Asian Religions in America as an Ngram: Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Rammohun Spike

I decided to play around with Google’s Ngram viewer and see what it might tell me about how Americans wrote about Asian religions. Click here for a bigger version of the graph. Here’s what I noticed:

1. The most popular moment for Asian religions in America was in the 1820s and it most likely revolved around the figure of Rammohun Roy the “Hindoo reformer” highly covered in Unitarian and evangelical missionary journals. His debates with the English Baptist missionaries at Serampore, just outside Calcutta, and his publication of the Precepts of Jesus attracted a lot of attention in America. He wanted to eventually come to the United States but died in Bristol, England while touring Britain before he could make it. There’s a lot more to be said about Rammohun but I’ll let the spike speak to his importance and refer you to my dissertation that should be done early next year for more details.

2. The spike in “Hindoo” before Rammohun matches up with the beginnings of the American missionary movement. The first missionaries were ordained by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1812 and went to India and Ceylon. What I can’t explain is the dip between the missionaries and Rammohun.

3. Looking further down the timeline, it is interesting to note the way “Hinduism” never gets close to the same frequency as “Buddhism” while “Hindu” keeps pace with “Buddhism” and “Buddhist.” This proves an important point made by writers, most notably Tomoko Masuzawa in her book The Invention of World Religions, that Buddhism was accorded more authority as a “world religion” than Hinduism during the nineteenth century. This graph shows that Americans took interest “Hindus” and “Hindoos” but that they didn’t give”Hinduism” the status of full fledged religion. “Hinduism” was not discussed as frequently as “Buddhism” because it was seen as less important and less legitimate religion. “Hinduism” does get a bump after 1893, most likely from the arrival of Vivekananda. Nonetheless, there is a lot of writing about Hindus but not much about Hinduism. It seems Americans wrote more frequently about the figure of the Hindu than the overall religious system. Meanwhile, Buddhists and Buddhism got equal treatment.

There are certainly caveats to the accuracy of this method and the use of Ngrams in general for historical work. That said, I do think that there are places where graphs like this can corroborate other more traditional forms of historical evidence. The “Rammohun spike” seems fairly plausible to me. For those of us interested in the history of religious concepts and categories in American culture, the Ngram can be a great jumping off point for theorizing the relationship between culture and discourse. It’s one more tool for whacking away at the stubborn rock of history in hopes of chiseling out something meaningful.

Also, this is post number 100 for this blog. Hooray! Thanks to everyone who has read and supported my blogging here and elsewhere. It’s been fun for me and I hope you’ve gotten something out of it too.


Social Media and the Religious Studies Classroom: Twitter as a Third Space

Plate 113 of Birds of America by John James Audubon depicting Blue-bird.

I have always said that the best time to experiment as a teacher is in graduate school. In many cases your course load is lighter than as an adjunct or tenure track faculty member and your student reviews won’t go in your tenure file. Instead the bad ones can go in the recycling bin. There is a safety net and, hopefully, lots of wise faculty members to help you along the way. It is an important time to test out things that may or may not work and hone innovative strategies you can share on the job market.

To that end, I began to experiment with social media in my Religion 100 course last semester. The official title of the course was “Introduction to Religion: Christian and Hindu Traditions.” In the course I used both a public class blog, Twitter, and Skype. Things went really well and I learned a lot. I have even been asked to share what I’ve learned with faculty and graduate student’s here at Emory. Now I want to share my thoughts on social media and how it can be especially helpful in religious studies classes. I also want to explore the idea of “the social” both in our media and in our classrooms–a question I did not think through at the beginning but have returned to in looking back on the course.

But why use any form of technology, social media or otherwise, in your teaching? My basic approach to using technology is based in the metaphor of the tool belt. Technologies are just like any other tools we use in our teaching–tests, assignments, or readings. So, the question is not “How can I use Twitter in my class?” Rather, the question is “What do I want to do in this class?” In some cases the best technology is a whiteboard while in others it could be something a little higher tech. In any case, you start with the goal or problem, not with the tool.

In Religion 100 I had 4 goals (these were separate from but related too the learning objectives of the class):

  1. I want to figure out what students are getting out of the reading BEFORE I lecture in class.
  2. I want to open up the classroom. That is, I want to get students thinking about class outside of the the class period and get outsiders thinking with my class.
  3. I want to teach them to be able to connect course material with the world around them. ( I think of this as a civic pedagogy.)
  4. I want them writing across different genres

As I considered the above goals I came up with three social media tools that would help me: a blog, Twitter, and Skype. I’ll start with Twitter in this post and address the other two in a subsequent post or posts.

So here’s what I did. You can find the whole syllabus for the course at the link above but here’s the section that outlined the Twitter assignment:

We will use Twitter as a way to share thoughts on the reading, comments or questions in class, links to possible blog stories, and for general communication. You are required to send out three course related tweets per week using the hashtag #REL100. These three tweets must relate to content in the course. They could be comments that come to mind as you read, a question about the reading material, a comment or question during class discussion or lectures, a link to something you’ve found online that relates to themes we covered in class, or a response to someone else’s tweet. Retweets without further comment do not count. Messages or mentions to me about details (i.e. “@MichaelJAltman What time are your office hours tomorrow?”) do not count.

