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

[Part VII of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part III, III, IV, V, VIVIII, IX, X]

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 III, III, IV, V, VII, VIII, IX, X]

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.

Screen Shot 2019-01-25 at 15.04.19.png

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.

screen shot 2019-01-25 at 15.04.28

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.”

Screen Shot 2019-01-25 at 15.04.37.png

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.


The Carrot, the Stick, or Neither: Student Motivation (Pondering Pedagogy)

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

One of my favorites experiments on motivation (or “incentive,” as economists tend to call it) examined the best means to encourage parents to pick up their children on time from day care. I first read about this study in Freakonomics many years ago and it regularly pops into my head. The researchers designed the experiment so that several day care centers established a minimal fine to help incentivize parents who were consistently late. Resoundingly, the result was that more parents came late! It’s astoundingly simple: the inner moral motivation that made parents be on time was offloaded to an external financial motivation. Parents no longer needed to think that they were bad for being late, it would just cost them a few bucks. Not surprisingly, the type of motivation matters.[1]

Working for Instructional Development I am blessed to be surrounded by folks who are passionate about thinking, talking, and exploring all things “pedagogy.” I am also surrounded by folks who are wicked smart, and a few days ago my colleague, Katie, offered an hour long seminar on the main theories of motivation. As she explained, there is no Grand Unifying Motivation Theory (my language), but several theories that clearly overlap (see: jangle fallacy) and fill in some mutual oversights or underdeveloped perspectives. After some good conversation and further reflection, here are some of my most practical takeaways:

  • Students generally take my classes because they are required to do so. Religious Studies courses often cover a range of General Education requirements, and thus draw in many non-majors. From the perspective of Self-Determination Theory, many of my students are complying to an external regulation, and as such may formulate what is called “extrinsic motivation” [see chart below]. Extrinsic motivation is not necessarily problematic per se, but “intrinsic motivation” has been shown to be more readily related to enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity. This explanation aligns with a practice I began several years ago. On the first day of class, when the class size is small enough, instead of asking students where they are from, or what their hobbies are, I orient discussion around why they are taking this class. They could take a gamut of classes to fulfill their requirements, so why this one? Students who initially said (in small group conversation) they only took the class because they “had to,” will start to open up about their interest in another culture or religious perspective, or about wanting to know more about their family or friends. Overall, I try to cultivate a sense of intrinsic motivation by having them realize they have some self-determination in the courses they choose. I ask them to identify some inner motivation and return to it throughout the course.
Screen Shot 2019-01-18 at 08.30.13.png

From Ryan & Deci 2000

  • While this is more applicable to my writing courses (where students tend to have a more entrenched view of being poorly skilling in writing), Self-Determination Theory also highlights the need for a person to feel competent, in addition to a sense of autonomy, in order to develop or sustain intrinsic motivation. Thus, not surprisingly, overly negative feedback from instructors (or peers) can influence student motivation. Unfortunately, I think this is often interpreted as the need to treat students as infantile and perfecting the “shit-sandwich” critique method. But – more importantly – I also think this means assigning regular smaller assignments, or low stakes assessment, so students can build up a repertoire of skills and, subsequently, confidence through a sense of competency. This approach overall aligns with scaffolding theory and the general advice to offer numerous small assignments/quizzes over the course of the term. This could also manifest in numerous other ways, such as asking students to come in with a potential research question or one book or article they would like to explore when the have larger research papers to write.


  • I think we all naturally attest to the fact that interest also drives motivation. So why not just pack lectures and readings with “interesting” factoids? Research into Interest Theory suggests there might be a negative relationship if there is too much extraneous – though possibly fun (so-called “seductive details“) – material for students to sort through. “Interesting” sidebar comments in readings (or I suppose, “fun” stories in lecture [edit: yes, in lecture too!], or hyperlinks in web documents?!) simply add unnecessary cognitive load and recruit ill-suited conceptual schemas. It’s better to focus on clarity, than fell prey to endless “interest baiting.”


