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The EAC sponsors course on East Asian Religions

December 16, 2019

David Fowler was funded by the East Asia Center to teach RELIG 202: Eastern Traditions in autumn quarter 2019. We sat down with David in November to discuss the course, how his students engage in the classroom, and his personal thoughts on the course’s impact both inside and outside the classroom.

Hi, David. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us.

Not a problem. The pleasure is mine.

Before we get into the course content, could you tell us a bit about yourself.

Sure thing. I am a University of Washington alumnus and actually took JSIS 202: Eastern Traditions back in 1996. My degree was conferred by the Jackson School’s South Asia Studies Program, and from there I went to UC Santa Barbara and received my Ph.D. UW means a lot to me, and I’m happy to be back.

Tell us about the course you’re teaching.

RELIG 202: Eastern Traditions serves as an introduction to the religious traditions of Asia and aims to convey an appreciation of these traditions by introducing students to their diverse creative genius and general cultural significance. The goal is to cast a wide net for a broad understanding of these traditions, including Buddhist, Shinto, Confucian, and Daoist traditions through analysis of sacred literature and ritual practice. Islam is also included in a course like this, because the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of practitioners are in Asia, and to not include it would be an injustice. When teaching, one must make difficult pedagogical choices like this since it is hard to simplify the information and decide which aspects of tradition to emphasize.

 What is the student composition of the class?

There are 36 registered students taking the class (with 6 Access students as well). And the course has pulled in students from outside of the Jackson School; it has attracted students from STEM fields as well as from business. It offers a very dynamic course experience that appeals to many different people.

Have student reactions been positive?

They have been particularly positive and engaged. I hold office hours twice a week before every class period and it’s a pretty constant flow of students. They do not necessarily come in with a specific goal or end in mind, so it’s encouraging to have students that visit just because they are interested in the material and are pursuing more information. I feel a similar interest and “hunger” in class, too, coupled with lots of engagement and curiosity. The thought that such hunger would go unfulfilled if the class were not supported by the East Asia Center is deeply saddening.

How do you see the course content impacting students outside the classroom? Outside academia?

The course content is germane outside the sphere of the traditions addressed – connecting to  politics, business, & other religious traditions. Is it possible to understand China’s rapid rise without understanding 2000+ years of Confucian tradition? South Asian or Indian politics without understanding Hindu traditions? I would argue no. Likewise, I like to consider how this course can assist someone going for an undergraduate degree in business or similar field. A class like this is a nice counterweight to the overwhelming emphasis on STEM courses: there are no equations here, no solutions ready at hand. It’s all about unstructured thinking, which is an extremely valuable skillset to develop. Like I say, it’s about learning to think differently, becoming comfortable with that, and that’s a valuable skillset in the classroom, in a laboratory, and in a board room. Courses like 202 help develop and foster that skill and create the means for that creativity. Finally, a course like this allows students to see religion not just as religion but as a force amongst others that affects the actions of individuals and groups, and how it affects trajectories of entire societies. We have to understand these traditions and how they inform people’s lives and act as forces both historically and in today’s world.

And these skills would be lost without funding from the East Asia Center?

First off, RELIG 202 would not exist without funding from the East Asia Center, despite it being a required course for certain majors to graduate. Comparative Religions at the University of Washington is underfunded, so I am delighted the EAC was able to fund the course. It is a really important class to offer if the university aims to graduate well-rounded, curious students. There needs to be some balance when you take all things together. I think it would be great to see more done with the Comparative Religion program so students are given options that connect with others departments and their offerings, like Asian Languages & Literature.

Well, hopefully we can make that happen and you’ll be back for another gig sometime in the future. Thanks for your time, David.

No, thank you!

East Asia Center

Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies
University of Washington
Box 353650
Seattle WA, 98195-3650