Working Notes on Japanese Postcard Publishers

Peter Romaskiewicz [Last updated: December 2019]


In the ongoing attempt to identify Japanese picture postcards (ehagaki 絵葉書) in my collection, I’ve decided to publish my working notes on identifying early twentieth century Japanese postcard publishers. Moreover, using Urakawa Kazuya’s 浦川和也 four-period chronology as a foundation, I try to catalog variant designs printed on the reverse (atena-men 宛名面, “address side”) by each publisher as well as different letterpress captioning styles on the obverse (egara [or shashin]-men 絵柄[写真]面, “design [or photograph] side,” or tsūshin-men 通信面, “communication side”)[1]. The goal is to help identify cards that do not bear a publisher’s name or trademark (shōhyō 商標, rogumāku ロゴマーク).

The information below is mostly gleaned from Japanese sources (both print and digital) as well as some personal observations. I emphasize that this post represents my “working notes” – I will update it as time allows. Moreover, Japan was among the largest producers of postcards during the early twentieth century, thus the research below is far from exhaustive and directly reflects my personal interests. I am mainly interested in hand-tinted photomechanically reproduced cards from the late Meiji and early Taishō eras (there is, for example, a large collectors market for artist picture postcards [bijutsu ehagaki 美術絵葉書] which I do not cover). Topically, I am interested in landscape scenery (fūkei 風景) – specifically of Japanese religious sites – so my research skews in this direction. There is a list of helpful references at the end of this post.

Please contact me if you can provide any other information or resources about Japanese postcard publishers, or any other oversights and errors: pmr01[at]ucsb[dot]edu.

A Brief History of Publishing Postcards in Meiji and Early Taishō Japan

The commercial market for photography in Japan grew significantly in the 1860s and 1870s with the arrival of globetrotting tourists looking for souvenirs of their exotic travels in Asia. The primary port of entry for travelers entering Japan during the Meiji era was Yokohama, which emerged as the center of this competitive commercial industry. Yokohama shashin 横浜写真, or “Yokohama photography,” came to denote the particular fusion of Western technology and Japanese craftsmanship as monochromatic prints were hand colored by artists to produce vibrant, eye-catching scenes. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s Japanese owned photography studios grew in number and significance, slowly displacing their Western counterparts who had bigger shares of the market in the 1860s and 1870s. Moreover, as travel restrictions were lifted for foreigners and domestic interest increased, Japanese owned photography studios started to successfully populate more diverse urban areas throughout Japan. The aesthetic cultivated by these early photography studios would have a great influence on the first domestic publishers of postcards in Japan.

The Japanese postal delivery service began in March 1871 and soon joined the Union Postale Universelle (bankoku yūbin rengō 萬国郵便聯合) in June 1877, thus permitting the sending and receiving of international mail (although several countries maintained foreign post offices in select Japanese cities earlier). The first postal card (hagaki 端書) in Japan was issued in December 1873, but until the start of the twentieth century all cards were government-issued (kansei 官製). These are identifiable through prepaid franking printed on the address side (i.e. the back) of the card. The obverse remained blank to accommodate a written message. Changes in postal codes on October 1, 1900 allowed private companies to publish picture postcards (ehagaki 絵葉書) where an illustration or design could be included on the obverse (until the adoption of a “divided back” reverse design in April 1907, the sender’s message also had to be written on the obverse side). Two years later, the government started to produce its own commemorative picture postcards. These changes altered the landscape of the postcard market and starting a new cultural phenomenon.

For private-issued (shisei 私製) cards, photographic imagery soon became the favored visual expression and many images from Japanese photography studios were initially used for this new medium. These images were photomechanically reproduced through an inexpensive planographic printing technique known as the collotype (korotaipu コロタイプ), introduced commercially in Japan by Ogawa Kazumasa 小川 一眞 (1860-1929) in 1889. Multi-color collotype printing was very difficult to execute, thus many early twentieth-century postcard publishers employed artists who hand-painted the cards with washes of watercolor (some colors, like red, contained stronger pigmentation). Consequently, the aesthetic of Yokohama shashin that developed in the early Meiji period continued into the early Taishō era through this new visual medium.

The Russo-Japanese War from 1904 to 1905 initiated what is now referred to as a “picture postcard boom” (ehagaki būmu 絵葉書ブーム or ehagaki ryōko 絵葉書流行). Postcards were sold all throughout Japan, especially in urban centers. One could find postcard specialty shops in cities like Yokohama, Tokyo, Kyoto, or Kobe. Moreover, many other businesses became involved in the lucrative postcard market, including photography studios, printing shops, booksellers, souvenir stores, and even temples. The larger publishers would sell their stock wholesale to other stores, thus canvassing the country with inexpensive photographic images of landscapes, city scenes, portraits of geisha, actors, the royal family, daily activities, war scenes, natural disasters, and so forth. At least one publisher, Ueda Photographic Prints Corp., had a retailer directly sell their products in New York City.

Infrequently, publishers would inconspicuously print their name and address on the card. It slowly became common, though far from standard, for larger publishers to print their signature trademark or logo on the card, most commonly in the stamp box (kitte ichi 切手位置) on the reverse side. While this would aesthetically frame the trademark, once a stamp was affixed it would also render the publisher anonymous. It is also possible to locate a publisher’s name or insignia elsewhere on the card, for example as part of the dividing line or in the letterpress caption. Some publishers would also inconspicuously hide their insignia, such as Ueda or Tonboya, as discussed below.

In too many cases, however, there is little identifying evidence to ascertain the publisher of a card. (In this industry of mass-production, it goes without saying that identifying the original photographer or individual colorist is, sadly, impossible.) Elsewhere I have described a method to help determine otherwise anonymous publishers, and I consider this entry a further exploration of this endless, though enjoyable, quest. Unfortunately, I would not claim attributions here to be assured, only my best guesses.

Ueda Photographic Prints Corp.


Ueda Yoshizō.png
Ueda Yoshizō

Born in Tokyo, Ueda Yoshizō 上田義三 (1865-?) found employment after college in the oldest German export trading company in the capital, Aherns & Co. (Ārensu shōkai アーレンス商会), founded by Heinrich Aherns in 1869. In the mid-1890’s, after Ueda toured Europe and America, he returned to Japan to open his first business venture in 1897 (Meiji 30), the Yokohama Photographic Printing Co. 横浜写真版印刷所 first located on Yatozaka Slope 谷戶坂. In 1905 (Meiji 38) the business moved to Okina-chō 3-chōme (No. 131) 翁町3丁目(131番) and around 1913 (Taishō 2) the business was renamed Ueda Photographic Prints Corp. 上田写真版合資会社 (the name “Uyeda” can be found printed on some postcards).

Ueda was highly successful in selling photographs and producing government-issued postcards on his own collotype printing equipment. Importantly, Ueda’s success in printing early landscape and figural picture postcards presaged the Japanese postcard boom after the Russo-Japanese War, thus he became recognized as the “Japanese Pioneer of Picture Postcard Manufacturing” 日本元祖絵葉書製造元. Īkura Tōmei 飯倉東明 (1884-?) worked as Udea’s director of photography in the first decade of the twentieth century. My analysis of Ueda postcards from 1907-1918 can be found here.



Hakaki sign
A different view of Tonboya’s signboard
Tonboya signboard
Tonboya’s signboard on Isezaki-chō

Around 1905 (Meiji 38), Yoshimura Kiyoshi 吉村清, the proprietor of the well-known Tokyo-based publisher Kamigataya 上方屋 (in Ginza), started a new venture in Yokohama, called Tonboya トンボヤ, or “Dragonfly Studio.” [2] Along with Ueda, Tonboya was the most prolific hand-painted postcard publisher in late Meiji/early Taishō Japan, also opening offices in Tokyo, Kawasaki, and Yokosuka. The original shop was located on Isezaki-chō 2-chōme (No. 16) 伊勢佐木町2丁目(16番), a famous area known among foreigners as Theatre Street (see post frontispiece above). The storefront can easily be located in period photographs due to its distinctive Japanese-style red cylindrical postal box (yūbin posuto 郵便ポスト) sign painted with ehakaki エハカキ [sic], or “Picture Postcards.” The left-hand column of words on the white storefront sign says “photographic collotype printing.”

Kamigataya stamp box
Kamigataya stamp box trademark

The postal box was also the trademark printed in the stamp box for Kamigataya issued cards. The precise business relationship between Kamigataya and Tonboya remains obscure.

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Postal box signboard in Motomachi

Kamigataya appears to have had an office in the Motomachi district (Motomachi-dori 2-chōme [No. 85]) which also appears in period photographs, here saying “postal cards” (in some photographs, Kamigataya is visible on the front of the sign). In the early Showa Period after the Great Kantō earthquake, Tonboya moved to Izezaki-chō 1-chōme (No. 36) 1丁目(36番). Cards were initially hand-colored, but Tonboya used a multicolored collotype process starting in the early Taisho. Tonboya remained in operation after the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923.

Tonboya Reverse Designs and Obverse Captions

Period I (October 1900-March 1907) – Undivided Back

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Type 1: The characteristic dragonfly (tonbo) trademark is placed in the stamp box.
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Type 2: A variant dragonfly trademark is placed in the upper left-hand corner.
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Type 3: Even without the dragonfly seal, the characteristic serif font in dark/black ink can help identify the publisher. The same serif font, however, was also used by Kamigataya which is easily identified by the Japanese postal box trademark in the stamp box. With no identifying emblem it remains difficult to confidently identify the publisher as Tonboya or Kamigataya. Tonboya, however, seems to have regularly used black ink for the reverse while Kamkigataya seems to have preferred dark green or maroon. Moreover, Kamigataya cards are sometimes printed with the “UNION POSTALE UNIVERSELLE” header as narrower than “CARTE POSTALE” below.
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For Tonboya Types 1-3, the obverse captioning is typically in capital letters and finished with a period. Some captions include a stock number in parentheses. It should be noted that Kamigataya also used capital lettering in this period.

Period II (March 1907-March 1918)

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Type 4: Dragonfly trademark with divided back and address lines. Variants exist with the rule lines for the name and address omitted.
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Type 5: No dragonfly trademark with divided back, here with rule lines for the name and address.
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Type 5 (variant): No dragonfly trademark with divided back, here without rule lines.
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Type 5 (variant): No dragonfly trademark with barred dividing line (top of line) and without rule lines.
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For Types 4-5, the obverse captions often incorporate a dragonfly facing downwards and to the left. A stock number in parentheses with a letter code indicating the location of the image is also sometimes included (e.g. Y=Yokohama). Note, however, this system is not universal, these designs can have the older captioning system of capital letters.
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Type 6 [Yokohama Jubilee](Japanese): This reverse design was printed for the 1909 fiftieth anniversary jubilee for the opening of Yokohama port. The symbol in the stamp box is the emblem of Yokohama. Notably, the reverse design bears the dragonfly as the ki キ.
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Type 6 [Yokohama Jubilee](English): Same design as above with English name and street address. The design also incorporates “MADE IN JAPAN” in the dividing line, suggesting this card was printed with US customs laws in mind. The Yokohama city insignia is also missing in the stamp box.
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For Type 6, the obverse captions have a dragonfly facing upwards to the left. Sometimes a stock number in parentheses is incorporated.
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Type 7 (blue): Around September 1909, “UNION POSTALE UNIVERSELLE” is removed and a new bilingual header is introduced. The dotted dividing line may or may not contain “MADE IN JAPAN.” Notably, the reverse design bears the dragonfly as the ki キ.
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Type 7 (umber): The reverse design is printed in blue, umber, or black.
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Type 7 (black): A barred line variant is also common.
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Type 7 (blue): Here with address lines
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For Type 7, the obverse captions most typically have a dragonfly facing upwards with a stock number and letter identification in parentheses. There are, however, exceptions. The letterpress is commonly in italic print, but not always. At some point, the letter identification is printed in lower case. Confusingly, the Sakaeya publishing house 栄屋商店 lion is sometimes incorporated in the caption, even when the reverse design bears the dragonfly as the ki キ (!). I presume, but have no firm evidence, that Sakaeya purchased the card stock from Tonboya already imprinted with the reverse design (maybe even the front image?) and incorporated their lion insignia in the letterpress caption.

Period III (March 1918-February 1933)

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Type 8: A bilingual header with a centered dividing line.
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Type 8: A minor variant of above with rounded, full-line stamp box.



Yoshioka Chōjirō
Yoshioka Chōjirō

Yoshioka Chōjirō 吉岡長次郎 arrived in Yokohama in 1904 (Meiji 37) with postcards purchased in Tokyo, hoping to turn a profit by reselling them to foreigners. After receiving numerous orders and making several trips back to Tokyo to restock, Yoshioka opened a shop in Yokohama at Onoe-chō 4-chōme, No. 61 尾上町4丁目(61番).

Hoshinoya display.png
Possible display of cards at Hoshinoya

By the end of the Russo-Japanese War in the fall of 1905, he had collected many collotype plates of native landscapes and was very successful marketing to both foreigners and Japanese. Hoshinoya emerged as one of the most well-known postcard shops in the port of Yokohama.

Hoshinoya Reverse Designs and Obverse Captions

Period I (October 1900-March 1907) – Undivided Back

I have not yet confidently identified undivided back Hoshinoya cards.

Period II (March 1907-March 1918)

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The Art Nouveau style “Carte Postale” is an easily identifying characteristic of Hoshinoya cards. I have also seen Nassen & Co. cards with this same font and scalloped stamp box, however, but cards with the Nassen & Co. imprint are far less common in the secondary market. In any regard, any reverse design with the publisher’s mark could be Hoshinoya or Nassen & Co.
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Screen Shot 2018-12-19 at 14.05.05.png A variant style for “Carte Postale” can also be found. Note the stamp box is vertical.
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This reverse design, with French header and multilingual translation, is frustrating. Here, it is clearly identified by the Hoshinoya stamp box trademark. Without the stamp box insignia, however, this design is fairly common among cards in the secondary market. I had previously believed cards without a printer’s insignia were an Ueda product (Type 2), but I also have found evidence suggesting this design was used by Tonboya as well. In any regard, only Hoshinoya’s trademark can be found on cards I have seen (thus far) of this design. Yet, not only is the sans-serif font uncharacteristic of Hoshinoya cards of this period, this publisher often used “Union Postale Universelle” as a header; this phrase is absent on the card here. It suffices to say that it was surprising to find a Hoshinoya insignia on this reverse design. It remains possible that this reverse design (without the Hoshinoya trademark) was shared among several printers (see, e.g., Sakaeya below). Unfortunately, I am not sure this will ever be resolved with certainty.
Reverse printed in umber, see my comments directly above.

