Pssst! Check this Out: School’s in for Summer!

a street in Bologna Italy

Parker Evans graduated from REL with a BA, in the Spring of 2018, and is currently working on his MA in Gender and Race Studies, here at UA

Coming up on a year ago, shortly after the Department’s Honors Research Symposium, I applied for a couple of summer programs in Europe at the suggestion of Dr. Loewen. He and I had a short conversation in which I told him I was planning on taking a tour of Europe following my graduation. He told me about his experience at UCSIA to let me in on a secret: programs called “summer school” take place all around the world for a concentrated study of specific topics. Several take place in Europe (Hint: in New Zealand and Australia, they are called winter school; e.g. the Center for Humanities Research)

A hallway in Bologna ItalyI quickly did some research and found a few that piqued my interest. I used terms such as philosophy, theory, religion, and political science to find programs of interest to me. I even found a site that did some of the searching for me. I ended up applying to two: the Summer School in Global Studies and Critical Theory in Bologna, Italy; the other was hosted by the University of Gronigen in the Netherlands. I was rejected from the former and accepted to the latter, but I decided to have my cake and eat a little piece of it too.

I couldn’t attend the classes in the Bologna summer school, whose topic last summer was the question of humanism, but I could still attend the public lectures. So I started my travels off in Bologna in order to catch the lecture of Amitav Ghosh, a prominent Indian author of fiction. He was among an exciting roster of other outstanding thinkers and writers at the program last summer, among them Achille Mbembe and Paul Gilroy, as well as Judith Butler in the 2017 program.

The point here is not that I missed the opportunity to be in a classroom with these thinkers but that the opportunity is there, hidden away.

And while my professors in the Groningen program did not have the same “star power” as those in Bologna, our class was perhaps all the more productive for it. My experience of the program in Groningen, which was a survey of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, was a very intimate one.

While the prospect of going back to school during the summer, for no official university credit, may seem like academic masochism, it was a deeply rewarding experience. For the cost of about $350 dollars, we were put up in dorms and fed lunch each day. Considering the weekly cost of regular travel, that’s not a bad deal at all. The program lasted for five days (plus dinner and a city tour the preceding weekend), which turned out to be plenty of time to form sincere friendships with my classmates. The makeup of the program was relaxed enough that it comfortably included students from the undergraduate level to doctoral candidates. Most of them were from European countries, although China, Australia, and the United States (not including myself) were also represented.

students on a canal boat in Gronigen NetherlandsAfter graduating from UA, going straight into summer school made academia exciting in a way I had not experienced before. I had discussions in groups of people who spoke at least five different first languages, who had various nationalities and who articulated a variety of academic interests and applications. To facilitate dialogue across these differences, the classes were conducted in English (Two of the German students even spoke to each other in English so as not to alienate others). Most of the students stayed in the dorms provided by the University of Groningen (a welcome respite from the hostels I was used to). The common living space was especially nice because it gave us the time to discuss the authors we were reading outside of the more structured setting of the classroom. It would not be a stretch for me to suggest that these informal conversations were the most valuable part of the program. Not only were our particular conversations profound, but those conversations cemented the connections among us.

The secret within the secret of the summer schools is that, while the classes themselves are enjoyable, the programs themselves are wonderful points of communication and networking. This is not “networking” in the dry, business sense of knowing who to call for favors.

Rather, I have realized how I am being able to place myself as a scholar within a larger, international community of thought.

Almost all of my former classmates and I are friends on social media, and we get to peek into each other’s lives and academic developments. Being able to see myself within that community has been invaluable. If they are able, I would suggest that anyone heading into an academic career seek out their own respective communities through summer schools.

Well Scientifically… Traditions are an Idiot Thing

A cartoon image of a text message from "Mom" that says, "Your father is insecure about his intelligence."

Matthew McCullough, an MA student in Prof. Ramey’s REL501 course, teases out the stakes of classifying an act as a tradition. This post originally appeared on the REL 501 Religious Studies & Social Theory: Foundations course blog.

