September 23 2018

by Kevin Singer

woman working on a laptop faces the window inside a coffee shop

I am among the ranks of those in religious studies, who, at least for a time, seriously doubted that our discipline could be successfully imported into an online learning environment. Surely, I thought, interactions between students and professor would be trivial, discussions would be sanitized, and the depth of learning would prove inconsequential. Admittedly, for a time, I was influenced by the narrative that online education is a sorry excuse for the treasures that await those in traditional, face-to-face learning environments. Even more, I questioned the commitment and mettle of students who preferred online courses. If they were truly serious about the profundity of their learning, I thought, they wouldn't have taken the online path of least resistance.

Emilie M. Townes

Katie G. Cannon

Katie G. Cannon was and remains one of the most incisive, creative, and rigorous minds we have in contemporary Christian ethics. She was the first person in the religious disciplines to use the term “womanist” in print in her 1985 article, “The Emergence of Black Feminist Consciousness.”1 In this essay, she explored the shift from the use of “Black feminist consciousness” to “Black womanist consciousness” as an interpretive principle that addresses oppression. In Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community (1995), she gathered a collection of her essays to offer womanist norms for emancipatory praxis—a systemic analysis of race, sex, and class from the perspective of Black women in the academy and the church. Her Teaching Preaching: Isaac Rufus Clark and Black Sacred Rhetoric (2007) explored Black homiletics professor Issac Rufus Clark’s pedagogical strategies, providing a resource for those who seek to give sound, biblically informed, and socially relevant sermons. Her co-edited books are landmark texts: God’s Fierce Whimsy: Christian Feminism and Theological Education (1985); Inheriting Our Mothers’ Gardens: Feminist Theology in Third World Perspective (1988); Womanist Theological Ethics: A Reader (2011); and Oxford Handbook of African American Theology (2014).

by SherAli Tareen

A car drives through a crowd of people waving the red and green flags of Pakistan's PTI political party. Then-PTI leader Imran Khan waves to the crowd from the car.

The American mainstream media boasts a voracious appetite for caricaturing, simplifying, and neatly categorizing non-Western people and life, especially when it comes to Muslim people and life. The most recent example of such sensationalist dehumanization came in the wake of the recently concluded elections in Pakistan that saw philanthropist-cum-politician Imran Khan sweep to victory. The outcome of these elections presented the Western media with a vexing conceptual difficulty: the man Pakistanis had elected as their Prime Minister, Imran Khan, does not neatly fit the predetermined categories that Muslims are supposed to fit into: liberal, conservative, fundamentalist, radical, moderate, etc.

Raj Balkaran, University of Toronto, editor

Children dressed as Lord Krishna wait for a fancy dress competition. Credit: Ajay Verma/Reuters

Teaching a religion’s favorite stories is an excellent way of teaching what that religion most values. In understanding a religious tradition’s most cherished stories, we come to intimately understand that tradition even when the stories appear ancillary to the heart of the matter. For example, the story of the king relayed at the outset of this article serves merely a framing device to the acts of the Goddess themselves, a device dismissed outright over the past 150 years of scholarship on the Devī Māhātmya as a flimsy means of latching the Goddess’s glories into the larger mythological fabric of the Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa in which the text is couched. However, my research demonstrates the rich utility of taking seriously the frame narrative for grappling with the Goddess’s glories. These findings are forthcoming in a book to be published fall 2018, in Routledge’s Hindu Studies Series and entitled The Goddess and the King in Indian Myth. Suffice is to say that framing stories is crucial for understanding an Indian text, even when that text is received as more philosophical than mythological in nature. An excellent example is to be found in the Upaniṣads.

Steven E. Lindquist, Southern Methodist University

Children dressed as Lord Krishna wait for a fancy dress competition. Credit: Ajay Verma/Reuters 

Prior to the last couple decades, detailed discussion of Upaniṣadic narrative in scholarship was rare and even looked upon with a degree of suspicion or dismissal; linguistic and philosophical interests dominated the literature. More recently, though, such narratives have started to receive more serious treatment as narratives. Olivelle, Brereton, Black, Grinshpon, and I have analyzed different stories or different themes across those stories. While I can only speak anecdotally, this previous suspicion towards Upaniṣadic narrative has never held for the undergraduate religious studies classroom, though a bias towards the doctrinal or philosophical persists. The Upaniṣads, like the Bhagavad Gītā, are texts that must be approached in Hindu studies’ classes, even if cursorily (generally with more consideration than the Vedas if less than the Epics or later literature). Given the fundamental place of the Upaniṣads in Hindu religious history—as our first discussions of karma and liberation as well as taken as the "culmination of the Vedas" by many within the tradition—Upaniṣadic narratives are commonly utilized in the classroom. But unlike the Gītā and the Epics more broadly, the norm for including Upaniṣadic narratives seems to be primarily as side examples meant to ease students into some of the difficulties of grappling with Upaniṣadic ideas. This is, at least to some degree, reasonable: the narratives can be enjoyable, even humorous, and the expository passages of the Upaniṣads are difficult to grapple with even for a specialist, let alone an undergraduate student. Moreover, the narratives in the Upaniṣads easily lend themselves to the role of examples (and they have done so often enough in the Hindu tradition itself) since the majority of the Upaniṣads' contents are explicitly portrayed as difficult to understand.

