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

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

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 I, II, III, V, VI]

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 I, II, IV, V, VI]

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.

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

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

Knowing the demographic and interests of the student body you teach matters. I’ve taught for several years at a large state university and it’s become a pet project of mine to keep a loose tally the majors of my students. Less than 1% major in the humanities. Admittedly, my classes overall reflet a small sample size, but university graduates with degrees in the humanities have only been between 10-15% in the past 30 years [also note the neagtive trends in the Humanities, and Religious Studies in particular, in the cart below]. Most of my taught classes have been university-required academic writing classes, so I would guess it’s a pretty fair representation (i.e. random sampling) of the student body as a whole. Yet, most of the students are freshman or sophomores, and to be frank, I’ve found that most of them don’t know what the humanities are, let alone have the motivation to major in a humanities discipline.




These suspicious were only confirmed this past summer. I was a last minute teaching assistant for a course that introduced the “research university” to incoming freshman. It was an online course to service the students who could not attend, for financial reasons or otherwise, the highly successful “head start” program, where incoming freshman took summer courses before their formal fall start.

Our course introduced the structure and disciplinary divisions of a research university, which is significantly different from their educational experience in high school. The middle three weeks of the five week course were devoted to explorations of the humanities, social sciences, and math & natural sciences respectively. Students watched recorded interviews of faculty members from each department, interviews of undergraduate majors, and watched or read other media describing the exciting intellectual opportunities of different disciplines.

There was a clear, noticeable trend among the weekly reflections of our students. Many commented that they simply did not know what the humanities studied or why it was valuable to their careers. Others said they enjoyed or excelled at humanities classes in high school, but opted for the safer STEM major (or were heavily persuaded by their parents) when going to college. Clearly, many of these sentiments are motivated by – understandable in some regards – employment-minded concerns.

They also noted that these feelings were common among their friends, claiming that humanities majors were “looked down upon” and taken up by students who were “lazy” and “looking for an easy A.” More interestingly, several incoming students did not know that scholars in the humanities did research, thinking that research was only conducted by scientists (!!). From their perspective, taking classes in the humanities meant rote memorization of “dead” facts, and science was the domain were creativity (and fun experimentation) was encouraged.

Lastly, of the handful of sophomores or upperclassmen who took the course (it was open to everyone), many spoke of a particular humanities class or particular teacher they had taken that revealed the intellectual excitement of that discipline.

So what is my biggest takeaway? First, almost all of the preconceptions above were mitigated once students got a better understanding of what the humanities constitutes (object or scope of study and methods of investigation), of the “living” and sometimes contested nature of humanities scholarship, and of how genuinely excited scholars were of their research, and of the opportunity for students to deeply engage their own research interests (some self-determinism is a powerful motivating tool). Moreover, before the summer course, sophomores and upperclassman only changed their perceptions when they encountered a particularly charismatic teacher.

Grist for the Mill: Thus, it is apparent to me as a teacher of religion (at least where I am currently), that I have to explain what I do as a scholar of the humanities, why I do it, and offer the opportunity for students to experience something similar. It has also been my experience that my excitement for research and resolving my research questions is contagious, which is only amplified when the students have a degree of determining their own research agendas. Admittedly, these are not novel insights. They are approaches derived from a constructivist theory of learning which broadly include methods of student-centered learning and cognitive apprenticeship. Nevertheless, it goes beyond simply having one lecture on the importance of the humanities – it goes into the conceptual structure, classroom activities, and means of student assessment for the entire course.


*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.

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

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

How might one conceive of teaching a university class in Religious Studies?

Many Religious Studies departmental websites will advertise the importance of appreciating religious pluralism or cross-cultural religious literacy. While this is an admirable mission within a proper liberal arts educational program, I think it has limited value when conceiving of how one teaches a course. A concern for cultural or religious literacy guides the content of the course, not necessarily how one teaches it.

Much of my recent ruminations on teaching Religious Studies has come from teaching Rhetoric and Composition for the past several years. Not surprisingly, I was not tasked with teaching my students about writing, as much as I was tasked with teaching them how to write.[1] The focus is on skill acquisition, not mastery of writing trivia. This mindset allowed me to reconceptualize my task as a university teacher of Religious Studies; how can I move away from teaching about Religious Studies to how one does Religious Studies.[2] This is not an easy question to answer, nor is there one answer.

This change in thinking is at both times trivial and non-trivial. It is trivial because instructors will naturally, implicitly or explicitly, model their teaching based on how they do Religious Studies (historians will do it historically; sociologists will do it sociologically, etc.). A class only concerned with content – if that’s even possible – would be nothing more than a performative Wikipedia page, listing off facts as students fastidiously take notes.

