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Technological Tools and Methods for Teaching Premodern Japanese Materials: Halle O’Neal

Posted by on Thursday, November 9, 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.

In this series, I’ll be sharing summaries from each of the panelists. This blog post features Halle O’Neal from the University of Edinburgh.

Relics and Reliquaries Project

Halle O’Neal, Chancellor’s Fellow & Lecturer
The University of Edinburgh

My upper-level undergraduate course, “Blood, Bones, and Bodies: Buddhist Relics in Asia,” draws out the transhistorical and transcultural nature of relics. The thematically-organized course analyzes the veneration of Buddhist relics and reliquaries by focusing on their artistic production and usage across Asia, touching on materiality, ritual, doctrine, gender, economics, patronage, political history, and literature to flesh out this elusive topic. I discovered that students’ initial exposure tended to mirror the apologetic attitudes of the past, which framed the veneration of relics and construction of reliquaries as superstitious, or they felt the subject was too foreign and unconnected to their experiences. I needed an assignment that made this supposedly medieval practice more present to them in their contemporary situation.

Therefore, I devised a project that asks students to create their own relics and reliquaries. The assignment is intended to foster scholarly reflexivity by having them turn an introspective and critical eye to their own experiences and sentimental possessions. By unearthing the impetuses inherent and yet largely invisible in their commemorative practices, the project brings home the human urge to connect to the intangible – a key theme running through Buddhist relics and reliquaries. The relic and its reliquary do not necessarily need to be about loss but rather the preservation of a significant memory embodied within something material. Religious connections are entirely up to the student and neither encouraged nor discouraged.

The students then share their projects in class and digitally. Ideally, the e-relic site will be shared by a course at another university exploring the subject from a different disciplinary point of view or from the Christian tradition, in order to create a greater comparative opportunity for the students. In these ways, the project establishes a community of commemoration that examines the different perspectives linking students from year to year across my own classes, across universities, and across the study of religious traditions and areas of the world. As an art historian emphasizing the importance of the materiality and artistry of the subject, the visual catalogue created by the e-relic site is also important because it hones their critical eye when exploring others’ projects to discern how meaning is materially communicated.

I am in the process of relaunching this e-relic site. In order to make the project a reoccurring facet of the students’ study rather than a one-off assignment, I plan to redesign the site to include a series of student podcasts and blogs on micro topics not covered in lectures or assigned readings that would then create a complementary knowledge database of relics in history, theory, and practice that continues to grow with each iteration of the course. Such an assignment engages the students in the material as knowledge producers, while also creating a useful and ever expanding resource for other students in the course.

I have found that this assignment in its material and digital forms fosters a deep engagement with a challenging subject, and if anyone would like to collaborate on the e-relic site, please get in touch by visiting my webpage.

Read more from this blog series.

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