About Merinda Simmons

Merinda Simmons earned her Ph.D. in English at the University of Alabama and is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies. Her areas of research and teaching include gender studies, southern studies, method and theory in the study of religion, postcolonial studies, African American literature and theory, migration and diaspora studies.

Making Sense of a Sabbatical


In my Introduction to Religious Studies course, my students think a lot about “making the strange familiar and familiar strange.” With those lessons in mind, I thought I’d make a bit more familiar for students who won’t see me as much in the Spring a practice that happens within the academy—the sabbatical. After being awarded tenure (typically in year 5 or 6), professors can apply for a sabbatical by outlining a specific research project that would benefit from some time away from campus. The project I described in my own proposal is my second single-author scholarly monograph. But, of course, there are always multiple projects at different stages in the works—or, as a colleague put it to me years ago, various pots simmering at higher and lower temperatures on the same stove. I’ve found I’m far more productive and enjoy writing more when I’m working on a few things at once instead of trying to move through projects and ideas linearly. Going into next semester’s sabbatical, I currently have three proverbial pots simmering:

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What You Missed at This Week’s Grad’s Tale


Wednesday saw the semester’s first installment of “There and Back Again: A Grad’s Tale,” an event that brings back alumni who graduated from UA with a degree in Religious Studies to talk about life-after-diploma. This time, Prof. Mike Altman talked to Hannah Hicks, now a second-year law student here at UA. A double major in Religious Studies and Philosophy who graduated in 2013, Hannah talked about the ways in which her degrees in the liberal arts helped prepare her for her post-graduate studies. Specifically, she related the importance of the critical thinking skills she gained from her majors. Hannah’s interested in “public interest law”—an area of legal studies focused on advocating for or meeting the needs of specific communities (often, this happens through working with nonprofit organizations or specialized groups). With this in mind, she talked about how her work in the Religious Studies Department has helped her to think analytically—and not just in terms of statistical description—about what she deems to be “structural violences” like systemic racism and poverty.

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Reexamining the Obvious: “This is Water”

Below–well, after a blurb that I pulled from the speech–are embedded clips (there are two parts, about ten minutes each) to the commencement address that the late writer David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005.  Wallace considers the implications of suggesting that a liberal arts education teaches people “how to think”…  Give it a listen. Continue reading

Self-loathing Scholarship

Self-awareness is hard. Because, let’s face it—a lot of people don’t like themselves. And in academe, where social ticks and neuroses are disproportionally high per capita, we are bunch of Woody Allens walking around with all of the hang-ups and none of the jokes.

Well, okay, not none…there are parodies of the profession galore. The video that circulated on youtube and about which my colleague Russell McCutcheon recently posted on this very blog comes to mind.  It made my academic friends and me roar—a student asks her professor for a letter of recommendation because she wants to get a Ph.D. in the humanities and is met with a scowling litany of the ways in which the profession is a thankless and unfulfilling one, that the life she’s facing is one of misery and exhaustion, and that, of course, she’ll get a letter. Get it??  Professional desperation is really funny! Another knee-slapper is the brochure left anonymously in the common areas at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association a few years back.  Along with being a huge conference, the MLA is where a lot of graduate students in the English discipline interview for university jobs.  It gave information on the conference that I eagerly snatched up (I was still on the job market and was thinking of eager beavers and early birds and other conscientious woodland creatures).  My close and studious reading rendered bits of information like, among other things, directions to “Adjunct Alley,” where someone arrived after taking the subway to “Anxiety Blvd” (I think it was the second stop after Depression Lane). It also provided a diagram of the layout of the floor of the big hotel that held the job information center (schools conducted interviews here in a large room full of tables with little numbers…it was like academic speed-dating). The diagram took the shape of a man pointing a gun to his own head.  See??  Suicide may not actually be painless, but it is apparently hilarious! Continue reading