  • There seems to be much debate on the value of the “sage-on-the-stage” style of straight lecturing and the amount of time students can pay attention, with 10, 15, and 20-minute maximums being reported. Instead of critiquing our students for not being able to pay attention, I would gently remind my fellow scholars that in our professional lives, many of the conference papers we listen to are (sometimes mercifully!) capped at about 15-20 minutes. In addition, the reason we find some papers interesting is mostly because we easily relate the ideas to our base knowledge – we find ideas useful to our own work, we think about old ideas in new ways, or sometime want to challenge a view that doesn’t align with our ideas, and so forth. Often student interest is diminished because they are less likely to be asked to relate to the ideas than just memorize them. How we assess our students can shift the imbalance.


  • My last observation is a little less formulated. According to Goal-Orientation Theory, there are different goal orientations that influence various self-regulatory processes. For those who have a “mastery orientation,” they tend to outperform on a series of measurements, including effort, persistence, non-procrastination, and both cognitive and meta-cognitive accomplishment. For those who have a “performance-approach orientation,” meaning they are primarily driven to demonstrate competency in order to receive favorable assessment (e.g. be the best student), they generally only outperform in one measurable category – course grade. Yes, read that again. A mastery orientation, which is beneficial in so many facets, does not necessarily lead to top performance [see chart below]. In the seminar, it was suggested that one way to push more students to a mastery orientation was to start assessing them in areas where it outperformed performance-approach orientation, of which I think persistence (regular, small or low stakes assignments?) and meta-cognition (reflection?) may be the most easily assessible.


Screen Shot 2019-01-18 at 12.51.54.png

From Radosevich et. al. 2007.


Grist for the Mill: I only discussed three motivational theories, Interest Theory, Self-Determination Theory, and Goal-Orientation Theory, and while I feel they provided a strong foundation for how I might structure a university course, there is a lot more to unpack. I may be biased in that I’ve read these theories to justify what I already do, but nevertheless, I feel compelled to continue to openly discuss student motivation in class, offer regular low-stakes assessment, provide frequent feedback and encouragement, and design larger assignments that can be divided into stages and are meant to be, at least partly, student-directed.

UPDATE: Very interesting article I just ran across.


*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] Clearly there is more at stake in the experiment (and increasing the amount of the fine would clearly also change the outcome), this is just the gist that I often reflect upon.


  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.
  • Radosevich, D.J., Allyn M.R. & Yun S. (2007). Goal orientation and goal setting: Predicting performance by integrating four-factor Goal Orientation Theory with goal setting processes. Seoul Journal of Business, 13(1), 21-47.

Should we Abolish Page-Lengths When Assigning Student Papers? (Pondering Pedagogy)

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

For those of us who are writing, or have written, a dissertation, it is likely that we have run across a well-meaning friend, family member, or stranger in a bar (or Buddhist temple!) who has asked us, “How many pages does a dissertation need to be?!” “Everyone knows,” I say, “it’s exactly 373, no more, no less.”

Of course, this is a silly answer to a genuine question, but I think we scholars have to admit the assumptions behind this question are, well, misdirected. I’ve seen dissertations in my field that are 200 pages and 1200 pages. I would say age-old conventions more commonly determine page length of dissertations, not whip-cracking advisors.[1] More importantly, the guiding principle behind writing a dissertation is identifying and crafting a compelling argument. The scope and depth of the argument is better at determining the length than any pre-established page length. I would say that most scholars do not have the problem of developing the length of their writing, but containing its scope of ideas! Word limit is our enemy, not word count!

In teaching academic writing, my colleagues and I foreground the importance of developing ideas through short writing assignments and drafts. Yes, we do have page-lengths, typically three 5-page papers are due throughout the term. But each of these 5-page papers were preceded by two 2-page papers, used to develop elements of the longer argument. This structure allows students to develop ideas over time (they receive critical feedback along the way) and draft verbiage that can be used for their longer paper. Even these initial 5-page papers are drafts that are revised and edited for their final portfolio.

