Levels of Pedagogy and Individualized Instruction

Mark Unno

Students take courses in religious studies for a number of different reasons. Some are simply there to satisfy a distribution requirement, some to gain knowledge of religion as one cultural phenomenon among others in the process of acquiring a liberal arts education. Others are interested in learning more about the tradition into which they were born or about traditions different from their own, and still others are seeking some kind of religious or spiritual resolution to their lives, either in connection with specific problems or more generally as a cornerstone of their self-understanding.

Due to the broad spectrum represented among students, the instructor or teaching assistant must be ready to respond to student interests and concerns at many levels and tailor their teaching to individual needs. This is especially true in working with undergraduates and even more so in introductory as opposed to higher-level courses. Graduate students are fairly clear about what they expect out of a course, are developing certain professional skills, and their professors have some idea of what they wish their students to learn. Undergraduates, in contrast, are in a more exploratory mode, are often concerned with existential issues and personal understanding, and not infrequently see teachers as more than just proprietors of intellectual property.

Depending on the situation, instructors are asked to fill the role of mentor, senior colleague, friend, resource person, or even counselor. The multiple roles demanded of an instructor in religious studies are in part the historical effects of an educational system which retains aspects of the mentor-disciple relationship characterizing the classical European education in which it is rooted but which now takes place in the setting of the secular, liberal, democratic university based largely on the ideal of public, equal access to objective bodies of knowledge.[1] It is the complex combination of these personal and public aspects which constellate the university education as it is currently known, and in particular the discipline of religious studies.

In order to provide the most flexible, open, yet focused learning experience possible within the given limitations of the classroom situation and my own abilities as a teacher, I have partly come to conceive the teaching process in my role as a instructor in terms of several different levels of pedagogy and individualized instruction. Before I begin to explain what I mean by this, it should be made clear that these levels and categories are not fixed in a hierarchy but merely represent certain ideal types that in actual practice are quite fluid and move in and out of each other.


Levels of Pedagogy

Professionalism. Whatever the motivations of a particular student for taking a course, it should be possible for her to excel as long as she fulfills certain standards for writing an academic paper and participating in discussion sections.[2] That is to say, there is a level of professionalism that should be considered in evaluating students' work. Leaving aside the nature of discussion sections for now, academic writing is to be distinguished from what I might consider to be an excellent piece of writing in another situation. The reason I make this distinction is two-fold.

First, the academic paper in religious studies represents a genre that is specific to its setting. Although there is a certain degree of flexibility, it is a genre that involves technical elements such as documentation and logical consistency. It is a format that is ostensibly public and derived from the model of the natural sciences yet is in fact highly intersubjective since it will most likely be read by just one person, namely the instructor. As I have heard several professors remark, the academic paper is a forum for an ongoing conversation between teacher and student. Students may go beyond the boundaries of the prescribed genre, but in such cases they should consult with their teachers. A poem on the theme of mystical union submitted without prior consent is not acceptable academic work, and I have doubts as to whether consent could be obtained for such work in any case.

The problem of genres, however, is distinct from that of individual styles. As one gains experience as a teacher, one will find that students write in a variety of styles, some more dense than others, some more linear than others who might take a layered approach, unpacking levels of analysis rather than pursuing one direct line of argumentation. Beginning teachers tend to give favorable recognition to those papers that match their own writing style most closely. It is important to see that different styles can be equally effective and to encourage students accordingly.

Second, the information available to students in writing a paper is more limited than might otherwise be the case, and the effectiveness of their analysis and self-expression should be based on material provided in the course. I might have strong personal disagreements with a student regarding his conclusions, but if he has made a careful and balanced analysis of the course material and presented his ideas in a clear and organized manner, his efforts should be rewarded regardless of my own personal convictions. I can suggest additional reading material to fill out what I perceive to be an incomplete picture, but this should not alter my evaluation of his work. Students try to please their teachers, and there is a place for learning through emulation, but teachers should be aware of what it means to write an effective paper based on the limited body of knowledge students are expected to cover. Even if one is aware of these limitations, however, it is difficult not to project one's own agendas and biases; when presenting one's own views, this fact should be announced to the students along with encouragement to disagree. A way to gauge the fairness of one's evaluation of students' writing is to find two papers representing opposing conclusions and to see how even-handed one has been in appraising them.

