Monday, February 13, 2012

Penn religion professor seeks to show students "what it's like to be a monk."

For your edification this Monday, here is an AP story that caught my eye over the weekend regarding a very unusual religious studies course being offered this semester at the University of Pennsylvania:
Looking for a wild-and-crazy time at college? Don't sign up for Justin McDaniel's religious studies class.

The associate professor's course on monastic life and asceticism gives students at the University of Pennsylvania a firsthand experience of what it's like to be a monk.

At various periods during the semester, students must forego technology, coffee, physical human contact and certain foods. They'll also have to wake up at 5 a.m. - without an alarm clock.

That's just a sample of the restrictions McDaniel imposes in an effort to help students become more observant, aware and disciplined. Each constraint represents an actual taboo observed by a monastic religious order.

"I've found in the past that students take this extremely seriously," said McDaniel, who has taught the class twice before. "I've had very few people who try to get away with things, and you can always tell when they are."

The discipline starts with a dress code for class: White shirts for the men, black shirts for women, and they must sit on opposite sides of the class. No makeup, jewelry or hair products. Laptops are prohibited; notes can be taken only with paper and pen. And don't even think of checking your cellphone for texts or email.

The course, which focuses primarily on Catholic and Buddhist monastic traditions, stems in part from McDaniel's own history. An expert on Asian religions, he spent a portion of his post-undergraduate life nearly 20 years ago as a Buddhist monk in Thailand and Laos and says he's both a practicing Buddhist and a practicing Catholic.
To read the rest, click here. I'd like to see the syllabus for this course, as I'm curious what the students are reading while they undergo the regimen described in the article. The disciplines that the students take on during the semester may serve as a beneficial consciousness-raiser, but they can't really see "what it's like to be a monk" (or a nun) if they don't study the traditions from which the disciplines came.

Are the students in McDaniel's course reading monastic and religious texts that help them to put their ascetical practices in context? Are they given actual opportunities to interact with monks and nuns? I hope that the answer to both questions is 'yes'; otherwise, what can they expect to gain from their selective asceticism? McDaniel says that the course is "about building hyperawareness of yourself and others." I simply hope that this awareness extends to the heart of the monastic traditions studied and isn't limited to consideration of external practices. AMDG.


At 2/13/2012 3:49 PM, Blogger Robin said...

I couldn't find a syllabus online, but I did find a course description. It appears that the course is experientially rather than academically oriented, which has its pros and cons, just as the opposite orientation would. I'm guessing that Michelle's course on contemplation this past fall offers more of the blend you'd prefer.

At 2/13/2012 4:26 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Could be. I also suspect that McDaniel's background as a scholar of Buddhism might lead him to prefer a more praxis-oriented approach that focuses more on the action itself than on the 'why' behind it. I appreciate the value of experiential learning, but I think it's important for students to get some theory along with the practice if they really want to understand what asceticism is about.


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