Our Capstone Seminar

I joined Yogic Studies (YS) in 2020, when it had already been running for around three years and had gathered a rather large number of students. A fair few of those students had asked the founder Seth Powell whether YS might offer Sanskrit language classes; and to this day I count myself supremely lucky that Seth asked me whether I wanted to teach those, using my 2017 textbook.

Sanskrit at YS now has students in the fourth year of their studies – so in US terms, they’re college seniors:-). They’ve had a year of Introductory Sanskrit in which we covered all the basics (forms, syntax, some vocab) and a year of Intermediate Sanskrit in which we put those basics to good use by reading rather extensive excerpts from the Sanskrit epics and from narrative literature. This was followed by several terms in which they could choose from a widening array of classes such as Modern Spoken Sanskrit, Sanskrit grammar through the lens of Pāṇini, an Introduction to Vedic, and also more advanced reading classes on specific texts.

When I was a lecturer at Cornell, teaching Latin, Greek and Sanskrit in the Classics Department, I was at one point tasked with creating a Classics Minor. A Minor is an academic concentration for students who do not want to or cannot focus their studies in a field (that is, in US academic parlance, to ‘major in’ that field), but who nevertheless want to take more than just a random collection of courses in it. In designing the Minor, we aimed to invite students to think about where they wanted their studies to take them, and to structure them accordingly.

Thinking back to that experience made me all the more excited when Seth suggested creating, basically, a Sanskrit degree at Yogic Studies. Now, YS is not an institution that is academically accredited in any official manner; and so we’re merely calling our thing a ‘certificate’ rather than a degree or a major; but take a look if you want to see how we compare with ‘regular’ undergrad programmes. (There also is a less language-centered certificate that nevertheless has a considerable language component: the Yogic Studies Advanced Certificate Program.)

The reason why this certificate is on my mind a lot right now is that I am working on the syllabus for its capstone seminar. The certificate is not meant as a ‘terminal’ qualification, as an end point of an academic journey, but rather as an invitation to our students to begin leaving us, their teachers, behind and taking their first steps towards scholarly independence.

Thus the capstone seminar does two things. Together, we will dip our toes into a number of areas students need to learn more about, over time, if they want to work with Sanskrit texts in a scholarly manner. We will get ourselves an overview of the many genres of Sanskrit literature. Nothing complete, nothing thorough – the aim merely is to get to a point from where the students then know how to continue on their own, in whatever direction they choose. With this same aim, we will take a look at textual tradition and textual criticsm, and at the intricate Indian tradition(s) of textual commentary. We will look at non-printed Sanskrit and at how one might learn the scripts needed to read e.g. a specific manuscript tradition. And finally – the comparative linguist in me couldn’t resist – I want to show them which languages they might learn more easily now that they have a fairly good grasp of Sanskrit (I was thinking especially of Avestan, Pali and Prakrit; other scholars are much better suited than me at pointing out the best paths from Sanskrit to modern languages such as Hindi or Bengali).

And just in case you felt that all the toe-dipping didn’t sound demanding enough: each student will also have to work on a small, independent study project. The only limits I am setting for the topic: it needs to involve the academic, scholarly study of a Sanskrit-related question that can be answered within the confines of the 12 weeks of the seminar. I can’t wait to hear what topics the seminar participants will suggest. So why am I talking about all this? Well, of course I hope one or two of you will think that all this sounds interesting and will consider joining our merry band of learners at Yogic Studies. But I also just am really excited that we are keeping these centuries of knowledge tradition properly accessible to anyone who wants to access them. I have seen so many ways trad-ac has of keeping people out of its hallowed halls – be it through exorbitant fees, by cutting the less monetisable subjects at the more accessible institutions (so often! it’s painful), or through plain old elitist treatment. Yogic Studies seems so different from all that. Maybe we’re here seeing the beginning of a new, fairer form of higher ed?

Category: Teaching