statement of teaching philosophy

As a teacher of Asian religious traditions, I am aware that for many students, my courses may provide one of their first – if not only – sustained encounters with Religious Studies, or 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 might be different from their own. I achieve this goal by encouraging students to engage with diverse materials from different perspectives, by facilitating discussion through multiple channels, and by connecting the material that we study to contexts outside of a formal classroom setting.

Lawrence’s 10-week terms have afforded me new opportunities to experiment and be creative with my teaching. Over the course of the past eight terms I have drawn on my previous teaching experiences in order to experiment with different teaching methods, implement new technologies, and structure classes in different ways. Whenever possible, I try to be transparent in my attempts to experiment by involving students in the process of creating a more effective learning environment, while learning from them about what works – and what doesn’t – in the classroom.

 

Where did I come from? Teaching before Lawrence

Before joining the faculty at Lawrence, I taught courses at a number of other small liberal arts colleges, as well as at Kathmandu University in Nepal. My experiences at these different schools have shaped my understanding of how and why I teach, and have given me a specific appreciation for the way that Lawrence has enabled me to further develop as an educator.

Prior to joining the Lawrence faculty, I taught for one semester at Hampshire College, a school that is similar to Lawrence in its emphasis on engaged learning and innovation both inside and outside of the classroom. My favorite challenge while teaching at Hampshire, however, was that Hampshire is an institution where grades do not exist; instead, students receive narrative evaluations of their performance in class, and are expected to work closely with faculty on designing and following their own unique curricula. My semester at Hampshire forced me to think hard about how and why I ask students to complete assignments. Teaching at an institution where students were not motived by the desire to simply “get a good grade,” I found myself needing to justify why writing a paper or completing a project was important to the overall learning objectives of my class. That semester has helped me to think carefully about how I structure my courses and assess students’ performance. I have brought that approach to my teaching at Lawrence; I try to be transparent with students about the ways that our courses are structured, and I scaffold assignments in ways that encourage sustained engagement in class.

For example, in my Fall 2018 Buddhism in East Asia course, students were asked to write six short reflections throughout the term, and post them to our course blog (rlst216.wordpress.com). There were no fixed due dates for these reflections; students were encouraged to write whenever something that we read or discussed in the course piqued their interest. In class, I would often refer to our course blog, asking the student-authors of recent posts to explain their writing to their peers. This usually served as a jumping-off point for discussion for the day, and we would incorporate new material into students’ analyses of previous readings. For the final paper in the course, students were asked to expand on one of their previous blog posts by including insights from their classmates and our discussions in class. Structuring the class this way kept students engaged with the material, and encouraged them to listen to and learn from their peers throughout the duration of the term.

Also before my Lawrence career began, I taught an introductory Buddhism course at the Rangjung Yeshe Institute at Kathmandu University. This 8-week intensive course welcomed students from diverse backgrounds; my class of fifteen students consisted of a recent high school graduate, several undergraduate and graduate students, Buddhist practitioners, a professor of Western Philosophy, and a professional astrophysicist. These students came from nearly half a dozen different countries, several of whom were non-native English speakers. While I generally enjoy teaching about Buddhism, given the varied backgrounds and experiences of my students, this course was particularly challenging. However, it taught me the importance of considering students’ needs in the classroom, and making adjustments when necessary. Rather than “teaching to the middle,” which would have excluded the majority of students in the class, I developed assignments that engaged students at various levels. Those who were not as skilled at writing college-level essays in English were encouraged to deliver oral presentations; those coming from other professional backgrounds were encouraged to put our course material into conversation with their own areas of expertise; and those who were brand new to Buddhist thought were provided with structured, low-stakes assignments designed to build their confidence in course material.

I have tried to replicate these varied kinds of assignments in my courses at Lawrence, while again keeping in mind the diverse backgrounds and experiences of my current students. In my Introduction to Religious Studies course, for example, a portion of a student’s grade is based on regular, brief comments and questions posted to a class discussion board (rlst100.party). Each time a student posts comments on the assigned reading, they earn 1% toward their final grade for the course. These short, low-stakes assignments add up to account for 20% of a student’s overall grade, and serve to facilitate discussion in class. These comments and questions ensure that students complete the assigned reading before each class, and have the added benefit of boosting the confidence of students who are more hesitant to participate in classroom discussions. By giving students an opportunity to think through their ideas and questions before we meet as a class, I enable quieter students to articulate their ideas with confidence in our class discussions. These short assignments, combined with group presentations, an in-class midterm, and a take-home final enable me to evaluate students’ engagement with course material in a number of different ways, taking students’ varied backgrounds and experiences into account.

