American Examples S04 E01: “Religion Scholars are not human”

by Lauren Thompson.

Opening scene from Lauren Thompson's american examples video.

On the 6th of October I was among a group of MA students who observed the Fall 2023 American Examples Public Humanities workshop. “AE” is a department initiative lead by Prof. Altman, who along with Profs. Newton and Loewen met with eight scholars from across North America gathered at the Presidents Hall. The scholars were invited to workshop how their own research interests might translate into public humanities projects. Overall, AE aims to give early career scholars some much needed time and space for human-to-human conversations about their profession, their research, and academia in general.

I observed the workshop was part of my first-year MA core course REL 502, “Public Humanities and Religious Studies”. Prof. Loewen asked my class to gather media assets and create a video of our observations. Think anthropological field work with our smartphones documenting visitors to the Religious Studies department amid catering and air conditioning. As a graduate student, I found it awe-inspiring and terrifying to be surrounded by so many scholars and thinkers. These people are accomplished, working in the field, and taking definitive steps in their careers.

Overall, I had a really good time. In between collecting pictures and videos I found myself pausing to really listen, instead of scrambling to jot down notes. The following is a –semi-cognizant- “brain map” of what I picked up on and what stuck with me:

“Role as a scholar, human, and public servant.”

“Serving the public?”

“Using expertise to serve a larger audience”

“Who is the ‘public’?”

“Defining publics?”

“Am I selfish if serving the public isn’t on the top of my ‘to-do’ list, so to say?”

Moreover, as I was combing through my media notes to create my video project, I stumbled upon a clip in which there was a conversation about why we as scholars do certain things and publish our works:

“Why are we doing this? So, we look good to each other?” asked Dr. Riccardi-Swartz.  

“So we seem more human.” replied Ph.D. candidate Dustin Gavin.  

“Yes- We’re not. Dr. Riccardi-Swartz, joked as she nodded in agreement. 

Laughter burst forth from everyone in the room.

After replaying this clip, I pondered what it means to say, “We’re not human.” Does it take a certain type of person to pursue a career in the Humanities or in the general Academy? Are Religious Studies scholars and students really human? Are they just a special breed Darwin missed? I’ll give you my answer:

Maybe we are different, maybe we aren’t wired the same. Maybe we’re a special kind of person with a special kind of brain and a special sense of the world. Maybe the training we put ourselves through rewires us, allows us to see the world from a new perspective. Who knows?

But then I decided to rethink my answer:

Maybe religious studies scholars only seem not human because their methods and theory involves moments of reflection that sometimes side-step humanity to make the strange familiar or the familiar strange (again).

Yet here we all were, “non-humans” -as Professor Riccardi-Swartz would say- having human conversations about human struggles. Here we were sharing our ideas and thoughts on the public and digital spheres of the humanities, sharing our experiences- bringing our differences together to collaborate and inspire.

Not only do we owe everything to our jobs and work, but we owe it to the public(s) and audiences of ours the knowledge that the world isn’t always what it seems. The so-called ordinary world becomes extraordinary the moment the scholar studies it. Actions and events do not objectively “happen” somewhere “out there”. Religious Studies scholars and students use a wide variety of lens to study worlds- its past, present, and the future.

What I took away from the AE Workshop was the sense that we not only owe everything to our jobs, but we owe everything to ourselves. We owe it to ourselves to foster a space for the Humanities in the world. We owe it to our “non-human” scholarship to explore the world and show that nothing is “ordinary.” We owe it to ourselves to create ways for people to access that scholarship that allows anyone to pause to seem not human for a moment.

P.S. The video Trevor Linn and I created for the class was inspired by the words of Jim Halpert, a character in the television series the Office