Learning Outcomes for the Masses

My first few rodeos of teaching did not take the learning outcomes [LOs] in my syllabus too seriously.[1] They were window dressings. Today, they significantly shape the courses I create, indeed, they are the foundation. This is my conversion story.

Of course, those familiar with “backwards design” know the entire process of designing a new class begins with drafting LOs. LOs are the skills, habits, and patterns of thinking that students will cultivate in your classroom. It is worth noting that LOs only have minimal overlap with content. In other words, these define what the students will do with the content. For folks who prefer to start designing their courses by curating appropriate readings, for example, this approach may seem, well, “backwards.” The name “backwards design” reflect this. It also represents the opposite direction from the perspective of the student in the course.

Backwards Design.png

Thinking “backwards” allows us to focus on what matters, to not lose the forest for the trees. Our courses should – or at least can – change how students think or even act, not just what they know. When we just focus on our lecture material or the content of proposed readings, it is easy to forget these larger aspirations. We should not only be concerned with our students learning facts, but what they can do with those facts.[2]

Like many novice instructors, even when I had these grand aspirations the stress of putting together a new syllabus often pulled me back to the “basics” – the basics of deciding reading material and crafting lecture notes. As I was recently telling several new instructors, I did not appreciate the power of LOs because I was struggling day-to-day. I had long given up on the big picture. In my experience, even after the first time I designed a course starting from the LOs, I was unconvinced by their ultimate value.

After I built up some confidence teaching – specifically getting my “reps” in teaching freshman writing, an explicitly skill-based course – and learning I could survive day-to-day, I became dissatisfied with my assessments in my other courses. Uninspired quizzes, midterms, finals, and papers were the rigmarole. I soon started to think the problem was how I was conceiving of my courses’ role in the lives of my students. Did I just want them to memorize facts and become trivia masters? By continually focusing on texts I also funneled my assessment onto low-level tasks of comprehension and memorization.

Inspired to try and have my students train in higher-level orders of thinking, most specifically in analysis and evaluation, I first changed my daily reading assignments. Instead of having students summarize the main argument, I asked them about their opinions (gasp). Specifically I asked them which passages struck them as interesting and why, which passages were confusing and why, which passages were they critical of and why. In other words, I started to think “backwards.” My students were now directly practicing – sometimes imperfectly[3] – the skills I wanted them to develop. Class conversation immediately perked up. This was a small revelation. My thinking process then filtered up into the types of essay prompts I devised. Now, all of my assessments are derived from my LOs. My reading and lectures are – and I only mean this in a relative sense – irrelevant (shun me if you must).

In my retelling, the crux of my conversion story fall upon tyring to reconceive my assessment strategies. Now, when I think about readings, I also have to consider their capacity to help me reach the objectives I have set for my students. Sometimes, this forces me to “create” a lot more (like podcasts), but in return I also ask students to “create” a lot more – I consider this a win-win.

What Does a LO Look Like?

There are many many many introductions to crafting Learning Outcomes online, here are my crib notes:

Well written Learning Outcomes:

  1. Tell the studentwhat they will do (not what the teacher will do).
  2. Use “thinking” action verbs that help measure the level of learning (see Bloom’s taxonomy)
  3. Refer to specific content (and/or clearly telescope to particular assessments, i.e. are measurable)
  4. Are concise and clear

Generally, a LO will often take the form: Actor/student + Bloom’s taxonomy verb + topic/content/related activity/assignment.

Also, it is advisable to exercise these verbs and phrases from all LOs: learn, know, understand, appreciate, be aware of, and be familiar with. I’ll admit, these are often the terms we instructors think with when we causally reflect on our classes. But these actions cannot be measured in an activity, assignment, or exam.



[1] I don’t want to get into too fine grained detail, but there is a distinction between “learning outcomes” and “learning objectives.” In my run down, objectives refer to the content of the course or goals of an activity (think: list X, discuss Y, state Z), while outcomes reflect what the student will do to achieve that objective (think: analyze, evaluate, create). The latter, being more directly student-oriented, are often included in course syllabuses. In practice, however, these terms are often interchangeable. Specific differences in objective and outcomes are discussed here.

[2] There are clear disciplinary differences here. From my many consultations with instructors and teaching assistants from across disciplines, skills are more at the forefront of STEM (think: how can I apply this formula to this problem). Unfortunately, folks in the humanities (students and instructors) too-often think memorization of content is the apex of learning.

[3] This point is often overlooked. For the most part, students have been trained to summarize – this is the easiest thing to test on standardized tests. Thinking with the text is a new skill, please do not think students will all be masters at this skill immediately, it needs to be modeled, practiced, failed, and retried.

