On the Fullness of Students

[Editor’s note: This Spring quarter, our Craft of Teaching bloggers will be engaging with, expanding upon, and diverging from the work of John Corrigan, the Divinity School’s 2017 Alum of the Year — particularly pertaining to issues around emotion, embodiment, and the teaching of religion.]

By Anne Mocko

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In John Corrigan’s book Emptiness, the author identifies a sensibility in American Christianity, which he traces back into deeper Christian pasts, according to which the believer must be emptied out of their old self in preparation for being filled with God and holiness. In his second chapter, “Body,” he links this desire to empty the self to a variety of practices—fasting, bleeding, refraining from sex or speaking, crying.

“John Piper’s A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer proposed that the feeling of emptiness was desire for God, and that fasting cultivated both. The empty stomach as cultivated emptiness and a partner to prayer is one manifestation of the emptied body” (50).

“Protestant writers emphasized that old blood had to be drained before the saving new blood of Jesus could be admitted to the body” (58).

“LaHaye and his followers accordingly made the sexual act in marriage a means by which to be filled with Christ. In order to “fill that spiritual void within their lives,” men and women opened themselves to each other and to God all at once. The union of a man and a woman was also a union with Christ. The celebration of marital sex was explained as both the pursuit of pleasure and the spiritual union with one’s partner and God simultaneously” (76).

None of these practices or sensibilities are explicitly related to pedagogy—but I think they are not unrelated, either. I think that the religious sensibility Corrigan names might actually inform one of the traditional assumptions about what it means to teach: that in order for students to learn, they need to be emptied out of their prior selves and/or outside lives, so that their professor might pour wisdom into their appropriately prepared vessels. I think this “filling empty vessels” idea might still lurk in the background (even if just as the straw-man) in debates over several traditional teaching techniques, such as the value (or not) of lectures, and possibly also in the pervasive faculty complaints about students using technology in their classrooms. (After all, a student-mind full of social media cannot be filled with sociology.)

Many educators have critiqued old models of what it means to teach as hierarchical or colonialist, or just plain ineffective. Accordingly, they have often tried to move toward flipped classrooms or feminist pedagogy—an impulse that I think could potentially be framed as a desire to recognize and honor the existing fullness of students when they come to our classrooms. In these models, students need to engage and extend themselves, not passively receive information, for they have not been (and should not be) first emptied of their lives and experiences and perspectives.

Another way to consider the fullness or emptiness of the students, and the roles that faculty might adopt relative to them, might be to consider the extent to which faculty are or are not willing to engage students on issues beyond the intellectual pursuits of the course. It is not uncommon for students to seek out faculty in order to talk through things they are facing far beyond the limits of the classroom, and I think the degree to which a faculty member is receptive or unreceptive to these approaches might be related to that professor’s implicit understanding of whether their students should properly come to them full or empty. An empty student should seek out a professor only to solicit more contents for their vessel, whereas a full student might want to come pour themselves out.

It often surprises me the depth and seriousness of issues that students sometimes want to discuss with me. In just this academic year alone, I have been honored with the confidences of students who have lost a parent to suicide, who have left an abusive relationship, who were struggling with self-harm, who were hospitalized for a potential brain tumor, who were trying to reconcile with parents after disclosing non-normative sexuality or gender.

This is one of the parts of my job that I have long felt the least prepared for. No one in grad school ever told me that I might end up having to create safe spaces for emotional pain; there was no qualifying exam on listening, consoling, or figuring out when and whether to hug. Pretty much every time I find myself in one of these complicated conversations with a student, I go next door to my colleague’s office to complain that anyone who wanted to teach undergrads should be first required to take a course in pastoral care.

I think that this part of teaching—this part that can stretch so far beyond the classroom or the assigned readings—links back to fullness and emptiness in an important way. For the professor who approaches their job with a model of emptiness, expecting their students to be vessels for their knowledge, a hard conversation will be taken as an invitation to lecture. As soon as the student pauses, an ‘emptiness model’ professor will start talking, trying to fill the silence and the pain with whatever wisdom the professor can muster on the fly. I have done this myself: I have tried to provide solutions or perspectives, because it is tempting and comfortable to revert back to one’s expertise, and to fill the room with what one knows and thinks. And occasionally that really is what the student wants.

But a ‘fullness model’ would suggest something else: that the student isn’t coming to receive more words from the professor; they are instead coming to pour out some of themselves in the professor’s presence, to be simply seen and heard. In that case, the response must be to stop talking and just listen, to witness their struggle, and ask what they need.

