Tip of the Iceberg

Graph showing the increasing frequency of the phrase "religious expression" since 1800The common English phrasing “religious expression” carries with it a set of assumptions about what scholars of religion study as well as how and why they study it, though the term is today so widespread that I doubt many think much about what it entails. Continue reading

Doing Theory

Screen shot from the online OED's definition of the word theoryOften in the study of religion you’ll hear people saying things like “I don’t do theory” (yes, there’s often an emphasis on the verb, akin to saying “I don’t do [insert something with which you disagree or dislike]) or maybe you’ll come across a conversation on when to introduce theory to undergraduate students — right from their first course or, fearing that will alienate them from the field, only doing so later, “once they’ve already got the basics,” as some will say.

There’s a real conservatism embedded here that’s tough for some to see, what with the prominence of assuming that, for good or ill, there’s a variety of discrete things in the world that are just naturally called religions, comprising the defining trait of different groups of people who all interact in various ways with each other or their surrounding circumstances. And so, studying those traits, their expression, and those interactions constitutes the study of religion — at least for some. Continue reading

We Really Can’t Afford to Go Back to Normal

Scholars on a panel presenting their work at a conferenceA few weeks ago, after emailing a representative of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), it became apparent to me that the Fall conference-going season in our field will be moving forward as the usual in-person meetings instead of the hybrid format that, in the light of a year living with COVID-19, I had assumed would be offered. It’s now becoming apparent to others as well, with an online petition now circulating, addressed to the leadership of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), framing the lack of a hybrid option as an accessibility issue. While I understand the factors that are cited by these orgs as constraining their ability to be nimble and implement a hybrid option (e.g., from insufficient high speed internet capabilities to conference venue charges for the necessary technology and its support), it seems to me that the issue is far larger than COVID-19 and that we are long overdue for the leadership of these associations to do some creative rethinking about what an academic conference now does and thus how best to offer them in the future.

For, as serious as it is in its own right, the pandemic is really just the most recent reason why this must be done — and done quickly. Continue reading

Careers with Khara — An Annual REL Workshop

Careers workshop in Feb 2018

REL alum, Khara Cole (2013, with a double major in REL and Public Relations), now the Marketing Director at American Exchange (pictured above, left, at our February 2018 workshop) is once again offering a careers workshop for REL students (all majors and minors in the Department as well as grad students) — but it’s virtual this time.

We’ll be talking about preparing a resume and tips on doing a job search & interviewing.

Wednesday, March 24 @ 7:00 p.m.

And we’ll also be talking about the important skills that REL students possess — sure, you know how to study religion but you also know how to work with people who come from different worlds as well as how to describe, compare, explain, and so much more.

All majors, minors, and MA students will
receive the Zoom link via email.

Interested in another REL alum’s take-away when she
participated in one of Khara’s previous workshops?

And what about that time Khara visited the Department back in 2015…?

Civil Religion or Christian Nationalism?

Image from Jeep commercial, of cross and map of America on the wall of a small chapel

How scholars use categories to name things, and thereby identify those things that deserve our critical attention, has long interested me. And among the things that have caught my attention over the years is the once prominent category “civil religion” — one made famous by the late U.S. sociologist Robert Bellah, drawing on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s much earlier use of the term in his 1762 book, The Social Contract (for e.g., see book 4, chpt. 8; read Bellah’s influential 1967 essay.) I first came to the term in the light of my studies of commentaries on Mircea Eliade’s early political activities in Romania, as a young man between the world wars. I was curious about the lengths to which his contemporary defenders went to protect him from any criticism — such as claiming that Eliade had exhibited what one scholar characterized as mere “patriotic fervor” or even “non-political nationalism” (see Carol Olson’s The Theology and Philosophy of Mircea Eliade [1992], 44-45 — something I discussed in Manufacturing Religion [1997], 90).