Renjō’s Daibutsu: A Pioneer of the Path

Often called the “founding father of Japanese photography,” Shimooka Renjō 下岡蓮杖 (1823-1914) was a true artistic pioneer. One of the first Japanese to practice commercial photography, Renjō (a self-styled nickname) was also likely the first oil painter and lithographer in Japan.[1] His personal reminiscence, recorded in 1891, claims his fascination with photography began when he saw his first daguerreotype in 1844 in Edo (now Tokyō). He then spent the next ten years trying to find a photographer who could teach him the craft. According to his own account, which is held in suspicion by modern scholars, in 1856 Renjō had a secret meeting with Henry Huesken (1832-1861), the translator to the American general consul at Shimoda, to learn the basic principles of photography. Regardless of the veracity of this story, Renjō opened the first Japanese commercial photography studio in the port city of Yokohama in 1862.[2] His business soon prospered and he apprenticed several of the next generation of famed Japanese photographers, including Usui Shūzaburō 臼井秀三郎, Suzuki Shin’ichi (I) 鈴木真一, and Suzuki Shinichi (II) 鈴木真一. A considerable majority of Renjō’s surviving photographic oeuvre consists of small format cartes de visite, several of which depict the bronze Daibutsu located in Kamakura, not far from his studio in Yokohama.

According to several Western travelers and tour guides from the 1860’s, the original pathway leading to the Daibutsu was a long, stone-paved walkway, tightly flanked by tall evergreen trees and ornately pruned shrubs. For some, the most picturesque view of the Daibutsu was looking down through this long pathway of greenery towards the statue at the end. By the early 1870’s, however, the temple landscaping had undergone significant renovations and the pleasant framing effect of the towering trees was lost. Algernon Bertram Mitford (1837-1916), secretary to the British Legation, described his two contrasting visits to the Kamakura Daibutsu:

“The first time I saw [the Daibutsu], in the autumn of 1866, the approach to it lay along an avenue of grand old evergreen trees, and the effect of the colossus, when seen from the beginning of the avenue, was most striking. Now, unhappily, the trees have been cut down by the avarice of the priests, who grudged the little bit of soil which might bear a few more vegetables, and who took advantage of the revolution to pretend that the trees had been destroyed by the soldiery. The beautiful coup d’oeil is lost, but the figure must always rank among the most wonderful monuments of the world.”[3]

Regardless of the reason behind the removal of the trees, the change in environment certainly altered the viewing experience of the Daibutsu, which was now left in an open grove.

Figure 1


  • Title/Caption: NA (Diabutz [sic] on reverse)
  • Year: 1869-1871 (dated Oct. 7, 1871 on reverse)
  • Photographer: Shimooka Renjō 下岡蓮杖 (1823-1914)
  • Medium: albumen silver print, mounted on card
  • Dimensions: 3in X 2in (cartes de visite)

Interestingly, while the early written accounts of visiting the Daibutsu often included a vivid description of the “avenue of grand old evergreen trees,” the surviving photographic record rarely included this aesthetic aspect. Renjō was one of only a few commercial photographers who placed his camera rig far enough away from the bronze statue to incorporate the tree branches that converged on the walkway.[4] [Fig. 1] It remains uncertain if the rarity of this composition is due to a technical consideration of early photography (such as problematic lighting) or the resulting visual product which creates a cramped and partly obstructed view of the Daibutsu. If the latter case, the long row of trees and shrubs which undoubtedly added a sense of depth and scale to the in-person viewing experience is lost in the two dimensional space of the photograph. In the image above, a lone Japanese individual faces directly towards the camera, taking a wide, aggressive stance. This ultimately creates a sense of tension between the image and the viewer.[5]

Figure 2

APKD Renjō Reverse mark.jpgThe back of the cartes de visite is stamped by Renjō’s studio mark in indigo blue [Fig. 2]. The hand stamp depicts two serpentine figures twisting around a pair of trees and peering into two pots. The peak of Mt. Fuji and the top of a thatched roof also appear the background. This specific imagery appeared to Renjō in a dream when his business first started to turn profitable, thus he decided to honor his vision by incorporating it into his studio mark. The Japanese characters, written in a variant script (itaiji 異體字), simply say, “Yokomaha, Renjō Studio” (横浜 / 蓮杖斎).[6] The handwritten inscription at the top of the card notes the date as October 7, 1871, thus providing a firm terminus ante quem for the photograph. This possibly represents the date an unknown tourist visited the site. The popular name for the Daibutsu in the foreign port city of Yokohama in the 1870’s, “Daibutz,” is also imprinted at the top of the card, with an accidental inversion of the a and i (not all too uncommon a mistake).

During his professional photographic career, Renjō moved his studio to several locations, but never seems to have accumulated great wealth. In the mid-1870’s Renjō ended his commercial photography exploits and moved to the new capital of Tokyō (behind Sensō-ji 浅草寺) where he returned to his previous profession as a Western-style oil painter.


*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, esp. p. 71. A more detailed examination of Renjō’s life can be found in Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography 2014. Some also credit Renjō with inventing the rickshaw (jinrikisha 人力車), but while this man-powered, two-wheel vehicle first appeared in Japan in the 1860’s, its attribution to Renjō is almost certainly misplaced. For many years, Renjō was considered the first Japanese professional photographer, but recent research suggests this mantle belongs to Ukai Gyokusen 鵜飼玉川 (1807–1887), who opened the first commercial photography studio in Edo in 1860 or 1861.

[2] For analysis of Renjō’s personal account, see Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography 2014: esp. pp. 130-5.

