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Unexpected Learning Opportunities of the Site Visit

Written by Prof. Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger
March 24, 2015

by Prof. Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger
This article was originally published in Spotlight on Teaching Vol. 19, No. 4, October 2004.
For a site visit to be successful, it will have specific pedagogical goals, the students will prepare for what they will see, hear, and otherwise experience, and the experience will be integrated into class discussions rather than tacked on as an “extra” (touristic) activity. But fieldwork, of which the site visit is one genre, is serendipitous and often cannot be “contained” within the pedagogical parameters that we as professors might set. It is important for us to try to account for and address what students may learn that we may not have intended — some of these unexpected learnings are positive and others may have more subtly negative consequences. For example, in visiting sites that are new to them, students often reflect on and may question aspects of their own traditions. When the site visit presents and/or requires unfamiliar body language and position, students may learn about cultured, bodily ways of being in the world. They may learn as much about different modes of hospitality or child-raising as particular rituals or sacred texts. These are positive lessons, albeit unintended.
However, students may also consciously or unconsciously draw other conclusions from the site visit that we do not want them to or that may be unwarranted. They may make false generalizations about a religious tradition, or “religion” more generally, based on a single experience or series of experiences at one site. Or students may make unconscious conclusions about what kinds of sites and experiences are worthy of study at all. For example, for pragmatic reasons, site visits are usually made to public, institutional spaces of religious traditions, not domestic or private spaces of worship. As Karen McCarthy Brown has so passionately argued (2003), when students visit institutional spaces of religion, they may identify and limit the study of religion generally, or particular religious traditions more specifically, with those kinds of institutional spaces. Domestic practices of a tradition and/or entire religious traditions that take place outside of institutional spaces may be left out altogether from “what counts.” The site visit may also mask multiple religious affiliations of those worshippers whom students meet at a particular site.
Every site visit will generate different kinds of unexpected learning opportunities for different kinds of students. Here I will describe just a few (initially) unintended consequences of site visits to Hindu temples that my students and I have experienced over the last decade. First, however, let me describe very briefly what some of my pedagogical goals are in sending students to Hindu temples, how some of these goals have changed over the years because of the unexpected learnings I have witnessed in students, and the kinds of preparation I give my students before visiting the temple.
My primary pedagogical goal in the temple site visit has been to enable students to witness or experience the ritual of worshiping the deity through making offerings to his/her image/murti, i.e., puja. I also want students to experience the seeming informality and individuality of worship in Hindu temples. I encourage Hindu students to visit a temple that they do not regularly attend or whose traditions represent those of a different region than that from which the student’s parents come. Here the pedagogical purpose is to expose Indian-American Hindu students to the diversity of traditions within Hinduism. I prepare students for the temple site visit by discussing at length the pujaritual, introducing key terminology of the ritual, showing slides of puja in a wide spectrum of contexts (home, temple, roadside shrine), and showing the Smithsonian video titled Puja (1996), which both shows pujas in India and the U.S. and gives commentary on the meanings of puja by both first- and second-generation Indians in the U.S. So, theoretically, students have been exposed to a wide range of puja practices and know that it is both a domestic and temple ritual.
A major challenge in teaching Hinduism in American universities, however, is the need to continually remind students of the rich diversity of Hindu traditions and to remind them that Hindu traditions they see or experience in the United States represent only a small segment of the vast spectrum of Hindu traditions. We need to find ways to keep students from overgeneralizing about Hindu practices and communities based on a single site visit. We are fortunate in a large urban context like Atlanta to have several Hindu temples, and in any given class, small groups of students usually visit several different temples. After their fieldwork, members of each group report orally about their visits and we discuss the differences between the various temples. Hindu students often report the differences they see in the sites they have visited in Atlanta compared to their home temples elsewhere in the U.S. and those they have visited in India. Nevertheless, there is a wide range of ritual practices (including those of various regions, castes, and classes of India) that are not represented by the diversity of temples here in the U.S.
Single site visits may result in other generalizations that are not accurate. For example, students may conclude from their site visits that women have little participation in Hindu ritual practices as direct officiates, since temple rituals in the kinds of temples that are present in the U.S. are officiated by Brahmin men only. Students would not know of women’s prominence in domestic Hindu ritual life, including daily rituals at domestic puja shrines. On the other hand, women in temple communities in the U.S. often have positions of leadership (such as temple president) that they would not have in India. Non-Hindu students may also make incorrect conclusions about the relative importance of temple ritual to that of domestic ritual based on their experiences of public institutional religious practice in their own traditions, hence the importance of continually balancing site visits to public Hindu institutions with slides, videotapes, or personal narratives of domestic religious practice. In a city with Indian restaurants and stores, we can send students to visit these too, and ask them to look for signs of private (almost domestic) altars (altar shelves) in these kinds of public spaces.
Worship communities of any kind observed during site visits, including families, neighborhoods, ethnic groups in the U.S., and temple communities, are continually shifting and more flexible than may meet the eye on a single visit. It is important to remind ourselves that religion is not static and thus what students observe in a single site visit needs to be contextualized in time and place, with a realization that institutions, communities, and individuals in those communities change. I myself was caught unaware by some shifts in the temple that many Emory students visit, shifts that I needed to know about when I gave suggestions to the class about appropriate behavior in the temple. I’ll tell the story here, as it brings up several general points about site visits, as well as illustrating the dynamism of religious sites to which we may send our students.
