Culture on the Edge: An Origin Story

Last week, Professors Steven Ramey and Vaia Touna sat down to discuss their involvement with the Culture on the Edge research group and blog, along with their two book series. Though the discussion was intended to focus on Prof. Touna’s recent addition to the published series, it naturally led to a conversation on the implications of fabricating origins and identity.

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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

Tales from the Secondary Classroom: Discovering Normative Vocabulary

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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.

A while back, I wrote about how an early morning Culture on the Edge Facebook post and subsequent conversation with one of its members helped me to think deeper about one of my classroom lessons. Well, that same post inspired me to create a new lesson for my unit on Asian mythology in which I would ask my students to think about the ways normative language would influence the way they construct knowledge of things they are learning for the first time.

I often complain that students in secondary classrooms are not challenged unless they are taking an AP class. My mythology class is composed of a wide range of grade levels, 9-12, with students who are taking a full course of advanced and AP classes to regular classes. While many teachers might argue that the lesson I provided is college-level ideas and therefore not cognitively appropriate for students in regular classes, I have never subscribed to that belief. My students proved me correct.

I started the class by showing them an article from the BBC on the history of Tibet and pointed out how the words used to describe Tibet were very positive and the words used to describe the Chinese government were negative. Then, we read the Culture on the Edge post by Craig Martin and defined the term normative vocabulary. After that, each group read a different NPR article about Buddhism and folk religion in China. I asked each group to highlight words when they felt they were being used normatively and sort them into positive and negative columns. Finally, I asked them to answer the following questions:

  1. How is this article presenting the religion described?
  2. Who benefits from the way the religion is being described?
  3. If this article was the only time you have ever read anything about this religion, what would you think about it? Would you accept this article as fact without questioning the description or the agenda behind the words being used?

My students did a fantastic job of picking out the normative vocabulary and identifying the ways in which it created a positive and negative view of religion in China, the Chinese government, and their relationship. They also did an outstanding job of predicting who benefitted from the articles’ descriptions. Some of the best responses to question three are as follows:

Beijing Finds Common Cause with Chinese Buddhists

“I would think that Buddhists are greedy and money-hungry.”

“I would think that this group of people [Buddhist monks] were a bunch of savages who learned [to fix] their wrong ways with the help of the Chinese government.”

In age-old Buddhist scripture, help for modern woes

“That it is a happy and peaceful religion.”

China’s Leaders Harness Folk Religion for Their Aims

“I would think of the religion as beautiful and joyful because of the words chosen…But the author made the Chinese government seem greedy and only interested in making proceeds off of the local’s religion.”

So, what have I concluded from this two day activity? That secondary students of all levels are completely capable of performing the type of critical analysis that is typically reserved for undergraduate students. I have to send many thanks to Craig Martin for the initial article that gave me two ideas, to Russell McCutcheon for helping me network with the group, and to Steven Ramey for helping me locate the articles and answering questions about the ideas I was exploring. I look forward to incorporating more of the content and ideas from the Culture on the Edge group into my mythology curriculum.

Photo credit: Tibet-5573 by Dennis Jarvis CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Identifying Funny

Picture 6Those interested in studying identity as a historical, and thus changeable, creation, should watch the recent documentary “When Jews Were Funny,” paying particular attention to the relationship between the off-camera interviewer and filmmaker, Alan Zweig, and his interviewees — especially the older comedians, such as Shelly Berman, pictured above (b. 1925; known more recently to some as Larry David’s father on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), whose appearances frame the film. Continue reading

Backstory: Prof. Russell McCutcheon

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Backstory” is a series that asks the REL Faculty to tell us a little bit about themselves, to explore how they became interested in the academic study of religion and their own specialty, elaborating on their current work both within and outside the University.

Where are you from?

I was born in Port Colborne, Ontario, in Canada, not far from Buffalo, NY, actually, in a region that is called southern Ontario. It’s both an industrial and a farming region—lots of grapes for wines being grown along the shore of Lake Ontario, about 45 minutes north of where I was from, which was on the north shore of Lake Erie—I could see Pennsylvania on the other side. And lots of heavy industry, like car manufacturing and steel mills, though not as much as when I was a kid. Now, tourism is probably as big as the manufacturing industry once was. There was a canal cutting through my town, which lakers took so they didn’t have to go over Niagara Falls when going to and from the ocean—good thinking. Continue reading

Working, Not Wonking

morgan2There’s an interesting moment near the end of a new online interview with the Duke University’s David Morgan, Chair of his Department, when he reveals far more than he might imagine. Continue reading

For Example…

wilburysWhat’s the relevance of the study of religion?

Well, religious studies students know how to study things like myths and origins tales, right? And all of us tell origins tales, no? From Uncle so-and-so spinning an annual yarn at some family holiday to scholars trying to find the origins of civilization, we’re all doing it.

So that suggests that we’re particularly well-equipped to say a fair bit about how these tales work and why we all tell them.

For example, consider this post on an all-star rock group that just happened to be formed…

Biblical Literates

The following post by Russell McCutcheon, reflecting on the role of scholars in Religious Studies, is reposted from the Culture on the Edge blog. That was the headline of a Huffington Post article yesterday, referring to an op-ed piece in the Des Moines Register, co-authored by three Iowa scholars of religion, all with specialties in biblical studies. The newspaper article they wrote opened by stating:

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