So, are traditions really an “idiot thing,” as Rick declares? Not quite. As we’ve seen in the clip above, tradition, appearing in various forms, is a device that’s used when something is at stake. There is no real tradition of science projects being done by fathers and sons. Projects are just as likely to be completed individually, with one’s mother, with a group, etc. What is important to note is that Jerry uses the language of tradition here because something is at stake. Jerry is insecure not only about his intelligence but about his relationship with his son Morty. He feels his father-in-law Rick overshadows him in terms of influence on and respect from his son, and Jerry worries that this science project is just another occasion when he will be subordinated to Rick. Rather than having to state this incredibly uncomfortable reality, Jerry instead uses the language of tradition as a basis to argue for what he wants. This turn shifts the issue from violation of his ego to the violation of a tradition, a longstanding practice that therefore merits repeating. Continue reading

Heineken Beer Dismantles the Traditional Family

A dozen people are smiling and holding Heineken beers. Text at the bottom of the image say, "Tradition doesn't always have to be traditional."

Caity Bell, a student in Prof. Ramey REL501 course, ponders the invention of tradition. This post originally appeared on the REL 501 Religious Studies & Social Theory: Foundations course blog.

 

The holiday season is fast upon us and with it a substantial rise in commercials meant to tug upon consumers’ heartstrings, to invoke that special sense of holiday cheer that drives us, no doubt, to purchase more products than we have year-round. If you don’t run from the room the second the commercials start rolling then perhaps you’ve seen Heineken’s most recent holiday-themed ad, wherein those traditional notions of the American nuclear family are torn away.

As you can see in the video above, while the camera pans around the room—with Dean Martin’s classic You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You playing in the background—we’re exposed to what at first appears to be a holiday gathering composed of that classic family schema we’ve come to expect in American media. The father (as designated by small white text which briefly lights the screen) sits in a corner of the room, bottle of beer nearby (this is after all an advert for Heineken), while across from him sits the mother and sister, both pleasantly smiling at the camera as it glides across the large living room. Then, however, the camera shifts to a man cheerily painting, who’s designated to be the mom’s new boyfriend and from here we continue on our tour of the busy household with introductions to the boyfriend’s stepdaughter as well as various members of the dad’s “new” family (and a quirky moment when an apparent stranger is present, introduced as simply “and whoever that guy is”). The commercial ends with the image of this diverse family standing poised together before the fireplace while the words “tradition doesn’t always have to be traditional” flash across the screen.

Yet has tradition ever been traditional? In short, no. Tradition, rather than being some ancient, set in stone way of doing things, is more often than not a more recent invention, a way of authorizing one group’s set of ideals over another’s. A tool for providing a sense of social cohesion within a group, tradition serves as a means of binding present ideals and beliefs to some distant past as a way of validating their continued persistence. The word itself becomes invoked when something is at stake, a way of bringing value or necessity to some practice or ideal as being time-honored and revered when in fact it may not actually be so.

Take, for example, a 2014 Supreme Court case wherein the language of tradition was used by the defendants to win their trial. In the Town of Greece v. Galloway hearing, the town, brought to court on charges of violating First Amendment rights by beginning their council meetings with Christian prayer, was allowed to continue this practice on the grounds that, rather than being religious, the practice was a part of the town’s “tradition”. Thus, by rooting the practice in the town’s history, it was granted a semblance of authority and presented as a seemingly unbiased argument rather than a practice with some utility or underlying motive for an interested party. Have the town’s meetings always, in fact, began in this fashion? Perhaps, perhaps not, yet what is interesting to note, rather than debating the authenticity of this claim, is how the label of tradition comes into play as soon as the practice is contested.

The idea of the American nuclear family as well, with its image of one mother and one father together raising 2.5 kids, is not as traditional as we believe it to be, the idea largely popularized after the emergence and success of capitalism during the Industrial Revolution and only further cemented as the American ideal through popular television shows aired in the 1950s. Throughout our history families have held to many molds which don’t fit this traditional image—as long reaching and ever-present as it may seem. Even our beloved holiday traditions bear roots to a less distant past, as Christmas itself, with its festive trees and jolly ol’ Saint Nic, was banned for a time in the U.S. by Puritans who saw those traditions as having no place in a Christian nation. In fact many of the traditions now prominent in Christmas celebrations were not in practice until the late 19th century when they were merged into popular culture by the immigrants who brought them over.

