Backstory: Prof. Russell McCutcheon

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Backstory” is a series that asks the REL Faculty to tell us a little bit about themselves, to explore how they became interested in the academic study of religion and their own specialty, elaborating on their current work both within and outside the University.

Where are you from?

I was born in Port Colborne, Ontario, in Canada, not far from Buffalo, NY, actually, in a region that is called southern Ontario. It’s both an industrial and a farming region—lots of grapes for wines being grown along the shore of Lake Ontario, about 45 minutes north of where I was from, which was on the north shore of Lake Erie—I could see Pennsylvania on the other side. And lots of heavy industry, like car manufacturing and steel mills, though not as much as when I was a kid. Now, tourism is probably as big as the manufacturing industry once was. There was a canal cutting through my town, which lakers took so they didn’t have to go over Niagara Falls when going to and from the ocean—good thinking.

Could you tell us a little about what your undergraduate degree was in?

Toward the end of high school I really excelled in biology—dissecting things and studying cells under the microscope—so I enrolled in a bachelor of science degree in what was called Life Sciences, at Queen’s University, in Kingston, which is in Canada but north and across the lake from Syracuse. So I took all the standard science courses plus things like Microbiology and Physiology and Biochemistry and Statistics—did I say I hated stats? I even wrote the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test), thinking I’d like to be a medical doctor, but I didn’t do so well on it. Because, truth be told, I had skipped a lot of classes in that undergrad degree. You see, I was not such a good student back then; my policy was “close the hatch and ride out the storm” the night before a test I wasn’t prepared for. So that means I watched TV and went to bed early. Not such a good academic approach, I can attest to that.

Do you recall how you first heard about the study of religion? Any memories from early classes stand out as helping to hook you on it?

I realized the science degree wasn’t for me and took a B.A. in it (since I didn’t enroll in the 4th year, which would have earned me a Bachelor of Science degree) and then enrolled in a Master’s degree in theology, at the same university (being Canada, with no constitutionally mandated separation of church and state, many public universities also have theology colleges), but quickly realized that wasn’t for me either. But I still found religion fascinating, so I finished the three year degree—studying, for example, why people think they need to account for bad things happening (what we call the problem of evil). So, after enrolling in a second, one-year theology Master’s degree (since my wife was still due to finish her own Education degree and, besides, I wanted some more academic experience, such as writing a thesis) I applied for graduate work at the University of Toronto in the academic study of religion. I then did my M.A. and Ph.D. there.

Other than being a professor, any other interesting jobs you’ve had, for summer or longer?

I grew up in a gas station that my parents owned and operated—we lived right there and it was just us pumping gas and my dad doing oil changes, mufflers, tires, etc., in the back. So from an early age I was pumping gas whenever we heard the “ding ding” of the hose that they’d drive over when they pulled in. I was a life guard and swimming instructor all throughout high school (even broke both bones in my lower left leg on the diving board the summer after grade 12), worked for a few years at the University of Toronto bookstore, in the back, doing “returns” (unsold books the store returned to publishers for a credit) and then also worked for a few years—during undergrad summers and holidays—as an orderly in our local hospital, lifting, taking care of male patients, working in the ER on midnights, helping with some procedures. And I know how to catheterize someone, so yes, I have stories…

How’d you first get interested in your own specialty? What intrigued you about it?

That scholars of religion didn’t seem much different—once I made the shift from one way of talking about religion to another—from many of the theology writers I had been reading is what caught my attention and first interested me not in studying religion so much as studying the academic study of religion itself. It struck me that world religions courses were just liberal theology courses in which the rhetoric of inclusion and tolerance was being used to normalize just some of the many ways people claim to be religious. So my dissertation, which later became my first book, focused on the way that many scholars define or conceptualize religion and the sort of academic field that results from that—it was a critique of this, of course. And much of my work since then has focused on that sort of critique.

Are you serving on any interesting committees currently, either for the wider professor or here at the University?

I’ve held a number of positions in the field, such as in professional associations or journal editing, and served on a variety of different committee’s on campus. I’m no longer on Faculty Senate (which serves as the faculty’s main voice to the administration) but I’ve been appointed to a couple University committees this year but they seem to meet very infrequently. I’m on a search committee for the chair of another Department in A&S (I think this is the fourth or fifth time I’ve served on that sort of search committee here) and I’ve just been appointed to a committee to give feedback to the University on classroom technology issues. Let me know if there’s any computer or wireless network glitches in your classes, ok?

What are you currently working on in your own research and writing?

I have a book coming out sometime this year, Entanglements: Marking Place in the Field of Religion, which is a collection of responses that I’ve written over the years, replying to other scholars who have themselves commented on (that is, criticized) my work. I’ve written introductions to each chapter, to help contextualize each exchange—I tend to be an essayist and I think that each of these exchanges exemplifies the give and take of academia, so I hope readers, especially early career readers who have yet to have their work characterized as dangerous to the field, will get something out of seeing how the back and forth can sometimes go. I just finished another collection of nine essays, three of which have yet to be published, entitled A Modest Proposal on Method: Essaying the Study of Religion, and I’ve sent that off to a press in Europe to consider for possible publication. And as for new projects, along with Prof. Ramey and Simmons on our faculty, and four other scholars elsewhere in North America, I’m part of Culture on the Edge, a research collaborative, so I’m starting to put together a little volume of revised pieces from our blog that will be accompanied by original commentaries by ten different early career scholars, aimed at readers in the undergrad classroom who are interested in complicating the way they talk about origins and the past.

There’s always another book to read or essay to write, but are there other things apart from academia that you enjoy doing?

If you’re my friend on Facebook then you know that Marcia and I have a seven year old Boxer named Izzy (Carmen Isabella when you meet her for the first time), who is the boss of our household. So each morning at 6 a.m. you can find me and Izzy at the old golf course in town, either walking or, more than likely, standing and waiting in the parking lot for her friends to show up so that she can race around with them and burn off some energy. Other than that, I mostly write, tinker with a few different blogs, and enjoy films and plowing through a good TV series on Netflix, like “Jack Taylor” or “Wallander.” We’re hooked on “Downton Abbey” (the Earl of Grantham is a walking wrecking ball, if you ask me) and we just realized who Olivia Pope’s dad is on “Scandal”!

Take a look at these videos (here and here), which feature Prof. McCutcheon among other faculty members, to learn a little more about his work.

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