Intro to Religions & Threshold Concepts

This summer I decided to try something slightly different for my survey course on Asian religious traditions. I wanted a way to bridge the diverse religious traditions I planned on covering. In other words, I wanted a way for students to more easily and creatively engage in the act – and art – of comparison.

I decided to use a set of “threshold concepts” to function as lenses for comparison. I described “threshold concepts” in my syllabus, along with how I wanted them to be used and which terms I selected. Here is the relevant excerpt from my syllabus:

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There were plenty of comparative terms that did not make the cut, including: deity, monism, human nature, millenarianism, sacred/spiritual, and cosmogony/cosmology.

My basic criteria for selection was, admittedly, biased. But generally, the terms needed to serve several functions. First, they needed to be potentially useful for a definition of religion. The main writing projects for my students were oriented around critiquing and creating such a definition. Second, I needed to be able to clearly exemplify the term in the content of that day’s assigned reading and lecture. For example, we discussed material culture on the day we examined the Indus Valley Civilization, which is re-constituted solely through archaeological and art historical remains. Asceticism was discussed in the context of the śramaṇa movements in ancient India, epistemology was introduced to talk about the early Buddhist approach to the Dharma, metaphor was used to understand the explanations of the Dao in the Daode jing, and so forth. Sometimes I selected a term because I thought it could highlight a different way of thinking about religions (see non-violence, immortality, humor).

The immediate problem I encountered was trying to figure out how to introduce these concepts effectively without spending too much time on them. I first thought about simply using Wikipedia entries, but then settled on selecting entries from the widely used Encyclopedia of Religion. The entries here were too long, however, and many times too complex for what I was looking for. Oftentimes the entries placed too much of an emphasis on Western religious traditions, which I didn’t want confusing (or even “tainting”) my students.

Ultimately, I decided I would make short audio recordings, hitting the points I thought were most effective and illustrative of the traditions we were covering. I based many of my ideas on the entries in the Encyclopedia of Religion and provided the pdf’s to my students who wanted further clarification. I didn’t want students to do more (and potentially needless) reading and was hoping to provide them with another mode of learning. These recordings, shunning all modesty, worked perfectly. Students listened to the recordings (which I called “briefs”) and located where the concept was illustrated in that day’s reading. They were then expected to write about their ideas in daily reading posts.

I will do another post on creating the “podcasts” later. Ultimately I found the threshold concepts worked well in helping to organize student thoughts and gave them a solid framework for crafting a definition of “religion.” I recently asked my student to select two potential threshold concepts they would highlight for their definitions, and the tally was as follows:

  • Soteriology x7
  • Community x6
  • Mysticism x5
  • Material culture x5
  • Morality x4 (=ethics)
  • Ritual x3
  • Epistemology x2
  • Myth
  • Ontology
  • Scripture (=textualism)
  • Metaphor

Clearly not every “threshold concept” was equally valuable in this assignment (though we had not yet discussed paradise, nature, or humor when the students posted their ideas), but I am quite happy with the variety. I am also happy some students decided to wrestle with tricky terms like epistemology and ontology, or even ideas that often get overlooked in religious studies, such as material culture or metaphor.

If I was to employ threshold concepts again in this manner I may cut some out in future iterations. But, nevertheless, I am quite pleased with how this turned out for this iteration of my survey course.

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