Teaching Philosophy

In a 2001 episode of the West Wing, the fictional Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality tries to convince the White House staff to change the world map required in all public school classrooms. These cartographers prefer the Peters-Gall Projection rather than the current, and more common, Mercator Projection map.[1] As the cartographers make their case, they compare and contrast the two world maps side-by-side, revealing wildly different representations of not only where each continent is located but also their relative sizes. Despite press secretary C.J. Cregg’s confusion with where nations are really located, the cartographers suggest using maps that place the northern hemisphere on the bottom of the map rather than the top. “Yeah, but you can’t do that,” Cregg says. “Why?,” they ask. “Because it’s freaking me out.”

In a university classroom, I consider myself to be a mentor and guide for students as we explore a variety of topics together. Through both my research and teaching, I seek to unsettle what appears natural and true, including individual cultural identities and nation-state boundaries. My current Religions of the World class, for instance, is organized chronologically, rather than thematically by tradition, to demonstrate the formation of our mental maps for each religious tradition. This historical approach to religion allows me to trace the expansion and collapse of people groups and empires to illustrate the social construction of both state and religious institutions.

Much like with my research on liberal internationalism, this course demonstrates how nationalism shapes its citizens’ understanding of themselves and the rest of the world. As Cregg revealed in the West Wing episode, her sense of “the world” was lost when the placement of nations in relation to each other changed. By unsettling students’ mental maps of both the(ir) “world” and “religion,” I see myself demonstrating to students, through images, texts, sounds, and even tastes, what J.Z. Smith referred to as “the variety of attempts to map, construct, and inhabit such positions of power through the use of myths, rituals, and experiences of transformation.”[2]

In this way, knowledge of history and religion are not separate areas of study for me, but constitutive elements that contribute to helping students understand the imagined communities around them. I see both fields as deeply rooted in the process of textual and cultural interpretation, formulating narratives that are socially constructed and re-constructed over time. Histories and ideologies (both individual or institutional) work together to construct material and immaterial realities found in mental and physical maps. In my classroom, students learn how to recognize the maps that shape their perceptions of the world, to compare mental maps through historical method, and to engage in critical analysis of information in front of them. As an interdisciplinary researcher and teacher, I do not isolate one method from another, but illustrate how multiple influences shape what we know about the world and our place in it. By unsettling what seems natural and true, I invite students to reconsider what they previously knew while also providing the tools and direction necessary to navigate the imagined communities in their own mental maps.

[1] “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail,” West Wing, Season 2, Episode 16, Directed by Jessica Yu, Written by Paul Redford and Aaron Sorkin, aired February 26, 2001, National Broadcasting Company.

[2] J.Z. Smith, Map is Not Territory: Studies in the History of Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 291.

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