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Storytelling ethnography as engaged pedagogy for a diverse student body

Jun 3, 2019 · 4 min read

Since 2015, students in my “Buddhism in the West” class have been developing a website called the Jivaka Project. The project has involved dozens of students doing participant-observation ethnography at over 40 Buddhist temples in the Greater Philadelphia area. Student researchers have conducted hundreds of interviews and collected a trove of multimedia content about Buddhist material culture, ritual practice, social events, community outreach, and many other aspects of Buddhism as a lived religion in the local context. Some of this material has now been put on the project website, geographically mapped, and made searchable by various categories, keywords, and tags.

Although the majority of my students are only in the class because it fulfills several mandatory General Education credits, the Jivaka Project has allowed me to make studying Buddhism highly relevant to them. Abington College is a small liberal arts campus within the Penn State public university system, which considers itself to be a laboratory for innovation in culturally responsive education. We have a strong social mission, and a socioeconomically diverse, minority-majority student body. Specifically, we are an AANAPISI, and Asian students make up 30% of our student body. For the most part, these students are either international students, or they come from recently immigrated families that predominantly live in Asian neighborhoods in and around Philadelphia. Typically, half of any given class of mine at Abington College is made up of students of Asian heritage

For students in my classroom who come from non-Asian backgrounds, the project has provided the opportunity to gain more intimate exposure to Philly’s multiethnic and multicultural diversity, as well as practical experience with intercultural communication. This is important for the ethical formation of future global citizens of the future, who we are helping to become knowledgeable of and empathetic toward all kinds of cultural, racial, and socioeconomic difference. However, due to the demographics of our college, research for this project has almost wholly been undertaken by small groups of students where at least one person — and, not infrequently, everyone in the group — identifies as belonging to the primary cultural-linguistic group at the temples being visited.

Many students who have contributed to the project are thus actually quite familiar with these kinds of spaces. Some even have had family members or acquaintances who regularly attend the very temples where they were doing ethnographic work. This project thus gives many students the opportunity to bring stories and experiences from their own communities into the classroom. These are contextualized by the study of the history of Asian immigration in the US, urban diversity and religious pluralism, and inequities in the healthcare system through our textbook and other course materials. In addition to briefly touching on the history and doctrine of Buddhism more generally, our class discussion centers around critical perspectives on immigration, race, gender, and cultural difference, and how Buddhist institutions have helped immigrants and refugees to navigate these challenges in Philadelphia and around the country.

Outside of the classroom, there is a lot of clear pedagogical value in participation in the project. The students learn a number of research and creative skills through their experiences visiting temples, interviewing, and producing multimedia materials. The project is inherently collaborative, both in the sense that they visit temples in small groups and also in the sense that this is an iterative project that builds from class to class and year to year. The work is also inherently interdisciplinary, involving elements of religious studies, history, anthropology, and journalism.

However, I am particularly excited about how this type of assignment is able to engage a diverse student body. Involving international students and recent immigrants from local non-white, non-English-speaking communities has given me the opportunity to reverse the usual deficit model approach to education. Too often, English language learners are treated as liabilities in the humanities classroom due to their non-fluent oral and written communication. In my class, however, these students play an indispensable role as cultural liaisons who facilitate cultural awareness, help their classmates to navigate the temple spaces, and even translate interview questions for their group. As they learn to embody the role of content experts, they come to be recognized as authorities by their classmates and begin to see their own biculturalism as an asset.

Another important pedagogical strategy is that the typical power dynamic between students and professor is flipped in this class. The professor, in this instance, is not there to explain “the Buddhist other” to the students from his position of privilege at the front of the classroom. Instead, both the students and the professor are building together our understanding of Buddhism, from the ground up. We learn together how a Cambodian temple in Center City helps address the collective trauma experienced by the community of refugees, and assists new arrivals to access the American healthcare system — not by reading about this in the abstract, but instead through student-generated materials that are locally-situated and relevant to their lives. There have been countless times where I have learned from my students, rather than the other way around.

Finally, and perhaps on a more personal note, teaching this class has given me — a scholar primarily trained as a historian of medieval China — the opportunity to teach a class that feels like an invigorating change of pace from my usual fare. With issues such as immigration, healthcare, and religion constantly in the news today, the class is exciting, fresh, and relevant to the issues of the current time.

Sample student feedback: “During my [job] interviews, I was asked about my proudest accomplishment and I mentioned Jivaka Project. Participating in a project that allowed me to explore various medical practices in my community left a significant impact in my academic career and life to this day.”

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