What’s in Your Religion Syllabus?: Sarah F. Haynes

Nuns and PhonesIn this new series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars of religion to share with our readers what’s in their religion syllabus, from a new class or a class they’ve taught for years, reflecting on what has worked, what has been modified, and how it has proven useful for covering a particular topic in the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here, here, and here.

by Sarah F. Haynes

My most popular upper-division course is titled: Buddhism. Yes, it is that broad. At a regional mid-western school like Western Illinois University many junior-level courses are broadly cast as a means of drawing in those from other programs. This is particularly important at WIU where the major in Religious Studies was dismantled last year. In light of this restructuring, the task of retooling my upper-division courses has been more extensive than in previous years.

The course description reads:

This course introduces students to Buddhism; its textual traditions and practices in its different manifestations throughout Asia and the West. We examine the historical development and philosophical traditions of Buddhism and consider how they have been shaped by and helped shape different cultures, communities, and worldviews. In addition, we pay particular attention to the lived experiences of Buddhist lay and monastic communities. Students will engage in critical reflection on Buddhist teachings and practices through primary source material, visual images, and various other media.

The broad nature of Buddhism and its relatively low enrollment (in recent years under twenty students each semester) affords me the opportunity to tailor the course based on student interest and current events. Come August when registration stabilizes I am able to look at the roster, students’ majors/minors, to consider last minute reading and assignment changes.

Since ordering books occurs so much earlier than the course starts, the “traditional” textbook that I continue to return to is Introducing Buddhism by Charles Prebish and Damien Keown. What I rather like about Introducing Buddhism (and the whole Routledge Introducing series) is the attention paid to modern manifestations of Buddhism and themes relevant to Buddhism in the 21st century. It helps that students have responded favorably to the textbook, its study tools, and other useful resources.

Each week students are required to read two or three chapters of Introducing Buddhism, along with primary source material. Here I turn to the Internet as a means of lowering students’ book costs. Students are directed to one or two sutras that elucidate material discussed in the textbook. The first half of the semester follows this format.

To ensure students are doing the weekly readings, they are required to submit, typically before class, a two-page typed reading response that critically engages with an aspect of that week’s readings. Additionally, students are required to come to class with at least two questions that foster class discussion. If it becomes apparent during class that students are struggling with the material, I allow them to revise their reading response and resubmit it a couple hours after class.

The second half of the semester is the part of the course that I tinker with the most, and it often focuses on a few broad topics that are then informed from the various Buddhist traditions. Past topics have been: gender, politics, modernity, socially-engaged Buddhism, and pop culture. However, as a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, I rarely have the opportunity to teach it at WIU. So I often pepper the last half of the course with Tibetan Buddhist material. For example, Being a Buddhist Nun: The Struggle for Enlightenment in the Himalayas by Kim Gutschow allows students to engage in a dialogue with concepts learned from the first half of the semester and what it means to be a Tibetan Buddhist nun in the 21st century.

The last couple of offerings of Buddhism have paid particular attention to Buddhist developments from the 19th-21st centuries. It is this material that students have responded most favorably. In discussing Buddhist modernity, I have turned to David McMahan’s two books, The Making of Buddhist Modernism and the more recent anthology Buddhism in the Modern World.

The course inevitably includes students drawn to it based on preconceived notions of Buddhism derived from popular culture. I have started to take advantage of this by including non-traditional assessment methods for end of the semester assignments. For example, when I taught the class in 2014, week after week I would listen to my Buddhism students talk passionately before each class about The Walking Dead. I jumped on the bandwagon so to speak, and we discussed the possibility of developing a final project around Buddhism and the zombie apocalypse. It was the most energized I had seen them all semester. We spent time as a group developing the zombie apocalypse scenario. Taking ideas from other pop culture representations, not simply copying The Walking Dead. After the scenario was set I had them write Buddhist responses to the zombie apocalypse.

This type of assignment is indicative of one of my goals for this course. I aim for my students to be able to apply theory, method, and concepts to the world beyond the classroom. For them, the zombie assignment seemed like a fun, easy project. However, they quickly realized a firm grasp of the concepts was needed to develop a “plausible” response. And while a zombie apocalypse is unlikely, I am content leaving my students with the ability to identify how and why Buddhism is manifested in and ever-changing around the world.

Sarah F. Haynes, PhD (University of Calgary) is associate professor in the Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies at Western Illinois University where she teaches courses related to Asian religious traditions. Her areas of research include Tibetan Buddhist ritual and Buddhism in North America.

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