Material Analysis: Studying the Japanese Tea Ceremony
With his submission for the Academic Year Teaching Scholars program, Ariel Stilerman had an ambitious goal in mind: first, to introduce his students to the Japanese tea ceremony and, subsequently, to teach them to bring aesthetic, historical, anthropological, and sociological analyses to bear on a largely unfamiliar subject, one both materially evanescent and infused with a long, mutable history.
Stilerman worked with Mark Phillipson, Director of Programs and Initiatives at the CTL, to design the course and plot out assignments. Once the course was approved, Stilerman began marketing the course, with the aim of recruiting the widest possible audience. His flier campaign succeeded; registration for the course quickly reached the maximum capacity, and even ran into a long waiting list. His final course roster included a variety of students—engineers, economists, art historians, even a student with a background in ceramics (which proved useful when discussing the process by which tea bowls are made).
No one, however, knew much about the Japanese tea ceremony. Stilerman, who spent a year in Japan as an apprentice to a tea master, employed a number of different approaches to introduce them to the ceremony, with two receiving a particular emphasis: his use of the media annotation tool Mediathread, and his reaching out to New York City institutions with apposite resources.
“Many of the students are native visual people. They’re on YouTube, they’re on Facebook, their life is visual more than textual. That doesn’t mean they have the tools to talk about it. The challenge for me is to help them hone the skills of their own native language.”
Learning the Language
In preparation for the second meeting of the course, Stilerman asked his students to comment in Mediathread on a film of the life of the tea master Sen Rikyu.
“I used that to lead the conversation at the next meeting,” he says. “We could look at the parts of the film that they were really interested in, and the parts that really elicited no commentary whatsoever and talk about why. It was a tool for them to really hit the ground running, to really start a course saying, ‘Okay, this is what we’re learning about.’”
Teaching Scholar Ariel Stilerman, who spent a year in Japan as an apprentice to a tea master, used the media annotation tool Mediathread in his course. Students could select objects in the film and comment on them, fueling conversation for the classroom.
“Also, it was a good way to have a very rich second meeting; because they all had submitted their work, they all had something to say. I noticed that some of the students think really more visually than textually. So, by bringing this visual dimension into the picture, I think I was able to reach out to students who otherwise would have been quiet, and to do that early on in the class I think is something I would advise people to do. This has to do with inclusiveness—make sure everybody gets the feeling that their voice is appreciated, and the language that they’re speaking in, be it visual or textual or whatever, is welcome and is understood.”
Borrowing from a concept developed by Gray Tuttle, Leila Hadley Luce Associate Professor of Modern Tibetan Studies and a specialist in material culture, Stilerman also asked his students to write “biographies” of objects used in the tea ceremony.
“I think that the assignment helped them to organize their thinking about the course,” Stilerman says. “What kind of questions should I be asking? When I see—not just an object for the assignment, but any object—how should I approach it? When I go into a tea ceremony, what do I pay attention to? How do I read the situation? I think Mediathread was really helpful to get that conversation going.
“… Many of the students are native visual people. They’re on YouTube, they’re on Facebook, their life is visual more than textual. That doesn’t mean they have the tools to talk about it. The challenge for me is to help them hone the skills of their own native language.”
“I was trying to make the connection between the theme of the course, and the materials, and the objects, and the texts, and everyday life.”
Using the City’s Resources
In keeping with the course’s focus on the actual experience of the tea ceremony, about a month into the semester Stilerman arranged for the Urasenke Chanoyu Center to give the students a lesson in hosting a tea ceremony.
“The first meeting after that experience was a totally different thing,” Stilerman says. “Somehow they were speaking about the experience that Saturday with the language of the texts we had been reading for a month, and they were also able to conceptualize what had happened to them that Saturday in a very nuanced, articulate way.”
Stilerman conceived of the tea ceremony activity as a complement to the Mediathread assignments. “I thought about this as a two-step process,” Stilerman notes. “The first step was the Mediathread film assignment, so that’s where they see the tea gathering on the screen and begin thinking about it. Then we read about it, so they have some kind of imagination or fantasy about what it would look like. With that base, we read for a month and then we go and have the experiential activity. I think that that kind of cycle or process really works.”
Other outside activities—such as those in which students made their own tea bowls, an integral part of tea ceremony tradition, and attended a lecture by Kristin Surak, of SOAS, University of London—were also interwoven with classroom activities, none more so than a special visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in which students were allowed to visit the back room to view objects not part of the permanent collection.
The variety of pedagogical approaches he has employed has led Stilerman somewhat outside the traditional remit of an instructor, as he negotiates with outside institutions and serves as tech support for students who encountered difficulty working in Mediathread. “Something that surprised me is that the students noticed that, and remarked on it in class,” he notes. “When I announced that I had finally gotten the Met to agree to a back room visit … one of my students asked me ‘How’d you do that?” and I think that’s a very valid question. She was asking about a transferable skill: She wanted me to teach her how to go and negotiate with a big institution to be able to organize these kinds of events. It’s the same thing with tech support. Whatever skill you have you can share it. It’s possible that some of those skills are going to be more useful to some of my students than a very brainy understanding of early Japanese history, and I’m happy to serve, if that’s what they want or need.
“At the same time, I was trying to model a certain behavior or skill, and I kind of expect them to be versatile, to go beyond ‘There’s a text on the syllabus, and I’m going to read it and then I’m going to talk about and then I’m going to write a paper about it.’ I was trying to push them into ‘There’s this issue that’s interesting to me, and I want to talk about it in very diverse, different ways and ultimately make it part of my life.’ I was trying to make the connection between the theme of the course, and the materials, and the objects, and the texts, and everyday life.”
Dr. Stilerman graduated from Columbia in 2015, and is presently Assistant Professor of Japanese Language and Culture at Florida State University. He gave a presentation on his experience at the 2015 Innovative Teaching Summer Institute.