Where am I now? Teaching at Lawrence

In my two and a half years at Lawrence, I have built on my previous teaching experience in an attempt to create engaging learning environments for students. I have structured my courses in ways that encourage different kinds of learning experiences, and I incorporate activities that encourage students to interact with each other, as well as with communities and environments outside of formal classroom settings.

I have begun to structure my Buddhist Studies courses according to a traditional Buddhist model of learning known as the “Three Wisdom Tools.” According to many Buddhist traditions, this threefold model, consisting of hearing, contemplating, and meditating (śruta-cintā-bhāvanā), is essential for deep learning. “Hearing” means that a student must first encounter new material, either through reading or through listening to a teacher’s instructions. “Contemplating” involves working on one’s own to understand the complexities of the material on a deeper level. Finally, “meditating” involves internalizing the material, integrating it into one’s understanding of the world.

My Winter 2019 course on Buddhism in India and Tibet (buddhism.fun) is based on this model. Tuesday class meetings are generally devoted to “hearing”; Students read background material and secondary sources that introduce general concepts, and I deliver short lectures to clarify new terminology and contextualize content. Thursdays involve “contemplating,” meaning that we engage deeply with primary sources as a class, and investigate concrete applications of the general ideas that we are studying. I often ask students to read through and discuss selections from primary texts in small groups before we discuss these selections as a class, and I challenge them to relate the material to topics that we covered earlier in the week. The “meditation” component of the course involves a brief period of silent or guided meditation at the beginning of each class, which I try to tailor to the specific topics that we are discussing. For example, when learning about the concept of equanimity, in which the mind is supposed to remain stable for a long period of time, I will guide the class in basic meditation on the breath, instructing students to avoid distractions. When we discuss the more philosophical concept of emptiness, on the other hand, I guide the class in an analytical meditation on the nature of the self.

This threefold model serves to introduce students to Buddhist thought through the structure of our class as well as its content. Beyond that, however, I have found that most students genuinely enjoy a brief period of meditation at the beginning of class. The 5 or 10 minutes in which we practice meditation might be the only time in a student’s day when they are not doing multiple things at once, when they are not distracted by technology, and when they can simply sit still without worrying about everything else on their to-do list. This has had a profound effect on the environment in my classroom, as well; after a few minutes of sitting still and collecting themselves, students contribute more thoughtfully to discussions, and seem generally more present and engaged.

In all of my classes, I try to structure assignments and materials in ways that encourage students to interact with each other, both inside and outside of a formal classroom setting. To this effect, class blogs are a staple in many of my courses. In larger classes, students sign up to write blog posts on specific days, and the rest of the class reads and comments on their classmates’ writing. In my Hinduism class (rlst210.wordpress.com), for example, each student took responsibility for one chapter in our main textbook for the course, writing a post that provided a synopsis and analysis of the chapter, and posing several questions for discussion in class. Other students were required to respond to their classmate’s post before class, either replying to the posted questions or posing questions of their own. Structuring class in this way gave every student an opportunity to think through the course material before every class meeting, which primed them for discussion. Even the quieter students felt confident in speaking up during our class discussions, because they had taken time to think through questions and difficult points on their own. Our blog in this course also served as a basis for an end-of-term collaborative project: the creation of an online, interactive timeline of Hinduism. In the last weeks of the term, students collectively transformed their blog posts into points along a timeline and re-presented their writing to their classmates. These final presentations required students to interrogate their own section of the timeline in relation to those of their classmates, and encouraged them to revisit familiar material from a different perspective. (I intend to use this timeline as a teaching tool the next time I offer my Hinduism course; my next class will use a different set of texts to construct another timeline, which we will then compare to the previous class’s timeline. My hope is that these different timelines will aid us in discussions about the different ways in which religious traditions and religious history can be explained.)

