COR 3001: Big Questions: Happiness and Suffering (Core Curriculum, Singapore Management University)

I am very excited to be teaching the Big Questions course that is being rolled out with the newly revised Core Curriculum at Singapore Management University. Each year, the ‘Big Questions’ rotate themes. This year, it’s Happiness and Suffering. I’m told that next year will focus on ‘global and local.’

Some people have asked me how a geographer like me can teach such a philosophical course. I often respond with an answer that I once heard from a prominent feminist geographer as to what geographers do, that our readings are quite ‘intellectually promiscuous.’ Our discipline focuses on the examination of space, what it even is and how that interacts with human agents and non-human actors, so there is an element of theory that is shot through all of our work. I see teaching something like ‘happiness and suffering’ as an opportunity to move from the theoretical to the philosophical, to be invested not only in the applicability of ideas about space but also to test whether how we think about the basic concepts of feelings, affect, interiority, the self, and so on are even sound, even as we are interested in how they come to be deployed in space.

It is in this sense that I’ve articulated my sections of the course to be focused on the philosophical, psychoanalytical, and postsecular dimensions of happiness and suffering. There is a field within academia called happiness studies that I understand to try to measure what happiness is, while alleviating suffering. What I want to do is to locate such discussions in a broader theoretical conversation about the structures of feeling and what Charles Taylor calls a secular age. In some ways, teaching the course in this way is, like all of my other colleagues who are trying out pedagogical pathways into this topic this year, a grand experiment to see whether these ideas will interest students who are faced with a real world in which they’ll have to work and build lives.

Teaching begins soon, so I must sign off on this update and keep up with my preparations. I’m very excited to meet my students.

Summer 2019 update

photo by wife

The 2018-2019 school year has wrapped up, and summer is upon us. It’s been quite a year for me. I have a number of things coming through the pipeline, some articles, some book chapters, even a manuscript for a monograph that I’ve been crafting on Cantonese Protestants and postsecular civil societies on the Pacific Rim.

Some stuff has been happening already. A chapter of mine on cultural geography came out in the volume Theorizing ‘Religion’ in Antiquity, edited by Nickolas Roubekas, in which I continue my unlikely defence from my piece on ‘grounded theologies‘ of the legacy of Mircea Eliade as a historian of religion who is a central figure (at least as I argue) in geographies of religion. I gave a colloquium talk at Calvin College’s Department of Geology, Geography, and Environmental Studies on an article I’ve been crafting on Chinese American megachurches in the Silicon Valley. My critical reflective piece on the concepts ‘uniatism’ and the ‘model minority’ that the magazine Patriyarkhat invited me to write has come out, first in Ukrainian translation in the print version in December 2018, then online in English, and now also with footnotes and extended clarifications in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. I’ve attended four conferences — the American Academy of Religion in November 2018, a very interesting conference on Christian social activism and Chinese societies at Purdue’s Center for Religion and Chinese Society, the American Association of Geographers in April 2018 where I organized and presented an exegesis of Paulo Freire in a session on pedagogy and religion in geography, and the Association for Asian American Studies in that same month, during which I had the honour of organizing an all-star, standing-room-only panel on the historian Gary Okihiro’s provocation ‘Asians did not go to America; America went to Asia.’ We are going to continue the intervention with Okihiro’s work at the American Studies Association later this November in Honolulu, with another panel titled Third World Studies, Not Ethnic Studies, as a conversation around Okihiro’s longstanding argument that the internationalist sensibilities that gave rise to anti-colonial critiques of racial formations caved to liberal nationalist frameworks that led to the siloing of identity in the academy.

As I wrapped up my third and final year as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University, I expanded the scope of my teaching. My course offerings this year ranged the full gamut of my repertoire in Asian American studies: Asian American history, Chinese American studies, Asian American religion, Asian American social movements, Global Chinatowns, and Asian American geographies. But this year especially, I have been drawn more directly into the formal individual supervision of students. In the past, I had taught some directed studies courses, as well as supervised research, on topics closer to my own research interests on Asian American Christianities and their relationship to Asian American studies. But this year, there has been a wide much range of independent studies topics, including Korean dance and ‘the invention of tradition,’ sonic orientalism in popular movie soundtracks, Global China and feminism, research methods in Chicago’s Chinese churches and trans-Pacific theologies, indigeneity and orientalism on the Pacific, the postsecular Pacific, and psychoanalysis and the Pacific. I also had the privilege of supervising my first thesis student Irina Huang, an undergraduate senior in American studies, who wrote a theoretically rigorous piece woven in with personal creative nonfiction essays on how obsessive-compulsive disorder functions in the normative public sphere as a ‘model minority’ of mental illness.