[3] Mitford 1872: 208.

[4] A photograph held in the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, attributed to Felice Beato, contain perhaps the most foliage of any image I have seen [here]. Another image is here.

[5] Another similar image attributed to Renjō and dated to 1873 can be found at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (here). The position of the camera and framing is almost exact, but the figures by the altar are different. Older images by Renjō (still depicting the railing and balusters on the left) can be found at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum (here & here) and among the Tom Burnett Collection (here). All three are also depicted in Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography: 2014. The Austrian photographer Wilhelm Burger (1844-1920) travelled in Japan for a year spanning 1869 and 1870, and only some of his photographs of the Daibutsu include the railing to the left of the stairs leading to the second landing. Because of this, Renjō’s photograph here must post-date late 1869.

[6] The mark and its origins is described in Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography 2014: 16-7.


  • Bennett, Terry. 2006. Photography in Japan: 1853-1912. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing.
  • Mitford, A[lgernon] B[ertram]. 1872. “Wanderings in Japan,” The Cornhill Magazine, Vol. 25, No. 146 (February), pp. 196-213.
  • Ozawa Takesi. 1981. “The History of Early Photography in Japan,” History of Photography, Vol. 5, No. 4, pp. 285-303.
  • Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. 2014. Shimooka Renjō: Nihon shashin no kaitakusha 下岡蓮杖: 日本写真の開拓者 [Shimooka Renjō: A Pioneer Of Japanese Photography]. Tōkyō: Kokusho Kankōkai.


How to Find a Scholarly Source…and What to Do When You Actually Find One

So you’ve been tasked with some kind of assignment (likely a research paper, but there are other options, too) that requires you to find “scholarly” or “academic” sources. How do you find these magical items?

Well, if you find a work that is boring, dry, and references lots of people you’ve never heard of, congratulations, you’ve found a “scholarly” source. I’m joking…only a little.

What is It?: First, let’s simply review what is implied by the terms “scholarly” and “scholarship.” Superficially, this means that a work is written by scholars, but more importantly this means a work is written for scholars. Here’s the important difference: a scholar could write a book for a popular audience, thus while the work may be credible (and a great introduction into a topic), it would not be formally considered acedemic scholarship. Generally this would not be the type of research that scholars read and rely upon for their own intellectual work. In other words, work written for popular audeinces would not bear the conventions of traditional scholarship (outlined below) and thus would not be “scholarship.”

At a basic level, trying to find scholarly sources can be tricky because it requires you to infer who the intended audience is for the work – in our case, other scholars. Unless you are fully trained and socialized into a scholarly discipline (history, psychology, chemistry, or whatnot), scholarly works are not written for you (if you are a student), hence they can often come off as dry and boring. It’s like trying to join a conversation late, you don’t really know what’s going on or fully catch all of the “inside jokes.” (Don’t let this dissuade you! Every scholar starts off feeling like this.)

How to Find It: The simplest way to determine if a particular work is scholarship is to identify if the work is “peer-reviewed,” meaning that before a work is published it went through a rigorous review process by scholars (“peers” in the same academic field) who agreed upon the value of the research and its conclusions.[1] If you find an academic journal article, make sure the journal in which it is published claims that it is peer-reviewed (look online or in the print volume itself). Books are a little more difficult to identify as peer-reviewed, but try to locate works that are published by university presses (Princeton University Press, University of California Press, etc.). (Though, be aware, there are other publishing houses that print scholarly works.) If you can further determine if the author holds (or has held) a university position, there’s a reasonable chance the work you have is indeed “scholarly.”

Moreover, if you used specialized search engine, such as Google Scholar or a university library database, there’s a good chance the work is true scholarship. But still check to see if it’s peer-reviewed.

What to Watch Out For: Sometimes we will find works that provide us with great, well-informed knowledge on a topic. This may be a spectacular article in National Geographic Scientific American or a witty and interesting book on a fun topic by a popular publisher, such as Simon and Schuster. While these are great for giving you insight, they are not scholarship because they are not peer-reviewed publications.

Let me make an important distinction, here. Peer-review is not just a barrier to keep certain people out of a special “scholar’s club”[2]; it’s meant to help filter out work that is not up to scholarly evidentiary standards and, perhaps most importantly, to make sure the work actually “pushes the field forward,” which is a snappy way of saying that it provides new information on a topic.

There are plenty of published works in the world which provide reliable information on a topic, but do not add anything new to the discussion. The most common scholarship-doppelgänger in this regard are works written by career journalists. They often do a fantastic job in summarizing the available scholarship on a topic and write in an invigorating, accessible way. But summarizing old ideas do not push a field forward, even though it may introduce ideas to a much broader audience (with much more lucid prose). Thus, some of the basic genre conventions of scholarship is that it uses a solid ground of evidence to build to a conclusion (thesis) that is new or significant.

What to Do When You Find It: My advice here is simple: read unevenly. Do not put all of your energy into reading each passage with the same intellectual intensity. First, get an understanding of what the article or book is about by reading, slowly and carefully, the introduction (or abstract) and then perhaps jumping to the conclusion. Remember, you want to find out what the work is ultimately arguing for. This should be the new thing that pushes the field forward. The bulk of the writing will explain how that conclusion (thesis) was arrived at through marshalling lots of evidence. Once you know where the argument is going, try to piece together the most important pieces of evidence that lend to that conclusion.


