About Michael Altman

Michael J. Altman is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies. Dr. Altman's areas of interest are American religious history, theory and method in the study of religion, the history of comparative religion, and Asian religions in American culture. Overall, his research sits at the crossroads of American religious history and religious studies, using the theoretical insights of religious studies to dig deeper into what we mean by "religion" in religious history. His current research examines cultural constructions of Hinduism in 19th-century America.

It’s finally here! It’s American Examples week!

American Examples

It’s here. Well, almost. The papers have been read. The mentors have met and brainstormed. The plane tickets and hotels are booked. The restaurant reservations are made. This week 9 new participants in the American Examples program, funded graciously by the Henry Luce Foundation, will arrive in Tuscaloosa for a weekend of discussion and collaboration on innovative new research into things people call religion in places people call America. We have a lot going on this week.

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The Study Religion Podcast is now on Spotify

Did you know that we have a podcast called Study Religion? Well, we do. You can find it on Apple Podcasts and SoundCloud. But now, you can also find it on Spotify. We just added our podcast to their wonderful collection. So go find us wherever you listen to podcasts and catch up on some of our best episodes. Here are some ones to start with:

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Need Something to Listen to During Your Holiday Travel?

The Study Religion podcast makes great holiday travel listening. We just released the third episode in our series titled “Making the Jump” that features interviews with people who made a big change in their academic career by taking a risk and trying something new. You can find all three episodes below or on iTunes or SoundCloud.

 

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Study Religion Podcast: Making the Jump Part 2 w/ Shayna Sheinfeld

Photo of Shayna SheinfeldThis is the second in our three episode series that features interviews with people who decided to take a risk and make a jump in their careers. They found new ways to use their training in religious studies and made their own path. In this episode we talk with Shayna Sheinfeld about her work as an academic coach, what exactly an academic coach is, and how she found her way to her work.

 

Find out more about Dr. Sheinfeld and her academic coaching at shaynasheinfeld.com

 

#AmericanExamples2020 Cohort Announced

American Examples

Some snazzy new American Examples mugs have started appearing on social media.

That’s right. The 2020 American Examples cohort has been assembled. You can find all of the participants and learn more about them at the American Examples site.

Study Religion Ep. 10: Making the Jump Part 1 w/ Tenzan Eaghll

The Study Religion podcast is back! This is the first of three episodes that feature interview with people who decided to take a risk and make a jump in their careers. They found new ways to use their training in religious studies and made their own path. In this episode we talk with Tenzan Eaghll who teaches at Mahidol University in Thailand. Hear how he made the jump and landed halfway around the world.

 

“Working Yourself into a Shoot”: When is a Performance a Performance?

A collag with WWE superstar Lacey Evans and a police officer handing her a speeding ticket.

As some of you may know, I love pro wrestling and I think it can be good data for the scholar of religion. Let me offer a recent example that lit up the wrestling fan twitters over the weekend.

The WWE, the world’s biggest wrestling company, toured through Canada over the weekend, holding a show in Edmonton, Alberta. While driving through Canada, one of the wrestlers, Lacey Evans, was pulled over for speeding. She posted this video on Twitter Saturday.

A little bit of context here. Lacey Evans’s wrestling character is a snobby southern belle who calls the fans and other wrestlers “nasties.” She’s a “bad guy” or a “heel,” in wrestling terms. She’s uppity, conceded, mean, and rude. The “do you know who I am?!” response in the video is a perfect example of her character. Like most of her social media posts, the entire video is Lacey Evans in character.

In wrestling terms this is called a “work.” A work is everything that happens within the fictional world of wrestling. Everything you see on TV during a WWE show is a work and, with the advent of social media, more and more of what fans read from wrestlers on Twitter or Instagram is also a work. The thing about a work is that the goal is to elicit a response from the audience. When a wrestler is “working” in the ring they want the live audience to cheer them if they are a “babyface,” or good guy, and boo them if they are a heel. The video that Lacey Evans posted is her working as a heel to get a response from the audience of fans on Twitter.

Well, she’s a good worker. The tweet went viral. It was even picked up by the Toronto Star. The video produced a backlash among wrestling and non-wrestling fans who replied to her defending Canada and chastising her for her attitude. The backlash was so strong that eventually Evans had to send out another tweet admitting that the police officer in the video was in on the work the whole time and that she was just “doing her job” to entertain the fans.

In wrestling terms, this second tweet is called a “shoot.” A “shoot” is something real or legitimate. It breaks the fictional world of the work. It’s something not part of the show or part of the character. Notice that the statement is signed “Sgt Estrella.” That’s a reference to Lacey Evans’ real name, she was a Sergeant in the Marines before she was a wrestler. She used her shoot name to sign the statement.