I continue to be active in my public engagements as well. The journalist Douglas Quan interviewed me for a very interesting piece last October on Richmond’s ‘cultural diversity policy.’ I have also been invited by Worldview on WBEZ 91.5 FM in Chicago four times over the last school year to offer scholarly analyses of Hong Kong, its tradition and practice of protests, and the recent blow-ups about the incarceration of some figures from the Occupy Central and Umbrella Movement occupations in 2014 as well as the controversial extradition law.

In terms of service, one role that I have taken on over the last year is to be program co-chair of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Reading through the abstracts and thinking about organizing the program has given me new insight into what we do as social scientists of religion. I am glad to be working with our president Elaine Howard Ecklund and my co-chair Ryon Cobb as we expand the diversity of our organization, especially for the conference in St Louis this year in October.

Finally, my biggest and most exciting announcement is that I have just started work as Assistant Professor in Humanities (Education) at Singapore Management University. In addition to teaching courses in the School of Social Sciences, my major role there is to offer the Core Curriculum, a program that seeks to engage students across the school with the big concepts that are fused throughout our contemporary world. This year, the theme will be Happiness and Suffering, which I will teach, along with my colleagues, as a philosophical, psychoanalytical, and postsecular exploration of these affects, emotions, and orientations to the world. As an academic, my work is to write and to probe the complex phenomena common to our shared inhabitation of the earth, so it obviously goes without saying that my published views anywhere are in no way to be associated with my employers, as if academics could fully agree on anything anyway. Indeed, my convictions about all academic work — whether under the pillar of research, teaching, service, or community engagement — is that it should all be a springboard into a larger discussion in which all participants are strengthened through engagement, never the final word on any topic. I am thrilled to ‘let my work grow up,’ as I heard one senior academic once describe to a junior colleague, in this intellectual community, and I look forward to spirited engagements and enthusiastic conversation here.

CLASS: Comparative Minority Conservatisms (Fall 2016)

During the 2016 Fall Quarter at Northwestern University, I will offer my first course in the Asian American Studies Program on Comparative Minority Conservatisms. In this course, we will compare the circulation of ‘conservative’ ideologies through communities of color. Here’s the course description:

As the 2016 federal elections arrive on our doorstep, much of the popular commentary has revolved around “conservatism,” especially the phenomenon of racial minorities embracing social, economic, and political forms of conservative ideology. But what is “conservatism,” and what are conservatives, especially those who are people of color, trying to conserve? In this course, we will explore the ideological content of various strains of American conservatisms as a way of exploring what ideology itself is and how it operates in communities of color. To do this, we will read texts in the “conservative tradition,” compare them to texts and events produced by minority conservatives, and discuss their relationship with the racial justice tradition of ethnic studies, especially (but not limited to) Asian American studies. In the first part of the course, we will read Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind in relation to student activist movements since the 1960s, the communities that they created, and the minority conservatives who challenged them. In the second half, we will read Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution to compare “the conservative tradition” with contemporary articulations of minority conservatism. We will also spend some time on the stereotype of the “model minority,” which is why this course will be of special interest to those in Asian American studies. This course should also appeal to students in ethnic studies more broadly, as well as those interested in political philosophy.

When a syllabus is ready, I will post it as an update here. I look forward to teaching this course and hope that many will sign up for this class, especially as we explore together parts of Asian American studies – and ethnic studies more generally – that have not been covered much in the discipline, but (as I see it) is an excellent alternative way of entering into the practice of ethnic studies and racial justice activism. I also see this as very much of interest to students who simply want to understand conservatism and its contortions during the current 2016 federal election in the United States.

See you in the Fall, Northwestern!

UPDATE: Syllabus is here!

Visiting Assistant Professor, Asian American Studies Program, Northwestern University

I am pleased to formally announce on this blog that I have accepted a position at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Asian American Studies Program. I will start there in September, teaching five courses over the year on a quarter system; my contract there is for two years.

I am very excited about this new program at Northwestern because its story mirrors many similar themes in the history of Asian American studies as a discipline. Like many other ethnic studies departments, Asian American studies at Northwestern began with a student strike – including a hunger strike – contesting the university’s commitment to a colorblind liberalism with a radical call to serve communities of color. By 1999, a program was put together, and just last year in 2015, it began offering an undergraduate major in Asian American studies.

