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Teaching mindfully: encountering student perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes.

In ancient India, a set of stories known as Sanyuttanikaya celebrate the courage and wisdom of ten Buddhist nuns [bhikshunis] under spiritual duress. [1] These stories seem to have been quite widespread across various regions and eras. In one tale, Mara, a tempter, "tries to awaken [in the nuns] the lustful thoughts, painful memories, and past fears that would make a weaker person abandon the past of spiritual attainment." The tempter also insults their intellectual and spiritual competence, saying that one of the sisters, Soma, has only a woman's "'two-finger intelligence' (enough to use a common and simple way of measuring rice)." [2] Soma responds by defending her own and the other nuns' abilities: "What does the woman's nature do to us if the mind is well-composed / If our knowledge progresses rightly, giving insight in the Teaching?" [3]

I find this story especially encouraging, having periodically been tempted to painful self-doubts and fears about my competence myself--not by some supernatural tempter like Mara but rather by fluctuating student evaluations sometimes critical for gender-specific rather than academic reasons. I am a professor of theology (and up until recently also Christian ministries) at a fairly conservative evangelical university, where students periodically question whether a woman, regardless of her credentials, can ever have authority to teach "spiritual" subjects, especially to men. In recent years, students here have even used course evaluations to comment on the physical appearance of women faculty as something they perceive as interfering with their learning process, while making little or no comment on their own progress in mastering course content. When students' attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions about gender consistently cause them to undermine female faculty in the classroom and in course evaluations, it can sometimes be difficult to remain as strong and outspoken as the ten Buddhist nuns in this ancient Indian story. Colleagues who battle student stereotypes of race and nationality have expressed similar struggles. How does any teacher battle spiritual fatigue when student perceptions about non-academic factors affect their assessment of that teacher's potential or real competence? I confess to being tempted to "abandon the path" in my own moments of weakness.

As this Buddhist narrative illustrates, however, teachers must know themselves well in order to withstand the temptations posed by inaccurate critiques. Soma, the nun who counters the tempter Mara's belittling remarks most clearly, seems implicitly to admit that others' expectations of her as a woman may be perceived as limiting. Yet she also boldly asserts that "dark ignorance has been pierced" by the insight her "well-composed mind" possesses into Buddha's teachings. [4] She claims the strength that professional and spiritual training have given to her and her colleagues. Through mutual support and affirmation of their own capacities and training, Soma and her colleagues overcome Mara's attempts to discourage them from their vocation and spiritual path. Although we must give serious consideration to student perceptions, we too may find spiritual equanimity by encouraging each other spiritually and professionally while embracing our own real strengths.

End Notes

[1] Nancy Auer Falk. "The Case of the Vanishing Nuns: The Fruits of Ambivalence in Ancient Indian Buddhism." In Nancy Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross. Unspoken Worlds: Women's Religious Lives. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1989, 151.

[2] Ibid., 161.

[3] Ibid. Falk cites Sanyuttanikaya 1.5.2. Translations include Mrs. Rhys David, trans. The Book of Kindred Sayings (SanyuttaNikaya). London: Oxford University Press, 1917. A more recent translation is available in Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore. A Source Book in Indian Philosophy. Princeton University Press, 1967.

[4] Ibid.

Heather Ackley, Ph.D., Azusa Pacific University, CA
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Author:Ackley, Heather
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2004
Words:598
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