Pain and Pedagogy

We have been studying abortion recently in my Bioethics class, and we’ve been doing so at the same time that we’re studying Buddhism in my Asian Religions course. The abortion unit has been challenging at times: many of the students learned for the first time about how an abortion is performed (at various stages of the pregnancy). We also read a moving article from New York magazine that let over two dozen women tell the stories of their abortion experiences. We needed to do both of these things, even though they brought real pain to my students (and to me).

This abortion unit in particular has had me thinking about a pedagogy that makes room for pain. I’ve thought as well about King Shuddodhana, the father of Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha. Wishing to prevent his son from becoming a world-renouncer, the King set about creating a world for his son that was free from suffering and pain. Young Siddhartha had every wondrous thing he desired – good food, good clothing, good dancing ladies (quite a few, according to some accounts) – and lived a life of luxury and privilege that often has resonance with more than a few of my private school students who hear his story.

Yet his father’s efforts were ultimately for naught: Prince Siddhartha did one day journey outside the palace walls, and there he saw the famous four sights: an elderly person, a sick person, a dead person, and a wandering ascetic. The first three inspired a deep sense of dissatisfaction with the world and its ephemeral pleasures; the fourth inspired Siddhartha to leave behind the palace, his wife, their newly-born child, his grieving parents – all in an effort to understand the nature of reality.

Things worked out just fine for Siddhartha, so that’s not my concern. Rather, I’m trying to think through the best way to approach these issues – aging, sickness, and death – with my students. The issue of abortion is, most likely, one that some of them have already faced, either in their own immediate relationships with a partner, or with their friends. And it’s certainly something that they will continue to face, both in college and beyond. More than almost anything, I want my students to live meaningful lives. I also don’t want them to feel pain. But I can’t be like Siddhartha’s father and try to shield them from too much.

Sometimes class needs to be in the minor key. I’m okay with that. But I’m trying to figure out ways to help create a space in which students can listen to each other, ask questions, encounter challenging material. I also want the classroom to be an open and safe enough space that students can feel pain. This pain is part of being a human being, and it’s certainly a feature of many of the stories of women in the article: pain from being the victim of sexual assault or rape that resulted in pregnancy; pain from choosing to terminate a pregnancy when they learned about medical complications for the fetus; pain at the realization that they were not able to care for a child at this stage of their lives.

The stories are not only of pain, of course. Often they are more nuanced. One woman writes, in relation to a late-term abortion that she had to fly across the country for: “I didn’t have relief until my next daughter was born. Now we have three living children. That doctor gave me my family.”

More than anything, I think, my wish is for the classroom to be a place where it’s okay to be uncertain, okay to hesitate, okay to rethink a position. I’m fortunate that this group of Bioethics students has embraced an ethos of truth-seeking conversation instead of victory-seeking debate, so there’s been a good foundation laid by us together as a class. Students have ventured tentative thoughts, ideas that are clearly in progress as they seek to make sense of the moral worth of a fetus and the duties a mother may have toward it. There is a rare kind of emotional and existential vulnerability that the students have been able to bring to class, and it has made us open enough to feel real things, and to learn difficult things about real people.

It has also reminded us of the importance of real friendship and support. As one woman noted in her interview, “There’s no room to talk about being unsure.” A place where we can be unsure, a place of uncertainty, a place of pain: while I don’t want my classroom to be that place every day, there are some days when that seems to be the most human and humane way we can relate to the lives of the people we’re learning about – and to each other.

A Language Map of South Asia


An anti-monolithic visual!

The idea that something is monolithic — India, Hinduism, religion — is, in my experience, one of the most enduring misconceptions people can have when they begin to learn about a topic.

I have used this graphic for the past few years with good success, both in courses with high school students, and in professional development presentations I’ve given to fellow teachers. It’s been great at getting across a couple related ideas:

1. India is not monolithic. There is no one single India; rather, it’s probably better to think about Indias. (This is similar to a point I made here about Hinduisms, Buddhisms, and the like.) We can see different languages, such as the Sanskritic ones in the north (with the horizontal bar linking letters) and Dravidian ones in the south (with the rounder letters). There are real cultural and linguistic differences that a map such as this one points to.

(Other scripts are present as well, and they give a sense of the broader cultural diversity of this region: there are Perso-Arabic scripts in the western part of this map, there is Tibetan (not quite properly formatted), and there is Chinese.)

2. The other idea, which is in many ways, a restatement of the first point, is that India is internally diverse. The idea of internal diversity is central to the cultural studies approach to religion, but it’s not always the most intuitive one for students to grasp. With an abstract idea such as this one, I often find that seeing something grounds understanding better than just hearing something (for example, if I simply tell students that India is internally diverse), and I think this image is a good way to help students see the internal (linguistic) diversity of India.

This visual also has real value as a schema — a way to help organize subsequent knowledge. Even though this map is about languages, I can refer back to it when we begin to study Hinduism and Buddhism to remind us that these religions, like India, do not speak in one voice.

Mick Jagger, Doctor Buddha, and the Four Noble Truths


(This post is a PG-rated follow-up to my post on Louis CK, and a follow up to the 2×2 Four Noble Truths post.)

When I was working with my sixth graders, I wanted to give them a way to think through and understand the idea of dukkha. The Four Noble Truths do not make much sense if this central idea is not grasped, but I wasn’t quite sure how to make this idea accessible to them without either bludgeoning them with the truth (impermanence, death, loss, pain, etc. — not very appropriate developmentally) or skipping over it entirely.

It was at this point that I remembered once hearing Lama Zopa Rinpoche, a contemporary Tibetan Buddhist teacher, speak about “that skinny man from England with the big lips who teaches the Lam Rim [Stages of the Buddhist Path to Awakening].” This was the way in!

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Doritos and Discipline


I still recall a conversation I had early in my student-teaching career. My supervisor and I were talking about a recent class that had gone pretty well, although I had been dealing with some boisterousness in my classes. (Typical first-year teacher things, and typical 9th grade things.) I asked her if she had any ideas for classroom management, and she replied in her typically straightforward way, “Yes. Teach better.” Continue reading

The Bhagavad Gita and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s Nurses


Krishna teaching Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita

D.D. Kosambi, the Indian Marxist historian, once dismissed the Bhagavad Gita as “700 fratricidal verses.” And while this text has been extolled by champions of nonviolence such as Thoreau and Gandhi, Kosambi does have a point: Krishna – God himself who has taken on human form – urges Arjuna, the reluctant warrior, to fight in battle against his teachers, cousins, and friends. Why? Because his dharma requires him to do so. Arjuna must act in this battle in order to preserve the order of the universe, even if it means slaughtering his kin. Continue reading