My introduction to Asian American studies as a discipline can also be traced back to the influence of one of this program’s core faculty, Carolyn Chen, who is now at the University of California, Berkeley. I met Carolyn through the Asian Pacific Islander and Religion Research Initiative (APARRI) conference that was held at Claremont School of Theology in 2009; it was she who encouraged me to gain broader exposure to Asian American studies by attending the Association of Asian American Studies’ (AAAS) annual meetings. Because of this, I am thankful to have had a brilliant visit to Evanston during the 2015 AAAS meeting when we stayed one block away from Northwestern at the Hilton Orrington, during which I discovered that Evanston is home to all of the familiar Asian American cuisines that have been part of my diet on the West Coast.

I suspect that it is also because of Carolyn that Northwestern’s conception of Asian American studies – far from being antagonistic to religion (as it is in other parts of the discipline, particularly those that take to a very particular bent of materialist analysis) – understands that religion and even conservative ideologies circulate through Asian American communities as much as secularities, liberal democratic philosophies, and radicalisms. Indeed, Carolyn pioneered the course at Northwestern on Asian American religion, a class that I will also teach, with the encouragement of my new colleagues, who have been very kind to me as I make this transition to their academic home.

For me, Asian American studies is fundamentally about the study of the ideologies that constitute Asian America regardless of whether I subscribe to them or not; as I understand it, this is what it means to be committed to the community as an activist scholar committed to racial justice. As the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire once said of community education: ‘A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.’ As one of my new colleagues, historian Ji-Yeon Yuh, reminded me in one of our earlier conversations, Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was banned during the 1970s dictatorship in the Republic of Korea, which means that it was photocopied and secretly circulated and therefore seriously treasured as a text of liberation during the minjung movement, a theological activism that has come also to influence Asian American theological politics. Put this way, I do not really understand how it is intellectually plausible to sunder materialist and theological analyses in Asian America, and my new colleagues seem quite open to me thinking this way.

I am thus very excited about my upcoming appointment at Northwestern. As I see the course list that I discussed with my colleague Shalini Shankar and with which I’ll be working closely with Ji-Yeon over the next year, it is reflective of what I understand to be the modus operandi of Northwestern’s Asian American Studies Program. In the Fall Quarter, I’ll be teaching a course on Comparative Minority Conservatisms, examining the way that conservative ideologies have circulated through communities of color, especially in light of the 2016 federal elections in the United States. In the Winter Quarter, I’ll be teaching Asian American history (a survey course that introduces themes in Asian American studies) and Chinese American Experience (a course that looks at themes in Chinese American studies, which is the focus of my research in Asian American studies). In the Spring Quarter, I’ll teach Asian American religion (which was Carolyn’s course, although I think I will give it my own spin as well) and Asian American social movements (which will give students a sense of the rich tradition of Asian American radicalism). This course list should show my commitment to teaching through a variety of ideologies circulating through Asian American communities, what those ideologies may have to do with religion and secularity in Asian America, and how understanding these ideologies helps with the cause of racial justice.

I’m very excited about going to Northwestern, and I hope to be blogging from there as well, so I will keep you posted about how things unfold there with both my teaching and how my research on occupy movements and theology in Asia and Asian America my research on occupy movements and theology in Asia and Asian America unfolds.

Bulletin for the Study of Religion: guest lecturing in geographies of religion: interviewing my colleagues’ students, focusing on tangents

I am very thankful to Philip Tite at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion for inviting me to revise and publish two previous posts on this professional blog as part of a Tips for Teaching series in his journal. My article focuses on my experiences guest-lecturing on geographies of religion in both his class and in Steven Hu’s at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Here’s the abstract:

This ‘Teaching Tips’ article focuses on my recent experience of guest-lecturing in colleagues’ classes. Influenced by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, my initial guest-teaching revolved around posing an argument about geographies of religion as ‘grounded theologies’ as a problem for students to challenge. However, my recent guest lectures have involved interviewing my colleagues’ students to discover why they find grounded theologies interesting. I show that this new mode of guest-lecturing – also influenced by Freire – has opened up new conversations at a primal ontological level through a wider breadth of topics discussed, including occupy movements, Game of Thrones, Black Nordic Metal, and modern imperialist ideologies. Following Sam Rocha’s folk phenomenology, I suggest that the primal depths that this interview-lecture style of guest lecturing is perhaps worth a try, even though I plan to use the argumentative lecture in the future as well.

