K. E. Brashier - Passion Statement

Outstanding Baccalaureate Colleges Professor of the Year National Winner
K. E. Brashier
Associate Professor of Religion and Humanities
Reed College

I am writing this outdoors in the Portland rain next to the second-hand gas grill in which I am boiling the meat off cattle scapulae. In the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 B.C.E.), diviners used cattle scapulae as a divination medium, inscribing the "oracle bones" with their prognostications, giving us China's earliest texts. Archaeologists now believe Shang diviners buried these bones in the earth to remove the residual flesh. But they didn't have a Patio Master grill.

My religion students read the best studies on oracle bones--but to understand the process, ask new questions and personally invest in it, they must try their own hand at divination. Although Sinologists speculate that oracle bones served as a royal archive, I've studied recently excavated texts that list the job requirements for would-be diviners, including a 70 percent accuracy rate. Could these bones instead be a diviner's C.V., a testament to his skills? I will translate and bury these texts in my students' handouts to see if they make that connection.

Pedagogical innovations fall into two categories: circumstance-specific-such as these simmering cow bones-and "standards" of the teacher's repertoire. As for the latter, I rely on one-page, single-spaced, informal writing assignments that I call "exploratories" to get my students to formulate their congested thoughts on paper. They may be constructive criticism, a thoughtful question, the application of theory, or best of all, conclusions differing from those of the data's author. Exploratories are not "reading responses" (a term I hate because undergraduates are capable of more than just reacting to the published page). Each mind processes data in different, unforeseen ways, allowing every person to join in the conversation.

As an undergraduate at Oxford, I heard a story from second-century-B.C.E. Zhuangzi of a frog who thought his well to be the whole of existence until he saw the great northern sea. "Frog" had originally been written as "fish," but no one knew how fish could end up in wells. Being from South Dakota, I knew perfectly well that ducks can't digest carp eggs, which means they are often left in the strangest places. Processing the data differently, an undergraduate thus solved a 2,000-year-old mystery and joined the conversation.

I developed exploratories because I wasn't reaching quieter students. Having assimilated their thoughts crystallized on paper the night before, I can draw them into the conversation without putting them on the spot. I often tie the exploratory to circumstance-specific teaching such as these cattle scapulae. My students will devote next week's exploratories to whether the divination process itself shaped the content of the messages. Finally, my own exploratory preparations can set Annie against Mike or pair up Pooja's thoughts with Josh's, orchestrating the beginning of a real conversation.

Am I a good teacher? No. I am a complete fraud. I have never taken a religion course in my life. I am not even certain that teaching is my calling. (Divination is looking good at the moment.) Even so, I've managed to build a façade, a looming, gothic façade bedecked with gargoyles that hides a wooden South Dakota outhouse with a half moon on the door and perhaps a wasps' nest under the eaves. Yet the tension between gothic façade and Dakota outhouse generates the edginess in my teaching and in my students' conference discussions as they learn how to learn, not about the dates of the Shang Dynasty. Lest students get a chance to peek behind the façade, I keep them perpetually guessing as to what I'll do next, which is why I am now sitting here cooking cow bones even though I've been a vegetarian for 15 years.