Non-Human Community

My department recently hosted a three-day Teaching with Technology seminar. I feel I’m already fairly plugged in enough that I have most of the skills involved in teaching using the Internet and social media, though sometimes I do need to be exposed to ideas why this might an area in which I’d want to increase my abilities. I have students in my Science Writing class write blogs over the course of the semester, with some mixed results, but by and large I’m a pen-and-paper kind of composition instructor. Part of it is practical: in a large state university, we’re not providing the students with laptops or tablets, and I can’t necessarily count on students having regular and unimpeded access to devices during class-time. I’m also hyper-vigilant about electronic technologies distracting students from the task at hand during the class, and flipping open a laptop screen reveals at times too many temptations to students, and too many distractions to other students seated behind them.

At the same time, I acknowledge and am a living example of how much actual writing going on in the world is occurring on-line, or at the very least, is occurring while a small stream of on-line information is being held at the ready. Even when writing about nature, I find I’ll have several browser tabs open with scientific or natural history information. I think it’s important to get students aware of and working with these tools in a way that strengthens their own arguments and develops a sense of writing as in part a community process.

So I came away with at the very least a renewed commitment to pushing my students more dramatically toward doing their work online, making the Internet part of the classroom rather than simply a distraction, and particularly my more advanced writing students. I’m still on the fence about whether to drop my usual writing journal requirement for my Writing as a Naturalist class in favor of a blog, as there are still so many advantages in getting students in the habit of taking in-the-field notes. Certainly I will make every effort to either get them to bring laptops or if that fails make machines available to them during class to do collaborative peer-editing on Google Docs, so that not only can I see what revision suggestions are for student drafts but I can also share the drafts with the class for discussion and further revision.

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Is Buddhism really a religion?

What follows is an at times academic and at times personal essay on Buddhism as a religion versus philosophy. I had thought to be able to touch on all the points I wanted to in about 1000 words, but now find it’s run triple the length and still not quite plumbed all the key points fully. So it may not be of wide interest.

LOL. Because so much that I put up here has a wide, general interest. Enjoy:

The blog over at Tricycle has been featuring a series of posts by Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. on “10 Misconceptions about Buddhism” that offer to dispel popularly held misconceptions of Buddhism through closer looks at the religion’s history and practice. I strongly recommend it. Previous posts in the ongoing series have looked at, for example, whether Buddhists are necessarily vegetarian or inherently pacifist, and I think the posts are going a long way to getting people to think beyond idealized and monumentalized notions of what Buddhism can and should be. And, after all, what could be more Buddhist than an effort to disenchant a beguiling illusion.

The most recent post addresses the idea that Buddhism is not a religion but a system of philosophy. There’s little doubt that this is a common misconception – I had several students this past semester write papers in no small part premised on the idea that the core of Buddhism is a system of claims about reality easily divorced from practice and tradition. They’re acting out of a deep ingrained point of view. Anyone who’s spent some time looking at scholarship on “Eastern” religions, for example, is aware of the tendency of Western scholars to attempt to salvage a pure and true philosophy from what gets seen as the flotsam of ritual, magical thinking, and superstition.  And it’s not just an academic trait but a larger cultural mode of thinking about religion in general.

Buswell and Lopez’s assert that Buddhism is indeed a religion by any definition, except if one were to narrowly define religion as focused about a belief in a creator god. Buddhism’s relative lack of interest in creation myths certainly distinguishes from other religions, and its founding principles deny the existence of any single omnipresent entity.  But what definition of religion do we then use to apply to Buddhism to see whether it fits? Buswell and Lopez in their post look simply for evidence of belief in miracles and magic, and descriptions of magical events in the legends and scriptural accounts of Buddhas and advanced spiritual adepts are quite evident. My favorite in the post is the reference to the eight sites of pilgrimage in Indian Buddhism, which includes Sravasti, “where the Buddha performed the ‘dual miracles’ (yamakapratiharya) to vanquish a rival group of yogins by flying into the air and releasing fire from his head and water from his feet, and vice versa.” Showing the prevalence of myth and superstition is easy enough, but Buswell and Lopez don’t explain why they have chosen this definition of religion and not any other.

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Spring responsibilities

I wasn’t even looking for warblers this season, but I saw a Chestnut-Sided Warbler in a cedar at the shore when I was on retreat. A jewel of a bird; about as exotic looking as little songbirds come around here. I was just standing on a deck, deep in thought, and there it was, in a branch about six feet from me. I also saw another warbler, something yellow, dark, and striped, but I didn’t get a close enough look at it to identify it. Magnolia, or Cape May, perhaps. I wasn’t out this season to look for warblers, and now the migration has largely passed me by.

Spring is becoming summer, and I feel once again like I haven’t fulfilled my obligations. Spring is a time of responsibility for me: the frogs crawl out of the muck and start chiming, insects and wildflowers appear, and birds begin moving up the coast. As soon as I notice things changing, I start telling myself that I need to get out the frog call and insect noise CDs to start learning to identify the sounds by ear. Get out in the woods and field with the binoculars and a notebook.This year, of course, I keep meaning to get back with learning the butterflies, and so I need a good field guide.  And a good net: I’ve learned I don’t always have the patience or stamina to stalk a butterfly long enough for me to see it as it lands on a nearby branch.

