Guest lecturing in Phil Tite’s UW class

Yesterday, I gave a guest lecture in Dr Phil Tite‘s class at the University of Washington (UW) on Theories in the Study of Religion, a course listed in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies as JSIS C 380. Here’s Phil’s recap from Facebook – I won’t share the actual post because the settings are limited to Phil’s and my friends, but the text is a thank-you note I appreciate very much:

Thank you, Justin Tse, for another excellent guest lecture (via Skype) on geographies of religion. This is the third time Justin has done this for my Theories in the Study of Religion course and each time is excellent (though very unique). And each time I learn a little something more about cultural geography. I’m glad I can incorporate this emerging theoretical approach to my course.

This is indeed the third time that I’ve given a lecture on what cultural geography has to do with religious studies in his class. However, each time has been different. Perhaps this has to do with how I am constantly learning new things about geography myself, and maybe it has to do with how geographers are constantly expanding the boundaries of the discipline more generally. It may also have to do with the kinds of questions that students ask me in each class.

In some ways, I feel like I’ve stumbled onto a new style of guest-lecturing recently. It may have to do with the ways I’m developing as a teacher more generally, but I feel a greater sense of freedom in letting go of my lecture material and engaging the interests of the students in relation to the material. In previous iterations of this lecture in Phil’s class, for example, we tended to stick to the material I prepared, which means that students often contested me, for example, on whether bodies constitute a place (such as whether Muslim women wearing headscarves is an act of placemaking) and how theologies can be grounded in secular sites. It’s all very interesting stuff, but I am starting to see guest-lecturing as an opportunity to parachute into a class that I’m not teaching and to learn something from the encounter. With the two latest guest lectures I’ve given this week (the previous one in Steven Hu’s UCSB class),  what I’m starting to discover is that guest lectures give me the chance to learn about why topics that I find interesting would be of interest to undergraduate students who are not experts in the fields where I work. The result, I am discovering, is that we dig deeper into the discipline itself as student interest guides the way.

After the experience of guest-lecturing in Steve’s class on Monday, I consciously thought about how I would structure this lecture for Phil’s class in order to learn from the students why they might find cultural geography interesting for their study of religion. We got through one section on what geography is (where I explained to them what the ecumene, the inhabited world, was – see here for an explanation I did for another class) and what religion has to do with geography (everything). As I asked for questions, we found ourselves drawn into conversation about how understanding the ecumene at the existential (or ‘ontological’) level often raised theological questions. For some reason, this led into an extended discussion of A Song of Ice and Fire and how geographies of religion could be understood throughout the series, both in the book and on the HBO show. The students emphasized to me that their mouths were all wide open (jaw hit floor, that is) when we started talking about this, and I emphasized to them that this was neither my original idea nor my fully developed research (although, as a point of announcement, Game of Thrones is factoring into my postdoctoral work on politicized civil societies and theological communities more than I have anticipated). For this allusion, I acknowledged the work and teaching of Susan Johnston at the University of Regina for helping me take this series seriously (note to Susan: I’m still reading and catching up, and to be honest, I’m still only at the beginning of the first book! Ned Stark is still alive for me!). I also took similar questions about topics that are more tangential to my area of study (which means that the students took the time to educate me), such as neo-Nordic religiosity (such as belief-but-not-really in Wodin) in Black Nordic Metal, nineteenth- and twentieth-century imperialism in Eastern Europe and the Middle East (maybe hanging out with Eastern Catholics is helping with this one, though – also, I invoked Timothy Snyder‘s work and basically called him a new cultural geographer for his attention to ideology and the making of place in the ‘bloodlands‘ of Eastern Europe), cataclysmic events in the physical environment (we talked about Jared Diamond and his detractors), and the ancient accounts of the Flood.

Photo on 2016-05-12 at 12.19 PM #2

The interesting part is that this led to us talking about key themes in human geography that I often don’t cover in my survey of geographies of religion. For example, Phil pointed out that what I was describing was a ‘relational’ geography of religion, and while Phil came up with this independent of the literature, this is indeed the word that is widely used especially in UK geography, especially by Gill Valentine. We also talked about the ‘activation of landscapes,’ which is a term that is sometimes used by geographers, though I don’t think it’s technical. What is more of a technical term, though, is stuff – geographers do have the debates about the materiality of stuff (and ‘shit,’ for that matter), although I have to thank Sam Rocha for drawing my attention to how important the word stuff is as a serious word.