So then, tradition doesn’t always have to be traditional? Well, it seems that tradition itself has never actually been “traditional.”  Thus the Heineken ad’s final line is absolutely right. Using the language of tradition to describe a family or a practice does not have to reflect some longstanding form; tradition has never been traditional.

 

Image credit: Still from video by HeinekenUSA (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5G15pfHZfNg

6 Questions with Markus Harris

We have a series that features grads that have ended up doing a pretty wide variety of things after leaving their REL classes (graduating either recently or a little while ago).  So we posed a few questions to each and let’s see what we learn.

1. When were you enrolled at UA and what major(s) and minor(s) did you graduate with?

Greetings! I had two tenures of enrollment with the University of Alabama. The second tenure is where I found a home with Religious Studies. I graduated in the Spring of 2011 with a B.A in African American Studies and a minor in Religious Studies.

2. When you first came here from high school, what did you think you wanted to do for a career?

Ha! When I first came to UA, I was going to be a Computer Scientist!

3. Any memories from your REL classes in Manly Hall that stand out and, more importantly perhaps, that you can share without incriminating anyone?

All of the things!! Were it not for the consideration given to me, I am not sure that I would have made it out with a degree. The Politics of Authenticity! It was at Manly where I learned what it meant to truly be a Scholar!! I will always cherish the time spent with Dr. Murphy in “History of Christian Thought.”

4. So what have you ended up doing and what path led you there? Tell us a little about your career now.

Currently, I am a Coordinator for the Lyle School of Engineering at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. I also teach ESL at Richland College, and I do some private consulting for Higher Education. Fate has brought me here, existentially! Ha! I will complete a Ph.D. in History eventually.

5. Is it fair to think that some of your REL undergrad classes or skills continue to be useful to you? If so, do you have any examples?

I know that the experience I was afforded as an undergrad learning and growing in Religious Studies has certainly contributed to my current space in the world. For example, I facilitate English learning classes with people of conflicting religious backgrounds. Sometimes, it can get really interesting!

6. If you now gave some advice to your earlier self, the one in classes in Manly Hall, what would that be?

Listen and read much more! Pay more attention to Dr. McCutcheon, Dr. Trost,  and Dr. Simmons! Drink more coffee! Hang out with Betty more!! Speak up more (if you can imagine that)!

The 6th Annual Day Lecture

If you weren’t able to attend our 6th annual Day Lecture this year,
then you can now find it on Vimeo!

Dr. Teemu Taira, who is a Professor in the Department of the Study of Religions at the University of Helsinki, spoke on “Reading Bond Films Through the Lens of Religion.”

Our thanks to A&S’s etech office for filming the lecture.

Disconnecting Truth from Free Speech

Ana Schuber is a graduate student in our Religion in Culture MA program. This post was originally published on our Religious Studies & Social Theory: Foundations course blog.

Harry Potter, or in human form Daniel Radcliffe, is currently acting in an off-Broadway play titled The Lifespan of a Fact. Timely and satirical, the play posits a contemporary political pastime of major and minor news agencies across the world: fact-checking truth. Perhaps the more important question one might ask today is: is there truth out there to be found by all these fact checkers? For Radcliffe, there are no magic wands, no all-knowing Hermione Grangers and no easy answer to this question as he portrays the dedicated fact checker. Tim Teemen in his review of this play for the Daily Beast explains that the play is about “what counts as fact and the perception of fact in what we read and visually and aurally consume every day.”

On stage, Daniel Radcliffe works to fact-check an article by a well-known journalist about a horrific suicide in 2002 when a sixteen-year-old jumped off the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas.  This real story and actual journalistic attempt was in the “fact-check” phase for seven years before it was finally killed as a story for Harper’s Magazine due to journalistic disagreements.  The story was finally published in the form of a book seven years after the actual event and then became the subject of this play exploring the discourse of the narrative flow in non-fiction true event’s writing.

