Teaching and Mentorship Philosophy
My experiences as a teacher and researcher in a range of educational contexts have made it clear that teachers possess a considerable amount of power, influencing, educating, and shaping students’ minds. Yet, students also possess the power to interpret and transform what we teach them in a host of ways. In turn, their insights and perspectives open new streams of thought. There are always unanticipated, generative, and rewarding outcomes when we engage in dialogical learning and I strive to teach at the intersection of structure and surprise that is a part of any dynamic learning environment.
Fundamentally, I believe our task as scholars and students is, to strive to hear silences and make visible the invisible. Although—as the theologian Judith Plaskow characterizes it—the task “is not easy,” it is what motivates me each day in my work as a teacher and mentor. Paulo Freire’s work has been a constant inspiration in this regard. He writes that “no pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed.” In my classes, I challenge students to ask questions about our sources, who is missing and why they are missing. I prompt them to consider the implications of various theologies, philosophies, and practices for those who have been marginalized and forgotten. To study religious traditions with these questions in mind can require feats of imagination and creativity; it is these imaginative and creative endeavors that I pursue with my students in lectures, discussions, and in research. I ask them to think about how we might find answers to questions that have not been previously been asked, and where we may look in order to understand the perspectives that academia has not traditionally centered.
My teaching philosophy emerges out of my research involving many years of studying pedagogic processes and the explicit and implicit goals and means of education through which religious identities and communities are formed. I study how knowledge is produced and I try to foreground epistemological processes in my teaching. In my work on transnational Hindu children’s education, for example, I have documented processes of social reproduction and innovation, considering the role of religious, nationalist, and other political agendas in shaping cultural norms, and particular types of subjects and communities. I take these observations into the classroom. My goal is for students to interrogate knowledge; in my courses, I ask students to think about power, why and how various people, texts, and traditions are seen as authoritative and how traditions are transmitted, transformed, and challenged. We consider how communities are constituted and how religious life can create spaces of belonging and roadmaps of meaning for individuals in profound ways.
My courses are interdisciplinary and require that students inhabit perspectives and appreciate worldviews that may be radically different from their own. I also challenge them to consider on their own worldviews from new angles. Ideally, this inspires students to question the very foundations of their knowledge, challenging them to ask from where their presuppositions about the world and how it works are derived. I design assignments that help students see how language and concepts transform in various settings and over time. Through reading and writing exercises, I challenge them question why they privilege some knowledge over other outlooks and analyses. These questions lead to the consideration of power and the social, cultural, intellectual, religious and political structures that are at play in shaping human life. Ultimately, my goal is to help students interrogate the ways that people circumscribe and discipline the boundaries of such things as community, citizenship, and freedom.
I have learned that there is no one “right” approach to teaching, and so my courses combine lecture, discussion, small group work, and more creative exercises to help students engage with the material. With both undergraduates and graduate students, I often have them create genealogies that explore the history of terms such as religion, Hinduism and Hindus. These genealogies help us to see how the boundaries of categories and communities are drawn and redrawn to serve different ends, whether in the context of colonialism, the courtroom, or the temple. I am particularly invested in thinking about how we can re-envision our approach the study of Hinduism, specifically, and religious traditions, generally. In the past few years, I have collaborated with scholars in both Hindu and Jewish Studies to explore what happens when we interrogate our epistemological frameworks and citational practices with attention to power. Such work has prompted me to retool my syllabi in ways that depart from conventional historical approaches to teaching South Asian, Hindu, and Jewish traditions. For example, although, I still seek want students to understand the historical trajectory of Hindu traditions from the Vedas onward, I also ask them to think with me about how that narrative reproduces a colonial and brahmanical one. Through integrating sources, such as Dalit creation stories or women’s songs—which may have been written much later than the thousand-year-old texts we are studying—different ways of reading texts like the Upaniṣads, the Bhagavad Gītā, and Rāmāyaṇa emerge. If we truly incorporate, for example, the voices of Dalit-Bahujan (the oppressed caste-majority), Ādivasī (indigenous tribal), or queer communities into our classrooms and research our normative ways of seeing the tradition expand and change. I also seek to help students explore what it means to reconsider the two-hundred-year-old focus on South Asia as the location of authentic Hinduism in light of histories of colonialism, migration, and globalization. The profound shifts that occurred in the field of religious studies when we began to attend to the perspectives of women give us some indication of how significant such epistemological turns can be.