The first time I taught the course I was caught off guard by how many portfolio papers were too long, either repetitive or unnecessarily broad or meandering. They blew by the 5-page limit because they had too many good ideas![2]  I soon established page-maximums for the portfolio papers (7 pages), and decided to start talking throughout the course about how students should think about the scope of their thesis and the depth of their evidence and analysis. Surely, some initial 5-page papers are short, but I have an equal number of students who are struggling with too many possible trajectories for their argument. They are no longer concerned with page length, but with identifying and crafting a compelling argument. To be clear, this only happens because they are allowed (err…coerced) to developed ideas through writing over a period of time with critical feedback. I commiserate with students who are vexed by having to edit out good (or just fun) ideas – I tell them that is what real scholarship often entails – save them for your next paper!

Now, I can hear (and have heard) the objection, “But, I am a scholar of Religious Studies, I teach Religious Studies, I do not teach writing!” True, but I would suggest we rephrase the statement like this: “I am a scholar of Religious Studies, I teach facts, not skills!” I would argue that writing (or argumentative writing) is a core skill of doing Religious Studies, and if one wants to develop critical thinking, the practice of writing is a main vehicle for its development. If one is truly interested in teaching only religious literacy (i.e. facts), then writing assignments do not need to be assigned – multiple choice exams will adequately test retention of ideas. (And don’t fool yourself if you think assigning an “essay question” necessarily elicits higher-order thinking – most essay prompts ask the student to list facts in one way or another. For example, a good essay question should ask the student to apply a skill in a novel context.)

Grist for the Mill: By writing this (go figure!), I think I’ve come to a better understanding of the value of page-lengths. Page-lengths really don’t matter much if you are working with a motivated student to continuously help develop his or her ideas. Depending on the depth of available research materials (both primary and secondary sources), the complexity of the research topic, and the base knowledge of the student, paper lengths may vary significantly, but still reflect an equivalent effort. The point, I concede, may be simply placing the primary focus on – and underlying motivation directed towards – the quality of the argument and not the length of the paper. One way to do this is to emphasize the need for the slow development and building of ideas with regular peer or instructor feedback.

Dare I say, page-recommendations should perhaps be determined by the time a teacher has to critically read and comment on them all – as opposed to some arbitrary 10, 12, or 15 page paper?[3] I average about 20 minutes of reading and critical feedback per 5-page paper. This feedback (and sometimes this is just suggestions, not “corrections”) is then used to write a final, more polished piece of writing. This process requires more planning than simply penciling-in a “research paper” into your syllabus due at the end of the term. Is also requires a prompt that allows for the development of a student’s ideas over an extended period of time. Granted, this may not be ideal for every class, but I think it is preferable in many Religious Studies courses.


*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] If I engage in a longer conversation, I will usually say that scholars often think about the number of chapters needed to develop an argument, and that by the general concern of publishing a chapter or two as a 10-20+ page article we often arrive at a determined dissertation length. In other words, we (typically) do not start by having a page length.

[2] Long papers could be plagued by what I call “stream of consciousness writing,” writing that meanders with no point. I usually tell students that this is the sign of a good rough draft, but now needs to be critically analyzed for kernels of ideas or good argumentation. Unless a student willfully wants to fail, this informal style of writing is almost always fixed after revision.

[3] Many universities have stipulations for certain classes that involve the required assignment of a certain number of pages of writing (it is 15 pages at my university). Typically this represents total pages of writing, thus, following a similar program I outline above, a final 10-page paper should easily be preceded by more than 5 pages of drafting, consequently complying with the 15-page minimum.

How Does One Do “Religious Studies”? [III] (Pondering Pedagogy)

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

Some university students, and many among the general public, do not know the difference between Religious Studies and Theology. In casual conversation, I will often say that I am a historian of Chinese religions; it’s just a lot simpler and doesn’t necessarily entail, from their perspective, religious commitment (…no, I’m not planning on being a monk…in this lifetime ;).

Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan has provided the wording that some scholars of religion use to help describe the difference between the two disciplines, noting that “teaching about religion” is to be “distinguished from the teaching of religion” [italics in original].[1] The former is considered the typical realm of inquiry for teachers in university institutions, while the latter is considered – at least in its legal ramifications in public schools – an unconstitutional establishment of religion. Outside of many seminaries and Theology departments, confessional religious instruction (i.e. the full, unambiguous assent to the truth of a religion) is not expected.[2]

So, in addition to non-confessional instruction, what may be expected in terms of the theory or method of Religious Studies instruction? This, not surprisingly, is understudied and complex. For example, I’ve already talked about how the interdisciplinary nature of Religious Studies can lead to different disciplinary methodologies and levels of analysis being explored and practiced in the classroom setting. Being aware of these choices can help instructors decide what intellectual and disciplinary tools to model and teach.

Recently, I have also been inspired by the work of Liam Gearon who argues that instructors need a more rigorous conceptualization of the paradigms that undergird religious education.[3] Because modern religious education is no longer based upon theological truths or a religious life, Gearon claims, there have emerged several attempts to locate new epistemological grounds. Gearon identifies six different paradigms of contemporary religious education. I discuss each briefly below with some initial ruminations:

  • Scriptural-Theological Paradigm: This follows the premise that religious education should be concerned with Christian scripture and its revelations, and as such falls in line with the “teaching of religion.” This is not so much a mode of teaching, but an expected mode of being, which would in turn circumscribe the types of questions asked and the types of evidence marshalled in support of arguments.
  • Phenomenological Paradigm: Based on the tireless work of Ninian Smart, this approach champions the use of epoché, or the suspension of (dis)belief together with the use of empathy for the subject (or subjects) of study. This was partly a product of a growing awareness of religious pluralism throughout the 1960’s, and I would argue is the basis of the call for religious studies to increase cultural and religious literacy. A more critical reading might also suggest this is the theoretical foundation for “comparative religions,” which can treat religion as a sui generis phenomenon that resists historical or cultural deconstruction. Yet, I will admit that Smart’s Six (or Seven) Dimensions of Religion proves to be a useful heuristic that speaks well to non-scholars. As such, this paradigm may work well for survey courses.
  • Psychological-Experiential Paradigm: Founded on the ideas of developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, this takes the view that religious education is beneficial to a person’s moral development. Gearon suggests this paradigm arose in reaction to the Phenomenological Paradigm, which did not sufficiently address a young person’s developmental needs because it did not appropriately evaluate diverse religious doctrines. While ethical and character development is a noble cause (for people of all ages!), I struggle to see how one could implement this in a university setting with the expectation of behavioral change. Yet, could an instructor, for example, ask his or her students to become vegetarian for a week and reflect on the experience? (As part of a section on Chinese Buddhist practice?). Now that I write this, this might be something interesting to explore, but at the same time it is also ripe with problems since many religious practices would not be so amenable. Also, would asking students to engage in meditation fall into this paradigm?
  • Philosophical-Conceptual Paradigm: Gearon describes this paradigm as the throwing off of phenomenological neutrality and the search for “truth.” While intractability inter-related, I might characterize this as the conceptual counterpart to the experiential/behavioral paradigm above. It seems that Gearon present this as the search for an objective truth, rightly problematizing this paradigm’s epistemic grounds. If I may play with Gearon’s ideas a bit, I think this paradigm could be very appealing if was not established on the search for “truth,” but on a search for well-reasoned perspectives (not “what to think,” but indeed, “how to think“). Certain religious perspectives could offer a good counter-balance to student presumptions, causing them to refine – or articulate for the first time – the reasons for those perspectives. To explore the issue from above, a student may develop arguments both for and against vegetarianism, and then decide rationally on a preference (whether or not they adopt it as practice is inconsequential – they simply now are equipped with a well-argued stance).
  • Socio-Cultural Paradigm: This utilizes ethnographic methods, and thus underpins the discipline of Anthropology (and some alignment with Sociology?).
  • Historical-Political Paradigm: Gearon highlights the political ramifications of this paradigm, and as such claims that it is also the most prevalent in education. My reading here would understand the deconstruction of power (ideological, institutional, racial, gendered, etc. – power in all of its forms) to be the primary modality of analysis. The attempt is to explain, within the myriad of culturally and historically constructed frameworks, the religion or religious phenomenon under scrutiny. (I’ll admit my wording is a bit broad, and would encapsulate the above paradigm as well). I would agree, at least in university settings, this is the most common approach. This approach was popularized through the University of Chicago and has been nicely summarized and described by Bruce Lincoln. It should be noted, however, that Lincoln pits the historical method against traditional theology and does not address other potential methodological approaches.

