Are you American American?


By Mary Read-Wahidi

 Dr. Read-Wahidi has been an instructor for REL 100 online course since 2013. She received her PhD in Biocultural Medical Anthropology from the University of Alabama in December 2014, and is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Social Science Research Center, Mississippi State University. She works extensively with Mexican immigrants in rural Mississippi on projects related to devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe and health-related disparities. Currently, she is involved in a USAID-funded research project aimed at empowering women smallholder farmers and improving household nutrition through improved soybean production in rural Ghana.

This blog is such a perfect forum for analyzing the “realness” of things. So, I pose my own question about realness. As the entire world seems to know by now, Republican Presidential hopeful, Donald Trump, recently declared that all Muslims should be barred from entering the US. Among many other things, he seems to take for granted that all Muslims are others. He assumes Muslims are not already your neighbors, friends, or family members, but that they are all foreigners, outsiders who have to gain permission to enter the U.S.

Is it only Trump who assumes Muslims are not “real” Americans?

I spent last year living in Kuwait, a predominately Muslim country. While I was there, I wore the hijab, the headscarf worn by Muslim women that covers their hair. In Kuwait, plenty of women wear the hijab and plenty of women don’t. It’s really up to you.

When I was out and about, store clerks or other people I met in public would often ask me where I was from. I would say, “I’m American”. On at least three occasions, my response triggered the exact same question… “American American?”

Wow! As a cultural anthropologist and an Instructor of REL 100, this response really got the analytical wheels turning in my mind. What do they mean, “American American?” As far as I knew you either were an American or you were not. But what they were telling me is that this was not the case.

They were sort of telling me the same thing Donald Trump is telling me. They were telling me that someone who identifies as a Muslim can’t be a “Real” American.

And, by “Real” American, I’m going to take a wild guess that they meant I couldn’t possibly be a sixth-generation American of English descent who also happens to be Muslim. In their minds, I must have been a foreigner who had “gotten” the American citizenship (my blue eyes, light olive skin tone, and hijab often led people to guess I was Lebanese). And if I were a foreigner who had gotten the U.S. citizenship, then that would also mean that I was not a “Real” American.

Photo credit: “real” from Flickr user wallsdontlie CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Thanks, Religious Studies

Culture on the Edge Blog Photo

By Lexi Poston

Lexi Poston graduated from UA in 2015 with a triple major in International Studies, Religious Studies, and Criminal Justice and a triple minor in Italian, Judaic Studies, and the Blount Minor. She is currently a graduate student in UA’s Criminal Justice Department where her research interests include prejudice, hate groups, hate crimes, human trafficking, genocide, and how perpetrators of such crimes are prosecuted.

“Are you going to seminary?”

At one point during undergrad, religious studies majors have probably been asked this infamous question by an inquiring relative: I know I was. My family could never really understand how religious studies would correlate with my other degrees in international studies and criminal justice. Compounding this problem, I was also minoring in Judaic Studies which included several classes on prejudice, interfaith relations, and genocide (which sparked my current research interests). While it may not have seemed relevant to outsiders as an undergraduate, there are many skills that I acquired during my time in the Department of Religious Studies that I now use in my Criminal Justice graduate program. The abilities you gain from a humanities degree are therefore invaluable despite the fact that they are often overlooked by relatives expecting young college graduates to focus on “practical” job competencies.

Critical thinking is defined as the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment, a skill that many lack. In Criminal Justice, students now have to take the information they have learned during and after our Introduction to Criminal Justice class to further our knowledge; we then evaluate and apply it to real world situations in order to provide swift and fair justice. It is not uncommon for emotions to run high in the criminal justice system, particularly with shocking and emotionally trying cases. Many become so wrapped up in the case they form biased opinions regarding a crime, making it difficult to approach it from the objective angle required of us, as unbiased opinions are something that criminologists and other persons involved in the criminal justice system just cannot do without. We have to look at the broader picture and the nitty gritty details and try and find just how they fit together, much like a puzzle. In this way, the critical thinking skills gained in programs like religious studies are crucial in effectively doing our jobs.

