In Defense of Lectures? II (Pondering Pedagogy)

[Part IX of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII]

Defenders of the lecture will often point to a widely popular lecture-style format found easily on the internet – TED Talks (Technology, Entertainment, and Design Talks).[1] These talks typically combine the spoken word with various media (audio, video, image), thus resembling something similar to a modern university lecture.

Yet, TED Talks also keep a relatively tight time cap at 18 minutes, more than halving the typical university class period. What is our aspiring-lecturer to do?

The emerging consensus response seems to advocate for 10 to 15 minute blocks of “classic” lecture (i.e. straight presenting) divided by some sort of class activity where students reflect upon or apply the lecture content. This blend is often represented as an interactive lecture-tutorial hybrid, sometimes referred to as “lectorials” or sometimes “lecturettes.”[2] The problematic assumption is that students will reset their internal “attention clocks” through these interspersed activities. The logic follows that we then have another 15 minutes before students attention precipitously wanes. Tick-tock.

I would like to reflect on this for a moment. To me, this seems to conflate two different complaints against the classic lecture. The teaching-learning activities (TLAs) are typically implemented in order to allow the students to deepen their knowledge of the concepts – this is what transforms the passive learning environment of the classic lecture into the active learning environment of the flipped classroom.

The attention span of students seems to be a very different matter. A recent analysis offered by Neil Bradbury criticized the magical 10-15 minute window, summarily noting:

“A review of the literature on this topic reveals many discussions referring to prior studies but scant few primary investigations. Alarmingly, the most often cited source for a rapid decline in student attention during a lecture barely discusses student attention at all. Of the studies that do attempt to measure attention, many suffer from methodological flaws and subjectivity in data collection. Thus, the available primary data do not support the concept of a 10- to 15-min attention limit. Interestingly, the most consistent finding from a literature review is that the greatest variability in student attention arises from differences between teachers and not from the teaching format itself.”

Interestingly, and as other recent scholarship has shown, the ability to captivate the audience is not due to the format of the learning environment, but the performative ability of the instructor. Unsurprisingly, a bad performance can turn even a 5 minute lecture into an interminable affair. Eleanor Sandry makes an astute observation that educational research frequently excludes personality and rhetorical style from the quantitative evaluations of pedagogy, thus leaving the lecture to be uncharitably characterized as dead learning environment.[3]

I do not think it was accidental that the champion of the didactic argumentative style, Aristotle, was also the champion of rhetorical techniques (noted in our last post). Cool-headed persuasion was most effective when it was combined with emotional flourish. Academic writing, for better or worse, trains young scholars to avoid emotive expression in favor of logical argumentation. Yet, writing a good argument is not necessarily a good template for crafting a good lecture that holds attention.[4]

Thomas Buchanan and Edward Palmer also pose an interesting critique on the anti-lecture paradigm – much of the current research focus on STEM disciplines, especially the applied sciences, where skill acquisition and demonstration is paramount. What of disciplines where interpretation is the primary skill? It can be argued that the act of interpretation necessitates the acquisition of large amounts of contextualizing information – of which the lecture is most effective at disseminating. Additionally, in the disciplines of history or religious studies, narrative creation and story-telling is not only central to their research agendas, but also in their classroom deployment, thus making lecture a valuable modality of pedagogy.[5]

Outside of having students engaging with higher-order thinking, a better argument for breaking up a lecture into segments than attention (or performance) deficit involves “cognitive load,” the idea that our working memory can manage a relatively limited amount of information at one time. Load increases based on the difficulty of the material itself (intrinsic cognitive load), the elements that aid in the information processing (germane cognitive load), and the elements the potentially distract from the information (extraneous cognitive load). Cognitive capacity diminishes not at a set point in time, but at a certain threshold of information – thus it is advised that we pay closer attention to the difficulty and amount of information provided, than merely the time it takes to present it.

Grist for the Mill: I am in no position to settle these arguments – and certainly wish to read more stimulating research – but it seems to me that if your goal is to simply deliver data, especially to students who have very little background, then lecturing would be entirely sufficient. If you have any performance chops or can craft and tell a good story, that lecture could certainly last far longer than 10 or 15 minutes. More importantly, we should pay attention to the quantity and difficulty of the data, and intersperse activities accordingly so students can work with the data in more encompassing ways in order to form a better comprehension of it.

Yet, if we want students to do more than simply recognize and recall facts, or in other words to perform certain skills (such as interpretation, analysis, assessment, and so forth) we need to allow them to practice those skills in a more active classroom environment and this is where lecture falls flat.


*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.

[1] E.g. Freisen 2014, Bradbury 2016.

[2] The concept of the lectorial, punctuated with 10-15 minutes blocks, is discussed in Cavanagh 2011.