To be honest, I have used Gearn’s paradigms more as things “good to think with” (bonnes à penser) than attempt to fully explicate, or even understand them (so, my apologies for any misinterpretation). Nevertheless, I would argue that the final two paradigms, the Socio-Cultural Paradigm and the Historical-Political Paradigm, align most cosely with my experience as a student and instructor of Religious Studies (Clearly Anthropology and History, but also a range of Area Studies fields). If we consider the Philosophical-Conceptual Paradigm more broadly as critical inquiry (identify assumptions, assess evidence, analyze claims, etc.) in the search for well-reasoned stances, this could also align with the goals of university education more broadly and specifically the with the aims of Philosophy.

Gearon’s description of Psychological-Experiential Paradigm appears to move beyond the mere description and explanation of psychological phenomena (the domains of many scholars) and towards the practice of psychology. In other words, instead of analyzing the minds of religious practitioners, here instructors would mold the actions and thoughts of the student so as to be like those religious practitioners. Clearly, this may be objectionable to many since it sounds like missionizing in the context of Religious Studies. Yet, I wonder if this could be done in limited ways with much though and care? I’ll have to leave that for further reflection. In some ways, this is not so different from the Philosophical-Conceptual Paradigm – both ask the student to inhabit the perspectives and worldviews of the religion under analysis. It seems to me that while a philosophy course could change your life, a religious studies course doing the same thing might raise a few eyebrows?

The Phenomenological Paradigm, which to me entails the comparative endeavor, is a pretty common approach to university courses in Religious Studies, especially in introductory or survey courses that aim to expose a student to a range of beliefs and practices.

Grist for the Mill: Each of these paradigms function as ideal types, and I think any course in Religious Studies would jump between several of them (save for the first). For me, I think it is helpful to identify which paradigm I am presupposing when I design class activities and course work – in addition to deciding how I will assess student work. This schema also allows me to add variety to how I teach, providing a convenient means to conceive of a differnt type of activity or assignment in order to break any potential monotony.

I’ll end by noting that I think the presumption of some students – often derisively called “spiritual seekers” – will assume the framing of the Philosophical-Conceptual Paradigm or even the Psychological-Experiential Paradigm (there are far less at my university who assume the Scriptural-Theological Paradigm). While I am comitted to the general scholarly apparatus of deconstruction, and think these student can find vaule in that form of critical thinking, I do not think that has to be the only agenda for every lesson plan, every activity, and every reading.


*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] In a very insightful piece, Sarah Imhoff has noted that this particular linguistic distinction is older than Brennan’s remarks of 1963.

[2] And while it is unconstitutional to teach “of religion” in US public schools, there is no legal standing against it in private Christian schools or homeschooling. As far as I am aware, a mandate of non-confessional instruction in university Religious Studies departments is not explicitly upheld by the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Abington School District v. Schempp, of which Brennan penned the concurrence. Nevertheless, non-confessional instruction is the unquestioned norm (if not written into the mission of individual departments).

[3] Gearon’s analysis is primarily based on the current political and legal realities of England, but his observations work well for the situation in the United States. It would take us too far afield here, but addition to Gearon’s views we could include more overarching learning theories, such as behavioralist, cognitivist, or constructivist approaches.


  • Gearon, Liam. 2014. “The Paradigms of Contemporary Religious Education,” Journal for the Study of Religion, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 52-81.
  • Gearon, Liam. 2014. On Holy Ground: The Theory and Practice of Religious Education. London: Routledge.