Now, those familiar with how “we” are patriots while “they” are nationalists shouldn’t be surprised by any of this, of course, knowing that national alignments and actions with which “we” agree are easily represented as positive and desirable. This suggests that the distinction between patriotism and nationalism is all in the eye of the self-interested beholder.

None of this is new, of course. Continue reading

A Moving Target

Logo for the University of Vermont's Department of Religious StudiesLong ago, at the start of a Fall semester, I was speaking with someone newer to our Department about whether it was likely that we would have a tenure-track search that year; we had recently had a faculty member depart for another university, leaving our then small Department with no one covering Asia. We hoped to fill that gap, of course, but one can never be sure if requests for lines (whether replacements or new) will be granted by the University. “But surely Asia is important” I was told in reply, the person assuming that the University administration would agree.

I replied by asking whether they thought that the 22 other Departments in the College of Arts & Sciences also had unfilled lines and uncovered areas of importance to them — such as Modern Languages and Criminal Justice, or Chemistry, Biology, and Political Science. For while I may not think that another Elizabethan specialist is really needed in the English Department I can easily imagine how important such a line might be to someone over there (thus making its way into their rationale for requesting the position). So I suggested that if I were the Dean or the Provost I’d likely not be making these decisions — after all, resources are limited and not everyone will get what they want — based on the scale of value used by each Department in making their staffing requests but, instead, I’d probably come up with some other set of criteria, one that I could use across units that each employed their own local, different, and sometimes competing or even contradictory criteria for what was important or valuable. Continue reading

Q&A with Dr. Lauren Horn Griffin

Lauren Griffin

We’re pleased that we’ve been joined by Dr. Lauren Horn Griffin this year; so we asked her a few questions, about her background and her work.

What was your undergraduate major and what were you thinking, as you came to university, that you’d be doing with that degree?

I was an English Education major. I came to college as a first generation student with no idea what to expect, and I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to complete a degree successfully. I came from a rural, under-resourced public high school, and I didn’t really have the guidance I needed when I got to my large state university. (There are now lots of resources directed specifically at first gen students these days, which is lovely to see!) My parents directed me towards healthcare or education. After taking a few classes meant to introduce people to the healthcare professions, I realized that was a terrible fit for me. So I initially became a Math Education major. But then I took a literature class (on literary criticism) and it changed things for me. At first I hated the lit crit class — unlike math, there was no certainty, no “right” answer (even if you were the author of the piece, apparently!), and no clear application that I could see (“I’m never gonna NEED this,” I complained to my roommates). I got a B- on my first essay exam, which led to some tears. But mid-semester something clicked, and I was able to actually sit with some of the complexity and uncertainty. I took more literature courses after that, and eventually majored in English Education (though I taught both Math and English when I taught high school). Continue reading

Our MA Students Have Been Busy

Front page of Erica Bennett's website

Our first year MA students have been busy creating their own websites for their required REL 502 course this semester with Prof. Loewen. So we thought you might like to see what they’re interested in, let alone what they’ve created — here’s just a few: Continue reading

Recognizing Alum Accomplishments

Award plaque

At Honors Day 2019 the Department first awarded a new annual prize, to recognize the accomplishments of our graduates — the majority of whom go on to succeed in a wide variety of fields, making evident to our current students, we hope, the wide applicability of the skills gained in our classes. Then, this past Spring, it was renamed in honor of the commitment to our student shown by our longtime Administrative Secretary, Betty Dickey, who retired on April 1, 2020, after 32 years in the Department. But with universities across the country moving to limited business operations back in mid-March (due to COVID-19), there was too much happening to properly alert the successful nominees, let alone announce it at Honors Day 2020, as we had hoped.

But now is time to make-up for all of that. So, having written to our two recipients, it’s time to let you know who the faculty have selected from this past year’s nominations: we’re very pleased to announce that the 2019-20 recipients of the Dickey Alum Award are Susanna Payton Dunlap and Criag Nutt. Continue reading