The United States is currently at war with itself in terms of what free speech is and whether free speech and truth are the same. The illusion is that free speech, guaranteed by the 1st Amendment of the Constitution, is equal to “truth”. Civics teachers have been emphasizing for years that it is our right and that we need to honor each other’s right to speak our truths.  What wasn’t emphasized was that “truth” and “free speech” are not equal.  This is not a new argument either in popular culture or in academic scholarship. Roland Barthes a major French literary theorist wrote about the nature of linguistic meaning and one of his explorations dealt with the multiplicity/plurality of meanings. Barthes is talking about literature and scholarship but the implication is that “meanings” are complex and are affected by time, relationships and authors. Is there such a thing as “truth”? Does the designation of “fact” make the item “true”? Can we trust the fact-checkers in the media when as Pierre Bourdieu stated in his text On Television (1996), “we are getting closer to the point where the social world is primarily described—and in a sense prescribed—by television.”

Journalists work for companies, whether as print journalists or televised journalists, which are owned and sponsored by moneyed operatives or corporations. Television and print medium fans have their own “teams” in terms of what news outlet they support or champion and as long as their “truth” is espoused, they continue to watch or read.  Journalists are writers and writers like to have their work read or seen by a wide audience.  Whether it is fiction or non-fiction there is always tension about what literary license means when presenting truth. With fiction, the author expects the reader to come along for the ride and agree that there is plausibility in the story. With non-fiction, the author still has a desire to present the material in a literary form so that the reader will want to read the article or book, assured that the facts of the story are being presented.

The conundrum is that the reading/watching audience are operating with a set of truths that, as Barthes would argue, are complex and layered and from individual to individual may not, over time, relate to each other except as a demonstration of how complex truth actually is. No matter how hard the fact-checkers work or how long they pursue their goal, what is presented in the end by that news outlet will not be received by everyone as “truth”. The new term “fake news” used today has nothing to do with the veracity of an article or item. It is used to combat journalism that one doesn’t like.

Harry Potter had to deal with “fake news” too, put out by The Daily Prophet. At least he had a magic wand to deal with his “truth” issues. Daniel Radcliffe in The Lifespan of a Fact has no magic wand and unfortunately, his character cannot guarantee his outcome as truth either.

Is this “Rising” or even Equal?

Ana Schuber is a graduate student in our Religion in Culture MA program. This post was originally published on our Religious Studies & Social Theory: Foundations course blog.

So, here in the middle, actually right up on the final run toward the mid-term 2018 elections, it was amazing to see a political advertisement that turned the standard dialogue about women running for office on its head. Paid for by the Serve America PAC, a democratic effort, this ad features eight first time congressional female candidates running across the United States for elected office. You should watch it here:

I have a long and varied path from my early identification as a feminist in the 1960s to the present Pussy Hat wearing throng of women with political ambition or political desire. This ad was new.

Seeing the ad for the first time on Facebook, my old feminist heart leapt at the visual of these women, all having served America either through military service (Marines, Navy or Air Force) or governmental service (CIA). They spoke of their service in combat, as leaders, in high-powered jobs and their desire to continue to serve their country through political service.

First impressions being what they are and quite frankly after forty years of the old dialogue about the “little ladies” running for office, I was blown away and amazed at this political advertisement. I smiled and re-posted it to several feminist friends and colleagues and planned to show the ad to my undergraduate students in triumph of a new wave of possible women candidates who could win with such a message.

But then, the scholar in me woke up and shoved aside the feminist and I started wondering what I would say to my students. The language of this ad was different than any other “woman’s” political ad that I had ever seen. They were using the language that is usually associated with male power. They were talking about flying combat planes, leading men and women into battle, leading men and women on a huge ship, working in a male-dominated investigation unit. The linguistic images were those of men. Hold on a minute.  Feminists have been fighting the image of nature versus nurture for hundreds of years and endless reams of scholarship attempting to level the playing field for both men and women.  Scholars like Sherry B Ortner (see her article “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture”) associate women’s lack of social or cultural power to the fact that women are considered closer to nature due to their ability to give birth and nurture children. Men are typically identified with the power associated with the protection of weaker women and children through aggression and battle. This political ad was using what many would consider male language. Rather than considering women equal to men, was this not a usurpation of “male” language just to get females elected?

