About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different Lawrence faculty member each time — same questions, different answers.
Constance Kassor, associate professor of religious studies, focuses much of her teaching on Buddhist thought and Asian religious traditions.
From researching and writing a forthcoming book exploring the philosophy of a 15th-century Tibetan scholar, to leading student travel to India and Nepal, to teaching students to decompress and better connect with themselves, Kassor has been an important voice in her field and on the Lawrence campus. She has frequently collaborated with faculty across departments since arriving at Lawrence in 2016.
She garnered national attention in recent weeks for launching the Doing Nothing course, an attempt to teach students skills to cope in an always-connected world.
Kassor earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and Buddhist studies from Smith College in 2005 and a Ph.D. in religious studies from Emory University in 2014.
We caught up with Kassor to talk about interests in and out of the classroom.
In the classroom
Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?
I want students to know that I don’t expect them to be perfect, or to know all the answers in class. The most important kind of learning happens when we stretch ourselves and engage with new and unfamiliar material. I say this from a place of experience: I started my college career as a biology major, but one semester, I enrolled in a class that was taught by a visiting professor who was a Tibetan Buddhist monk from India. I knew nothing about Buddhism at the time, and most of the content in the course was way over my head. I struggled in the class and didn’t earn a very good grade. But it introduced me to all kinds of new and interesting ideas that I had never considered before, and ultimately, it’s the reason why I’m a professor of Buddhist studies now.
Getting energized: What work have you done or will you be doing at Lawrence that gets you the most excited?
One of my favorite things about working at Lawrence is that I have a lot of opportunities to collaborate with others on fun projects. This year, I’m co-teaching a course for the second time with Professor Lori Hilt in the Psychology Department, about Buddhist and psychological perspectives on meditation. I’ve also put together an experimental 1-unit course called Doing Nothing, which I’m co-teaching with 12 other Lawrence faculty and staff spread out across different departments in the college and the conservatory. And outside of teaching, I’m directing a humanities institute this year, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Together with nine other Lawrence faculty and staff, we’re spending this year exploring the intersections between belief, racism, and antiracist practice.
Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you (either a physical space or something more intellectual, emotional or spiritual) that took you by surprise?
I’m constantly surprised that I have so many opportunities to travel for my job. Working at Lawrence has allowed me to take students to Nepal, India, and Thailand, as part of our Field Experience in Religious Studies course—another collaborative teaching project, which I’ve done a couple of times with the dean of Spiritual and Religious Life, Linda Morgan-Clement. And this past summer, I spent a few weeks traveling with Professor Madera Allan in the Spanish Department—we walked 100km of the Camino de Santiago in northwest Spain, and visited Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimage places in the Kathmandu Valley. We took this trip in order to develop an interdisciplinary travel course on the topic of pilgrimage, which we’d like to offer to students in a couple of years.
Out of the classroom
This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing?
If I wasn’t teaching for a living, I’d be teaching for a hobby. Honestly. So much of my free time is spent teaching. I spend a lot of my non-Lawrence time teaching classes on Tibetan language and Buddhist studies in different places—at a university in Kathmandu, a yoga studio in New York City, and virtually for organizations like The Great Courses, Audible, and Buddhist Studies Online.
Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus?
I love spending time in the Center for Spiritual and Religious Life. It’s a space on campus where members of the Lawrence community can just exist, and do their own thing alone or with others. I host weekly meditation sessions there, and I love seeing students making use of the space to do homework, relax with friends, or cook and share a meal in the kitchen. It’s an incredibly warm and inviting space on campus.
One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul? Or you would recommend to a friend? Or both?
A book: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. On its surface, it’s a collection of short vignettes about far-away places. But it’s a book that benefits from multiple rereads; it’s a beautiful depiction of time, memory, relationships, and other aspects of humanity.
A recording: The King of Sudanese Jazz, by Sharhabil Ahmed. 1960s rock and roll mixed with North African influences, sung in Arabic. It’s incredible.
A film: Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom. It’s an amazing Bhutanese film that was written and directed by LU alum Pawo Choyning Dorji ’06.