What I find interesting about all of this is that wrestling fans want to get worked. Since the 1990s, most wrestling fans know that the WWE is scripted entertainment and that the performers in the ring are working together to tell a story through their matches. In short, we all know it’s a work. This has made it a lot harder for wrestlers and wrestling companies to work the fans and get the responses they want from them. The companies need those responses because it’s the emotional response and enjoyment of getting caught up in the show, in the work, that makes fans spend money. Getting worked is also the fun part of wrestling for fans. They want to get sucked into the fictional world of the show. Wrestling companies need to work the fans and the fans want to be worked.

But here Lacey Evans worked everybody. Everybody who watched the video and got mad got worked. They lost themselves in the story she was telling about herself as a sassy, rude, arrogant, southern belle from America, talking back to a polite Canadian police officer. She even got the cop in on the work! This is great heel work. This is what wrestling fans should want. But instead the backlash was so big Lacey Evans had to break character and shoot. She had to admit that it had all been a performance.

But here’s my question, which was the real performance? It’s easy to see the first tweet and video, where Evans is working, as a performance. But isn’t the second tweet a performance too? Evans puts her biography out there as a former law enforcement officer and marine as a performance to show that she really isn’t the person she was previously performing to be. She selects the aspects of her identity best suited to the moment to perform the part of a supporter of law enforcement. And, that performance is still bracketed by her “PSA Listen up nasties” which sounds like her working character. It’s a shoot inside a work trying to answer another work.

It’s performance all the way down.

This whole situation is what the most famous wrestler of all time, Hulk Hogan, would call “working yourself into a shoot.” Because all of us are always performing. We’re all working.

American Examples 2020: Call for Participants

American Examples is a collaborative working group for early career scholars who study religion in America, broadly conceived, from a variety of disciplines. The program is generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation. American Examples engages the study of religion in America across the three areas of research, teaching, and public scholarship. Drawing on expertise from across the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama, American Examples’ training and mentoring produces scholars whose work exceeds the intellectual and geographic boundaries of “American religion” or “American religious history.”

American Examples seeks applications for participants in its newly expanded 2020 program. AE consists of three two-day workshops, each with its own focus: research, public scholarship,  and teaching. The workshops are hosted at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and led by mentors drawn from the faculty of the Department of Religious. Travel, lodging, and meals in Tuscaloosa for participants are paid for by American Examples.

The Workshops

Research- March 5-8, 2020: A collaborative discussion of chapter length works in progress that will lead to the publication of an edited anthology of participants’ chapters.

Public Scholarship- May 7-10 2020: An introduction to a number of digital tools for building public digital projects and presenting research to larger publics through digital platforms.

Teaching- Oct 1-4, 2020: A collaborative and engaging series of discussions and activities that will equip participants with new methods and pedagogy for teaching courses on religion in America.

 For more information on the workshops see http://americanexamples.ua.edu/about.

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The Study Religion Podcast is Back!

Professor Tim Jensen sits in the REL seminar room.

It’s been a while but the Study Religion podcast is back! Go find us wherever you get your podcasts and be sure to subscribe, rate, and comment.

In this episode we welcome Prof. Tim Jensen from the University of Southern Denmark, the president of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR). Prof. Jensen spent some time in conversation with our own Prof. Richard Newton and some of our MA students in Religion in Culture about how the academic study of religion looks from a global perspective beyond the Unite States.

Find all of our episodes and transcripts of each show at: religion.ua.edu/about-us/podcasts/

A Religious Studies Guide to WrestleMania

On the first page of Imagining Religion, historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith writes:

For the self-conscious student of religion, no datum possess intrinsic interest. It is of value only insofar as it can serve as exempli gratis of some fundamental issue in the imagination of religion.

For Smith, and I agree with him, scholars should choose particular examples as data that suit particular questions that they want to answer. In this way, the scholar of religion is not bound by “the boundaries of canon nor of community” in their pursuits. Thus, the data for religious studies is not limited to things that seem “religious” in the common use of the term. Furthermore, it is not the “religious” data that directs our research, but the larger theoretical questions that we seek to answer through the data we select.

This brings me to WrestleMania. Today WWE will put on their 35th annual WrestleMania show and I think there are three aspects of the show that could be of interest to a scholar of religion in the Smithian vein. To be clear, I don’t think a religious studies approach to WrestleMania should go find the things that seem obviously religious happening at the event, nor am I arguing that pro wrestling is also a religion. Rather, I am pointing out a few places where a scholar asking certain questions might find some data to theorize with.

So, I present a Religious Studies Guide WrestleMania 35.

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