Teaching Tactics

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom!

The most significant strategy that I have implemented in my courses is that of making the class into an environment where multiple voices can be heard and in which students can take leadership in terms of the learning agenda. The most common tactic that I use in this regard is starting a class with a period in which students discuss in small groups their written responses to a common reading and select the themes or topics to be discussed by the class as a whole. In my classes, I have found that beginning a class in this way is effective in giving students the sense that they are responsible for what they learn in the classroom, and that they are responsible for choosing the specific topics to be discussed. In a large class of 60-80 students, each group of 4-6 selects one topic, and writes it on the board. The class as a whole then votes on which 3 or 4 topics the class as a whole should discuss. There is an important performative dimension to this process in that the first people to write anything on the board are the students; also, the students vote by placing an X next to the topic that they most wish to discuss. By getting out of their seats and writing on the board, everyone plays some role, however, minor, in determining what the content of the class will be. This strategy aligns with the goal of transforming education from a process in which students learn by imitating their teacher’s voice into one in which students develop their own voices.

Sustainability and Interdisciplinarity

My research into religion and nature in China has led me to develop some expertise in talking with academics from the fields of science, economics, education and public policy, who are interested in the goal of sustainability. In my mind, a liberal arts curriculum should ground students in scientific knowledge of the universe and humanistic traditions of moral reasoning.

Bridging the gap between disciplines is one that is quite difficult to do well. I have adopted two tactics for dealing with this. One is to give students books to read that have attempted to do this. For instance, I have often used Loyal Rue’s book Religion is Not About God in various classes because this book attempts to given an interpretation of religion from the perspective of evolutionary biology, and models one way in which natural science and humanities research can be integrated. While I do not necessarily agree with Rue, reading the book is an effective way to allow students to forces students to draw on what they have learned in other classes.

A second tactic that I have recently developed is that of co-teaching a class with someone from another department. Institutional structures at Queen’s normally prevent this from happening, but recently I devised a way around this by arranging for my class RELS394 Religion and Politics in Modern China to be scheduled at the same time and immediately adjacent to Professor Emily Hill’s class HIST394 Green China: Environment, Culture & Politics. As a result we were able to design ways for students from both disciplines to interact: history students were mixed with religious studies students in small discussion groups; both groups were assigned common readings; both classes were periodically joined together in one large class. As a result students were forced to engage the topic of “green China” from a variety of perspectives, including religion and culture, history, politics and environmental studies, and acquired a more comprehensive view of the way in which ecological sustainability demands engagement from multiple spheres and disciplines.

Critical Religious Studies

When I came to Queen’s I inherited the teaching of a typical large survey course in World Religions. Over the years I have come to a fundamental rethinking of what the purpose of such a course should be. In my view, the most important function of such a course is not to introduce tudents to the various views about gods, the universe and everything from the perspective of the world’s religious traditions but rather to examine how those religious traditions function so as to authorize or transform social practices including gender roles, class/status distinctions, and racial/national identity. In my view this way of teaching about religion serves the vital secular goal of understanding how religion functions in society, and provides an important critique of the normative discourse about religion that is authorized by religious leaders and institutions. To this end I have implemented a rather unusual tactic of teaching world religions through primary texts rather than the typical textbook that introduces the world views of “Buddhism” or “Hinduism” as cultural categories that have an unquestioned univocity and integrity. I find that by putting more emphasis on key texts and less emphasis on learning the received wisdom about “the Buddhist view of suffering” it is possible from the very outset of a religious studies program to introduce students to the possibility of understanding religion from outside a religious framework. Thus in my world religions class, students are not tested on what Confucianism or Hinduism “teach” but are invited to compare the ways in which religious texts from different traditions authorize certain social functions or distinctions.