As discussions about the relevance of what we do in religious studies, and academia in general, have become more common lately, my own emphases have coalesced around the skills that the humanities help scholars (whether students or faculty or interested blog readers) develop. And that emphasis on skills is not limited to our work in the classroom.
Publishing written work has long been a major measure of academic success. Peer-reviewed journals and monographs are the coin of the realm. Or at least they have been for awhile. A recent Straits Times article written by two scholars (Asit K. Biswas and Julian Kirchherr) focusing on the social sciences questions the value of those peer-reviewed journal articles. The authors estimate (based on what I am not certain) that the average article is read “completely” by about 10 people. Not an overwhelming audience, to be certain. (The estimate and the “completely” measure leave me quite uncertain about accuracy here. A former student now in a PhD program certainly took issue with the numbers based on how much he is reading scholarly articles.) The authors argue that social scientists should focus more on policy prescriptions that are published in shorter, more accessible forms. Their example that someone studying water resources should publish findings that government officials from California to India would be more likely to access than a peer reviewed journal makes sense.
Yet, that leaves a question for religious studies about the point of our research. Much of our research is less oriented towards policy prescriptions than the example that the authors presented, but this research is still valuable. In my own thinking, analyses of the ways religious identifications were constructed and imposed in nineteenth century India have pushed me to think in different ways about the labeling of the Nones (on Huffington Post blog) and other examples of the construction of religious identifications today (on Culture on the Edge blog). Even though those ideas are less directly addressing current governmental policy in India or the United States, it is worthwhile to present those ideas in accessible formats to encourage a more complicated reflection of contemporary issues.
That is one of the main points of my blogging, to present in short, accessible form a significant point that applies my own research and the research of others to current events and discussions. Not to promote a specific policy or political group but to encourage deeper reflection and discussion. In doing this in multiple venues, I have found a variety of other benefits. The process of writing has a benefit of refining thoughts as well as making them available to others. Through this process, I have also had opportunities arise to publish further developed pieces in more traditional venues (in others words, pieces that are more commonly recognized as scholarly publications). More importantly to me, though, I have had more engagement with other scholars whom I would not have probably met without blogging and other forms of social media that have enriched a community conversation.
Of course, I could not develop many of the blog posts that I have written without the scholarly publications of others that have spurred my training and continued learning. Dismissing them as obtuse and overly specialized misses the new approaches and questions that these prior publications have promoted. But dismissing blogging and expressing ideas through social media as not real academic work misses the realities of today’s world and the need for scholars to engage a broader audience with the points that scholarship, detailed analysis, and intense reflection on sometimes arcane topics can generate.