Teaching Philosophy
  • For me there is no greater vocation than to be a college teacher. I love everything about it. From the preparations for exciting classes to the calculations of fair grades, I am always engaged by the process. But it is my time spent with students, some very eager and others a little unsure, that I treasure most. I have been teaching for over a decade. In all that time I have looked forward to every class period, every opportunity to share the world of scholarship, and every occasion to nurture intellectual curiosity. I do not view my students as empty vessels to be filled, but rather as candles to be lit. Anatole France is reported to have said that the art of teaching is only the art of awakening natural curiosity. I think he was right and I am delighted to participate in that awakening.
  • I try to create a culture of respect in my classrooms, in which students are able to realize their highest potential. I believe students will rise to the standards we as educators demand of them. My pedagogy, however, is rooted in an “ethic of caring,” which I hope my students will embrace and employ in their lives to transform the world into a more socially just place.
  • I firmly believe in well-structured courses that provide syllabi with clearly defined expectations and yet are flexible enough to encourage self-reflective and peer-cooperative activities. Whether the class is large or small, I intend to provide my students with a comfortable space and an uninhibited atmosphere, inviting the free exchange of ideas. Furthermore, a teacher should always be well prepared for each class period, providing students with a good example of deportment and enthusiasm.
  • Lectures in my large classes on the Comparative Study of Religion use highly developed multi-media Keynote presentations. One of my goals has been to create a world-class introductory religion course that is a model of pedagogical and technological excellence. My students deserve the best that I can give them.
  • I am convinced that students benefit from not only reading assignments and listening to lectures, but also from audio-visual encounters with their subject. My large private collection of DVD documentaries and feature-length movies, has served me well in all my courses. When appropriate, I provide study guides to go along with these presentations and class time for students to discuss what they have just seen and heard.
  • While I thoroughly enjoy lecturing, it is essential that students are engaged in dialogue with their professor both in the classroom and in writing assignments. My lectures are regularly punctuated by stories that generate discussions and are freely interrupted by the occasional student debate. I also solicit student responses to queries posed in my lengthy editorial comments on their papers, an approach that usually leads to some of their best work in the course. I am deeply committed to helping my students become better writers.
  • Since most of my course offerings parallel my own research, when appropriate and agreeable, I like to engage students in my work. In this way they can develop their own projects informed by first-hand knowledge of the current methods used and issues discussed in contemporary research. They can also develop a sense of pride in that their personal work may become a genuine part of a larger and continuing body of work rather than just a pedagogical exercise.
  • While learning how to use the library for research is essential and a mark of a good college education, I encourage and use internet research and computer-oriented projects whenever possible. For every course I teach, I provide students with a lengthy list of web sites that I have found personally useful and informative.
  • Moreover, each of my courses has its own set of web pages on the university server, and one of those pages provides these sites (already linked for students' convenience). The other pages provide students with bibliographies (some linked to online scholarly reviews), and course materials that are relevant for lectures, papers and exams. On my own home page students can also access information about me, my schedule and other courses I teach.
  • In my lower-division undergraduate courses, I approach the teaching of history and religion as a generalist rather than as a specialist. One of my mentors was fond of telling his students in a first-semester history course that his goal as our instructor was “not to lie too much” as he shared the exciting “story” of ancient civilization, when all too often only a patchy “outline” truly existed. With that humorous admission he taught me more about intellectual honesty and integrity than did many other more celebrated professors. My first-year students are introduced not only to the primary sources, which I hope will inform them over the course of their lives, but also to the breath of scholarship by careful attention to high-quality secondary analyses. However, as was I by my mentors, they are encouraged to challenge thoughtfully the many general assumptions encountered in these secondary sources.
  • In my upper-division courses, I emphasize the importance of challenging and critiquing the primary documents. I train my students to examine original sources as the bases for our academic constructions. Nevertheless, by introducing my students, at all levels, to the methodological considerations needed for analyzing historical and religious movements, I can show them that uncritical acceptance of simple viewpoints hinders a fuller understanding of significant cultural developments. To this end, my presentations always outline broad geographical, linguistic and historical contexts, and present clear frameworks for discussion.
  • The overall goal of my pedagogical techniques and teaching philosophy is to integrate careful attention to and regard for details in the sources with an appreciation for the big picture. In other words, it is vital to keep both the trees and the forest in perspective.
  • For me, the academic study of religion must be independent of any personal doctrinal or confessional commitment. Therefore, I usually do not share my own religious conviction or ideological perspective with my students. I have found that doing so can more often than not inhibit the free exchange of ideas or create false expectations. Students seem more willing to explore new views, as well as expose their own sincere opinions on a variety of subjects, when standards are clearly based on academic performance without any presumption of conformance.
  • The use of practical and contemporary correlations is prominent in my presentations. Moreover, when appropriate, I use writing assignments based on students’ experiences outside the classroom and the library. Many of my courses make use of directed field trips, in which I often participate. These are an especially instructive and enjoyable way to learn about other people and cultures.
  • Most of my students do not plan on becoming professional scholars, but it is still important that during their college careers they learn how to become critical thinkers embracing the critical imperative, Sapere Aude (Dare to Think!). For me one of the most important goals of my teaching is to demonstrate to my students how they can approach all of their work with scholarly objectivity, seeking not only to gain up-to-date information but also to refute unwarranted stereotypes. As Francisco Goya imagined, when reason sleeps, monsters rule.
  • Equally important for me is that my students learn the joy of learning and make a life-long commitment to their education. I like B. F. Skinner's notion that education is what survives when what has been learned is forgotten.
  • In short, whether in the classroom, in office interviews, or casually at a student eatery, I understand my job in terms of helping young people become thoughtful, articulate and engaged individuals, thus contributing to their development as creative and productive world citizens.