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 holistically and critically and to highlight some connections to contemporary pedagogical 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


[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]


Illustrated Government Issue Postal Card of the Daibutsu

The Japanese word for postcard, hagaki はがき, was derived from hashigaki はしがき (or 端書き), or “forward,” referencing the writing at the beginning of a document. Hagaki came to denote a short piece of writing or a note that was sent through the mail. The first postal card in Japan was issued in December 1873, but until the start of the twentieth century all cards were government-issued (kansei 官製). These are readily identifiable through pre-paid franking printed on the address side of the card. Changes in postal codes on October 1, 1900 afforded private companies the opportunity to publish picture postcards (ehagaki 絵葉書) where an illustration or design could be included on the obverse. These changes altered the landscape of the postcard market and starting a new cultural phenomenon.

Figure 1

Figure 1 Gov Issued Illus.jpg

  • Title/Caption: DAIBUTSU, KAMAKURA
  • Year: 1897 (postally used)
  • Publisher: Printing Bureau, Ministry of Finance
  • Medium: woodblock 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, postally canceled in 1897 (Meiji 30[1]), bears a four-color woodblock print of the Kamakura Daibutsu on the obverse [Fig. 1].[2] More commonly, this side was left blank so a message could be written; the reverse was saved for the name and address of the recipient. Illustrated picture postcards (sashie ehagaki 挿絵絵はがき) from this period, however, are far less common and show that the government was playing with designs before the postal code changes in 1900. The image of the Daibutsu is reminiscent of similar period photographs taken of the bronze statue head-on. Furthermore, the print is cropped where the card was cut from its sheet.

The unknown artist depicted a realistic scene with two Japanese travelers gazing upward, in awe, of the colossal image. It casts a gentle sign of reverence towards the Buddhist image without overt signs of deep religious piety. The overall scene is calm and peaceful, reflecting the beneficent gaze of the Daibutsu. With the exception of the steeply banking hillside and tall flight of steps leading to the top landing, the illustration depicts the location faithfully circa the 1880s, inclusive of the step ladder to sit atop the statue for photographs. The only curious element in the depiction of the statue is the inclusion of earrings, a detail often reserved for other Buddhist deities, but not for buddhas. In contrast, the original bronze work has long, pierced ear-lobes which one might easily confuse for earrings, especially from frontal photographs.[3]

Figure 2

Figure 2 Gov Issued Illus.jpg

The reverse bears a simple filigree border and 1 sen oval-shaped frank printed in light blue [Fig. 2]. 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. Examining the border design we can also find the government agency responsible for printing the card, namely the Printing Bureau in the Ministry of Finance.[4] Instructions in Japanese 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.


*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] 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. 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.

[2] The colors are black, grey, green, and a brownish-yellow.

[3] According to Buddhist lore, as a sign of his renunciation of princely life, the Buddha removed his earrings, thus leaving his pierced earlobes empty.

[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.

Concept Mapping My Academic Writing Course

While doing research on graphic organizers, I was quickly enraptured by the idea of concept mapping. Concept maps are a means of spatially representing the relationships between ideas and showing how they can form complex networks of knowledge. These types of maps can help both instructors and students more firmly grasp the connections between apparently disparate ideas and help to form a more integrated understanding of a topic or a whole course.

Our university courses are taught in a linear fashion. Ideally we try to scaffold or build towards more complex ideas and skills as the term advances. But the ideas of our courses are not necessarily related to one another in such a simple linear fashion, they often connect to and reflect one another at multiple junctures. In fact, being able to conceptually grasp these multiple juncture points, or how ideas are related on multiple fronts, can be an important step towards real mastery of a subject. Visual resources such as concept maps have been shown to be potent pedagogical tools that aid in building this type of holistic perspective.

In terms of construction, concept maps can show relationships between ideas through spatial placement or proximity (or hierarchy, though that is more usually reserved for tree-diagrams). These maps may be centered around a central idea, although this is not necessary. Importantly, connecting lines (or arrows to show direction) are added to clarify relationships between ideas, and in more detailed maps those lines can be labelled, thus adding even more clarity and precision.

