Disciplining Study Abroad

December 03, 2015

By Tamar Breslauer

The January issue of the journal Teaching Theology & Religion aligns the topic of study abroad with the discipline of religious studies. There are many interesting essays in the collection, including one by Elijah Siegler which explores the ways in which the framing of research in the discipline of religious studies can help mitigate some of the problematic aspects of study abroad. In “Working through the Problems of Study Abroad Using the Methodologies of Religious Studies,” Siegler incorporates vignettes of students’—and his own—experiences and reflections to demonstrate how issues such as the essentialization of the “other” and the colonialist baggage of study abroad can be examined through approaches used in the academic study of religion. The four applicable approaches that he identifies include: (1) a move from the study of text to the study of “the embodied” place, (2) a move from looking at religion as something “timeless” to something historical, (3) a move away from looking for something “authentic” in religion (i.e., rather than searching for the beliefs, artifacts, rituals, behaviors, etc. that could be identified as the pristine version of the religion, current trends in religious studies question the notion that such elements of religion exist), and (4) a move toward self-reflection. Siegler suggests that all of these approaches can help students as they make sense of their experiences abroad. Siegler shows how these techniques can be applied to international education through the use of examples from a study abroad trip he led to China. Along the way, he presents situations that demonstrate student learning and student awareness, as well as offers some guidance to study abroad leaders.

One piece of this guidance comes in the form of a directive. Siegler writes, “If I had the power to choose one piece of advice to sear in the brains of teachers of religious studies abroad as well as to all study abroad professionals, it would be these six words: Don’t look for authenticity, question it” (Siegler 2015, 42). He asks students to question why they consider one thing “authentic” and something else not. Is there anything inherent in an object, belief, or ritual that makes students consider it more “authentic” than something else? What does this conclusion demonstrate about the student—as well as the context? Siegler’s background in religious studies leads him to ask students to question not only what they see, but what they think they are looking for during their study abroad.

In your work on study abroad, or your own study abroad experiences, do you see your own disciplinary lens influencing your experience? What do you think students could gain from this disciplinary lens? What guidance would you offer?


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