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Public Reflection on Community-Engaged Teaching in Covid Times 

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By: Benjamin Nourse, Assistant Professor, Department of Religious Studies

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I taught my first course with a serious community engagement component this past year. What are my take-aways from jumping into community-engaged teaching in the Covid-era? While many people have discussed the “new normal” of the Covid and post-Covid eras in terms of the increasing integration of technology into teaching and learning, I am envisioning a “new normal” in which teaching and learning more deeply recognize our humanity. For me, this means that building community should be a fundamental aspect of every course. It means that it is sometimes necessary to slow down, to work on a human-scale at a human pace, and to make space in the classroom for recognizing and acknowledging the emotional weight of the times: the pandemic, racial injustice, political tensions, mass shootings, and so much more. It means recognizing that these larger events touch us and effect our teaching and learning. On the other hand, our educational institutions can be vehicles for addressing them. For community-engaged teaching especially, I want to make time to digest more fully a smaller amount of material, while letting the experiences, the conversations, the community work be teachings unto themselves. Technology will continue to be part of our lives, but we need to see it as a tool to help us live into our humanity instead of as something which overwhelms our humanity.   

The community engaged course I taught was on Buddhism and Social Justice. One of the Buddhists whose work we read in the course was the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term “Engaged Buddhism” and he has put forward a three-fold approach to socially engaged Buddhism: mindful awareness, social service, and social action. I think this can also be a good paradigm for thinking about community-engaged teaching and learning. Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes that in order to create positive change in society we need to create positive change in ourselves, too. For Thich Nhat Hanh this comes about through mindful awareness. We need to contemplate who we are and how our actions effect ourselves, others, and the world. This “inner work” allows us to be more effective in the “outer work” of social service and activism. Thich Nhat Hanh thinks of social service as the practical work of helping others in the here and now, while social activism is working to transform the larger systems that cause widespread inequalities and injustices.     

In terms of our class on Buddhism and Social Justice, the mindful awareness component was facilitated by weekly reflective writing, often followed by classroom discussions based on these reflections. The majority of the reflections were based on meditations from Rhonda McGee’s The Inner Work of Racial Justice. The meditations in McGee’s book first bring you into an awareness of your own body in the present moment, recognizing your embodied nature, before guiding you through a contemplation of your own personal history, identity, or values. McGee then often returns to the body, checking in with your physical reactions to the contemplations. These meditations and the reflective writing gave the members of the class space to reflect on their own identities and have open conversations about how our identities shape our experiences and our interactions with others, including in the classroom and in our work with community partners. These were not always easy conversations, especially when they moved into discussions of race and racism. We often have strong reactions to these topics, and many of these reactions have a bodily component. Most of us in the class found that the practice of becoming aware of these bodily reactions made them less overwhelming or, at least, gave us a better sense of when we needed to take a pause. The conversations we had also allowed us to get to know one another on a deeper level, which was a step toward building our own community within the classroom.     

A significant part of the course dealt with issues of racial justice, and that topic also was central to our community-engagement projects. One of our collaborative projects for the quarter could be considered under Thich Nhat Hanh’s social service component. This project consisted of facilitating a community forum on the topic of Buddhism, Race, and Racism. The students were instrumental in designing and organizing this event, which took place over Zoom. The result was a space for local community members to discuss issues of racism as well as local initiatives for racial justice. We had panels of community speakers as well as time for small group reflection and conversation. As a class, we came to recognize the value of making time for people just to reflect together. In the depths of the pandemic, when people were feeling disconnected, when there was so much to process, when many of us were rethinking our approach to everything, just making space for people to share and digest everything together was important.     

In terms of social activism to change larger systems, students in the class created resources for teaching about race, racism, and racial justice in college-level Buddhist Studies courses as well as in Buddhist communities. These will be shared with a larger project seeking to make these topics more central to education about Buddhism. For me personally, as member of an institution of higher education, the course made me deeply consider my own position and practices as a professor in an American university. I was pushed out of my comfort zone as I moved from being what bell hooks has called the professor as “benevolent dictator” to a more collaborative and open classroom environment. The reflections and readings of the course did not just impact the students, they impacted me. I was moved to evaluate the systems I am embedded within and begin to change them, starting with my own classes.