[3] Suggestions for livening-up a lecture include watching motivational or charismatic speakers (Bradbury 2016), and incorporating paralinguistic expression and kinesics (non-verbal voice qualities and bodily movement)(Sandry 2006).

[4] I am unaware of any studies that look at the reception of the classic lecture that is ritually delivered at almost every academic conference. If there are apologists among my readers who claim that you enjoy conference lectures, and consequently students should learn to enjoy all classroom lectures, please let me suggest this. The conference papers you enjoyed are either performed by charismatic scholars or are related to your deeply invested academic interests. Imagine at a conference I asked you to take copious notes on a poorly performed presentation of which you had no background knowledge. Then, after you sat bleary-eyed through the presentation, I would give you a quiz on it. Or even better, make you write a paper about it. Performance and motivation matters for lecturing and learning.

[5] Buchanan & Palmer 2017.


  • Bradbury, Neil A. 2016. “Attention Span During Lectures: 8 Seconds, 10 Minutes, or More?” Advanced Physiological Education, Vol. 40, pp. 509–513
  • Buchanan, Thomas & Palmer, Edward. 2017. “Student Perceptions of the History Lecture: Does this Delivery Mode have a Future in the Humanities?” Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 1-17.
  • Cavanagh, Michael. 2011. “Students’ Experiences of Active Engagement through Cooperative Learning Activities in Lectures,” Active Learning in Higher Education, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 23–33.
  • Friesen, Norm. 2014. “A Brief History of the Lecture: A Multi-Media Analysis.”  Medien Pädagogik, Vol. 24, pp. 136–153.
  • Sandry, E. 2006. “Positively Speaking – Actively Listening: Interdisciplinary Reflections on Lecturing as Valuable in Higher Education,” in Critical Visions, Proceedings of the 29th HERDSA Annual Conference, Western Australia, 10-12 July 2006, pp. 324-330.

In Defense of Lectures? I (Pondering Pedagogy)

[Part VIII of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, IX]

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Here at the Religious Studies blogging headquarters, we enjoy a good lecture. Admitting this in certain circles may seem a tad tone-deaf given the popularity of the “flipped classroom” and focus on student-centered learning.[1] If you have been hiding in a cave for the past few years (or ignoring the pleas of the Chronical of Higher Education), the sage-on-the-stage format has been widely rejected in favor of the now-preferred guide-on-the-side.

Of course, over the past two decades good data has emerged from educational psychology announcing the successes of more “active learning” models of teaching, while the field of instructional design has tailored these theories to suit the needs of university environments. In preparation for a short seminar on the deficits of the classroom lecture for my colleagues, I wanted to take the stance of the apologetic – what was the best research-based defense of lectures I could muster? The motivation was slightly nefarious, I had long been a convert to active learning environments, but found many of my colleagues in the humanities hesitant (if not hostile) to modify their lecture format, thus I wanted to be equipped with the best possible argument for lecture, in order to defeat it. At least, so went my thinking.

In my reading, the two basic arguments against the lecture format can be boiled down to the efficacy of engendering “deep learning” and the ability to hold the attention of students for a sufficient period of time (typically, for the entire 50-55 minute lecture). Both of these actually require interesting caveats, which I will return to below (and in the next post).

Before we fully dive into this topic, I feel duty bound by my history training to cover some groundwork. The term “lecture” derives from Latin legere, “to read,” but more specifically here it means to read aloud, the dominant form of reading throughout the medieval period in Europe. Traditionally, the method of the lecture is more didactic than dialectical (or Socratic), a division stemming from ancient Greek distinctions in styles of argumentation. Aristotle is often presented as the champion of the didactic “lecture” style, where the straightforward presentation of information was paramount. Importantly for our brief analysis, Aristotle is also known for his interest in the artful use of rhetoric – for simplicity’s sake we can just call this “strategies of persuasion.” Thus Aristotle’s didactic style, suffused by artful presentation, became the origins of classic Roman oratory and even early ecclesiastical sermons.[2]

Moreover, the material conditions of the medieval European university helped maintain the lecture as the primary means of pedagogy. Manuscripts and other text media were relatively scarce, thus the most efficient means of disseminating information was to read aloud the written material that was available. In this case, the act of lecturing and reading aloud were functionally equivalent.[3]

Let us pause here. I do not think many would disagree that, given the widespread availability of textual materials, the bland and pedantic reading of a text retains little value in the modern university. I would also suggest in modern practice the lecture is more varied than simply reading text aloud. University lectures are often rife with multimodal media, incorporating image, audio, and video, in addition to text (via various presentation software, but also chalkboards and whiteboards).[4]

Consequently, one concern I have with several arguments against lecture is that they offer only the most uncharitable and limited definition of what lecture is in modern practice (at least in my personal experience).[5] To offer the full spectrum of definitions of lecture would bring me too far afield here, but I offer one characteristic gloss to situate my claims: “50-55 minutes of largely uninterrupted monologue from a lecturer with student activity being focused on listening and note-taking.”[6] Again, in my experience, lecture is oftentimes punctuated by instructor or student questions (or even brief analytical activities, such as inviting comments on a video), allowing for a calibration of understanding on both sides. In a strict senses, these activities fall outside the purview of the “classic lecture.”