What I took away from this conversation is that the students in Phil’s class are into the grand epic narratives and operating fictions in our contemporary society. We had some debate in our exchange about whether secularization really could be thought of as a theological process and whether secular social theory really could be understood (pace Milbank) as theology, but there was no question when we got down to the nitty gritty that in the fantasies and fictions that permeate our everyday lives, there is something theological going on, even if few actually believe in them. In some ways, this is a Žižekian insight – reality is ‘less than nothing‘ because ideologies can still operate even if nobody believes in them.

I want to thank Phil for the opportunity once again to work these thoughts out on screen and for his class for being so open to exploring these avenues in geography with me. I think I will stick to this approach to guest lecturing; it seems to bring me through more material than the stuff I prepare in advance, and because of that, we actually get to try to do geography together.

CLASS: Geography 420, Cultural Geography (Simon Fraser University)

From January to April 2016, I’m teaching a course at Simon Fraser University (SFU) called Geography 420: Cultural Geography. It’s a four-hour class that happens on Thursdays from 2:30 PM – 6:30 PM at SFU’s downtown campus at Harbour Centre. I have 21 exceptionally smart students who regularly challenge me, which is brilliant as a form of intellectual engagement as they give me many ideas for my own research and thinking about the discipline of cultural geography more generally.

You are free to view the syllabus. Here’s the course description:

In this course, we will attempt to practice cultural geography in a Vancouver setting. To do that, we will first have to figure out what we mean by ‘practice’ and who or what gets to ‘practice’ the making of spaces and places. Though we might end up having a productive disagreement as a class (unless we reach some consensus, which, given the state of human geography as a discipline, is not likely), I will propose in the second half of the class that we channel our possible tension into projects in cultural geography in Vancouver. Students will have an opportunity to choose case studies from Vancouver, including (but not limited to) geographies of affordable housing, the international property market, ethnic and migrant communities, intercultural initiatives, mediated publics, spaces of consumption, gendered spaces, simulacra, etc., and the final assignment will be a project to be submitted in some material form, either as a paper or in a creative medium discussed with the instructor.

Our key texts are Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life and David Ley’s Millionaire Migrants: Trans-Pacific Life Lines,  among other short articles I’ve selected to supplement these readings.


The way that I’ve imagined the class is as an exercise in actually having students get experience in the practice of cultural geography. Instead of having traditional exams, the course is (like the course on ‘Trans-Pacific Christianities‘ I taught at the University of Washington) oriented toward a final project. The ground rules for the project are that it has to be in Vancouver and the methodology must be ethical. I’ve broken down the project in several stages: a proposal due early in the course, a literature review, a class conference from which students get feedback, and a final material form (usually a paper, but there is some variety, such as GIS mapping, a choose-your-own adventure book, video documentaries, and photo essays). The weekly reading reflections are also geared toward reflecting on the project, which allows me to give students constant feedback about the direction they are taking on this project.

With such a structure, I’m finding that most of my teaching tends to wax on the theoretical side, instructing students in the theories that have been used in the discipline so that they can make use of them in their practice of cultural geography. This is a novel form of teaching for me, and I am having fun with this experimentation and learning a lot. The students seem to be very invested in making their projects theoretically and practically sound, and this makes me a very happy instructor. In this sense, I feel that I am developing as a teacher and crystallizing a philosophy of education for my own purposes as an educator in geography, religious studies, and Asian and Asian American studies, hopefully empowering students to discover their own agency as they engage the world around them as active practitioners of thought and mapping.

NOTE: At present, I am teaching as a Sessional Lecturer at Simon Fraser University, while also simultaneously retaining my affiliation as an Affiliate Faculty Member at the University of Washington in Seattle.

CLASS: JSIS C 490C: Special Topics in Comparative Religion: Trans-Pacific Christianities

I am teaching a course next Winter Quarter 2015 at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. It’s a fourth-year special topics class in comparative religion, and it will focus on what I call ‘trans-Pacific Christianities.’


Here’s the syllabus. We will have quite the variety of literary, historical, sociological, and even theological readings. We will read both the Open Letter to the Evangelical Church and Killjoy Prophets’ critique of it à la Suey Park and Andy Smith. We will read both Reinhold Niebuhr’s Irony of American History and the irreverent/bombastic/Asian American nationalist anthology Aiiieeeee! We will watch both Wong Fu Productions’ Just a Nice Guy and Julia Kwan’s Eve and the Firehorse. We will read both the histories of sex in Chinatown and spirits in Korea. We will plough through both Catholic and Protestant sociologies of Asian American Christianities and explore the callings of Asian and Asian American liberation theologies. We will read the Proposition 8 trial transcript featuring Dr. Hak-Shing William Tam, and we will examine both ‘silent exodus‘ and Sa-I-Gu. Our assignments are blog comments and a paper on a topic of your choice. We will criticize all of these people and ideas to no end, and we will let ourselves be criticized by them to no end.