I have been told that I have a gift with writing and I’ve earned many writing awards between elementary school and high school. I also feel confident enough in my writing because of the writing skills that I had from my high school’s International Baccalaureate program. However, as a college student, I learned pretty quickly that there were many areas of writing that I still needed to improve. I was surprised to discover that writing involves more than regurgitating information found in sources. Religious Studies (partnered with Alabama’s Blount Program) taught me how to critically evaluate sources, formulate an argument, and then make that argument through analysis. The ability to form a coherent and logical argument in my writing is something that I have used quite often with criminal justice, something I’ve seen my peers struggle with greatly. In fact, many have decided to not write a thesis because they believe that it will be some daunting task; however, the prospect of a thesis does not trouble me, no matter how close it is looming.

With the end of my first semester of graduate school, I have only thing to say: Thanks Religious Studies!

Let’s watch just one more

bingingSo what are you doing for the break?

Tweet us over the holiday, @StudyReligion and @AlabamaRSSA, and let us know what you up to — maybe you’re reading ahead for the new semester? Polishing off your paper for our next REL undergrad research symposium? Snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef…?

Or maybe binging on Netflix?

Whatever — let us know, and tag it #RELholiday.

A Glimpse into Academia: My Conference Experience in Atlanta, Georgia


Savannah Finver is currently a senior at St. Thomas Aquinas College. She is double-majoring in English and Philosophy/Religious Studies. In the future, she hopes to pursue a graduate degree in Religious Studies. Her interests lie in discourse and ideology studies, with emphasis on religions in the Americas. She enjoys reading, writing, and engaging her friends in philosophical debate.

From November 19 to November 23, 2015, I had the privilege of traveling to Atlanta, Georgia with my advisor, Dr. Craig Martin, for the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) / American Academy of Religion (AAR) / Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) annual conference.  With my graduation from Saint Thomas Aquinas College (STAC) approaching quickly and my desire to pursue a career in the academic study of religion, Dr. Martin and I felt that it would be helpful for me to have some early exposure to the kinds of work currently developing in the field, as well as to network with the scholars I may one day have the opportunity to work or study with.

It is, perhaps, an understatement to note that I was a little nervous as I settled into my hotel Thursday night and prepared for an early start on Friday morning.  After all, I was off to meet the very scholars I had up to this point only studied in my classes, or whose books I had read in my free time over breaks.  The idea of being surrounded by so many brilliant intellectuals was daunting at best, downright terrifying at worst.  I wondered what kinds of questions they would ask me, or if they would pay any attention to me at all, being only an undergraduate.  As I heard often leading up to and during my time in Atlanta, it was pretty rare for undergraduates to experience a conference as large as this one.  And despite Dr. Martin’s constant reassurances, I could not help but feel like I was, if you will forgive the cliché, quite out of my league.

On Friday morning, I was formally introduced to Dr. Russell McCutcheon, current president of NAASR and one of Religious Studies’ more controversial scholars and one of Dr. Martin’s esteemed colleagues.  Though I had spoken to him before via Facebook, I was excited to have the opportunity to meet him in person, especially after hearing so many great things from one of his former students last semester when I visited the University of Colorado at Boulder to learn more about the graduate program offered there.  I was also privileged to meet Merinda Simmons, Aaron Hughes, Philip Tite, and Matthew Bagger before NAASR’s first panel.

NASSR themed its panels this year on “Theory in a Time of Excess,” and what it means to “do” method and theory in a field which has for so long been steeped in theological and devotional research.  NAASR, at least as it is organized currently, focuses much more on the historical/critical examination of religion and culture.  The first panel presenter was Jason Blum.  His paper, “On the Restraint of Theory,” focused on the idea that scholars’ theoretical interpretations should be tempered insofar as applying a theory to data necessarily obscures the data; that is, to apply a theory to a person or group’s religious expression is to reshape that expression in the scholar’s own terms, which, Blum argues, leads to what he calls a “corruption” of data.

I was surprised to realize, as Blum moved through his paper, that I had just been dissecting this very subject in the Methods and Theory course I am currently enrolled in with Dr. Martin.  Although we had not been discussing Blum’s work, we had been unpacking the same questions that Blum sought to answer through his paper.  Not only could I follow the arguments of the paper with more ease than I had expected, but I had already formed an opinion about the topic, one which I discussed at length with Dr. Martin after the presentation.  Although I mostly kept my opinions to myself during the panel Q&A sessions, I was somewhat surprised to find myself reacting with fervor to the different presentations, and I felt that, in a discussion with any of the scholars I encountered, I could have held my own.  In other words, I could see myself there, somewhere down the line and preferably after completing a degree, doing the same kinds of research and engaging in the same kinds of discussions.  Even amongst so many people I hardly knew, I started to feel strangely at home.