This is important for university instructors to note, by calling for student responses they are already moving towards a flipped classroom. A bedrock claim of student-centered learning advocates is that the more students are involved in the learning process, the more effective knowledge acquisition becomes. Of course, the quantity and quality of these student-centered moments vary greatly by teacher, and at a basic level, I would encourage non-conformists to expand and explore more of these techniques. Nevertheless, a diagram depicting an active learning environment may already look like what many others simply call lecturing [Figure 1].

Figure 1 (from Lumpkin et. al. 2015)

Screen Shot 2019-01-31 at 09.22.19.pngCommon consensus “best practices” recommends that “classic lecturing” be divided frequently by student-centered exercises. Active learning does not replace lecturing, it complements it by structuring the learning experience with moments where students can reflect, analyze, evaluate or synthesize the material that was presented. This is, of course, not a full-throated defense of lecturing, but a qualified defense that it should be paired with other modalities of learning.

But for how long can a lecture captivate a student audience? How regularly do we need to incorporate student activities and what should be their purpose? We will return to these questions in out next post. To be continued…


*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.

[1] For those unfamiliar with this jargon, here’s a brief primer: student-centered learning is opposed to teacher-directed learning and refers to the primary mode of educational engagement. This maps imperfectly to, but is oftentimes used synonymously with, active and passive learning as well as deep and surface learning, respectively. Student-centered, active, deep learning is often theoretically grounded in constructivist theories of learning, while teacher-directed, passive, surface learning is typically aligned with a vessel theory of learning. The flipped classroom signals a shift from the latter forms of pedagogy to the former. As with any theorized dichotomy, however, these distinctions are blurred quite frequently in practice.

[2] Many of these points are notes in Sandry 2006 and Friesen 2014.

[3] Friesen 2014: 138-9.

[4] Points raised in Freisen 2014.

[5] It seems to me that the modern attack on the lecture has its beginnings in the early 1990’s, specifically with the publications of Charles Bonwell and James Eison’s Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom (1991) and Diana Laurillard’s Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Educational Technology (1993).

[6] Wood, et. al. 2007


  • Friesen, Norm. 2014. “A Brief History of the Lecture: A Multi-Media Analysis.”  Medien Pädagogik, Vol. 24, pp. 136–153.
  • Lumpkin, Angela; Achen, Rebecca M.; Dodd, Regan K. 2015. “Student Perceptions of Active Learning.” College Student Journal, Vol. 49, No. 1, pp. 121-133.
  • Sandry, E. 2006. “Positively Speaking – Actively Listening: Interdisciplinary Reflections on Lecturing as Valuable in Higher Education,” in Critical Visions, Proceedings of the 29th HERDSA Annual Conference, Western Australia, 10-12 July 2006, pp. 324-330.
  • Wood, Leigh Norma; Petocz, Peter; Joyce, Sadhbh; Rodd, Melissa. 2007. “Learning in Lectures: Multiple Representations.” International Journal of Mathematical Education, Vol. 38, No. 7, pp. 907-915.

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To See a Buddha: A Visual Literacy of Buddhism in America (Digital Exhibit)

[This is a online version of the exhibit of my Archive at the Religious Studies Department, UCSB. Many thanks to Will Chavez for his enthusiastic support.]

UCSB Exhibit

What do you think the Buddha looked like?

My research has been guided by this deceptively complex question. As Americans were first introduced to Buddhism on a mass level in the latter half of the nineteenth century, I became interested in how they also developed a “visual literacy” of Buddhist images. Before the happy Laughing Buddha was popular, the Great Buddha of Kamakura, was the most prominent visual icon. This Great Buddha, or in Japanese, “Daibutsu,” was constructed in 1252. Here’s a look of how this statue made its way into the American imagination.

The Albumen Print and Yokohama Shashin


The popularity of the Kamakura Daibutsu in America was accidental. When Japan re-opened its borders to foreigners in 1859, the port of Yokohama – a short day’s ride from Kamakura – was selected as one of the treaty ports were foreigners could legally reside. The close proximity of Kamakura Daibutsu to this bustling port city was a significant factor in its blossoming popularity.