[1] Of course, even if a work is peer-reviewed, that does not mean it hasn’t been problematized or even discredited after publication by other scholars. In any regard, it is often helpful to talk to your instructor about your research discoveries.

[2] There’s certainly a worthwhile discussion to be had here about how knowledge is socially constructed and how some (often marginalized) voices are left out of the scholarly debate. That will have to be a considerations for another time.

Asking Thought-Provoking Questions Workshop

Questions drive thinking.

As I’ve argued before, straight lecturing has its rightful place in the repertoir of a university instructor. When we lecture, however, we are often placed in the role of having to answer questions posed by students. An equally important skill is the ability to ask probing questions of students. When we want to stimulate class discussion, having the ability to generate, hold, and gently direct conversation requires mental dexterity and social finesse – built upon a foundation of effective questioning strategies. I’ll freely admit, discussion can be a slog at times. But having a range of questioning strategies can make us better prepared to face the wilds – and natural beauty –  of the discussion-based classroom.

Below, I offer several of the slides I presented for a worhsop organized by my university’s Instructional Development program. I will also provide some commentary and context to the slides themselves.

Using Mentimeter, I first asked the workshop participants “Why should we ask students questions? (Why not just lecure at them all the time?)” This was a not-so-sly way to introduce two different techniques I would discuss: Entrance Tickets (“Priming the Pump,” see below) and the critical rephrasing of questions (“Stirring the Silence”). Nevertheless, I was not expecting such thoughful, insightful replies created on the spot (I should have known better):

Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 19.28.58.png

After recapping some of the comments (and asking about some of the jargon in the responses), it was clear the room was already actively engaged, which is the purpose of an exercise such as this. After noting the importance of using questions to drive and develop student thinking, we dove into several actionable strategies. Overall, I planned to adderss six different sets of techniques and protocols.

Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 20.37.54.png

The first group of strategies was oriented around fielding potential discussion topics and  priming the students to think about the day’s material. Moreover, asking questions as soon as students arrive in class creates an expectation that they need to engage and, hopefully, contribute to our discussion (if not indivdually, in small groups).

Slide 2.png

Priming the Pump Strategies

The second grouping of strategies concerned the general phrasing of questions. Several very common forms of questions, while valid in certain contexts, can also sometimes be squealing-brake showstoppers. These are potential problems that need solutions.

Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 19.40.36.png

Phrasing Effective Questions Strategies

We next moved to a series of strategies developed to provoke more complex conceptual processess. These form a broad category of questions sometimes called Checking Questions or Checking for Understanding Questions. When weilded artfully, these can  turn a rather blasé response into a moment of valuable class reflection. Truthfully, many of us already have these in our repertoir, with the most common simply being the follow-up question, “why?” (under “justification” in the slide below).

Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 20.05.40.png

Checking for Understanding Strategies I

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Checking for Understanding Strategies II

The next set of techniques are used to try and “decenter” the classroom from the instructor. The back-and-forth “yo-yo” pattern between student and instructor is modified to include more inter-student “cross-talk.” In many cases, the instructor still remains the moderator, but that largely depends on the purpose of the discussion exercise.

Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 20.28.00.png

Redirection Strategies

The last pair of strategies were protocols I’ve casually developed when consulting with other TA’s and instructors about how they handle general classroom unresponsiveness. Specifically, when a question to the class appears to be “dead-on-arrival.”

Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 20.15.16.png

Stirring the Silence Strategies

Screen Shot 2019-05-01 at 20.15.27

Revivign the Dead Strategies

In the last few minutes of our workshop, we turned to the potentialy awkward social scenario of a “wrong” or “non-optimal” student response to one of our questions (I prepared no slides for this, I preferred to hear what others thought). We discussed some ways that we’ve maneuvered through this scenario, always mindful of not chastising or “isolating” the student. Depending on the type of question, I’ve often found asking “why?” helps to determining the student’s reasoning. In some cases the rationale may be sound, but just not what I am “looking for,” and thus allows me to thank the student (“That’s a good take, I didn’t think of that”) and pivot to another response. Otherwise, if there’s a problem in the rationale, I may try to give clues to see if the student can find his or her own mistake (or problematic assumption) and offer a chance to respond again. Other times, I may ask for another student to provide a counterargument. In the end, I usually try to validate some aspect of the student’s original response, if possible. (Particualrly sensitive or controversial views may need a different approach, but that’s a discussion for another workshop.)

I closed our workshop by handing out “Exit Tickets” – providing a moment of reflection for people to think about something that was meaningful or even unclear to them. I was curious which strategies were the most helpful to my workshop attendees; I received a range of replies. Around half explicitly noted the value of Redirection. Another large chunk approved of the Reviving the Dead, and the rest were evenly split between Checking for Understanding and Priming the Pump (Mentimeter is frequently a hit).

