About Steven Ramey

Steven Ramey is Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Director of Asian Studies at the University of Alabama. His research focuses on groups who contest dominant understandings of the religions of India, both in India and beyond. His newest project addresses the assumptions in the language of religious labels and the ways those assumptions determine research and valorize particular constructions of religions. Through this project, he wants to consider alternative paradigms for describing these collections of practices and ways those alternative paradigms can influence research and pedagogy.

Good Riddance 2020, But Wait . . .

Happy New Year 20212020 has been a strange and rough year in so many ways, but, speaking as REL’s Graduate Director, our Department still has much to celebrate among our M.A. students and the program’s alums. They did not simply survive the shift to online learning and the challenge of moving to a new city in a pandemic; they have thrived in so many ways.

In May, in the middle of the first wave of the pandemic, we graduated 4 M.A. students, our largest graduating class so far. Among those grads, two went on to Ph.D. programs (Ohio State and Florida State, neither school chosen based on their football teams, btw), and one used her publishing experiences, digital skills, and museum internship to work with Landmarks of Dekalb County, Alabama, cataloging material in their collection and promoting their collection (see their Instagram account). She has discovered fascinating pieces about Fort Payne (the “New England City of the South,” see images below) and the region “lost” in the storage rooms.

Advertisement for Fort Payne, AL in 1890s

Advertisement for Fort Payne, AL in 1890s, courtesy of Landmarks of Dekalb County

Our continuing grad students have been busy, too, with some second year students now applying for Ph.D programs while making progress on various research projects of their own. In August, we welcomed our largest incoming class yet, with 8 new M.A. students, all of whom tackled our required foundation courses on social theory and public humanities—courses that intentionally throw a bit of a curve at students, to get them thinking broadly not just about how to study religion but also about the wider relevance of the skills we can gain in a graduate program. Through all of their activities, they have been engaging and applying social theory in ways that they might not have expected, writing about Lovecraft Country (read Allison’s post), the Nones, rhetoric about “godless China,” healthcare, survey instruments, and much more.

Our M.A. students have been creative and productive, despite the challenging circumstances and everyone’s need for flexibility. In addition to traditional academic labor, writing (read Jacob’s recent post defending Religious Studies), TAing, teaching online courses, and preparing lectures of their own, they have built websites and made podcasts and videos (see a compilation of their work in the Public Humanities course), helped produce the newest issues of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, created animations (currently in production) for our Luce-funded American Examples initiative, and arranged Spring semester internships in publishing, digital technology, and international education. Our students’ work has even moved beyond Tuscaloosa virtually, with one editing videos for the Religion for Breakfast video series, another presenting a paper at the virtual American Academy of Religions, and another moderating a panel at the virtual North American Association for the Study of Religion conference (both virtual conferences in November and December). And look for one of our MA students to present a virtual paper in the Spring, as part of the southeast region’s AAR meeting.

Despite all the challenges of 2020, our students generate enthusiasm and hope, things that we want to tell the world about as we move towards the new year.

Switchboard operators in 1950 Dekalb County Alabama

Switchboard operators in 1950 Dekalb County, Alabama, from the collection of Landmarks of Dekalb County

Images credits

“Happy 2021 new year on blue bokeh background” by wuestenigel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Fort Payne ad from archives of Landmarks of Dekalb County, AL. Photo courtesy of Caitlyn Bell.

Switchboard operators photo from archives of Landmarks of Dekalb County, AL. Photo courtesy of Caitlyn Bell.

Navigating a Diverse World Critically

Gall Peters Projection map of world

The World Religions course is a fabulous opportunity to teach students to think critically about the various representations of the world’s religious traditions. With the critique of the world religions paradigm and its colonial roots (see Masuzawa’s Invention fo World Religions), as well as problematic assumptions contained in any singular description of world religions (see, for example, my Culture on the Edge post The Harm of World Religions), it is vital to challenge singular narratives and to help our students learn to analyze whatever narrative they hear.

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Always Look at Who’s Talking

A textbook chart that unironically presents how "Arabs/Muslims," 'Asians," "Blacks," "Jews," "Hispanics," and "Native Americans" respond to pain. It is titled "Focus on Diversity and Culture: Cultural Differences in Response to Pain"

Textbook chart from Nursing: A Concept Based Approach to Learning, published (then withdrawn) by Pearson

As the AAR presents its newly drafted Religious Literacy Guidelines, Sierra Lawson (BA ’17, MA ’19) and Prof. Steven Ramey return to their research on the implications of classification to raise important questions about the politics and consequences of such a framing.