Acting as an endless fount of stimulating facts would work well in a world where access to information is more difficult. Not anymore. This is one reason why I dislike advertising Religious Studies courses based purely on religious literacy – simply, learners have plenty of avenues to gain basic competency about different religious outside of the classroom.[3] Scholars of religion may argue that they may assess or curate facts better than Wikipedia (or a comparable source), but I think that misses my main point – we should identify which critical thinking skills students are acquiring as they learn content. Part of this commitment is also to determine the means to adequately assess those skills. [4]

This change in thinking is non-trivial because it forces instructors to honestly consider how to teach more (in my words) “generative” modes of thinking, such as analysis, application, evaluation, or creation (so-called “higher orders” of thinking). This is distinct from what I would consider more consumer modes of thinking, such as remembering or even understanding – surely foundational, but hardly the end product in my opinion.

One potential impasse here is to realize that Religious Studies is defined by its object of study – namely, religion (good luck defining that!) – not its critical theory, methodology, or level of analysis. David Lake and Ann Taves have referred to Area Studies fields, like Religious Studies, to be “raider disciplines” in that borrow theory and methods from other fields, such as History, Psychology, Philosophy, and so forth [see chart below]. While Religious Studies departments are interdisciplinary, individual scholars tend to be taught (or as Foucault would say, “disciplined”) in a singular discipline. I would argue that being aware of our disciplinary training will not only affect the content we chose to teach, but also the critical skills associated with that content.

Figure 1.png

From Ann Taves’ “2010 Presidential Address:
‘Religion’ in the Humanities and
the Humanities in the University” (JAAR 2011)

Because of this implicit and broad commitment to interdisciplinarity, many scholars also highlight the interdisciplinarity of religion to their students. For example, as a historian, in addition to historical documents, I may also assign ethnographic readings to my students, even though I do not teach them the theories and methods associated with ethnography. We may teach with interdisciplinarity, but that does not necessaruly mean we teach multiple disciplinary skills. Nor do I think we should necessarily commit to teaching multiple disciplinary methods, just fully realize and commit to what we do teach.

For example, these concerns were beneficial when I conceived a new survey course on Asian Religious Traditions. Given that Religious Studies is not defined by an overarching methodology, I decided to focus on a theoretical concern that was salient to the study of religion (I would argue it represents a “threshold concept” to the study of religion) – the term “religion” itself. I focused on historical method (looking at texts, objects, and sites), and from that evidence I had students offer their new definition of religion (or defense of an old one), based solely on Asian materials. For me, this addessed the more generative modes of thinking and argumentation, and represented one aspect of what Religious Studies does.

I do not think “disciplinary thinking” is the only way of critical thinking (but it is an important one within the academy), nor do I think that skill acquisition can be so neatly divided between different (non-area studies) disciplines (historians can think philosophically, and vice versa). Part of the reason for these first few posts is to examine what can be attempted within a course on religion when content takes a secondary role to cultivating critical intellectual skills.

Grist for the Mill: While there is a strong pull (by convention!) to begin designing a course by thinking about posssible themes or readings, I’m going to explore what happens when I start by asking: “what skills do I want my students to acquire?” Clearly, this will be modulated by the readings that are actually available (I’m not ready to drop readings altogether!) Also, the “skills” we ask students to cultivate can be quite diverse. As I’ve discussed here, I think the inderdisciplinarity of Religious Studies can allow scholars to easily forget that disciplinary skills – that is, disciplinary methods and theories – may need to be explicitly taught. Thus, I will have to model more of what I want my students to do (“doing religious studies” in the mode of history in my case). This can be easily forgotten when the focus is solely on content.


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

[1] I need not digress here, but there are many ways to write academically (e.g. there are different academic genres), and thus I envisioned my role as providing my students a structure to practice their writing and conceive of strategies as to how they could develop their argumentation and style (or voice).

[2] As I will discuss, this is a particularly pertinent question for all Area Studies fields. One astute student essay about his preconceptions of Religious Studies can be found here, note that he though he would simply obtain a “general knowledge about the major religions of the world.” Our field may be determined by content, but that doesn’t mean that we only trade in world trivia.

[3] I would suggest this is potential reason why Religious Studies majors, and indeed many majors in the Humanities, have decreased in public institutions in the past decade.

[4] Multiple Choice exams may be great for assessing retainment of facts, but they remain difficult to construct as a means to asses “higher-order” critical thinking. Assigning papers does not necessarily mitigate this limitation, either. Writing assignment prompts would need to clearly move beyond having students rehearse facts they have learned or could read about elsewhere (ahem, Wikipedia).

