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
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.