Period III (March 1918-February 1933)

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Period III using the Art Nouveau style “Carte Postale.”
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Hoshinoya is also clearly indicated on the obverse of this card, thus connecting the sans-serif font to the card design noted above.
I am unsure of this identification, but I take the star at the top of the dividing bar to indicate the Hoshinoya trademark.
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I am also unsure of this identification, It seems that Hoshinoya started to use a light blue more regularly for the reverse designs, so I include this one here.
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Hoshinoya relocated to Nikko and started to produce sets of this locale. Backs are also printed in Japanese.

Sakaeya & Co.


Sakaeya shop.png
Sakaeye storefront in Motomachi, Kobe

A Kobe based company with a shop in Motomachi, Kobe. A majority of this publisher’s cards are of Kobe and its environs, but there are other images among its portfolio. Curiously, I have seen Sakaeya’s lion insignia in the caption of images that were printed on cards bearing both Ueda’s and Tonboya’s seals on the reverse. I’d speculate that Sakaeya purchased Ueda and Tonboya cardstock and used it to print their own cards. It seems likely they mainly sold them in Kobe with the lion insignia imprinted on the front. Period III cards also bare the insignia of Taisho Hato (see below), a dove with is wings spread open.

Sakaeya Reverse Designs and Obverse Captions

Period II (March 1907-March 1918)

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Ueda publisher back with Sakeya insignia in obverse caption.
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Tonboya publisher back with Sakeya insignia in obverse caption.
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Sakaeya captions typically use stock numbers with letter identification (most are K for Kobe), sometimes inside parentheses. The letterpress is sometimes italicized. While the lion insignia is printed in the bottom right corner, sometimes the Sakeya name is also included by the stock identification number. It is uncommon for landscape postcards to have the Sakaeya name or insignia printed on the reverse.

Period III (March 1918-February 1933)

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Sakaeya continued to use Udea cards stock for their postcards into Period III
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Eventually, Sakaeya incorporated the lion insignia into the stamp box.
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Later period captions sometimes still incorporate the Sakaeya lion insignia, but it gets removed when the name and insignia are incorporated on the reverse. Sakaeya also started to use two lines of letterpress.

Other Publishers [also see here]

  • Akanishi MarkAkanishi (Kobe 神戸)
  • Asahido.png Asahidō (Kyoto 京都)
  • Benrido.png Benrido 便利堂 (Kyoto 京都)[no trademark, but uses distinctive font – one of the last collotype studios still in operation; some cards bearing this font seem to have been printed by (or for?) Buddhist temples)
  • Hōeidō 保永堂 (Kamakura 鎌倉?)
  • Screen Shot 2019-12-03 at 09.10.08.png Naniwaya Co. 浪華屋 (Kanda, Tokyo 東京神田) – [later became Tokyo Design Printing Co. 東京図按(vl. )印刷社; Kuroda Hisayoshi 黒田久吉]
  • Nassen & Co. (Yoshioka-chō, Yokohama) – interlaced N and S atop floral design
  • Nisshinsha.png Nisshinsha (Tokyo 東京)
  • SN Banshuido.png S.N. Banshiudo 長島萬集堂 [Nagashima banshūdō](Shiba, Tokyo 東京芝)
  • Taisho Hato.png Taisho Hato Brand 大正鳩ブランド (Wakayama 和歌山)
  • Nara Todai-ji.png Tōdai-ji 東大寺 (Nara 奈良)


[1] The nomenclature for the sides of the postcard derived from their original design where one side was reserved solely for the address, while the other was reserved for the written message, and eventually, a printed image. These are also known as the reverse (rimen 裏面) and obverse (hyōmen 表面).

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Kamkgataya storefront displaying postcards for sale.

[2] Some sources name the proprietor as Maeda Tokutarō 前田徳太郎, but I have not seen this name in printed Japanese sources. Some sources note 1907 (Meiji 40) as the date for the founding of Tonboya. A Kamigataya sign and display of postcards can also be found in the Motomachi district of Yokohama.


A Meaningful and Engaging Syllabus Design

Can you judge a book by its cover? A course by its syllabus?

I’d say many university syllabuses[1] are analogous to an end-user license agreement or a manual for your kitchen blender – in other words, things I wouldn’t be caught dead reading either.


Additions like images can help with student interest in the material

While thoughtful syllabus design is not a major area of research, there is a small, but informative pool of literature on the topic.[2] Not surprisingly, a well-designed, engaging syllabus has been shown to prime student motivation and interest in the course more than a poorly designed syllabus.[3] I’d content that since the syllabus is one of the first ways we interact with our students, it’s a genre that deserves thoughtful planning.

Many of us use the syllabus as a kind of legal contract, sometimes incorporating “legalese” into our course policies and even have our students sign the syllabus to signal a binding agreement.[4] (Or, to test if the students actually read the syllabus, some will hide “Easter eggs” and reward those students who “passed the test.”) Indeed, the expansion of the syllabus over the decades – or “syllabus bloat” – has been mainly due to the growing abundance of policy statements used to settle any potential student grievances.

While I understand the appeal of the contractual model, I’ve never found it matched my teaching persona or fed into the classroom culture I was trying to establish.[5] Of course, listing course policies is necessary, but the syllabus does not need to be limited to this purpose. [6]

After reflecting on the intended audience and purpose of the syllabus genre, I’ve come to see it as one of the numerous pedagogical tools at my disposal. My syllabus design falls somewhere between a chapter in an introductory textbook, a promotional advertisement, and a monthly newsletter – at least this is my intention, every syllabus is an open-ended project.

One of the first hurdles I had to overcome was fully identifying my students as my target audience, not my colleagues. This may seem commonsensical in hindsight, but this realization immediately impacted my tone, the type of information I incorporated, and the overall graphic design of this new “learner-centered” and “engaging” syllabus [see chart].[7]

I had two specific revelations regarding content – essentially incorporating “hows” and “whys” into the copious amount of “whats.”



I include a section on student motivation (borrowed from Tona Hagan) for class discussion

First, I realized that several comments I would normally make about how to do well in my classes could easily and beneficially be incorporated. For example, I still hold a “what’s your motivation?” discussion in class, but now have some additional text in my syllabus that students can refer to during our conversation. I’ve found that it anchors discussion (like any class reading) and helps students make more pointed comments.


Additionally, I decided to include some material about why I designed the course the way I did, helping students to see my intellectual interests and pedagogical motivations. Accordingly, I write about the types of assignments and activities I employ and the value I find for students in assigning them.[8] I also try to reveal the scaffolding I’ve designed into the course, cuing students into the importance of daily foundational activities and how those are intended to build into larger, more complex, projects throughout the term. This is intended to help students with metacognition about their own learning behaviors and to see a clear pathway to achieve the learning objectives I’ve set for them (I’ve been inspired by the work of Tracy Zinn on this front).

Because I include a broader array of topics into my syllabus, I also do not go over the whole document on the first day of class. I introduce certain sections when necessary and have students refer back to it throughout the semester. I even have students look at it on one of the last days of the course.

The graphic design of my syllabus is almost entirely a result of the “syllabus makeover” by historian Tona Hangen (most notably, incorporating the trifold division of student success and motivation [9]). Good visual design not only captivates student interest, but also models professionalism (even enthusiasm), indicating the entire course will be handled with similar care.[10] Moreover, spending time working with principles of good design makes us aware of important information hierarchies which can be expressed through visual hierarchies (text color, text size, use of boxes, images, etc.).[11] As a consequence, students have an easier time parsing out more important information.

Certainly, an outstanding syllabus design will not make up for poor course design, but it might be worthwhile to consider the syllabus as an integral tool in helping students find success in our courses.

Here are some notes on my latest summer syllabus for Zen Buddhism: Mind and Material Practices. [PDF: Zen Mind and Material Practices Romaskiewicz Summer 2019]

  • Tone: Given that my students are the primary audience, I’ve consciously adopted a more friendly and positive tone (including using we/us/our, not “students”), and especially compassion and humor where I can.
  • Visual Hierarchy: I use color and colored shapes to direct student attention to more important information
  • Images: To promote some of the topics we will discuss, I try to incorporate images that foreshadow these ideas (I also try to creatively incorporate a reference to the image in adjacent text)
  • Hows: I include text that helps students reflect on their motivations for taking my course and how they can succeed
  • Whys: I provide a rationalization for assignments and activities I employ, not simply the explanation of their execution


Quick Reference Sources:


[1] The plural form of syllabus is quietly debated in the halls of The Academy. I had a professor in grad school who preferred (ahem, actively and regularly commented upon) the proper plural form as syllabuses since the original term is not derived from Latin, but Greek (it’s a little more funky, actually). Thus, using a proper plural Latin declension (=syllabi) is unwarranted. (The same goes for octopus, coincidentally.) Interestingly, the Google Books NGram Viewer shows that syllabi is more common than syllabuses. The debate continues…

[2] A list of references can be found at the beginning of the document here [].

[3] Harnish & Bridges 2011, Ludy et. al. 2016.

[4] Of course, a syllabus is not, and cannot be, an actual binding legal contract. But you could treat your syllabus like one.

[5] While I believe a syllabus should clearly state course policies and try to consider numerous “what ifs,” I do not think the nearly endless implicit agreements between student and instructor need to be made explicit. In my view, signing a syllabus makes the motivation for adhering to policies external (abiding by the law), rather than internal (it’s the right thing to do), and it undermines trust. Of course, this is my personal view. Lastly, some folks are also fans of the “syllabus quiz.”

[6] Description of a syllabus as a mix between a contract, permanent record, and learning tool can be found here []

[7] I am borrowing the “learner-centered” and “engaging” syllabus from the typology in Ludy et. al. 2016 (see table above). It also amazes me that scholars might think that a good visual design cheapens the “scholarly” integrity of a text. What one might dismiss as “flash,” actually has an integral rhetorical purpose. Research on the impact of syllabus tone can be found in Harnish & Bridges 2011.

[8] Incidentally, I also chose to incorporate these things because I would notice students would rarely ever (maybe never) take notes about these aspects when we discussed them in class. Upon reflection, I felt knowing the hows and whys were central to my class, and while I couldn’t test my students on these aspects, they could at least have an easy way to consult them.

[9] It’s interesting to note that the “engaged” syllabus in Ludy et. al. 2016, p. 11, also adopted a similar approach, using the categories of “diet” and “life-style change.”

[10] See other insights about good visual design here [].

[11] I am only aware of one experimental study that compared a text-rich syllabus to a graphic-rich syllabus, i.e. Ludy et. al. 2016. Here is its principal finding: “Students perceived both types of syllabus positively, yet the engaging syllabus was judged to be more visually appealing and comprehensive. More importantly, it motivated more interest in the class and instructor than the contractual syllabus. Using an engaging syllabus may benefit instructors who seek to gain more favorable initial course perceptions by students.” Ludy et. al. 2016: 1.


  • Doolittle, P. E., & Siudzinski, R. A. 2010. “Recommended Syllabus Components: What do Higher Education Faculty Include in their Syllabi?” Journal On Excellence In College Teaching, Vol 21, No. 3, pp. 29-61.
  • Ludy, Mary-Jon; Brackenbury, Tim; Folkins, John Wm; Peet, Susan H.; Langendorfer, Stephen J. & Beining, Kari. 2016. “Student Impressions of Syllabus Design: Engaging Versus Contractual Syllabus,” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,” Vol. 10, No. 2, Article 6.
  • Harnish, Richard J. & Bridges, K. Robert. 2011. “Effect of Syllabus Tone: Students’ Perceptions of Instructor and Course,” Social Psychology of Education,  Vol. 14, No. 3, pp. 319-330.
  • Perrine, R. M., Lisle, J., & Tucker, D. L. 1995. “Effects of a Syllabus Offer of Help, Student Age, and Class Size on College Students’ Willingness to Seek Support from Faculty.” Journal of Experimental Education, Vol. 64, No. 1, pp. 41-52.
  • Saville, B. K., Zinn, T. E., Brown, A. R., & Marchuk, K. A. 2010. “Syllabus Detail and Students’ Perceptions of Teacher Effectiveness.” Teaching Of Psychology, Vol.37, No. 3, pp. 186-189.
  • Zinn, Tracy E. 2009.” But I Really Tried! Helping Students Link Effort and Performance.” Observer, Vol. 22, No. 8, pp. 27-30.

Opening Pandora’s Box: Students Evaluations of Teaching

[Update: This post mostly deals with how instructors can best use the problematic instrument of student evaluations. A recent, accessible post for administration who are determining how (or if) to use student evaluations can be found with Research on Student Ratings Continues to Evolve. We Should, Too. We both cover many of the same resources.]

Having just finished another summer of teaching, last week I participated in the seemingly timeless ritual of passing out and administering student course “evals.”

Epigraph.pngOver four decades of research has shown, however, that student evaluations of testing (SETs[1]) are poor and often problematic measures of teaching effectiveness. Not only do SETs exhibit systematic bias, the data is also often statistically misused by administration and instructors themselves. These problems forced one recent study to flatly proclaim that “SET should not be relied upon as a measure of teaching effectiveness,” and that “SET should not be used for personnel decisions.”[2]

When we accept that SETs are neither statistically reliable (consistent across measures), statistically valid (testing what they claim to test), or appropriately applied, we are left to question if student evaluations offer any viable information for the instructor.