Inspired by its conceptual utility and using these basic principles I’ve just outlined, I set out to create a concept map for my writing course. I wrestled with having my students do their own in groups as an in-class activity (this is often recommended in the literature I consulted), but I decided I needed to struggle with it first to see how reasonable the task would be and how long it would take. Brainstorming the individual components (the ideas/skills I considered most critical) was not difficult, nor was connecting some of the ideas. The biggest challenge was trying to limit the different ways I could connect ideas. In fact, if I was to recreate my concept map from scratch, it almost certainly would look a little different. I tinkered with it a bunch, mostly playing with the labels on the connecting lines. I decided to give it to my students near the end of the term, using it as a cover to a stack of (digital) documents I provide each student (this includes some of their own reflective pieces and copies of handouts we’ve used in class that I think will serve them after our course). Nevertheless, below is my concept map for my writing course.

Concept map - Romaskiewicz 2019.png

Concept Map Cover for my writing course.

I first showed the students the concept map as projected onto a screen in our classroom. I didn’t tell them what it was and allowed them a few minutes to discuss its meaning and purpose in small groups before having a short class discussion. Since I only learned about creating concept map towards the end of my course, I would likely do this at the beginning of the course next time.

Lastly, I was greatly inspired by Linda B. Nilson’s The Graphic Syllabus and the Outcomes Map: Communicating your Course when I designed my concept map. It provides numerous examples and an assortment of ways one could tackle such a project.





Non-Traditional (Un)Grading Systems – An Overview

It’s worth, first, marveling at the relative newness of grading. In fact, the now-standard letter-grading system only gained widespread popularity in US schools in the 1940s. This was partly a response to a decades-long concern over creating a standard of uniformity across institutions, thus standardized grading emerged as an administrative tool for interinstitutional coordination. Today, however, grading (or “evaluative feedback”) is mostly conceived as a pedagogical tool that operates as a source of communication to students and as a hotly debated source of student motivation.[1]

Over time, several different grading systems have developed, including non-grading (or un-grading) systems that see evaluative feedback as a detriment to student learning. Scholarly research on educational assessment is bewilderingly extensive, nevertheless here is a relatively short, curated list of several non-traditional methods of grading employed in higher education.

What is “Traditional Grading”?

We should note at the outset that there is no traditional “traditional grading” system, it’s an amorphous and ultimately abstract entity. Many instructors have vastly different grading policies and practices suited to their personal educational interests or tailored to their student needs. Yet, working from within a criteria-referenced paradigm, traditional grading could be characterized by its attempts to evaluate student work fairly, accurately, and uniformly across a class (and perhaps between classes or across time). Additionally, students earn points as assignments, projects, exams, and so forth, are completed to a certain level of quantified competency throughout the term. Lastly, a final grade is assigned based on these points values (often averaged) and a variety of other factors (like attendance, participation, extra credit, etc.).

Several concerns raised about this system include the perception that instructors are forced to inhabit the role of a grade “gate-keeper,” consequently engendering the distrust of their students. Some complain that the system encourages student grade performance over their learning mastery, a finding backed by research. Moreover, some question the ability for grades to be assigned fairly and uniformly across a class. Others will point to the potential waste of time for instructors who are forced to teach students who are satisfied with only the most minimal competency in a topic. Lastly, some would like to see a meaningful way to incorporate student effort in addition to student competency in any grading system.

Because of concerns like these, alternative grading systems have been proposed. While non-traditional systems are often promoted as better for learning and teaching, there is no value-neutral grading system. The mechanisms of the system will direct or encourage certain types of learning (and teaching) behaviors over others. Furthermore, certain grading systems may be more (or less) time-intensive for instructors or students, or cause efforts to be front-loaded or back-loaded in comparison to traditional systems. Because of this, it is worth making an informed decision on which grading system we employ, whether it’s a traditional or a non-traditional variety.

Wait…Aren’t these “Non-Traditional” Grading Systems Just Fads?

This is a fair question. Radical departures from norms may only seem “better” because they are new. One of the following examples, contract grading, has been widely studied since the 1970s and has been regularly found to have beneficial impacts on student learning and motivation. Additionally, both specifications grading and levels grading are built upon elements that have sound research behind them, even though, as entities, they have not yet been the focus of empirical research.

