Primer for Online Student Discussion Forums

Given the widespread preference for asynchronous low-bandwidth teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, here’s a quick primer on trying to keep some person-to-person interaction in your not-really-designed-to-be-online online course.

In the hopes of being pragmatic, I discuss what I do and why I do it. There are other ways of running online discussion, this is only one example. A more theoretical, yet still highly informative, discussion of running online forums by Ester Trujillo can be found here. Another article with useful tips published recently in Inside Higher Ed can be found here.

The ideas I discuss below approach more of an ideal scenario with plenty of time for planning, but several different ideas here can be cobbled together for a completely serviceable experience for everyone. Lastly, I’ll admit I describe a fairly programmatic approach to running discussion forums, some may feel more comfortable with a more open-ended approach that suits their teaching style.

What software can I use?

All major college and university Learning Management Systems (LMS), such as Canvas, Moodle, or Blackboard, are designed with a discussion forum where students can reply directly to one another.

Other chat-room or messaging software possibilities include Slack, Packback, Flipgrid, or Discord, among many others. Of these, I’ve only used Slack and it’s pretty great. Slack is available as a free desktop app or free mobile app and was designed for collaboration and project management across different groups. Because of this functionality Slack works perfectly well within an educational context where peer-communication is important. Students can interact in “channels” (essentially, discussion rooms) that are set up to handle specific topics, readings, lectures, etc. There is a very minimal learning curve and I know some instructors who prefer Slack over the discussion forums found in their LMS.

Packback is specifically designed for educators, while Flipgrid is a higher bandwidth option for interacting with short videos. Discord is popular among gamers and thus many students may be familiar with how it operates. I’ve also seen some instructors suggest using private Facebook groups, Reddit, or Twitter.

What about basic logistics, like frequency of assignments and due times?

In the past, I’ve had students post before every face-to-face (F2F) class meeting, including during summer sessions that met four days a week. Otherwise, to lessen some of the work burden when teaching a writing intensive course, I would not have students post on days when a writing assignment was also due. In an online environment, it is more likely these discussion posts will form the backbone of the virtual classroom experience and thus will be assigned with regularity.

When I use discussion forums in F2F classes, I use class time to have small group discussions. For online courses, this peer-to-peer interaction occurs by having students post comments on other students’ posts. Because of student workload, I would suggest allowing at least one full day, if not two full days or more for everyone to comment (certainly more than a few hours). For example, if an assignment is sent out Monday, the posts would be due by Wednesday and comments due by Friday. As I will discuss below, I think it is worthwhile for the instructor to provide some comments about the entire discussion at the end of the week, more-so than commenting on every individual student post.

I would also recommend dividing students into small groups (of 3-5 students), either for the duration of the course or for shorter intervals of time. This can be done easily with the software noted above and gives the opportunity to create a better sense of community among members of the small groups. This can also help develop deeper dialogues between students over the long run.

How can I assess students’ posts?

Providing guidance to student on how to think critically and share ideas in online discussion forums is important. The directions you provide should give insight to the kind of critical thinking you want your students to perform. Do you want students to synthesize information or analyze it? Do you want them to offer critiques of arguments or to ask questions? Do you want students to make connections to real life scenarios or to tie ideas back to integral course themes? Do you want students to exhibit creativity or to show command of the material?

Broadly speaking, your means of assessment must be transparent and clear, thus the directions you give should be chosen carefully. If the directions are clear, you can create an easy rubric for students as well. Here are a few considerations.

Quantity: You will likely want to establish a minimum number or words (or sentences, perhaps) that each student’s post will contain. Between 100 words and 250 words is reasonable, but this depends on your goals for the assignment. I would suggest the limit is equally about how much time you can devote to reading every student post on a regular basis – longer is not necessarily better.

Quality: While some may prefer to leave student responses more open-ended, I would strongly suggest having structure. For example, because cultivating citation habits are important in my courses, I require students to include the page numbers of the passages they comment upon. This is in addition to several other aspects I incorporate:

  1. 1BT: If you are going to ask students to answer specific questions about a reading, try to make sure those questions are open-ended. Do not ask questions about specific content, this turns the entire exercise into a search for a few key terms in order to answer the prompt. I will often assign what I call the 1BT, the “1 Big Thing” (thanks, Scott Van Pelt), where I ask the students to comment on their biggest takeaway from the reading, what they think they will remember for a long time, or why they think I assigned the reading. Sometimes, I will reframe the 1BT as the “1 Big Theme” and I will ask the students to locate a course theme in the reading, often when it is not explicit in the reading.
  2. 3CQs: In addition to the 1BT above, I will also ask students to answer the 3CQs, or “3 Critical Questions.” These are simply noting what information was new and interesting, what information was old or already discussed in our class (or elsewhere), and what information was odd or confusing. Each of these responses has to be justified or explained in some detail (X was interesting because Y). I would also encourage students to speculate answers to the questions they posed about what they found confusing. (Only in writing this did I discover that Jenn Stewart-Mitchell developed a similarly named “3C&Q model” in relationship to commenting on student posts, see here.)
  3. Other: One could also ask students to summarize the main points of a reading (synthesis), or identify the thesis or conclusion along with the main pieces of evidence (analysis), or isolate what they think is the weakest piece of evidence (critique). I’ve found asking student to make analogies to be the best conversation starters, namely asking student to link the reading to something in the real world, or something in their personal experience, or something they’ve learned previously.  

How can I assess students’ comments on posts?

In order to avoid simple compliments (Great idea!) or critiques (I disagree), some structure should also be given to comments.

Quantity:  You should decide the minimum number of interactions per assignment. Two or three comments per student is reasonable. The word count will typically be significantly less than posts, maybe 30 or 50 words.

Quality: I generally take the position that a comment should either add (agree), subtract (disagree), or clarify. By “adding,” I mean the comment explains how the post generated new ideas or helped create new links to other information for the commenting student. By “subtracting,” I mean the comment critiques the claims in the post in some manner or sets forth an argument for a different interpretation of the reading. By clarifying, I mean the comment poses a question about the post or asks if a certain interpretation of the post (explained in the comments) is what the original post author intended.

How can I grade students’ discussion posts? Do I need a grading rubric?

I would strongly suggest you use a simple 2-level grading scale, like pass/not-pass. The more intricate the grading system, the more time you will spend grading, so keep it simple. This is especially true if you will be grading hundreds of these discussion forum posts over the duration of the course. Many may still prefer a 3-level system, such as excellent/satisfactory/fail. This is fine, just make sure to clearly articulate the difference between an excellent and satisfactory grade.

I more typically use a mastery/redo scale. If the student does not meet all of my criteria for mastery, they have to redo, or in many cases refine, their work. Only if they do not redo the work at all will they fail that assignment. Of course, this means the first assignment or two requires close attention and more feedback on my part, but I’ve found that frontloading my efforts pays off in the long run.

