Over the course of my career, I have developed a strong commitment to teaching and mentoring. In total, I have taught more than a dozen different courses at both the undergraduate and graduate level at the universities of Virginia (2010-2012, 2017), Bern (2018-23), Jerusalem (2020-21), Fribourg (2021), and Basel (2022). Courses cover diverse topics such as: “Introduction to Buddhism,” Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism,” Introduction to Hinduism,” “The Tibetan Renaissance and the Tibetanization of Buddhism,” “The Great Perfection: Exploring Continuities and Ruptures in the World of Buddhism,” “Thinking about Meditation in Buddhism and Beyond,” “History and Practice of Meditation Mindfulness (sati): A Buddhist Practice and its Reception in Global Modernity,” “Introduction to the Study of Religion,” “Theory and Methodology in the Study of Religion,” or "Woke, Wake, Waken: An Epistemological and Historical Exploration of Identity in Western Civilization."
I am a firm believer in the virtues of rigorous philological and historical approaches in the study of religions. In my classes, students will learn to attend to a patient and slow reading of texts. Whether it is by exploring enigmatic teachings contained in Indo-Tibetan tantras or understudied philosophical traditions from the Italian South, my emphasis lies squarely on voices from communities that have been historically overlooked, marginalized, and disadvantaged.
At the same time, this attention to primary sources is balanced by an emphasis on larger philosophical questions. I want my students to become integrative and synthetic thinkers, who can see connections in seemingly disparate information and draw on a wide range of knowledge to make arguments. In fact, research shows that the mind processes, stores, and retrieves knowledge not as a collection of facts but as a logically organized whole, a coherent conceptual framework with interconnected parts. As my courses progress, students gradually start to see the big picture of patterns, a process that allows them to articulate their own perspective. History, in this sense, becomes a visionary, forward-looking, and empowering endeavor.
Having been trained both at some of the world’s leading universities and in more traditional contexts (Buddhist monasteries, textual archives, living with locals, etc.), I believe that humans learn best if they are personally touched by the material that they study. Unlike classical “instructivist” approaches to teaching, I see learning as an experimental process, which initiates wherever the students are at the moment that I encounter them. New knowledge, quite intuitively, is always built upon the knowledge that was previously acquired, before they met me. Research shows that people are born learners with an insatiable curiosity. Think only of how we absorb and remember untold billions of details about our language, other people, objects, and things we know how to do. I aim to create a learning environment that explicitly encourages my students to rely on their existing mental models (and sometimes even their biases and judgments) so that they become active participates in their cognitive growth.
Ultimately, my classes are intended to gradually lead students through a process of cognitive growth by teaching them more about themselves, their learning habits, and their own mental models. Exposing them to uncertainties, contradictions, and conflicts helps students realize that often there is no one superior truth, nor can there be, given the nature of rational knowledge. This realization should gradually lead them out of dualistic thinking and through multiplistic conceptions of knowledge. Once they can embrace this type of uncertainty as legitimate and inherent in the nature of knowledge, students can then mature into a more realistic and relativistic conception of knowledge. This being said, the ultimate objective of all of my courses is to help students find their voice as they advance beyond relativism to make tentative commitments and progress toward cognitive maturity.
Teaching the Humanities in A Changing World
Many departments in the humanities across the world have witnessed a dramatic drop in student enrollment in recent years. While this process has started already in the final years of the 20th century, things have gotten worse after the global pandemic. Although the number of university students continues to grow in many places, the new generation selects fields that lie outside of the humanities, with medicine, law, and business being their top choices. We have also noticed that the pressure from the governing boards of universities, as well as the department of education on a state and national levels increased significantly in recent years. Being pushed to reduce our teaching positions, curb expenses for research, and consolidate our departments, we are no longer certain that we can fulfil our pedagogical mission. It is plain as day that we need to adjust our strategy if we want to remain viable as an institute of higher education.
Although universities frequently think that they exist in a vacuum, the proverbial ivory tower of academia, this is clearly no longer the case. I belong to those who welcome the increase in outside pressure as this will help the Faculty of Humanities to run a more effective operation. This being said, I believe that it is even more important to strengthen our position in today’s competitive landscape. While there are multiple factors involved in this choice, it appears that students turn to areas of study that offer them better prospects to deal with the rapidly changing environment in today’s world. In fact, young people are correct inasmuch as the lack of applicability for our contemporary world is to some extent inherent within the nature of our fields of study. Dedicating ourselves to the study and teaching of classical and traditional forms of wisdom, our fields generally take a conservative approach to the generation of knowledge. Let us look at a few examples: History, for instance, is primarily centered on the past, rather than imagining the future; anthropology has long been dominated by the focus on cultures distant from our own (which have variously been described as “primitive,” “Southern,” and so forth); religious studies is a discipline that is primarily interested in ancient wisdom traditions that promote universal and ahistorical truths, rather than newness and innovation.
I am convinced that the single biggest step to be taken at this point involves an exceedingly simple operation: a change of mindset. Instead of shying away from the challenges posed by a rapidly changing world, digging ourselves even deeper into a remote past, journeying to distant cultures, or projecting ourselves into a transcendent realm, I suggest that the Faculty of Humanities rallies its inherent resources to become an actor of change in our world today. While the specifics of my proposal for how to best implement this change will be discussed in a later assignment, it is crucial to note that the humanities are predestined to provide animating insights into the current world and its rhythm of change. I would even argue that it is precisely because they cultivate a long-term perspective on historical transformations, a vast cultural horizon spanning across the globe, and a sensibility for how particular historical conditions relate to larger universal questions underlying human existence that the disciplines in question are uniquely equipped to contribute to our understanding of the specific environment provided by our world today.
Adjusting our mindset, using the journey into what is “other” to reflect on our “self,” is not a costly endeavor as the product that we offer remains largely the same. The transition that I propose here primarily involves a shift of focus from the “content” of our teachings to the “purpose,” “value,” and “meaning” of our classes. The benefits of this reorientation, however, are immeasurable: it will not only allow us to regain relevance amongst the students who stopped enrolling even though they are generally interested in our research, but will also open up a missing market: By demonstrating that our courses provide a more sophisticated understanding of the singularity of our particular age, we will start to attract talented students who would have never been predisposed to study issues like the impact of the technological innovation known as the windmill in the Middle Ages, or the ethnographic reports about the colonial endeavors of Spain in the 16th century contained in A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartolome de las Casas (1474-1566). I have no doubt that this spatio-temporal “detour” would not only enrich their educational journey, but also allow these future change-makers to reach a more nuanced map of today’s world.
Dear Flavio, This was actually one of the courses I enjoyed the most in my degree. Your attitude to the subject and the discussions in our meetings were very interesting, and I really appreciate your effort on getting these super interesting and well informed guest speakers to talk to us in the last couple of classes.