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.

It’s a busy week ahead

With spring break drawing to a close we’ve got a full week ahead of us:

(1) Sarah Griswold will defend REL’s first M.A. thesis; it takes place Monday at 1:30 in Manly 210 — all faculty and grad students are invited, along with a small number of B.A. students who the faculty may have invited.

(2) Our 5th annual research symposium takes place all Friday morning, upstairs at the University Club — all majors and minors are invited, along with the faculty of course; it starts around 8:30 am or so, with coffee, tea and breakfast snacks, before the first panel gets going, and we’ll have lunch after its over. Thanks to our M.A. students, who will help to record it (for a future podcast) and also chair the sessions. (See who will be presenting.)

And (3) an incoming MA student, Savannah Finver, is flying in from New York state for a few days, to visit campus for the first time — say hi if you see her. (We have 3 confirmed new grad students starting in the Fall, with one part-time student joining them and possibly an additional full-time student as well.)

See you at Manly Hall — and I hope you’ve had a good week.

The REL Reading Group: Thinking Through Phenomenology

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The following post from Emma Gibson, a student in our MA program, reflects on the recent meeting of the journal reading group, part of our Religion in Culture MA.

So, what exactly is phenomenology? When I started my first semester in fall 2017 at the religious studies department, I got some interesting looks when I told everyone I was primarily interested in phenomenology. I learned quickly that phenomenology of religion and philosophical phenomenology are not the same thing. Perhaps this is because I spent most of my undergraduate degree as a philosophy major. For example, I was surprised to learn that most phenomenologists of religion have framed their work as a study of “religious experience” in order to either argue for an unknowable God, or to claim that these experiences are unique from other kinds of experience. Philosophical phenomenology focuses on the general experience of the subject making sense of the world, rather than separately analyzing “kinds” of experiences.

I am currently developing a topic for my M.A. thesis that compares and contrasts both philosophical phenomenology and phenomenology of religion. Jonathan Tuckett’s article “Prolegomena to a Philosophical Phenomenology,” proposes one way of doing phenomenology of religion that is better aligned with philosophical phenomenological methods. So I suggested it for our journal group. Tuckett argues that phenomenology of religion should return to and follow more closely the methods developed by Edmund Husserl. More specifically, Husserl’s philosophy on intersubjectivity and ‘life-worlds’. Tuckett argues that Alfred Schutz (a follower of Husserl) influenced scholars such as James Spickard and Peter Berger who both attempted to outline a philosophical phenomenology in line with Husserl’s philosophy. According to Tuckett, they fall short because they did not consider Husserl’s later phenomenology (2). Tuckett’s final point is that a revised sociological phenomenology is best suited to achieve the goals of Spickard and Berger. It is “an enquiry into the structures of knowledge which produce reality” (6). For the purposes of my MA thesis, articles like Tuckett’s will help me explain why and how the phenomenology of religion is so different from philosophical phenomenology.

While I was reading the article, I was drawn to Tuckett’s proposal to conceptualize religion as “alien”. Tuckett explores how the work of Husserl deployed a distinction between the home-world and the alien-world (8). The home world is a “homogenous totality” (33) while the alien, “entails the introduction of heterogeneity by destabilising the homogeneity of the home-world” (33). The last section, “A Proper Phenomenology of Religion,” is the introduction to a more extensive project, where he proposes “secular” as an analytical umbrella that designates the set of that which is naturalized. “Religion,” then, marks what does not fit into that set.

It reminded me of the work being done in my Women’s Studies feminist theory and the abject taught by Dr. Jennifer Purvis. I recently read and wrote on Judith Butler’s philosophy. Butler argues that the abject is what is cast away from society for the modern subject’s identity formation. The individual cannot make sense of who they are without defining what they are not. In Bodies That Matter, Butler says, “the subject is constituted through the force of exclusion and abjection” (xiii). The key take away from Butler’s philosophy in the context of this blog post is the relationship between the subject and the other. There is no essential subjecthood, but, rather, a subject constituted by categories, dualisms, language, and negation.

While I recognize that Butler’s abject refers to that which is undesirable and Tuckett’s alien is geared more towards that which is unfamiliar, both act in a way that may help subjects critically reflect on their assumed norms and language. Also, in many ways the concept of the abject functions similarly to Tuckett’s alien. The abject disrupts our thinking but does not necessarily have to be inaccessible. To bring the two in relation to each other, Tuckett says, “The very point of this alien encounter, then, is that in presenting the person with both inaccessibility and non-belonging they are made to realise that they are not the master of themselves” (34). This quote led me to draw similarities between the abject and the alien because both highlight how subjects produce themselves in such a way as to reveal what they are not.

So, a phenomenology of religion influenced by philosophical phenomenology in line with Husserl takes into account the problems of intersubjectivity. Drawing distinctions between religious experience and secular experience presupposes that these distinctions are natural, but, they are actually claims made in the home-world–claims that are taken for granted. A sociological phenomenology brings these distinctions between phenomenology of religion and philosophical phenomenology to light and could definitely be helpful in considering fundamental difference between the two methods.

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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!

6 Questions with Marianne Case

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 graduated with a BA in Psychology and Religious Studies (double major) in… (a long time ago).

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

Having graduated from the law magnet program at my high school, I thought for sure I’d be a political science major, go to law school, and practice law like my dad.

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 mainly remember how much fun it was working in the department as a TA and office aide. Betty set the bar way too high for any future bosses I’ve had!  I’ll also never forget the last office hours I had before I graduated when it felt like 50 REL 100 students tried to cram into the lounge for help and pretty much none of them had read any of the materials…

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

Currently, I run the marketing team for Alpha Testing® (Alpha), a soils engineering firm based out of Dallas, TX. I ended up at Alpha somewhat by chance (I coached cross country for the son of my now boss), and have been here since January 2008. 

