This Introduction to Buddhism course was designed around a year-long role playing game called Disposition. Students began the year assigned a character (e.g., scholar, ritualist, farmer, trader, doctor), and as a class we imagined ourselves to be living together in a Buddhist village in the Himalayas. Periodically events would occur in the village (hailstorm, epidemic illness, the visit of a religious figure, the building of a monastic library, New Year festivals, etc.) and students were asked to do research on how their character might realistically react to such events, and then write an essay in the voice of their character, posted on a blog. Some events required students to work together (e.g., to conduct a major protective ritual) and others were more solitary (e.g., going on pilgrimage or doing a meditation retreat in a cave).
While there were core readings to be done by all students in the class and to be discussed during lecture/discussion periods in class, students’ character development work was individually directed. I posted on the course website over 100 research resources (articles, book chapters, databases, videos) to support this individual research. Over the year, students were therefore able to develop their own individual interests as they developed their characters – doctors did extra research on ritual healing, for example, or scholar-nuns did extra research on women in Buddhism and monastic libraries.
Several major projects required students to work together, while drawing on their individual expertise. For example, after the October hailstorm caused a landslide that revealed some cliff-side caves, a group of students set out on an expedition to explore those caves; they found a cache of old texts and other artifacts, requiring expertise of scholars, artists, ritualists, and traders in the group. A doctor had accompanied them and was able to treat one of the students who was injured while climbing into the cave. In writing their reports on this expedition, each student wrote from his/her own character’s perspective about his/her role in the group and what happened overall. Returning to the village, then, in subsequent weeks the expedition group worked with a number of nuns living in the village nunnery to rebuild their library and augment their collection with texts found in the cave. Later in the year, one of the texts found in the cave was discovered (i.e., I announced that this was the case) to refer to a local protector deity for the village who was no longer being propitiated (hence the devastating hailstorm!), and so a group of students rebuilt the cairn for that deity and conducted necessary rituals (i.e., they did research on protector deity cairns and rituals and wrote about doing this in their blogs). Another text from the cave was discovered to be an important pilgrimage text, and toward the end of the year a number of student set off to do that pilgrimage.
In the second semester, students who wished to learn more about Buddhism in other regions of Asia (or other time periods) were able to go traveling to those places (or times, e.g. via dreams), do research on what they encountered there, and write their assigned blog entries as letters back to the village or as a travel diary (a genre that we had studied).
One pedagogical objective of this course design was to help students feel personally motivated to learn and to conduct independent research, and I would say that this was very successfully achieved. Over the year students became quite attached to their characters and felt increasingly motivated to learn how they might respond to what was happening in the village in a realistic way – and to do this, they had to spend time learning about the event type and how one might react to it. I would say that I have never before received student writing of such high quality, and I have never before seen such an impressive display of real learning in student writing.
When the earthquake struck Nepal in late April 2015, a student from my class posted on the still-active class Facebook page, “this happened right near our village!” – which I saw to be yet another example of how this year’s course design helped students personalize their learning about a remote region of Asia about which most of them had never previously given thought.