If your expectations and directions are clear enough, a rubric will be simple enough to craft. And while you do not need a rubric, at least your expectations should be made clear. Below is what my discussion rubric looks like based on the discussion above.

What type of feedback should I provide?

Individual feedback for the first week or two is important to make sure every students knows how to properly engage with quality commentary in the discussion forums. This means making sure students are following directions or are interacting in appropriate ways. Otherwise, my commentary on individual posts is minimal. Sometime I will jump in to stir the pot, or to challenge a claim, or to offer praise, but more often I will let students discussions more forward naturally.

At the end of a block (or week, or whatever), I would suggest making a few summary comments about the discussions that occurred. This means trying to find trends that cut across groups (if you use groups), highlight anything that stuck out as exemplary (and ask students to model, perhaps), and otherwise note how those discussions will build to the following week’s work. It’s also nice to point out when discussion moved in direction that you didn’t expect – what topic or themes emerged that were not originally obvious to you, or what ideas or concepts were not covered by the students that you thought were important.

What if students are rude to one another?

It’s definitely worth having a “netiquette” discussion early. If possible, have students themselves craft “rules of engagement.” Some ideas can be found here.

*If you are looking for other resources related to university teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, see my earlier post here.

2020 Pandemic Pedagogy: Selected Resources

Below is a short list of resources for university teachers and students to help plan the remainder of the 2020 academic year. We got this.

Disclaimer: While many of the resources are helpful for all disciplines, there is a bias towards the humanities in my selections. Additionally, if you are looking for more technical advice about using your school’s LMS or various online platforms, I’d suggest joining the new pedagogy communities forming in places like Facebook (see list at bottom of this post). One more housekeeping note: I’ve recently posted a primer about creating online student discussion forums.

First, the Fun Stuff…

Pandemic Pedagogy Meme [Renea Frey]

The Pandemic Pedagogy Theme Song [Michael Bruening, I Will Survive (Coronavirus Version)]

My Preferred Zoom Background [This Is Fine, KC Green]

Now, On to Business…

Crowdsourced Syllabus Content for COVID-19 and Related Themes

1. Treating Yellow Peril: Resources to Address Coronavirus Racism

“As we continue to track the development of the coronavirus, racial fears and anxieties have become a dominant frame in which people evaluate the concerns over the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus infection. This page is intended to gather textual and digital resources to provide easy access to material useful for teach-ins, talking points, and classroom teaching.” 

2. Humanities Coronavirus Syllabus

“To help us think and teach about contagion, global health, and community in a time of social distancing and fear, we are collecting contributions to this crowd-sourced syllabus, which focuses on literary, historical, philosophical/religious, and cultural aspects of current health crisis and its history.”

3. Teaching COVID-19: An Anthropology Syllabus Project

“This developing document is designed to collect and share resources for anthropologists and other social scientists teaching about COVID-19.”

4. Visual Culture of COVID-19 Syllabus

“This is a collection of resources about the visual representation of COVID-19 in the historical context of visualizing contagion.”

5. #coronavirussyllabus | a crowdsourced cross-disciplinary resource

6. Queering the Pandemic Syllabus

“This is a working/crowd-sourced document that originated from the facebook group Queer Ph.D. Network as a resource for those looking for scholarship that provides a queer analysis/response/context to the COVID-19/Coronavirus pandemic of 2020.”

7. COVID-19 Left Perspectives


Setting Student Expectations and Advice on New Learning Environments

1. Adjusted Syllabus – Brandon Bayne’s principles for his students during his American Religions class

2. The COVID-19 Online Pivot: The Student Perspective – Blog post offering general advice (and links) for students who are studying in a new learning environment

3. Tips for Learning During Disruption – A pragmatically-oriented slide presentation (with speaker notes) for students


Advice for Instructors

1. Please Do a Bad Job of Putting Your Courses Online – By Rebecca Barrett-Fox, this blog post has quickly become the manifesto for fast transitioning to remote teaching [NB: the post is more constructive than the title suggests]

2. Inclusion, Equity, and Access While Teaching Remotely [really important!]

“Remote teaching presents a number of challenges for faculty, including the logistics–both pedagogical and technological–of how to transition course lectures, discussions, and lab or studio learning experiences online. One issue that needs particular attention is that of equitable access to the learning environment.”

3. Videoconferencing Alternatives: How Low-Bandwidth Teaching Will Save Us All [Remember, not all students will have access to reliable internet]

4. Creative Assignment Ideas for Teaching at a Distance [one of my favorite resources here]

“Faculty still need to decide what we will actually do with our students online, asynchronously and at a distance — which is why we developed this list of assignment ideas, which offer ways of rethinking how students might meaningfully engage with course content under these differently mediated circumstances.”

5. National Communication Association: Online Learning Resources

“In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more colleges and universities are shuttering their physical campuses and ordering instructional faculty to migrate courses online. NCA’s Teaching & Learning Council has developed this list of online teaching & learning resources; please return for updates and new resources in the days/weeks to come.”


Helpful Facebook Groups

[Everything above was pulled from the groups below; there’s a great group of folks trying to make the best out of this tough scenario]:

  • Pandemic Pedagogy (set to private, 20k+ members)
  • Pandemic Pedagogy (public [different from above], 3k+ members)
  • Teaching in the Time of Corona: Resources (private, 7k+ members)
  • Online Learning Collective (public, 16k+ members, formerly the Spring 2020 Online Learning Collective)
  • Online Teaching Tips for the Plague-Averse (public 3k+ members)
  • #humanehumanities (private, 1k+ members)
  • Remote Teaching Resources Group (private, 3k+ members)

Lastly, always remember the most important insight gleaned from this experience [New Yorker]

Nine Tips for In-Class Teaching

I once thought that a good university instructor was simply a captivating lecturer. Being a skilled orator is undoubtedly useful for teaching, especially for larger audiences, but I now see it as single tool in any instructor’s toolkit. A good university instructor is someone who has developed a whole repertoire of in-class teaching tools and uses them in the appropriate situation, depending on the instructor’s educational purpose and particular audience.