My team is primarily responsible for preparing qualifications packages to win contracts with school districts, municipalities, colleges and universities, and private development clients. In addition, I am responsible for Alpha’s social media presence, including our website, blog (www.whereitallbegins83.com), Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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?

Definitely! My job is all about critical thinking – trying to figure out what our clients’ concerns are, why those concerns are important, and how my company can best address them. The questions our clients ask may seem random, but they are all rooted in some issue that needs to be solved. Being able to read critically and decipher the meaning of vague texts comes in handy almost every day.  The question I ask my team more than anything is, “WHY is that important to your client?”

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

The classes and tasks that are the most challenging are the ones that will be most valuable. Don’t underestimate the value of having a “safe space” to discuss ideas, and take advantage of it while you can. And never pass up a movie night with pizza and Jones Soda.

And yes, that’s Marianne with her son, Tommy.

What’s in a Name?

Sierra Lawson is an M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama; you can visit her website here.

Advertisements have become increasingly common on social media platforms, sometimes with particularly chilling accuracy in regards to the consumer traits we reflect in daily conversations (I’m looking at you, Instagram). One recent advertisement has stood out to me, a product/service named “Brandless” claiming to be “Better Everything. For Everyone.”

What does it mean to have a brand claiming to be ‘brandless’, as demonstrated by their name? Their logo (below), as simple as it may appear, is still a logo attempting to embed itself into the minds of possible consumers and establish a profitable relationship. It seems to me that the creators of this ‘brandless’ brand of products and services are attempting to create an absence yet fail to recognize that the absence of presence is still a presence. In other words, in order to depart from an ideal you must, inevitably, reaffirm the prior existence of this ideal and thereby establish a relationship with it. For if the ideal itself did not previously exist, then how could opposition come about?

So, you don’t have a concept of ‘brandless’ without the concept of a ‘brand’ – and ‘Brandless’ is just another competitor in the evolving marketplace of brands.

6 Questions with Susanna Dunlap

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 enrolled from 2008-2013 and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and a Bachelor of Science in Nursing.

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

I had no clue what career I wanted to pursue! I decided to attend UA based on my acceptance into the Million Dollar Band and to fulfill my college marching band dreams. I entered as a journalism major and even considered pursuing elementary education based on aptitude surveys and volunteer experiences.

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 credit my Intro to Religious Studies class in ten Hoor Hall with securing my decision to pursue other REL classes in Manly Hall. I took Women and Religion as well as English Bible as Literature in Manly Hall. These two classes really stand out in my memory. Not only did I enjoy the thought-provoking dialogue with classmates and faculty, but I also developed the ability to critically appraise and discuss scholarly discourse. We laughed so much and really got along well, making for an excellent classroom environment. My classmates and faculty felt like family! We spent lecture breaks feeding Basil, the resident squirrel at Manly Hall, and eating snacks from the lounge—all very good memories!

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

I practiced as a registered nurse in emergency-trauma medicine in Huntsville, Alabama immediately following graduation. I am currently pursuing full time MSN studies at Vanderbilt University for triple-certification as an Adult-Gerontological Acute Care/Family Nurse Practitioner and Emergency Nurse Practitioner. My decision to pursue emergency nursing was secured in 2011 when I volunteered in Tuscaloosa as a first-aid assistant immediately following the tornado. Working with individuals facing emergent and urgent health crises really became my main focus—and thus, I ended up working in emergency-trauma medicine.

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 education equipped me with complex tools to evaluate, compare, and appreciate culture and human behavior. For instance, as a nurse working in a high-stress, fast-paced environment where emotions are labile and a human life potentially hangs in the balance, there is a subtle finesse required to navigate cultural or religious differences that significantly affect the patient and the treatment plan. Additionally, providers must be able to safely and efficaciously apply scientific rationale and evidenced-based practice with regard to these cultural and religious intricacies that are embedded into this particular human experience. There is no exact instruction manual for these skills but having the aforementioned tools from my REL education certainly help promote a positive outcome in what are often grueling circumstances.

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

I suppose I would tell myself to go to Sitar more often. I really enjoyed their food! On a more serious note (not that Sitar isn’t serious!), I would tell myself to read more of the recommended readings rather than just focusing on the required readings. I’ve practiced this in my graduate career and found that the recommended readings offer just as much insight and learning opportunity as the required readings. This means more work, but the pay-off can be immeasurable!

Off to a conference in Atlanta

Yes, a group of REL faculty and students are hitting the open road tomorrow
to head off to Atlanta, for our field’s annual regional conference.

Game to find their names on the program…?

And of course, we hope to post an update concerning how
it all went — both the conference and the trip in the van.

Dr. Richard Newton is Coming to Tuscaloosa

The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama is extremely pleased to announce that Dr. Richard Newton will be joining our faculty to begin the 2018-19 academic year.

Richard is currently Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, and received his Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University in 2009.

His research explores how people create “scriptures” and their links to identity formation and the maintenance of cultural boundaries. His current project uses Alex Haley’s Roots as an example of these dynamics — processes that have critical implications for the study of race and religion in the United States.

“A strong commitment to excellent teaching, thought-provoking research, and public-facing scholarship have long made Alabama the program to watch in the field. I’m excited to contribute to the study of religion in culture from Manly Hall,” Newton commented.

Richard will contribute a wide variety of courses to the Department — classes that exemplify the application of social theory to sites from across the study of religion — and his entrepreneurial work using digital/social media, in both his scholarship and teaching, will enhance our own emphasis on these areas, at both the B.A. and M.A. levels.