I suggest that student feedback, especially written comments when provided with proper instructions, can open crucial lines of communication with the class and can be used in a limited capacity – in coordination with other measures – for instructors to critically self-assess. I offer end-user advice for university instructors on how to best prepare students for creating constructive feedback and utilizing that information to become more critically reflective and effective teachers. I draw upon scholarly research and recently implemented institutional initiatives, illustrated with personal practices, to comment on how best to incorporate student feedback into our teaching.

(1) A Broken Instrument – Overview

I take as axiomatic that SETs as currently designed and interpreted are poor proxies for measuring teaching quality or effectiveness.[3] For example, a range of studies have shown that among the best ways to predict student evaluations is to examine the responding students’ interim grades. In other words, it has been shown that students’ anticipation of a good course grade is highly correlated with positive teaching evaluations.[4] This conflation between grade expectation and teaching effectiveness is just one of the reasons the validity of SETs have been called into question. Clearly, instructors can also engineer positive feedback by “teaching to the test” (instead of having students do the more difficult work of learning the skills required to do well on a test) or having generous grading policies, among other tactics.[5]

One of the more prominent areas of research has focused on gender and racial biases exhibited in SET data. Dozens of empirical research papers point to statistically significant biases against female instructors, and one recent randomized, controlled, blind experiment at a US institution bolstered these findings. Regardless of student performance, instructors perceived as male (the experiment was performed with an online course) received significantly higher SET scores.[6] This holds true even for measures one would have expected to be objective, such as perceived promptness in returning graded assignments – regardless that both male and female instructors returned assignments at the same time. In aggregate, studies have shown that both women and men are as likely to make biased judgments favoring male instructors.[7]

Additionally, there is evidence suggesting that students who rate their instructor’s effectiveness highly and who take subsequent advanced classes will perform more poorly (i.e. receive worse grades) than students who rated their previous instructor’s effectiveness as low. This means that more effective instructors can actually be evaluated more negatively by students in comparison to their less effective teaching counterparts.[8] Part of this poor evaluation may be due to using more challenging active or deep-learning strategies that ultimately have been shown to be more effective techniques for teaching, but sometimes elicit active student resistance.[9]

Despite their ubiquity on college campuses, it has been shown that SETs do not primarily measure teaching effectiveness, but instead measure student biases and overall subjective enjoyment.

I do not mean to attempt to convince skeptics of the reliability of this stunning research; there is plenty of research available to comb through to make your own opinion.[10] One can view the online bibliography of gender and racial bias in SETs, regularly updated by Rebecca Kreitzer, here.[11] Additionally, there are at least two peer-reviewed journals dedicated to exploring evaluation more broadly, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education (1975-) and Studies in Educational Evaluation (1975-). For a summary overview of SETs biases, meta-analyses are offered in Wright & Jenkins-Guarnieri 2012 (which concludes that SETs are apparently valid and largely free from bias when paired with instructor consultations) and Uttl et. al. 2017 (which concluded SETs are invalid).

For the TLDR crowd, I would simply suggest reading Boring et. al. 2016, a work presented with a high level of statistical rigor examining two separate randomized experiments. It also received a fair amount of popular press. There is also a presentation on some of its principle findings by one of the contributing authors available online.

I also make no attempt to argue that one can read course evaluations in a manner that adjusts for student bias – the factors contributing to that bias are so numerous and complex that SETs should not be treated as sole objective measures for teaching quality under any interpretive lens. Recommendations on how best to use SETs in hiring, firing, or tenure decisions have also been discussed in the academic literature. A qualified (and sometimes apologetic) defense of SET is put forth by Linse 2017, while a point-counterpoint perspective is provided in Rowan et. al. 2017. In general, incorporating SETs as part of a much more comprehensive teaching portfolio appears to be the middle ground adjudicated by many university administrations. (The American Sociological Association also published its suggested guidelines for using student feedback, in light of recent research, this week.)

(2) Finding the Critical Perspective – Brookfield’s Four Lenses

From the perspective of an instructor, we must remember that student feedback constitutes only one window to our teaching. Stephen Brookfield has developed a method to help assist instructors become more critically reflective teachers by using four lenses, often simply referred to as Brookfield’s Four Lenses.[12] In the hopes of increasing self-awareness, one must draw from several different vantage points to provide a more comprehensive perspective. These “lenses” include 1) the autobiographical lens, 2) the student’s eyes, 3) colleague’s perspectives, and 4) theoretical literature. These roughly correlate to self-reflection, student feedback (or SET), peer evaluation, and exploration of scholarly research.[13]

Among these Four Lenses, arguably the most important is self-reflection which ultimately encompasses the other three since they all require comparative reflection. This heightened self-awareness forms a foundation for critical and reflective teaching and informs us where adjustments in our teaching may be necessary.

Lens 1A – Annotated Lesson Plans: In terms of the autobiographical lens, on a practical level, I regularly take notes after individual lectures (sometimes, simply, in the time between when one class ends and the next begins), noting things I found pertinent to the effectiveness of conveying the material, such as how long class activities took, good questions that were asked by students, insightful discussion topics, and sticking points or conceptual hurdles. Undoubtedly, these notes have become the most valuable information I consult when revisiting lectures in later semesters. Specifically, these lecture annotations allow me to adjust future material, activities, and discussions, or timing allowances.

Lens 1B – Annotated Syllabus & Journaling: Another helpful self-assessment activity has been annotating my syllabus throughout the semester, culminating in a significant review at the end of the term. By regularly taking notes on readings, class policies, grading procedures, and course organization, this information has assisted me in reconceptualizing my courses and tracing out new areas to explore. Lastly, I have implemented journaling – primarily in the form of this blog –  as a means to reflect upon my experiences in the classroom (both positive and negative) and chronicle my discoveries about teaching.

Lens 2 – Mid-Term Evaluations: From this bird’s eye view, student feedback operates as just one measure of teaching quality and should be balanced against other critical perspectives. Importantly, gathering student feedback should not be reserved for only the end of a course. Informal, anonymous mid-term evaluations can provide actionable ideas that could help correct teaching oversights – or encourage us to continue what we are doing.

Typically, I will ask a pair of subjective questions: 1) “What is working well for you?” and 2) “What is not working well for you?” – both in relation to my teaching of the course material. I will also direct students to think about numerous facets of the course, including the readings, assignments, class activities (group activities or student-led discussions) and lectures – or anything else – for comment.  Admittedly, not all of the anonymous feedback is constructive or actionable, but if I see clear patterns in comments I will take them into consideration when planning future classes. I also spend a few minutes at the beginning of the following lecture to discuss the feedback with the class and allow for further discussion. Moreover, I also use this as an opportunity to discuss what comments were actionable (positive or negative) and which comments were irrelevant (such as the time of the class, the size of the class, or the temperature of the room). Students need training in providing relevant and actionable narrative commentary, a point I will return to below.[14]

Lens 3 – Teaching Community: As is commonplace in graduate school, I received no formal training in teaching as part of my program, but it was through collegial conversations with peers that my interest, and confidence, in teaching grew.[15] Even if my colleagues did not possess formal training in pedagogy, this informal community functioned as a place to discuss classroom successes and failures and still provided another valuable perspective. In many cases, these conversations revealed the diversity of possible approaches in the classroom and inspired me to take a few pedagogical risks (or what I originally perceived to be risks).

Lens 4 – Scholarship on Teaching and Learning: In order to best make sense of the insights drawn from three lenses of the self, student, and peer, instructors should also consult literature or engage with established theory. This oftentimes provides us with technical vocabulary that can better describe the experiences were all often share.[16] Fortunately, most universities offer workshops that instructors can attend to improve the quality and effectiveness of their teaching. Moreover, the Scholarship on Teaching and Learning (SoTL) is quite voluminous, including many journals such as College Teaching, International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Journal of Effective Teaching in Higher Education, and the Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, among others. There are also numerous disciplinary journals dedicate to teaching, including Teaching Theology and Religion, and the Journal of Religious Education in my home discipline of religious studies.[17]

(3) Revisiting Student (Written) Feedback – And Hope Remained?

There is significantly more research on the close-ended ordinal scale questions of SETs than the open-ended “narrative” commentary that often accompany them. Several studies have noted that written comments can provide more useful and important feedback than statistical reports.[18] Of course, this does not mean that all comments are necessarily relevant to teaching effectiveness nor should they be assumed to be free of bias.[19] While a lot more research remains needs to be done in this area, written comments can contain more course (and instructor) specific details and provide actual ideas to improve teaching.[20] Because of the potentially actionable and specific nature of written comments, instructors should strategize on how best to administer the written portion of student evaluations.

It is important for instructors to make sure students are aware of the purpose of student feedback and possibly explain how feedback may have been used in the past to create better learning environments. In order to help students reflect on the effectiveness of my teaching I will often revisit the course syllabus and have the student reread the learning outcomes, directing them to further think about how the structure of the course, readings, assignments, and activities helped or inhibited the realization of those outcomes. Focusing student attention on teaching effectiveness and quality can help minimize irrelevant commentary or comments on (perceived) instructor identity.[21]

It is also important to inform students about the value of written comments and invite them to write down their insights. Research shows between 10% and 70% of SETs include written comments, thus asking students directly to write commentary is necessary. To ensure the comments are actionable, I also ask students to provide the rationale for their opinions (simply, I tell them to always use “because statements,” e.g. “I (dis)liked this course because…). Importantly, I also give students ample time to discuss and complete the evaluation task, around 10-15 minutes (I leave the room when students begin the evaluations).

Some institutions are beginning to start initiatives that explain the importance of student feedback to students directly and describe how to provide effective feedback. For example, the Faculty Instructional Technology Center at UC Santa Cruz provides instructions to students about crafting effective comments (with examples) and what types of comments (emotionally charged and identity-based) to avoid (see here). Moreover, the center provides instructions for instructors on how to craft the most beneficial questions, focusing on specificity, open-endedness, and goal-orientation (see here). (Similar instructions can be found at UC Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.)

A more innovative approach was recently taken by the UC Merced Center for Engaged Teaching and Learning which produced a set of short 3-7 minute videos for instructors to show in their class (instructors choose which length to show, the 3-minute version is embedded above). Promoted as “Students Helping Students,” the videos feature university students talking about the importance and purpose of feedback and provides guidelines on crafting useful comments (see here).

After receiving written student feedback, instructors should pay attention to recurring themes or stories that emerge in the commentary. Non-corroborated comments mean very little, especially if they do not align with your own reflections, the observations of colleagues, or insights taken from scholarly literature. In the end, mid-term and end-of-term student feedback, especially written commentary, can offer crucial insights that allow instructors to critically self-assess pedagogical strategies and develop into reflective teachers.


[1] Given the subjective nature of student evaluations (described below), some institutions and researchers read the acronym SET as “student experiences of teaching.”

[2] Boring et. al. 2016: 2, 11

[3] “Teaching effectiveness” is generally, though not universally, defined as the instructor’s capacity to facilitate or increase student learning.

[4] Economist Richard Vedder comments that grade inflation in American universities began roughly around the same time in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s (SETs were first used in the 1920’s, see Linse 2017) when student evaluations became a common evaluation tool. The classic study on his phenomenon appears to be Johnson’s Grade Inflation: A Crisis on College Education (2003). Irrespective of the title, a large portion of the book is dedicated to analyzing SETs and their relation to course grades. More recent studies include Griffin 2004 and Stroebe 2016. To be fair, some debate the magnitude of the correlation between SET and grade expectation, see e.g. Gump 2007 and Linse 2017. One can refer to meta-analyses presented in Wright & Jenkins-Guarnieri 2012 and Uttl et. al. 2017 (latter summarized here []).

[5] This could also include timely psychological priming, such as telling students they are doing exceptionally well with extraordinarily difficult materials, or giving easy assignments early in the term to set up higher than normal grade expectations.

[6] MacNell et. al. 2015. The data was further analyzed in Boring et. al. 2016. Most of the empirical research in this area incorporates incomplete censuses of the student population (the students who simply return their evaluations) as opposed to truly random samples of the population, thus this is an important study confirming the finding of other reports.

[7] There are numerous other biases that have been detected in SET data, none of which is related to teaching quality, such as age, attractiveness of instructor, time of day, class size, etc.

[8] See Carrell & West 2010, Braga et. al. 2014, and Stroebe 2016.

[9] See Pepper 2010 and Carrell & West 2010. For more varied results on the relationship between low evaluations and active learning, see Henderson 2018. An overview of some of these issues for teaching physics, but relevant to other disciplines, can be found here.

[10] While the empirical evidence is “decidedly mixed,” (Peterson et. al. 2019), there is undeniable evidence that biases are widespread. Among the resources listed in the Kreitzer bibliography noted above are several reserch papers that have discovered statistically negligible bias in their SETs, but these seem to be the exception rather than the rule. An overview of the wide rage of biases that have been empiracally studied in SETs can be found here (University of Dayton:

[11] Link:–F3Qaefjv2jMRFRWUS8TaaT9JjbYke1fgxE/mobilebasic?fbclid=IwAR3_W1actb5hg-rf2bbxrwAlal2K16askYDm5EJOTdeRCptkZEFuryrxQAY. A different annotated bibliography, updated by Danica Savonick and Cathy N. Davidson, can also be found here:

[12] I am grateful to Lisa Berry for informing me of Brookfield’s body of work.

[13] Brookfield first proposed this model in 1995 in Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher (2nd edition published in 2005). There are numerous online resources summarizing the principle arguments, here is one [].

[14] Admittedly, this may seem objectionable to some because it appears like tampering with student opinions of the course. But this approach is modeled on training students to give useful feedback on peer-reviewed papers; students need practice and need to receive feedback to best learn how to be effectively critical.

[15] I will forever remain indebted to my university Writing Program which offered formal training in pedagogy, ultimately leading to working with our school’s Instructional Development as a consultant.

[16] A personal example: While training to teach a first-year composition and rhetoric courses I was given a reading that distinguished between “boundary crosser” students and “boundary guarder” students as pertaining to how they accessed and made use of prior genre knowledge. These proved to be helpful in giving me a conceptual “handle” to understand my experience with several students and to have a common vocabulary with my peers to discuss different approaches to these students.

