Professor Humes Reflects On Teaching Difficult Subjects

Chief Technology Officer Cynthia Humes, an associate professor of philosophy and religious studies, recently served as guest editor of Spotlight on Teaching, a segment of Religious Studies News published by the American Academy of Religion. For her topic, “Teaching Difficult Subjects,” Humes reflected on her classroom experiences instructing Gurus, Swamis, and Others, a course she teaches regularly on campus.

The discourse of Humes’ published piece in Religious Studies News was inspired by a panel discussion she arranged on campusan event that invited academics to describe “specific challenges and encounters that they faced in their courses, and to illustrate from their own experience what teaching strategies they used in response to a charged and contentious classroom setting.”

Humes, whose books include Gurus in America (State University of New York, 2005) and Living Banaras: Hindu Religion in Cultural Context (State University of New York, 1993 and Manohar Publications, 1998), has covered such topics in her writing as Sanskrit literature, modern ritual in North Indian goddess worship, political and economic dimensions of modern Hinduism, women’s roles and experience in world religions and, more recently, Hinduism in the West.

In her article for RSN, Humes indicates that a challenge she faces in the classroom is that many of her students have firm opinions about gurus, swamis, and others, and about what “true” religious leadership should be. Simultaneously, “they rarely have an awareness of historical antecedents to this new wave of spiritual migration,” she says. A recent sampling of her students, for instance, indicated that half of the class had experiences with guru movements, while the remaining half was almost completely unfamiliar with the subject. The latter, she says, would be at a disadvantage if relying on popular literature and prevailing wisdom to shape personal views sources, she says, that are extremely biased and often wrong. Further complicating her teaching of Gurus, Swamis, and Others, says Humes, is the relative dearth of scholarly materials in English on modern examples. Humes accordingly uses original translations from Hindi and Sanskrit not yet published to round out the textbooks assigned for the course.

Humes writes that by asking comparative questions of her students throughout the course, those new to the concept are able to stabilize, “through repeated use, certain appropriate mental connections to academic reasoning, and deepen those connections through intellectual hooks to facts and evidence to support their theses.” This comparative method not only fosters a deeper understanding of the topic, but bolsters their complex thinking skills and self confidence in grasping new thought systems.

Humes, a graduate of Grinnell College, earned her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Iowa. Her newest book, Gurus in America, brings together the work of 10 scholars focusing on nine important Hindu gurus and is the result of a panel discussion with gurus that was organized by Humes in 2001. The book is used as a major textbook in her Gurus, Swamis, and Others course, which she will be teaching in the spring.

In addition to her roles as chief technology officer and as associate professor, Humes is the founding director of the Teaching Resource Center. Over the past five years, she has initiated and directed special programs in support of technology and teaching at CMC and The Claremont Colleges consortium. Humes was the principal investigator and director of a $1.3 million three-year grant from The Atlantic Philanthropies, whose multifaceted goal was to advance information technology fluency across the CMC curriculum; the director of a $665,000 three-year consortial Andrew H. Mellon grant to support faculty fluency in information technology at The Claremont Colleges; and in 2004, the principal investigator and director of a three-year $500,000 Fletcher Jones Foundation grant, whose primary goal is to implement a student peer to peer training program to ensure student IT fluency.