If you are at the UW and want to come have some fun making trouble with us, please consider taking this course. If you have friends at the UW who want to make some trouble, please consider telling them to take this course. The trouble we will make will magnify as we come closer to both discovering and deconstructing what this term ‘trans-Pacific Christianities’ means.

This is going to be fun. I’m excited. I am also heavily indebted to the philosophers of education (especially Sam Rocha) that I met in Chicago last week at the Society for the Philosophical Study of Education for the crafting of this syllabus and for helping me think through how to teach – I’m experimenting with this society being my annual teaching workshop, and I’m anticipating good things coming out from these critical pedagogical conversations.

UPDATE: A previous version of this course was listed as JSIS C 490B. The administration, however, saw fit at the last moment to change it to JSIS C 490C. The poster describes the previous course number, but the content in the transfer from ‘B’ to ‘C’ stayed very much the same.

The Model Minority and the Gospel of Schoolvation | Society for the Philosophical Study of Education | Columbia College, Chicago, IL, November 8-9

I’m thrilled to be presenting at the upcoming Society for the Philosophical Study of Education at Columbia College in Chicago, IL, from November 8-9. This is a bit of a new foray for me. I am a geographer who is currently housed in religious studies, and I never thought that my work would also be considered ‘philosophy of education.’ However, my colleagues in educational studies have convinced me that my work on Asian American, Asian Canadian, and Asia-Pacific Christians and their public activism around schools means that I have something to say.

Ellen Wu’s The Color of Success is a very important takeoff point for my paper. It’s a book I’ve also reviewed.

My paper critiques the internalization of the model minority mythology among conservative Asian Americans because they have deployed it in their politics as a generator of grounded theologies. It’s titled ‘The Model Minority and the Gospel of Schoolvation.‘ Here’s the abstract:

This paper explores the circulation of philosophies of education among upwardly mobile Asian Americans. Despite the stated axes of political difference among liberal and conservative Asian Americans on sexual politics, tax revenue, and the role of government in welfare provision, one point of philosophical convergence among Asian Americans is that public education plays what Sam Rocha (forthcoming) calls a ‘salvific’ role in delivering young people from downward class mobility. Preaching the ‘gospel of schoolvation,’ Asian Americans such as Michelle Rhee (a Democrat) and Hak-Shing William Tam (a Republican and one of the five official proponents of California’s Proposition 8) use positivistic empirical criteria to declare that schools must do more to save their students from racial marginalization. Indeed, this paper’s central argument is that this version of the gospel of schoolvation grounds a racially constituted philosophy of education to construe Asian Americans as a model minority, a racialized group that models how empirically rigorous education can lead a racialized community out of marginalization from a white mainstream. Showing that this philosophy has in turn been exported to Asia-Pacific nation-states to fuel their participation in a global economy, I probe how race is wrapped up with soteriological accounts of schools, challenging philosophers of education to explore how educational theories construct grounded political realities.

All are welcome. Here’s the schedule. I look forward to the interaction at this conference, especially because other scholars of religion and the social sciences (especially Silas Morgan) will also be there masquerading as philosophers of education.

UPDATE: At this conference, I was made secretary for the group for one year, which means that at least persons at this conference might consider me to some extent an ex officio ‘philosopher of education.’ However, I prefer to say that the SPSE is the society that is my ‘teaching workshop,’ a group that I try to attend where people help me think through how I teach. Certainly, this has helped with the preparation of teaching statements, but more importantly, it has helped me become more intentional as a teacher, and for that I am grateful.

Migrant Faith (Jeremia Chow and Sarah Crutchfield): helping out with a History 485 Final Project

I had the privilege of being a key informant and informal adviser to an exciting undergraduate class project for UBC’s History 485 course. Taught by Asian American historian Henry Yu (Thinking Orientals, 2001), the course focuses on Asian migrant communities in Vancouver, understanding them in the context of what Yu calls “Pacific Canada.”

Two students, Jeremia Chow and Sarah Crutchfield, approached me with an idea for their final project in that course, one that has successfully come to fruition through this website. They wanted to focus on Chinese churches, and fortuitously, they found my blog and contacted me (unaware, it seems, that Henry Yu is one of my committee members and ardent supporter of my various projects). Their research question focused on how Chinese churches integrated new immigrants, a concern that has run throughout my M.A. project on a transnational Hongkonger congregation in a Vancouver suburb, the collaborative Highway to Heaven project on new suburban religious landscapes and immigrant integration, and the PhD dissertation on how Cantonese Protestant theologies are grounded in Pacific Rim civil societies.