Following the panel, I got to have lunch with a few of Dr. Martin’s colleagues, including Merinda Simmons and Vaia Touna, who I recognized from the Culture on the Edge blog that Dr. Martin had introduced me to when I was a sophomore.  It was then that the question I had been most anticipating surfaced: “What kind of research would you like to do?”  It was something I had been thinking about since junior year, when Dr. Martin and I first discussed the idea of me going on to graduate school after finishing up my B.A. at STAC.  The truth was, though, that I did not really know.  I had enjoyed all of the critical work Dr. Martin had been doing as well as everything I had been learning in his classes, but I had no idea what I wanted to look at in terms of area studies.  I had been trying to figure out a way to incorporate both my English and Philosophy/Religious Studies majors, but had yet to find a way to do it.  And the idea of doing empirical studies did not wholly appeal to me either, since I was most comfortable doing critical readings of other books.  So, I mostly shrugged off the question with vague “I’m not sure”s and “Kind of something similar to what Dr. Martin is doing,” and I hoped that the answer would come to me soon.

Next, I got to watch Dr. Martin sit for an interview with David McConeghy for the Religious Studies Project.  The interview focused mainly on Dr. Martin’s newest book, Capitalizing Religion, which I already fancied myself an expert on since I had read it several times over for classes, papers, and the first time just for fun.  I have to say that there is perhaps nothing quite as inspiring as seeing a scholar you respect talk about their work.  There is a particular kind of nerdy passion that seems to drive Dr. Martin and many of his colleagues about what they do, and to know that I was not the only one who geeked out over the scholarship of the field was reassuring and quite satisfying.  I also found myself becoming fast friends with David, who was sure to tell me that Dr. Martin had way too strong of an influence over me and warned me at length about the state of the job market for recent graduates.

Since I had heard the same lecture so many times from Dr. Martin himself, this news was neither particularly shocking nor upsetting.  The truth was that I was having so much fun at the conference, just sitting in on meetings and getting to meet so many really intelligent and encouraging people, that my fears about the job market in fact subsided the more I heard the warning.  It sounds paradoxical, but I could not deny to myself the kind of elation I was experiencing at being around so many like-minded people, so many people who were equally fascinated by and dedicated to the study of religion as I was.  I was meeting people whose names I had only seen before on the covers of books or various Religious Studies blogs, including (among those mentioned above) Leslie Dorrough Smith, Brad Stoddard, Dennis LoRusso, Rebekka King, Hugh Urban, Erin Roberts, Steven Ramey, and Jennifer Eyl to name a handful; and not only was I amazed and impressed by them, but I found myself able to talk to them regarding the things that I have loved learning about most throughout my time at STAC.  Everyone I spoke to seemed eager to engage with me, and they were just as excited to discuss the field as I was.  If anything, being at the conference in Atlanta helped to curb my doubts, not because I am somehow misguided about the state of the job market, but because I found myself among a group of people that I felt like I could fit in with; I could see a place for myself there sometime in my future.  It was that enthusiasm I felt my entire time at the conference that made me decide for certain that graduate school was the right next-step for me.

Having decided that, I knew that I would need to solidify at least a general direction for my research before I begin applying to graduate schools.  I was surprised that after being asked enough times and sitting on enough panels, a way in which to mix the skills I had gained through both of my majors at STAC occurred to me; that is, to focus on ideology and discourse studies.  That way I would not necessarily need to pick a particular group, but could focus on expanding my knowledge of method and theory, and work on applying those skills across not one data set, but many.

Coming to this conclusion filled me with a new kind of vigor in lieu of the many doubts I experienced before the conference.  I had suffered many an existential crisis in Dr. Martin’s office, wondering whether or not changing my major from Childhood & Special Education in sophomore year had been the right decision.  For a time, it had seemed like I was being introduced to something I loved only to be told repeatedly that there was no future in it (I can only imagine what actresses and musicians must endure on a regular basis).  But the conference, mercifully, had shown me another side of the work I was doing, had introduced me to a community that I could see myself being a part of.  It was difficult to say goodbye on Monday morning, but it was bittersweet in that it felt rather cheesily like a “see you later.”  I cannot begin to express how grateful I am to have been able to experience such a rare and wonderful opportunity, especially as an undergraduate.  I gleaned so much valuable insight into a field I really enjoy, and more importantly, discovered some important things about myself and my future research in the process.