Last Thoughts: This was my last Instructional Development workshop for the academic year and the amount I’ve learned in the process has been quite gratifying. Of the workshops I’ve given, this was probably the most time intensive and interesting for me to think about, as well as the best attended (with Managing Teaching Anxiety being a close second). Is it just coincidence that the two workshops I’ve offered that most directly deal with student interactions were the most attended? Nevertheless, I will now be transitioning into my role as a facilitator for the Summer Teaching Institute for Associates, more workshop planning abounds!

*This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my experiences offering workshops on university pedagogy. Please contact me directly if you want full versions of my slides pmr01[at]ucsb[dot]edu.

Panoramic Postcard of the Kamakura Kaihin Hotel

ShimamotoHirata EmiIn the summer of 1887, Nagayo Sensai 長与専斎 (1838-1902), a physician and Director of the recently incorporated Bureau of Health 衛生局, founded Japan’s first sanatorium, the Kaihin-in 海濱院, on the beaches of Kamakura. Many Japanese physicians during the early Meiji (1868-1912) were trained under German doctors hired to live and work in Japan, and a popular contemporary belief in Western medicine was that regular exposure to sea water would help people stricken with tuberculosis. German doctor Erwin Bälz (1849-1913) first recommended the mild climate of Kamakura as an optimal location for sea bathing therapy, a belief also championed by Nagayo. This motivated Nagayo, working with wealthy Yokohama silk merchants, to construct a vast Western-style resort on Yuigahama Beach 由比ヶ浜海岸 in Kamakura, replete with several acres of pine groves and spacious lawns. Called Kaihin-in (“Seaside Facility”), patients would participate in regular sea bathing sessions and enjoy the open-aired, scenic vistas. Within a year, however, mismanagement would cause the facility to be repurposed into a hotel and resort that catered to foreign visitors.[1]

 The hotel was renamed the Kamakura Kaihin Hotel 鎌倉海濱ホテル and quickly became a tourist destination in its own right. In 1891, an American sailor, M. B. Cook, described his pleasurable visit as such: “From the streets of Kamakura we drove to the Kaihinin, a large hotel or marine sanitarium facing the sea, and surrounded by beautiful walks and drives. In the summer season it is full of guests, and being in one of the most healthy places in Japan, and the visitors are given so much attention, that it is becoming a center of attraction to all American tourists.”[2] The hotel was also featured in Murray’s A Handbook for Travellers in Japan, the premier English language guidebook for foreign tourists in Japan. It remained a wildly popular destination into the twentieth century, located a mile from the main Kamakura train station (the Yokosuka Line 横須賀線 opened in 1889) and famed for its European-style cuisine, affordable rates, and English language guest services. It was also located less than a mile directly south from the most important foreign tourist attraction in the region, the Kamakura Daibutsu.

Figure 1

Kaihin obverse.jpg

Kaihin reverse.jpg

  • Title/Caption: Kamakura Kaihin Hotel Kamakura, Japan. // Telephone No. 4 & 331 The Best Bathing Beach in Japan // Telegram “Kaihin” Home of Daibutsu
  • Year: 1903-1907 [postally unused]
  • Publisher: unknown
  • Medium: collotype print on cardstock
  • Dimensions: 5.5 in X 3.5 in
  • Reverse Imprint: Post Card, 郵便はかき

The image on the postcard obverse [Fig. 1] shows the lawns and landscaping of the hotel grounds that led out towards the ocean (seen on the far left). The sprawling multi-storied complex is topped by a flag emblazoned with “KKH,” for the Kamakura Kaihin Hotel. The sweeping, panoramic photograph provides a potent combination of modern (Western) luxury and natural beauty, sure to lure even the most cagey tourist. The text under the photograph proclaims that the site offers “the best bathing beach in Japan,” a callback to its origins as a bathing sanatorium. Importantly, the photograph is overlaid with an oval image of the Kamakura Daibutsu, with the caption proclaiming that the hotel is the “home of Daibutsu.”[3] These elements show that the postcard was also used as an  advertisement, tying together the exotic Buddhist icon of the “Orient” with the scenic luxury of the resort grounds. Roaming, half-day long horseback rides to and from the port of Yokohama were no longer necessary to enjoy the Kamakura colossus. Daytime visitors could enjoy a short trek to the temple, expose or purchase a few photographs, and return to picnic by the beach.

Figure 2

Kaihin Daibutsu.png

This photograph of the Daibutsu [Fig. 2] likely dates from after 1903 (due to the outward facing metal lotus flowers atop the offering table). The reverse of the card shows that it is an “undivided back,” definitively dating it previous to 1907 (a “dividing line” was introduced the following year). This also proves the design on the front of the card was purposeful, with the bottom blank half of the card reserved for correspondence; only the address and name of the recipient was allowed on the back. The photographer(s) and publisher remain unknown.

