Assistant Professor Erick White is a scholar of Theravada Buddhism in U-M’s Department of Asian Languages and Culture. He recently shared with our program assistant, Megan Rossiter, about his course this fall, which was born out of his own research and his scholarly interests. This piece has been slightly edited.
I was trained as an anthropologist, but I did an undergraduate degree in religious studies. I ended up focusing on Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand, because I was interested in Buddhism and because [Thailand] was one of the easiest places to do anthropological fieldwork back in the day. I was always interested in religious studies outside of the mainstream, so I ended up doing research about spirit mediums in Bangkok. I studied their subculture and their practices, and I explored how they fit into an economy of charisma, authority, prestige, and status.
In my Fall 2020 course, “Monks, Magic, and Mediums: Buddhism in Southeast Asia,” I walk students through religious figures, ritual activities, and sacred objects. They read about laypeople, novices, monks, precept nuns, spirit mediums, and then about astrologers. I also go through the rituals of merit-making, pilgrimage, meditation, chanting, funerals, making offerings, and healing. My goal [is] to have [students] look at Buddhism from the ground up and from the margins. I bring an anthropological sensibility to the class. I’m always trying to get students to think about what things in Buddhism look like from an insider’s perspective versus an outsider’s perspective. Over time they learn that there are multiple insider perspectives and that different figures look at things in different ways. I want to expand their horizon so that if they ever were to go to Myanmar or Cambodia, they would have a better eye on what to look for and a better sense of interest. I’m lucky because the topics discussed in the class are naturally interesting enough that undergraduates will keep reading about them.
[In the course], the students always have to submit a question at the end of class, and what’s most enjoyable for me is when they ask questions that are challenging to answer. I’m so used to the conventional take on everything when I talk to other scholars, but when someone who’s new and doesn’t understand things asks a question, they open up these curious dimensions that I’ve never quite thought about before. They ask me questions that will make me have to go back and reread about topics only to realize that I didn’t really understand the topic as well as I thought. I like that I literally learn, even about basic things, when I answer their questions. In that sense, teaching the class is actually educational for me.
The main challenge [of teaching this class as a hybrid course] is having students engage with each other on the same level that they would if we were completely in-person. I don’t think that students are talking to each other as much. It used to be that students would get to know each other after being split into groups or that they’d maybe talk to each other a bit before and after class. That kind of collective ambiance and sense of being a community of some sort has suffered during the pandemic.
I ask students a lot more questions now. I try to make them reflect more on what they’ve learned or what they’re confused about. I can tell that they’re listening to not only me, but also to what other students are saying in class, and that’s helping them understand things better. Before this, I didn’t use to ask as many short, low-stakes questions, but now I have a much better sense of what they’re learning. I actually think that they’re learning more during this semester than in the previous ones because I’m making them constantly think about what they’re learning.