This can turn out to be a core task for a professor, especially in liberal arts colleges—and I think especially for women faculty, who in all contexts (including the academy) are more often than men called upon to do emotional labor. For academics who lack the interest or facility, emotional interactions with students can feel inappropriate or distracting from real academic labor, but for those who deeply value mutual learning in the context of relationships, these moments of student vulnerability can feel enormously rewarding.

This is not to say that it is necessary or even appropriate for faculty to take on side-jobs as therapists; students in deep distress should properly be directed to whatever support services one’s institution offers, and students who come to their faculty with wholly inappropriate expectations need to be gently corrected and redirected. But this is not the same as expecting that the task of the student is to bring to me a purified self to be filled and molded.

Perhaps I personally subscribe to a ‘fullness theology’ of teaching, one that rejects a lecturer-on-high who will only come down into a properly emptied vessel. I would rather position myself as a more mature fellow-traveler, who sometimes guides, sometimes walks beside, sometimes listens more than talks, and sometimes suffers with those who follow.

 

Learning from New American Neighbors

By Anne Mocko

unnamedI am someone who believes in learning by doing, and I think experiential teaching is especially crucial when trying to teach Hinduism (a tradition that is not just unfamiliar to students, but which prioritizes practice over text and theology). When I was hired to teach Asian religions at Concordia College, therefore, it was crucial for me to explore the resources in the area would be available for exposing my students to the lived traditions of South Asia.

By good fortune, the small city of Fargo/Moorhead, where my college is located, happened to be one of the two main refugee resettlement cities for the states of North Dakota and Minnesota. While Minnesota has primarily resettled Somali and Sudanese refugees in town, North Dakota has primarily resettled Bhutanese refugees—over 5,000 between 2008 and 2012, equivalent to roughly 4% of the city of Fargo. These Bhutanese refugees are Hindus, and ethnic Nepalis—and so match perfectly to the language and cultural expertise of my doctoral fieldwork.

These local Hindus, whom I was now hoping to introduce to my overwhelmingly white, Protestant students, ended up in Fargo/Moorhead based on an ethnic cleansing program in their country of origin. In Bhutan, the majority of the population (the ‘northerners’ the Ngalops and Sharchops) speak a Tibeto-Burman language and practice Tibetan Buddhism. The minority population, the Lhotsampas, or ‘southerners,’ were largely Nepali-speakers and Hindus; some were people whose families had drifted into the region long before the solidification of national boundaries, while others had made their way into the country far more recently.

In the late 1980s, around the time a national census revealed that the ‘southerners’ now comprised a threatening 45% of the population, the Bhutanese government embraced a “One Nation, One People” policy. They enforced a new national dress code (based on the clothing of northern populations) and disallowed Nepali language in schools; the government then cracked down on ethnic Nepali protests and ‘freedom fighters,’ making it increasingly untenable to live in Bhutan as a Nepali Lhotsampa. Many ethnic Nepalis fled, while others were deported. This situation resulted in a documented refugee population of over 100,000 in UN camps in eastern Nepal by its peak in 1996, plus undoubtedly many other migrants who resettled in less formal ways.

While Bhutan eventually repatriated a fraction of these people, the overwhelming majority of refugees remained in the camps for the next decade awaiting either Nepali citizenship or third-country migration. It was not until the end of the second Bush administration that the UNCHR finally completed negotiation and screenings to begin sending these refugees to the US and elsewhere.

The Bhutanese refugee population in Fargo was thus quite recently transplanted when I arrived in town in 2012, having only begun to arrive in 2008. Many were still monolingual in Nepali. They were just beginning to organize as a community, and did yet not have official community or religious spaces established—though they did have a Himalayan grocery store. Unlike the professional-class Nepali emigres I had encountered in Chicago, the Bhutanese refugees came to the US as full extended families, and retained an undiluted, unselfconscious rural-Nepali approach to the world. It was the closest thing I could possibly have gotten to cultural immersion without returning to Nepal, and a remarkable potential teaching resource.

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As I was gearing up to teach Hinduism for the first time in January 2013, however, I had been so swamped for months (between my new teaching load, and being a new parent) that I hadn’t had any opportunity to reach out to the Bhutanese refugee community yet.  Nevertheless, I optimistically marked down Sunday March 10 on the syllabus for a class puja for Maha Shiva Ratri, and assumed I would be able to meet some local Hindus in time to pull it off.