If you are not a very talkative person and do not enjoy speaking up in class, Twitter is a great option for you to participate in class. Class participation is part of your grade and Twitter may give you a more comfortable platform for asking questions, making comments, and joining in the discussion. I will be monitoring #REL100 during class and responding to comments and questions that appear there. You are not required to follow the Twitter stream during class.

I will spend time in class explaining how to use Twitter so everyone feels comfortable with the platform. I will also briefly cover how to write a good “thick” tweet.

I was surprised how quickly students got the hang of a “thick” tweet. I was also surprised at how hard it was to follow the stream while also lecturing. I eventually gave that up. I used the now defunct Twapperkeeper to archive the tweets which means that I had them during the semester but they are now gone into the internet ether. I think The Archivist would work if I was doing it again and I also think a simple RSS feed for the course hashtag would have been sufficient. For more on these nuts and bolts issues check out the links on my teaching page.

So how well did it work? A few things went really well. First of all, it did open up the class. Students were thinking about the course materials for a few extra minutes each week. I could tell this because I could see the tweets and their time stamps. Also, a lot of students tweeted links to things they found around the internet that related to class. They began to see the course material in the world around them (more on that when we get to the blog). While not a lot of outsiders joined into the Twitter conversations, I do know that there were folks following our discussion and so in that way it opened up our class to the outside.

Beyond opening up the class, the tweets made my lectures better. Many students tweeted as they read with questions, ideas, and thoughts. It was like I could see their marginalia before I had completed my lectures. I knew which parts of readings needed emphasis or explanation in class and I got their first impressions so that I could begin the process of pushing their thinking to a deeper level. While some students commented that they enjoyed the Twitter activity itself, overall the class reviews almost unanimously cited the lectures as the best part of the class. Little did they know that they were helping write those great lectures. I also got comments from students that the 140 character limit forced them to really boil down their thoughts. This reminds me of some of the creative writing assignments I had in college where you had to write a short story using only one syllable words. Constraints can force critical or creative thinking.

I did learn a few things that I would do differently the next time around. First, I would have been more clear about why I was having them tweet and how their tweets were informing my lectures and improving the class. I think a few people felt that it was busy work because they didn’t realize that their were real benefits for them in the tweets. Second, I would spread it out. I had a few students who would wait until the weekly deadline and then send out three tweets in a row or three quick responses to other people’s tweets. A group of late night religion tweeters began to assemble every week right before the deadline for a Religion 100 tweetfest. I think next time I will require students to tweet X number days, instead of times, to spread it out. Finally, less is more. I think two tweets a week or even an average of two tweets a week throughout the semester would have been a better assignment. They would have had less to do and I would still have had enough tweets to use in my lecture writing.

I think Twitter was very successful tool for accomplishing my goals. It improved my lectures, opened up the class, helped them connect material to their world, and got them writing in a new genre. I think it worked well because I made sure to bring interesting tweets into the classroom and reference them in lectures. I also think it worked because I restrained myself as much as I could. I tried to hold back and not answer their questions. I tried not to respond to their thoughts too often or too quickly. I tried to sit on my hands and make Twitter stream more their space than mine.

Twitter became a “third space “in the class. When I used to work a certain giant green northwestern based coffee company they would refer to their stores as a “third place” between work and home. You could get a coffee and sit on a couch or you could write on your laptop and check emails. It wasn’t home but it wasn’t work. That’s how Twitter functioned in our class. It became a third space where students could float ideas, try to make connections, and ask questions. Because I restrained myself and let them respond and answer each other it became more their space than mine. It wasn’t their personal space but it wasn’t the classroom space where right answers are rewarded and I maintain control. It was a 3rd space between their thoughts/notes and the classroom. It was also a very productive space for them.

I think this third space is especially important in religious studies classes because of the nature of what we teach. Twitter was a place where confessionalism (still within certain boundaries) was tolerated more than in the academic classroom. For a class on Hinduism and Christianity, it gave my Hindu and Christian students a place to work out how the course materials related to their own religious identities and practices. We don’t often have time to let students work out these sorts of questions within the confines of our classrooms or written assignments but Twitter acted as a pressure valve that allowed students to make sense of the course in terms of their own subjectivity. A conservative evangelical student was able to take issue with an essay we read on early Christianities without disrupting class time by tweeting to me about it. The whole class saw the tweets and my response and so he felt heard, the exchange was respectful, questions were answered, and we moved on. That could easily have been a twenty minute distraction if it happened in class. Instead it was a teachable moment. My restraint at other times made my interventions into the Twitter conversation more productive.

I definitely think I will use Twitter again in the classroom. For my lifestyle and my teaching style it proved itself as a constructive tool for achieving my goals in the classroom. As a piece of social media, Twitter gave the course a congenial feeling that we were all in this together and that it was a safe space for discussion and disagreement. Also, I’ve found that if given the choice to comment on a blog post or write their own blog post of the same length, most students will simply write their own because it is easier to come up with their own thoughts than read, understand, and respond to someone else. Not the case with Twitter. The short tweets actually make it easier to respond and thus build a conversation than a message board or blog. But the biggest advantage was the ways it narrowed the gap between the student’s thoughts on the material and my presentation of the material. Overall it enhanced the social aspects of the course. That works for my teaching style and, from the responses students gave, it worked for them too.

[Image: Plate 113 of Birds of America by John James Audubon depicting Blue-bird. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]


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