I love reading novels as well as academic books, but usually these two categories are firmly separate. Recently this separation broke down as I read Vanessa Sasson’s novel about the Buddha’s long-suffering wife, called Yasodhara and available from Speaking Tiger Books.

I first heard about Vanessa’s creative efforts at last summer’s IABS Congress, when she was persuaded to do a little reading from the opening of the novel during the Q&A session that followed her paper. I was really impressed by the skilful way in which she switched gears, drawing us all into the emotional torment of Yasodhara as she contemplates her young son’s departure. I was almost in tears by the end.

Photo on 17-09-2018 at 13.40I was therefore really excited to hear about the book’s publication, and couldn’t wait to get my order. It was well worth it: a very imaginative and engrossing tale, interweaving a range of narrative sources and references (including the Vessantara Jataka and the Ramayana) to create something both engaging and thought provoking.

It is not often that a scholar is able to also write good fiction. In the field of Indology the notable exception is Lee Siegel, whose novel Love in a Dead Language captivated me as a graduate student, combining as it does the academic conventions of translation and commentary with fiction. Vanessa Sasson’s book is also not exactly full blown fiction: it is based in part on biographical (or hagiographical) sources about the Buddha’s lifestory, and Notes at the end of the novel helpfully indicate what bits of the story come from where. However, she has not been held back by any concerns over “fact” or “history”, instead letting her imagination take her on a journey of exploration in the company of Yasodhara. We get a totally different – and hugely enriched – perspective on the Buddha’s lifestory as a result.

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Tax avoidance in the Avadānaśataka

One of the things that always delights me about studying ancient Indian narrative is the way in which it so often resonates with contemporary concerns. The Avadānaśataka, a Sanskrit Buddhist compendium of tales that I have been working on in recent years, is a particular favourite in this regard. I have written before about the Buddha’s teachings on the merits of housework in this text, and love the gardening imagery that often features. Last week I found myself chuckling at story number 4.

The tale concerns a merchant who just can’t seem to make any money. After several failed voyages, he decides to try an ingenious solution: he promises to offer half of the wealth of his next trip to the Buddha. It works! But when he gets home from his voyage with all his immense riches, he is overwhelmed with greed, and regrets his previous promise.

It is what he does next that made me laugh, in our age of tax avoidance and dodgy dealing:

He sells the immense stock of valuable goods that he has brought home to his wife for two small coins. Then he uses these coins to buy incense, which he then offers to the Buddha.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there. The Buddha’s power leads to a miraculous display, which humbles the merchant and prompts him to make a proper offering, and even an aspiration to achieve future buddhahood himself. His sneaky tactics can’t outwit the all-knowing Buddha. If only HMRC had such power.

Posted in Buddhism, Buddhist texts, Religious narrative | 1 Comment

How reliable are student evaluations of teaching?

Last week I got my results back on semester 2’s teaching, and much hilarity ensued!

As many universities, Edinburgh now uses an online system to collect numerical scores on each course, along with some free text comments. The comments are sometimes very helpful, though I found the old system of distributing paper forms in class much more successful in this regard, both in terms of response rates and usefulness of comments.

The numerical scores offer some satisfaction too, since (humblebrag alert) I do tend to do pretty well. Individual lecturers are rated on four areas: X “was organised and well prepared”, “was good at explaining the subject”, “was approachable and willing to help”, and “stimulated my interest in the subject”.

Now we can certainly debate whether or not these are the best factors to rate, and certainly we can query the decision to use a numerical grading system given widespread evidence of unconscious bias affecting results, with gender bias well documented and other forms of bias also likely.

However, this year’s results offered further evidence of the unreliability of such scores. As I looked through the different ratings for the different courses I contributed to, I was disappointed to see that, yet again, my contribution to a particular team-taught course in another school was pulling down my averages. This has happened before, due – I suspect – not to my weaker teaching, but to a general lower satisfaction with the course overall.

Then a penny dropped. This year I did not actually deliver my lecture on this course, as it was during the industrial action. Suddenly an 85% student satisfaction rate didn’t look so bad, given that I had achieved it without having any contact with any of the students! Indeed, looking back at last year’s responses, I only managed 86% satisfaction WITH the lecture!

So how had students found themselves so satisfied with my preparation, explanation, approachability and stimulation of interest, given my total absence from their learning experience? Presumably they had no idea who I was, and gave a general response based on their overall impression of the course.

This year the results will be removed from my record, but in future, when I do do the lecture, will the feedback be any more reliable? I think I will continue to take such scores with a very large pinch of salt.

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Digital scroll of the Vessantara Jataka

Following my post yesterday, about a digitised scroll of the Mahābhārata, Leedom Lefferts got in touch to share a link to a digitised scroll of the Vessantara Jātaka! It is a rather different – even more magical – experience, since you get to walk virtually around an exhibition and view the hanging illustrated scroll within, as well as the other artefacts included. You can also zoom in to appreciate the detail.