Figure 3

TMKD Kaihin Obverse.jpg

  • Title/Caption: Kamakura Kaihin Hotel Kamakura // Telephone No. 4 & 331, Kamakura // Japan
  • Year: 1930s
  • Printer: unknown
  • Medium: halftone print and ink on paper
  • Dimensions: 5 in X 3.5

The same photograph of the hotel compound was later used on paper luggage tags [Fig. 3] for the Kamakura resort. Affixed to suitcases and steamer trunks, luggage tags were very popular in the interwar period. In addition to help sorting luggage in transit, these tages signalled the cosmopolitan sophistication of the tourist and thus were often designed with bold images and bright colors. The oval inset of the Daibutsu closely mirrors the postcard design, yet this photograph of the Kamakura colossus is of a much later vintage, quite possible dating from the 1930’s [Fig. 4].

Figure 4

TMKD Kaihin CU.png

The Kamakura Kaihin Hotel received significant damage during the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake, but was rebuilt to its previous grandeur. The hotel would remain in operation up through World War II, until a series of fires resulted in its closing in the mid-1940s.


*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] An overview the cultural encounters between Germany and Japan in the field of medicine are discussed in Kim 2014. For more information on Nagayo, see Rogaski 2004, esp. pp. 136ff. The best available information on Nagayo’s role in the founding of the Kaihin-in appears to have been discussed in the Exhibition Reminiscing the Kamakura Kaihin Hotel 鎌倉海浜ホテル追憶展, organized by Hirata Emi 平田恵美 of the Kamakura Central Library, Modern Historical Materials Division 鎌倉市中央図書館近代史資料室 in 2011. I am indebted to the review of this event by Noriyuki Takagi 高木規矩郎 found here, here, and here. Other scattered information can be found here. Certainly, far more archival research needs to be done for a full account of this story. I have not been able to consult this work: Kamakura kaihin hoteru: Nipponhatsu no kaihin rizōtohoteru 鎌倉海濱ホテル 日本初の海浜リゾートホテル [The Kamakura Kaihin Hotel: Japan’s First Seaside Resort Hotel], by Shimamoto Chiya 島本千也 and Hirata Emi 平田恵美.

[2] Cook 1891: 29. A handful of other late nineteenth and ealry twentieth century tourist remarks can be found here.

[3] There are versions of this postcard without the small overlay of the Daibutsu. The caption instead reads “The only resort in the Far East.” The best online collection of Kamakura Kaihin Hotel memorabeila remains here.


  • Cook, M. B. 1891. A Sailor’s Visit to the Island Empire. New York: John R. Alden.
  • Kim, Hoi-eun. 2014. Doctors of Empire: Medical and Cultural Encounters between Imperial Germany and Meiji Japan. Toronto, University of Toronto Press.
  • Rogaski, Ruth. 2004. Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

What Does a Thesis Statement ‘Look’ Like – Thesis as Metaphor

Early in the term, I have my students tell me what a thesis statement looks like. I break them up into groups and have them hash out a few bullet points listing the non-negotiable components of the ideal thesis. Then, I tell them to come up with a metaphor that best encapsulates their carefully considered components, but more importantly, what they believe the function of a thesis to be. Finally, I ask them why that metaphor was chosen. It’s a relatively quick exercise (no more than 3-4 minutes of group collaboration, and another 10-15 of class discussion) and I encourage creativity in the metaphors.

I wish I was far more fastidious over the years in copying down my students’ examples. Nevertheless, (digitally) scribbled in my lesson plan notes are the following handful of suggestions:

A thesis is like a compass (because it gives direction), blueprint (provides an overview), billboards (works like advertising), food label (lists contents), skeleton (provides general shape), receipt (tells you what you got), shopping list (tells you what to look for), bridge (brings you to a new place of understanding), flashlight (tells you where you are going and is “flashy”), treasure chest (holds all the “valuables”), heart (vital organ, the core), pyramid (strong foundation; made of blocks/components), magnifying lens (it focuses), spine (directs the body [paragraphs]), recipe (provides instruction), Tinder profile (makes people interested).

In any individual class the group suggestions are usually diverse enough to point out that no single metaphor can likely characterize all of the functions of a thesis statement. That is why I like this exercise, choosing a metaphors is an argument; students have to come to some consensus on which aspect is the most important, which is memorialized in their metaphor.

Taken together, these metaphors suggest a thesis statement provides direction and cues to the organization and method of a paper. Furthermore, it should be focused (or relatively concise) and bring the reader to a new understanding of a topic. Ideally, as thesis should be, er, “attractive” (compelling or interesting).

epigraph 1.1I prefer starting class discussions on the function of thesis statement rather than on the forms (the bullet point check lists). In the language of genre analysis, we are looking for the rhetorical purpose, not the conventions. I prefer this because many students have been drilled in the conventions; a thesis is one sentence; a thesis needs to provide three points of support; a thesis is the last sentence of an introduction. These are all guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules.[1] Having a clear understanding of what the thesis is supposed to do can provide better direction of what it is supposed to look like. I would say the description above provides a good foundation for a generalized thesis.[2]

But a thesis can do more, much more in fact, depending on the writing genre it is used in. Generally, I focus on argumentative/persuasive essays (but expository essays are common in my religious studies discipline), and thus a thesis in this context should also make a claim or take a stand, an aspect not clearly articulated in the above metaphors. In other words, you should imagine a reasonable person raising possible objections to your claim. This has two purposes. First, it draws in the skeptical reader who wants to see how you defend your claim. Second, it makes you a more thoughtful writer since it asks you to imagine, and possibly mitigate, potential counterarguments.[3]