In addition, two other factors played a role in the recognizability of the Kamakura Daibutsu: the development of the international tourism industry and the invention of the camera. Globetrotting tourists who hoped to preserve their picturesque travels in souvenir photographs unwittingly helped promote a visual identity of an exotic Japan back home in America, with geisha, rickshaws, and Buddhist “idols,” such as the Kamakura Daibutsu.

Because of the sheer number of wealthy tourists in Yokohama, professional photography studios started to open their doors for business. These studios, operated at first by foreign residents, sold souvenir albums to fit the needs of their eager clientele. These souvenir photos were called Yokohama shashin, or “Yokohama photographs,” due to the high concentration of studios in this port city.

Adolfo Farsari (1841-1898), an Italian adventurer, eventually settled in Yokohama in the 1870s. Farsari entered a fiercely competitive photography industry when he bought out an established photography studio to open his own firm, A. Farsari & Co. Like his competitors, he sold photographs and pre-made albums to wealthy “globetrotters” who sought to return home with photographs of famous sites.

The first commercially viable photographic process produced what are known as albumen prints. They used albumen found in egg whites to bind the photosensitive chemicals to the paper.

After the monochromatic print was processed, artists would hand apply watercolor washes to provide vibrant color. Often these artists were Japanese, some who may have been trained in traditional Japanese woodblock printing.

Picture Postcards and the Callotype Process



Although photography had been in existence for over half a century, some claim that the first truly commodified form of the photograph was the picture postcard. Small and inexpensive, the postcard was a convenient souvenir that could easily be sent around the world for the appreciation and amusement of someone else.

The Japanese postal delivery service began in 1870, but it was not until 1900 that new postal regulations allowed for private companies to print their own postcards. In Japan, the postcard soon rivaled the traditional woodblock print as the favored medium to present contemporary Japanese images.

Early postcard images were commonly recycled photographs from old souvenir photography studios. In 1905, spurred by the international interest in photographing the Russo-Japanese War, a picture postcard boom hit Japan, breathing life into a new industry and collecting hobby.  Still catering to a thriving tourism industry, the private postcard publishers reshot the same generic imagery that sold well as albumen prints, including the Kamakura Daibutsu.

One of the most prolific postcard publishers of the period was the Ueda Photographic Prints Corporation, founded by Ueda Yoshizō上田義三 in the port of Yokohama around 1905. Because printing photos was exceptionally expensive and time consuming, new mechanical photographic reproduction processes were soon invented.  The development of a new printing technique, called the collotype, allowed for photomechanical printing – and the creation of inexpensive postcards – on a massive scale.

Stereophotography and Stereoviews


Perhaps one of the most curious forms of early photography involved a technique for making stereoscopic images.  By placing  a pair of slightly different images – taken by two cameras separated by about the distance between a person’s eyes – and viewing them through a stereoscope, they would merge and create an illusion of depth, thus mimicking three dimensional viewing.  An early form of virtual reality, stereocards, or stereoviews, became wildly popular by the end of the nineteenth century.

Although some stereoviews were sold in Japan, most stereoviews were sold directly to Americans in department stores, through mail-order catalogues, and by savvy door-to-door salesmen. A surviving manual for salesman instructs them in the “hard sell,” scripting a sales pitch to say: “You see, nearly everyone is getting a ‘scope and views, and really, so should you. One like this will last you all your days.”

Mass produced Japan-themed stereocard sets first started to appear in 1896, but dozens of Japan sets were available just a decade later. These images were no longer tourist souvenirs, but imaginary escapes for people who did not possess the wealth of a world-touring globetrotter. Many of the same images found in Yokohama photography studios and postcards publishers were used to paint an image of the exotic Orient.

In 1903, the novice professional photographer, Herbert George Ponting (1870-1935), was hired by the premier publishers of stereoviews, Underwood & Underwood to take new stereo-photographs of the scenery of Japan. As with many other publishers, he captured the “majestic calm” of the Kamakura Daibutsu.

Originally novelty items that could be paired with parlor games, stereoviews soon started to be marketed as educational tools. Eventually the reverse was filled with descriptive text, often taken directly from tourist books published a decade or more earlier.

From Idol to Icon


By the first decade of the twentieth century, the image of the Kamakura Daibutsu not only circulated through photographic prints, postcards, and stereoviews –  as we have seen already – but also through numerous travel books, magazine articles, and newspaper columns. The image was so often reproduced that it no longer signified a bronze statue, but an amorphous idea, a veritable icon of the exotic Orient.