As I was out walking earlier today, the dogs ran by me in a spurt of enthusiasm – they are whippets, and run a lot, very fast, with much enthusiasm – and startled an orangey skipper before I could get close enough to note and commit its features to memory to look up later. Because I have the dogs, and because another form of responsibility insists that when I’m out walking I should make every effort to bring them along so they can get some exercise and some enjoyment, I’m not often walking with binoculars looking carefully for the warblers, and others, passing through. The dogs make a bit too much ruckus for real birdwatching. And the boy often comes with me, too, when he’s not in school, and he talks non-stop. So as I walk through the woods, I’m surrounded by a loose bubble of noise and commotion, which makes stopping for birds and bugs a little harder. It certainly doesn’t draw them too me any better.

But I’ve never really considered myself a birder, despite my deep and abiding fondness for birds, songbirds especially. I find the list approach off-putting, for one thing. And I know that committed birders have all kinds and varieties of lists, and they’re not giving each species a more-or-less fungible weight that once checked off absolves the birder from giving that species any further regard. I know this, but still the field-guide approach, the effort to see everything within a national range, and the completist impulse all unnerve me slightly. My focus has always been a bit more local: I love the birds because they are an expression of the place where I am. And quite literally an expression: the birds are the place made audible, its own speech of a sort. And the same with the flowers, the trees, and the frogs and others. The responsibility I feel is the obligation to know what’s right here with me and how it fits. And that of course is leaning rather hard on a necessary personal observation that I’ll just leave hanging for a bit.

I have some nicer thoughts about lists and birds plus insects that I hope to write about soon. I haven’t been doing much writing. I need to work harder to organize my working life so that I am doing the writing – another obligation I’m not living up to. Continue reading

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Snake handler stuff

I haven’t seen the Nat’l Geographic show yet, but one of Snake Salvation‘s snake-handling Pentecostal ministers has died of a snakebite. He refused medical service after being bitten as part of the spiritual trial that is involved in the practice.

We tend to view snake handlers as fringe freaks, but it’s a fascinating subculture that seems to persist precisely because of its fringe nature and not entirely in spite of it. This Buzzfeed long form by Gemma de Choisy is excellent. I’m having my students read it this semester.

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Two links about religion

If you’re coming here for the nature stuff or the poetry, well, I’ll get back to that next week. I wanted to keep on the religion/secularism thing for one more post and throw up a couple links about religion and material culture – punningly literal material culture. I’m talking about clothes, son. I’m teaching a class on doing research in religion and secularism studies this semester, so it’s even more on my mind than usual.

First, this blog post by the Pew Research Center about a University of Michigan study about religion and secularism in primarily Middle-Eastern Muslim-majority countries drew a lot of attention, as it focused on social attitudes toward appropriate women’s dress as an index of secularism, Westernization, and Muslim identity. In particular, the infographic at the top of the post went massively viral.


It shows stylized portraits of six Muslim women from the head up in attire perceived as increasingly less restrictive, starting with the burqa and then moving toward an ultimately uncovered head and Western attire, and then gives the percentage of respondents from each country that selected that attire as the most appropriate dress for women in public. Some of the attention the graphic drew was satirical, some of it disapproving, but mostly it would seem the attention was due to the fascination with how Muslim women dress. (Hey, I retweeted it too.) Hence the disapproval, that Pew was playing into the Western obsession with Muslim women’s hair-covering, not to mention that the graphic abstracted women in the countries covered to a handful of caricatures.

I get the discomfort with the reduction of women’s presence to a sliding scale of clothing marked as increasingly foreign and weird, and I get the annoyance at how fascinated people seem to be with this aspect of culture in Islamic societies. But 1) I think a graphic like this helps give people a slightly better picture of the complexity of cultural expressions of and responses to female modesty in the Islamic world, and, 2) as the authors of the study point out, issues of women’s dress have been central to internal debates about the status of women and secularization for over a century. I think, too, though, that the study could have used some more sophisticated thinking about dress and religious identity that would have helped them move beyond the rather simple and Eurocentric contention that the question of dress unproblematically “also revolves around the question of individual choice, gender equality and a woman’s control over her own body and sexuality,” but it’s certainly true that those questions come up.

The benefit of a more nuanced approach can I think be seen in the interesting and unsurprising gender breakdown of responses in regards to dress. Men and women in each country were largely in agreement about appropriate attire, but differed considerably “on the issue of a woman’s right to dress as she wishes. Women are more strongly in favor of this statement than men across the seven countries. People with a university education are also more supportive of women’s choice (except in Saudi Arabia).” That the Christian populations favor less restrictive clothing is also not surprising, and of course reflects economic and cultural situations and not exclusively religious. What does it mean, I would want the study to explore, that women can insist on having more control and more choice over their clothing, positions that could certainly be seen as reflecting secular values, but that their choices would still mesh with those seen as being more religious, or more traditional?

