Syllabus: Asian Religions in American Culture

A while back I wrote that I was working on a syllabus for a new course in Asian Religions in America for this semester.  Well, the semester has started and the syllabus is done. I've posted it below. 

As I said then, it is a course focused mainly on Hinduism and Buddhism in the United States, as those are the traditions I know the best. The class includes both a research component and a public blog that will be going live soon. I'm waiting to amass a good number of posts before we launch. A student came up with a great name for the blog: Monks and Nones. So look for that soon. In the meantime, here's the syllabus for anyone who might want to do a similar course themselves in the future. As always, feedback, advice, and smart remarks are welcome and encouraged in the comments.

REL 371: Asian Religions in American Culture
Tuesday, 3:30-5:50pm, Manly 210
Dr. Michael J. Altman
Office: 315 Manly Hall
Office Hours: Tuesday 10am-noon or by appointment
Dept. Office 212 Manly Hall

I. Course Description
This seminar introduces the history and development of Asian religions in America from the nineteenth century to the present. Focusing mainly on various forms of Hinduism and Buddhism, consideration will be given to immigrant groups, American-born converts, and the ways Asian religions have been represented and imagined in American culture.

II. Course Outcomes
a)    Sat the end of this course students will gain a general narrative of the history of Asian Religions in America.

b)    At the end of this course students will practice writing analytically about religion for a public audience.

c)     At the end of this course students will engage in a rigorous writing project.

III. Course Requirements
a)    Reading
There is assigned readings for each week of our seminar. You are required to complete the readings and come to class prepared to discuss them.

Required books:
Iwamura, Jane Naomi
Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture
Oxford University Press, 2011
ISBN: 0199738610

Seager, Richard H.
Buddhism in America (revised edition, 2012)
Columbia University Press, 2012
ISBN: 0231159730
Williamson, Lola
Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion
NYU Press, 2010
ISBN: 0814794505
            Other course readings will be posted to Blackboard.

b)    Class blog:
Throughout the semester our class will be running a public blog about Asian religions in American culture. This blog is meant to be eclectic, interesting, entertaining, and creative. It should be a different kind of writing than what you have been doing thus far in college.

The posts should be concise and analytical. They can be as short as a paragraph or as long as a page. Your post could be a photo or video and a paragraph or two of analysis. It could be a short analytical or critical response to the week’s reading. Be creative. These are not meant to be stressful or busy work, but a chance for you to have some fun with the course materials and to connect what we’re reading and discussing with the world around you in an interesting way.

In terms of content, you may post about anything as long you can tie it back into the materials and ideas we are reading and discussing. For example, maybe you happen across an ad for a local yoga studio. Take a picture of it. Now, post that picture and offer an analysis of how it fits in with various representations of Asian religions we’ve been reading/discussing. Or, maybe you hear a song or see a TV show that jogs something we’ve read. Write about that. You will also be able to post about your research project as it progresses (more on that).

You must publish one post on the blog per week by Monday morning at 8 AM. This give the rest of the class plenty of time to read, comment, and think about what you’ve posted. I will also be posting things as I come across them and think of them but I want your voices and writing to be the content that shines.

The blogs are graded as either satisfactory or unsatisfactory.

c)     Research paper
Throughout the semester you will be working on a research project that will culminate in an essay of roughly 4000 words (10 pages or so). We will walk through these projects as a class from project ideas to proposals to bibliographies to rough drafts to final drafts. You will get feedback from your peers. There are due dates for each stage in the schedule. We will workshop rough drafts of your papers late in the semester. Also, with your permission, I will edit the final drafts, add an introduction and publish them on our class blog as an e-book. I will provide more details about each stage of the process and rubrics I will use for grading as we progress through the semester.

Grade Breakdown:
            Blog posts: 30%
            Research proposal: 10%
            Annotated Bibliography: 10%
            Rough draft: 15% (10% for your draft, 5% for comments on other drafts)
            Final draft: 35%

Grade Scale
A+       95-100%         C         70-74
A         90-94               D+       65-69
B+       85-89               D         60-64
B         80-84               D-        50-59
                                    F          below 50

IV. Ground Rules

In a weekly seminar such as this attendance is expected. Missing one of our meetings is equivalent to missing an entire week of another course. Your attendance is expected unless there is an emergency outside of your control. If you miss class you need to contact me immediately so we can arrange makeup work of some sort—usually a short piece of writing to replace the missed in class discussion.

We will all come to class prepared. That means I will be prepared to lead class discussion and lecture, while you will have done the reading, answered the Response question, and have your reading and your Response with you.

Late Work
I do not accept late work. I do give extensions in the case of extraordinary circumstances, but I expect that you will ask for the extension promptly. Do not email asking for an extension unless it is under extreme circumstances outside of your control (like a relative died over the weekend and you need to leave immediately. See technology policy regarding technological “emergencies.”) I allow for make up exams in extraordinary circumstances and only with appropriate documentation that a student missed the exam for reasons outside of their control.

