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

Grad Tales is Back

Back in the 2013-14 school year we started a new series, Grad Tales, aimed to bring REL grads back to campus to meet with current students — likely students in our 100-level courses who major in everything from engineering and business to social work and nursing. Knowing how many students aren’t sure what they’re going to do in their lives, what major to declare, and how a career will or won’t develop after they graduate, our goal was to invite back a variety of grads who have done a variety of things, hoping to convey the message that an undergrad degree opens the doors onto all sorts of different futures. While we know that some of our students are pretty interested in the study of religion itself, we find that even our majors and minors end up doing lots of different things (as our guests at Grad Tales make plain), so we hoped that members of our student association would come too. Always scheduled in the evening, a faculty member sat up front (like Prof. Ramey, above, with Ben Simmons [BA 2009], back in February of 2014; Ben’s the VP of Engineering for Sworkit, a fitness app), interviewed them and then directed traffic once the questions began.

And, sure, we also served cookies and some pretty good punch.

Since inventing this series, which has so far mostly hosted nearby alums, we’ve had 14 grads come back to campus, people who are now working in business, teachers, lawyers, social workers, doctors, researchers, etc. And our 15th — Jennifer Alfano Nelson — is this coming Wednesday night (7 pm, in the Ferg’s Anderson Room). Graduating as an English/Religious Studies double major, she left working a middle school English teacher after 7 years and learned to code, now working in Birmingham as a software developer. So we’re looking forward to what she can tell us about everything from declaring majors to changing careers and hitting the books again long after graduation.

Something new about Grad Tales this year is that our recently formed Alum Liaison Committee has gotten involved — so we’re really happy to report that, from here on out, they’re our hosts, helping us to identify our guests and interview them. So Kim Davis (BA 2003, REL and French), who is a French teacher at Tuscaloosa County High School and who was also our first Grad Tales guest, will be our host Wednesday night. And, working with Prof. Vaia Touna, they’re already planning the Spring event.

And yes, there will be cookies and punch.

Calling All REL Grads…

REL grads: you may have recently seen on our social media that current majors and minors were greeted with new book bags this Fall, with the Department identity on the one side and UA’s on the other.

Well, now grads can contact us and ask for one as well.

They’re flat-bottomed, sturdy bags, made from heavy canvas, and are 12 ” tall x 14 ” wide and open to be 5 inches wide. While suitable for books they also work great for, well…, virtually anything else you can fit in them, whether fresh produce form the farmer’s market or the river stone you’re using to build that sweet backyard water feature.

To get yours mailed to you, visit https://religion.ua.edu/stay-in-touch/ on the Department website and update your mailing address, tell us a little news about yourself, and at the bottom of the page, under Other Comments/Questions, just ask for a book bag.

Simple as that.

The offer, while supplies last, is limited to grads
who majored or minored at UA in REL or Judaic Studies.

6 Questions with Joe Kimbrough

We’ve started a new series, featuring 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 here & what did you graduate with?

I arrived in September or October 2005, after Hurricane Katrina. I graduated in May 2008 with a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies with a minor in Philosophy.

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

I planned a seminary trip to become a pastor.

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

“Without incriminating anyone,” huh? You’re not making things easy, Dr. McCutcheon. This could take a minute…. All right, I recall a meeting with Dr. Tim Murphy. Dr. Murphy led my independent study at the time. He wanted an update after Spring Break. I reached the door at the same time as my buddy, Zach Day. Murphy told us both to come in and see what happens. Dr. Murphy, Zach, and I had one of the best brainstorm sessions. Everyone tossed theorists about. We each shared a perspective based on our current project. Plus, we dreamed of where our individual projects could lead us. Oh sure, the goals were reached. The three of us came away with a touch of clarity and a dozen new rabbit trails. I enjoyed the simple exploration of it all.

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

The best description I have: I daylight as a tobacconist and moonlight starting up a ministry project. I worked a number of odd jobs after graduation. I, even, returned to Bama to get a master’s degree. In 2015, I landed as store manager for The Briary in Homewood, AL. Also, I write stories, perform in churches, and promote artists through the Storytelling Apologetics Project. So I control inventory and plan stories. Meanwhile, I sell pipes, tobacco, and cigars and rehearse for storytelling performances. Plus, I play webmaster for both positions. Never thought I would end up here, but my career path is a fun ride.

5. Is it fair to think that some of your REL undergrad classes or skills continue to be useful to you?

Absolutely, not only is it fair but also completely accurate. I talk daily about Derrida, Plato, and Chesterton with customers. I might even suggest that sales are like adapting to different professors. Plus, I find the same rules for editing papers apply to editing stories .I could go on, but suffice it to say: my time in Manly definitely benefits me daily.

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

Look down the course list, and take that one class simply because it looks interesting. Yeah, I know it doesn’t fit with anything else at the moment. However, that class will have the most fascinating benefits one day.

That’s Joe, above, pictured with his wife Jessica.

