On Beginnings: Part 1

This essay (serialized here across 24 separate posts) uses words and numbers to discuss the uses of words and numbers — particularly examining evaluations of university degrees that employ statistical data to substantiate competing claims. Statistical analyses are crudely introduced as the mode du jour of popular logic, but any ratiocinative technique could likely be inserted in this re-fillable space and applied to create and defend categories of meaning with or without quantitative support. Questions posed across the series include: Is the data informing or affirming what we believe? What are the implications of granting this approach broader authority? The author, Melanie Williams, graduated from UA in 2006, with a B.A. in Anthropology and Religious Studies.

 

What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?

I began using that Joyce line, years ago, as a proof of dreams. I work odd jobs to eke out my living from town to town, so most vertiginous mornings start with my catechism: “What are you thinking? Is it logical?” Yes. “Is it coherent?” Yes. “You were dreaming.” The next few moments I spend drawing up the day’s cosmography. It will only last the day. It takes all the effort of imagination now to divide nature from contrivances. Surely the stars are natural. The streetlamp is not. A peach may grow organically around a counterfeit stone. A tree is rustic from this angle, but the tidy row behind traces an arc of artifice as I pass along the unnatural road. Is my path natural? How else to judge but to measure myself against convention? Which I am also obliged to invent? I resist the gauche urge to victimize my friends, since it’s easy enough to fashion lives for people I don’t know. I tear a few from my perforated templates: CEO. Software Engineer. Marketing Consultant. I plop them into plush deck chairs in St. Barts and place lowball glasses into their pale fingers. I dress them in marvelous chi-chi outfits but their faces are all the same. Or I should say, they are a bank of one impassive face repeating — the bland portrait of a turquoise horizon, merging and vanishing in an oblique line of thermoplastic facsimile across a luminous liquid crystal field. Beyond the offing, their faces hum a hot squall of technical, statistics-based formulas for streamlining my online payment or fielding my search query, “what happened to tootie facts of life?” Most of the time, even when I seem lost in thought, I’m not really thinking about anything — more likely at any given moment I am trying to remember the lyrics to “Informer.” If each of these things is like the other, mine must be the face that has wandered into the dark. It is comforting to imagine, at least, that strange illustrious heads are keeping vigil over the cosmic order, over drinks, under a far-off sun.

Once I’ve exhausted their vague brilliance, my fancies mellow into a general wonder of how people choose their careers. Sometimes I am content to wonder at the speculation surrounding how people choose, or ought to choose, or if they choose. Which is the natural thing? Continue reading

Showing Our Stuff

relephanttextcitedWhat do you get from a degree in Religious Studies? Throughout this semester, our students in the Capstone Senior Seminar have been applying questions that develop in the academic study of religion to a variety of issues, using social media from Twitter to Tumblr to illustrates the issues to a broad audience. Now it is time for posts to our class blog to roll out, starting later today and throughout next week. So, look for those posts at the class blog, and check back over the class’s social media activity on Twitter (@RelephantUA), Continue reading

The Teacher Who Went on to Facebook and Came Back with an Insight

FBpost1

By Kim Davis
Kim earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and French from
the University of Alabama in 2003. She went on to earn her
Masters in French Linguistics and Literature in 2007 and
a Masters in Secondary Language Pedagogy in 2010,
both from UA. Kim now teaches French and Mythology
at Tuscaloosa County High School.

The other morning I logged onto Facebook for some mindless scrolling while I drank my morning coffee. A post by Craig Martin from Culture on the Edge caught my attention.

The following conversation then ensued. Continue reading

Thanks, Religious Studies

Culture on the Edge Blog Photo

By Lexi Poston

Lexi Poston graduated from UA in 2015 with a triple major in International Studies, Religious Studies, and Criminal Justice and a triple minor in Italian, Judaic Studies, and the Blount Minor. She is currently a graduate student in UA’s Criminal Justice Department where her research interests include prejudice, hate groups, hate crimes, human trafficking, genocide, and how perpetrators of such crimes are prosecuted.

“Are you going to seminary?”

At one point during undergrad, religious studies majors have probably been asked this infamous question by an inquiring relative: I know I was. My family could never really understand how religious studies would correlate with my other degrees in international studies and criminal justice. Compounding this problem, I was also minoring in Judaic Studies which included several classes on prejudice, interfaith relations, and genocide (which sparked my current research interests). While it may not have seemed relevant to outsiders as an undergraduate, there are many skills that I acquired during my time in the Department of Religious Studies that I now use in my Criminal Justice graduate program. The abilities you gain from a humanities degree are therefore invaluable despite the fact that they are often overlooked by relatives expecting young college graduates to focus on “practical” job competencies.

