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.

REL Grad Hosts Career Workshop

Last week, Khara Cole, who graduated from UA with a degree in Public Relations and Religious Studies in 2013, lead current students in a career workshop. The casual meeting launched last year as an RSSA initiative and continued this year (organized by Prof. Vaia Touna). The presentation covered everything from resume structure to LinkedIn formatting, and even nonverbal communication during interviews.

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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.

So, What Are You Doin’ These Days?

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Check out this article, from the University of Virginia, which surveyed grads over the past decade with regard to: 1) what their undergraduate major was and 2) what career they went into. Above is a screen shot (from their interactive site) of what careers grads originating in what they group together as Philosophy & Religious Studies have gone into.

A goal for our Department this year is to start tracking grads in much the same way — the graphic looks about right, given our experience, but we’ve only ever done it informally, anecdotally, never systematically. So if you’re a grad of our Department, then expect to hear from us in the future.

Consider yourself warned.