Religious literacy, which typically refers to knowledge about religions, differences between religions, and diversity within each religion, can reinforce problematic claims about social groups (as evident in the chart reproduced above). Useful knowledge can easily become harmful, especially when it tends towards selective generalizations and ignores the issue of who is doing the talking.

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A Purpose Driven Label

"There is a misconception that Buddhism is a religion and that you worship Buddha. Buddhism is a practice like yoga. You can be a Christian and practice Buddhism" quote attributed to Thich Nhat HanhGroups often want to claim that their practices and beliefs constitute a religion. The label religion provides certain benefits, such as a protected legal status, respect in certain contexts, and often prestige. In fact, various groups like Sikhs and Jains want to see their religions included in the discussion of World Religions for the legitimacy that it affords. The image above circulating on social media lately identifies Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen monk, as making the opposite assertion, that Buddhism is not a religion. Continue reading

Generating Pain

Oct 18 2017 tweet with photo of cultural diversity chartA Pearson textbook Nursing: A Context Based Approach to Learning (reportedly published in 2014) has become a point of controversy after an outpouring of outrage over the culturally stereotyped discussion of “Cultural Differences in Response to Pain.” The publisher has apologized, is studying how this chart passed editorial review, and has “removed the material in question from current versions of the book.” Noting how essentialized descriptions in a 2014 textbook only comes to attention now makes one wonder how many people, particularly educators and editors, viewed this chart and thought nothing of it. Though many of us continue to hope that people would be more aware of the problem of stereotypes and generalized assertions, much of what we teach in Religious Studies about critical thinking, categorization, and the problems of essentialization remains vitally important, but sometimes we have to remind ourselves of the dangers of generalizing, too. Continue reading

What if Harry Potter is Sacred?

boywholivedcroppedWhen we label something “sacred,” that designation often changes how we engage it. Discussing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a sacred text, the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text illustrates this engagement and the ways readers interpret from their own experiences. Both hosts in this podcast have a particular interest in the category of the sacred. Vanessa Zoltan is a Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, and Casper ter Kuile is studying to minister to those who identify as non-religious. Continue reading

The End is Here and Brings Big Things

relephanttextcitedThe semester is complete, and our seniors have walked across that stage. All semester I have had the privilege of working with the Capstone Senior Seminar, applying questions and ideas from our work to a broad range of topics and presenting them through various social media, from Twitter to Tumblr. Their final Digital Projects are now published, so you should take a look at the range of their creative approaches to expressing the significance of critical questions to many topics, from war to food to Yik Yak. Continue reading

Showing Our Stuff

relephanttextcitedWhat do you get from a degree in Religious Studies? Throughout this semester, our students in the Capstone Senior Seminar have been applying questions that develop in the academic study of religion to a variety of issues, using social media from Twitter to Tumblr to illustrates the issues to a broad audience. Now it is time for posts to our class blog to roll out, starting later today and throughout next week. So, look for those posts at the class blog, and check back over the class’s social media activity on Twitter (@RelephantUA), Continue reading

Unnatural Groups and Protests in India

A_farmer_coming_to_field_with_bullock_cart,IndiaGroup identifications are not something inherent or automatic; they require work to construct and maintain, and that work only makes sense when those group identifications serve some interests, such as gaining access to power and resources. Currently in India, communities based on caste identification, specifically Jats in Haryana (a province in northern India near New Delhi), are protesting for special access to government jobs under the reservation system. Jats are an interesting example of a contested community, as their status in the traditional hierarchy of communities is unclear. Some claim that they are upper caste, like the Rajputs, but many Rajputs dispute that. Some suggest that they lost their upper caste status by failing to maintain upper caste rituals, yet others assert that they were Dalits (formerly untouchables) but eventually raised their status to simply low caste. Each of these status positions creates winners and losers, people who gain or lose access to status, resources, and power. Continue reading

We Are RELephant!

rel490twitterAlumni from our department emphasize how various skills that they developed in Religious Studies have been useful in a range of careers (e.g., on the Graduate page of this blog here, here, here, and here and through our Grad Tales events). Creative problem solving helps when planning language lessons or legal arguments. Recognizing the range of perspectives and dangers of stereotypes can aid in developing marketing strategies. Clear communication can assist in preparing a persuasive business plan or grant application. Current students similarly have discussed ways that they use skills from Religious Studies classes in courses outside our department. Continue reading