I hope that readers of the Bulletin will find it helpful, especially in thinking about how to guest lecture as a pedagogical exercise. I also hope that geographers of religion will also find it useful for thinking through how to teach our discipline to students with a variety of interests. Many thanks, Phil, for generously allowing me to pitch in my two cents!

Guest lecturing in Phil Tite’s UW class

Yesterday, I gave a guest lecture in Dr Phil Tite‘s class at the University of Washington (UW) on Theories in the Study of Religion, a course listed in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies as JSIS C 380. Here’s Phil’s recap from Facebook – I won’t share the actual post because the settings are limited to Phil’s and my friends, but the text is a thank-you note I appreciate very much:

Thank you, Justin Tse, for another excellent guest lecture (via Skype) on geographies of religion. This is the third time Justin has done this for my Theories in the Study of Religion course and each time is excellent (though very unique). And each time I learn a little something more about cultural geography. I’m glad I can incorporate this emerging theoretical approach to my course.

This is indeed the third time that I’ve given a lecture on what cultural geography has to do with religious studies in his class. However, each time has been different. Perhaps this has to do with how I am constantly learning new things about geography myself, and maybe it has to do with how geographers are constantly expanding the boundaries of the discipline more generally. It may also have to do with the kinds of questions that students ask me in each class.

In some ways, I feel like I’ve stumbled onto a new style of guest-lecturing recently. It may have to do with the ways I’m developing as a teacher more generally, but I feel a greater sense of freedom in letting go of my lecture material and engaging the interests of the students in relation to the material. In previous iterations of this lecture in Phil’s class, for example, we tended to stick to the material I prepared, which means that students often contested me, for example, on whether bodies constitute a place (such as whether Muslim women wearing headscarves is an act of placemaking) and how theologies can be grounded in secular sites. It’s all very interesting stuff, but I am starting to see guest-lecturing as an opportunity to parachute into a class that I’m not teaching and to learn something from the encounter. With the two latest guest lectures I’ve given this week (the previous one in Steven Hu’s UCSB class),  what I’m starting to discover is that guest lectures give me the chance to learn about why topics that I find interesting would be of interest to undergraduate students who are not experts in the fields where I work. The result, I am discovering, is that we dig deeper into the discipline itself as student interest guides the way.

After the experience of guest-lecturing in Steve’s class on Monday, I consciously thought about how I would structure this lecture for Phil’s class in order to learn from the students why they might find cultural geography interesting for their study of religion. We got through one section on what geography is (where I explained to them what the ecumene, the inhabited world, was – see here for an explanation I did for another class) and what religion has to do with geography (everything). As I asked for questions, we found ourselves drawn into conversation about how understanding the ecumene at the existential (or ‘ontological’) level often raised theological questions. For some reason, this led into an extended discussion of A Song of Ice and Fire and how geographies of religion could be understood throughout the series, both in the book and on the HBO show. The students emphasized to me that their mouths were all wide open (jaw hit floor, that is) when we started talking about this, and I emphasized to them that this was neither my original idea nor my fully developed research (although, as a point of announcement, Game of Thrones is factoring into my postdoctoral work on politicized civil societies and theological communities more than I have anticipated). For this allusion, I acknowledged the work and teaching of Susan Johnston at the University of Regina for helping me take this series seriously (note to Susan: I’m still reading and catching up, and to be honest, I’m still only at the beginning of the first book! Ned Stark is still alive for me!). I also took similar questions about topics that are more tangential to my area of study (which means that the students took the time to educate me), such as neo-Nordic religiosity (such as belief-but-not-really in Wodin) in Black Nordic Metal, nineteenth- and twentieth-century imperialism in Eastern Europe and the Middle East (maybe hanging out with Eastern Catholics is helping with this one, though – also, I invoked Timothy Snyder‘s work and basically called him a new cultural geographer for his attention to ideology and the making of place in the ‘bloodlands‘ of Eastern Europe), cataclysmic events in the physical environment (we talked about Jared Diamond and his detractors), and the ancient accounts of the Flood.

Photo on 2016-05-12 at 12.19 PM #2

The interesting part is that this led to us talking about key themes in human geography that I often don’t cover in my survey of geographies of religion. For example, Phil pointed out that what I was describing was a ‘relational’ geography of religion, and while Phil came up with this independent of the literature, this is indeed the word that is widely used especially in UK geography, especially by Gill Valentine. We also talked about the ‘activation of landscapes,’ which is a term that is sometimes used by geographers, though I don’t think it’s technical. What is more of a technical term, though, is stuff – geographers do have the debates about the materiality of stuff (and ‘shit,’ for that matter), although I have to thank Sam Rocha for drawing my attention to how important the word stuff is as a serious word.