DevotionThe exhibition was called “DEVOTION – Image, Recitation, and Celebration of the Vessantara Epic in Northeast Thailand” and was curated by Thomas Kaiser at the University of Zurich’s ethnographic museum this past year. Sadly I could not make it to the exhibition itself, though I have enjoyed perusing the catalogue, which is really a substantial scholarly book, with the same title as the exhibition. Now I can also transport myself into the room and investigate all the treasures on display!

Do take a tour! Enjoy!

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Mahabharata scroll digitised

A couple of years ago, when teaching a course on the Hindu Epics, I took my class to the Centre for Research Collections at the University’s main library to look at a late 18th century Mahabharata scroll. It was stunning. Housed in a glass-topped wooden box and mounted on rollers, the scroll was moved using a key in the side of the box. At around 70 metres long, it took some time to move through the manuscript, admiring the tiny tiny Devanagari characters and the beautiful illustrations.


I am delighted to say that now everyone with a decent internet connection can also scroll through the manuscript. While you may not get the thrill of watching the scroll move as you turn a key, you do get to see the scroll magnified, and without the reflections from the glass top. You can zoom in to the small text and read, or admire details in the painted miniatures. It really is a treasure.

You can see it at the following link:

A library blog post on the project giving some more details about how the conservation and digitisation came about can be found here: http://libraryblogs.is.ed.ac.uk/diu/2018/06/22/a-stitch-in-time-mahabharata-delivered-online/

Please do take a look, for idle pleasure or for research purposes!

Posted in Academia, Religious narrative, Teaching | Tagged | 1 Comment

Daily Writing and Daily Reading

I was recently identified – wrongly – as one of those people who does “daily writing”. Although I know the comment was meant positively – an obvious cause for my apparent productivity – I found myself strangely affronted by the idea. I have never really liked the fashion for writing in little tiny pockets of time (such as “pomodoros” of twenty-five minutes), nor the implication that we therefore don’t need long expanses of time in order to do research.

Each of my three monographs was written during a sustained period of research – my PhD, a three-year postdoc, and a funded research project. Even within these periods of research I tended to have bursts of writing and long months without. I am not a magician who can write books around the edges of normal teaching and administrative duties.

The only piece of research I managed to fit around the last semester’s workload was a single conference paper. I read and planned and sketched out the overall structure in snatched half-days, then wrote almost the entire thing in a single day, at home on the sofa. That was the grand total of my writing for January to April. Unless you count the 100-page application for the School’s Athena SWAN award, and even that was not written in daily pockets, but in sustained days and half-days.

The only time I have done anything that resembled daily writing was during the final year of my PhD, when I set myself the task of writing 1,000 words per day. I would start at around 8am, curled up at my desk in my PJs, with a pot of tea by my side. Usually I would finish writing late morning, and then spend the afternoon reviewing notes or sources ready for the next day’s writing. (I would also walk into town to use the university facilities to check my emails, as I did not have internet at home at that point – happy undistracted days!) In other words my daily writing was part of a broader routine of doing research all day. It was not tucked in around the edges of other responsibilities.

Daily reading is, however, a routine I return to periodically. I find it particularly useful at this time of year, when various duties are still punctuating my week – meetings, marking and moderating, reviewing and planning – but when I am also trying to get my head back into research mode. As I reminded myself through various futile attempts last week, I cannot really write at this time of year, as there are too many interruptions and my brain is too tired. Remembering to read for a few hours every day helps me to gradually reorient and refresh my brain. Then, later in the summer, I hope to have a few sustained weeks of writing!

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On student finances

Last month I paid off the last of my student loan.

I was one of the first generations of UK students to pay my own way at university. I paid no fees (they were means-tested in those days, and only about a thousand pounds even if you did pay) so my loan was just the total of three years of living costs in a fairly affordable city. I worked part-time jobs alongside my degree, and also during the summer breaks. And I was fully funded throughout my postgraduate studies. In other words, I was very lucky and fairly frugal, and yet I still had to wait until ten years into my career before clearing the debt.

What have we done to the next generations? Nine thousand pounds per year of fees debt, plus the soaring costs of living (especially renting), adds up to a pretty hefty loan. Most graduates will never pay off their debt, and indeed some politicians like to say it isn’t really debt because large chunks won’t be repaid, but it sure feels like debt to the students!

Meanwhile there’s a real squeeze on postgraduate funding while more and more students are recruited to boost the income streams of the universities. When I was planning for my MPhil and doctorate I applied directly to the national funder (the AHRC) and was judged against the national pool of applicants. Nowadays the funding is allocated to consortia in a manner I don’t fully understand, but I do understand this: It is no longer a level playing field. Weak applicants get funding in one region while strong applicants are denied funding in another region. Meanwhile local funding schemes are often fees-only, meaning that students have to accrue even more debt in pursuit of an elusive career.

So paying off my student debt makes me feel very lucky. I am wholeheartedly grateful to the tax-payers and government funds that made all my degrees possible. However, it also makes me sad, knowing that if I was going through the system now I would be in a very different position, and perhaps would not have felt able to pursue my higher degrees and this career.

Sorry, next generation. We messed up.

Education is a public good as well as a private good. I want my taxes to support students, as I was supported by the taxes of others. Time for a new system, please, or a return to the old.

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