Critical thinking is defined as the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment, a skill that many lack. In Criminal Justice, students now have to take the information they have learned during and after our Introduction to Criminal Justice class to further our knowledge; we then evaluate and apply it to real world situations in order to provide swift and fair justice. It is not uncommon for emotions to run high in the criminal justice system, particularly with shocking and emotionally trying cases. Many become so wrapped up in the case they form biased opinions regarding a crime, making it difficult to approach it from the objective angle required of us, as unbiased opinions are something that criminologists and other persons involved in the criminal justice system just cannot do without. We have to look at the broader picture and the nitty gritty details and try and find just how they fit together, much like a puzzle. In this way, the critical thinking skills gained in programs like religious studies are crucial in effectively doing our jobs.

I have been told that I have a gift with writing and I’ve earned many writing awards between elementary school and high school. I also feel confident enough in my writing because of the writing skills that I had from my high school’s International Baccalaureate program. However, as a college student, I learned pretty quickly that there were many areas of writing that I still needed to improve. I was surprised to discover that writing involves more than regurgitating information found in sources. Religious Studies (partnered with Alabama’s Blount Program) taught me how to critically evaluate sources, formulate an argument, and then make that argument through analysis. The ability to form a coherent and logical argument in my writing is something that I have used quite often with criminal justice, something I’ve seen my peers struggle with greatly. In fact, many have decided to not write a thesis because they believe that it will be some daunting task; however, the prospect of a thesis does not trouble me, no matter how close it is looming.

With the end of my first semester of graduate school, I have only thing to say: Thanks Religious Studies!

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other

10593136_782489538459483_4903485885924945506_n

Khara Cole graduated from The University of Alabama in 2013 with a double major in Religious Studies and Public Relations. She currently lives in Chattanooga, TN working as an Associate Product Manager in Marketing/New Product Strategy for BlueCross BlueShield of TN.

If you’ve been on social media at all recently, you might have come across the image pictured above originally posted by a far right conservative group that’s been shared countless times across Facebook and other social media sites. When I first came across this terrible comparison, my critical thinking senses immediately kicked in and I thought why in the world would anyone ever compare these two figures, and what are they trying to say? Not only is this image devastatingly offensive to several communities, it was blatantly obvious that there were major political and totally uneducated implications behind this comparison as well, and I wanted to think it through.

Continue reading

What You Missed at This Week’s Grad’s Tale

gradtaleshannah

Wednesday saw the semester’s first installment of “There and Back Again: A Grad’s Tale,” an event that brings back alumni who graduated from UA with a degree in Religious Studies to talk about life-after-diploma. This time, Prof. Mike Altman talked to Hannah Hicks, now a second-year law student here at UA. A double major in Religious Studies and Philosophy who graduated in 2013, Hannah talked about the ways in which her degrees in the liberal arts helped prepare her for her post-graduate studies. Specifically, she related the importance of the critical thinking skills she gained from her majors. Hannah’s interested in “public interest law”—an area of legal studies focused on advocating for or meeting the needs of specific communities (often, this happens through working with nonprofit organizations or specialized groups). With this in mind, she talked about how her work in the Religious Studies Department has helped her to think analytically—and not just in terms of statistical description—about what she deems to be “structural violences” like systemic racism and poverty.

Continue reading

Critical Thinking with Izzy, Episode 1: Structure and Agency

IzzyAnyone who is a virtual or actual friend of mine knows that we have a dog, Izzy — a 7 year old boxer that we’ve had for 6 years. (Ok, let’s just be honest: she has us.) Why? Coz I’ve posted a pick or two of her over the years.

She’s cute, what can I say?

Last night, seated in the living room, it occurred to me what a great illustration she provides of how we can talk about structure — as in social structure — and agency, and doing so in a way that doesn’t emphasize the one to the exclusion of the other, as if we are all mindlessly determined by forces larger than ourselves, on the one hand, or, on the other, as if we are all following our bliss and freely inventing ourselves every moment of the day. For it is surely somewhere in the middle, no? As I’ve said on plenty of other occasions, none of us invented the grammar that was pounded into us as children but, in the midst of using it, we can tweak it too — ain’t that right? And if we’re successful in the tweaking, then those who come after us will think that’s just one more of the rules they ought to be following.

But back to Izzy…

Continue reading

Self-Help Jesus in America

Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel

By Allie Rash
Allie Rash is a rising senior double majoring in Mathematics and Religious Studies. She hails from Franklin, TN, but calls North Carolina and Kansas home as well.  This Spring Allie completed an independent study with Prof. Mike Altman on ideas of self-help in American Protestantism. In this post she reviews the final book they read together, Kate Bowler’s Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. This post originally appeared on Allie’s independent study blog, Self-Help Jesus.

The final book we read for this semester is called Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel by Kate Bowler. And, as the title assures, it made for a beautiful finish to my quest. In my first post I laid out three questions I would try to keep in mind during this semester and they were: Continue reading

Study the Humanities and Save America

I came across the above tweet last week and it made me smile. Jack Bauer, the main character in the FOX television show 24, earned his bachelor’s degree in English literature from UCLA. On one level, it became an interesting answer to, “what can you do with a humanities degree?” You can save the free world, that’s what. Continue reading