Digitizing Asia: Perspectives on the Paintings of Iwasaki Tsuneo

My digital pedagogy projects have been a wonderful opportunity for me to learn about and integrate digital technology into my courses. For the past four years, with the support of the Mellon Foundation, I have consistently incorporated digital platforms in my courses to enhance learning for my students, who need direction on how to constructively use digital tools for learning in the liberal arts. This funding has also contributed considerably to faculty development. In 2013, I used the web publishing platform Omeka as part of a digital humanities project entitled Mapping Cultures, which explored Tibetan cultural traditions and attempts to preserve those traditions. The project involved a collaborative venture with the Crow Collection of Asian Art in Dallas, including the exhibit, “Taking Shape: Perspectives on Asian Bronzes.”

More recently, I am engaged in another project with my students, to study and analyze contemporary brushwork paintings by Japanese research biologist Iwasaki Tsuneo, who created images with the Chinese characters of the Buddhist text, the Heart Sutra. Once again, the project involves collaboration between Austin College and the Crow Collection. The exhibition, “Wisdom of Compassion: The Art and Science of Iwasaki Tsuneo (1917-2002)” is currently on display at the Crow, until June 11. I was able to bring these paintings to Dallas with the help of my co-curator, Dr. Paula Arai, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Louisiana State University. As part of this project, students in my classes on Buddhism (REL 110) and East Asian religions (REL 222) are analyzing Iwasaki’s paintings and using the web-authoring application Scalar  to create digital-native presentations about these works that integrate various forms of textual and visual media. Scalar has allowed my students to experiment with inquiry-based and team learning activities and to create informative and persuasive presentations. 

Although I have had to make adjustments to my original goals with the Heart Sutra paintings project (due to budget constraints from our collaborators in Dallas), it is still proving to be a very fruitful and rich experience. Although there was a learning curve to become familiar with the Scalar platform, the end result was never disappointing. In team-based projects in REL 110, students had to appoint fellow classmates to be in charge of a particular element of a project, to engage in peer evaluation, and to find ways to make projects cohesive. In the end, students also had to present their projects to their classmates and this generated very fruitful discussions and peer evaluations rather than isolated discussion of individual works. For their final exercise in the REL 222 course, students are connecting other works used in the course along with media materials to respond to the Iwasaki works.

Alongside work on a digital level, this semester I was able to organize exhibition-related events at both Austin College and the Crow Museum. This included a lecture by Professor Arai, who spoke about the works of Iwasaki Tsuneo; an inkbrush workshop where students learned about ink brush painting and the tradition of copying the Heart Sutra in the Buddhist tradition; and, finally, an enlightening panel by science faculty (Drs. Kelly Reed, David Whelan, Mari Ewing, and Don Salisbury) and humanities faculty (Drs. Scott Langton, Mindy Landeck), who responded to the Iwasaki works from their respective disciplines.

In addition to utilizing Scalar, this project has also involved the creation of three videos of the Iwasaki works and related events with the assistance of the media team at Austin College (Lynn Womble and AC student Nate Essin), as well as DHD films in Dallas. We produced an educational video (an exhibition at the CCAA Museum), a promotional video for Austin College (included interviews by AC students), and a taping of the science-humanities panel. The educational video will be used on a Scalar website that will be modeled on a recent project involving the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth entitled “Exhibitions Close Up—Bernini: Sculpting in Clay.” The site will include student projects from REL 222, and will also be used for future courses at Austin College. The promotional video will also be posted at the CCAA museum website. The panel video will be used for future courses and a copy will be kept in the AC Abell Library archival collection.

Mellon Foundation funding has led to rich learning experiences on the digital level for students, faculty, staff, and the public. Dr. Mo Pelzel, our digital pedagogy specialist, has been an invaluable resource during my project using Scalar and I hope that we can as an institution continue with his assistance and with funding for digital pedagogy in the near future.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Students engage in learning the digital program Scalar
  • Students apply traditional learning materials with multi-media in a digital platform
  • Students compare textual and visual materials
  • Students engage in collaborative, team-based learning


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