As women have been afforded secondary status historically, this ad leaves us with an incredible predicament because women are not unilaterally one thing across the globe and when it comes to the concept of power there are even more complexities. It seems that we have finally begun to un-separate the “duties” of men and women in culture and un-tangle the gendered language used to understand what power is acceptable within culture. More importantly, what does it say if these women win in the mid-term election of 2018? Do women have to usurp the heretofore language of male “power” in order to win? What does this say about a woman who occupies a “traditional” woman’s job in culture such as school teacher, non-profit worker or librarian? Is female “power” now only afforded to those women who have “made it” in traditional male jobs such as combat or the CIA? That seems to be the message of this political ad.

When all these ideas came rushing into my head, I was suddenly mad. Minutes before, I was ready to run out and vote and champion this moment and minutes later I was grumpy and back to my typical “HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE?” mood. In the long run, what happens if women win using what is considered male language, and what are the consequences?

Scholars Around a Campfire: Understanding Strategic Acts of Identification

Culture on the Edge, a group of scholars studying acts of identity formation and centered here at the University of Alabama, has a new book forthcoming in its series, Studies of Identity Formation. This book, Strategic Acts in the Study of Identity: Toward a Dynamic Theory of People and Place, edited by our own Prof. Vaia Touna, is set for publication in January 2019. Continue reading

Another Journal Group

MA Students and faculty met the other day to discuss the article chosen for this meeting of our regular journal group – which just so happened to be an article Prof. Steven Ramey and I coauthored. The article, titled Sourcing Stereotypes: Constructing and Challenging Simplified Knowledge, is made up of two main parts: a critique of a chart (and its corresponding citations) from a textbook in the nursing field concerned with what we took to be stereotypes (some of which religiously-based) in how different populations tolerate or respond to pain, and a second, a similar, though perhaps less obvious, part which was a critique of textbook presentations of groups in the field of religious studies. While having both authors in the room certainly played a role in how the article was examined, the enthusiasm of the group of people present for the discussion played the most vital role in the development of a robust, engaging and productive dialogue about the article itself. For, without conversation partners that help you explore the critical questions you yourself are working to answer, your writing process and the claims you make in your writing will not be able to grow and address new issues.

The discussion opened by highlighting how various components of the writing and publishing process have become integrated into the rest of my work, such as seeing writing (even single-author writing) as far more collaborative than it might at first appear. For instance, in co-writing, I never once felt there was a time where you could say this article was a product of either of us independently. From Family Guy references to generous critical commentary, the authorial voice of the paper did not require us to adopt a homogenous tone because its overarching goal was to investigate the value of organized heterogeneity. That is not to say that we were perfectly happy with the final version that we submitted for peer review and, then, publication. In fact writing, as well as co-writing (at least in my limited experience in terms of this one article’s production), is an ongoing process in which there are many moments where authors are dissatisfied with what we write. In the case of this project, this disagreement, though, was where we were able to tease out exactly what we were discussing and how we thought it might be discussed in lieu of other audiences. For there is no way to write to all readers’ sensibilities and you must agree to present your work in certain ways in order to communicate it beyond your own imagination.

Keeping this idea of an engaged writer in mind, some of those attending were interested in what readers we had imagined for the article and how we went about writing to those audiences. For example, Richard Newton asked about my methods for evaluating a source’s validity while Emily Crews invited me to consider what practical functions simplified knowledge can serve in venues where a detailed, nuanced explanation is not permitted. The questions seemed to be suggesting that through transparent conversations about our own limits, we, as writers, could retain nuance in a way that it is accessible for various audiences. Thus, the limits imposed on our writing, by us as the authors or by the audiences that consume it are, for pragmatic reasons, not necessarily working against our larger objective. In fact, such limits seem to serve as an example of how knowledge can be simplified without compromising nuance.

What’s New about New Modernisms?

The discourse of modernism has conventionally been dominated by a limiting attention to aesthetics, form, experimentation, and canon, often treated as standalone objects that capture the essence of modernist art — but what if we focus instead on social politics as a driving force behind the modernist movement?  What new perspective might be gained if we unite the typically separated categories of aesthetics and politics?  In their forthcoming book, Race and New Modernisms, REL Prof. Merinda Simmons and English Prof. Andy Crank confront these questions by offering a unique reevaluation of modernism, one that considers the racial ideology, colonial history, and regional complexity at work behind modernist form and aesthetic. Continue reading