Specifically, and this applies to all three systems, a focus is placed on evaluation transparency, where the purpose of the exercise or assessment is clearly explained, the task is clearly described, and the evaluation criteria is clearly delineated (perhaps think of a grading rubric) and provided in advance so as to help students with self-evaluation. In some ways, these three alternative grading systems are designed to fully operationalize the principle of transparency, a relatively simple teaching intervention that has been shown to demonstrably enhance student success, including academic performance, student mastery of skills, student confidence, a sense of belonging leading to better retention. This does not represent the totality of these grading systems, but helps to explain their particular design. Non-grading (which could also incorporate transparency) has long been shown to be a better motivator of student effort and allows instructors to put their time and energy into areas that have a more appreciable impact on learning. Overall, these are not transitory fads, but systems built on the best available research in educational psychology and instructional design. With that being said, the individual implementation of these systems can be quite varied (any investigation into the literature on these will quickly reveal this fact) and as such rely heavily on the specific interests, purposes, and needs of the instructor.

Contract Grading

With its origins in the early 1970s, this form of grading has been championed by Peter Elbow, whose work has left a lasting mark in the field of composition studies. Due in part to Elbow, contract grading is most commonly used in composition and rhetoric courses, although it has wide application across disciplines. In an attempt to move student interest away from the commodity of the grade and towards nurturing more essential learning skills and behaviors, contract grading is based on establishing an agreement with students regarding the quantity and quality of work they need to complete, among other criteria, which is correlated to a particular grade. These agreements can be negotiated with individual students as they propose activities and projects, which, when completed, receive the agreed-upon grade. Contract grading can also be non-negotiable, or applied equally to the whole class with instructors providing the specified criteria and the related grading output.[2] Jane Danielewicz and Peter Elbow have outlined the latter method by establishing a B-grade set of criteria (attending class regularly, participating in all in-class activities, providing thoughtful peer-feedback, etc.) for students to work on for most of the semester (see resource below). Only with the submission of a final portfolio would a final grade higher than a B be considered for students who fulfilled the contract. Grades lower than a B are possible, but as the authors note, “we are frankly trying to badger and cajole every student into getting a B.” Some recent research by Dana Lindemann and Colin Harbke suggests this grading system succeeds in discouraging students from failing a course and also provides students with higher competency in the desired skills and topics. Of the non-traditional systems noted here, contract grading has received by far the most research.


  • Danielewicz, Jane & Elbow, Peter. 2009. “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching,” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 61, No. 2, pp. 244-268. [here]
  • Davidson, Cathy. [Twenty-First Century Literacies syllabus]
  • Hensen, Leslie. [syllabus]
  • Inoue, Asao B. 2014. “A Grade-less Writing Course that Focuses on Labor and Assessing.” In Teague, D. & Lunsford, R. (Eds.), First-Year Composition: From Theory to Practice. West Lafayette: Parlor Press, pp. 71-110. [despite the title, the focus is on implementing contract grading][here]
  • Inoue, Asao. [syllabus]
  • Lindemann, D. F., & Harbke, C. R. 2011. “Use of Contract Grading to Improve Grades Among College Freshmen in Introductory Psychology.” SAGE Open. [here]
  • Volk, Steve 2016. Contract Improv – Three Approaches to Contract Grading (Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence at Oberlin College)[three different methods for implementing contract grading]

Specifications Grading

This is a more recent grading system – not entirely unrelated to contract grading – proposed by Linda Nilson and most robustly discussed in her 2015 work Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. At its core, “spec grading” relies on the establishment of clear and detailed specifications for what constitutes a passing piece of work (for Nilson, typically, B-level work or better). This is not unlike creating a grading rubric, but one only needs to detail a “satisfactory” set of criteria, not a full range of grading possibilities. Assignments are bundled, and the more advanced bundles represent more complex skills and/or content. Students are graded only pass/fail for individual assignments or tests and progress as they receive passing grades. Bundles, however, are tied to overall course grades, thus spec grading allows students to determine which grade/bundle they want to compete. Also incorporated is the rather interesting idea of tokens. These are allotted at the beginning of the term to each student and can be redeemed to revise an unsatisfactory assignment, hand in work 24-hours late, take a make-up exam, and so forth. Given the limited number of tokens, students need to think about how to use tokens strategically.