[17] An incomplete listing of disciplinary journals on teaching can be found here.

[18] Noted (with references) in Brockx et. al. 2012: 1123.

[19] Perhaps the most cited internet resource to demonstrate bias in written commentary is the Gendered Language in Teacher Reviews, run by Ben Schmidt. The site aggregates data from and allows users to sort data by keywords.

[20] Brockx et. al. 2012

[21] One recent study (Peterson et. al. 2019) has shown, however, that by explaining the implicit biases for race and gender found in SETs to students, those biases were significantly mitigated in the evaluations (in comparison to a control group).

Here is the anti-bias language that was used in the experiment: “Student evaluations of teaching play an important role in the review of faculty. Your opinions influence the review of instructors that takes place every year. Iowa State University recognizes that student evaluations of teaching are often influenced by students’ unconscious and unintentional [bolded in original] biases about the race and gender of the instructor. Women and instructors of color are systematically rated lower in their teaching evaluations than white men, even when there are no actual differences in the instruction or in what students have learned. As you fill out the course evaluation please keep this in mind and make an effort to resist stereotypes about professors. Focus on your opinions about the content of the course (the assignments, the textbook, the in-class material) and not unrelated matters (the instructor’s appearance).” Much more research needs to be done exploring this deeply important issue.


  • Boring, Anne, Ottoboni, Kellie & Stark, Philip B. 2016. “Student Evaluations of Teaching (Mostly) Do Not Measure Teaching Effectiveness.” ScienceOpen Research. [DOI: 10.14293/S2199-1006.1.SOR-EDU.AETBZC.v1
  • Braga, Michela, Paccagnella, Marco & Pellizzari, ]Michele. 2014. “Evaluating Students’ Evaluations of Professors.” Economics of Education Review, Vol. 41, pp. 71.
  • Brockx, Bert,Van Roy, K. & Mortelmans, Dimitri. 2012. “The Student as a Commentator: Students’ Comments in Student Evaluations of Teaching.” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences Vol. 69, pp. 1122-1133.
  • Carrell, Scott E. & West, James E. 2010. “Does Professor Quality Matter? Evidence from Random Assignment of Students to Professors.” Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 118, No. 3, pp. 409-32.
  • Griffin, B.W. 2004. “Grading Leniency, Grade Discrepancy, and Student Ratings of Instruction.” Contemporary Educational Psychology, Vol. 29, pp. 410–25.
  • Gump, S.E. 2007. “Student Evaluations of Teaching Effectiveness and the Leniency Hypothesis: A Literature Review.” Educational Research Quarterly, Vol. 30, pp. 56–69.
  • Henderson, Charles, Khan, Raquib & Dancy, Melissa. 2018. “Will My Student Evaluations Decrease if I Adopt an Active Learning Instructional Strategy?” American Journal of Physics, Vol. 86, No. 934. [DOI: 10.1119/1.5065907]
  • Låg, Torstein & Sæle, Rannveig Grøm. 2019. “Does the Flipped Classroom Improve Student Learning and Satisfaction? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” AERA Open. [DOI: 10.1177/2332858419870489]
  • Linse, Angela R. 2017. “Interpreting and Using Student Ratings Data: Guidance for Faculty Serving as Administrators and on Evaluation Committees.” Studies in Educational Evaluation, Vol. 54, pp. 94-106.
  • MacNell L, Driscoll, A. & Hunt A.N. 2015. “What’s in a Name? Exposing Gender Bias in Student Ratings of Teaching.” Innovative Higher Education, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 291–303.
  • Marsh, H.W. & Roche L.A.. 2000. “Effects of Grading Leniency and Low Workload on Students’ Evaluations of Teaching: Popular Myth, Bias, Validity, or Innocent Bystanders?” Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 92, pp. 202–28.
  • Peterson, David A. M., Biederman, Lori A., Andersen, David, Ditonto, Tessa M. & Roe, Kevin.  2019. “Mitigating Gender Bias in Student Evaluations of Teaching.” PLoS ONE, Vol. 14, No. 5. [DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0216241]
  • Rowan S., Newness E.J., Tetradis S., Prasad J.L., Ko C.C. & Sanchez A. 2017. “Should Student Evaluation of Teaching Play a Significant Role in the Formal Assessment of Dental Faculty? Two Viewpoints: Viewpoint 1: Formal Faculty Assessment Should Include Student Evaluation of Teaching and Viewpoint 2: Student Evaluation of Teaching Should Not Be Part of Formal Faculty Assessment.” Journal of Dental Education, Vol. 81, pp. 1362-72.
  • Stroebe, Wolfgang. 2016. “Why Good Teaching Evaluations May Reward Bad Teaching: On Grade Inflation and Other Unintended Consequences of Student Evaluations.” Perspective on Psychological Sciences, Vol. 11, No. 6, pp. 800-16.
  • Uttl, Bob, White, Carmela A. & Gonzalez, Daniela Wong. 2017. “Meta-Analysis of Faculty’s Teaching Effectiveness: Student Evaluation of Teaching Ratings and Student Learning are Not Related.” Studies in Educational Evaluation, Vol. 54, pp. 22-42.

Online Resources:


Take-Home Quizzes and the Art of the Distraction

A few years ago I decided to have all my students do their multiple choice quizzes at home and online.[1] It’s fairly easy to set up these quizzes if your school uses a Learning Management System (LMS) like Moodle (or an institutional adaptation). As I’ve noted before, it saves both precious class time and grading time.

This practice is predicated on the known benefits for giving frequent, low-stakes (low-grade impact) assessments. When given early in the term, this allows students to self-assess before more higher-stakes exams occur and also provides valuable feedback to instructors regarding the success of their teaching strategies.[2]

In practice, I make the online quizzes timed, giving students 1-2 minutes per multiple choice question depending on the complexity or cognitive challenge of the question (I earmark less time for recognition questions than application questions, for example). I’ve come to be very explicit in recommending how students should study; I tell them they should read and reorganize their class notes, comparing and incorporating ideas from the readings, class slides (which I also provide), and from what they remember in discussion.[3] Students are ultimately free to use their notes, course readings, and slides when they take the quiz, but the imposed time limit demands they have some understanding of the material or a conceptual organization of resources to know where to look.

I’ve come to realize an even better benefit of online quizzes recently – they ability to give immediate feedback to student responses. Online quizzes provide fields where instructors can type feedback to individual multiple-choice responses or for the entire question after it has been submitted.


I now use this space to offer a brief explanation of the structure of the question, especially noting if it needed students to apply their knowledge. This would involve, for instance, taking a novel situation and applying it to concepts they’ve studied (for quizzes I try to make only 10-15% of the questions application-based, this percentage increases for higher-stakes assessments). Because of this, I’m helping students identify why this multiple choice question seems harder than others, especially in comparison to one that is asking for simple recognition, i.e. recognizing the right word among the responses.

I also use this space to explain why the incorrect responses to a multiple choice question – called “distractors”- might have seemed plausible. For example, a distractor might represent the popular view of a phenomena instead of the analysis we’ve offered in class. Or a distractor might represent a common conceptual misstep in analyzing the question. With this feedback, students can immediately see where their thought process went off track when answering the question and gain more insight into the topic at hand.

Ultimately, I believe the best multiple choice exam is one that has been created by students. Creating good multiple choice questions, with plausible “distractors,” requires precisely the higher-order thinking many of us want our students to cultivate. Online quizzes have provided a new way to make this a reality.

One of the biggest issues I have found when having my students craft their own multiple choice questions (for extra credit) is the difficulty in having them craft higher-order questions (application) or provide plausible distractors for all or most of the responses. I believe the feedback I provide can help students see how good questions are crafted, thus helping them study and creatively learn the material. I’ll hope to return to this post after my current summer course.


[1] While I ask that the quizzes be taken individually by students, cooperative quizzes are something to explore.

[2] While there is plenty of literature on extolling this a standard best-practice, I learned the value of frequent and early assessment the hard way. The first semester I taught at a community college I did not schedule any low-stakes quizzes. The first formal test my students had was a midterm, and while many did fine, there was an abundance of students who did exceptionally poorly (with grades under 30%). I did not provide them the opportunity to gauge their early level of understanding, and consequently to adapt their learning strategies.

[3] I’ve talked about the importance of note reorganization for study here.

Drawing to Think & Thinking through Drawing

Is there a value in having university students draw in a humanities course? Admittedly, this is charged question. I do not think practicing still-life drawing would benefit students greatly given the normal range of learning outcomes for a humanities course. But, beyond the perceptual skills being practiced while drawing, is there a cognitive benefit the can be leveraged? From this angle, I absolutely think there is pedagogical value in having students draw.[1]

For those weary of blindly joining me in advancing a “drawing across the curriculum” agenda (a bad joke for my writing colleagues), let me restate what I think drawing can be. For me, drawing is not about mimesis, the creation of a real-world replica on a paper, but about schematization. Drawing is not merely related to sensation, but also cognition and meaning-making. Mental schema function to align a range of perceptual data and convert them into intelligible concepts that can be used. Drawing is simply a physical practice, often overlooked in a non-art classroom, that enables this dynamic intellectual process. (I should note, I am not advocating to incorporate drawing activities to speak to “visual learners” – the myth of different “learning styles” has long since been debunked. Schematizing helps everyone.)

Graphic Organizers (Data Visualization)

One of the most immediate applications of drawing is the creation of graphic organizers, which allow for the construction of knowledge in a hierarchical or relational manner. Organization that is non-linear (unlike linear note-taking or outlining) often leads to better retention and recall. Semantic maps, conceptual maps, Venn diagrams, and tree diagrams (even T-charts) can all be implemented effectively in a classroom environment. If students have difficulty developing them on their own, instructors can assist by making handouts with portions of the charts left blank. I will admit, there is a learning curve to creating more complex graphic organizers, but the goal should be, ultimately, to have your students attempt to create them – doing the conceptual work is where the greatest benefits lay.

Writing 2 Concept Map.png

My first concept map for my Freshman Composition course. For future iterations I would have students help with much of the work.

Maps and Other Diagrams

More commonly I have my student draw maps. Instead of showing a map of a region, I will first schematize it on the blackboard – and have my students draw with me.[2] I will then show a proper map after the exercise, mostly to relate what we’ve drawn to what’s on the map. My maps, by choice, are minimalist; I only choose to depict what I think is most pertinent to the content or narrative I am presenting. For example, I often focus on rivers and lakes (the source of life and centers of human activity), or mountains and deserts (obstacles to human movement), or cosmopolitan centers (where documents are often produced, also the civil antipodes to foreign “barbarism”). I can then draw lines to represent human migration or the movement of ideas. This clearly takes more time than simply showing a map on a slide, but I’ve found it to be more effective in crystalizing ideas to students.[3] I’ve also included drawing these minimalist maps (with clear labels) on students exams.

Along these lines, I’ve also spent time drawing mythic cosmologies with my students (e.g. the Buddhist cakravāla and its dhātus – I call it the Buddhist wedding cake), as well as other diagrams produced in the primary materials we are working with (e.g. the bhavacakra). A lot of meaning of often encoded in these endeavors by the original artists and I would argue there is value in (selectively) reproducing them, not only looking at or analyzing them.

Figure 2.png

The mythic Buddhist world. There’s plenty of religious art to draw from!

Drawing Things

I might hear objections at this point – I am not really having students “draw” things. I believe there is room for this as well, although I would make sure we have a good pedagogical purpose for having students engaging in this (often) time-consuming endeavor. Luckily, for scholars of religious studies (like myself), various forms of artistic production is often at the core of religious practice. Having students participate in traditional religious practices of “art” making (we should always be mindful that some practices will not be considered “art” in the same way as we might approach it) can lead to meaningful interactions with the material under analysis. I can also be, quite frankly, simply fun too.

To provide one clear example, I’ve been having my students draw the important Buddhist figure Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, for several years now. I was inspired when I ran across the contemporary artist, Takashi Murakami, producing modern art versions of this famous Zen monk in 2007. I started scribbling some of my own portraits for fun and eventually decided to try and incorporate this practice into my teaching. At the time I was still looking for excuses to do fun in-class exercises that ask students to take a step out of their normal comfort zones. I was acutely aware that many people feel drawing is an in-born gift, not a skill, and would be hesitant to participate. Ultimately, I like to think that I fool students into drawing, rather than asking them to draw outright.

Figure 16.png

The inspiration: Murakami Takashi, I open wide my eyes but I see no scenery. I fix my gaze upon my heart.

On the schedule day, I will often bring blank copy paper class and provide two drawing options to my class. I say I will draw Bodhidharma on the blackboard step-by-step and students can choose to follow along, copying my process. Alternatively, students can choose to copy one of several traditional images of Bodhidharma I project on the screen. For those who choose to follow me (typically about half of the class), I imitate my best Bob Ross impression and try to make drawing non-threatening and, hopefully, fun (let’s draw a happy eyebrow right here…).

drawing Bodhidharma [PC-Peter Romaskiewicz].JPG

The set up with my finished Bodhidharma portrait on the whiteboard. [Southern Shaolin Temple, Putian, China. 2019]

The final pay-off for this activity comes at the end. I’ll have students reflect on the types of facial features we’ve drawn on the portrait and guess why they are important to East Asian artists (essentially, Bodhidharma is a caricature of a non-Chinese monk). This is the pedagogical purpose of this activity and I make sure to tie the points we make in discussion to those I’ve made throughout the lecture (if students do not do so already). To further draw out the significance of this activity, and position my students firmly within a actual “Buddhist” artistic tradition, I’ve also created an accompanying reading.



student Bodhidharma 05 [PC-Peter Romaskiewicz]

Rather superb renditions by my students for Woodenfish 2019.


The whole process of handing out paper, introducing the activity, drawing, and discussion takes – minimally – 15 minutes. Of course, you could conceive of projects that take much longer (such as over the whole term) or are completed as teams (based on the suggestion of a colleague, I used to do a textual version of Exquisite Corpse in my composition classes).

