What makes the “Capstone A” (central on the banners outside Manly Hall in my photo above) special? What makes people associate it with the University of Alabama? It is not something inherent in the font or colors that gives it a different significance from any other uppercase A. It has been a long-term, extremely successful effort at branding by the University of Alabama, and especially its athletic programs, that give the symbol a generally positive, sometimes passionate, association with the University. To keep that significance as something set apart, the university restricts the use of this trademarked A. Outside companies, and even departments and organizations on campus, must go through an approval process to put the A (or any university symbol) on a t-shirt or mug, for example. For people outside the university, that process requires buying a license to use it, as the local bakery featured in this recent Marketplace story had to do. Continue reading
Reading about Steve Quartz, who studies what happens when people experience something “cool,” made me think of our department, not because we are cool (although that is a reasonable connection), but because the label “cool” has no set definition, much like the category “religion”. People assume that they know it when they see it, but no consistent definition is possible. Continue reading
As discussions about the relevance of what we do in religious studies, and academia in general, have become more common lately, my own emphases have coalesced around the skills that the humanities help scholars (whether students or faculty or interested blog readers) develop. And that emphasis on skills is not limited to our work in the classroom.
Many of our students have been writing personal statements for grad school, applications for Fulbright fellowships and other international opportunities, and cover letters to send with their resumes. But those tasks are not something that they will conclude when they finish their education. They will probably continue to revise narratives and letters for applications throughout their careers. Those who go into academia, for example, will have to apply for jobs, tenure, and grants. For example, right now, the department is working on a significant grant application to submit to the National Endowment for the Humanities towards the end of this semester. Continue reading
The relationship between the categories “science” and “religion” retains great significance within contemporary society. Exactly what that significance is, though, depends on the person’s conceptions and interests. For example, some want to emphasize the value of one over the danger of the other, while some work to bridge the apparent divide separating them. An article that a student pointed out to me last week connects the two categories by asserting scientific explanations for particular practices and traditions that the author labeled Hindu. (Thanks, Lexi.)
The label “college town” can produce a variety of expectations. Having spent several years attending UNC Chapel Hill, my expectations of a college town derive from some specific observations. When I traveled to Ithaca, New York, at the end of September to participate in Cornell University’s South Asia Program Seminar, the plane trip heightened my expectations for a thriving college town, with a professor sitting beside me and another seated in front of me, and someone reading a journal article across the aisle. After landing, though, the trip from the airport to my hotel was a surprise. With the two-lane roads, fields, and a one-lane bridge over a river in a steep gorge, the trip did not include the lively environment that I expected. I encountered no sign of the student culture and businesses catering to them. My expectations and my initial observations did not match.
A graduate of the department recently highlighted an intriguing Washington Post blog discussing the turmoil in Iraq. Avoiding the simplistic notions of blame (the Bush administration’s invasion or the Obama administration’s withdrawal of troops) that often depend on one’s own ideological perspective, the post develops a more nuanced historical narrative. Continue reading
What ideological positions are embedded within the practices and conceptions that we commonly identify as religions? Depending on one’s own ideological position and perspective, various people emphasize the patriarchy, ethnocentrism, and violence within various examples of religion. People will certainly debate if those ideological positions are typical in expressions of religion or an accretion to some idealized form. What about common definitions of what counts as religion? What ideological positions are embedded there? In classes I often emphasize the ways that claiming “religion” becomes a way to establish special status for particular conceptions, symbols, or actions. You cannot use that image because it is religious. You cannot prohibit this action because it is religious. So, what counts as religious in a society makes a big difference. But our analysis should also extend to broader implications of definitions of religion and the ideological assumptions that they support. Continue reading
Does it even make sense to generalize about students who major in a discipline, using statistics such as test scores and GPAs? Probably not, as each student’s success depends on her own abilities and hard work, strategic choices and realistic advice. Plus, programs at each university have their own character, and those who major in that program often have a significant self-selection bias. Continue reading
In our classrooms, we often discuss the challenge of defining categories like religion or the sacred. While those questions sometimes appear quite abstract, separated from the issues that intersect with daily life, the relevance of such analyses can be particularly relevant. An NPR story last night on Daystar, a “religious TV network”, focused on questions of categories and their practical implications. In short, since Daystar classifies itself as a church, a classification that the IRS accepts, the TV network does not have to report its finances publicly or account for how it spends the donations, reportedly averaging $35 million annually, in the ways that non-church non-profit organizations must. So, being classified as a church has significant advantages. Continue reading