Levels Grading

Modeled on video game mechanics, Dustin Locke has recently developed a grading system similar to specification grading, but with different nuances. There are a total of three levels, each of which consists of a larger, more complex project, and which are each evaluated on a four-tier system: complete, almost, good effort, and not much progress. A student progresses to the next project/level only when they have received a “complete” on the previous project/level. Like the spec system by Nilson, a student needs to gain a certain competency or mastery of a skill or content before moving on to the next project. Importantly, there are specific windows when students can attempt to complete levels, thus the project/level any given student needs to be adaptable to the content that is being covered at that time in the course. The final evaluation a student receives on a level is correlated to a final course grade. This system is currently growing among philosophy instructors.


Portfolio Assessment

Not necessarily a fully reconceived grading system (eg. it is used as part of Peter Elbow’s contract grading system), portfolio assessment grew in popularity in the 1990s as interest gathered around alternative assessment techniques. In its simplest form, a portfolio is a collection of student work that exhibits their effort and progress in a course. It includes student-selected documents, learning products, or artifacts that they feel represent their best work, and as such, it usually represents work they have revised, sometimes significantly, and reflects their learning processes. Often students will be asked to include reflective documents, such as cover letters describing the selection process and the pieces the choose to include. Oftentimes perceived as an “authentic assessment” tool, this is very common in composition courses.



There have been many calls for the abolishment of grades, and there’s good research to suggest this is a wise pedagogical decision. In the broadest strokes, evaluative feedback (grades) alone, where students are essentially ranked in accordance to one another, doesn’t provide any valuable information about how to improve their understanding or competency nor has it been shown to provide any positive motivation for students to truly master a topic or take intellectual chances. Alfie Kohn, one of the most vocal proponents for diluting and removing grading, has made a career on this topic.

One point of confusion, however, is that by removing grading one removes all evaluation. This is not true. Emphasis shifts to descriptive evaluation where pertinent information related to improving student competency is shared and discussed. And while evaluative feedback and descriptive feedback are often coupled in practice in traditional grading systems, research cited by Kimberly Tanner and Jeffrey Schinske in their provocative “Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently)” suggests that students are less likely to read comments that are paired with grades. Providing only descriptive feedback had been shown to be the most efficient for student learning and is also preferential to some students.

One of the most characteristic aspects of non-grading or ungrading is metacognition and self-assessment. Jesse Stommel, who has reflected thoughtfully on his practice of ungrading, has his students regularly engage in self-reflection through “process letters,” which open up a space of dialogue “not just about the course, but about their learning and about how learning happens.” This allows both for the instructor to provide constructive feedback and encouragement and for the student to cultivate the skills of critical self-assessment and future planning. Of course, working in a traditional institution, he needs to assign final course grades so Stommel has students grade themselves. He reserves the right to alter any grades his student submit, but he claims the most common alteration he makes is from an A- to an A, for the students who are too modest in their self-assessment.


Final Thoughts

These alternatives are all reactions to dissatisfaction with traditional grading systems. From a bird’s eye view, these all emphasize pedagogical approaches that we should all immediately appreciate, including careful and strategic scaffolding of lesson plans and assignments, creating transparent and detailed evaluation rubrics, encouraging students to engage in metacognitive activity, and giving students a sense of purpose and ownership over their own learning. Several systems (perhaps my selection bias) foreground student competency or mastery that happens in stages, which in turn can allow for the implementation of a simpler evaluative feedback consisting of a two-tier pass/no pass (or pass/revise). In almost all cases, some power and authority is wrestled away from the instructor and placed in the hands of the student.

Other Resources on Grading

  • Docan, Tony N. 2006. “Positive and Negative Incentives in the Classroom: An Analysis of Grading Systems and Student Motivation, Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 21-40. [here]
  • Elbow, Peter. 1994. “Ranking, Evaluating, Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment.” College English, Vol. 55, No. 2, pp. 187–206. [here]
  • Kohn, Alfie. 1999. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Rev. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Tanner, Kimberly & Schinske,, 2014. “Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently),” CBE Life Science Education, Vol. 13, No. 2, pp. 187-206. [here]
  • Tchudi, Stephen, ed. 1997 (2011). Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. National Council of Teachers of English [here][this has been a constant source of inspiration for me]
  • Winkelmes, Mary-Ann; Bernacki, Matthew; Butler, Jeffrey; Zochowski, Michelle; Golanics, Jennifer & Weavil, Kathryn Harriss. 2016. “A Teaching Intervention that Increases Underserved College Students’ Success,” in Peer Review, Vol. 18, No. 1/2. [here]