Final Thoughts

The real challenge is trying to determine the cost-benefit analysis of drawing – you will be spending far more time with the material than if you just showed the pictures, maps, or diagrams. Thus, as always, be judicious and reflect on the exercise afterwards – was it valuable in helping you to reach a particular learning objective? If at the end of the day, all I do is help my students doodle better, I am completely fine with that.


*This is part of an ongoing series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing university courses in Religious Studies. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.

[1] Disclaimer: As the son of an art teacher and professional artist, I’ve always challenged myself to have my students draw more. This notwithstanding, there is some interesting research on art and cognition that I’ve only just begun to dive into. A good primer is Thinking Through Drawing: Practice into Knowledge, edited by Andrea Kantrowitz, Angela Brew and Michelle Fava. Furthermore, there is already copious amounts of literature on incorporating drawing into science classrooms.

[2] This means I also have to tell student to bring paper and pen/pencils to class, quite a sizable portion (in my personal experience) takes notes solely on computers.

[3] There are clearly good reasons to show, and even focus on, highly detailed proper maps, it all depends on your pedagogical purpose. I’d suggest that if you want maps to be more meaningful, drawing elements of them with students can be helpful.

Drawing the Face of Bodhidharma: A Brief Survey of an Artistic Tradition

Peter Romaskiewicz

“I have painted several thousand Bodhidharmas, yet have never depicted his face. This is only natural, for the moment I spread the paper to draw him, the original form disappears. All of you, what is this Bodhidharma that cannot be drawn?” Zen Master Hakuin[1]

In the fall of 1817, a large crowd gathered in the northern courtyard of the Nagoya branch of Hongan-ji Temple 本願寺 to witness a spectacle. A low fence was erected to separate the crowd from a carefully constructed sheet of paper, covering an area of 120 tatami mats, or approximately 2200 square feet – a size that would have dwarfed the average Japanese house of the time. This was the canvas and performance space for Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760-1849), a 57-year-old print maker from the capital of Edo who was still over a decade away from true fame with his publication of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji 富嶽三十六景 in 1831. At this stage in his career Hokusai was still an avid self-promoter, creating artworks on a scale that would dazzle his contemporaries. In 1804, he had devised a similar painting spectacle at Gokoku-ji Temple 護国寺 in Edo. The subject was the same both in Edo and Nagoya – a colossal painting of Bodhidharma, the reputed founder of Zen Buddhism.[2]

In Nagoya, accounts tell us that Hokusai and his pupils, dressed in special attire, set up the paper and prepared the ink all morning, slowly gathering a crowd in the process. The paper was several times thicker than normal stock and was carefully placed atop a bed of straw. The ink was stored in vats and carried in metal buckets; the brushes, by necessity, were the size of brooms [Fig. 1]. When preparations finished in the afternoon, Hokusai wielded a huge brush flush with black ink and started to deftly maneuver it across the blank expanse of paper. He first drew Bodhidharma’s nose and then his right and left eyes. He then continued to his mouth, ear, and head. Switching to a different brush made of wiry palm fibers, Hokusai then filled in his bristly hair and beard, giving Bodhidharma some of his most iconic facial features. Hokusai then used his largest brush, a sack of rice soaked in ink, and dragged it with a rope to create the thick folds of Bodhidharma’s robe. Finally, Hokusai and his students painted the robe bright red, mopping up the excess ink with rags as they finished their work at dusk [Fig. 2]. For an added touch of flair, the 60-foot long portrait was lashed to a wooden beam which was connected to a pully system atop scaffolding. A team of men lifted the painting into the air, fully displaying the Zen patriarch to the astonished and admiring audience [Fig. 3].

Figure 1

Figure 1
From Kōriki Enkōan 高力猿猴庵 (1756-1831), Detailed Illustrations of Hokusai’s Large Scale Sketches 北斎大画即書細図 [1817]

Figure 2

Figure 2
From Kōriki Enkōan 高力猿猴庵 (1756-1831), Detailed Illustrations of Hokusai’s Large Scale Sketches 北斎大画即書細図 [1817]

Figure 3

Figure 3
From Kōriki Enkōan 高力猿猴庵 (1756-1831), Detailed Illustrations of Hokusai’s Large Scale Sketches 北斎大画即書細図 [1817]

This spectacle was not an improvised performance. In addition to getting the various materials prepared and gathered, including erecting the large scaffolding to hold up the colossal image of Bodhidharma, Hokusai promoted the event through handbills he circulated around the city, some of which still survive today [Fig. 4].[3] The promotional bills were illustrated with a simple portrait of Bodhidharma, but Hokusai highlighted the magnitude of the promised work, stating, for example, that Bodhidharma’s eye would be six feet wide and his nose nine feet long. He also noted, should it rain, interested spectators should return on a sunny day. This colossal painting of a rather eccentric Buddhist monk was not a performance one could bear to miss. But why paint a gigantic Bodhidharma?

Figure 4

Figure 4
Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760-1849), Handbill for Hokusai’s Colossal Image Sketch 北斎大画即書引札, Nagoya-shi hakubutsukan名古屋市博物館 [1817]

A person who may have seen Housai’s advertisement or viewed the finished image on display would have immediately recognized Bodhidharma, the “Great Master” 達摩大師, a Buddhist figure who rapidly evolved into a popular icon of the Edo period (1603-1868).[4] Buddhist texts since the Tang (618-907) had recounted the famed exploits of the Indian monk, slowly folding accretions into his legendary biography.[5] On one level, Bodhidharma was revered by Buddhists for bringing Zen (C. chan 禪) to China and ultimately to the rest of Easy Asia. The stories that developed around him depicted him as a paradigmatic Zen monk: resilient in meditative cultivation, cunningly wise, and curiously iconoclastic. In the growing urbanism of the Edo era, however, it became increasingly common to parody (or “re-envision“ 見立て) the pious formalism and celibacy of Buddhist monks, and Bodhidharma emerged as a common target for that ribaldry.[6] Even though Hokusai’s painting did not reflect the irreverence or sexual innuendos found in the work of his contemporaries, the sheer scale of the portrait, along with sight of Hokusai and his students trotting back and forth over Bodhidharma’s enormous face, would have given the event a carnivalesque atmosphere. As such, the Edo-era popular persona of Bodhidharma as a beloved holy fool would have complemented the tone of Hokusai’s performance.

Hokusai’s particular rendition of Bodhidharma in a three-quarter bust portrait was also true to contemporary convention. Bodhidharma bust portraits (C. banshen xiang, J. hanshin zō 半身像), the genre I will focus on here, had been common among painters in East Asia since at least the thirteenth century.[7] Importantly, however, the characteristic features portrayed in these portraits developed more than five hundred years after Bodhidharma reputedly lived (passing away in the sixth century, perhaps at the age of 150), thus they should not be taken to represent real physical attributes.[8] Moreover, the earliest extant attempts at drawing the first Zen patriarch, dating to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, do not depict Bodhidharma with his characteristic bulky frame, dour demeanor, and bushy beard. Instead, these images portray Bodhidharma as a regular monk with slender build and Chinese facial features. Moreover, he is commonly paired with his first disciple and eventual successor, Huike 慧可 [Fig. 5]. This artistic representation emphasizes the notion of a Zen lineage, placing the master-disciple relationship at the core of the mind-to-mind transmission (C. yixin chuanxin, J. ishin denshin 以心傳心) originating with the Buddha. Bodhidharma’s persona, and by extension his iconoclastic biography, is overshadowed by the dramatic portrayal of patriarchal succession, here depicted between a high-seated Bodhidharma and his devoted disciple seated on the ground.[9]

Figure 5

Figure 5
Anonymous, Portraits of the Six Patriarchs 六組像 [close up], Kōzan-ji 高山寺 [13th century, based on 1054 original]

By the thirteenth century, however, artistic conventions had shifted and Bodhidharma developed his most eccentric features. [10] His hirsute face and bushy eyebrows, protruding nose, bulging eyes, and large-gauge earrings became iconic of his visual appearance [Figs. 6-7].[11] These stereotypical attributes all reflected an important aspect of Bodhidharma’s identity – his non-Chinese heritage. They functioned as easily distinguishable visual cues to identify Bodhidharma as a foreigner, thus authenticating the Zen tradition’s claim as being transmitted from India, Bodhidharma’s native home.[12] In other words, the efforts to explicitly portray Bodhidharma as a foreigner in the late Song Dynasty also implicitly cast him as a faithful transmitter of a non-textual Zen lineage. Additionally, the focus on Bodhidharma’s eccentric appearance would more easily call to mind the iconoclastic episodes of his biography, a corpus of legends that was still growing throughout the Song when his new physical image was being formulated.[13]

Figure 6

Figure 6
Anonymous [inscription by Mieweng Wenli 滅翁文礼 (1167-1250)], untitled hanging scroll, Myōshin-ji 妙心寺 [c. 13th century]

Figure 7

Figure 7
Anonymous [inscription by Qingzhuo Zhengcheng 清拙正澄 (1274-1339)], untitled hanging scroll, Izumi-shi Kubosō Kinen Bijutsukan 和泉市久保惣記念美術館 [dated 1326]

Among the artists from China and Japan who painted Bodhidharma throughout history, none was perhaps more admiring than Japanese Zen priest Hakuin Ekaku 白隠慧鶴 (1686-1769[14]). A prodigious artist and calligrapher, Hakuin likely produced more than one hundred images of Bodhidharma now in collections throughout the world. These portraits exhibit a slow evolution of Hakuin’s remarkable personal style. An early depiction of Bodhidharma, produced at the age of 36 recently after Hakuin was installed as the head of Shōin-ji Temple 松蔭寺, reflects an aesthetic from the earlier Muromachi period (1336-1573) that can be ultimately traced back to Song era examples [Fig. 8].[15] Bodhidharma’s face and hair is delineated with fine brushwork, using deliberate lines to create a refined, yet stern portrait. This is reminiscent of the “plain outline” (C. baimiao 白描) style employed in the images depicting patriarchal succession, as well as the early Chinese bust portraits of Bodhidharma. These brush strokes are in stark contrast to the bold, calligraphic strokes of Bodhidharma’s robe, created with a brush soaked in ink and quickly maneuvered to depict the cloth gathered around the Zen master’s arms. This play between meticulous and casual brushwork and between fine and bold lines suggests the mastery of Hakuin’s buoyant artistry.

Figure 8

Figure 8
Hakuin Ekaku 白隠慧鶴 (1686-1769), Daruma 達磨, private collection [1719]

This traditionalist aesthetic would soon be modified in favor of a more powerful and personal portrayal that would become Hakuin’s hallmark. At the age of 67, Hakuin produced a much more expressive Bodhidharma, using carefree, bold brushstrokes to create a rounded head, bulbous eyes, and protruding nose [Fig. 9]. The robe has also become more abstract, transformed into a flowing “s”-shaped curve which conceals the patriarch’s hands.[16] This is a more playful and softer rendering of Bodhidharma with a special emphasis placed on his face and eyes. In many of Hakuin’s later works, the eyes in particular are rendered prominent through heavy brushwork and a round, unnatural size [Figs. 10-11]. The pupils are also often (though hardly always) placed in such a manner that Bodhidharma is looking above his head or over his shoulder, creating tension in the viewer and projecting a sense of suspicion onto the Zen patriarch.

Figure 9

Figure 9
Hakuin Ekaku 白隠慧鶴 (1686-1769), Daruma 達磨, Shōjū-ji 正宗寺 [1751]

Figure 10

Figure 10
Hakuin Ekaku 白隠慧鶴 (1686-1769), Daruma 達磨, Chikusei Collection

Figure 11

Figure 11
Hakuin Ekaku 白隠慧鶴 (1686-1769), Daruma 達磨, LACMA

This particular medium and method for depicting Bodhidharma portraits since the thirteenth century should not be overlooked. Monochromatic ink wash painting (C. shuimo hua 水墨畫, J. suiboku ga 水墨画) was first developed in China, but was brought to Japan by at least the fourteenth century. The use of bold ink strokes and washes allowed artists to minimize fine detail and find expression through powerful brush strokes that revealed the essence or “spirit” of the subject.[17] Thus, the conventions of Chinese painting, and ink wash painting in particular, eliminated the value of mimesis and contributed to the highly caricatured and evocative forms of Bodhidharma’s appearance. In painting an iconoclastic Zen master from a foreign country, artists such as Hakuin could continue to experiment with artistic whimsy.[18]

One may argue that a natural trajectory of this artistic tradition is towards complete abstraction. Indeed, a minimalist tradition did develop around the use of a single brush stroke (J. ippitsu 一筆), a technique dating to at least the fourteenth century.[19] Perhaps unsurprisingly, the creation of a single stroke Bodhidharma (J. ippitsu Daruma 一筆達磨) also gained in popularity. Some of the earliest versions depict a full-body Bodhidharma seated in meditation, with hood pulled over head. In an image possibly attributed to Shōkai Reiken 性海霊見 (1315-1396), the brush stroke beings at the chest of Bodhidharma and loops around his head before outlining his crossed legs. The line finishes by creating the silhouette around Bodhidharma’s shoulders and body and ends with a wavy flourish by his proper right knee. Facial features are lightly added to give the amorphous shape a more human-like appearance [Fig. 12]. By the Edo period the use of the single stroke technique emerged as a way enterprising artists could advertise their deft handling of a brush. In a collection of one stroke sketches, Hokusai himself created an image of the patriarch following a different brush path than Shōkai, yet complete with eyes peering out of a darkened hood [Fig. 13].