Second, what I would want it to be would to be more like this fascinating discussion of women’s clothing and religion by Laura Leibman over at Religion in American History that looks at nineteenth-century attitudes toward Judaism, the fraught intersection between whiteness and blackness at the time, and women’s clothing and fashion. I’ll let it stand on its own, and you should go read it in full. A couple things that struck me, though, in the context of the previous debate are the extent to which loose and disheveled clothing were used in art to indicate the non-white status of Jews, and the extent to which clothing that could be seen as stiffer and more restrictive could indicate the relatively freer and less black status of the wearer. That’s the entry into Leibman’s reading of the wedding portrait of a freed mixed-race daughter of a Jewish plantation owner and a slave that closes the post, which then goes on to highlight a number of representations of class and gender freedoms and restrictions in the subject’s tightly corseted attire that cannot be reduced, as she says, to “an assimilationist vs. devout model.”

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Should a university accommodate a man’s religious objection to interacting with women in class?

No. And this York University case I think was relatively poorly handled by the administration, and although I don’t fully know the reasons why the professor refused to honor the administration’s decision to accommodate the student, I think that the professor’s actions were appropriate, and I’m glad that the resolution of the case in the end seems satisfactory to both the professor and the students.

Briefly, the student requested accommodation in a hybrid class where much of the work was online, but classroom meetings required working in groups with other students, some of whom were likely going to be women. The university granted the request, and the professor refused to honor it on the grounds that it negatively impacted women in the class, and that granting this request would only open the door to increasingly disruptive demands from others. The professor’s department issued a statement supporting the professor, who continues to refuse to grant the accommodation. The student, though, is apparently satisfied with the seriousness the university debated the request, and is agreeing to comply with the requirements of the course despite his religious sensitivity to the presence of women.

Ordinarily I’m willing to give considerable sympathy to requests for accommodation, in educational situations and otherwise, that might even run against someone’s gut sense of what’s fair and appropriate. Most of these requests are coming from the conflicts between either non-Western, and chiefly Islamic, worldviews or defiantly anti-modern pockets of Christian culture and our contemporary Western, secular spaces. We tend, I think, to overreact initially and bristle at these accommodations because they seem to aggressive challenges to secular values. This is why, for instance, I’m so fascinated with the “headscarf debate” – bans and attacks on women for wearing the headscarf are clear overreactions that demonstrate an emotional engagement that exceeds any rational explanation for one’s position.

No small part of those same secular values, though, insist that we make every effort to accommodate religious requests in public spaces so that all people have equal access to those spaces and in particular no group is denied access because of deeply held convictions. And so the university’s decision to honor the request, and any such request, where there is no “substantial impact” on other students is understandable, and even commendable, since a generous gesture at accommodation should be the default attitude to counter the gut-level emotional responses to challenges.

But secular, public space isn’t entirely a vacuum: it is not merely defined by gate-keeping requirements about behaviors permitted within it. The university is a secular space with very specific cultural orientations, practices, and attitudes, ostensibly directed toward the development and dissemination of knowledge, professionalization, etc. I’m not going to get into deeper debates about the validity of the university and projects of modernity and secularization, so we’ll leave it at that.

You wouldn’t let a student object in a biology class about the teaching of evolution – and I certainly don’t accept student objections to the theory of evolution in my writing classes. If you can’t accept the theory of evolution on religious grounds, then I think you need to accept that a secular space devoted to the transmission of human-centered knowledge absent any divine revelation cannot accommodate you. Other social spaces may be made available, certainly, but the university – and educational institutions, generally – are a very specific secular space. We may wish to view society as a totality in which some accommodation must be made for everyone encompassed, but there’s no way that universities could be made so.

The same has to be the case for gender relations. The same is true for race, class, etc. Secular spaces have real, positive, particular, and, yes, contingent cultures and values. You could argue that not interacting with women is not going to affect those women, and the lack of any real harm done means that accommodation is possible, and this is clearly York’s position. But to do so would violate principle moral values of the secular space – that one does not chose to interact differently with peers in the education setting based on accidental qualities like class, race, gender, etc.

So what’s the difference between allowing headscarves, for instance, and allowing genders to segregate? Somebody could argue that allowing a woman to wear a headscarf in a public space violates the same principles of equality and fairness. Well, in part, this is where I think you need to insist on that initial impulse toward generosity, and I think that in light of that gesture, headscarves seem permissible while gender segregation does not. But I think, too, other inherent values of secularism that respect an individual and individual demands of conscience and hold those values as paramount over freedoms to interact or to chose not interact with others.

I don’t have a clear answer on it, though. And I have to admit that much of this seems rationalization of my own gut-level sense that one should permit religious observation and the dictates of conscience whenever possible but realize that acting within a specific secular space requires abiding by certain values and restrictions placed on interacting with others. And that this is as true in the marketplace as it is at the university.

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Diane Ravitch on the cruel hoax of education reform


This is from her book Reign of Error, which I plan on reading. You should also follow her blog:

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