6 Questions with Kristi Crowell

We’ve started a new series, featuring 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?

I have a Bachelors of Arts majoring in Religious Studies and minoring in Advertising (2007). I was slated to double major, however, in my final semester I discovered that I needed extra, unplanned classes for the Advertising major so I decided to drop it to a minor.

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

I wasn’t really certain what I wanted to do, only that I wanted to attend UA. I knew that I didn’t want to be one of the standards: lawyer, doctor, teacher or engineer. The mother of one of my friends suggested Public Relations so that’s what I originally declared. After my first semester, I switched to Advertising.

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

I took REL 220 Survey of Asian Religions in my second semester. I won’t name the professor but that class was messy and all over the place and I loved it. I was hooked and declared REL as a second major. I learned that everything that I thought could be clearly defined was much more subjective. It was truly eye opening when I sat in a certain someone’s class and we discussed things like soil and dirt. It was also extremely fun! The department as a whole was small and close.

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

When I graduated in 2007, I became a restaurant manager for Logan’s Roadhouse. I opened and operated locations in the Birmingham and Huntsville areas. In 2013, I joined the Waffle House team as the Area People Director. I supported 28 restaurants across North Alabama and Northeast Mississippi. I joined Edward Jones Investments in January 2018.

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?

My REL background has been instrumental in my success. I use things that I learned in my REL classes daily. Not only did it teach me how to think critically, it also helped me hone my communication skills.

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

Don’t let others discourage you from your choice of major. Careers as a whole are much more fluid and there are humanities graduates that are very successful. A business degree isn’t your only option if you don’t want a career in one of the standards: law, medicine, education, or engineering. 

6 Questions with Chris Scott

We’ve started a new series, featuring 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?

I was at UA from 2007-11 and graduated with a major in Religious Studies and minor in Philosophy.

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

I thought that I would go on to law school or academia of one kind or another.

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

My favorite courses were those where the professor was able to incorporate all of the different backgrounds and academic interests that students bring to an REL class in order to facilitate an in-depth engagement with theory. My first semester at UA, I took a one-hour book seminar with Prof. Murphy on Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy which showed me what that could look like and convinced me to join the department. Prof. Simmon’s gender theory course was another memorable example.

In addition to the strong teaching in the department, I think the sense of community around Manly Hall made people feel comfortable engaging in classroom discussions. The support that faculty and staff gave to RSSA, as well as the natural community that the Manly Hall balconies lent themselves to, were an important part of the REL experience.

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

Between REL and where I am now, I graduated with an MA in Arab Studies from Georgetown University worked at the Institute of International Education, first supporting Iraqi scholars through IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund and later with the KAUST Gifted Student Program. Working for a large, international organization gave me exposure to finance and operations on a scale that I might not have had elsewhere. It turns out that I enjoyed that sort of work and pivoted in that direction.

Several jobs and more school later, I’m now a CPA and work as an accountant at Raffa, a financial services firm in DC that primarily serves non-profit organizations. Outside of work, I’m on a bike as much as I can be and also volunteer as treasurer for the Washington Area TESOL Association.

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?

It sounds like a cliché after so many articles about what you can do with a liberal arts degree, but having some training in writing about complex ideas in a clear and concise manner is valuable.

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

Take advantage of office hours.

6 Questions with Andie Alexander

We’ve started a new series, featuring 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?

I was a Religious Studies and History double major and Italian minor and graduated in 2012.

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

I wanted to be a high school history teacher. I was actually offered that job shortly before graduating but had already decided to continue on to grad school in Religious Studies.

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

I have countless memories of the few wonderful years I spent in Manly Hall. Though, I do recall a handful of us—no I won’t name names—starting a mustache movement in Prof. Trost’s English Bible as Literature class that was misinterpreted as poking fun at Prof. Ramey, so then we (maybe me and one or two others) just kind’a ran with it. Rumor has it, students are continuing the tradition of teasing Prof. Ramey to this day… (Photo courtesy of Anna Davis.)

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

I’m currently working on my PhD in American Religious Cultures in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University. While this was not my plan going into college, I happened to find my way into Prof. Merinda Simmons’ REL 105: Honors Intro to Religious Studies class in my freshman year. I was hooked on day one with her question “What is ‘religion?’” The rest, as they say, is history.

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?

Oh, absolutely, but not necessarily in the way one might expect. Of course, the critical thinking, analytical, reading, and writing skills are absolutely useful considering the work I’m doing in my PhD program. But the skills I learned in REL have proved to extend far beyond the classroom. My time in REL has certainly shaped my own work in Religious Studies, but the skills I learned in the classroom and as an office worker have also taught me how to successfully navigate new schools, academic departments, and jobs as well. I’m still amazed by how much I rely on the skills I learned in Manly Hall.

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

Just go ahead and major in REL. It’ll be worth it. REL is where it’s at—you’re surrounded by an amazing group of people, so dive in, follow your passion, and keep reading and learning!