Figure 12

Figure 12
Attributed to Shōkai Reiken 性海霊見 (1315-1396), untitled hanging scroll, Umezawa Kinenkan 梅澤記念館 [dated 1394]

Figure 13

Figure 13
From Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760-1849), Album of Drawing with one Stroke of the Brush 傳神開手一筆畵譜 [close up][1823]

Another, more abstract method of producing a one stroke Bodhidharma also emerged. In these renderings, Bodhidharma is often depicted from the side or back, eliminating the need to draw the cloth around his legs or opening of the hood. Hakuin offers some of the most important examples of this highly minimalist expression. With a proverbial flick of his wrist, Hakuin could depict Bodhidharma sitting in meditation through a combination of straight and curved segments of a continuous line. Yet, Hakuin may have been more devious than simply rendering Bodhidharma into near oblivion. Hakuin is known to have engaged in the visual game of word-pictures (J. moji-e 文字絵), or creating visual images based on the structure or special arrangement of East Asian characters (J. kanji 漢字).[20] In the first example [Fig. 14], Bodhidharma is a highly abstracted rendering of the character nin 忍, “forbearance” (S. kṣanti). A central Buddhist virtue, the meaning of “forbearance” is also relevant to the image depicted, namely, Bodhidharma engaged in meditation for a duration of nine years. Because Hakuin was also a master as expressive “grass style” (J. sōsho 草書) calligraphy , he had a deep knowledge of the structure of characters and could manipulate the brush strokes – or in this case, a single stroke – to form a highly suggestive shape. Quite amazingly, Hakuin shows that a variety of characters could be used for this purpose of depicting a person in meditation. The second example [Fig. 15], while looking very similar to the first, is in fact a different word, gu 愚, “delusion” (S. moha)[notice the closed circles representing the head and body].[21] Often cited as one of the root mental afflictions that needs to be eliminated, the choice of “delusion” is not, at first, entirely obvious. Yet, it seems that Hakuin was not attempting to depict Bodhidharma in this instance, but the renowned Zen master, Gudō Tōshoku 愚堂東寔 (1577–1661), whose family names shares the word gu.[22] At this stage was see the humorous nature of Hakuin coming into full view, as he plays with our expectations. These vague renderings are so amorphous they are truly, as Neil McFarland has pointed out, “but a short step away from the traditional ensō, 円相 the circle signifying nothingness or emptiness.”[23]

Figure 14

Figure 14
Hakuin Ekaku 白隠慧鶴 (1686-1769), Wall-Gazing Daruma in [Shape of] the Character Nin 忍字面壁達磨図, Ginshu Collection

Figure 15

Figure 15
Hakuin Ekaku 白隠慧鶴 (1686-1769), Gu Illustration 愚字図, Jishō-ji 自性寺

Before we turn to the complete erasure of Bodhidharma’s image, let’s make an unexpected jump to postwar “superflat” pop art and see how this artistic tradition continued. In a move that was not expected based on the widespread popularity of his cartoonish smiling flowers, Japanese artist Murakami Takashi 村上隆 (b. 1962) embraced the timeworn attempt at painting the first Zen patriarch’s image.[24] Exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery in New York in 2007, Murakami’s Bodhidharma took several forms, but they all reflected the canonical portrait genre first developed in the thirteenth century [Figs. 16-17]. Most notably, Murakami employed bright colors in his renderings, a sharp departure from traditional monochromatic ink wash painting, although black line-work still formed the backbone of the imagery. Most evocative are the dazzling rainbow-colored eyes of Bodhidharma, which stare hypnotically, almost mindlessly, into space. The bodily heft, protruding nose, and wild eyebrows and hair remain faithful to their visual ancestors, however, ensuring both Hakuin and Hokusai would recognize their artistic muse.

Figure 16

Figure 16
Murakami Takashi 村上隆 (b. 1962), I open wide my eyes but I see no scenery. I fix my gaze upon my heart., [2007] Photo: Peter Romaskiewicz, 2007.

Figure 17

Figure 17
Murakami Takashi 村上隆 (b. 1962), In the heart’s eye, a universe., [2007] Photo: Peter Romaskiewicz, 2007.

While some have posited that highly abstract painting to be a particular “Zen speciality,” there is also a long tradition in Chinese portraiture of trying to capture the “living spirit” (C. shen 神) of a subject beyond his manifest appearances.[25] Transcending flesh to get at the unique spirit of a person may have motivated many Bodhidharma portraitists, resulting in a variety of forms that attempted to seize upon his iconoclastic biography. Moreover, from a strict Buddhist perspective, the attempt to truly “capture” any phenomenon, in language or through visual representation, is foolhardy. The flux of an impermanent reality cannot be adequately captured in static forms. This deconstructive aspect of Buddhist emptiness rhetoric is echoed in Huakuin’s quote from the epigraph. The “original form” of Bodhidharma is precisely no form, that is why it disappears once manifested on paper. Trying to draw the Bodhidharma that cannot be drawn is an impossible quest, which is precisely why so many continue to attempt it.


*This was written for my students during the 2019 Woodenfish program in China. It is used in conjunction with a classroom activity where we draw Bodhidharma.

student Bodhidharma 05 [PC-Peter Romaskiewicz]
Woodenfish 2019 Bodhidharma drawings

[1] Taken with minor alterations from Seo, Addiss & Fukushima 2010: 97.

[2] The story of Hokusai’s feat was told by Kōriki Enkōan 高力猿猴庵 (1756-1831), a Nagoya artist who published an illustrated account in 1817, entitled Detailed Illustrations of Hokusai’s Large Scale Sketches 北斎大画即書細図. Another illustrated account can be found in the 1893 Biography of Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北齋傅 by Iijima Hanjūrō 飯島半十郎 (1841-1901) (See Anonymous 1898). Lastly, Odagiri Shunkō 小田切春江 (1810-1888) included the illustration Hokusai’s Image of a Colossal Bodhidharma 北斎席画の大達磨 as an appendix to his 1853 publication, The Illustrated Guide to Famous Places in Owari 尾張名所図会. Odagiri’s illustration is of Hokusai’s 1804 masterpiece, while the images in Kōriki and Iijima are derived from the 1817 event. Thankfully, the relevant text from these works is extracted and published online here:

In 2017, on the bicentennial anniversary of Hokusai’s performance, several city institutions in Nagoya (and elsewhere in Japan) recreated the event, see e.g.

[3] Hokusai’s original large-scale painting was also saved, but was regrettably destroyed when Nagoya was firebombed in 1945.

[4] This name, Damo dashi 達摩大師, which is used on Hokusai’s promotional handbill, is common in Japan. It became common in China to shorten Bodhidharma’s translated name Putidamo 菩提達磨 to simply Damo 達磨, or in Japanese pronunciation, Daruma. In Japan, an honorific was sometimes added, giving us Daruma Sama 達磨様 (Mr. Daruma) or the name used by Hokusai above. Faure notes that Bodhidharma is considered among the “deities in vogue” (J. hayarigami 流行神) from the Edo period, see Faure 2011: 46, 62.

[5] It moves beyond the purposes of this essay to talk about the changing biography of Bodhidharma, of which the secondary literature is as expansive and varied as the primary sources. This notwithstanding, McRea 2014 is a good place to start.

[6] See McFarland 1986 and Faure 2011 for more innovative and risqué expressions of Bodhidharma in the Edo period.

[7] Brinker et al. 1996: 210, Seo, Addiss & Fukushima 2010: 95. Due to the standard placement of patriarch portraits in Ch’an public monasteries, odd-numbered patriarchs (with Bodhidharma counted as number one) would typically face towards the left, see Sharf & Foulk 1993: 175-6, 187 and Brinker et al. 1996: 155. We will see, however, there is a difference between the formal chinzō 頂相 portraits of eminent Zen masters and the often monochromatic images of Bodhidharma. See Sharf and Foulk 1993 for the compositional characteristics of the chinzō genre.

In addition to “bust portraits,” it also became common to depict episodes in the life of Bodhidharma, such as “Wall Gazing Bodhidharma” (C. mianbi Damo; J. menpeki Daruma面壁達磨), “Reed Bodhidharma” (C. luye Damo, J. royō Daruma 蘆葉達磨), and “Single Shoe Bodhidharma” (C. zhilü Damo, J. sekiri Daruma隻履達磨)[NB: While this imagery appears to have originally developed in China, art historians tend to solely use the Japanese to denotes these particular artistic renderings]. Except for the highly stylized Wall-Gazing Bodhidharma, I will not be addressing these latter artistic forms here. The history of Bodhidharma in Korea is being studied by Beatrix Mecsi in several publications.

[8] Sharf and Foulk (1993) speculate that a portrait of Bodhidhamra may have been installed in the Hall of Seven Patriarchs 七祖堂 constructed by Puji 普寂 (651-739) at Shaolin Temple 少林寺in the attempt to position his master, Shenxiu 神秀 (606?-706), as the principal Dharma heir of Hongren 弘忍 (600-674)(see esp. p. 172). Additionally, it is known that Shenhui 神慧 (684-758) constructed his own Portrait Hall 真堂 around 752, commemorating the unbroken line of succession back to Bodhidharma, see Sharf & Foulk 1993: 174-5. It remains unknown what these portraits may have looked like. The Dunhuang version of the Platform Sutra (c. 830), however, notes that placed in a three section corridor 三間房廊 of Hongren’s temple were “paintings of the five great patriarchs transmitting the robe and Dharma” 畫五祖大師傳授衣法 (T.2007.337b18-9). While there is no reason to take this as a true reflection of Hongren’s temple, it may recall the images installed previously by Puji and Shenhui. In any case, the transmission of the robe from master to disciple is the iconic event captured in the purported illustrations, not merely a portrait of a Zen master. For a brief discussion on these early transmission depictions see Lachman 1994: 245-253.

[9] We also see Huike’s severed left arm on the ground, reflecting the widespread story of his attempt to garner Bodhidharma favor. An analysis of these older images of Bodhidharma can be found in Chapin 1945 and Lachman 1994.

[10] Paul (2009) argues that Chan (Zen) “eccentric monks” 異僧, such as Hanshan 寒山, Shide 拾得, and Budai 布袋, developed their iconic features during the Southern Song and Yuan, comprising a unique category of visual representation (see esp. pp. 65-6). While Paul separates Chan eccentrics from orthodox patriarchs such as Bodhidharma, the late Song and early Yuan seems to be a fertile period for exploring these new eccentric visual paradigms for Buddhist figures. Faure (1991) also seems to bracket the “trickster” figures of Hanshan, Shide, and Budai from the “thaumaturge” Bodhidharma (see esp. pp. 115-8), but it would seem that Bodhidharma represents a more complex meld of idealized types, especially in terms of his visual portrayal. Additionally, the development of the image of Bodhidharma seems to have occurred with the emergence of “Śākyamuni Emerging from the Mountains” (C. chushan Shijia, J. shussan Shaka 出山釋迦) motif, especially in relation to the “Reed Bodhidharma” motif, see Brinker 1973b and Brinker et al. 1996: 150-1.

[11] The hanging scroll from Myōshin-ji 妙心寺 is sometimes listed as part of a triptych 三幅 by Li Que 李確 [v.l.](active mid-13th century), consisting of the additional scrolls depicting Fengang 豊干 and Budai 布袋. Brinker et al. 1996 lists it as anonymous (pp. 210-11, cf. 220-1).

[12] Traditionally, Bodhidharma is considered to have originated from Southern India 南天竺, although older Chinese sources claim he is from Bosi 波斯 (a region in the Hindu Kush), mistakenly taken to be Persia by later scholars, see McRea 2014: 130 (and footnote therein).

[13] The older images of Bodhidharma engaging in the drama of patriarchal succession likely developed among debates over claims to the authentic one-to-one lineage transmission (see note above). These newer images of Bodhidharma, placing an emphasis on his appearance, no longer function with the same visual rhetoric. While they still carry an import vis-à-vis lineage transmission, they also firmly announce the iconoclastic persona of Bodhidharma that evolved in Chan literature. One might speculate that Bodhidharma’s presence no longer spoke to an internal Tang-era Chan debate over authentic lineage, but to external Song-era critiques of a supposed “wordless” Chan transmission stemming back to the Buddha himself.

[14] Alternative dates of 1685-1768 are sometimes used since Hakuin was born and died at the end of twelfth month of the lunar calendar.

[15] According to Hakuin, he burned his entire collection of artwork and calligraphy in his twenties. This portrait of Bodhidharma remains his oldest extant work, see Aviman 2014: 36. For more on Hakuin’s changing Bodhidharma styles, see Aviman 2014 and Seo, Addiss & Fukushima 2010: 95-104. A third portrait which is conveniently dated to Hakuin’s age 83 provides a nice trajectory for the evolution of his work, see e.g. Aviman 2014: 43.

[16] The symbolic importance of this shape, kokoro 心, is examined in Yoshizawa & Waddell 2009: 207-12.

[17] McFarland 1986: 168 also notes this important factor in the artistic tradition of depicting Bodhidharma.

[18] When tinted, Bodhidharma is most often presented wearing a bright red robe, a pictographic tradition stemming back to the thirteenth century. In the Edo period, Bodhidharma’s association with the color red helped recast him as a smallpox deity, see Faure 2011.

[19] McFarland 1986: 184.

[20] I am unsure if moji-e, which typically uses a fast cursive script that is often made with a single line, would formally qualify as ippitsu. It seems Hakuin’s work is sometimes categorized under both.

[21] Hakuin is known to have used even a third character in these abstract representations of Bodhidharma, in (or kakushi) 隱, “concealed” (Seo, Adiss & Fukushima 2010 use in, while Onishi 2014 uses kakushi). Taken from Hakuin’s own name, he would omit the kozato 阝 radial to produce a the shape of a person in meditation. This person is believed to be Hakuin himself, see Onishi 2014:63. Notice all characters, nin, gu, and in have a “heart” (kokoro 心) radical at their base, allowing Hakuin to use it to represent the flowing hem of the robe.

[22] See Seo, Adiss & Fukushima 2010: 201 and Onishi 2014: 63.

[23] McFarland 1986: 184.

[24] Murakami’s depictions of Bodhidharma, as their relation to “Zen art,” have been touched upon briefly by Levine 2017. Murakami also painted another traditional episode in the life of Bodhidharma, “Huike Amputating His Arm” (C. Huike duanbi, J. Eka danpi 慧可断臂). To produce this image Murakami reproduced a closely cropped image or Huike’s arm from the famous painting by Sesshū 雪舟 (1420-1506) at Sainen-ji斎年寺.

