Religious Studies Blog

Posted on March 21st, 2023 by wheelerr

By Prof. Tom Davis and Kayla McVeigh

“A real conversation always contains an invitation. You are inviting another person to reveal herself or himself to you, to tell you who they are or what they want.”  David Whyte

About a year and a half ago, I found myself seated next to Jing Wang, a colleague from the Department of World Languages and Culture. At the time, I knew Professor Wang casually—I once introduced her for a sabbatical talk. And, as things happen, we started talking. At first we were just chit-chatty, but somehow, on some topic, which I no longer remember, Professor Wang and I hit upon a topic that brought out our different perspectives. We talked. And then we left the gathering, knowing each other a little bit better.

The fun thing is that, by happenstance , we met again. We picked up our conversation from the last time we spoke. We explored eastern and western perspectives on things such as art and language. And it happened again. And again.

I can’t remember if it was the fourth or fifth such meeting (faculty meetings, farewell parties, etc.), but Professor Wang said, “We should have a course on this.” At first, I laughed and said sure. Yet, after a few minutes, it became clear that Professor Wang quite liked the idea. Her enthusiasm worked its magic, and, before long, she had me hooked. We were going to teach a course together on eastern and western perspectives of the world.

The last few conversations of spring 2022 led us to develop a bit of a plan, one we worked out over the course of the summer. By the time fall 2022 semester started, we were close to having an outline of what the course would offer. Working through the fall semester, we finalized a class description, created a syllabus, and began the work of convincing administrators and chairs to let us offer the course as soon as the next semester. As with everything related to the birth and development of the course, many conversations were required!

Here we are, then, just past spring break, and the class is unfolding beautifully. We focused our efforts on creating for students something like the conversations Professor Wang and I enjoyed over the past months. We’ve fostered an environment that, we hope, opens a space for meaningful conversation among ourselves and our students. I hope students view their participation as contributions to a large and meaningful exploration of how different cultures can learn one from the other by attending to the contours of what Professor Wang and myself see as a “real conversation.” These students accepted our invitation to talk about important things; we hope to have others join us in the future.

Kayla McVeigh, student

The course East and West in Conversation invites students to participate in an open dialogue with more than one answer to life’s big questions. Students are challenged to recognize different understandings of the world and ways of interpreting human experiences. Modules covering philosophy, nature, the human body, the body and mind, and even language have students engage with observing differences between traditional eastern and western beliefs rather than stacking one view against the other.

Critical thinking, group discussion, individual connections with the material, writing skills, and a willingness to explore cultural diversity are all important skills this course helps students further develop. From a student’s perspective, I have been thrilled to look at themes I thought I had familiarity with and have my knowledge of those topics shifted or expanded. This is a wonderful holistic course with practical content and learning objectives that are useful for a wide range of students.