Hillary Rodrigues, The University of Lethbridge

Children dressed as Lord Krishna wait for a fancy dress competition. Credit: Ajay Verma/Reuters 

I wish to discuss three strategies that I have implemented utilizing narrative to enhance the textbook experience in the study of Hinduism. I have been teaching an introductory semester-long course in the Hindu tradition for about twenty-five years. By the end of each year of my first decade of teaching, my students and I were roundly disappointed with the various textbooks we had used in the course that year. Although well written and bursting with promise, the books were not well received by my students. They were often too chock-full of information, discussing dozens of minor Hindu sects and with needless references to scholars and their conflicting theories. Closer scrutiny revealed why they had initially appealed to me: they were partly written for the author’s peers, namely, the professor who chooses the course texts, and not for the novice students who must slog their way through those poor choices. It is only when I accepted the offer to write a textbook of my own, Hinduism – The eBook, that I fully appreciated the reason why so many textbooks fail: when crafting the text, it took sustained effort to keep my intended student audience constantly front and center, because I was perennially concerned about how my peers would evaluate my competence. Such fears are healthy if they enhance the quality of one’s work. However, they undoubtedly and unfortunately lead authors to include materials—such as the names of fellow academics and their cutting-edge debates, or erudite references to innumerable sectarian variations—which are largely irrelevant in the initial stages of the study of any religious tradition.

Jeffrey M. Brackett, Ball State University

Children dressed as Lord Krishna wait for a fancy dress competition. Credit: Ajay Verma/Reuters 

Teaching an introductory course on Hinduism presents a number of pedagogical challenges, not least of which is the selection of the course readings. This situation is not unique to instructors of Hindu traditions, as faculty across disciplinary subfields will attest. Of course, readings ought also to align with course goals and learning outcomes, and they should effectively integrate assignments appropriately scaffolded to facilitate said goals. Beyond these issues, one need also to consider one’s institutional location: department, college, university, and community goals, mission, and expectations. On top of that, pedagogical choices ought also to negotiate the social locations of the students and their educational backgrounds (i.e., Is this their only course in religious studies? What is their major? How far along are they in their college experience?). Far from being an exhaustive list, these issues are intended simply to indicate the complexities facing instructors of introductory courses. I tend also to include two other elements: (1) Narratives, such as ethnographic accounts or novels; and (2) At least one assignment that is “self-referential” (more on that below), or, as many students say, “relatable.” The first element tends to de-exoticize the course content, in part, by challenging Orientalism, essentialism, and sweeping metanarratives that call for historical—and other—contextualizing details.

Elizabeth M. Rohlman, University of Calgary

Children dressed as Lord Krishna wait for a fancy dress competition. Credit: Ajay Verma/Reuters 

A few years ago, there was a panel at the Annual Meeting of the AAR entitled “Teaching Eastern Religions in Western Classrooms.” The panelists included individuals whom I respect tremendously as scholars and gifted teachers, and whom I count as friends. But the commonality of the panelists was that they taught at undergraduate institutions in small “college towns” to student bodies that were, for the most part, racially and ethnically homogenous. I struggled to relate to the framing of this panel. In Calgary, my undergraduate classes are populated by roughly sixty-to-seventy percent South Asian students. These students range from fifth- or sixth-generation Canadians, descended from the Sikh labourers who built the Canada Pacific Railway in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to students who are, like me, “New Canadians,” the rather endearing term the Canadian government uses for immigrants. I wondered, while at this panel, should the students in my classes be considered “Western” or “Eastern”? Even more precisely, I wondered whether the Hinduism, Sikhism, and Islam my students practice in their Canadian homes should be considered “Eastern” or “Western” religions. Ultimately, I wondered: how should we define this distinction? The teaching reflections that follow represent the evolution of my own teaching since arriving in Calgary a decade ago; but more broadly, they represent an attempt to reframe our pedagogical assumptions so that we might move away from the highly racialized and unnecessarily exoticized assumption that professors of Hindu studies are necessarily teaching a homogenous group of white, largely Christian, students about the non-white, mysterious “other.”

Shana Sippy, Centre College and Carleton College

Children dressed as Lord Krishna wait for a fancy dress competition. Credit: Ajay Verma/Reuters 

When we introduce students to sacred texts, we often begin with what scholars and historians consider the canonized version of classics. While this approach has many virtues, especially when augmented by other tellings, it commonly fails to convey how people actually receive and engage with texts in lived religious contexts.

Growing up, children are rarely first introduced to religious narratives through the “official” versions of sacred text but, rather, they imbibe them through bedtime stories, comic books, and videos. Stories are recounted during pujas (worship services) and festival celebrations, encountered in visual representations, devotional songs, visits to temples, and as part of religious instruction. In all of these cases, the ways that narratives are transmitted involve tremendous amounts of distillation. Not only do retellings reflect regional, devotional, and other cultural differences, but they also reveal religious, moral, and ethical expectations, modes of subject formation, and processes of interpolation (as sacred narratives are seen to manifest within and/or help people to interpret their lives).

Caleb Simmons, University of Arizona

When I arrived at the University of Arizona as a new assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Classics, I was tasked with building the curriculum on South Asian religions. In fact, the only course that was on-the-books and related to my area of expertise—Hinduism—was an older holdover from the university’s “Department of Oriental Studies.” This course was titled “Hindu Mythology.” While the title seemed a bit outdated (and I worried if the title was “sexy” enough to draw in students), I was thrilled that I would be able to teach this course because it gave me a perfect opportunity to teach through narratives, and the old-fashioned title would serve to set the tone of the course in which we could problematize both the categories of “Hinduism” and “myth.” Indeed, structuring a course entirely around Hindu narratives proved to engage students and introduce them to the variety of traditions under the rubric of Hinduism, and it also helped them understand its history as it is embedded within the texts that we encounter. While the course proved to be successful with high enrollments—I guess the title was sexier than I thought—and I could see students engaging with the narratives in a way that they often don’t with textbooks, in many ways I felt like I was doing the tradition a disservice because, intentional or not, I was reifying a model of studying and teaching religion (largely based on Protestant Christian theology) that privileged textual sources over other sources of religious knowledge.

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