January and February sped past me, and as March arrived, I still didn’t really know any Hindus in town—much less any Hindu priests. So finally I pulled my exhausted self together enough to just show up at the local Himalayan grocery, and see who I might meet. I asked (in Nepali) if the men hanging around the store knew any priests for a ritual I wanted done. Several of them just looked at me blankly, but a man named Tirtha, who lived in a West Fargo apartment with his wife and extended family, seemed to be delighted to meet a white woman who could speak his native language. We exchanged phone numbers, and he promised to set up a priest for me.

I went ahead and booked a room on campus, and told my students we were ready for the program. We would be gathering together for some Nepali tea and a small puja to a Shiva image (I was still working on that part); I would bring some clothes and jewelry for them to try on, and we could try some henna. I thought it would probably work fine.

The day before the event, Tirtha texted me to ask if he could invite his brother, and maybe a few other people. I said, ‘Certainly.’ I thought this meant there would perhaps be three or four Bhutanese Nepalis at the event. The next day, however, Tirtha showed up with the priest, his brother—and about 30 other people. Tirtha’s huge extended family had piled into three minivans, and was now pouring into my event, chatting to each other in Nepali, taking pictures of each other dressed up in saris and kurtas and topis. The women started grabbing my female students and dressing them up like dolls in the clothes I had brought; the men started setting up the ritual space, and instructing me on how to comport myself as the patron of the ritual. Someone decided the flowers we brought weren’t right, and went back to the grocery to find something better. Little kids were running around, an elderly man was intent on teaching one of my male students a Nepali song. It was chaos of the best and most culturally authentic kind.

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I realized afterward that the event that I had accidentally put into motion was far superior in every respect to the event I had planned. What I had thought I was putting together was an event not just for but mostly about my students, in which they would be the white, English-speaking majority observing a few brown men perform a foreign culture. What I got instead was a legitimately Nepali event, a brown-majority, Nepali-speaking, Hindu holiday, family party that just happened to include my students.

I came to think that this dynamic was pedagogically fundamental, placing my students at the margins of an event that was theoretically ‘for’ them. Especially when teaching students from the dominant culture, I have decided that it is critical to decenter them, to teach them how to enter into other people’s spaces not as the self-assured norm, but as ignorant, disoriented, and yet respectful guests.

The dominant population in this country normally encounters diversity when presented with a marginalized individual/practice/food, delivered in otherwise non-threatening ways. It is rare for the dominant population to be helpless due to their native language, or to lack the cultural knowledge to be able to participate in a public event. White people tend to remain in their comfort zone even when they eat at an Indian restaurant, watch a subtitled ‘foreign film,’ or interact with a token Black colleague. Christians tend to set the conditions under which they will reach out to Muslims, or to do an interfaith service (often in a church) with a rabbi or a Lakota.

My Hindu ‘guests,’ though, had turned themselves into the hosts. This was, as it happened, an excellent opportunity for them. Despite the thousands of Hindus in town, there is no Hindu temple in Fargo/Moorhead: many of the people who came that day hadn’t participated in a puja or celebrated a Hindu holiday in months or even years, and they were delighted to have the opportunity to connect back to their histories and homelands. They weren’t performing for me or my students; they were gladly accepting the space and time (and priest) I had arranged, as a chance to enjoy their own tradition in their own way and on their own terms.

 

Following the Shiva Ratri event in 2013, I continued to arrange celebrations of Hindu holidays with Tirtha’s family for the next three years—and I purposefully framed future events by providing the time, money, and space, while handing over the planning and execution of the event to the Bhutanese Nepalis. The following year, I held another Shiva Ratri event; then when my class switched from Spring semester to Fall, we collaborated for Dasai and Diwali.

The results could be a little unpredictable, but in ways that were inevitably interesting and helpful to talk through with students. The first year that I hosted Dasai, for example, I had cleaned and prepared a location in my house that I thought would be suitable to set up the Dasai ghar, but when the Nepalis arrived, they vetoed my space (on the grounds that it was against a north-facing wall), and started moving my furniture to create something more appropriate. Later that day, the priest rushed the end part of the ritual (because he had been fasting since the night before, to be maximally ritually pure, and was getting hungry), yet he refused to eat the fruit or yogurt or tea that I had carefully prepared, because he couldn’t risk eating from a non-Hindu kitchen. The second year that I hosted Dasai, the priest had to cancel the day before one of the rituals, because his daughter-in-law had had unexpectedly her baby three weeks early, and his whole household was now under ritual pollution. These were considerations that it wouldn’t have occurred to me to talk through in class, but which became crucial ways to engage with Hinduism as a lived tradition, a practical tradition, a contextualized tradition.

