Sociology of Religion class engages the whole person

After the New York City terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Véronique Tomaszewski, who teaches sociology of religion at Glendon College, decided that her contribution to a more peaceful world would be “to talk about religion, not to increase fanaticism.”

Véronique Tomaszewski

Véronique Tomaszewski

Simultaneously, Tomaszewski, a course director who also teaches sociological theory, had begun moving away from teaching traditional lecture courses toward “experiential, more holistic teaching” by “progressively implementing a more contemplative, subjective pedagogy.”

“I wanted to allow the students to reflect in a more in-depth way on their readings,” she said.

Students do the preparatory reading, and Tomaszewski offers them a classroom experience that engages all their senses and brings the theoretical material to life through discussion and application. She and her students organize rituals for the various religious traditions they study. They have participated in smudging ceremonies, enacted Daoism through plays, mounted a hijab fashion show, tried tai chi and sung indigenous chants to river spirits, for example. Tomaszewski also teaches them mindfulness meditation and incorporates a five-minute meditation session into classes whenever possible.

Students demonstrate a Wiccan ritual as part of Tomaszewski’s class

“Theory plus experience makes you a richer person, no matter where life takes you,” Tomaszewski said. “Judeo-Christian traditions are religions of the Word (of God), but Asian traditions form through experience and rituals to offer a spiritual connection far stronger than any text.”

She offers the example of teaching about the place of grandmothers in North American society. In indigenous culture, grandmothers were the repositories of wisdom, so students had those representing grandmothers stand together, with everyone else forming a circle around them. With the coming of colonialism, patriarchy was dominant, so students rearranged themselves in a hierarchical configuration.

Above, dressed in traditional Hindu clothing, students from all faiths deliver a presentation to the class

“The concept takes on a life of its own that triggers an emotional reaction,” Tomaszewski said. “An emotional response to ideas makes them stick.”

Tomaszewski also sends her students into the field in groups to interview faith leaders about specific topics of interest. They present a summary of their experiences to their classmates and relate it to the sociological framework. This exercise brings “a sense of fraternity” to the assignment.

Students get ready to stage a play about a traditional Chinese ritual

“My approach applies to much more than religion,” Tomaszewski said. “I encourage my colleagues to use more experiential techniques. I want my colleagues to say to themselves, ‘What in my discussion reaches students in their totality of being?’

“The students have shown me what they wanted and needed. Anyone using this pedagogy will be rewarded by students saying they remember the information for life.”

She warns students that her class is “an immersive experience,” but they aren’t deterred – her courses have waiting lists and she has received the Glendon teaching award for her efforts.

“At Glendon, I became a real teacher and the students showed me the way,” Tomaszewski said.

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus.

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