The “Buddha” Foxtrot by Pollack and Rose (Visual Literacy of Buddhism)

Listen to the Victor Record’s recording of Pollack and Rose’s “Buddha” from 1920 here: 


What is the sound of the Orient? As Edward Said had long ago shown, the “Orient” is more of an imaginary idea than a physical location. Because of this, several musical tropes have emerged in American consciousness that create an “Oriental atmosphere,” perhaps none more famous than the nine-note “Oriental riff” (da-da-da-da dah-dah, dah-dah daah) that became widely popular in the 1910’s and utilized, for example, in numerous racially stereotyped cartoons of the 1930’s to 1950’s[1]. It should be remembered, however, that before the widespread popularity of the phonograph, music still had to be played live to be heard. The publishing and selling of sheet music for home use was still widely practiced in the early twentieth century and because the American working class still clamored for the exotic Orient, musicians continued to compose “yellowvoice” Orientalist music.[2]

Early in his career, the composer and Vaudeville accompanist, Lew Pollack (1895-1946), started to experiment with Orientalist musical tropes, including a prototype of the Oriental riff. In 1918, he composed a piece entitled “Buddha” for an act performed by the singing and dancing “Mellette Sisters,” Helen and Rosalie (he would go on to marry Helen in 1921).[3] Lyrics were added to the musical composition by Ed Rose (1875-1935) and the work was published in 1919 by McCarthy & Fisher, Inc. [Figure 1].

Figure 1

01 cover.jpg

  • Title: Buddha [Operatic Edition]
  • Date: 1920 (date on reverse)[4]
  • Cover Artist: Unknown
  • Composer: Lew Pollack (1895-1946)
  • Lyricist: Ed Rose (1875-1935)
  • Publisher: McCarthy & Fisher Inc. (NY)

Given the title of the composition and the accompanying lyrics, it is not surprising to see that a Buddhist figure graced the cover of the sheet music. The cover depicts a scene of religious devotion, as a woman in traditional Japanese dress is positioned kneeling with her arms outstretched praying to the Buddhist image. A pair of incense burners beside the supplicant cast fragrant smoke trails into the air, while the background is festooned with decorative Asian motifs and ornamental lanterns. The overall golden hue of the scene is punctuated by the vibrant purple garment, focusing the viewers eye on the woman. The unknown artist employed these visual tropes to establish a setting of exoticism, femininity, and sensuousness – all established visual cues of the Orient.   

This illustration does not represent an authentic scene of Asian Buddhist worship, but the Western idea of Oriental religiosity. The Buddhist image only mimics traditional Asian art forms. The arms are folded atop one another, unlike the traditional joining of the hands in various meditative mudra positions, and the head appears to wear a crown or tiara, more like the vogue of early twentieth century American woman’s fashion than traditional Asian headwear. Even though the artist was not attempting to draw a particular Buddhist image, it is clear that the Kamakura Daibutsu was the iconic model. The overall style is definitively East Asian, but the open, draped robe exposing the chest and simple positioning of the arms in the lap closely mirror that of the Daibutsu. In addition, the frontward-facing, symmetrical composition would have echoed the numerous photographic images of the Kamakura colossus that had circulated for decades.  

What is likely the original cover for this piece was illustrated by André De Takacs (1880-1919), an artist known for his strong graphic style [Figure 2]. It is possible that De Takacs copied this image of the Kamakura Daibutsu from figural domestic bottles sold in department stores in the United States. The scene on the cover is spartan, but the whisps of smoke from the small fires suggest religious practice and the burning of incense. By examining the details of the image, it seems as if the unknown artist of the variant cover modified the origianal illustration of De Takacs, who died suddently in 1919. 

Figure 207cover28detackas29


  • Title: Buddha Fox Trot
  • Date: 1919 (date on reverse)
  • Cover Artist: André De Takacs (1880-1919)
  • Composer: Lew Pollack (1895-1946)
  • Lyricist: Ed Rose (1875-1935)
  • Publisher: McCarthy & Fisher Inc. (NY)

The small yellow phonograph icon on the lower left is inscribed with the words, “This Number is to be had on all Phonographic Records and Music Rolls. Ask your Dealer.” “Buddha” was recorded and published by several record companies, including the Lyraphone Company of America (as played by the Jazzarimba Orchestra; catalogue number 4204), Aeolian Company (Aeolian Dance Orchestra, 12166), Pathé Frères Phonograph Company (The Tuxedo Syncopaters, 22209; Peerless Quartet, 22334), Columbia Graphophone Company (Columbia Saxophone Sextette, A2876), and Victor Records (Sterling Trio and Peerless Quartet, 18653)[Figure 3].

