A Purpose Driven Label

"There is a misconception that Buddhism is a religion and that you worship Buddha. Buddhism is a practice like yoga. You can be a Christian and practice Buddhism" quote attributed to Thich Nhat HanhGroups often want to claim that their practices and beliefs constitute a religion. The label religion provides certain benefits, such as a protected legal status, respect in certain contexts, and often prestige. In fact, various groups like Sikhs and Jains want to see their religions included in the discussion of World Religions for the legitimacy that it affords. The image above circulating on social media lately identifies Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen monk, as making the opposite assertion, that Buddhism is not a religion. Continue reading

Tales from the Secondary Classroom: Discovering Normative Vocabulary

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By Kim Davis
Kim earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and French from
the University of Alabama in 2003. She went on to earn her
Masters in French Linguistics and Literature in 2007 and
a Masters in Secondary Language Pedagogy in 2010,
both from UA. Kim now teaches French and Mythology
at Tuscaloosa County High School.

A while back, I wrote about how an early morning Culture on the Edge Facebook post and subsequent conversation with one of its members helped me to think deeper about one of my classroom lessons. Well, that same post inspired me to create a new lesson for my unit on Asian mythology in which I would ask my students to think about the ways normative language would influence the way they construct knowledge of things they are learning for the first time.

I often complain that students in secondary classrooms are not challenged unless they are taking an AP class. My mythology class is composed of a wide range of grade levels, 9-12, with students who are taking a full course of advanced and AP classes to regular classes. While many teachers might argue that the lesson I provided is college-level ideas and therefore not cognitively appropriate for students in regular classes, I have never subscribed to that belief. My students proved me correct.

I started the class by showing them an article from the BBC on the history of Tibet and pointed out how the words used to describe Tibet were very positive and the words used to describe the Chinese government were negative. Then, we read the Culture on the Edge post by Craig Martin and defined the term normative vocabulary. After that, each group read a different NPR article about Buddhism and folk religion in China. I asked each group to highlight words when they felt they were being used normatively and sort them into positive and negative columns. Finally, I asked them to answer the following questions:

  1. How is this article presenting the religion described?
  2. Who benefits from the way the religion is being described?
  3. If this article was the only time you have ever read anything about this religion, what would you think about it? Would you accept this article as fact without questioning the description or the agenda behind the words being used?

My students did a fantastic job of picking out the normative vocabulary and identifying the ways in which it created a positive and negative view of religion in China, the Chinese government, and their relationship. They also did an outstanding job of predicting who benefitted from the articles’ descriptions. Some of the best responses to question three are as follows:

Beijing Finds Common Cause with Chinese Buddhists

“I would think that Buddhists are greedy and money-hungry.”

“I would think that this group of people [Buddhist monks] were a bunch of savages who learned [to fix] their wrong ways with the help of the Chinese government.”

In age-old Buddhist scripture, help for modern woes

“That it is a happy and peaceful religion.”

China’s Leaders Harness Folk Religion for Their Aims

“I would think of the religion as beautiful and joyful because of the words chosen…But the author made the Chinese government seem greedy and only interested in making proceeds off of the local’s religion.”

So, what have I concluded from this two day activity? That secondary students of all levels are completely capable of performing the type of critical analysis that is typically reserved for undergraduate students. I have to send many thanks to Craig Martin for the initial article that gave me two ideas, to Russell McCutcheon for helping me network with the group, and to Steven Ramey for helping me locate the articles and answering questions about the ideas I was exploring. I look forward to incorporating more of the content and ideas from the Culture on the Edge group into my mythology curriculum.

Photo credit: Tibet-5573 by Dennis Jarvis CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

New Hire in REL

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We’re extremely pleased to announce that, as of August 2016, we will have another new colleague in REL.

Suma Ikeuchi is currently a doctoral candidate at Emory University, where she will receive her Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology in May 2016. She also has an M.A. in Anthropology from Brandeis University and a B.A. in both History and Anthropology from Hokkaido University, Japan. Continue reading

Classification Matters: Mindfulness in the Classroom

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By Andie Alexander
Andie Alexander earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and History in 2012. She is now completing her M.A. in Religious Studies at CU Boulder. Andie also works as the online Curator for the Culture on the Edge blog.

A course I am TAing for this semester opens each class with a mindfulness exercise for calming and finding one’s center. It starts, “Plant your feet firmly on the floor, adjust your posture,” moving eventually to noticing breathing patterns and trying to adjust them accordingly. As I joined the class a week late, I was unaware that this was part of the routine. Sitting there on my first day, I was a bit astounded that this was actually happening in the classroom. I should note that I was not inherently against it, but rather classifying it with any sort of religious ritual that might take place. At that moment, all I could think about was how this could not only be considered religious by some but also potentially could be making students very uncomfortable (whether there was a statement on day one of voluntary participation, I don’t know). However, having lived in Boulder for a year and a half, I have grown accustomed to Boulder’s affinity for Eastern religious practices or rituals — whatever those may be — and their pervading daily life. Continue reading

In Support of a Speaker’s Practical Interests

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Did you catch the story, the other day, about Republican Presidential candidate, Ben Carson, and a campaign speech he gave in Iowa City? He distinguished between calling Islam a religion and classing it as a “life organizing system.” Continue reading

An Interview with Dr. Jolyon Thomas Part 2

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The conclusion to our interview with Dr. Jolyon Thomas, our third Day Lecturer, is now ready! Don’t miss this final installment, where he discusses his current projects and gives insight on where he feels the field of religious studies in pop. culture is going.

A Few Moments with Jolyon Thomas Part 2 from UA Religious Studies.

If you missed the first part of the interview, you can catch it here.

Stay tuned for Dr. Thomas’ Day Lecture, coming soon!

An Interview with Dr. Jolyon Thomas Part 1

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Last month the REL film crew met up for a quick chat with Dr. Jolyon Thomas, the third speaker in our annual Day Lecture. The video from this interview is now up and ready to go, so be sure to check it out and learn more about Dr. Thomas’s background, his career, and how his interest in Japanese pop culture began!

A Few Moments with Jolyon Thomas from UA Religious Studies.

Ready for Part 2? You can find it here. Stay tuned for the Day Lecture, coming soon!

Want a Sneak Peek for the Day Lecture?

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As many of you probably know, our annual Day Lecture is fast approaching.

This year’s lecturer is Dr. Jolyon Thomas from the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Thomas put together a video to give you a sneak peek of his lecture. So give it a watch below! Hope to see you next Thursday at 7:00 in Smith 205 for the lecture.

Europeanizing the Buddha and Constructing a World Religion

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Have you seen Prof. Altman’s new blog post? Here’s a sampling of what he has to say:

“Europeans and Americans conceived of Buddhism as a world religion not because of ‘misconceptions’ that were corrected by ‘better understandings,’ but because it served their purposes within a growing discourse of ‘world religions’ in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Buddha became European because Europeans imagined him in their own image to serve their own purposes.”

Interest piqued? Read the full post here.