By last year, it started to be harder to coordinate with Tirtha’s family. Tirtha and his brother-in-law had opened a business in town, and they had a lot less flexibility in their time; several of the women of their generation had started working in the local hospital, and the elderly relatives were getting involved in English classes, the community garden, and other local community activities. So last fall and this fall, I celebrated Diwali instead with the Nepali international students at Concordia and Nepal Students Association of the local public university, MSUM. The effect is still quite similar, with Nepali Hindus typically outnumbering my students, and immersing my students in an unfamiliar language and set of traditions—though the international students tend to be more cosmopolitan and English-fluent than Tirtha’s family, and are somewhat more self-conscious about explaining their culture instead of simply being themselves.

 

img_19561I think the experiential learning that I have developed these past several years may offer some useful insights about working with a local marginalized community. First, it is not enough for the dominant population to be well-wishers to the marginalized population. They have to be prepared to enter into the spaces and practices and assumptions of the people they want to engage with, and do more listening and following than talking and directing. Second, and relatedly, marginalized religious traditions are unlikely to fit tidily into the boxes that are set up (usually unintentionally and non-maliciously) by people in power, including me, and it is important to be willing to hand over the rules and parameters to the people you want to help flourish.

Third, since the word “religion” tends to attach to the practices, ideas, and ideals that are most valuable to a community, it is a particularly valuable gift to create space for a marginalized community’s traditions to flourish. Hinduism, for example, is a religion that very much lives into a place: gods, goddesses, times, and temples are deeply particular, and divine power never comes into the world in the exact same way twice. So for Hindus to come into a new place, they need more than permission to follow their religion. They need spaces and days set aside to celebrate the world, and they may even need to discover or invite gods and goddesses in/to their midst.

Finally, it is one of the great privileges of being an academic to be able to build bridges between dominant and marginalized communities, and to ask the dominant community to listen to and empathize with their newer neighbors. It has become common in the past year to demonize refugees, to ask ‘who are these people?’ and insist ‘we know nothing about them.’ But refugees are vetted more carefully than any other category of migrant, and the Bhutanese refugees waited for 12 years or more to come to the United States. They are profoundly grateful to be here, excited to put down roots, eager to own homes and start business and grow their own food—and they are ideally positioned to challenge the ignorant insularity and xenophobia that has washed over this country. We as scholars and teachers are in a position to insist that our privileged students pay attention to them and take them seriously, and if we can do that well, we will form a better next generation of citizens.

Embracing “The Mind that Doesn’t Know”

unnamed                  What I want to unpack is the anxiety that many young faculty feel about “not knowing the answer” in class. I think a lot of us come to the classroom worrying that we don’t know enough to be fit to teach, and that if some student asks us something that we don’t know, our lack of expertise will be exposed. This is often a legitimate fear, since many of us end up teaching classes outside of our research areas; it can also be a hyperbolic expression of the creeping worry of imposter syndrome. I also think, though, that the fear of not-knowing represents a misrecognition of what it is that we should do as teachers.

During my own first two years teaching, I worried constantly that I hadn’t sufficiently mastered the material I was expected to present. Trained primarily as a South Asianist, I was hired for my current position to teach not just “Religions of India,” but “Religions of East Asia” and “Christianity and Religious Diversity.” My anxiety at teaching beyond my existing comfort zone meant that I would often get up at 4 or 5 AM to look for new readings for myself on Confucianism or the Patristic Period; I would spend lunch breaks grilling senior colleagues on the differences between Luther’s and Calvin’s theology, and email grad school friends to inquire whether or not to teach the Documentary Hypothesis.

This content-building was in fact important work, necessary for me to do the work I was hired for—and I learned a lot in the course of getting myself up to speed. But I also noticed that by the end of my fourth semester teaching, this frantic content-acquisition was starting to take over. The more comfortable I became with the content I had mastered, the more I reverted into a model of pedagogy that implicitly privileged content over process, and set me up as the center of knowledge which I would try to pour into my students’ brains. I found myself using more and more class time to lecture, or to answer questions that students asked. In teaching the same rotation of classes, I found myself planning exactly what should happen in each class meeting. As I came into my third year teaching, it was become less and less common that students would ask something I didn’t know the answer to, but it was also less and less common that they would come up with an insight I hadn’t anticipated, or that the class would unfold in organic, unexpected ways.