Figure 3


  • Title: Buddha
  • Date: 1920
  • Vocals: Peerless Quartet (Frank Croxton , John H. Meyer, Albert Campbell , Henry Burr)
  • Composer: Lew Pollack (1895-1946)
  • Lyricist: Ed Rose (1875-1935)
  • Publisher: Victor Talking Machine Company
  • Catalogue Number: 18653-A

The full musical score and lyrics of “Buddha” can be found here. The song opens with these lyrics: “In an oriental clime, seated on a mystic shrine, Buddha dwells, and dispels hate.” The lyrics of Ed Rose do not identity Japan or Kamakura as the setting for this song, but a more mystical “Oriental” location. The rest of the song sadly describes a woman who prays to the Buddha, pleading for her lover to return to her. This is not a novel melodic narrative. It clearly refelcts a story made famous by Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Buttefly, first performed in America in 1906. Even though neither of these musical pieces directly refers to the Kamakura Daibutsu, by the early twentieth century, the Kamakura colossus was the icon of the imaginary Orient for American audiences, thus the choice of cover illustration remains fitting.


*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] This rhythmic device is discussed in Lancefield 2004: 730-35. The most popular recent use of this riff (in what might be its most iconic form) is found in Carl Douglas’ 1974 hit, Kung Fu Fighting.

[2] As coined by Robert Lancefield, “yellowvoice” refers to the ways in which Orientality was evoked through sound and music, see especially Lancefield 2004: 599-768. A rather exhaustive list of popular American songs with Chinese subjects or themes is found in Appendix A of Moon 2005.

[3] See the Vaudeville program information noted in Lancefield 2004: 604n.13. Pollack would compose another Asian themed piece, “Oh Sing-a-Loo, Whad’Ya Do with Your Que?” (1922).

[4] The song on the back cover is “Daddy, You’ve Been a Mother to Me” by Fred Fisher, with copyright date of 1920. Other prints have “While Others are Building Castles in the Air,” also by Fred Fisher, but copyrighted in 1919.


  • Lancefield, Robert Charles. 2004. “Hearing Orientality in (White) America, 1900-1930.” Ph.D. dissertation, Wesleyan Universoty.  
  • Franceschina, John. 2017. Incidental and Dance Music in the American Theatre from 1786 to 1923 [Volume 3]. Albany: BearManor Media.
  • Moon, Krystyn. 2005. Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850’s – 1920’s. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
  • Selth, Andrew. 2016. Burma, Kipling and Western Music: The Riff from Mandalay. London: Routledge.



Ueda’s Unfussy Daibutsu Postcard (Visual Literacy of Buddhism)

Figure 1pckd006u(o)pckd006u(r)

  • Title/Caption: Daibutsu, Kamakura. 佛大倉鎌
  • Year: c. 1907 [postally unused]
  • Publisher: Ueda Photographic Prints Corp. 上田写真版合資会社
  • Medium: collotype print on cardstock, hand tinted
  • Dimensions: 5.5 in X 3.5 in
  • Reverse Imprint: Carte Postale [Type 2], 郵便はかき

The unknown photographer of this image set the camera slightly off-center, positioning it just to the left of the shoulder of the three-step stairway leading to the first landing. From this position the Daibutsu does not peer directly at the viewer, but slightly off to the side, creating a more restful, nonconfrontational composition. The Japanese visitors add to this genial environment, casually positioning their bodies in front of the Buddhist statue [Figure 2]. It appears as if one woman is fixing her hair as she casually looks back towards the camera. Another, older woman, appears to look dotingly upon a child who is plafully placing a foot on the fence around the con box. Unlike other staged photographs where Japanese supplicants are made to kneel in prostration in front of the Daibutsu, this presents a mundane scene. All of  these elements combine to create a spontaneous and unfussy mise en scène, a seeming “snap shot” of the daily affairs on temple grounds.

Figure 2

PCKD006u(o) visitors.jpg

The hand coloring is fairly typical of postcards of the period, with the Japanese garments painted in vibrant colors. We do not see pink cherry blossoms painted behind the Daibutsu, thus directing our attention to the brightly clothed visitors in the foreground. The reverse of the card does not indicate the publisher, but the design corresponds to the Type 2 back of Ueda publishing, dating this card between 1907-1918. The reverse is slightly unusual since the “Made in Japan” mark is on the lower edge of the card and not in the dividing line splitting the correspondence and address sections. Another small detail suggesting Ueda as the publishers is the coloring of the child clothing (pink with a red dot) as we find on other Ueda cards. In bold, cerulean letterpress (not the slight embossing on the back of the card from the lettering), the caption simply states the object and location, in English and Japanese – Daibutsu, Kamakura.

*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.