[25] The category of “Zen art,” often thought as an spontaneous expression of No Mind 無心, has recently been examined by the works of Gregory Levine, see e.g. Levine 2017. I quote the infelicitous wording of McFarland (1986: 186) as but one example of the widespread belief that Zen and art share a special relationship. Sharf & Foulk (1993, esp. pp.158-63, 202-6) outline the basic concerns in Chinese and Chan/Zen art regarding the tensions between representation and reality.


  • Anonymous. 1898. “The Biggest Picture on Record,” in The Strand Magazine, Vol. 15, No. 89 (May 1898), pp. 558-562.
  • Aviman, Galit. 2014. Zen Painting in Edo Japan 1600-1868: Playfulness and Freedom in the Artwork of Hakuin Ekaku and Sengai Gibon. London: Routledge.
  • Brinker, Helmut. 1973a. “Ch’an Portraits in a Landscape.” Archives of Asian Art, Vol. 27, pp. 8-29.
  • Brinker, Helmut. 1973b. “Shussan Shaka in Sung and Yüan Painting.” Arts Orientalis, Vol. 9, pp. 21-40.
  • Brinker, Helmut, Hiroshi Kanazawa, and Andreas Leisinger. 1996. Zen Masters of Meditation in Images and Writings. Zurigo: Artibus Asiae Publishers.
  • Bush, Susan H., and Mair, Victor 1977/78. “Some Buddhist Portraits and Images of the Lu and Ch’an Sects in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century China.” Archives of Asian Art, Vol. 31, pp. 32-51.
  • Chapin, Helen. 1946 “Three Early Portraits of Bodhidharma.” Archives of the Chinese Art Society of America, Vol. 1, No. 66-67, pp. 75-78.
  • Faure, Bernard. 1986. Le Taité de Bodhidharma: Première anthologie du bouddhisme Chan. Paris: Seuil.
  • Faure, Bernard. 2011. “From Bodhidharma to Daruma: the Hidden Life of a Zen Patriarch,” Japan Review, Vol. 32, pp. 45-71.
  • Fontein, Jan and Hickman, Money L. 1970. Zen Painting & Calligraphy: An Exhibition of Works of Art Lent by Temples, Private Collectors, and Public and Private Museums in Japan, Organized in Collaboration with the Agency for Cultural Affairs of the Japanese Government. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts. [not consulted]
  • Foulk, T. Griffith and Sharf, Robert H. 1993. “On the Ritual Use of Ch’an Portraiture in Medieval China.” Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie, Vol. 7, pp. 149-219.
  • Kido Chūtarō 木戶忠太郎. 1932. Daruma to sono shosō 達磨と其諸相 [Bodhidharma and His Appearances]. Tokyo: Heigo Shuppan-sha. [Classic work on the evolution of Daruma in popular culture, not consulted; this work is outlined in Chapin 1945]
  • Lachman, Charles. 1993. “Why Did the Patriarch Cross the River? The Rushleaf Bodhidharma Reconsidered.” Asia Major, Vol. 6, pp. 237-68.
  • Levine, Gregory. 2017. Long Strange Journey: On Modern Zen, Zen Art, and Other Predicaments. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
  • Levine, Gregory, Yukio Lippit, Naomi Noble Richard, and Melanie B. D. Klein. 2007. Awakenings: Zen Figure Painting in Medieval Japan. New York: Japan Society. [not consulted]
  • McRae, John R. 2014. “The Hagiography of Bodhidharma: Reconstructing the Point of Origin of Chinese Chan Buddhism,” in Indian in the Chinese Imagination: Myth, Religion, and Thought, John Kieschnick and Meir Shahar, eds.), pp. 125-138. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • McFarland, H. Neil 1986. “Feminine Motifs in Bodhidharma Symbology in Japan.” Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 14, pp. 167–91.
  • McFarland, H. Neill (1987). Daruma: The Founder of Zen in Japanese Art and Popular Culture. Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International Ltd. [not consulted]
  • Onishi Masanari 尾西正成. 2014. “Hakuin Ekaku ‘menpeki daruma’ to moji-e no shūhen 白隠慧鶴「面壁達磨」と文字絵の周辺 [“Wall-Gazing Bodhidharma” by Hakuin Ekaku and the Edges of Pictorial Calligraphy].” Shogaku shodō-shi kenkyū書学書道史研究 [Calligraphic Studies], Vol. 24, pp. 59-73,117-116.
  • Paul, Paramita. 2009. “Wandering Saints: Chan Eccentrics in the Art and Culture of Song and Yuan China.” PhD dissertation, Leiden University.
  • Seo, Audrey Yoshiko, Addiss, Stephen and Fukushima Keido. 2010. The Sound of One Hand: Paintings and Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin. Boston, Mass: Shambhala. [Also see]
  • Yoshizawa, Katsuhiro, and Waddell, Norman. 2009. The Religious Art of Zen Master Hakuin. Berkeley, Calif: Counterpoint.

Underwood & Underwood’s Cleveland Cruise Portrait

On October 16, 1909, the S.S. Cleveland left Hoboken, New Jersey on the first commercial around-the-world cruise. American tour operator, Frank C. Clark, chartered the Cleveland from the German operated Hamburg-American Line, leaving the east coast with a party of 650 passengers and traveling eastward through the Suez Canal before making landfall in San Francisco three months later on January 31, 1910. Because the Panama Canal was four years away from completion, the passengers completed the last leg of the around-the-world tour via train, returning to their origin point on the east coast. Thus, although Clark’s cruise was not a complete circumnavigation of the globe, the public and press treated it as such. Five days after landing in San Francisco, the Cleveland re-crossed the Pacific Ocean to start a second around-the-world tour, this time carrying more than 750 passengers. Clark’s pair of world tours generated significant amounts of publicity, with thousands appearing in San Francisco to send the ship off. The Cleveland made several subsequent trips between 1912 and 1914 until the advent of World War I interrupted access to the German-owned vessel.[1] The standard itinerary for trans-Pacific cruises of the period included a longer stopover in the port of Yokohama. Here, passengers could go ashore and enjoy the local sites, including a visit to the Kamakura Daibutsu.

One of the most popular publishers of stereocards, Underwood & Underwood, took advantage of these widely marketed luxury world tours and assigned a stereo-photographer to accompany the guests aboard the Cleveland to chronicle the trip. These new stereophotographs then became stock in Underwood & Underwood’s massive catalogue of Japan views and marketed to the general public.

Figure 1

  • Title/Caption: 298-Daibutsu, Kamakura, Japan
  • Year: 1913-1914
  • Photographer: unknown
  • Publisher: Underwood & Underwood
  • Medium: sliver gelatin print; mounted on curved slate-colored card
  • Dimensions: 7 in X 3.5 in

According to the account of R. H. Casey, a passenger aboard the Cleveland during its fourth trip across the globe which arrived in Japan on February 24, 1913, the tourist excursion trips were a sight to behold. Two hundred and forty passengers boarded a train to Kamakura and rode rickshaws from the train station to the temple of the Daibutsu, traveling en masse through the narrow roads of the rustic city’s backcountry.[2] This feeling of mass tourism is captured perfectly by our unknown photographer’s view, showing a cluster of nearly fifty people crowded in front of the Daibutsu [Fig. 1]. Almost all of the visitors are mounted atop the stone foundation or posing in the lap of the colossal statue. This posturing of gazing towards the viewer reflects a long-standing photographic tradition of collecting exotic “trophies” by being pictured in front of one’s cultural conquests.

The card itself does not identify the party as originating from the Cleveland, but an adjacent card in the Underwood & Underwood catalogue (number 247, Fig. 2), does identify a large group of tourists perched along the tall stairway of Hachiman Shrine as traveling aboard the Cleveland. Moreover, a close inspection of these two photographs reveals the same individuals are depicted in both.[3] Thus, we can safely assume the visitors to the Daibutsu are among the globetrotters aboard the Cleveland.

Figure 2


It is difficult to determine which around-the-world cruise this group of people joined. Photographs from the initial pair of Clark’s trips, between 1909-1910, show the Daibutsu site displaying a picketed fence and gabled roof on the coin offering box (saisenbako 賽銭箱), elements that appear – to my eye – to be missing in this stereoview.[4] It is possible this image was taken on one of the second pair of cruises, landing in Yokohama in January and February 1913, having departed from Hoboken and San Francisco respectively.[5] A fifth, and likely final, cruise aboard the Cleveland was scheduled to depart the east coast in January 1914 on a 93-day voyage to San Francisco, with no scheduled “return” trip.[6] Thus, it appears this photograph of the Daibutsu could have been taken during one of these three trips during 1913 or 1914.

In contrast to the other Underwood & Underwood view of tourists atop the Daibutsu, this composition has the feeling of formal portraiture. The visitors are spread out symmetrically along the ground, statue, and stone base, with most looking sternly at the camera lens. As around-the-world cruises became more popular in the interwar period, these large group photos also became more common, sometimes being used in promotional material for the cruise company. The photographs of the 1860s and 1870s that depicted small groups of intrepid travelers (and mostly men), were now festooned with tourists who draw as much attention to themselves as the statue in the background.


*This post is in honor of my father, may your curiosity in the odd live on through me.

*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] The Hamburg-American Line advertised heavily for the Cleveland’s first trip through the Panama Canal, scheduled to disembark from Hoboken in January 1915 and bring passengers to San Francisco to celebrate the Panama-Pacific Exposition. I have found no evidence that this trip took place, and given that Germany was in the midst of war by the end of 1914, the excursion was most likely to have been abandoned by the Hamburg-American Line. Accounts of the previous completed trips, where the above information was extracted, can be found in Frizell & Greenfield 1910, Junkin 1910, Bush 1911, Forbes 1912, and Casey 1914.

[2] Casey 1914: 29. According to Casey, they also visited the Kaihin Hotel.

[3] The easiest individual to spot is the sole hat-less man with coiffed white hair and mustache. A second man in a brimmed newsboy hat and white beard is also easily identified in both.

The distinctive plumes in women’s hats also leads to several relatively easy identifications (not pictured). Moreover, Underwood & Underwood Japan-series cards issued with numbers in the 290’s all appear to be issued from the Cleveland cruises.

[4] The photograph by amateur photographer F. H. Wellcome and published in the travelogue of Frizell and Greenwod clearly shows the gabled coin box. (see Frizell & Greenwood 1910: 49).

[5] These dates are noted in Forbes 1912: 27 & 29. Forbes took two trips around the world, starting in Hoboken and travelling eastward until ultimately landing in San Francisco, where he then joined the “return” voyage, heading westwards until back in Hoboken

[6] The Cleveland would have needed to be back in Hoboken for its widely publicized trip leaving in January 1915 (see note above). It is possible the Cleveland left San Francisco and headed for the Panama Canal, testing the crossing without passengers before returning in January. This tour was operated by the Hamburg-American Line directly and Clark would not make his fifth trip around the world until after the war in 1924, when he chartered the S.S. California.


  • Bush, George Tome. 1911. 40,000 Miles Around the World. Howard, PA: N.P.
  • Casey, R. H. 1914. Notes Made During a Cruise Around the World in 1913. New York: N.P.
  • Forbes, Edgar Allen. 1912. Twice Around the World. New York: Fleming H Revell Company.
  • Frizell, William G. and Greenfield, George H. 1910. Around the World on the Cleveland. New York: N.P.
  • Junkin, Paul S. 1910. A Cruise Around the World. Creston, IA: N.P.

Non-Traditional Assignments Workshop

As instructors, we somtimes feel the temptation to spice up our coursework. We may feel a bolt of jealousy, for example, when we hear a colleague’s idea for a brand new approach to an old-school assignment (I’m looking at you, humdrum 10-page research paper). While reflection and refinement should be the standard to which we inspire, we should not seek novelty simply for novelty’s sake.

When seeking to craft a non-traditional assignment, we should be guided by our core educational goals, many of which cluster around critical thinking and thoughtful creativity. By foregrounding these goals it’s possible to conceive of new ways we can express our interests or student passions. In other words, the search for non-traditional assignments should be in service to expressing “traditional” education goals in new ways. Specifically, in ways that appropriately reflect our course content, student skill sets and interests, or general teaching philosophy.

I should note, it is also far easier to integrate a non-traditional assignment into a course when that course is designed “backwards.” By starting with and thinking through the learning outcomes we can more easily conceptualize the myriad ways in which they can be actualized. In contrast, if you start by thinking through all of the assigned readings written by scholar for scholars, it’s pretty natural to envision all student assignments in the same fashion, i.e. as variants of scholarly writing. Indeed, one of the first limitations you may run into with “backwards design” is that all of those scholarly monographs you assigned just do not work and need to be trashed mindfully returned to their bookshelves. (I apologize to the international cartel of scholars, please do not put cyanide in my afternoon tea. You weren’t getting any royalties from your book sales anyway…[1])

If you are not undeterred, below I offer several of the slides I presented for a non-traditional assignments workshop organized by my university’s Summer Teaching Institute for Associates program. I will also provide commentary to the slides. This workshop was far more “workshoppy” than my previous ones, thus there is much on my handout that is not covered in my slides. [NonTrad Workshop Handout]

We began the workshop by discussing the reasons why instructors might seek out non-traditional assignments. I tried to focus on the fact that traditional university research papers are a very specific genre that most students will not use later in their life. In addition, we may also recognize that this genre does not adequately reflect the goals or “spirit” of our courses. Accordingly, we might open up to the possibility that there are other modes and media more reflective of student interests, skills, and real-world needs that still ask them to engage the critical skills we value.

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A limitation of my workshop was the presumption I held for what a “traditional” assignment embodied – this is not the same across disciplines. In planning this workshop I decided to use my disciplinary expertise (as a historian of religious studies) as the norm which often assigns a printed paper meant to inform or persuade a well-informed (scholarly) audience. This is an assignmentt type that certainly resonates across much of the humanities.[2]

By highlighting the various rhetorical elements of genre, purpose, audience, and medium, I suggested during the workshop that the alteration of any of these aspects constituted a move towards non-traditional assessment.