Below is a list of tips I’ve commonly referenced when working with early-career university instructors. Broadly they represent a move away from

  • Off-Load Heavy Lifting: This is based on a simple principle: those who do all of the conceptual work – the heavy lifting – make all of the mental muscle. Thus, effective teachers will strategically offload the cognitive work to students in a variety of in-class activities (or CATs). For example, have students offer the examples that illustrate the rule, or have them summarize and clarify the main issues, or have them create the links to the readings or other course materials. The key is patience and dialogue; student responses may not always be ideal, but that should be expected in the development of any skill, especially critical cognitive skills. The best way to build those habits of mind and ways of thinking is to have students actively engage with the material.
  • Scaffold and Model Out Loud: Learning a skill is not the same as memorizing a fact. If you are having your students learn a critical skill, such as solving a problem, analyzing a text, interpreting evidence, or creating an argument, it is important to model how that skill is done and attempt to break it down into individual, progressive steps. Mastery is becoming adept at a series of steps which combine into a larger skill, thus being able to articulate these steps clearly to novice students is important. Not only could this be accomplished through listing steps on a slide or writing them on the board or a handout, but also narrating your thought process when a student asks you a question (i.e. not just giving the student an answer); this includes questions you ultimately do not have the answer to.
  • Questions Drive Thinking: Knowing the final answer is often not as important as knowing how one got there. Remember to strategically ask students checking questions after they give their initial response to an inquiry. For example, give students a chance to clarify their own response if it wasn’t optimal, or ask them to justify their response, to explicate their rationale, or ask them to give an example that illustrates their idea. “What exactly do you mean here?” “Why, what’s your evidence or thought process?” “Can you give us an example?” Asking for clarification, justification, and exemplification are all effective checking questions that will allow students to think more deeply about the concepts you want them to learn.
  • Culture Starts on Day One: It is difficult to change a classroom culture halfway into a semester; you need to create a learning environment on the first day of class that will carry through the course. The initial class may be a “low stress” day, but that doesn’t mean careful planning is unnecessary. For example, if you want an active, engaged, and collaborative environment, those classroom expectations should be established on the first day. Thus, be prepared to ask your students probing questions, or have students respond directly to one another in conversation, or to engage in small group work. This will set the tone of how students should expect to interact with you and their peers throughout the semester.
  • Master your Time and Space: Try to make your classroom dynamic. For one, take advantage of your classroom space. If you can arrange seats, consider creating a circle or horseshoe (or double-horseshoe if you have more students) so students can more directly converse with one another. If you cannot move seats, do not hesitate to invite students to all sit in the front of the class, it will create a more intimate teaching environment. Furthermore, consider breaking you class into 15-20 chunks of time, sometimes referred to as “lectorials” or “lecturettes,” where lecture portions are followed by an activity, such as a discussion or group activity. These questions or instructions can be placed directly into your slides, and can help you plan out your overall lecture timing.
  • Rehearse Before Sharing: One of the toughest social aspects of learning is the fear of being wrong or sounding inarticulate in front of your peers. If you are looking for more student engagement, instead of cold-calling individuals, consider ways in which students can rehearse their answers before offering them to the whole class. This could be a simple as having students think and write down their response before sharing. Additionally, students could share their thoughts with a neighbor or small group first (the traditional “think-pair-share” method). You can also “warm-call” students by telling a few individuals you expect to hear from them after their small group conversations. Having the chance to clearly articulate a response or receive feedback can empower students who are less inclined, or simply not fully prepared, to participate.
  • Focus on the Ends: Consider starting and ending a class with an active learning activity or reflection. For example, to help activate the appropriate mental schema, start class with an “entrance ticket” by writing a challenging question on the board or distribute a handout with a passage to read and interpret. Or, have your students re-read their notes and select a concept they found confusing and share it with a small group. Likewise, at the end of class, have student reflect and complete an “exit ticket” or “muddiest point” where they note the most confusing idea of the day. This provides important information that can be revisited during the next class meeting. Active learning activities such as these need only be 5-10 minutes.
  • Learn Names: If the class is small enough try to learn names (30 students is certainly possible) and use them regularly when talking to students. You could practice by taking role verbally as well as personally handing back assignments, both of which can be done while students are working on an activity early in class. Some may prefer to use seating charts or name tents.
  • Teaching is a Skill, Not a Gift: In my experience, early-career instructors are often reluctant to talk with one another about their classroom experiences. This makes sense since we are trained to be researchers and scholars in our disciplines but are not necessarily formally trained or apprenticed in teaching. This means we should start by learning from each other, sharing our ideas for classroom activities, passing around drafts of our handouts or worksheets, thinking about how to build effective grading rubrics, and so forth. Like many things, teaching is a skill, and any skill requires practice, reflection, and an eye towards improvement. Share your successes and failures with your peers, it will benefit all of us.

Scholarly Writing: The Genre Scramble and the Genre Jigsaw

Under analysis, writing genres can be broken down into composite parts. Take a news article for example. Not only could we distinguish hard news, soft news, and fake news – which, for the sake of our class, I tell students to envision as separate genres – but we could also break down an article into its title, lede paragraph, photo caption, and so forth. Moreover, one could treat these as more than separate conventions that comprise the news article (macro-)genre, but (micro-)genres unto themselves, with their own specific purposes and intended audiences. This type of analysis helps students understand how genres are descriptive and analytical tools, not hard-and-fast prescriptive categories. In the end, genre theory helps give us an analytical leverage that can make our writing more effective.

I put this type of micro-analysis into practice when we first start to address scholarly writing in class. Students will often know the conventions of an academic paper, generally comprising an introduction, body, and conclusion. But do students realize these phases of a scholarly work each have their own functions and characteristics and, moreover, coordinate with one another to synergistically produce a more powerful rhetorical effect? In order to help suss out these distinctions, I’ve used the following activities to help students analyze and identify effective academic writing.

The Genre Scramble

Borrowing a practice from a colleague (Brian, Jackson, or someone else?!), I take an scholarly article or book chapter, print it out and cut it up into much smaller sections (maybe 20-30 sections depending on the selection). I then have students work in groups to piece the paper back together, using whatever clues they can find in the writing. In addition to subheadings, I try to find works that incorporate sequential language (first, second, third, on one hand, on the other hand, etc.), causal language (as a result, consequently, etc.) or self-referential language (as noted above, we will return to this point, etc.) to help in this process.

At one level, this helps students realize they already know a lot about the structure of scholarly writing. At another level, this helps train students to observe the usage – and practical utility – of transitional devices, or the numerous other linguistic cues that situate a phase of writing into an overall composition. This game, which I actively make competitive, is used as an opening activity for a class, getting students thinking and moving since most will clear out desks and arrange the slips of paper on the floor. (I typically allow 15 minutes for this activity, including a quick class discussion about what cues each group used to help them out. Depending on time, I will sometimes skip this activity and jump to the Genre Jigsaw.)

The Genre Jigsaw

This works in the broadest strokes by dividing up a selected scholarly work into smaller (micro-)genres and having students work in small groups to perform genre analysis on their segments. The divisions could include the abstract, introduction, two or three argument subsections (such as methods, results, discussion), and conclusion. For each sections students have to discuss the rhetorical purpose, the intended audience, and any identifying linguistic characteristics (the Genre Scramble help with this aspect).