I take mentoring students seriously. At the undergraduate level, I have been especially involved in mentoring first-generation, low-income, and minority students. I have also mentored many students as they moved from college to pursue graduate and professional studies. I am especially gratified that so many have transitioned into being colleagues, having chosen to continue the academic work we began together in graduate school and beyond. In recent years, I have also had the chance to mentor doctoral students as an outside advisor. Whether in or out of the classroom, advising students in research, or helping them to determine their passions, or refine and expand their post-graduate goals, this personalized dimension of our profession is rooted in mutual respect.
I bring this philosophy to my teaching of ethnographically-focused courses as well. The fieldwork-based course I have developed, Seeing is Believing: Global Religions in Minnesota—that I have modified to work in other settings—draws upon anthropological and sociological approaches, asking students to document the lives of religious sites and communities through ethnographic observation and writing, interviews, photography, video and/or audio recordings. This class was developed as part of a larger public scholarship project, including an extensive digital humanities element to which students contribute. Where most of my classes involve a tremendous amount of reading, this course teaches the methods and ethics of fieldwork, which in my philosophy, involve an awareness of what Emmanuel Levinas describes as the “face of the Other” and the ethical impossibility of knowing another in their totality and complexity. The course emphasizes lived traditions, the transformations of cultures, and the effects and processes of migration, especially in the context of globalization. A student in one iteration of this course was conducting interviews with Hmong shamans working in hospitals. She was pushed to reflect on an understanding of the human body as corporate, rather than independent. As a scientifically-oriented pre-med student, she was challenged by the fact many practitioners of Hmong traditions believe that modern medical techniques cannot work without the assistance of “unseen” animating spirits. Fieldwork on religious and cultural diversity in this course inspired her to pursue her medical career very differently than she had initially planned; she pursued a Master’s in religion and then went onto medical school. Her work in that course helped her to develop her focus on culturally-competent care, inspiring her to incorporate the study of language and culture into her training, making her better able to care for the whole person. I welcome the chance to teach students, both those who seek to pursue academic careers in the field of religion, Asian, Jewish, ethnic and gender studies, as well as those who hope to take the lessons from their academic inquiries into other professions.
I have successfully secured grants through the Mellon Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence to bring scholars and artists to interact with broader publics, while also enriching the lives of my students. In conjunction with the course Performing Tradition: Art, Religion and Globalization, I twice secured major grants to bring Ragamala—a South Asian American dance company, for which I serve as a scholarly advisor—to work in-residence with students, offer lectures, master classes, public programming, and performances of two of their works Stree, and Sacred Earth. Students were exposed to different visual and performance art forms. In addition to master classes in Bharatanatyam dance and performances, my students observed and studied with the Warli tribal painter, Anil Vangad, as he created a number of pieces focused on the earth as sacred, and, they learned the women’s art form of kolam, creating a public exhibition on campus. In the other case, programming with the artists-in-residence was augmented through a partnership with local schools, in which my students read and taught the South Indian 5th-6th c. epic the Silappatikāram to students in advance of artist workshops and a public performance. Concurrent with other courses on modern South Asian traditions, I organized a series of programs called Politics, Poetics, and Piety: Voices from India’s Margins, Honoring the work of Professor Eleanor Zelliot. The events included a performance of the devotional poetry and protest of singer-saints by a Dalit musical ensemble and the screening of a film and lecture about Dalit activism by filmmaker Anand Patwardhan. In 2022, I co-curated an exhibition Beyond Borders: The Art of Siona Benjamin, at the Norton Center for the Arts. Jewish Heritage Fund grants enabled me to bring Indian Jewish artist Siona Benjamin in-residence to work closely with my students in a range of different ways. Engaging students in research that has a life beyond the classroom and whose audience includes the public often motivates them to produce higher quality work, and in the case of ReligionsMN, it has resulted in the creation of a cohort of alumni who are invested in this work and often continue it after graduation, including in graduate programs.
Whether they are conducting fieldwork, reading memoirs, or watching films, I ask students to engage with materials that develop their understanding, humanize the Other, and complicate the conceptions they have about how religious, racial, and ethnic identities function. Being confounded by the fact that there aren’t always clear answers to the questions we ask about culture and identity can be the best resource we have as teachers. I aim for students to leave my classes with more questions than when they enter and with a greater appreciation for the complexity of human sensibilities and experiences. Not only in each iteration of a course, but within any given course, it is necessary to assess where students are in relation to the material, as well as in relationship to one another, and to me. I find myself always recalibrating to address what is working and what is not. I balance speaking and listening, facilitating conversation and lecturing, offering a broad argument and slowing down to focus closely on a single idea or text. Recognizing that knowledge is never neutral, I work to create curricula that speak to the lived experiences of my students. I hope that my work with students helps to furnish them with the tools to better understand in the world in which they live, and, hopefully, the inspiration to address its problems.