The Department of Religious Studies — Early Times, Part 2

Article from the Tuscaloosa News, on campus protests, on April 6, 1968

Dr. Joseph Bettis was the first Chair of UA’s Department of Religious Studies, and the following article was commissioned for and then published in our Spring 2005 issue of the Department newsletter; it is reposted here, in its original form, with his kind permission. (The above photo is from the front page of the Tuscaloosa News on April 6, 1968.)

I came to Tuscaloosa in 1964, one year after George Wallace had “stood in the schoolhouse door” to prevent Autherine Lucy’s registration at the University. At the time, I had no interest in civil rights or politics. I did not come to the University of Alabama in 1964 to join the civil rights movement. I came to teach religious studies and to participate in the creation of a Department of Religious Studies. I was fresh from graduate school, full of academic arrogance, ego, and enthusiasm.

At the time, Religious Studies courses were taught by various campus ministers and listed in the Philosophy Department. The quality of the courses was mixed. Leon Weinberger, who was a rabbi, and a Presbyterian Campus Minister, whose name I have forgotten, taught respectable courses with small enrollments. Other campus ministers taught courses that were notorious for being “an easy A” and they had very large enrollments. Iredell Jenkins was Chair of the Philosophy Department, and he knew that this was not a good situation. Continue reading

The Department of Religious Studies — Early Times, Part 1

Manly Hall in the 1970s

The following reminiscence about the Department’s history, written by the late Patrick Green, onetime Chair of REL, was commissioned for and printed in our Spring 2004 newsletter. It is re-posted here in its original form.

It began with a man on a motorcycle, smoking a cigar.

Joe Bettis, a recently minted Ph.D. from Princeton, was hired by the College of Arts and Sciences to start a Department of Religious Studies. It was1964, a few years after the Supreme Court had declared that teaching “about” religion was permissible in state supported universities. All across America, and especially in the South, state universities were quick to respond. Within a few years departments were started at the University of Florida, Florida State, Georgia, and Tennessee. Bettis and Leon Weinberger were appointed to the first inter-racial committee that Alabama had seen since Re-construction. The Ku Klux Klan was still very much a part of the local culture, and both men were targeted by that group as “liberal trouble makers.”

In 1969 the Department became at hree person operation with the hiring of Patrick Green. He arrived just a few months before the university-wide demonstration that next spring against the bombing of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State. All three members of the department were on the so-called Faculty Student Coalition, a group that at-tempted to negotiate a settlement with a recalcitrant, and decidedly backward, administration that timidly refused to talk with the students. But a settlement was not to be. After the longest running demonstration of its kind in the United States, the embarrassed administration declared an end to the academic year and sent the students home—with no final exams!

A year or so later the department hired Mr. Dorsey Blake, a Ph.D. candidate from Berkeley, who was one of the first black faculty members to be appointed by the University. (The basketball team had been “integrated” two years before and football was soon to follow.) His classes on “Black Religion” were immediately popular among both black and white students, but his efforts to visit various local churches with his class were not so successful. Two white churches turned the students away, telling them to go to their “own” church. However, after the story ran in the Tuscaloosa News, the group was welcomed by a number of other churches, including Calvary Baptist and First Methodist.

Joe Bettis left in 1973 to become an Associate Dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Nebraska. Green became Chair at that time and Joe McCowan was hired to teach Phenomenology of Religion and Ethics (which Bettis had taught). McCowan was also the first faculty member to teach a course oriented to Feminist Studies. Indeed the early ’70s saw a cultural shift in Religious Studies. While courses in Old and New Testament, the History of Western Religions and Comparative Religions continued to be offered, Black Religion, Feminist Thought, Revolutionary Theology and the first early forays into Deconstruction were making a place for themselves.

The ’70s generally saw several educational innovations. A “free university” offered courses for a couple of years with Bettis and Green participating. Green was on the founding committee for New College and taught courses there for several years. Green and Emmett Parker, a Professor in French literature, de-signed the first Humanities course for the College of Arts and Sciences with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

After McCowan took an early retirement in the late ’70s his position was lost to “proration,” a drastic reduction in the state budget, which of  course directly affected the university. Indeed, “Alabama” and “proration” would come to seem synonymous. These were some very lean years for the department. There was virtually no hope of adding faculty even though student demand for classes remained high. Increasingly the department came to rely on part-time instructors. Sam Haun, Barbara Jamestone, and more recently, Jon Berry and Ana Schuber were among those who served with dedication and distinction. William Doty was hired in 1981. He brought with him a vast erudition, an incredible work ethic, a love for his students, and an ability to be at home in a number of  disciplines.