To help model this kind of analysis, I first talk about the title as a (micro-)genre, an often overlooked rhetorical aspect of first year writing. As a class, we first brainstorm the potential purposes of an academic title (to summarize, to entice, to establish tone, to establish ethos?) and compare these titles to titles of other kinds of writing (how is it different from a news article or novel?).

Next, in a move that is sometimes confusing, we try to discuss audience and how it changes throughout an article. Since most folks intuitively think of audience demographically (age, gender, race, education level, etc.) it is hard to see how the audience may change in the process of reading. To start this discussion I have the class think about where they may just encounter a title of a work (bibliography, table of contents, in-text reference, etc.) and ask them to brainstorm about the mindset of a reader. For example, why would someone be looking through a bibliography? Maybe because they are looking for works relevant to their interests, thus the audience may be someone who is doing research and looking for key words or phrases. This gives us some information about the types of things we may want to include in our titles. Moreover, I guide conversation to how that audience may change when they shift to various phases of the essay (when are readers the most engaged, when are they most likely to read over sentences or passages, when are they the most critical or skeptical, when are they hoping for a summary of ideas?) This points to how the audience expectations change and how writing can accommodate that change.[1] They return to this point during their group discussions.

Lastly, we turn to a discussion about the language conventions of a title. Given what we analyzed about purpose and audience, what language could be included into a title? What can we notice about the language of the title of the work we are analyzing? I often end by noting how it’s pretty common in the humanities to structure a title with a colon in the center (the “colon construction”), looking something like this “Generality/Catchy Phrase: Specificity/Descriptive Statement.”

The Jigsaw Method

Using the analysis of the title as a model and applying the Jigsaw Method (I originally called this “Divide and Conquer” before learning of the Jigsaw) students then break up into Jigsaw groups, with one student taking responsibility for each phase of the scholarly work. I usually give an overview of the argument of the selected essay, since each student will only be reading a portion of the work (its possible to assign the essay as homework, too). Then students responsible for each phase meet with one another in Expert Groups to identify and discuss the audience, purpose, and specific linguistic cues. Armed with their insights for each phase, they then reconvene with their original groups and discuss the whole essay, trying to map out how the purpose and audience changes at the micro-level throughout the essay and attempt to create a bank of transitional words that appear in each phase. During class discussion, groups share their insights with one another.

While I’ve always enjoyed the analysis of my students, this can be a challenging exercise, especially if the scholar’s argument is complex or otherwise difficult. I’ve come to provide a decent summary of the article first so student can focus on genre analysis, not just comprehension. During class discussion I’ll have groups try to identify the thesis, or areas of strong or weak evidence. Overall, the purpose of this exercise is to have students work together to analyze different phases (or micro-genres) of scholarly writing and try to adopt certain strategies into their writing.


[1] One example I like to give regards the use of personal anecdotes in writing. Scholarly readers are more likely to allow anecdotes in the introduction of the essay, since they know there may be an attempt to catch the reader’s attention. On the other hand, scholarly readers tend to not expect anecdotes in the body of an essay, especially when they hope to see formal argumentation regarding the main claims of the essay. In this case we can say reader are more critical and expect to see argumentation.

Varieties of Contemplative Pedagogy: The Transformative Camp and the Critical Camp

[This is an early draft of ideas for an upcoming paper – email pmr01[at]ucsb[dot]edu if you have any comments or questions.]

The past few years have seen a surge in literature promoting the use of contemplative practices in higher education. The suggestions offered by these advocates can appear bewildering, ranging from slightly modified classroom activities to more obscure Asian-inspired meditative techniques. In a seminal volume on contemplative pedagogy, Judith Simmer-Brown admits that “there is no single contemplative pedagogy and no single prototype of the contemplative professor.”[1] Anyone exploring contemplative pedagogy through published literature or online resources will quickly confirm this observation.

The nomenclature “contemplative pedagogy” (CP) functions as a broad and malleable umbrella for a wide range of teaching and learning strategies. This diversity is a result of CP’s origins in several educational trends that began as early as the 1960s, or depending on how one defines “origins,” extending back much further.[2] As an initial step to understanding CP, I try to distinguish between two main strains or camps which remained entangled in practice in complex ways.[3] Specifically, through examining both published and online resources, we will find divergent methods, goals, and institutional supports for the advocates of CP. Thus, in order to see an overarching picture of this experimental educational movement and its internal complexities, it will help to start by making generalizations.[4]

Critiques of CP often reduce the diversity of its practices to a select few – often Asian (or Asian inspired) meditation or mindfulness techniques – without realizing the overlap with more established educational practices. Additionally, some of the more vocal advocates of CP, in order to carve out a unique niche, also overlook the important intersections with critical pedagogical theory. This is often found in the rhetoric of advocates who disparage the impersonal modern educational system, but remain unaware of the sizable scholarship placing students at the center of the classroom experience.[5] The most charitable (though admittedly incomplete) analysis of CP would highlight the alignment with some of the most important advances in the scholarship on teaching and learning in the past few decades. In fact, it is impossible to untether CP from the larger trends in education, regardless of what advocates or critics claim. This essay is an attempt to analyze CP critically and to highlight some connections to contemporary non-CP practices.

The “Transformative” Camp

Arguably, one strain of CP more consciously foregrounds the importance of the introduction of Asian religious traditions into the US in the mid-twentieth century and the mainstreaming of meditation practice. These practices, especially the ones derived from Buddhism, are more commonly championed in their modernist, (pseudo-)secularized forms of “mindfulness.”

Among the long list of individuals and institutions who advocate the use of contemplative practices in educational contexts, the Center for the Contemplative Mind in Society (CMind) and its academic arm known as the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education (ACMHE), are perhaps the most well-known and influential.[6] CMind promotes an array of retreats, workshops, and annual conferences on contemplative practices and the development of curricula for university settings. Since 2014, CMind has also published The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry and between 1997 and 2009 granted fellowships to 158 faculty to develop contemplative pedagogical approaches.[7] CMind, ACMHE, and other organizations, while diverse in their missions, value the personal and societal transformative potential of contemplative practices.[8]

Several figures whose scholarship has formed the early direction of the CP movement have notably helmed CMind, including Mirabai Bush, Daniel Barbezat, and Arthur Zajonc. Their approaches, unsurprisingly, reflect a socially engaged and personally transformative perspective and either draw from, or have an elective affinity with, a variety of other educational movements such as integrative education (of Ken Wilbur and Sri Aurobindo)[9], transformative education (of Jack Mezirow)[10], spirituality in education[11], and mindfulness in education.[12] Additionally, there are resonances with service learning[13] and the recently conceptualized compassionate pedagogy and the pedagogy of kindness.

