William & Mary: Students share, explore personal identities in W&M Modern Hinduism course

Frank discussion with classmates helps William & Mary students understand course material in a different way in the religious studies class Modern Hinduism.

Students leading conversations and using their personal worldviews to expand learning is a big part of the course, which is a COLL 200 and 300 being taught this spring by Associate Professor of Religious Studies Patton Burchett.

“Overall, the course is centered on student-led learning,” Burchett said. “The idea is that, in a number of contexts, students learning from one another is just as valuable — particularly in terms of exposure to and understanding of multiple different perspectives and lived experiences — as students learning from just the professor.”

A structured dialogue activity that takes up three course periods on three different topics immerses students in intimate small group discussions. This allows personal connections with topics “that may at first feel distant and not so relevant in their lives,” according to Burchett.

The course also compares and contrasts caste and race, Hindu nationalism and white Christian nationalism in order to gain insight into larger current issues at the intersections of social identity, religion and politics.

The structured dialogue activity serving as a reflection and learning opportunity beyond the material is at the heart of the course, according to Burchett.

The topics are social identity; affect, rationality and group binding; and social media and digital technology. Each has three components with a preparation assignment, the dialogue and a reflection paper.

The dialogues happen in groups of five students with each person given a role in facilitating the discussion and a corresponding script to guide it.

“The point is to take a topic that might seem foreign, abstract and perhaps even irrelevant and to make it personal, relevant and engaging by getting students to approach this particular dimension of social identity in India with a larger and very personal consideration of their own social identities,” Burchett said.

“Each structured dialogue is focused on a particular theme related to course material, but in such a way as to encourage student engagement through intense self-reflexivity, making crystal clear how the seemingly abstract or distant topic of social and religious issues in modern India was in fact very closely related to aspects of their own society, personal life and social relations, and self-identity.”

Aneesa Parrish ’24 sees the dialogues as an opportunity to learn about herself and her peers.

“Within these secure spaces of conversation, you discover similarities and connections with other students, regions, societies, etc.,” Parrish said. “I personally experienced a sense of comfort as my groupmates and I discussed some of the more vulnerable aspects of our social identity during our first structured dialogue. Structured dialogues involve many perspectives and backgrounds, causing the spaces to be subject to uncomfortable, vulnerable conversations at times.”

Parrish wasn’t expecting the course to be set up this way.

“Following our first class, I must admit I was a bit nervous for how the course would turn out but have genuinely enjoyed the way in which Professor Burchett formulates our understanding of Indian culture,” Parrish said. “Learning in a way that simultaneously allows students to make comparisons with their own experiences and communities opens the door for a deeper understanding rather than just memorization of the course’s content.”

Eric Brewer ’23 said he was pleasantly surprised by how productive the first dialogue was.

“Every member of my group was willing to be honest and vulnerable,” Brewer said. “I was a little anxious going into the conversation, but I ended up sharing much more than I was expecting to. It forced me to think about a lot of big ideas concerning race and identity, and it was a great way to really engage with the class material in a personal way.

“I came away from the activity with a much better understanding of class material. I’m glad that I decided to take this class. Professor Burchett always pushes us to engage with the material in a way that isn’t purely academic. He shows us the real-world implications of what we learn and makes us think about how we can learn from this new information.”

Claire Hogan ’22 has found the dialogues extremely valuable in learning as well as forming friendships with classmates.

“There’s a section of every dialogue where you ask each other questions of curiosity about what each person shared,” Hogan said. “It sounds silly, but it’s truly the loveliest part of the experience. Through those questions, I’ve had conversations that I’ve never had before about my values and identity.

“In Modern Hinduism, if you don’t have a cultural background with India, it might be hard to connect your own life with what we’re learning about in class. But Professor Burchett does a great job allowing us to reflect on our experiences here in the United States and how they tie in with class themes.”

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