While Doty would have his hand in an incredibly large number of  projects during his tenure at the university, his latest—aiding and abetting the inauguration of  the Blount Under-graduate Initiative—was perhaps among his finest. He would Chair the Department from 1983 to 1988 and again in 2000 when Green retired. He would himself retire in 2001.

While there are still budgetary concerns in the department and the university, there have been some exciting recent developments. We have established an endowed Chair in Judaic Studies. The Provost’s office, to the department’s surprise, saw fit to fund the appointment of a faculty member in Asian Religions. And when Leon Weinberger retired in 1998, we were able to hire both Ted Trost and his wife Catherine Roach, who held joint appointments in the department and New College.

Even more recently Steve Jacobs came to fill the Chair in Judaic Studies, while Kurtis Schaeffer came from Harvard in Asian Religions.

One thing has remained consistently true. The department has always and continues to attract some of the very best and brightest students on the cam-pus. They have been an exuberant presence who of-ten taught as much as they learned and who never failed to support this odd, if feisty, department.

With Doty’s retirement the “old guard” was gone. Russell McCutcheon became the Chair and the department was, in effect, brand new. It is now a young and vigorous faculty that faces the future with a great deal of optimism. The “old guard,” who had a hell of a ride, wish them well.

REL MA Students Present at Culture Studies Conference

Today’s panel with REL MA students was part of the interdisciplinary culture studies graduate student conference, planned by a grad student committee and funded through the Department of American Studies at the University of Alabama. REL was represented on the planning committee by second year MA student Keeley McMurray, and it is taking place at the Bryan Conference Center on campus. Continue reading

American Examples: What Did You Gain From Being Part of AE?

American Examples

Prea Persaud (B.A. from Rollins College, M.A. from Syracuse University, Doctoral Candidate at the University of Florida) is a Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte where her teaching focuses on Hinduism. In addition to teaching classes on Hinduism and the Hindu diaspora, she also teaches classes on the Caribbean. She is interested in global Hinduism, religion in the Americas (inclusive of the Caribbean), and issues concerning race, identity, and post-colonialism.


We asked her to explain what she gained from her participation in the first American Examples workshop last year.

One of the last things Mike Altman told us when we were leaving the first gathering of American Examples was that we were all considered alumni now and would forever be treated as part of the department. A year out, I have found that statement to be a true representation of how the AE organizers feel about the participants. Both Steven Ramey and Emily Crews have reached out to me about additional projects they are working on. Mike Altman passed along a review he thought I might be interested in. And Samah Choudhury and I have stayed in communication about the job market and our dissertations. As a result of the conversations I had with everyone during the workshop, I was able to successfully complete a related dissertation chapter and draft a conference paper I will present at AAR this fall.

AE was exactly what pre-grad school me believed grad school would be like – people reading together, thinking through difficult concepts, collaboratively working on our writing, and building long-lasting and supportive networks. What I appreciated most about the workshop, in addition to its mission to think beyond the category of “American religion,” was its inclusion of non-tenure tracked and contingent faculty. As an ABD grad student and full-time lecturer working on the Caribbean, an area that is often excluded or forgotten about in larger grants, it is difficult to find programs I qualify for that also provide substantial support. By including contingent faculty and having grad students observe the workshop and interact with the participants, AE actively works against persistent hierarchies in the academy. So in both content and structure, I think AE is doing the work needed to push conversations farther in academia and I look forward to continuing to work with both the organizers and future participants.

American Examples is currently accepting applications for 2020.


REL Receives Four Year, $350,000 Grant from the Luce Foundation

The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama is very pleased to announce a $350,000 grant from the Henry  Luce Foundation to fund a significantly expanded version of its American Examples Workshop (piloted in 2018-19 with the assistance of UA’s College of Arts & Sciences).

