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Framing the Way: Introducing and Concluding the Chinese Religion Survey Course

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by Jonathan R. Herman

When teachers of Chinese religion meet to discuss pedagogical strategies, our conversations usually reflect an almost prurient fixation on one aspect of the syllabus. While my colleagues and I certainly acknowledge the importance of course organization and methods of evaluation, we invariably devote most of our attention to the selection of readings and films, as though it were self-evident that the textual and cinematic resources exclusively determined the success or failure of the course. Needless to say, there are many other crucial components of Chinese religion pedagogy that are too often overlooked, and even the best material is insufficient to overcome an unfocused or misdirected presentation. In this essay, I will offer some specific strategies for the first and last class meetings of the general survey course in Chinese religion, though they are also applicable to virtually any broadly based introduction to Asian thought and culture. The information and conclusions contained herein are based on my own experience that such a course ordinarily attracts a wide variety of students with little or no background in anything Asian, many of whom have enrolled chiefly to fulfill a distribution requirement. Thus, it is crucial at the onset to convince the students that what they are about to undertake is indeed significant. Similarly, it is equally if not more crucial at the completion to reflect upon what that significance is. Of course, these points must first be clear in the teacher’s own mind; the examples given in this essay reflect my own priorities.