It is not surprising that such an icon found favor among early modern advertising firms. The growing tourism and cruise ship industry was one of the early adopters of the Kamakura Daibutsu image. The Pacific Mail Steamship company, the first to offer a regular trans-Pacific route from San Francisco to Yokohama in 1867, used it in its magazine ads. Even the Japanese cruise company, Nippon Yūsen Kaisha (NYK) used the Daibutus in their English-language brochures.

The statue also took on more artistic renderings, gracing the cover for the sheet music to “Buddha,” composed by Lew Pollack in 1918 for a Vaudeville act. Lyrics were added the following year by Ed Rose, and it became a popular “foxtrot” dance record for home enjoyment. In addition, the Daibutsu image was also used to add an exotic quality to mundane home goods, such as incense.

The exotic image was also used as a symbol of foreign danger, and can be found in the background of movie sets, such as the Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), reflecting racist and xenophobic undercurrents of American culture. After WWII, the Daibutsu manifested again as popular souvenir trinkets marketed to overseas soldiers, such as cigar ash trays.

The Kamakura Daibtusu continued to be used widely in American advertising  throughout the 1950’s, before the allure of the Laughing Buddha started to take a firm hold in the American imagination.

Did You Know?

Both the Laughing Buddha and the Great Buddha of Kamakura are not actually images of the historical Buddha!! They are representations of different buddhas, Maitreya Buddha and Amitābha Buddha respectively – consider taking a Religious Studies class to learn about these figures!

Where’s Waldo?: Did you spot the happy, lounging temple dog that was photographed in both a stereoview and postcard in this exhibition?


[Thank you for your virtual visit!]




On Readings and Reading – and Double Entry Notebooks (Pondering Pedagogy)

[Part VII of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VIII, IX]

Is it preposterous to claim that you will teach a university student “how to read”? At one level, absolutely. Students have been reading for quite a while and are skilled at digesting and summarizing information. But, reading for information (and its close analogue, reading for comprehension) is only one way of reading, and one that serves foundational, but also minimal, purpose for classes I teach.

Yet, not all readings are equal. Some texts are seemingly impenetrable even for scholars, and reading to simply comprehend a text might be challenging enough for students. Thus, selecting appropriate readings and instructing students how to read them are important steps in the pedagogical “decision tree.”

For survey classes like the one I’m designing currently, introductory textbooks are a clear option. They are effective at delivering a broad range of ideas and terms in easily comprehensible language, and sometimes they are outfitted with convenient illustrations, maps, and charts. Yet, there are limitations to textbooks. Oftentimes, they do not include sufficient primary sources or documents (important if you are taking a historical approach) and due to their style, they tend to be pretty boring reads. Related, and often overlooked, the genre of textbooks are written as broad summaries, and as such do not function a good rhetorical models for student writing. They frequently present data as neutral facts, overlooking the (more interesting!) scholarly debates that breathe life into the field. Consequently textbook authors do not write in an argumentative style that builds to a thesis derived from evidence.

Admittedly, this may not be a concern for many, but I’d prefer to have students engage the genre of writing I’m hoping they will practice writing. I’ve come to think of textbooks as reference handbooks that function in a very similar fashion to good encyclopedia articles – informative, but uninspiring.

Other options include more formal scholarship, such as journal articles, chapters from anthologies, chapters from monographs, or even entire scholarly books. These will typically be analytically focused (and I’d argue, more interesting) and generally model good argumentative writing. Of course, these texts are not written for novice scholars like our students, and at times will assume knowledge our students simply do not have. But I think we should recognize some authors and topics are more welcoming than others, and I do not think this concern should eliminate readings such as these out of hand. In many cases, a good introduction to the text could greatly assist in comprehension and encourage students to do any other necessary background research (Wikipedia will often suffice). Providing guiding questions cna also help. I would suggenst that instead of asking questions that are merely fact based (“What does author X say about Y?”), one could make eplicit (the often implicit) research question the scholar is trying to answer.This will frame the work in the context of the discipline, and suggest where holes in knowledge exist(ed).

Regardless of selected readings, I would be remiss to not discuss on open secret – students do not read, and at best they skim for what they need to know, when they need to know it (like right before a test). Research has shown that 80% of students read the reading assignments in 1981, but that number was down to 20% in 1997. Honestly, I am not sure what to do with this hard reality. One easy way to coerce students to read is to have regular (or surprise) tests on the readings or have them write or summarize the contents. I tend to do the latter, but it is relatively easy to “game” either of these scenarios in one way or another. Another solution is to assign more assessible and interesting assignments such as documentaries, podcasts, and journalistic articles, interspersed with more difficult academic texts.