What I took away from this conversation is that the students in Phil’s class are into the grand epic narratives and operating fictions in our contemporary society. We had some debate in our exchange about whether secularization really could be thought of as a theological process and whether secular social theory really could be understood (pace Milbank) as theology, but there was no question when we got down to the nitty gritty that in the fantasies and fictions that permeate our everyday lives, there is something theological going on, even if few actually believe in them. In some ways, this is a Žižekian insight – reality is ‘less than nothing‘ because ideologies can still operate even if nobody believes in them.

I want to thank Phil for the opportunity once again to work these thoughts out on screen and for his class for being so open to exploring these avenues in geography with me. I think I will stick to this approach to guest lecturing; it seems to bring me through more material than the stuff I prepare in advance, and because of that, we actually get to try to do geography together.

Guest lecturing in Steven Hu’s UCSB class

I had the privilege of guest-teaching in my friend and colleague Steven Hu‘s class on ‘Global Christianity and the Public Sphere’ at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Skype is such a powerful tool, and I’m glad that we can learn from each other across universities through this medium. It’s also always fantastic to be able to interact in such direct ways with the goings-on of UCSB’s brilliant religious studies department, the academic home of many crypto-geographers of religion (including Ann Taves, who gave the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Annual Lecture at the national geography conference in 2013).

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I learned a lot from Steve’s students, mostly from seeing in what they were and were not interested. Steve assigned my article on the Hong Kong democracy movement and wanted me to talk about geographies of ‘grounded theologies‘ and Hong Kong. We decided to do this in more of an interview style, with Steve asking me questions about what geography is, what Hong Kong is, and what the Umbrella Movement is. I did my standard run-down of the political system in Hong Kong, its legacy of colonization, and how to make an ideological map – all of my favourite things! We also got to talk about the different ways that Catholics and Protestants label themselves vis-à-vis the term ‘Christian,’ which is one of Steve’s favourite things, and I got to tell the class about how the colloquial Cantonese term ‘talking Jesus’ is not about evangelism – it’s about a long-winded person going on and on about meaningless things (not unlike certain points of some of my meandering answers to Steve’s questions). We also talked about some of the unexpected Byzantine practices in the Umbrella Movement because finding ways to always include the Orthodox in geographies dominated by Western Christianity is how I roll.

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Oh yes, that Syndicate forum.

 

At the end of the interview-lecture, I got to ask my own questions, and I’m so grateful to Steve for providing this time because that’s where I learned the most, as that’s when we got to talk about the students’ favourite things. I asked them whether they were personally interested in Hong Kong, and that’s where things got interesting. They told me that they were interested in comparing protest movements and that the most interesting bits of the interview-lecture were the parts about how these protest movements, far from being solely focused on the secular and the material, were laced with religion. They especially connected when I held up my copy of Nathan Schneider’s Thank You, Anarchy and said that one of Schneider’s central arguments is that Occupy Wall Street generated new theologies. They also liked it when – as Steve talked about connections with the Polish Solidarity Movement – I held up my Black Madonna of Częstochowa prayer card (which they seemed to know a lot about – good job, Steve!!). And yet, I also got to respond to another student’s questions about the church’s collaboration and confrontation with the government through the lens of capital – sometimes (I said) capital will determine whether the church will kiss the state’s ass (#sorrynotsorry); after all, as I’m coming to argue, capital has amazing power to do theology – it may even be a god (or, as one of the greatest theologians of our generation, Ms Lauryn Hill, says, ‘it’s funny how money change a situation‘). That seemed to connect well with the students as well, although I could sense that there was some nervousness about the political implications of church-state-civil society separation and collaboration in protest movements. Lastly, I got to learn way more about Steve’s own research on New Calvinist urban ideologies in Shanghai, which I think for the class was a great ‘fishbowl’ moment (Steve and I being the two fish) where scholarly collegiality was put on display.

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Q. Wait, what does this have to do with Hong Kong? A. EVERYTHING.

All this is to say – thank you, Steve, for a great Skype class session. Your class has given me some things to think about, and reflecting on it will be great for keeping my scholarly focus as I keep moving forward. When you read this, please thank them for me, and by all means forward this post to them as a token of my gratitude.

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Photo taken by Steve! Thanks for having me!