[1] For a brief survey on the literature regarding the positive and negative motivating effect of grades, see Docan 2006. Evaluative feedback is often distinguished from descriptive feedback which provides specific information about how a student can become more competent. Often these are used in conjunction. Grades are also used in an organizational manner, such that they are used to partition lessons, units, or terms. In this context grades are seen as a “summative assessment,” in contrast to a “formative assessment” which places more focus on informal tests of students’ understanding before administering a summative assessment.

[2] These two broad forms of contract grading are described in the 1971 work, Wad-Ja-Get? The Grading Game in American Education, by Howard Kirschenbaum, Sidney B. Simon, and Rodney W. Napier. Incidentally, when contract grading was increasingly discussed as an alternative grading system in the early 1970s, the idea of instituting a two-tier pass/fail grading system in contrast to the A-to-F system was also discussed widely. We will see that the combination of elements from both contract grading and a two-tier grading system are found in some of the most common alternative systems circulating today.

The Eight Postcard Views of Kamakura


The September 1, 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake changed Japan. Striking at just before noon, the 7.9 magnitude earthquake razed the capital of Tokyo and the port of Yokohama and caused severe destruction around the entire Kantō region. The resulting fire and massive tsunami claimed many more casualties. The reconstruction of homes, government buildings, factories, shops, roads, canals, and bridges took monumental effort. Nevertheless, the rebirth of the capital and the symbolic renewal of Japan from the disaster was marked by a weeklong series of celebratory events held in March 1930.

Among the many structures decimated by the disaster also included historic temples and shrines, several of which were in Kamakura, part of what is now considered the Greater Tokyo Area. The ancient capital of Kamakura, after which the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) is named, was the home to the shogunate (bakufu 幕府, “tent government”), a hereditary military dictatorship that ruled over Japan and which granted only nominal authority to the imperial court. While the institution of the shogunate persisted until 1867, the capital was moved at the end of the Kamakura period back to the cultural center of Kyoto. After centuries of gradual decline, significant domestic and international interest was thrust back on to Kamakura in the Meiji period (1868-1912), when its proximity to the newly created international port of Yokohama increased its exposure to travelers and businesses.

When the 1923 earthquake hit the region, one of the early storylines that spread through American newspapers concerned the survival of the Kamakura Daibutsu, a destination known worldwide among globetrotting tourists. While the 93 metric tonne bronze statue had shifted 30 centimeters forward, warping its back and neck slightly, it survived relatively unscathed. Because of the shift in weight, a portion of the stone pedestal sunk into the ground. The pedestal also received more extensive structural damage requiring significant repair, which occurred early in 1925.

Sometime after the 1923 earthquake, an unknown publisher issued a set of eight postcards memorializing the scenic views of Kamakura. Thematic sets of postcards had long been manufactured by Japanese publishers, both by private printers and the government. When the government first printed its own picture postcards (ehagaki 絵葉書) in 1902 (private companies were allowed two years earlier), it issued a set of six cards commemorating the Japanese–Korea Treaty of Amity (Nitchō-shūkōjōki 日朝修好条規). Regardless of this precedent of a set of six, a set of eight cards soon became standard for publishers.

A set of eight scenic vistas has its historical origins in the brush paintings of Chinese artist and government bureaucrat Song Di 宋迪 (c. 1067 – c. 1080), who is attributed with created the visual genre of the Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers (Xiāoxiāng Bājǐng瀟湘八景)[Song Di’s painting are now lost]. The notion that a set of “eight scenic vistas” or “eight views” (hakkei 八景) constituted a complete and integrated set made its way into Japan by the fourteenth-century. This motivated Japanese artisans and poets to find their own groupings of “famous sites” (meisho 名所) and by the Edo period (1615-1868) each province claimed to have its own set of eight special vistas.[1] For example, Kanazawa 金沢 in Sagami Province, in which Kamakura also resides, became among the most famous sets of eight views in Japan, which was visually represented by woodblock artists such as Utagawa Hiroshige 歌川広重 (1797-1858). Perhaps surprisingly, given Kamakura’s historical importance as a national capital, a specific set of eight views was never expressed among pre-Meiji poets, artists, and woodblock printers.[2]

