The following interview features Dr. Shandip Saha, professor of Religious Studies courses in the Center for Humanities at Athabasca University. His research speciality is in the field of Hinduism with an emphasis upon tracing the religious culture of Medieval India (15th to 18th centuries)
As an instructor in online education, what are some of the challenges as well as some of the highlights of teaching online?
Shandip: The biggest challenge for me has been transitioning from an environment where one has some direct contact with students to an online environment where your face-to-face contact is far less. It has meant adapting and modifying my teaching style significantly to meet the demands of online learning. Once you get past that challenge, there’s a lot of exciting things that you can do. Athabasca University is in an incredible position where we can reach out to students in a big way, as we have ways to exploit technology and the Internet to its full potential in a way traditional universities cannot, in order to make learning a more vibrant experience for students. That’s what makes AU such a leader in online education. We have the people, the faculty, the technology, and other resources necessary to give our students a solid, but nonetheless unique learning experience.
How do you aim to stimulate student motivation in online learning environments?
Shandip: That’s a tough question to answer, but I think that part of it is to make sure the readings that you are using are accessible, engaging, and thought-provoking, so the students can easily digest the material and have something to think about. I also like using visual components in my courses such as lots of images, links to videos, or websites. So, for example, for my World Religions course, I have an optional link that students can click on that will give them a virtual tour of a Taoist temple while another link gives them the opportunity to do a virtual tour through the Dome on the Rock in Jerusalem. In this fashion, students can get a sense of what one of these incredibly sacred sites are all about. On a practical level, study schedules are important to keep students focussed as is lots of communication so students don’t feel discouraged as they navigate themselves through course material.
What pedagogical standpoint is most reflective of your way of teaching?
Shandip: My courses are very structured and are meant to provide the foundational knowledge necessary for students to carry on with further studies. When I write a course, I try as much as possible to have every unit build upon the one prior one so students are introduced to the great internal diversity that there is to all religious traditions in a logical and systematic way. So, by the time the course is finished, my hope is that the students will have an understanding of the basic concepts, ideas, terms associated with the religion they are studying as well as gain some exposure to some scholarly literature on the topic they are studying.
So, a good course, for me, is well-constructed with the point of being able to stimulate students’ minds, to show them diversity of a given religious tradition, and provide them with a basic foundational knowledge of their subject so that they can use it to keep moving on with their studies.
What is your view on social media in the online learning environment?
Shandip: I can’t say I can give an informed answer to that question because I rarely use Facebook and I doubt I have anything intelligent to say that would even warrant a following of one on Twitter. Social media is a great way to attract more students to the student and to get feedback from our students about their academic experiences at AU. I think social media could be useful as a means to help students create some intellectual support and study groups if they are taking the same classes. But, as I said stated, I am not an expert with social media and look at my Facebook page maybe once every two months.
What is your view on interdisciplinary studies?
Shandip: It is absolutely, absolutely, absolutely important. I think a good scholar always knows the best way to bring complexity to his or her scholarship is by drawing from the insights that other disciplines may offer on the subject they are researching. In the case of my own research, it is not enough for me to look at medieval North Indian devotional communities through the lens of textual and literary criticism as some scholars in my field do. I also rely on the work of art historians, urban and economic historians, and social historians in order to piece together the socio-historical context in which these communities thrived and how they reacted to changing social circumstances. For me, studies grounded in a willingness to take the best of what other disciplines have to offer and apply them in a way that can bring out the different shades of complexity to whatever is being studied is what makes for good, solid scholarship.
What was your favourite course to teach? Why this particular course?
Shandip: At AU, I like teaching all of my courses because I find it exciting to introduce people to world religions and hopefully broaden people’s perspectives on religion. For example, so much of what the average person knows today about Islam is just coming to thirty second or one-minute news bites and so I am glad that a course like The Islamic Tradition (RELS 206) can help give students of the huge religious diversity there is within Islam. In the case of my course on death and dying in world religions (RELS 211), I am just excited to hear from and read about what my students have to say in a substantial manner about an experience that is universal to the human condition.
If you could confer one piece of wisdom on an upcoming student in your discipline, what would it be?
Shandip: Where I come from, the quest for knowledge is not a game, nor is it something to be abused. It is something, on the contrary, that has to be treated with respect, sensitivity, and seriousness. For myself, solid scholarship is not the product of academic shortcuts and lazy thinking. It is, rather, the product of hard work, discipline, attention to detail, and keeping an open mind. So, my advice to an upcoming student is to read regularly, stay disciplined, and always maintain your academic integrity when writing and publishing. If a student can keep that in his or her mind, they will always be assured that their scholarship will stand above the rest.