We should remember, that whatever we assign should be in alignment with our course outcomes and – most importantly – our means of assessment. This matters because students will read in a manner that best prepares them for the type of assessment they receive. If we provide multiple choice exams and “list-the-facts” essays (which, ahem, does not engage higher-order thinking), then students will only read for content. They will, understandably, takes notes on facts, figures, dates, and so forth. While this is valuable, it does not develop any critical reading skills. I would argue that in addition to reading for content, a student should also read more critically.

In fact, scholars read in several ways simultaneously, gathering facts and data, forming opinions, challenging old idea, critiquing argument, and so forth. This is something I want students to cultivate as well. One strategy to help student read more critically is to instruct them to take notes differently and keep a dialectical notebook or a double entry-journal. In terms of the latter, students take notes in one column and in the parallel column they write down their response to that information. This is often “connections” or relational knowledge – how did that fact make you think about something you already knew, about something you see in your life or in the world, about something you are learning in another class, or about something you saw in another reading (text to text, text to self, text to world, etc.). It is foremost about making a network of meanings and ideas connected to one another.

Grist for the Mill: Choosing an good reading is only part of the puzzle, students also need to know how to read that text. It is important to be clear in what purpose the reading serves for your course. Why do you want students to read it? Ask them questions along those lines, instead of questions that simply cover content. Instructing them on double entry notebooks can facilitate a move away from simply skimming for facts. I have found that assigning a large writing project due at the end of the term can function as a lens for reflection throughout the term. If you assign students daily reflective writings on the readings, a portion of that reflection can be oriented towards thinking about how that text may help build part of an argument for that final paper.

*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.

Expectation, Assessment, and Alignment: Drafting Learning Outcomes (Pondering Pedagogy)

[Part VI of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part I, II, III, IV, V]

This is where the rubber meets the road, when push comes to shove, and, er, where dreams come to die?! I apologize for my string of worn aphorisms, but so far, my series of posts have remained firmly in the realm of the conceptual. Now we must start turning practical. I’ve outlined some of the reasons why I prefer to focus on skills (or “critical thinking”) than on content (that will be refined soon), why it’s important to explicitly instill a sense of vitality in the humanities for undergraduates, and summarized several pedagogical approaches to teaching a religious studies course.

These general orientations will provide some of the direction for my learning objectives (see below) and will form the basis for my expectations for the course. A potential difficulty arises when we start considering what expectations students have when they walk in the first day. After reading about Gearon’s religious studies paradigms, I think it important to keep in mind that students may have different expectations; this forms one level of alignment. To refer back to Gearon’s paradigms, students may be operating from a theological, psychological, or even philosophical perspective while the instructor may assume a historical or sociological one –  it is the duty of the instructor to make it clear what is expected throughout the course.

In addition, as studies in instructional design have shown, the type of assessment will determine if the course objective are realized.[1] If the assessment tasks draw upon lower forms of cognitive activity than the course objectives (for example, assigning multiple choice tests when assessment or creation are the objectives), there will be a learning equilibrium achieved at a lower level. Proper instructional alignment needs to be conceived and deployed.[2]

I should add that alignment plays a role in several other contextual factors, including alignment with the university mission, alignment with broad departmental goals, and alignment with other courses. Ideally, a series of courses should build upon one another, deepening networks of meaning and skill cultivation.

I made a draft of my learning outcomes (LOs) below. They borrow the language and general structure of Bloom’s taxonomy, ranging from knowledge and comprehension to synthesis and evaluation. In addition, I consider classroom discussion and debate to be skills that need explicit cultivation (and thus proper teaching/learning activities or TLAs).

  • Identify and describe principle beliefs, practices, themes, or contested issues in Japanese religions, including Shinto and Buddhism (and their relationship), and other religious traditions
  • Identify and apply historical critical methods to explain the political, social, or cultural foundations for religious practices and beliefs in Japan
  • Analyze visual and material objects related to religions in Japan (based on the above skillsets)
  • Formulate a critical evaluation of the relative eminence and/or transcendence of Japanese religions
  • Communicate – and even debate – with your peers through in-class, out-of-class, and online discussion and through written assignments

I am pleased with this draft of LOs because I feel they clearly connect to potential assignments and projects (TLAs)[ideally, each outcome should only have one measurable verb, but my draft has more]. This was not accidental. I spent considerable time considering the projects I wanted my students to complete before crafting these outcomes; in other words I aligned them.

The skills of identifying and describing basic religious ideas will be developed through lecture materials, including audio-visual media where possible, and readings. I envision students identifying their own terms, figures, and concepts and constructing a bank of vocabulary for their use on low-stakes exams (a modicum of self-determination). Provisionally, I imagine students working in small “study groups” (a sublte homage to Ryuchi Abe’s analysis of Nara Buddhism) outside of class to identify central terms for that week’s readings (they can meet in person or coordiante through email or texting).[3] One group will be assigned to meet with me to discuss and analyze their choices and place them on a class-accessible website. I imagine both a temporal (Tiki Toki) and spatial (Google maps) component to this work.