As I have noted elsewhere, the only tangible evidence of students' work in humanities courses is the written paper,[3] and it is the teacher's responsibility on the one hand to provide the tools necessary to excel, but on the other to also know the limits of what can be expected.

Engagement. This brings me to another dimension of pedagogy which has to do with levels of engagement. Students write better papers the more engaged they are, and skillful teachers find ways to engage students in their subject matter. At the same time, it would be unfair to ask that all students be engaged at the same level. Some students may find a particular idea or thinker deeply stimulating at an intellectual level but not necessarily as a matter of personal commitment. It might be appropriate to challenge them personally if either we stood on equal ground in terms of access to knowledge and institutional authority or I were willing to take responsibility for the effects my statements might eventually have. That is to say, the boundaries of my inquiry into the personal dimensions of students' thinking should be commensurate with the limits placed on me as a figure of authority and my ability to be held accountable for the challenges I ask them to face.

Students at top-level universities can fall into the kind of bourgeois relativism criticized by Lee Yearley in his essay in this volume, and they need to be challenged in order that they may learn to think and write well. At the same time, students may sometimes feel that the rug has been pulled out from under them without a responsible alternative being provided. There is a delicate balance between professional distance and the personal engagement essential to vital intellectual discourse, a balance that is difficult to maintain because it is ever-changing, but one that needs to be carefully considered nonetheless.


Individualized Instruction

The awareness of the personal and individual dimension in students' work, then, is integral to, rather than in conflict with, the professionalism required on the part of the instructor. In the foregoing discussion I have focused more on the professional limits of the teacher than on the potential for creativity and nurturing, the examination of which I would like to move on to in a discussion of individualized instruction. It is one thing to know the limits of the profession, and something else altogether to know how to respond to individual needs. As Rod Ellis states, the place of learning is not essentially

where certain rather special kinds of activities take place, but one where learners are valued and nurtured as individuals. . . . The idea of an individualized approach to . . . pedagogy has . . . been threatening to teachers - because they have not been able to see how it could work in practical terms. . . . But ultimately, stimulating growth and catering [to] diversity is . . . [a question] of how well the teacher can communicate with her learners.[4]

Practical goals. One fairly easy way to tailor pedagogy to individual needs is take into consideration the reasons students have for taking a certain course or writing a specific paper. For example, I might encourage a student in an introductory survey course on Buddhism who is also writing a senior thesis on the role of ritual in early Christianity to explore a similar topic for a paper in the Buddhism course. I would also advise a junior planning to go onto graduate school in religious studies to write a different kind of paper from a sophomore majoring in engineering taking a religious studies course out of intellectual curiosity. This does not mean that I have different standards. In fact, I try to maintain consistent standards regarding the basic elements of a paper regardless of class, major, or other factors. It was my experience as an undergraduate that the best teachers maintained consistent standards, enabling me to see my progress over time. However, it can be helpful to be aware of the ways in which a students' work might be tailored to their individual interests or integrated with their work in other areas. This may seem obvious, but it is easier said than done. This is because it takes considerable energy on the part of the teacher to be aware of both the various factors that might be related to his students' work and the possibility of his own agendas interfering with the individual destinies of their development.

Individual destiny and intellectual balance. Because teaching and learning are more art than science, there is something essentially intangible about the intellectual journey that unfolds in the relationship between a teacher and his students. Nothing is more intangible than the process of learning about the ways in which the destinies of individual students unfold, yet perhaps there is nothing that is more important for a teacher to understand.

