WMU professor co-develops first world religions course at partner institution in Malaysia—Sunway University
By Kevin Haynes
Dr. Brian Wilson, comparative religion professor and recipient of a Fulbright Senior Specialist award, recently spent six weeks at Sunway University in Malaysia to co-develop the first-ever world religions course to be offered at Western University’s long-time institutional partner. We learned about his project in this interview.
How was the course conceived and who participated?
As part of my sabbatical, I was at Sunway University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from January 17 through February 27, 2016 as a Fulbright Senior Specialist. The Fulbright Senior Specialist Program, administered by the U.S. Department of State, “promotes linkages between U.S. scholars and professionals and their counterparts at host institutions overseas." In my case, I was asked by Sunway’s Centre for American Education to work with a lecturer in the program, Sunita Gnanamalar Arthur Selvaraj, to design and implement a first-ever course in world religions at the university. My role was to use my 20 years of experience teaching comparative religion to help faculty at Sunway design a syllabus, choose a textbook, and develop a diverse variety of lecture materials—all in an effort to create a world religions course that is enlightening and useful to a very diverse group of students. The class included Malaysians, Ethiopians, Nigerians, Iranians, Bangladeshis, Indonesians, and students from other countries. Moreover, this is a level-one (i.e. freshman) course, which can be taken by any student to fulfill general education requirements for transfer to American universities, including WMU.
What kind of response did you receive for the initial course offering?
The class began the second week of my stay, and I’m happy to report that it was a success. We had 25 students enrolled from a wide variety of majors (including the sciences and engineering), and, never having had a course like this, they were all keenly interested and asked many perceptive questions. I lectured on the academic study of religion in general and indigenous religions, as well as presenting sections on Hinduism and Buddhism. When I left, the course was taken over by my counterpart, Ms. Selvaraj, who will continue to offer the course as a part of the regular curriculum. Importantly, my experience teaching world religions at Sunway will undoubtedly help me bring a fresh perspective to teaching the same subject back at WMU.
In what ways will your experiences in Malaysia influence your teaching and research at WMU?
I am keenly interested in the issues that arise in religiously plural societies. As a scholar of religion in America, I am, of course, most familiar with the situation in the United States, so I welcomed the opportunity to learn about another religious plural society at first hand. Malaysia is an officially Muslim country, but there are also large populations of Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians. It was fascinating talking to people here about the religious situation here in Malaysia and learning about its complexities. I was able to visit several key religious sites to get an idea of how people actually practice their religions, including the National Mosque of Kuala Lumpur, the Batu Caves Hindu Temple Complex, the Tek Lok Tong Chinese Cave Temples of Ipoh, and an Evangelical mega-church called Kingdom City in Petaling Jaya.
We also took our class on a field trip of the religious sites of the city of Malacca, an Old Dutch colonial city south of Kuala Lumpur. These experiences will help us to tailor Sunway’s world religions course to better serve the students, and they will without a doubt have an impact on my teaching back home. Several years ago at WMU I team-taught a graduate seminar on religious pluralism in the United States; with my new experiences in Malaysia, I am hoping to offer that course again, but this time with a more global, comparative perspective.
What else were you asked to do as a visiting Fulbright Senior Specialist?
In addition to the above, as is true with most Fulbrighters, I was asked to participate in a variety of other activities Sunway. For example, I participated on a panel in celebration of the life and thought of Martin Luther King, Jr., and led a discussion of Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mocking Bird. I also gave a public lecture based on my recent book, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the Religion of Biologic Living, and participated in an informal discussionabout best teaching practices with the faculty of the Centre for American Education. Finally, WMU has had a long relationship with Sunway University (since 1987) and has hosted hundreds of Malaysian students over the years, so to help advance this tradition, so I was enlisted to participate in two workshops for students thinking about studying the United States. I enjoyed the opportunity to talk to them about the manifold benefits of studying at Western Michigan University.