Given the precedence of the literary and artistic value of the eight scenic vistas genre, one could conclude postcard publishers were naturally filling in the gaps of history when they issued sets of eight postcards depicting famous locations around Kamakura. Kanji Satō suggests this would be premature, as it overlooks the particular means of postcard manufacturing. The photomechanical process of printing late Meiji postcards was dominated by the collotype press, which used relatively large sheets of paper that were later cut into individual cards. Each of these sheets accommodated eight individual postcards, thus sets were most efficiently designed in groupings of eight cards, totaling 8, 16, 24, or 32 cards per set. The relationship to the historical groupings of eight scenic vistas is most likely coincidental, although it dovetails nicely into traditional Japanese arts.

Figure 1 [Set 1] & Figure 2 [Set 2]Figure 1.JPG

Figure 2.JPGSometime around the 1920s sets of picture postcards were more frequently issued in a paper sleeve or cover that held them together. These sleeves were initially imprinted with text or simple designs, but due to the highly competitive commercial market, these utilitarian items became subject to the same visual expectations as the postcards themselves. The examples before us bear a hand-colored photographic image, which is given the same artistic care as the cards they hold [Fig. 1 & Fig. 2]. In addition to the minor and idiosyncratic coloring differences, each set uses a slightly different letterpress design. Set 2 also appears to be influenced by an art deco font style.

Figure 3 & Figure 4

Figure 3Figure 4

The sleeve image of the Daibutsu matches the interior postcard, save for the bokashi-style wash of the sky. Both cover sleeves offer a pink-hued twilight while the individual cards are tinted with a daylight blue [Fig. 3 & Fig. 4]. Given the age of these cards, the fact that these cards are hand-colored is notable, as is evidenced by the advertising on the cover sleeves. In the very early part of the twentieth century, all Japanese postcards were printed monochromatic and many were then hand-tinted. In the early part of the Taishō period (1912-1926), however, a multicolor collotype printing process was developed, but these cards existed side-by-side with hand-tinted cards into the early 1920s. After the 1923 earthquake, almost all publishers adopted this new printing technology. Since these two sets of cards were issued post-1923 (see below), the fact they were still employing hand-coloring was an added selling point.

Figure 5

Figure 5

Figure 6 [sleeve] & Figure 7 [postcard]

Figure 6Figure 7.JPG

The photograph of the Daibutsu appears staged, as all of the onlookers face squarely towards the colossal statue. Upon closer inspection, we also see very subtle signs of the 1923 earthquake that ravaged the Kantō region. The lanterns, for example, are shortened from their usual height, signs they needed to be pieced back together and re-erected. Additionally, the items normally arranged atop the offering table are now missing [Figs. 3 &4]. More significantly, the structure to the right of the Daibutsu appears slipshod and rough, a far call from the ornate hipped roof building that stood in that same location for three decades [Fig. 5]. Moreover, in a detail that is only visible on the cover sleeves, wooden supports hold up the base of the pedestal, a clear indication of the damages rendered in 1923 [Fig. 6]. An artist carefully painted over the wooden supports for the postcard image, creating a new brick façade to complete the deception [Fig. 7]. The most evident sign of damage is the toppled tree that breaks into the foreground view from the left side [Figs. 3 &4].

Most likely, this photograph represents a period after the terrible destruction caused by the earthquake and after the initial clean-up of the temple grounds. Indeed, enough time has passed so the structure on the right could have been constructed. Yet, the ample work reported in refinishing the pedestal appears to have not yet been executed. Furthermore, in other photographs from 1925 after the repairs, not only are the wooden supports removed, but the lanterns have been reconstructed fully and moved to the second landing. These details all suggest this photograph of the Daibutsu was taken after the Great Kantō earthquake on September 1, 1923, but before the repairs were finished in early 1925.