With this new grant, the Department will call for applications and select up to nine early career scholars (ranging from ABD to tenure-track) to be brought to the University of Alabama three times throughout the calendar year for workshops on research, teaching, and public scholarship. Contingent, alt-ac, and other non-tenure track scholars will be especially encouraged to apply. The workshops are an effort to assist early career scholars of America to entertain a shift in focus that has been successfully adopted by members of the Department. As the original American Examples workshop described it:

The study of religion in America, or American religious history, has most often sought to discover what is uniquely “American” about American religion… What if we instead approach America as one site among others, an important and useful but by no means unique example, that might reveal larger cross-cultural insights about religion, social formations, identities, and more? What if we did not take “America” and “religion” for granted? AE, then, is an attempt to do just that: develop research on religion in America that is portable, cross-cultural, comparative, and theoretically driven.

With Prof. Mike Altman as the grant’s PI and the chair of the AE Steering Committee (comprised of Profs. Steven Ramey, Merinda Simmons, and Richard Newton), the ongoing series of workshops will involve many of the faculty in the Department serving as mentors and participating in programming. In addition, the program will benefit from the logistical and digital skills of one of our MA students, who will annually serve as the AE graduate research assistant. The inaugural holder of this Luce-funded GRA position will be Keeley McMurray.

After their first year of workshops, each AE participant will return once in the following year to report on the implementation of their new skills, serve as mentors to the next year’s participants, and participate in a public event involving REL undergraduate and graduate students. The program will also produce publications, digital projects, course syllabi and a number of other resources so stay tuned for more information about this exciting new initiative in the Department.

More news about the call for applications will come later this summer as we select the 2020 cohort this fall and hold the first workshop in Spring 2020.

The Jim Salem Chair Award Goes to REL

We’re very pleased to announce that, at the year-end A&S chairs event over the weekend, Dean Robert Olin presented the annual Jim Salem Chair Award to REL’s own Prof. Russell McCutcheon.

Instituted by the Dean after the death, in July of 2012, of the longtime American Studies Department Chair, Jim Salem, the award recognizes “outstanding leadership to students, faculty, and the College.” Salem, who chaired the search committee that brought Dean Olin to UA, was known for his enthusiasm, dry wit, and use of American pop culture as a way into understanding 20th century American culture and politics.

Prof. McCutcheon came to Tuscaloosa in the Fall of 2001, to chair REL at a time when the Department was on the brink of reinvention; while serving three terms as chair (2001-2009; 20013-present) he has also had a productive research and teaching career at UA, being named to one of the campus’s few University Research Professor positions in February of 2018.

Given annually, the Jim Salem award is selected by the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and, with Dean Olin’s upcoming retirement in September, this marks his last selection for this award.

Congratulations, Prof. McCutcheon!

6th Annual Undergrad Research Symposium

REL is again hosting its undergrad research symposium, held this year in
Gorgas Library 205, so there’s plenty of room to join us and hear some of the research that our students have been doing.

It starts at 9:00 am Friday, February 22. There will be two panels (9-10 and 10:15-11:15), both of which are chaired by M.A. students in the Departments.
And Prof. Crews is our host.

Pictured above: the 5th annual event, held at the University Club in Spring 2018


Prof. McCutcheon has Lots of Pots on the Stove

Prof. Russell McCutcheon, who came to UA as the REL Department Chair in the summer of 2001, sometimes says that the career of a scholar involves keeping a lot of pots boiling, all at a different rates. The trick is knowing which can just simmer, on the back burner, and which ones need attention because they’re about to boil over.

Well, this year four pots that were each bubbling away on their own resulted in some new books, all of which were published in just the past few months. But they’re each a different sort of book. Continue reading

A New Honors Day Tradition

We have a new award to announce, which will be given out each year at Honors Day on the balcony: the Alum Liaison Committee Award.

This award (funded by alums and the Department) will recognize up to four students (one Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, and Senior) who submit a short essay (500 words) on their experiences in our classes, e.g., how they found us, what surprised them about the field, and interesting uses to which it might be put. It’s open to any student in an REL course and each award comes with a $100 prize.

The members of our Alum Liaison Committee will be reading the essays and making the decisions, so please visit the page (linked above) for this new award to learn more and consider making your own submission in this inaugural year (due March 1).