Thoughts Upon Losing My Religion (Major)

Students working on a group assignemt in an Intro class Kathryn D. Blanchard is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Religious Studies at Alma College, where she has taught undergraduates since 2006.

I’ll start by making a long story short: the Religious Studies department at my institution has been shrinking for years, and this year the major was cut. The minor survives, for now (we got off lucky compared to French, German, and Anthropology), mostly because I—the lone faculty member—have tenure, our classes are generally full, and the college has a Presbyterian affiliation.

When other schools cut or threaten to cut religious studies, I pay attention to how folks defend it. Most defenses revolve around a few themes: religious studies prepares people for successful careers; it prepares people for responsible citizenship; and it is central to the liberal arts and the purposes of higher education, so no self-respecting institution should be without it—especially because it is so popular/relevant/cheap. Some of these arguments can be applied to the humanities more broadly, while others carve out a special place for religion. This very thorough recent statement from the American Academy of Religion covers all the bases, as does a fine blog post on this site by a current master’s student. Perhaps my favorite is from Megan Goodwin, who writes so eloquently, “Humanities cutbacks make us dumber, crueler, and less likely to survive as a species.” Continue reading

“The Cult of Cults”: Pop Culture Representations of a Minority Religious Group

HBOMax promotional image for its Heavens Gate documentary

Allison Isidore is a second-year M.A. student
in the Department of Religious Studies.

On December 8, I submitted my last paper for the semester, wrapping up what has been, for many, a stressful period. Having just seen the trailer for the new HBOMAX docuseries “Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults,” I  wondered how the religious group was represented and decided to take a look.

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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.

The Relevance of Religious Studies is Not that We Study Religion

Students working together in the Religious Studies classroom

Jacob Barrett is a first year M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. From Colorado Springs, he earned his B.A. from Nebraska Wesleyan University in Philosophy & Religion and Biology. In the Spring he will present his research at the southeast regional meeting of the American Academy of Religion.

Junior year of my undergraduate degree, I was asked by the chair of the Religious Studies department to represent the major at an event where first year students would more-or-less speed date with different departments to start deciding what they wanted to major in. I was paired with the new Religion professor and together we set out to convince first year students to begin thinking about why participating in our department (whether that be majoring, minoring, or just taking several classes) was advantageous to them. I started with the typical “The faculty are so supportive and amazing” and “The major is pretty flexible so if you are a double major it is really easy to fit in” and “The classes are really fun and they also cover a lot of the requirements in the curriculum, so you can kill two birds with one stone by taking a course.” When the professor started his part, he said something so simple yet so important: “We teach you how to think, how to write, how to talk about things in ways that other departments don’t.”

With universities proposing cuts to Religious Studies departments becoming more and more of a regular occurrence, there is the feeling that we (those who consider ourselves members of “the field”) must defend the importance and relevance of what we do and what we offer. Religious Studies departments are often not producing majors or bringing in money in the same numbers as larger departments, so they become an easy target when universities need to find ways to save money. How, then, do we convince a university to keep our departments? Continue reading

What is the Country’s Reality?

Logo from the TV show Lovecraft Country

Allison Isidore is a second-year M.A. student
in the Department of Religious Studies.

Have you seen the new HBO show “Lovecraft Country”? In the series premiere, set in 1950s America, we follow Atticus Freeman (played by Jonathan Majors), Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), and George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance) as they travel to “Ardham,” Massachusetts, in hopes of finding Atticus’s father, Montrose Freeman (Michael K. Williams). He went missing while searching for the family’s history.

The trio drives through town after town as George works on a new guide for Black Americans to travel safely through Jim Crow America. Throughout the episode, the characters interact with monsters, both human and not, that are out to kill the three travelers. Their human enemies are White cops and mobs trying to run the main characters out of town or kill them, which their pursuers enjoy. “Lovecraft Country” therefore asks the question: “Who is the real monster in America?” Is it the creatures, or is it the White racists? However, the show also asks its viewers what is the reality in which they live, what American reality do we individually live in? Continue reading

A Moving Target

Logo for the University of Vermont's Department of Religious StudiesLong ago, at the start of a Fall semester, I was speaking with someone newer to our Department about whether it was likely that we would have a tenure-track search that year; we had recently had a faculty member depart for another university, leaving our then small Department with no one covering Asia. We hoped to fill that gap, of course, but one can never be sure if requests for lines (whether replacements or new) will be granted by the University. “But surely Asia is important” I was told in reply, the person assuming that the University administration would agree.

I replied by asking whether they thought that the 22 other Departments in the College of Arts & Sciences also had unfilled lines and uncovered areas of importance to them — such as Modern Languages and Criminal Justice, or Chemistry, Biology, and Political Science. For while I may not think that another Elizabethan specialist is really needed in the English Department I can easily imagine how important such a line might be to someone over there (thus making its way into their rationale for requesting the position). So I suggested that if I were the Dean or the Provost I’d likely not be making these decisions — after all, resources are limited and not everyone will get what they want — based on the scale of value used by each Department in making their staffing requests but, instead, I’d probably come up with some other set of criteria, one that I could use across units that each employed their own local, different, and sometimes competing or even contradictory criteria for what was important or valuable. Continue reading

Announcing the 2021 American Examples Participants

American Examples Logo
The Department of Religious Studies is so happy to announce the participants in the 2021 American Examples program. This will be the third year of the program’s history and the second year the program has been funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. This year’s program will be hosted virtually, due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the virtual format, a record number of applications, and a strong applicant pool, we have expanded the program from 9 to 12 participants. We are so excited to see American Examples continue to mentor early-career scholars in research, teaching, and public humanities. Learn more about each of our 2021 participants below:

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Have You Read the Latest Bulletin for the Study of Religion?

Bulletin for the Study of Religion

Prof. Richard Newton introduces us to the latest iteration of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, now a joint collaboration between Equinox Publishing and the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.

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Hear More About American Examples on the Study Religion Podcast

American Examples LogoDid you know that we are now accepting applications for American Examples 2021? American Examples is our Luce Funded program of workshops for untenured scholars of so-called “religion in America.” You can find out more at the American Examples website. Or, you can just listen to the podcast below where American Examples alumni Travis Cooper and Hannah Scheidt talk about their experiences in the program. Applications are due October 31 so listen and apply!

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