Often, another aspect of a strong thesis is that is passes the “So What?” Test, meaning that a person’s first thought after reading the thesis should not be, meh, so what? To me, this is a very complex issue because it relates to significance. Often, scholarly theses, understandably, do not pass the “So What?” Test for students because they do not understand the broader disciplinary issues the scholar is tackling. The significance can be presumed in this kind of writing (though good, effective scholarship should make significance explicit).

epigraph 1.2For students, I’ve found success in enlivening their thesis claims by having them clearly articulate the question they are asking. Among all the other things we’ve talked about, a thesis is a response to a question (and a conclusion based on premises).  I’ve often found that a dead-on-arrival thesis is based on a rather uninspired research question. Instead of working on the thesis, I’ve had better responses talking to students about the questions they, often implicitly, are asking. While writing can be tortuous (and sometimes torturous), I suggest students return frequently to their question and try to refine it in terms of the new evidence they gather. In some situations, students find that the significance of their thesis can be rhetorically heighted by explicitly working their research question into their paper (according to the rhetorical principle of anthypophora).

Overall, I’ve found that defining the principle elements of a thesis statement can elicit deeply personal reactions. This may be due to personal preferences, misunderstanding regarding the genre of essay, or even disciplinary norms. These can be mitigated if we just tell our students, as clearly as we can, what we want a thesis to look like…and what we want it to do.


[1] I have had colleagues use “starter formulas” for creating thesis statements, such as: Primary Sources + Observations = Conclusion or Evidence + Claim = Conclusion. In these cases, the Observation or Claim should change the understanding of the underlying evidence. Elsewhere, I have seen more specific directives to fill in the blanks: While critics argue_____, I argue_____, because_____./By looking at_____, I argue that_____, which is important because_____./The text, _____, defines _____as_____, in order to argue_____. I think these are all reasonable ways to jump start students who are struggling, but I would also be careful of pigeonholing student creativity or artificially limiting their argument styles. I’ve also seen formulas that

[2] The advice available online for how to craft a thesis statement is absolutely daunting. It behooves us as instructors to help student navigate these resources if they have more questions. Arguably, one of the best online resources is the Perdue Online Writing Lab (Perdue OWL), but I would not say their thesis discussion is all that robust (a claim which pains me because it is such a valuable resource overall). I like the Harvard College Writing Center site because it provides some thesis caveats, and the University of Toronto Writing Support site because it talks about some myths. In addition to these, there are plenty of online materials which describe the process of developing a strong thesis, such as the University of Wisconsin Writing Center. I used the handout from Vanderbilt University Writing Studio to develop my own worksheet for the thesis drafting process. Finally, for fun, if my student are having problems with crafting a draft thesis, I tell them to go here http://www.wonder-tonic.com/filmthesis/.

[3] I have  a friend who likes to tell a story of his college writing instructor who made all students develop their theses (claims) until no one in the class agreed with the claim. Your job, now, was to convince them otherwise.

Teaching Writing When You Don’t (Want to) Teach Writing

I know. Student writing is horrible. The sky is falling. Doomsday has come. I’ve had several conversations with colleagues about the sordid state of affairs of student writing. I once hooped and hollered atop that bandwagon too. It was so easy to blame high school teachers and college writing instructors (or anyone else) for not preparing students adequately in the fine art of written argumentation.epigraph.png

Then, I got a job as a university writing instructor. I’ve come to see that the problem partly lies with me and my curmudgeon colleagues (its a blight that extends beyond religious studies). It’s our duty to teach writing too, we just don’t want to do it.[1] Student writing is also not that bad, if you give students a fighting chance.

I’m a traitor to the but-I-don’t-teach-writing cause. I know.

If I haven’t angered you to rage-close the browser tab, then let me explain. At one level, writing is a skill, not a “fact”; all students know how to write, but some may not be proficient at it. They need more practice – and guidance in the Process.

When I say instructors need to teach writing, I really mean they need to apportion time and structure activities that allow students to critique and develop their own ideas. Once students thoughtfully struggle with their ideas and arguments, they are more likely to want to “own” those ideas. As a result, almost magically, their writing will get better. In our religious studies courses (or humanities more broadly), we do not need to formally “teach writing,” as much as we need to give students the opportunity to work out their ideas in a strategic and structured manner. Teaching “writing” is just code for teaching critical thinking skills.

One of the key aspects of my writing courses focuses on (re)shaping student writing habits. We talk at length about “The Writing Process” and students develop their own ideal Process. While many facets are individual (some do their best writing in the library, some in their rooms; some listen to background music, some prefer silence; and so forth), other facets are non-negotiable. My writing course is structured around these non-negotiable facets, namely drafting, peer-review, and revision. Ideally, my goal is to have students incorporate these elements into their natural Process, but like many new habits, they can be hard to adopt.[2]

In the non-teaching-writing classroom, it can be easy to omit drafting, peer-review, and revision (hereafter DPR) activities. But these are precisely what students – and us scholars – need to produce our best writing. If done skillfully, DPR can all be handled by students themselves; there is no extra work for our already-exhausted teaching souls. I will admit, however, it does take time to devise drafting prompts, structured peer-review sessions, and direction for revision. Undoubtedly, these activities will go wrong before experience teaches us how to make them right (online research will certainly help too, or, gasp, conversation with colleagues about our failures).

