Jamie Bowman is a senior English major at the University of Alabama. She has two minors, Creative Writing and Religious Studies. She is the current President of the Sigma Tau Delta English Honor Society and Editor of Dewpoint, the society’s literary magazine. Beginning in the fall, she will be attending Durham University, England, to work on a Master’s of English in Literary Studies.
Attending academic conferences is fun. You get to present papers, explore new places, eat great local food, and meet new people. You also get to sit through dull business meetings where some people are more enthusiastic than they should be, go to a talk where a speaker who once majored in the humanities reminds you that your own humanities degree is eligible for monetary gain, skip the gala dinner because you know the chicken will probably be dry, and constantly remind the hotel room maid (to no avail) that you want extra English Breakfast tea in the morning.
At a particular conference of English majors that I attended recently, there was also the opportunity to attend round table discussions led by other students. The set up was simple: a group of students (typically about 5) would sit behind the table on stage and present their ideas, all based around the same topic, and then open the floor up for discussion. My peers from the University of Alabama that I was traveling with decided there was one that they wanted to sit in on, and after seeing the title of the panel, I decided to go with them.
The presentation was entitled “Harry Potter and Christian Theology: A Muslim Perspective.” The premise of the talk expressed an interest in the fact that in the US, characterized by the panel as a Christian nation, Harry Potter books were banned for being about witchcraft while they were also banned in Muslim countries, but for being too Christian. The panel was hosted by Muslim students from the American University of Kuwait, presenting their own perspectives on the issue.
As a Religious Studies minor, my ears perked up. Religious perspectives? Harry Potter? How interesting. Immediately, several different larger questions that this discussion could center around popped into my head. There’s a problem not only of cultural difference, but of the fact that we even apply religious ideas to these books, and to literature as a whole. There’s also the issue of banning literature, a problem I explored for a previous Religious Studies class paper. Because this talk was hosted by Muslim students who were experiencing America for the first time, I also thought this would be great and was fascinated about what they would say to these issues.
You can imagine my disappointment, then, when they presented their ideas about how some of the items, the Deathly Hallows etc., of the book and the characters lined up with the Christian trinity, and then opened the floor up for discussion, but proceeded for the next hour to talk about whether or not the books had any other Christian symbolism, debating back and forth with the audience about whether or not Harry is actually a Christ figure and Voldemort is actually Satanic.
They never got to a major point. Half an hour in I could tell they were not going to. I became frustrated. This panel premise was full of good ideas, great issues to be explored, and intelligent students primed to lead the way into deeper questions. And we were instead debating whether Voldemort should actually be pitied and whether or not Dumbledore fit a God archetype? We were arguing back and forth on a close reading, something we could argue in circles forever.
I sat, confused and frustrated. Not only were these panelists seemingly missing the point, or any point for that matter, but the other students in the audience were only adding to the problem, presenting tangential remarks about their own favorite scenes, characters, and ideas about what was what. My Alabama peers and I looked at each other, eyebrows furrowed, wondering how this could be happening.
The session was nearing an end and I finally raised my hand to ask the last question.
Now before I tell you the question I asked, I’ll skip to the punch line and admit that I too am at fault in this overall scenario.
In trying for 45 minutes to figure out a way to ask a question to make the panelists and audience think a little deeper about their topic, I came up with this: “After thinking about all of the close analysis we’ve done over the last hour, can you tell us what we can gain from applying a religious analysis to a book like Harry Potter and why you were so drawn to use this kind of analysis?”
I just wanted to get them thinking, to say something larger than the text, and this is what I got in reply:
“Well, I was interested in the topic and comparing the cultures, because I think the cultural difference is interesting.”
“I think we can find religion in a lot of things and can certainly find it here. I mean, religion isn’t bad.”
I was saddened, and even a little more frustrated, to hear these college age Muslim girls think that I was anti-religion, should maybe think about it more, and that the panel was not a bad thing because it was about religion.
I walked away from this experience thinking that the prioritized lesson to learn was about what this panel could have done differently. The overall idea lacked analysis and did not look beyond the surface of a text that could have produced very fruitful discussion of topics that are broad, important, and create even more questions about how and why we analyze religion in literature. I thought this was the most important lesson to learn from that hour and a half. But as my stomach churned for a few days, I realized that it was my own 30 seconds of inquiry that meant more, at least, meant more for me, than anything else said.
Ultimately, the students of this panel and I were on two different planes of assumption. I had sat in my seat, twirling my pen, phrasing and rephrasing potential questions to ask, wondering how best to get them to see that maybe their topic of discussion was worthy of a different avenue of thought, that it deserved better treatment than what they were giving. And what I got when I eventually posed my question went in a completely different direction without inspiring any reformed thought. We went past each other, veering in two different directions, nothing gained from my venture to speak up.
My own hubris, I have found, disguises itself as greater intelligence that can transform the thoughts of others.
What I should have realized then, and did to some extent, was that no one question I asked would awaken them to the flaws of their “argument.”
If I had to say something, my question could have been simpler, more focused, sound less accusing and more inquisitive. A softer litmus test of their argument and underlying thesis would have sufficed. Silence would have also. For as much as I wanted them to understand their own faults, the fact that my peers and I could see the problem could have been enough. But in the moment, it, regrettably, was not.
There is an addendum to this story. The professor of these students who sat through their panel presentation came up to one my friends the next day to ask her why I had posed that specific question. My friend, perhaps in better words than I (I was not present for this particular conversation), explained our concerns with the session. She agreed, to our relief. And through her explanation, we learned another lesson, one of cultural difference in teaching, instruction that can sometimes lack encouragement to answer larger questions. We nodded to each other in discussing this later with understanding and surprise and perhaps gratitude for our own teachers.
I look back on this experience and see how my Religious Studies training helped me and how I failed it. Be thoughtful, be curious, ask questions, and take nothing for granted. But watch out for how you engage, because we all come to the table with different assumptions and things we take for granted.
It is not that the lesson of analysis and in depth thought is not important. It is, and should be remembered, practiced, and presented more. But for me, learning when to speak and when to be quiet may have actually been the lesson I needed to learn most. This experience was a litmus test for my own tongue. I now know more about the power it has, both in vocalization and in silence, or at least, in thoughtful contemplation left for blog posts.