This sense of individual destiny comes into play in many different areas, among them the development of a balanced intellect. In learning to think critically, students must be able to take an appreciative as well as critical approach to the material and to see many sides of an argument. However, the goal of thinking in a balanced manner is not merely to see that two opposing views can be argued with equal merit. Rather, it is to become fully aware of all of the implications of a particular standpoint yet still be able to find one's own voice in the matter. Because each student brings the legacy of her own biographical, cultural, and religious background to bear on the subject at hand, there are already tendencies and expectations that shape her thoughts and to which she is most receptive. A balanced intellect is fostered by respecting the history constituting the formative influences of an individual's thought while simultaneously providing a critical light that can be cast upon it.

The question of balance might be involved in a variety of scenarios. A student coming from an ethnic Chinese background may be taking a course in Chinese thought in order to learn more about the traditions that have influenced his parents. I might encourage such a student to develop an appreciative understanding of the Chinese thinkers presented in the course rather than asking him to engage in critiques from the very beginning. On the one hand, it is easier to criticize something than to appreciate it, and on the other, meaningful critiques require a foundation of appreciation.

This can be true for traditions other than one's own. A student who is an atheist taking a course on Christianity may have many insightful critiques to offer with respect to the Christian tradition. But the teacher may have some sense that these critiques and the student's understanding of Christianity in general may benefit from a more balanced perspective that includes a greater sense of appreciation. However, there is an important difference between this scenario and the last. In the previous case, the student was motivated to develop an appreciative understanding from the very beginning, whereas in this case the student has already reached certain conclusions and may find it offensive if she is forced to acknowledge ideas that she feels are problematic. As long as she satisfies the requirements for considering various sides of an argument within the academic parameters of her work, she should be able to do as well as anyone else in her class. Beyond that point, I might suggest the possibility of alternate readings, but I must respect the culture and experiences that have led her to her atheism. There is sometimes a tendency among teachers and scholars to oversimplify and overdetermine ideas and traditions which are not their own and with which they are not very familiar; care must be taken to recognize the boundaries of one's knowledge.

In yet another scenario, a student who already has a sophisticated sense of appreciation for his own tradition might be encouraged to develop critical awareness. A student coming from a Buddhist background may have important insights to share with his peers, but without an accompanying critical sense, he is likely to come across as dogmatic. Critical insights do not necessarily come from without; in fact, an individual's own tradition often has the most to offer in this regard, and it is important to help students identify these resources as well.

There are also students who do not identify themselves with any one tradition or perspective but are in the process of synthesizing their own particular self-understanding. In any case, the traditions with which students identify themselves are rarely closed, monolithic, and unchanging; they are, as Wittgenstein would say, forms of life-open and continually changing in interaction with surrounding traditions and cultures. It is out of this process that new forms are born, such as feminist and womanist spiritual traditions, syntheses of Chicano and native American religions, and even forms that are peculiarly academic.[5]

A Store of Knowledge, an Open Pasture, and the Power of Constellation. A sense of professionalism, the recognition of practical goals, and the encouragement of a balanced intellect are all elements of individualized instruction that come into play at various levels of pedagogy. However, there are other factors necessary for helping students in the intellectual process of their self-discovery.

First, it is necessary for the teacher to have an adequate store of knowledge. This does not necessarily mean encyclopedic knowledge, but a basic knowledge of what a student might be looking for and the knowledge of how to find it. Many undergraduates do not have good library skills or know what intellectual tools are available to them in the form of methodologies and general theories. It is, of course, helpful if one knows specific books and articles, individual scholars, or even religious teachers who can serve as resource persons. Beyond this, however, it is still important to have as broad and sophisticated a knowledge of various ideas, traditions, thinkers, and issues as possible, because that is what enables us to be simultaneously aware of just how limited our knowledge really is and of the vast possibilities waiting to be untapped.