Figure 8 [Set 1] & Figure 9 [Set 2]

Figure 8Figure 9

I would estimate that Set 1 was printed in the mid-to-late 1920s. Regrettably, I have not yet been able to match the trademark of a drum (in the stamp box, see Fig. 8) to any know publisher. While Set 2 contains photographs of the same locations, only four of the eight photographs have been copied over directly from Set 1. The other four offer different views from the same environs. Most importantly, the caption (in Japanese only) of the image of the bell tower at Kenchō-ji Temple distinguishes the bell as a National Treasure (kokuhō 國寶)[Fig. 23], a designation it received only on November 14, 1933, thus establishing a firm terminus post quem. I would estimate that Set 2, also issued under an unknown publisher (although I’ve suspected Hoshinoya in the past), was printed in the mid-1930s.

Below I offer brief historical commentary on the remaining seven views from both sets. The older first set bears simpler captions that are oddly set in blank spaces around the card. The newer second set places the captions along the bottom edge of the cards, as would be the more traditional location. The English in the bilingual is sometimes a poor translation of the Japanese, thus I provide a more literal rendering in square brackets.

Figure 10 & Figure 11

Figure 10Figure 11

  • Set 1 caption: Hachiman Temple 鎌倉八幡宮 [Hachiman Shrine, Kamakura]
  • Set 2 caption: Hachiman Shrine Kamakura 鎌倉八幡宮 [Hachiman Shrine, Kamakura]

Residing at the geographical center of the city, the unusually long, nearly 2-kilometer long road leading to the Hachiman Shrine entrance traditionally doubled as the main thoroughfare of the city. Originally constructed in 1063, the founder of the Kamakura shogunate, Minamoto no Yoritomo 源頼朝 (1147-99), invited the tutelary kami of warriors, Hachiman 八幡, to reside in a new reconstruction of the shine in order to protect his fledgling government. Due to its relationship with the shogun and important political role, the Hachiman Shrine remains the most historically and culturally important site in Kamakura. Previous to 1868, this site was a shrine-temple complex (jingū-ji 神宮寺), meaning it was used as a place for Buddhist practice and the worship of kami.

Figure 12 & Figure 13

Figure 12Figure 13

  • Set 1 caption: Tsuchiro Kamakura 鎌倉大塔宮土牢 [“The prison at Ōtōnomiya Shrine, Kamakura”]
  • Set 2 caption: Tsuchiro Kamakura 鎌倉大塔宮土牢 [“The prison at Ōtōnomiya Shrine, Kamakura”]

The Kamakura Shrine was erected by Emperor Meiji in 1869 to honor Prince Moriyoshi 護良親王 (also read Morinaga) (1308-1335) who was imprisoned and killed as an act of political retribution in 1335. Before he actively helped his father lead forces against the shogun, Moriyoshi was a Buddhist monk and previously held the position of head abbot of Enryaku-ji Temple 延暦寺, the prestigious seat of the Tendai school.[3] Moriyoshi’s life and unfortunate death captured the imagination of the Japanese and he was well known even before the creation of the shrine memorializing him. Western travelers would have encountered him as well, through The postcard photograph depicts the cave behind the main shrine hall (haiden 拝殿), according to tradition believed to be where the prince was held captive for nine months. The alternate name of this site is Ōtōnomiya Shrine 大塔宮, for a pseudonym used by Moriyoshi.

Figure 14 & Figure 15

Figure 14Figure 15

 Set 1 caption: View of Yenoshima 七里ヶ濱ヨリ江ノ島ヲ望 [Distant View of Enoshima from Shichirigahama]

Set 2 caption: View of Enoshima (Island) near Kamakura 七里ヶ濱ヨリ江ノ島ヲ望ム [Distant View of Enoshima from Shichirigahama]

 Figure 16 & Figure 17

Figure 16Figure 17

  •  Set 1: View of Yenoshima 江ノ島入口 [The Entrance to Enoshina]
  • Set 2: Entrance of Enoshima (Island) near Kamakura 江ノ島入口棧橋 [The Entrance Bridge to Enoshina]

The famed island of Enoshima is a center of worship to the goddess Benzaiten 弁財天, a figure with origins in India and who entered Japan in the 6th through 8th centuries. As one of her roles, Benzaiten was considered the protector of the nation and thus was favored by military leaders. The founder of the Kamakura shogunate, Minamoto no Yoritomo 源頼朝 (1147-99), took advantage of the proximity of Enoshima to his new capital and mandated the construction of a torii on the island to memorialize his devotion. Taking advantage of visitors to the islands, entrepreneurs set up shops, consequently making the excursion even more attractive to travelers. For early Western tourists, the sandy beaches made the island a favorite resort area. Older woodblock prints show that the island was connected to the Shichirigahama beach by a shallow sandbar before the bridge was constructed.