Technology policy
Let’s face it: technology breaks. Servers go down. Transfers time out. Files become corrupt. The list goes on and on. These are not considered emergencies. They are part of the normal production process. An issue you may have with technology is no excuse for late work. You need to protect yourself by managing your time and backing up your work.

Turn your cell phone on silent when you come into class. Do not text in class.

If you bring a laptop to class, use it for class. I will sometimes ask students with laptops to look up something to help our class discussion. But be aware that your screen can distract other students.
See here: 

Students with a documented physical and/or learning disability should contact the professor outside of class time as soon as possible to review documentation and discuss accommodations. Also, students should familiarize themselves with the Office of Disability Services at  

In Case of Emergency/Weather
UA's primary communication tool for sending out information is through its web site at  In the event of an emergency, students should consult this site for further directions. In the event of an emergency, I will use Blackboard to provide additional course information.

Honor Code
Academic misconduct is a serious offense and is taken very seriously at UA and in the class. Suspected cases of plagiarism, cheating, or other forms of academic misconduct will be referred to the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. You are bound by UA’s Honor Code in this class.

V. Tentative Schedule

Part I. Introductions: What is Asian about Asian Religions in America?

August 27- Introductions: You, Me, and, Wordpress

September 3- The Construction of the East
“General Introduction” and “Introduction to Asian Religions” from Asian Religions in America; A Documentary History, Thomas A. Tweed and Stephen Prothero

“Introduction,” from Orientalism, Edward W. Said

Bulletin for the Study of Religion Critical Questions: “Category Formation and “Eastern” Traditions”

Part II. Early Encounters

September 10- Transcendentalists, Theosophists, and Yoga
“Metaphysical Asia” from A Republic of Mind and Spirit, Catherine Albanese

EsotericsRationlists, and Romantics: A Typology of Euro-American Buddhist Sympathizers and Adherents, 1875-1912” from The American Encounter with Buddhism, Thomas Tweed

“Hannah Adams, A Dictionary of All Religions (1817)” and “Ralph Waldo Emerson, Brahma and Plato (1857, 1850)” from Asian Religions in America

Discuss project ideas

September 17- [Asian] World Religions in America: The World Parliament of Religions
“General Introduction,” Dawn of Religious Pluralism, Richard Hughes Seager

 “The World’s Parliament of Religion and the Invention of Hinduism,” Michael J. Altman

“Hinduism,” Swami Vivekananda and “The World’s Debt to Buddha,” Angarika Dharmapala from Asian Religions in America

Project proposals due.

Part III. Buddhism in America

September 24- The Basics of Buddhism and the American Context
Part I, Buddhism in America

October 1- Mapping American Buddhism: The Traditions
Part II, Buddhism in America

October 8- Buddhism in America and American Buddhism
Part III, Buddhism in America

Annotated bibliography due.

Part IV. Hinduism in America

October 15- Immigrant Hinduism in the United States
 “Hinduism in America,” Vasudha Narayanan from The Cambridge History of Religions in America

“Hinduism in Pittsburgh: Creating the South Indian “Hindu” Experience in the United States,” Vasudha Narayanan and “A Diasporic Hindu Creed: Some Basic Features of Hinduism,” Sitansu S. Charkravati from The Life of Hinduism

October 22- American Hinduism and Meditation
Part I, Transcendent in America

October 29- Meditation Movements in America
Part II, Transcendent in America

November 5- Experiences of Hinduism in America
Part III, Transcendent in America

Part V. Region and Representation

November 12- Namaste, Y’all!
Ch. 5-6 of Dixie Dharma, Jeff Wilson

November 19- The Oriental Monk in American Culture
Ch.1-2, Virtual Orientalism

Rough Drafts due

November 26
View Kumare

December 3- Gurus and Kungfu
Ch. 3-5, Virtual Orientalism

Paper workshop

Final drafts due December 12 (via email as .doc file) by 9:30pm


Semaphoric said…
Michael, have you thought of including Christianity as also an Asian religion (in America)?
Great question. One could very well add in a unit on Asian American Christianities to this class. If it was an "Asian American Religions" course I would most certainly do that.

But for my purposes right now, I want the course to focus on the ways the dominant white Protestant American culture encountered religious difference in the form of "Asian religions" or "the East." Hence the Edward Said reading early on. Part of the point of that first set of readings is to get into that discussion. To show that whatever we call "Asian" is a complete fabrication, no less than "religion." South Asian Muslims could also be added to the syllabus, for example.

In short, my interest in religious difference and Protestant power shaped the syllabus in a way that focuses on moments where "Asian religions" served as an Other for white Protestant America--for better or worse.