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Before we moved on to discussing how we might alter each of these four variables, I suggested that a non-traditional assignment could also verge on becoming “creative” or even “experimental,” a side of the assignment spectrum that should be approached with care. I suppose I cannot dislodge the traditionalist voice ringing in my head (I am a historian of religious studies), but I suggested that truly creative or experimental assignments be paired with a more traditional writing assignment, like a cover letter offering an analysis of the assignment through the lens of course concepts or a reflection on the process of creating it (really, reflection is a good idea with any assignment). Fundamentally, this is a concern over evaluation (grading); we have to remain equitable in the assessment of our projects, an issue which arises as they turn more radically away from standard critical writing (this is discussed more on the handout). Additionally, I argued that more focus has to be placed on process and discussion as the more creative or experimental the assignment becomes. Feedback, necessary in any assignment, is simply more integral when the students are engaging in genre forms that are unfamiliar to them.

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We then moved into a discussion of the variables for crafting assignments (genre, purpose, audience, medium). Considered individually for heuristic purposes, these elements are actually closely interrelated. For example, changing just one of the variables may be enough to inspire a wholesale shift in the other three. As we discussed these variables, I had the participants fill out the four-field “matrix” on the handout as new ideas came to life.

If I had to give one suggestion, I would say reconceiving the audience functions as a powerful motivation for shifting an entire assignment. Instead of assuming an ill-conceived set of imaginary scholars (or the sole instructor or TA), which new audience could students address armed with their new knowledge? What would an assignment look like if the students had to talk to the general population or to people who held conflicting views on your course materials? What if your students spoke to a local community or to different organizations in your school? Or, perhaps, you could imagine them addressing a historical person or even a living political entity.[3]. Ultimately, the object of this exercise was to let the creative juices flow and sort the pieces afterwards.

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The last slide addressed some concerns I felt pertinent to exploring non-traditional work. It foregrounds the facts that many students may not have the required skills, money, or free time to do what you hope (or expect) from them. Student familiarity with or simple access to computer programs or the ability to go to a museum exhibit or performance may be stumbling blocks to some. Some of this could be circumvented with good planning.

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The rest of the workshop was devoted to discussing potential ideas and beginning the process of putting those new sparks of insight into words.

Below is a list of potential ideas

  • Have students draft a lesson plan (LO & assessment) and lead an activity on a concept for the class
  • Have students or instructor create Twitter or Instagram accounts and post regularly on course content (blogs are an “old-school” option)
  • Visit your university library archives or special collections and have students select a document or artifact and give a mini-lecture in class
  • Analyze the different views and approaches on a course-relevant topic by both a scholarly peer-reviewed article and something written for the public (news article, magazine article, YouTube video, etc…)
  • Hold a class poster presentation session (held in the classroom or hallways of your department) and have students comment on one another’s work (written peer-review)
  • Have students create a podcast or video on a tricky concept and use as an instructional aid (remember to keep create a catalogue of past work!)
  • Have students write in a “popular” genre relevant to course materials (e.g. magazine article, pamphlet, poster, newspaper opinion article, letter to the editor)
  • Visit a local site and have students document and analyze their visit or schedule an interview with someone about the site
  • Set up a formal class debate about central themes of the course (randomly assign “for” and “against” teams)
  • Establish a scenario and have students role play figures central to your course
  • Have students craft an annotated bibliography or literature review on complementary aspects to your course
  • Have student create a material object relevant to course material (e.g. alter, home shrine, model, etc…)
  • Compile a list of available public media on a course theme and evaluate the quality of each item’s content and post the evaluations online
  • Create an infographic about a topic or theme, or create a concept map/knowledge map of the course materials
  • Have student keep a course journal where they reflect on difficult topics and plan what they will focus on for next lecture/discussion
  • Design (/and implement) a collaborative on-campus project
  • Have student write a book review of a source read in class
  • Have students interview a professor about their current research (or an influential paper)
  • Volunteer at a local nonprofit or attend a community meeting or group and write about the experience related to course themes
  • Visit a local museum exhibit and have students analyze artifacts according to course themes
  • Atten a local performance and have students analyze experience according to course themes
  • Assign “On-Going Conversations” to students where they talk about a topic and take notes on the interaction
  • Have students do 4-Sentence Papers (They say…, I say…, One might object…, I reply…)
  • Using free online applications, have students create a map and timeline of important course events and figures


*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.

[1] Clearly, knowing the abilities of your students matters. The core of the concern is not so much the selection of works, but the training in reading and note-taking skills which allows students to truly access these works. Developing necessary reading and note-taking strategies is too often overlooked by instructors.

[2] Unsurprisingly, I had math and foreign language instructors attending the workshop, so we also talked about “traditional” assignments in their domains and folded them into our discussions as best we could. It seems some of the strategies we discussed were also effective in inspiring them.

[3] A colleague whose name unfortunately escapes me had students address the famous Chinese Empress Wuzitian and make an impassioned plea for imperial support of either the Buddhists or Daoists!

Handouts 101 Workshop

What is the quality of your students’ lecture notes? If you were to read the research on this topic, you might think the answer was unbelievable. Yet, study after study confirms the unbelievable: most students, especially first-years, do not possess the skills necessary to take quality notes. Students routinely miss more than 50% of the critical information in lecture, sometimes reported as a 70% loss of crucial content. We can chalk this up to a variety of potential factors, such as the newness of the lecture format, the complexity of the content (and resulting cognitive fatigue), the student’s inability to identify main points, or the lecturer’s inattentiveness to signaling important information amid a mass of presented material (often as text on lecture slides, or “death by PowerPoint”).

Lecture note-taking should be recognized as a multi-faceted challenge for many first-year students. Unsurprisingly, note-taking skills are rarely taught explicitly and it is worth outlining a “best-practices” for your students dependent upon your teaching methods, materials, and lecture structure.[1] Another important intervention for poor note-taking is the wise and timely use of handouts.

A handout is just another tool in your pedagogical toolkit. Ideally, it complements the other items in your teaching arsenal, namely your oral presentation, lecture slides (or board work), readings, and classroom discussions. Taken together, these different modalities help students to build robust conceptual models and form a deeper understanding of the material.

Below, I offer several of the slides I presented for a workshop organized by my university’s Summer Teaching Institute for Associates program. I will also provide some commentary and context to the slides themselves. My “Handout of Handouts” can be found here –> [The Handout of Handouts].

Using Mentimeter, I first asked the workshop participants about their current attitudes towards using handouts. Interestingly, among our small cohort, most regularly provided their class lecture slides to students (the yellow bar below), which as we will see has its benefits and drawbacks.

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Based on the literature I summarized above, I was curious to see what our participants believed about their first-year students’ note taking abilities. While everyone believed students could benefit from additional training, few were able to predict the dire assessment of the research, namely that students would routinely miss more than 50% of the critical information.Question 2.png

After review the reseach findings we assessed the possible interventions for students, leading to the potential value in helping students take notes through the strategic use of handouts. Overall, I addressed nine different types of handout, loosely categorized under the headings of advanced organizers, worksheets, and graphic organizers (the first and last being “jargon-appropriate” if you want to do more research).

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The first grouping of handouts can be placed under the category of “advanced organizers,” which as their name imples allows information to be presorted to allow easier integration and less taxation of the students’ cognitive load. This includes the circulation of lecture slides and detailed class outlines. While numerous research papers show these kinds of handouts are preferred by students, anyone who has implemented this practice may come across the problmes of decreased attendance. More importantly, it is likely that students will not learn effective note-taking habits and skills since they work is already done for them. Thus, it is encumbent upon the instructor to develop effective teaching strategies when using these types of handouts. For example, it’s generally a good practice to not have the oral lecture be redundant to the slides (text or image), meaning that students should need to take notes on what is said in class (and also tested on it). Or, the handouts could be limited in their content, only providing vocabulary terms or names and dates of historical figures. These still serve the purpose in helping the students organize information, but also require their focused attention. Additionally, by incorporating blank spaces in the handouts, it requires students to remain attentive thorughout the lecture, filling in answers as they are discussed.

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The next grouping of handouts I categrozed under the generic name of worksheets, perhaps the prototypical type of handout in many STEM classes. This includes the use of “adjunct questions” sheets, or test-like items preceding or following certain content. These can be used to cover the entire lecture, but are more regularly used for certain classroom activites, like reading a passge or watching a short video. It is important to note that questions will cue students to certain information, which will lead to retention, but it will also limit their focus on more global (or incidental) issues and potentially limit the types of questions they bring to the material. When providing problem sets (or passages to read and respnd to), this encourages the application of knowldge, and when used in conjunction with group activities, these will refelct more active learning environments. I also included the popular classroom assessment techniques (CATs) of the “minute paper” and “muddiest point paper” as different types of effective worksheet handouts, especially for students’ reflection on their learning progress.

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The last grouping covered “graphic organizers,” which visually represent relationships between concepts. Concentrated research on graphic organizes only began in the late 1960’s (when they were originally called advanced organizers) and developed with the schema theory of knowledge which posits that newly acquired information is accepted and assimilated into existing cognitive structures. This means a focus is placed on relational knowledge. This is important because notes are often organized linearly as lists or outlines (a format encouraged by digital note-taking), while a graphic organization of information is far better for retention and recall. Most student will only reread or recopy their notes when studying for an exam, but instead of employing redundant strategies students should re-organize their notes, looking for associations between ideas. By providing graphic organizers, blank or partially filled out, this would help students in this process. We ended the workshop by looking at a variety of examples and discussing their potential uses in our courses.

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*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.

[1] This is worth more discussion than I can provide here. It is not uncommon to find students only taking notes of lecture slides, and nothing else. Instructors need to decide if this is sufficient, or if they need to train students to take notes on what is also verbally presented, or the insightful comments of other students, among other considerations (class activities, videos, readings, and so forth). In addition, note-taking is not transcription. Students need to appreciate the cognitive value in taking notes, a particular method of information processing and meaning-making. A handout on effective note taking for students is included at the end of this paper.

Acting Tips for Lecturers Workshop

Most classrooms are designed the same way as theatres. Typically, there is a performance space separate from the audience space; one for the teacher and the other for the students. Not coincidentally, the larger the lecture hall the more evident the need to put on a rousing performance for those in attendance. Because of the structural (and even social) similarities between the classroom and the theatre, university instructors could bear to learn from the dramaturgical expertise of actors. While straight lecturing is only a single modality of teaching, it is a modality that can greatly benefit from training in oration and stage performance. This was my reasoning, at the very least.


This past week I attended a workshop on Acting Tips for Teachers, led by the exceptional Hala Baki, a Doctoral Scholars fellow in the Department of Theater and Dance at UCSB. The room was cleared of its chairs, we stood (shoes optional) and waved our arms, and we shouted across the room at one another – in other words, the workshop matched perfectly with my imagination of an LA acting class. All jokes aside, these various exercises were devised to train specific aspects of performance for those who ply a trade on a stage: mastery of the body, mastery of breath, and mastery of speech.

In addition to exercises that cultivated these skills, another regular refrain made a lasting impression. In our role as performative lecturers we need to disrupt predictable patterns and break the “fourth wall” in as many ways as possible. We can break them down with our voice, break them down with our body, and break them down with our physical presence. Through employing physical and vocal animation, or even storytelling and suspense, we can stimulate our students instead of lulling them to sleep by the monotony of our voice and flickering of our slides.

Furthermore, woven throughout the workshop were subtle hints reminding us to make the lecture classroom an active learning environment. The structure of the classroom (and its theatre cousin) can overdetermine social interaction, namely, that students should remain quiet and listen like a audience. A good teaching performance should not only grab attention, but encourage “audience participation,” having students engage, think, and communicate. By breaking the fourth wall we are breaking the presumptions of student passivity.

The initial workshop exercises worked on developing our posture and breathing. Using a basic scanning method (based on the Alexander technique), we made sure our standing posture was balanced and erect, thus demanding attention and channeling confidence. And breathing from the diaphragm we ensured we had the respiratory capacity to project our voice.[1] Anxiety, fatigue, and poor habits all work against these foundational components of good lecturing, thus it’s worth checking in with our body and breath periodically.

Next, after vocal warm-ups, we worked on projecting our voice by imagining trying to hit a target in the back of the room. We practiced this by having everyone line up in two parallel rows across the room from each other. We then tried to project our voice across to our partner who attempted to pick it out among all of the other voices. I think the acoustics in the room made this particularly difficult, but I nevertheless liked the idea of “throwing” my voice to a partner like it was a ball. If anything, I thought this was a helpful conceptual cue I could use in a large lecture hall.

We then turned to practicing vocal articulation, running through a range of vowel and consonant exercises. This included practicing voiced and voiceless plosives (p-b, t-d, k-g), ultimately leading to a game of repeating “topeka-bodega” in a variety of iterations. We finished with a round of old-fashioned tongue twisters, involving both Sally’s seashells and Peter’s peppers, among few others.

After our voices were prepared we engaged in several voice modulation exercises. These were particularly insightful because they forced us to consider where we placed the tonal emphasis when we spoke. More specifically, it asked if we could make a question better by modifying our intonation patterns. By switching the emphasis from, “can *anyone* add something to that comment,” to “ can anyone *add* something to that comment,” it moves the focus from trying to find a willing speaker to the operative directive, namely generating news ideas through “addition.” A subtle change surely, but one I believe could have a cumulative subconscious impact on ourselves and our students. If we are always “begging” our students to speak through our intonations, it creates an expectation that they normally do not have to participate.

All of these elements came together when we added motion, both through gesticulation and walking around the classroom. Not only does motion add dynamism and excitement to what we say, it can add important paralinguistic (kinesic) cues which can modify, clarify, or nuance verbal meaning in important ways. Ultimately, by wisely employing vocal and physical animation we can disrupt patterns in our teaching performance and elicit a more engaging classroom setting. In addition, these actions need not be overly dramatic to be successful, as good posture, strong vocal projection, and a wisely placed pause or intonation can create the desired effect.


[1] To notice the rhythms of our breathing, we placed one hand on our chest and another on our belly and tried to identify which moved more when we breathed. The positioning of the hands added a subtle physical cue to help draw our breath into our diaphragms.