The contemplative methods promoted by this strain of CP are diverse and not easy to characterize. Descriptive language tends to gravitate towards ideas of interiority, personal reflection, silence, presence, and transformation. As is noted by Patricia Owen-Smith, these practices are “solidly anchored in mindful attention, the sine qua non of all contemplative practices.”[14] Exercises such as deep listening or deep reading, also referred to as lectio devina from traditional Catholic monastic practice, embrace a slow, reflective pace that enables students to establish more meaningful connections with the material.[15] Furthermore, as noted in Barbezat and Bush’s introductory book on contemplative practices, the activities of introspection and awareness also “yield increased empathy for others and a deeper sense of connection to the world.”[16]

A diagram called the Tree of Contemplative Practices is used to represent the range of contemplative activities organized into several clusters: activist, creative, generative, movement, relational, ritual or cyclical, and stillness [Fig. 1]. A quick glance reveals that the specific practices outlined are far more diverse, and far more interdisciplinary than one would typically see in traditional university classroom settings.[17] They are rooted, literally in the case of this diagram, in communion, connection, and awareness. This is just one example of how CP is believed to impact both the personal and social domains.

Carrie Bergman (illustrator) and Maia Duerr (designer), Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.

An interesting comparison can be made to the taxonomy of student learning goals popularized by Benjamin Bloom and colleagues in 1956. While numerous modifications and re-conceptualizations of Bloom’s Taxonomy have been offered over the years, it remains arguably the most popular tool among instructional development (or teaching commons) departments across university campuses.[18] The version of CP stressed by CMind extends well beyond the cognitive skills expressed by Bloom, integrating both affective and psychomotor aspects. If Bloom’s Taxonomy can be seen to represent a traditional or normative educational approach, it is apparent how significantly CP recasts the mission of education and the techniques of pedagogy. In their totality, CP practices represent a wide spectrum of activities that address the personal transformative potential of contemplation in the broadest sense.

The “Critical” Camp

One might draw a comparison here to what might be characterized as a more critical approach to CP. Harold Roth is often cited as the main contributor to the first conceptualization and development of an interdisciplinary contemplative studies field in higher education, of which CP might be considered an expression.[19] Whereas advocates like Zajonc would frequently use terms like “interiority” to characterize contemplative practice, Roth, borrowing from Dutch psychologist Han de Wit, has popularized the concept of a “first-person discourse” that describes and explains the aims of a contemplative approach.[20] A subject first-person approach is held in contrast to a putatively objective third-person approach, which is often cast as the perspective par excellence into which students are intellectually socialized.

A critical contemplative practice would employ both perspectives, sometimes in conjunction with a more recently fleshed out inter-subjective second-person approach.[21] This particular language and framing is common to many CP advocates in both camps,[22] but because a point-of-view pedagogy is not the language traditionally used within educational psychology, instructional development, or the Scholarship on Teaching and Learning (SoTL) it is worth examining in more depth.

Roth has proposed the disciplined use of first-person perspectives to investigate subjective experience. This held in contrast to normative Western epistemological biases that privilege “veridical cognition,” or the perspective proclaimed by a putatively disinterested and objective observer.[23] Bracketing the question if this reflects how most university instructors teach, the point that Roth raises is salient – should we not increase the value of our student’s own subjective experience and make that experience an object of critical inquiry?

This leads to interesting questions about what type of “experience” advocates of CP would like to investigate. Roth’s views sometimes clash with other figures who take this critical point-of-view approach. At times, Roth seems to advocate for the cultivation of a noetic, “pure experience,” in line with the insights proposed by religious mystics.[24] It is worth quoting Roth in his own words:

“By turning our backs on the systematic exploration of religious subjectivity from the inside out, so to speak, we have also cut ourselves off from a valuable approach to the many problems of human existence. We have ignored a valuable source of empirical knowledge that has been well developed in the contemplative traditions of Asia, and we deny ourselves a potentially valuable method for studying these traditions.”[25]

In making such assertions, Roth highlights a specific “contemplative experience” of which students attempt to cultivate a first-person knowledge. Roth ultimately hopes to incorporate these contemplative experiences into formal academic analyses that take a third-person perspective, most directly, into the fields of religious studies or contemplative studies.[26] Additionally, Roth envisions the critical combination of the first-person and third-person approaches in other fields as well, most notably the creative arts such as the visual and fine arts, creative writing, and the performance arts, although he does not discuss specifically how contemplative practices could be utilized in the classroom.[27]

Other scholars are not as ready to embrace Roth’s contemplative experience. Louis Komjathy also promotes a critical first-person method, but instead envisions the experience primarily as metacognition, requiring reflection on personally held assumptions, ingrained opinions, and unrecognized biases. These first-hand student experiences are all historically and socially constructed, as are the contemplative experiences of religious practitioners who are studied.[28] This critical first-person method challenges egotistical or culturally decontextualized perspectives and ultimately functions as a “complex negotiation between personal interiority, interpersonal engagement, and transpersonal concerns.”[29]

Komjathy’s vision of a CP point-of-view pedagogy is among the most encompassing and readily transferrable to disciplines outside of religious studies or contemplative studies because it appears to highlight the critical practice of metacognition – but, problematically from the perspective of comparison with more established pedagogical methods, Komjathy does not use this term.[30] Furthermore, Komjathy’s CP does not exclude the implementation of meditation-inspired or mindfulness practices, but if they are incorporated into a course they become an object of inquiry that are measured against primary textual sources, the insights of practicing religious communities, the arguments of trained scholars, and the ideas presented in conversations with student-peers. Consequently, contemplative practice is less focused on the “therapeutic” or “hygienic” aspects of mindfulness, e.g. stress reduction or enhanced focus, which tend to be more of a concern for CP advocates in the transformative camp. Yet, the transformative potential of critical meta-reflection must also be acknowledged, thus the difference between these camps is not necessarily expressed through their overarching goals (indeed, most would say that education should be transformative), but the privileging of certain methods towards certain ends.[31]

A Variety of Contemplative Methods

 There is a variety of discipline-specific, course-specific, or even exercise-specific approaches to the implementation of CP in a class setting. As with any pedagogy, attention must be given to how the course is designed, desired learning goals, student interest, the instructor’s personal values, and the institutional profile, among other concerns. Nevertheless, given the sheer variety of these experiential practices, it would be helpful to see how those practices might also be sorted or categorized. There has been no commonly accepted approach to this division among CP advocates, although several suggestions have been offered, which I collect and summarize below.

For example, one cluster of practices has been termed “hygienic” or “Jamesian” (from William James). This largely concerns the implementation of mindfulness techniques to cultivate focused attention and alleviate anxiety.[32] Defenders of these practices will often note the growing body of scientific literature that points to their efficacy and arguably these remain the most popular expressions of secularized meditation among the general population of students and teachers. The purpose of these techniques is to enhance overall student learning, and thus these are promoted by instructors from all disciplines and fields. Some university instructors, however, do not feel academic course work should involve what they see as therapeutic practice (or pastoral care) and consequently eschew this contemplative approach.[33] Notably, recent contraindications in meditation research have also caused some pause in the implementation of similar secular-oriented mindfulness practices.

