I am drafting this statement outdoors in the rain next to my second-hand gas grill, boiling the remnant meat off cattle scapulae.” So begins an essay by associate professor of religion Ken Brashier that helped him win Outstanding Baccalaureate College Professor of the Year from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Brashier, who was nominated by Reed’s Committee on Advancement and Tenure, included this gruesome scene in his application because it exemplifies his hands-on, experiential approach to teaching Chinese religions. Far from a typical backyard barbecue (Brashier has been a vegetarian for 15 years), the grill-fest harkens back to a practice from China’s Shang Dynasty (1766–1122 B.C.E.). Once the scapulae were cleaned, diviners would crack them open and interpret them, then inscribe the cracked bones with their findings. Brashier’s students engage in this grisly process themselves, hopefully formulating questions no textbook could have inspired.
In spite of his obvious knack for capturing students’ imaginations, Brashier, who began teaching at Reed in 1998, says he approached his application for the award reluctantly. In fact, his discomfort with being in the spotlight has inspired him to develop a teaching method to avoid putting students in uncomfortable situations. “I use weekly informal writing assignments addressing a particular text or question,” he explains. “Then I know a quieter student’s opinions on this particular question, and I can draw in that person without putting him or her on the spot.”
Brashier’s personal crusade at Reed is to spark student interest in Chinese studies as early as possible. Most students of Chinese come to Reed with no exposure to Chinese language and culture, so the learning curve is steep. Brashier only began focusing his studies on China while he was at Oxford obtaining his third B.A. (His other degrees include B.A.s in German and journalism from the University of Missouri; an M.A. from Harvard; and a Ph.D. from Cambridge.)
Brashier explains his decision to finally stick with Chinese studies this way: “I wanted to study something I could study for the rest of my life. I wanted something that had a future, and I also wanted something that I still had a childlike fascination for. Chinese fit all three very easily.”
This is the third time in recent years that Reed has been honored with a Carnegie Foundation teaching award (the award is administered by CASE—the Council for Advancement and Support of Education). Biology professor Robert Kaplan received the national award in 1997. Nigel Nicholson, Walter Mintz Associate Professor of Classics, received the award for Oregon in 2004.