Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Your parents (sic), they are well?

I've started to think more about next semester's iteration of Exploring Religious Ethics focusing on Confucianism. Confucianism should serve many of the meta- points rather nicely, notably the ostensible secularity (or at least detachability-from-religion) of "ethics" - claims made for Confucianism, too. Wider moral communities come into play - ancestors, the earth, Tian - and also the question I've been calling the relation of ethics and ritual: is one best seen as an instance of the other?

I'm a long way from deciding what to do in the class, and in what order, but (or perhaps therefore) I've been thinking also about how to to do it. I had coffee this afternoon with L, a colleague who teaches about "non-western approaches to international relations" and has written about Daoist and Confucian alternatives to "Westphalianism" in political thinking. L has had students do various dramatizations in her classes and I'd just had a fabulous interactive class on William James, focused on how Varieties of Religious Experience is about channeling the voices of others. (What will it have been like to hear James performing the many very long excerpts from the religious experiences of others in the lectures which became Varieties?? What will it have been like to be James channeling them? We practiced hearing, and then performing ourselves...) We compared notes. What might one do in a course centered on Confucianism? It needs to be interactive. I told L about how Michael Puett's Harvard course on Chinese philosoophy has apparently changed lives by getting students to hold doors open for strangers.

Here's what I'm thinking now. These days many courses (especially social justice courses) start with a class discussion and decision on "ground rules." ("One mike," "Use I-statements," "Oops/Ouch," etc.) We'll have "Confucian" ground rules, and let them gently structure the nature of our interactions. With L's help I've thought of two possibilities so far. One involves deferring to others: when you and another student want to speak, and I (the teacher) call on you, you give the word to the other student. We can give that move a name and/or mark its performance whenever it happens in some way (a nod, perhaps, or a fingersnap), making explicit the way in which we are creating a world of courtesy and respect together. We could do the same with other civilities.

The other thing I'm considering involves a version of the tradition in Confucian societies (so L tells me) of asking about an interlocutors' parents well-being first, before asking theirs. "Your parents, they are well? And you?" Family is too fraught, and our students' families too fractured, for that to work in unmodified form. But what if, taking a page from Jeff Stout's take on Ciceronian piety towards the "sources of our being," we asked students early on to identify some of the sources of their being, and then asked about those? If a student tells us her grandmother is important to her, we'll ask her each week how her grandmother is doing. If a student says it's a teacher, or older friend or relation, we'll ask about them. If students decide it's someone else we should be asking about, they could tell us and we'll adjust.

It'd be weird and then, I would hope, it wouldn't be. It might be wonderful. We'd get a sense of what it is to interact with people not as abstracted individuals but as members of lineages of nurturance and memory - and to be seen by others similarly. How might our discussions change with that altered sense of where each of us is "coming from"?

I came up with this idea, I think, because of the way in which inviting last Fall's "Theorizing Religion" students to consider the styles of religion-making they inherit made our final class one in which I felt the presence of more than the students. (I guess I didn't write about it here; perhaps it seemed too intimate, not for sharing beyond that group.) With the students were sources of their being, lost loved ones whose memories guided them, the worlds to which they returned each night or holiday. I'm thinking also of the Buddhist practices which start with thinking of one's "benefactors," those who have made it possible for us to be what we are. Not "Confucian"? Not a problem, I think...

Anyone have a strong sense that this would be excellent, or awful?

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