A Lesson on Origins at #REL50th

Our 50th anniversary celebrations have come to an end (but we’ll post a fun fact each Monday for the rest of the semester) — and, if you ask me, it was a great success.

We filmed parts of it (i.e., the two faculty lectures, by Profs. Altman and Trost, and the opening to the next night’s Grad Tales panel — featuring five grads who returned to help mark the occasion [scroll down here to see who they were]); these movies are now being produced in the main office. They’ll probably be posted in a few weeks. Continue reading

Celebrate Good Times

Yes, this semester we’re celebrating our Department’s 50th anniversary.

If you’re interested in some of the historical background, then see this post from this past August.

The short story is that UA’s Department of Religious Studies dates to 1932, as best we can tell, but only in 1966-7 did the university — just like public universities all across the US — make the changes necessary for students to study religion in a manner that satisfied the requirements of the US Constitution’s First Amendment. Practically speaking, that meant moving away from having a variety of campus chaplains offering theologically-oriented courses to hiring Ph.D.s trained in what was quickly emerging as the academic study of religion (usually called Religious Studies in North America). Continue reading

A Busy Week in REL: Grad School Workshop, Grad Tales, and the Manly Cup

It’s a busy week this week around Manly Hall. Here are three REL events you do not want to miss this week.

1. TONIGHT a 6pm in Manly 210: Graduate School Workshop

Are you thinking about going to graduate school after you graduate? Do you have questions? Where to apply? How to apply? What’s it like? How do you pay for it? These are good questions.  I will be hosting the event and I need your help as I organize the event. Tweet me your questions so I can come with answers (or with people who might have answers). Send your questions to @michaeljaltman and use the hashtag #RELGradQ!

And there will be pizza!


2. TOMORROW at 7pm in the Anderson Room of the Ferg: Grad Tales with filmmaker and REL alumnus Andrew Grace

 Born and raised in north Alabama, Andrew Grace is an independent documentary filmmaker whose films have aired on Public Television stations and at film festivals across the country. He was also a double major in REL and American studies. His film Eating Alabama won the James Beard Award for Best Documentary in 2014, and his recent work includes the interactive documentary “After the Storm,” which incorporated innovative graphic/web technology into the filmmaking process to tell a story about the tornado that devastated parts of Tuscaloosa and Birmingham in 2011. At the University of Alabama he teaches and oversees the interdisciplinary social justice documentary program called Documenting Justice.

3. THURSDAY at 6pm at Manly Hall: The Manly Cup


The Manly Cup is an annual contest between students and faculty with the winner getting to claim possession of the trophy for a year. This year the students and faculty will compete in badminton! We have secret footage from the faculty training sessions.

What a week!


The #GradTales Audience: Reflections From Current Students


As you may be familiar one of our events here in REL is the Grad Tales Event: Here and Back Again. The department invites a former REL major to talk about their experience before and after graduation, in hopes that they can help current students think not only about their place in the university but also how to make the best out of it; to think creatively about the courses they take in the humanities in general, and how to put that knowledge in good use after their graduation. In our last Grad Tales event we invited a recent graduate, Alexis Poston, to the task and Prof.Touna asked the students of her REL100 class to attend the event and write a brief paragraph with their thoughts regarding the talk. What follows are some of those students’ reflections.

“This evening, students and professors alike gathered to hear the remarkable story of a young lady’s academic tale…. From hearing Lexis story, I was able to see just what a student in the Religious studies field was able to gain, first hand. I am now much more interested in furthering my exploration in religious studies because I see that it helps shape you into a well rounded, well educated student. Being able to understand different cultures, and religions can help you with your communication skills, understanding people as well as social behaviors. With my current major being criminal justice, I think that adding a religious studies minor could be beneficial to my future as an employee.”

“One thing I learned by attending the Grad’s Tales event is that religious studies can give you a skill in critical thinking and analysis. I’m not saying that other classes or other majors on campus are not going to teach us that, but in religious studies you have to brainstorm not only about how you think about one subject, but also how other people may think about the same subject.”


“During the conversation the graduate student talked about her successes at UofA. This opened my eyes to many opportunities here at Alabama. I realized that if you set your mind to your goals they are possible to achieve. She had some very good insight on many different religion classes that sounded very interesting. Maybe I will pursue my minor in Religion here at Alabama. I learned a lot at the grad talk about how religious studies can help you in your everyday life and with your future work. She said that majoring in religious studies has made her a more well rounded person and able to communicate with other people on different levels. I enjoyed meeting other professors from the department, and the way the speaker talked about them made me want to take more classes in religious studies. We will see what the future holds for me. Maybe one day I will be the graduate at the “Grad’s Tales” event.”

“The presentation given in the Anderson Room of the Ferg was very insightful to how religious studies assists you in studying in the different majors here at UA. The Grad student speaking triple majored and triple minored in fields including criminal justice and Hebrew studies. Her passion for Religious Studies was evident when she talked about her past reading books on it, as well as taking the skills the courses [in religious studies] has taught her and applying it to criminology…I even learned that some Religious Studies majors even go on to Law School and Med School, which I never would have thought you could do. Overall, the presentation was insightful as to how Religious Studies assists in other fields.”