Because I am primarily operating through a historical paradigm (although I hope to do class activities that are philosophically based), I will train my students in basic historical criticism so as to understand religion as a human phenomenon (and domain of the humanities). The first day of classs will introduce this framework, and likely draw from the distinctions made by Bruce Lincoln.

One particular expression of this historical practice is to analyze and assess visual and material objects related to religion. One reason I incorporate this aspect is to take religion from the domain of belief and place it firmly within human cultural practices. This is also tied to the next outcome which will focus on the eminent, practical, and mundane aspects of religion. Provisionally, I am thinking of having students select items from e-Kokuho (e国宝) website which lists various National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties of National Museums and have them write a cultural biography or object narrative of an item, possibly as a foundational element for their final project.

I am also hoping to incorporate a term-long writing project where students explore the more mundane aspects of religion and have them assess the “worldly benefits” (genze riyaku) often associated with Japanese religions (and consider if all religions are primarily concerns with the eminent or transcendent).

Finally, I hope to design in-class activities (one, two, three?) where cross-talk occurs and philosophical stances are taken, elaborated, and debated.

I did not put it explicitly in the LOs, but I also plan to teach students how to effectively read in our class (reading for facts, reading to analyze method/argumentation, reading to connect ideas; as well as realizing the different genres of textbooks and scholarly works) and effectively take notes (double entry journal). I will return to this in a later post.


*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course in Religious Studies. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.

[1] Many of the ideas discussed throughout were derived from Biggs 1996. A great discussion can also be found at the Scholarly Teacher blog, here.

[2] Biggs 1996: 350.

[3] Because I take a constructivist perspective, I hope to encourage multiple socially constructed ways of learning, including peer-controlled activities, in addition to teacher and individual controlled activities, See Biggs 1996: 354-5.


Biggs, John. 1996. “Enhancing Teaching through Constructive Alignment.” Higher Education, Vol. 32, pp. 347-364.

Managing Teaching Anxiety

The first time I ever taught a class I was given two days to plan a three hour lecture. I had just finished a master’s degree with a focus on Buddhist ethics, so I was tasked with translating my work into a serviceable lecture. I had barely participated in classroom discussions when I was a student, thus the idea of lecturing to a group of sixty students was utterly terrifying. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, and my mind raced with all of the potential student questions I couldn’t answer.

When recently given the opportunity to give a workshop on managing teaching anxiety for new TAs and instructors, I jumped at the opportunity. Not only had I suffered from it greatly, but I also overcame it quite thoroughly. The first part of the workshop focused on reframing teaching anxiety before talking about specific strategies to overcome it.

As was my experience, teaching was not an inborn gift, but a skill that needed to be cultivated over time (see slide below). Part of my anxiety was performing a skill I knew I was not particularly good at –  indeed, a sense of competency, even mastery, comes with time and persistence.

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I created a simple handout for my workshop that asked participants to freewrite about their anxieties and then rank them from most to least anxiety inducing. After this exercise (essentially asking folks to identify and name their anxieties), I started by addressing the most general strategies for combatting stress (see below), including the all-too-forgotten “Great Triad” of sleep, diet, and exercise. I was only recently introduced to the excellent research on sleep by Matthew Walker, and mentioned several ideas he recently discussed on a podcast. In addition to this, our university has great resources for both creating a nutrition profile and exercise options, thus I made sure everyone was familiar with them.

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The first grouping of targeted teaching anxiety issues revolved around stage freight (see below). I had read that having people stare at you triggers part of our natural fear of predators and being eaten! In any regard, part of reducing stage freight is minimizing the unknown and creating a classroom “ritual.”

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The second grouping of targeted teaching anxieties focused on imposter syndrome and the fear of “not knowing enough” (see below). In my experience, the most challenging – and most impactful – change was “stepping into” my ignorance (bullet point #3). I do not always have to play a gatekeeper of knowledge, but can side with my students as an explorer of the unknown. By letting my students know the breadth and complexity of a disciplinary field I can also introduce the wonder of doing research and the reality that many issues still need to be explored. Having a student ask a “tough” question does ntm have to be a monent of embarassment, but a moment to model how you would think through the problem and assess possible solutions.

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The third grouping dealt with the fear of creating student interest in the class. To me, this can be alleviated once an instructor acquires a repertoire of teaching strategies that can be deployed when necessary in order to create an engaging classroom culture.

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We finished by talking about strategies for dealing with potentially combative students and anxiety around time management and preparation.

