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Technological Tools and Methods for Teaching Premodern Japanese Materials: Bryan Lowe

Posted by on Tuesday, November 28, 2017 in Resource.

A blog series by Bryan Lowe,
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies,

Religious Traditions of Japan and Korea



At the Association of Asian Studies Annual meeting this past March, I organized a roundtable entitled: “Digital Pedagogy for the Analog Past: Technological Tools and Methods for Teaching Premodern Japanese Materials.” The idea was to have four specialists of premodern Japanese studies from four different disciplines (art history, literature, history, and religious studies) share digital tools they use in the classroom for teaching about premodern Japan.

The presenters teach on three continents in diverse institutional settings. They introduced a range of projects including digital note taking, problem sets, timelines, and a collaborative web page. Since the goal of the panel was in part to share some our experiences and the tools themselves, we also decided to publish short summaries of our findings with links to the relevant materials.

Although the panel was designed by Japanese studies specialists, the tools and findings are relevant for the humanities more generally. Below are summaries and links for the four panelists. In addition to these presentations, audience members and our discussant, Haruko Wakabayashi, also shared a variety of exciting digital projects such as ReEnvisioning Japan and The Heian Bibliography Project.

I’ll conclude this blog series with some of my own thoughts about using digital timelines.

Digital Timelines for Religions of Japan

My “Religions of Japan” class, an entry-level undergraduate course, presents a fundamental problem to me as a teacher. On the one hand, I want students to think across traditions and periods and identify connections between the past and the present. On the other, I hope that they can gain familiarity with a historical approach that studies religion as it is embedded in particular times and spaces bound by unique social, cultural, and political contexts.

To solve the first problem of dialogue across periods and traditions, I’ve designed a thematically arranged course . While this approach has its merits, it also threatens to undermine my second goal of historical thinking that treats religion as bound to distinct spaces and times. In putting early myths, medieval tales, ethnography, and modern films in dialogue, students often forget context. They quite literally have a hard time remembering where and when texts were produced and how particular historical background inform doctrine and practice.

Beginning in the spring of 2016, in response to broader conversations at the Center for Teaching. I began to use digital timelines to solve this problem. I had previously relied on traditional pedagogical tools: lectures on key features for each time period and quizzes on a given era’s dates and characteristics.

Despite these efforts, I found that students never internalized the relevant information and typically had a hard time applying their historical knowledge to actual analysis. In place of these pedagogies, I developed a timeline assignment , which included weekly posts on tiki-toki, an in-class presentation, and related paper. I found students learned to think both diachronically and synchronically about Japanese religions, two terms we introduced in class and skills that I see as vital to a historical study of religion.

For example, one student used her timeline to trace shifting attitudes toward the spirits of the dead from antiquity to the modern era. She reports that she learned to recognize how all new ideas are “formed with a purpose” bound to the historical context in which they developed. Another student compared doctrines from contemporaneous texts from different sectarian traditions to show a cross-fertilization of ideas across Buddhist sects active at the same time. More generally, the assignment helped students organize their notes, synthesize materials, practice citation techniques, engage in frequent low-stakes writing, and develop historical reasoning.

It was a success, and I’ll use it again in my classroom. I think it could successfully be adapted into any class where historical thinking is a goal.

Read more from this blog series.

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