Figure 18 & Figure 19

Figure 18Figure 19

  • Set 1 caption: Hase Temple 鎌倉長谷寺 [Hasa-dera Temple, Kamakura]
  • Set 2 caption: Hase Temple Kamakura 鎌倉長谷寺 [Hasa-dera Temple, Kamakura]

With origins in the 8th century, this temple is best known for housing one of the largest wooden statues in Japan. It is a 9 meter (approx. 30 foot) tall statue of the Buddhist goddess Kannon 觀音. Its purported origins are rather interesting. It is believed an artist named Tokudo 徳道 made two large Kannon statues from a single fragrant camphor tree in 721. One was enshrined in Hase-dera Temple in Nara, while the second was set adrift into the sea. Fifteen years later the wooden statue washed ashore near Kamakura and a temple, also named Hase-dera, was constructed to honor it. Like many religious sites in Kamakura during the Kamakura period, this temple was restored and expanded.

Figure 20 & Figure 21

Figure 20

Figure 21

  • Set 1: Yengakuji Temple Kamakura 鎌倉円覚寺舍利殿 [Reliquary Hall of Engaku-ji Temple, Kamakura]
  • Set 2: Engaku-ji Temple Kamakura 鎌倉圓覺寺山門 [Front Entrance of Engaku-ji Temple, Kamakura]

Founded in 1282 during the Kamakura period, Engaku-ji Temple was included as one of the Kamakura’s “Five Mountains” (gozan 五山), a network of Zen Buddhist temples supervised by a state bureaucracy but that also received the state’s protection. In the Meiji period (1868-1912) it became the center for Zen study in the eastern part of Japan. Not coincidentally, the famed popularizer of Zen in America, D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966), trained there (though he remained a layperson until his death). Set 1 depicts the temple Reliquary Hall (noted in the Japanese caption) which houses a tooth of the Buddha. This building is registered as a National Treasure. Set 2 depicts the temple front gate (sanmon 山門, “mountain gate”), itself a prominent piece of architecture on the temple grounds.

Figure 22 & Figure 23

Figure 22Figure 23

  • Set 1 caption: Kenchoji Temple Kamakura 鎌倉建長寺山門 [Front Entrance of Kenchō-ji Temple, Kamakura]
  • Set 2 caption: Tsurigane (Bell-Tower) Kencho-ji Temple Kamakura 鎌倉建長寺鐘樓(國寶) [Bell Tower at Kenchō-ji Temple, Kamakura (National Treasure)]

Founded in 1253 during the Kamakura period, Kenchō-ji is the oldest Zen training temple in Japan. Like Engaku-ji, it was also included among the “Five Mountains” network. Set 1 depicts the temple front gate. And while Set 2 depicts the bell tower, the significant historical entity is the temple bell (bonshō 梵鐘), itself designated as a National Treasure (kokuhō 國寶), the most precious of Japan’s historic and cultural properties. Cast in 1255 by Mononobe Shigemitsu 物部重光 it is the second largest in the Kantō region, only to one housed in Engaku-ji. It is believed that the goddess Benzaiten, who was thought to reside on the nearby island of Enoshima (see other postcards), offered her divine protection to have it made. Some modern scholars have floated Mononobe as the possible caster of the Kamakura Daibutsu since this bell was made around the same period, although this remains unlikely.


*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] Shirane 2010.

[2] Nenzi (2004) outlines the development of Kamakura and Sagami generally into a destination spot through the identification of “tourist packages.”

[3] Moriyoshi (his Buddhist name was Son’un 尊雲) had a complex relationship to his monastic vocation, since his vital role as abbot was to enlist the help of important temples and warrior monks to help his father, Emperor Go-Daigo 後醍醐天皇 (1288-1339), in his fight against the Kamakura shogunate.