The second cluster of practices has been termed “modes of inquiry” which includes the widest assortment of classroom practices, many having barely discernable relationships to traditional meditation techniques. This could be exercises such as freewriting, reflective journaling, deep listening, deep reading (lectio devina), “big questions” inquiry, and so forth.[34] It is possible to consider metacognition here as well, where students reflect on their “interpretive tendencies, theoretical (theological?) commitments, unquestioned assumptions, and…ingrained opinions.”[35]

Lastly, in what Anita Houck has termed the “contextualized’ approach, this involves the teaching of fairly straightforward religious practices, like traditional Buddhist forms of meditation. Not surprisingly, this is mostly limited to the fields of religious studies, contemplative studies, or theology. Recently, however, Candy Gunther Brown has questioned if there are legal hurdles for teaching these practices within a public school setting, a topic that will surely be revisited in the future as contemplative practices gain more mainstream attention.

Contemplative studies and its expression as CP in higher education has become strongly associated with several figures, groups, and institutions as discussed above. Notably, this includes the Center for the Contemplative Mind in Society, the Mind & Life Institute, the Contemplative Studies Group at the American Academy of Religion, and several university programs, including the Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown University, started by Harold Roth. (Other important university programs are noted below.) Regardless of the diversity within CP, I believe the pedagogical focus on “interiority” and a “critical first-person approach” further reflects educational trends emerging in the 1990s which highlighted a move towards a student-centered classroom experience, of which reflection and metacognition played an integral role. The nuanced connection and different expressions of contemplative reflection remain an area deserving of more research.


University Interdisciplinary Programs

Instructional Development Sites

CP & CP Related Journals (or special issues)


[1] Simmer-Brown 2011.

[2] While many will trace the origins of CP to contemplative practices introduced to the United States by advocates of Asian religious contemplative practice, educational movements also played an important role. Some proponents of CP will incorporate figures like William James into their lineage of formative pedagogues, among others. Of course, one could be inclined to trace the origins of CP back to contemplative practices of Asian antiquity, but I think this would unnecessarily characterize, as some advocates of CP do, modern educational paradigms as devoid of contemplative, or meta-cognitive aspects.

[3] The metaphor of a spectrum may provide more clarity here as these two camps are positioned at the two furthest ends of this spectrum. It may be that these camps are more ideal types than actually represented by an individual or group of CP scholars.

[4] One can see that both critics and advocates of CP will sometimes reduce the complexity of the field down to more generalized identities. See, for example, the nature of Kathleen Fisher’s (2017) criticism of CP, as well as Louis Komjathy’s (Fort & Komjathy 2017) reply.

[5] Advocates of CP will sometimes trace intellectual lineages to iconic pedagogues like Maria Montessori, Horace Mann, John Dewey, or Paulo Frier, but gloss over the significance of the constructivist “student-centered” movement in pedagogy in the 1990s – of which I would place the modern origins of the CP movement.

[6] Other important non-academic organizations include the Mind & Life Institute, the Garrison Institute, the Fetzer Institute, and the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. One could include Naropa University here as well. For a history of CMind and contemplative education in higher education see Bush 2011 and Owen-Smith 2018.

[7] The Contemplative Practice Fellowship Program (CPFP) was funded by the Fetzer Institute and run through CMind in association with the American Council of Learned Societies (ALCS).

[8] Komjathy 2018: 31-2.

[9] See Barbezat & Pingree 2012: 179.

[10] Zajonc 2003.

[11] See Fort & Komjathy 2017: 25 and esp. Sherman 2014.

[12] This may be just a transformation of Spirituality in Education, see Komjathy 2018: 162. It seems the widespread popularity of mindfulness as a mental health treatment has spurred a conception among some that CP is simply teaching mindfulness techniques in a classroom setting, see Bonnardel et. al. 2018.

[13] See Owen-Smith 2018: 15ff.

[14] Owen-Smith 2018: 24-5.

[15] See especially Owen-Smith 2018: 42-8.

[16] Barbezat & Bush 2014: 5. A focus on interiority and attention is also noted in Owen-Smith 2018: 26-7. Barbezat also acknowledges the importance of “a type of intra- and interpersonal awareness, compassion, focus and discernment” (quoted in Owen-Smith 2018: 23). On the other hand, Kathleen Fisher remains skeptical that self-knowledge can lead to empathy, see Fisher 2017.

[17] It is worth noting that CP advocates from the other camp also perceive interdisciplinary benefits, see e.g. Roth 2007: 20-22.

[18] This is not necessarily because it is the best or the most complete, but because it is the simplest and easiest to use for conceptualizing and crafting learning objectives. There are many limitations of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

[19] Not surprisingly, Roth was a CMind fellow.

[20] Komjathy 2018. The phrase, “taboo of subjectivity” coined by Alan Wallace in 2000, is also another source of inspiration for Roth. See also Komjathy 2015: 10-11 for further comments.

[21] See especially Gunnalson 2009. Also see Komjathy 2018. The Contemplative Studies concentration at Brown University, started by Roth, formalizes the conjoined methodology of a third-person and first-person approach, see here. []

[22] See for example Owen-Smith 2018: 27 and Barbezat & Bush 2015: 105-6.

[23] Roth seems to suggest the origin of this epistemic stance stems from a religious, all-knowing, God-perspective, see Roth 2007: 2. I would suggest that  Roth strawmans the study of religion by contemporary scholars; there is plenty of research which is self-reflective and avoids overly-broad, eminently stable claims of objectivity. I am not sure the commitment to a veridical cognition is due to a unrecognized assent to a Christian God-perspective, but to a methodology where scholars can analyze and critique the claims of another scholar. This is different from taking the perspectives of a religious practitioner seriously, see Komjathy 2015:11.

[24] Roth 2008: 5-6. After intoning William James, Roth characterizes the rejection of inner experience, the “very essence of religion,” as historical reductionism, see Roth 2008: 10. It remains unclear, at times, if Roth intends to equate inner religious experience with an unmediated mystical experience or merely the emic perspective of religious practitioners, or a mixture of both. Komjathy appears to interpret Roth as inferring a combination of both. Fran Grace prefers to use a guidebook metaphor, where the practitioner represents a person who has actually experienced the given contemplative terrain, see Coburn, et. al. 2011: 173.

[25] Roth 2008: 10.