My modest contribution to this project was an interview I granted them on March 26. We met in Vancouver for coffee and Thai food. Their questions revolved around how to approach congregations with the question of immigrant integration. I gave a two-pronged answer.

Theoretically, I told them that they might need to disentangle the assumptions that congregations are de facto parts of civil society, that they provide institutionalized social services, and that their theologies support civil society engagement on the part of the church. Instead, I advised them to look from the ground up, inquiring about grounded theologies and being open to the reality that social services provided by churches might be informal. (This was a similar point I raised in my BBC Heart and Soul interview.)

Methodologically, I emphasized that positionality is important when conducting interviews. Because of the way that interviewees read interviewers for race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion, Jeri and Sarah had to be aware of their own positionalities and understand that their self-awareness could be important for the dynamics of data collection. Because they needed to disentangle their own assumptions about how churches contributed to immigrant integration, I suggested that if Sarah conducted the interviews, then interviewees would find themselves explaining more to her without presuming prior knowledge. In turn, this would enable their data collection to be more thorough so that they could see exactly where their assumptions are dissonant with the data.

I’m happy to report that I am overall very pleased with the end result. Not only was the data collection thorough enough to challenge their own prior assumptions, but they have stumbled upon the next frontier of Chinese church research in Vancouver: Mandarin-speaking charismatic churches. Because of the dominance of Cantonese churches, Mandarin churches have been understudied. Their data provides an important window into Mandarin-speaking churches, enabling comparisons with existing work on Cantonese Protestant congregations and engagements with civil society.

This is my second foray into helping undergraduates design a research project. My prior experience took place in another course taught by Henry Yu comparing transnational migration in Vancouver and Singapore in the summer of 2011. I led a group documentary project on religion and migration, from which we produced a short film Moving Faith (we are working to disseminate this project!). These experiences have been formative for my own pedagogical convictions, as these public presentations are an excellent venue for demonstrating the value of undergraduate public education. I will certainly use field work as a required component of courses I teach in the future, and these two projects have given me valuable insight into how field work can be presented to a public outside of the classroom.

Thanks, Jeri and Sarah, for including me in this very insightful project.

Social Geographies of Religion: guest lectures

This week, I gave two lectures on the social geographies of religion for the University of British Columbia at Vancouver’s Geography 357.  The instructor is my friend, Elliot Siemiatycki, a labour geographer who has been doing a fantastic job teaching a course focused on what social geography is and what social geographers do social geography in the context of neoliberal urbanisms.  The course has covered theoretical themes (such as the move from positivism to the humanist/Marxist debates in social geography, feminist themes of embodiment and intersectionality, and the neoliberal restructuring of post-1980s cities) and empirical themes (such as segregation, homelessness, crime, architecture, work and leisure spaces, urban political ecology, and cyber-geographies).  He gave me an opportunity to deliver two lectures for the course on the social geographies of religion.

In these lectures, I simply reviewed the field, where we’ve been and where we’re going.  In the first lecture, I spoke on geographies of religion and intersectionality, how religious practitioners intersect their religious social spaces with other spaces like family, work, leisure, as well as spaces marked by gender and class.  In the second lecture, I introduced the current debate on post-secularization in social geographies and approached this through José Casanova’s (1994) work in Public Religions in the Modern World as he disaggregates the secularization thesis.  I am aware, of course, that discussions of secularization theory are wide-ranging, but to adequately cover the major theorists in theology and religious studies (e.g. Berger, Cox, Eliade, JZ Smith, WC Smith, Casanova, Asad, Taylor, Habermas, Milbank, Pickstock, Cavanaugh, Ward, Bruce, Davie, Lilla, Bellah, Butler, Brown, Mahmood, Hirschkind, Modood, Jakobsen, Connolly, Calhoun, Lilla, West, Herberg, Finke/Stark, R. Stephen Warner, Michael Warner, Fraser, etc.), I would need a whole course devoted to this (if not several), if not a graduate seminar (if not two).  I also presented some of my own original PhD research on Cantonese-speaking Protestants and the public sphere in the second class.

The material was very well-received by the instructor, the students, and my supervisor.  The sense that I got was that this material is very new and fresh to them, which speaks to the need for this material to actually be taught at the undergraduate level.  I was happy to hear that I was both clear and passionate–I would refrain from self-commenting on my own performance, but these seem to be the anecdotal consensus–and after delivering these lectures, I hope to be doing this long-term.  Indeed, my hope is one day to teach courses on geographies of religion and secularization where I can adequately cover the field in its emerging breadth, as well as to host graduate seminars where the material can be adequately debated by emerging scholars joining the effort.