I also structure my courses in ways that physically remove students from formal classroom settings. In my Buddhism in East Asia course last fall, we read some primary texts that used metaphors related to water to explain the Buddhist conception of the mind. In order to explore these metaphors more deeply, our class met one day on the bike path at the edge of the Fox River. In my fall 2016 Religion in South Asia course, we studied Hindu goddess traditions by analyzing both traditional and contemporary texts about the goddess Durga, and then visited the Hindu Temple of Northeast Wisconsin during Navaratri, a Hindu holiday that celebrates Durga. After the formal prayer ceremony, students had a conversation with the temple priest and shared a meal with congregants. By meeting with classes outside of a formal classroom setting, I encourage students to reflect critically on textual sources, and to see the relevance of seemingly different ways of thinking to their own lives.

While Lawrence’s 10-week terms have afforded me some flexibility in my teaching, I have also enjoyed experimenting with courses that meet for different lengths of time. In 2017-2018, I developed a two-term Field Experience course on Buddhism in Nepal, which included a 15-day trip to Kathmandu during the break between fall and winter terms. The fall term consisted of introducing students to Buddhist thought and practice, to the culture of Nepal, and to the history of Tibetan refugees in Nepal. While in Nepal between terms, our group lived in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, where students were instructed in philosophy and meditation by monks. Upon returning to Lawrence in the winter term, students completed independent research projects based on their experiences in Kathmandu, and together, hosted a poster session to present their research at the end of the term. And earlier this year, I taught a two-week December Term course called Happiness, which investigated Buddhist and psychological approaches to understanding why we suffer, and what different groups think that we should do in order to be happy. Meditation factored prominently in this course as well; we meditated for the first 10 to 15 minutes of each class, experimenting with different styles based on the material that we were covering that day. In addition to completing reading assignments and a group project, students were also required to maintain a daily meditation practice on their own outside of class, and keep a meditation journal.

Beyond the ways in which I structure my classes and assignments, I see myself as a teacher who relates to students through an acknowledgement of our shared humanity. This means allowing for some flexibility – both from myself and from students – while accomplishing all of the objectives for a course. For example, I am often willing to grant extensions on assignments, provided that students notify me in advance that they will need more time. When I have noticed that students are particularly drained or stressed mid-way through a term, I have offered them extra credit for doing something completely unrelated to their coursework, such as getting off campus or taking time away from their technology. We sometimes spend time in class discussing how to cope with stress, or how to recover from failure. So far, I have found that students tend to appreciate these policies and opportunities that allow them to be more fully human in my courses.

Where am I going? Looking forward

I am a teacher who enjoys experimenting and trying new things with students. Sometimes we succeed in these experiments, and sometimes we learn how we can do better. By being transparent about ways that I’m stretching myself and learning new things, I hope to model the kind of learning that I want my students to pursue.

One of my biggest challenges in the classroom is trying to cover all of the material that I’ve assigned in every class meeting. I try to structure class time in ways that allow us to cover all of the assigned reading, but I often find myself cursing at the clock at the end of a class period, lamenting the fact that we haven’t gotten through everything that I had hoped we would cover. My goal is to work on finding a balance between engaging students with their questions, and getting through a sufficient amount of material so that the class can move on to more difficult topics with confidence.

I have also learned the importance of being transparent in my grading practices. In my first year at Lawrence, I was not as clear about my grading policies as I could have been. This resulted in complaints from a student who was not satisfied with his grade and accused me of discrimination. These complaints escalated to the point that he raised his concerns with the Provost, and although he never filed a formal grievance, I learned from that experience that I needed to be explicit in my grading policies for all assignments. I now assess all graded work within the constructs of a rubric, so that students can easily understand the ways in which their grades are earned. This year, I have begun involving students in the rubric-making process; before the first major writing assignment is due, we devote time in class to evaluating and discussing examples of effective writing compared to ineffective writing. Collectively, each class creates its own rubric for assessing papers, based on what they decide is reasonable. This practice of involving students in their own assessment gives them a greater sense of ownership over their assignments. It also allows me to more easily justify and explain the grades that students earn in class, which has eliminated grade disputes thus far.

Although few Lawrence students become Religious Studies majors, and even fewer focus on Asian religions or Buddhist Studies, my hope is that anyone who takes one of my classes is able to gain something valuable from the experience. My teaching goals can be summarized as an attempt to encourage students to stay curious and respectful of the world around them, and to enjoy learning from and with one another in community. Regardless of what they go on to pursue after Lawrence, I want my students to be able to think critically, develop self-awareness, engage with something that stretches them beyond what they think they already know, and remember something about my class for years to come.