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 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 ongoing research in India and Nepal informs my teaching. Working and studying in Himalayan communities has provided me with first-hand experience analyzing a number of different modes of conveying religious thought, through listening to oral teachings by a village priest in Kinnaur, reading fifteenth-century manuscripts in a Tibetan monastery in Kathmandu, and analyzing murals painted 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.

In addition to primary texts and secondary literature, I assign films, comic books, and art for students to analyze in my courses. By including such diverse materials into my courses, students learn to analyze different types of readings in nuanced and sophisticated ways. In my Introduction to Religious Studies course, for example, 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 gives students first-hand experience with religious materials in a very literal sense; the museum allows them to wear gloves and handle many of the materials in its holdings. I have found that by encouraging students to engage with diverse materials in this way, they are able to form more nuanced understandings of religious traditions.

When teaching religious traditions at the introductory level, I show 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 often seem removed from many students’ day-to-day experiences in an American college or university. In order to provide concrete examples of living traditions in my courses, I incorporate field trips and invite guest speakers when possible. My 2017 Religion in South Asia class, for example, studied Hindu goddess traditions by reading both traditional and contemporary texts about the goddess Durga, and then visiting the Hindu Temple of Northeast Wisconsin during Navaratri, a Hindu holiday that celebrates Durga. I have also taken small groups of students on short-term study programs, spending 2-3 weeks in India or Nepal to study Tibetan Buddhist thought. By emphasizing connections between ancient traditions and some of their contemporary interpretations, I encourage students to reflect critically on the teachings of those traditions, and show them 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 significant component of online interaction outside of class; 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, 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, internet memes, or other digital sources 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 and more astute thinking 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 classroom environment, in which students feel comfortable speaking with one another.

When I ask students to write essays, I often break down the writing process into smaller, more manageable steps, requiring outlines and drafts to be submitted in advance of the final version. Many of my introductory-level courses, in particular, devote several class meetings to focusing on the writing process, in which we discuss constructing thesis statements, developing effective arguments, and creating strong conclusions. While this strategy has the obvious benefit of ensuring that students do not 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 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 reevaluate their own methods for writing 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.