Second, students should be free to explore and experiment with ideas without feeling forced into a mold. This is more easily said than done, since there are so many constraints on them from the start, with respect to time, academic requirements, and the expectations of others. By showing the relevance of the subject matter and sharing one's own enthusiasm, it is possible to draw students' attention away from their preoccupation with these constraints and to invite them to explore the open pastures of the intellectual world. Some students have little awareness of the historical forces that have shaped their lives, and I have sometimes found it helpful to present the relevance of the course material in terms of the historical connection it has with key ideas and assumptions at work in students lives.

Third, the teacher's ability to help constellate various processes taking place in the student can contribute significantly to integrating the learning experience. This involves identifying the issues or concerns that a student is interested in and helping her to formulate them effectively. These concerns may be related to personal questions and problems; a sensitivity to underlying themes enables the teacher to suggest appropriate avenues of exploration, sometimes even without these themes ever being mentioned explicitly. The question I often have at the back of my mind is: Given the limitations in a situation in terms of time, resources and my own abilities, what is the most that I can do for the individual sitting before me? At this level, it is important to consider her as a human being as much as a student in religious studies. In one course I had a student who seemed somewhat disinterested or even hostile towards the beginning of the course. She did not speak to me individually at any time during the course, but I sensed that she was confronting questions of her self-identity, and I tried to be sensitive to this in responding to her questions and comments during discussions. Her attitude to the subject matter gradually changed over the quarter, and she wrote an excellent final paper. She later told me that she had hardly known her father and had struggled with this fact as she worked through the course material; she expressed her appreciation for the process, saying I had "spoken her language." This does not reflect any special insight on my part, just an awareness of possible subtexts hidden within the explicit order of discourse.



The pursuit of religion and the discipline of religious studies are often described in mutually antagonistic terms, but just as a sense of professionalism is integral to individualized instruction, so too, the study of religion can often dovetail with the personal dimensions of religious self-understanding in the broadest sense of this term, whether this self-understanding unfolds within a particular tradition, is being newly synthesized, or leads to a position that is opposed to religion in the traditional sense of the term. That is because, at their best, religion and religious studies are conduits for the vast potential that is being continually refined and given expression by human beings. It is the meaningful exchange of these expressions that makes the learning process vital for both the teacher and the student. As one scholar puts it,

Each person, you and I, must find our own answers in our own lives, and although we are not quite sure exactly what is right or wrong, I can say that I lived my life, that my life is the answer to this question. . . . For each individual there is an answer that expresses that individuality . . . .There is the possibility that I can explain my answer and that others can understand it. In this sense I am opening the way to others while at the same time going my own individual way. . . . [The question of existence] does not allow the human being an exclusive right answer. In this sense it is quite religious.[6]

[1] For a discussion of the role of the mentor in classical European education, see Peter Brown, "The Saint as Exemplar in Late Antiquity," Saints and Virtues, ed. by John Stratton Hawley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 3-14.
[2] For one set of criteria of good paper writing, see my "Paper Writing Guidelines" included in this volume for possible elements of a discussion section, see Mark Gonnerman's "Advice for Beginning TAs" and my "Pedagogical Tools and Strategies for TAs."
[3] See the introductory remarks to my "Paper Writing Guidelines."
[4] Rod Ellis, Second Language Acquisition and Language Pedagogy (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1992), 212.
[5] It can also be helpful to be aware of personality types. Many companies and educational institutions have administered the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as a way of assessing particular tasks and modes of expression to which people might be best suited. Although I would not administer such tests to students and believe there are significant limitations to type-theory, it can be useful to be aware of possible types that are less or more prominent in an individual student's work. Due to the nature of the institution, a large portion of the students at a place like Stanford will be at home in the thinking mode, and teachers expect them to excel in that mode. Sometimes a student will be quite intelligent but make statements that seem out of place. That may be because he is more intuitive, emotive, or sensation-oriented in terms of his personality type. This is not the place to go into the question of types in detail, but it can be he helpful to teachers to be aware of them in discerning the significance of students' contributions.
[6] Kawai Hayao, in Nishitani Keiji, David Miller, Hayao Kawai,"Gendai ni oite kami o do kangaeru ka," Bukkyo 4, 125-126.