing process helped them to re-think their own methods for constructing essays in their other courses.
By introducing students to unfamiliar ideas through different types of texts and encouraging them to analyze those texts in dialogue with each other, I prepare students to be critical about their world, to interrogate information that they consume, and to be able to clearly articulate and support their own ideas, while having respect for the ideas of others.