In telling my students what to expect in a site visit to a Hindu temple, I include a discussion of whether and how they can accept the food offered to a Hindu deity (prasad). For observant Jews and evangelical Christians, I explain that their own tradition may dictate that they should not accept prasad; but I also explain to them that, for the Hindus, the offering of prasad and its acceptance may mean something quite different from how some Jewish or Christian traditions have interpreted it. From a Hindu point of view, acceptance of prasad is not necessarily a theological statement of belief, but can simply be an acceptance of hospitality being offered by the priest. It is his duty to offer it. However, I assure my students, there are gracious ways to refuse prasad, including stepping back from the circle of those accepting it, gently indicating with one’s hands that one does not want to accept it (and I show them appropriate gestures, including anamaste hand gesture and shaking one’s head).
After having been abroad once in India for a year’s research, I began teaching a large “Introduction to Religion” class at Emory and sent members of the class to the Hindu Temple of Atlanta before I myself had had time to visit. I gave the explanation above about prasad and an explanation of how to “refuse prasad” that had always worked in earlier years. But several students returned from the temple visit and reported that my suggestions did not work. One student said with a rather trembling voice, “But Dr. Flueckiger, they made me take prasad.” The students said that they had gone to the back of the temple to step aside from the group being offered prasad, but that the priests had followed them to the back. This seemed uncharacteristic, but I understood what had happened when I myself went the next weekend with my children. We spent several hours at the temple, so there were several occasions when my children could have accepted prasad. By the end of the morning, they were no longer interested in the ritual activities and were playing at the back of the main temple room. And then I heard one of the priests call out to them, “Come, come; eat, eat.” And I knew what had happened. In my yearlong absence, the priests had learned minimal English — enough to know that the imperative in Telugu could be translated as “come, eat,” but not enough to know that English imperatives do not have the connotation of invitation that they do in Telugu: “Won’t you please come and eat?” We have since had many class discussions about cultured ways of asking and receiving prasad.
I have subsequently met with the temple priests to explain to them why someone might not want to accept prasad. I opened the discussion by asking the priests whether there had been any problems with Emory students visiting the temple. They did not report any and were anxious to convey that it was their duty to be hospitable to anyone who came to the temple. They were extremely interested in possible non-Hindu perceptions of prasad; my explanation of the students’ refusal of prasad as being the equivalent of their refusal to eat meat (i.e., as an internal rule, rather than a judgment of those who eat meat) seemed to resonate with the priests. The chief priest ended the discussion by saying our students were welcome, and when they refuse prasad, he mentally blesses them anyhow.
Rather than taking classes as a group to Hindu temples, I have chosen to send students in small groups, encouraging Hindu students to offer to accompany some groups, or asking students to ask their own Hindu friends to accompany them. This enables students to have conversations with peers and practitioners, and I am not the primary interpreter of what they are seeing at the site. Students have often been invited to observe family rituals in the temples (such as baby-naming ceremonies) and each group reports back a range of narratives and experiences. However, not visiting the temple as a “class” has its own drawbacks. Students may not meet individuals with whom to speak, or may be too shy to do so. Sometimes Hindu practitioners have felt awkward in “speaking for their tradition,” when they feel untrained. The Hindu Temple of Atlanta is talking about training volunteers to meet and interact with visitors. This would take away from the multiplicity of experiences and explanations the students receive through chance meetings they have with lay worshippers, but with more and more visitors from various universities in Atlanta coming to the temple, it would provide some structure for the temple community and would assure that students find someone with whom to speak. [1]
Other positive unexpected learnings from site visits to Hindu temples can be listed more briefly, although they are equally significant. Many non-Hindu students report that watching devotees lying fully prostrate to a deity, being reminded to use their right hand only to accept prasad, learning to keep their feet from pointing at the deities, and sitting on the floor for extended periods have all taught them about the cultured learnings of their own bodies. What their bodies are experiencing cannot be equated to that of the Hindu worshipper doing the same gesture, but the students are at least aware of their own bodies’ knowing in different ways. I now directly address the issue of “how we know what we know,” including through our bodies. Students are often amazed at the multisensory experience of the temple, which some of them find lacking in their own non-Hindu traditions. Although they have been told about the lack of formal communal service in the temple, many students are still surprised by the coming and going of worshippers, the low-level conversations among them, and the variety of individual devotional practices they witness. Many students are especially struck by the number of children running around the temple and the positive attitudes shown towards them.
Finally, students visiting temples here in Atlanta are almost uniformly impressed by the openness and hospitality with which they have been received. And we often speak in class of ways in which we can reciprocate this hospitality. It can rarely be direct (as it often is not in fieldwork in India), but students learn that reciprocity can take many forms, even if not the same form in which hospitality has been given. Sometimes the only reciprocity is listening and engaging in conversation; we sometimes send site visit reports back to those worshippers with whom students have exchanged e-mails. Emory has also invited community members to the university for India-related events, and has made space available for various community-sponsored events that are relevant to our curriculum and students.
While we give up control and bounded pedagogy when we send our students out into the community on site visits, such fieldwork has the potential to teach us in unpredictable ways and to change what and how we teach.
[1] One of the oldest “international” mosques in Atlanta, Al-Farooq Masjid, has requested that we send our students to the mosque at particular open houses held for non-Muslims, as students were often taking up space on Fridays that kept Muslims from prayer.
Brown, Karen McCarthy. “Roundtable: Site Visits in the Study of Religion: Practice, Problems, Prospects.” American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, Atlanta, 2003.
Puja: Expressions of Hindu Devotion. VHS. Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Washington, D.C.: 1996.
Published with the author’s permission.