Farsari’s Dai Butsu (Visual Literacy of Buddhism)


Adolfo Farsari (1841-1898), an Italian adventurer who ended up fighting for the North during the American Civil War, settled in the port city of Yokohama in the 1870’s and taught himself photography. By the early 1880’s, the Western dominance of the Yokohama tourist photography industry had waned, but Farsari would still become a commercial success. In 1885, he acquired the negative and stocks of the famed Stillfried and Anderson firm and opened up his own professional photography studio, named A. Farsari & Co., on the main street in the bustling port. Like his competitors, he sold photographs and pre-made albums to wealthy “globetrotters” who sought to return home with photographs of famous sites. Photography no longer needed the technical skill it once required, mostly because of the transition to the easier dry-plate process, and consequently the photograph started to transition from a fine piece of art to a commodified object.[1] Farsari’s early successes were almost robbed of him completely, as a devasting fire ravaged Yokohama just a year after he opened his business, subsequently destroying his studio and collection of negatives. Unfortunately, not only were all of Farsari’s negatives destroyed, but also those recently acquired of Stillfried and Anderson, as well those of the pioneering photographer Felice Beato, who was bought out by Stillfried and Anderson in 1877. A year after the fire, in 1887, Farsari reopened his studio with a stock of around 1,000 new images.

Figure 1


  • Title/Caption: Japan, A. Farsari & Co., Yokohama [photographic frontispiece]
  • Year: c. 1887
  • Photographer: Adolfo Farsari (1841-1898)
  • Medium: albumen silver print, sepia tinted
  • Dimensions: 10.25in X 8.25in

The photographic frontispiece that adorned Farsari’s new studio albums [Figure 1] was an amalgamation of Orientalist visual motifs. Sharply-eaved pagodas, irenic bridges, beautiful geisha, antiquated rickshaws, and the famed Mt. Fuji all cluster around the simple, if not entirely self-evident, title of the album – Japan. In the center of the frontispiece we find the iconic Kamakura Daibutsu [Figure 2], the main attraction for tourists in Yokohama who could take a trip and return from the Daibutsu within a day’s time. Unsurprisingly, this photograph, too, was available for individual purchase [Figure 3].

Figure 2: Close up of Figure 1


Figure 3


  • Title/Caption: NA
  • Year: c. 1887
  • Photographer: Adolfo Farsari (1841-1898)
  • Medium: albumen silver print, hand tinted
  • Dimensions: 10.25in X 8.25in

The image of the Kamakura Daibutsu is bold and stunning. Balanced and symmetrically positioned within the frame, its stoic countenance greets the viewer with warmth. One of the characteristic, and marketable, traits of Farsari’s albums were their superior coloring. He boasted that his teams of Japanese painters tinted his photos in a realistic manner and guaranteed the colors would not fade, lasting “as long as ordinary oil paintings.” He attributed the effects to the rigorous trainign of his artists, who would apprentice between two and four months, before they were set to work, and to his  imported British paper. Reportedly, an individual artist under Farsari’s tutelage would only color two to three photographs per day, in contrast to the sixty put out by other studio artisrs. His work earned the praise of the famed novelist and poet, Rudyard Kipling, who complimented the faithful coloring of Farsari’s images once seeing the scenic vistas of Japan first hand on his trip through the countryside by steamship in 1889.[2] The gentle greenish-blue hue of the bronze statue here reflects the blue tinting of the sky above, as well as the garment of the kneeling supplicant, creating a cool, but not frigid, overall feeling in this image.

This photo is commonly assumed to be taken after Farsari’s studio fire in 1886, and was one of the centerpieces of his new collection of images given its prominent position in his photographic frontispiece. Farsari also sold a version of the Kamakura Daibutsu in vertical format [Figure 4], possibly taken on the same photography excursion. The kneeling man remains, but four more people are added in a row and all made to gaze upon the idol, causing the scene to look oddly staged. Our vertical image bears the catalogue number of Farsari’s stock (the horizontal image is sometimes marked with “L19 Daibutsu (A)”) and exhibits coloring that has – in contrast to Farsari’s bold claims – faded.

Figure 4


  • Title/Caption: L20 DAI BUTSU (B)
  • Year: c. 1887
  • Photographer: Adolfo Farsari (1841-1898)
  • Medium: albumen silver print, hand tinted
  • Dimensions: 10.25in X 8.25in

Always eccentric, Farsari returned home to Italy in 1890, after a twenty-tree year absence, and never returned to Japan.


*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.

[1] Bennett 2006: 219. Many details of Farsari’s exciting life – of which I am merely summarizing here – are discussed in Bennett 2006: 219-223.

[2] Bennett 2006: 221, 223.


  • Bennett, Terry. 2006. Photography in Japan: 1853-1912. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing.