Inverting the Object of Study: Recalibrating the Frame of Reference in Study Abroad Experiences

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This essay is concerned with study abroad experiences as opportunities for student cognitive development, using the interpretive lens of educational psychologist William G. Perry. A standard and often valuable assignment in courses on world religions is a site visit to a religious institution in one's local area. This may concretize otherwise abstract materials and help students reflect on ways in which the lived experience of religion differs from its presentation in course texts and other academic materials. Increasingly, study abroad trips are being offered as extended and more intensive ways of bringing this material to life, offering students opportunity to see lived religion within another cultural framework. At the heart of this paper is the contention that such study abroad experiences function not simply as longer, more intense versions of site visits but, rather, as experiences that invert the subject and object of study. The worldview of the student becomes a primary object of study, which is examined, as it were, by the particulars of the religion(s) under investigation and the cultures of which said religion(s) are a part. Where site visits offer students an opportunity to visit the strange amidst the familiar, study abroad trips provide opportunities for students to become the strange within a recalibrated familiar. The subject becomes the object and is interrogated by the context of study. While local, stateside site visits can offer a degree of such dislocation, their brevity, together with some degree of assimilation to the larger culture flows on the part of the local religious institution being visited, most often mitigates any significant inversion. Students generally see such institutions as either mildly or wildly exotic, but always within their frame of reference, which constitutes the norm. When abroad, the normative experience of students is often subverted in ways that lay bare the assumptions behind such views and makes possible another world in which to live. Simply put, the subject and object of study change places. If this inversion is carefully attended to, it can provide rich insight into not only the topics nominally being studied but also occasion opportunity for real cognitive development on the part of the student. This essay is published alongside of six other essays, including a response from John Barbour, comprising a special section of the journal (see Teaching Theology and Religion 18:1, January 2015).

Original languageAmerican English
JournalTeaching Theology & Religion
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015


  • Religion

Cite this