[26] Roth 2008: 19-22. Specifically, Roth criticizes the rejection of religious practitioners’ views in the study of religion, see Roth 2008: 10. This reflects the scholarly debates around emic-etic perspectives. Komjathy also notes Roth’s focus on cultivating individual contemplative experiences, see Komjathy 2015: 11. Roth further comments that human subjectivity is the source for all cognitive models of the world, and goes on to quote Zhuangzi to support his views, see Roth 2008: 11-14.

[27] Roth 2008: 19-20. Roth unfortunately does not discuss at length how the personal “contemplative experience,” say, of a dancer, would be utilized in an educational context.

[28] See especially the comments in Komjathy 2015: 17. Of course, this does not mean that the perspectives of religious practitioners are disregarded, but neither are they privileged, see Komjathy 2015: 11.

[29] Komjathy 2018: 172. In his chapter on CP, Komjathy notes the challenges to both students and teachers in facilitating this critical perspective, see especially the box on Komjathy 2018: 169-10.

[30] Komjathy himself notes that his vision of CP is already in widespread use in education, Komjathy 2018: 170.

[31] Komjathy, too, acknowledges the benefits of methods such as relaxation techniques, but these do not appear to be a particular focus in his teaching, Komjathy 2018: 173.

[32] Owen-Smith 2018: 24, Houck 2019: 118-9.

[33] See the comments in Fisher 2017.

[34] Sadd 2018, Owen-Smith 2018.

[35] Fort & Komjathy 2017: 25.

[A full bibliography can be provided upon request]

Educational Technology, Teaching Fads, and the Pedagogical Toolbox

In 1913, Thomas Edison proudly proclaimed, “Books will soon be obsolete in the schools…It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture. Our school system will be completely changed in the next ten years.”[1]

Perhaps we should all be reminded that Edison was not an educator. He was an inventor…and a shrewd, litigious businessman. In 1897, Edison was granted a patent for the Kinetograph, which eventually became the Kinetoscope, a device for showing early motion pictures. He also owned a majority of the other patents related to motion picture cameras. In 1909, Edison formed a group with other American film companies to create the Motion Pictures Patents Company (MPPC), which protected their patent interests and severely limited new competition. In 1917, however, the Supreme Court found the MPPC in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act and dissolved the trust. The following year, Edison left the film industry altogether. I wouldn’t be surprised if his interest in education and motion pictures also ended at the same time.

Edison’s comments about the educational possibilities of film in 1913 should be read through his financial interests, not his pedagogical concerns. He was trying to make money in a field that is – understandably – interested in improving its methodology and overall efficacy. Moreover, Edison was part of an era where new visual media, such as glass lantern slides, stereoviews, even school museums, were championed as important advancements in education.[2] It must be added that these products were pushed by businesses equally shrewd as Edison’s company, such as the Keystone View Company which published a teacher’s guide to using lantern slides and stereoviews in the classroom, entitled Visual Education.

This trend has continued into the twenty-first century. In her review of the worst of education technology in the past decade, Audrey Watters highlights the lingering presence of commercial interests in education, placing “venture capitalism” and “(venture) philanthropy” third and second, respectively, on her list of 100 worst debacles from the 2010s (only to be surpassed by anti-school shooter software for number one). Unsurprisingly, Watters notes venture capitalists and venture philanthropists are responsible for many of the other entries on her list of the worst.

It is not uncommon when I talk to my colleagues in higher education for them to ask if the insights that I’ve gleaned from instructional development represent trends or fads. I always respond first by trying to make a fine distinction between instructional development and instructional technology, although they are inextricably intertwined. Instructional technology, by its nature, is trendy because so much money (and cultural capital) is invested in advancing technology generally. The first real wave of calls for instructional change (and arguably the origins of instructional development) came on the heels of new technological advancements in visual media in the early twentieth century. Unsurprisingly, the continued advancement of technology, with computers, cell phones, and the internet as the most recent and significant, has also led to calls for educational change, reflected in the new initiatives around the expanded use of MOOCs, phone apps, or online videos, to just name a few.

Instructional development does not tend to be as fickle, but it is also not immune to fad chasing. Nevertheless, there has been slow and steady amount of research developing a repertoire of strategies to increase teaching efficacy over the past few decades. Now-standard aspects of university education, such as formulating clear learning objectives, derived from earlier theories about criteria-referenced measures first postulated by Robert Glaser and others in the 1960s.[3] Even the more recently contentious arguments over the move away from strict lecturing (not the abolishment of all lecturing!), has roots in insights about constructivism and active learning in the 1990s. One could argue there has been a slow building of knowledge about pedagogy over the past few decades, not a flip-flopping between mutually exclusive teaching methods. I’ve discussed the history and goals of instructional development elsewhere and will refer the reader to that post [here: Instructional Design in Higher Education: What is It?].

Though anecdotal, the advice I’ve gotten from most folks in instructional development has always been strategic and specific, not global. Group activities work in some scenarios, while in other scenarios a lecture will be better. I’ve always seen instructional development about building a toolbox of teaching skills that can be deployed when rhetorically and pedagogically appropriate. Even when I’ve talked about educational technology, I’ve always seen it as a tool that needs to be appropriate to your pedagogical purpose. The hanging question should not be how do we integrate technology into our classrooms, but whether technology can sustain or even advance our educational aims. We should not adapt our teaching just to incorporate technology, to me that is pedagogically unsound.


[1] Quoted in Reiser 2001a: 55.

[2] Reiser 2001a: 55.

[3] Reiser 2001b.


  • Reiser, Robert A. 2001a. “A History of Instructional Design and Technology: Part I: A History of Instructional Media,” Educational Technology Research and Development, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp. 53-64.
  • Reiser, Robert A. 2001b. “A History of Instructional Design and Technology: Part II: A History of Instructional Media,” Educational Technology Research and Development, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 57-67.

Government-Issued Halftone Postal Card of the Daibutsu

Capturing light on a photosensitive medium to make a photograph was a monumental technological achievement. Arguably more influential, however, was the ability to mechanically reproduce those images in ink and expose them to wider audiences. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, chemically processing individual photographs was technically difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. Newspaper, magazine, and book publishers needed a less labor-intensive method to produce the thousands of images needed for mass commercial printing.

Consequently, translating the tonality of a photograph mechanically into black ink marks was developed not long after the discovery of photography. The collotype process, a planographic printing method using reticulated gelatin, produced a beautiful tonality with fine detail, but the process proved difficult and costly. On the other hand, the letterpress halftone process proved to a better investment for the inexpensive mass printing of images, especially for newspapers and magazines. This process is easily identified through its distinctive dot pattern creating the illusion of tonality [Fig. 1].

Figure 1

The tonality of the halftone print on the left, comprised of dots of differing size and spacing, is of lesser quality than the collotype print on the right. The wormy reticulation of a collotype print under high magnification can be seen here.