There were a few things that shook up my perspective on my teaching. The first was that as I started to work more on my first book, I started to spend less time obsessively prepping my classes—and noticed the counter-intuitive result that my teaching often got better. I was continuing to teach a regular rotation of repeated classes, and I discovered that the more time I spent prepping before a session of a course I had already taught three or four times, the more likely I was to dominate and over-structure the class time. I discovered that on the handful of days that I showed up without explicitly preparing, class actually went fantastically well—because I ended up backing off and providing more room for the students to talk, wrestle with things, and direct the flow of our time.

(This is not a recommendation to never go into the classroom prepared, by the way: it’s a recommendation to see past semesters of teaching as part of your preparation. ALWAYS plan when you’re teaching a new course.)

The second wake-up call turned out to be a semester in which my lower-level class simply dragged. By chance there were just more low-skill and low-engagement students in the mix than usual, and the handful of higher-skilled students were unusually reserved; also, we got assigned an awkward room, in which a wall blocked a third of the students from being able to see the rest. Faced week after week with a roomful of blank stares (instead of the usual thoughtful attention and chattiness I had become accustomed to at my institution), I viscerally felt the inadequacy of standing at the front of the room trying to give my students information. I started trying to figure out how to “flip the classroom” and get my resistant students talking to each other and interested in the material.

It didn’t work terribly well with that particular class; I finished the semester with a roomful of still mostly detached students gritting their teeth to get through their core requirement. But I had spent a lot of time myself reviewing my pedagogy, reaffirming my commitment to class discussion, re-imagining ways to produce active investigation instead of passive note-taking (or staring)—and that had profound impacts on the classes I have taught since. The trick, I had to remind myself, was not for me to know things, but for them to understand, discover, and analyze things.

As it turned out, my difficult semester of lower-level students coincided with a semester when my upper-level course was “Religions of East Asia,” and I was struck anew by a reading that I use when teaching Zen. This essay, entitled “Son Master Man’gong,” includes the enlightenment-biography of a young Korean Zen monk. This monk (Man’gong) keeps becoming over-confident of his spiritual accomplishments, and he keeps declaring himself to be enlightened. Then when examined by his master, the master rejects his claim of enlightenment, and sends Man’gong back to work harder at meditating on his koan.

Man’gong does eventually convince his master that he has achieved true spiritual insight, and is on his way to full, true enlightenment, through an exchange in which pivots from asserting his total knowledge, to instead confess his incomprehension:

Man’gong was stunned. He could find nothing to say. … In great despair, Man’gong bowed and said, “Forgive me.”

“Do you understand your mistake?”

“Yes. What can I do?”

“Long ago, when Zen Master Choju was asked if a dog has the Buddha-nature, he said, ‘No!’ What does this mean?”

“I don’t know.”

Kyongho said, “Always keep this mind that doesn’t know and you will soon attain enlightenment.”[1]

A mind that “always knows” is a stuck mind—a mind that can no longer grow. Only a mind that knows its limitations can still be stretching and developing, and this is critical for crafting oneself as a teacher-scholar. As a scholar, I make sure that I am reading and writing about new things that aren’t just rehashing my dissertation. As a teacher too, I now work to try to maintain a mind that doesn’t know. Confident now that I have enough basic knowledge to be competent, I try to find ways to make sure that each class has some flexibility and room for surprise.

So what does it look like to try to teach with a ‘mind that doesn’t know’? I might try rotating in a reading that had been unfamiliar to me, to make sure that I keep teaching at the edges of my expertise (and am therefore still learning myself). I almost always try to make sure there is room in each class meeting for students to digest material in open-ended ways—usually in small groups, that don’t have to ‘report’ to me or defer to my greater knowledge.

I try to only plan out half to three quarters of class time, and try not to have more than 15 minutes of uninterrupted talking by me. When someone asks me a question to which I don’t know the answer, I celebrate that as an interesting new development: I sometimes give the student a best guess at an answer (advertised as such), or explain to them how I might go about finding out the answer, but I try to model for them that it is an exciting moment when someone shows you a point of ignorance, because that’s the moment when you can grow.

Being the expert in the room does sometimes involve conveying information: students simply don’t know enough about Asian religions to responsibly move straight to reflection time, and it is important to make sure that discussions are grounded in concrete practices, details, or texts that they are newly encountering. But conveying information is the beginning and not the end of preparing yourself to teach, and it is much more important to show them how to approach new things and ask good questions—especially when they don’t already know the answer.

[1] Mu Soeng, “Son Master Man’gong and Cogitations of a Colonized Religion.” In Makers of Modern Korean Buddhism, Jin Y. Park, ed. (NY: SUNY series in Korean Studies, 2010)