Of course, I do think students benefit greatly from our expert insights on their ideas. If we can provide verbal, recorded audio, or written commentary at early stages in the Process, this will greatly assist students in developing their ideas. Spending time to get students to talk about their research in class with other is also valuable.

Overall, here are some thoughts about incorporating writing good critical thinking habits into your non-teaching-writing-classroom based around DPR.

Drafting: A simple recipe for disaster is to assign a big writing project due at the end of the term which does not also formally schedule several “checking-in” assessments along the way. These formative assessments could be a simple conversation with individual students or classroom activities where students discuss the early stages of their work. Drafting is another option. This does not have to be a full draft of the final essay. I’ve seen colleagues assign small segments of the essay that are due regularly throughout the term, such as drafting the introduction with a thesis, or body paragraphs with solid evidence, or the conclusion with the potential significance of the findings. More commonly, I’ve seen colleagues assign research proposals or annotated bibliographies, which discuss proposed research questions and potential lines of argument. Personally, I prefer (when possible) to assign smaller writing assignments that allows students to work on certain facets of their larger argument for their final paper. This works best if students don’t have an open-ended final research project, but are expected to address a pre-determined topic or theme at the end of the term (but I’m sure savvy instructors could still craft prompts that function in an open-ended manner). Overall, there are plenty of drafting options to help stimulate student thinking along the way, including daily writing reflections, for example. [3]

Peer-Review: It is important to remember that drafts can also be read by other students (even as homework), if reading students’ work is too time consuming for an instructor. Peer-review can be tricky to run effectively, however. One thing to keep in mind is that students will need assistance on how to critique the work of others; offering truly constructive criticism and thoughtful insight on writing is a skill in itself (as I’ve painfully learned as a writing instructor). Consequently, review sessions need to be highly structured. Provide a commentary rubric or the grading rubric you would use for evaluating the assignment. Or, at the very least, provide a list of things for students to pay attention to. I’d suggest saving the best papers from each term and sharing them during subsequent peer-review sessions. The entire class can read and comment upon the paper(s), thus helping to align expectations about the review process. I’d also strongly suggest having student converse with each other after providing written commentary; talking can easily clarify confusions on both sides. There are numerous discussions of running peer-review online, I’d suggest finding a method that might work best with your class and tinker with it.

Revision: The purpose of doing the above activities is so students think through their ideas and potentially see how others attempt to tackle the same or similar issues. Depending on the drafting assignment (suggestions above), you would have to decide how to have students build off of their initial insights. In other words, what is the next step in the Process? Does their thesis statement need to be re-thought (and possibly re-drafted)? Does their research proposal need to be more focused and peer-reviewed again? Is their annotated bibliography missing an important work? Will students’ smaller writing assignments dovetail cleanly into their larger argument or are there potential flaws which need to be redressed? While some of these interventions can be performed by other students, instructor commentary (or even better, conversation) will prove invaluable. Importantly, only work that will be revised merits extensive feedback, there is little pedagogical value in heavy commentary on final products – the real critical thinking work has already been done.

A final note: There are numerous other suggestions to consider as well when focusing on the Writing Process. One that was not immediately apparent to me was “exposing” myself as a writer to my students. I now regularly tell my classes about all of the writing projects I need to engage professionally as a writer: conference proposal, book review, dissertation chapter, journal submission, and so forth. I share with them the struggles, setbacks, and new insights gained through developing my work. It’s important for students to see or hear about writing that isn’t published, that isn’t perfect, that needs further reflection. By seeing the care that goes into our professional work, students can come to emulate that process.


*Some of my comments here developed out of my ruminations on abandoing page-lengths for student writing.

[1] Duty might seem like a strong word, but I’ve used it purposefully. If we consider our course goals to include cultivating critical thinking skills, this almost certainly includes (there are reasonable exceptions) some form of writing assessment. As you will see, I do not consider the teaching of writing in the non-teaching-of-writing-classroom to be a review of low-level mechanics or refinement of diction, but the critique and development of ideas that normally happens in the Writing Process. In this case, the teaching of writing is, simply, the teaching of critical thinking.

[2] I’ll say it again, but now as a footnote: So-called “good writing” is not the memorization of facts. Most students are fully aware of the elements of a good thesis or how to make a strong argument. In many circumstances, what limits them is not their misunderstanding of these facts, but the underdeveloped ideas they have. By spending time on their ideas (researching, conversing, debating, refining, reflecting, etc. ) students generally come to care for those ideas. When folks don’t care about their ideas, they hand in “poorly written” work or plagiarize it.

[3] Even regular, short responses to readings can include a few comments by students on their relevance to a proposed final project. In other words, responses to readings don’t always need to be simple summary.