Ogawa Kazumasa 小川 一眞 (1860-1929) was a pioneer in the photomechanical reproduction of images in Meiji Japan. After a period of apprenticeship in the United States, Ogawa opened the first collotype (korotaipu コロタイプ) business for reproducing photographs in 1889, eventually introducing the halftone process to his Japanese customers. Having attended the Congress of Photographers at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Ogawa learned about the halftone process and the following year procured the necessary equipment and had delivered to Tokyo.[1] As Kelly McCormick notes, under the guidance of Ogawa the Japanese newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun 朝日新聞, published its first photographs on June 16, 1894. Moreover, the halftone process allowed Japanese newspapers to fill their editions with multiple, full-page photographic images as well as incorporate text on the same plate. Additionally, to help expose his colleagues to the history of photography and modern photographic methods, Ogawa had Hermann Vogel’s The Chemistry of Light and Photography (1875, revised 1889) translated into Japanese (as Kōsen nami shashin kagaku 光線並写真化学); it remained in print for nearly 30 years.

The tonality of the halftone print was not as rich as the collotype (see above) and thus the collotype print remained preferential when image quality was more important.[2] This included the manufacturing of Japanese picture postcards (ehagaki 絵葉書), especially when changes in the postal code in 1900 allowed private publishers to issue their own cards. Collotype remained the main method of printing postcards through the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Figure 2

Fig 1 Halftone.jpg

  • Title/Caption: DAIBUTSU, KAMAKURA 鎌倉大仏
  • Year: 1897 (postally used)
  • Publisher: Printing Bureau, Ministry of Finance 大蔵省印刷局
  • Medium: halftone print on paper
  • Dimensions: 5.5 in X 3.5 in
  • Reverse Imprint: 大日本郵便, JAPANESE POST, 郵便はがき+

The government-issued postal card here, however, offers a rare glimpse at using the halftone process for mechanically reproducing a photograph previous to postal code changes [Fig. 2]. Sent in 1897 (Meiji 30[3]), this card reflects a rather early example of the halftone process, introduced by Ogawa only three years earlier. As noted by the caption, it depicts the Kamakura Daibutsu, a site that had developed into a popular international tourist destination by the 1890s. Interestingly, the image shows the site devoid of tourists, a rare depiction since people were often included to provide a sense of scale – the statue is over 40 feet in height. This photograph focuses the viewer’s attention to the craftsmanship of the work and the serenity of the image, thus creating a silent and contemplative portrait of the bronze colossus. The elements in the photograph suggest it was taken in the first half of the 1890s.

It is tantalizing to think that the Printing Bureau in the Ministry of Finance[4], the agency responsible for issuing postal cards, consulted Ogawa for this project.[5] It is also possible that the original photograph of the Daibutsu was taken by Ogawa or an associate of his studio.[6]

Figure 3

Fig 2 Halftone.jpg

Figure 4

1 sen franking and cancellation.png

The reverse bears a simple filigree border and 1 sen oval-shaped frank printed in light blue [Fig. 3]. The pre-paid 1 sen rate covered domestic postage until 1899 when the rate was increased. The franking design incorporated the three-leafed paulownia seal (kirimon 桐紋), the official insignia of the Japanese government, in its center [Fig. 4]. Examining the border design (bottom) we can also find the government agency responsible for printing the card, namely the Printing Bureau in the Ministry of Finance. Instructions in Japanese (lower left) explain this side is reserved for the name and address of the recipient only. The paper is thinner than the card stock used by private publishers a few years later.

The cancellation stamp over the pre-paid postage reveals the card was sent on August 11, 1897 from the former Musashi Province 武蔵, an area that covered a location close to the Kamakura Daibutsu. The second cancellation stamp shows it was received the following day, August 12, at the post office in Kobe before it was sent out to the recipient.


*This post is dedicated to my mother, who introduced me to the beauty of printmaking.

**This is part of a series of posts devoted to exploring the development of a visual literacy for Buddhist imagery in America. All items (except otherwise noted) are part of my personal collection of Buddhist-themed ephemera. I have also published my working notes on identifying publishers of Meiji and early Taishō postcards and establishing a sequential chronology for Kamakura Daibutsu photographs.

[1] For more information, see McCormick 2017. For a full biography of Ogawa in English, see Bennett 2006: 210-16. [For a quick chronology of his life, in Japanese, see here.]

[2] Perhaps most notably, the influential Japanese art magazine, Kokka 国華, employed collotypes and woodblock prints. Ogawa and his studio supervised the printing of the magazine until 1907. The magazine’s full title in English was Kokka, An Illustrated Monthly Journal of the Fine and Applied Arts of Japan and Other Eastern Countries. For more on this publication, see Hanley & Watanabe 2019. Ogawa also used collotypes in the Shashin Shinpō 写真新報 (Photography Journal), in which he was the editor, see Bennett 2006: 212. In the 1910s, Japanese postcard publishers switched to offset printing because this method produced images at a much faster rate.

[3] The cancellation stamp is not clear, but Meiji 30 seems appropriate. The bisected cancellation date stamp (maruichi-gata hiduke-in 丸一型日付印) was adopted in 1888 and the date reads year-month-day from right to left (this stamp was retired in 1909). Sanjū nen 三十年 (“year 30”) is barely legible and is equivalent to 1897. This dating also aligns with other evidence placing the cancellation between 1888 (signaling by the inclusion of the Printing Bureau 印刷局 instead of the Bureau of Paper Currency 紙幣寮 on the border inscription) and 1899, when the 1 sen oval frank was replaced by the 1½ sen chrysanthemum frank. These details are noted below.

[4] The full inscription reads, “issued by the Printing Bureau in the Ministry of Finance of the Empire of Japan” (Dainipponteikoku seifu Ōkurashō insatsu-kyoku seizō 大日本帝国政府大蔵省印刷局製造). The Ministry of Finance was also responsible for printing paper currency.

[5] Ogawa did have a close relationship with the Japanese government, and was appointed as the chief photography instructor for the Japanese army, see McCormick 2017. Furthermore, McCormick notes, “Ogawa skillfully aligned his name with the halftone process to the extent that if it was a halftone, it was likely that Ogawa was behind it.”

[6] In 1894, Ogawa published the Illustrated Companion to Murray’s Japan Guide-Book, the most popular tourist book for international travel in Japan. I have not seen a copy of this work, but the second image in the book is listed as the Kamakura Daibutsu.


  • Bennett, Terry. 2006. Photography in Japan: 1853-1912. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing.
  • Hanley, Keith & Watanabe, Aiko. 2019. “Kokka, Okakura Kakuzō, and the Aesthetic Construction of Late Meiji Cultural Nationalism.” Unpublished paper. [here]
  • McCormick, Kelly M. 2017. “Ogawa Kazumasa and the Halftone Photograph: Japanese War Albums at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,” Technologies, Vol. 7, No. 2. [here]