“She also mentioned how unlike any other program at the University, the professors in religious studies are supportive like a family, and that is how she made it through her 24 credit semesters and multiple majors. Her advice and experiences were really inspiring to me because she worked so hard to get where she is at now, and is using her education to succeed in life”

“Lexi is a great and smart woman. She tripled majored in REL, Criminal Justice, and International Studies. She was very kind to answer each of the audience’s questions. For me, I am an international student from China, Religious studies is very hard and I was worried whether I could do well. But now after going to the event I feel more confident. Because I trust myself and I will study hard and do a wonderful job in REL just like Ms. Lexi.”

“I hope one day to read some things that the speaker publishes. Also, I found the conversation between professors to be very thought provoking and interesting. I would be very interested in hearing any of them speak on the topics discussed during the event.”

“I was very interested in the responses the speaker had for the question I asked, regarding the relation between religious studies and the field of math and science in general. One response was that in international settings, where an engineer may find himself employed, understanding the delicate social and cultural customs of different religious groups helps one’s ability to communicate.”

Stay tuned for an announcement about our next Grad Tales event later this semester!

Marketing and the Academic Study of Religion

kharaWhat connects red lipstick, racecars, and health care? The study of religion, of course! (Well, sort of.) Khara Cole, a 2013 graduate with a double major in Religious Studies and Public Relations, has found the skills that she developed in Religious Studies particularly important, as she designs products and their implementation for a health insurance company. She returned to campus last week to talk about her experiences working in the corporate world. The tasks of writing persuasive business proposals and accessible marketing texts clearly draw on her skills that she developed in our classes that emphasized various writing assignments. Solving problems, looking at both the little details and the broader picture as well as the ways different people might respond to the issues, employs the analytical and critical thinking skills that she, like many of our majors, considers a highlight of their work in Religious Studies.

In terms of lipstick and race cars, Khara provided this concrete example of the value of her religious studies major. When Khara began working on her current team implementing new products for her company, she noticed two previous marketing posters, one with a tube of red lipstick dominating the poster and the other with a racecar. Thinking of her first course in the department (Women and Religion with Prof. Simmons), she recognized the gender stereotypes implicit within these posters geared to different audiences and began developing more effective marketing efforts that avoided such gendered stereotypes that would alienate portions of the target audiences. Her story illustrates clearly the relevance of the questions that we often ask in our classes about the ways dominant symbols develop and the groups that those symbols exclude. Looking at those posters with a critical gaze enabled her to consider the ways a range of people might view them rather than accepting the symbolism of dominant stereotypes. In her experience, her skills in critical analysis, therefore, facilitate better marketing and communication strategies. As other graduates have told us, a major in Religious Studies helps students develop skills that provide vital contributions to a range of careers, including business and marketing.

A New Series Kicks Off: Grad Tales Extra

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Zac Parker graduated with a B.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Alabama in 2011. Here he helps us kick off our new, ongoing series, Grad Tales Extra, in which grads not able to join us on campus, to discuss the relevance of their degree, can drop us a line instead, to update us on what they’ve done since leaving Manly Hall.

During the year following graduation, I spent many months traveling, camping, and backpacking around the country, taking time to explore and reflect on what I wanted to do in my life and figuring out what priorities were most important to me. In the Fall of 2012 I entered the East Carolina University Master’s program for Anthropology, eventually graduating with a concentration in Cultural Anthropology in the Spring of 2014. Upon receiving my M.A., I entered a month-long residential yoga teacher training program at Swami Satchidananda‘s Integral Yoga ashram at Yogaville, VA. Currently, I am living in beautiful Colorado Springs, CO, working as a Life Coach at a blended online\in-person high school for “at-risk” students and teaching yoga on the weekend. I continue to enjoy expanding my understanding of religion in its many forms, with its many aspects.

I cannot fully express the deep and sincere gratitude I have for the Religious Studies department, for what it has given me. I have been shocked when talking to a number of fellow UA alumni since graduation how little others seem to have gotten out of or enjoyed their undergraduate careers. Nothing could be further from the truth for me. Every single Religious Studies class, in addition to the amazingly supportive faculty and fellow majors, was incredibly eye-opening, thought provoking, and (sorry to sound like a Hallmark card) even life changing. It truly, truly was, and I cannot thank the department enough for helping guide me along my own path of inquiry and understanding. I certainly do not mean to take away anything from any of the faculty, but I’d specifically like to thank Dr. Trost, Dr. Jacobs, Dr. Ramey, and the late Dr. Murphy (may he forever rest in peace) for helping instill in me an everlasting thirst for greater understanding and the ability to critically question things in ways I had previously unimagined.

Did You Miss Last Night’s “A Grad’s Tale” with Samantha Bush? Here’s All the Wisdom in One Blog Post


Last night we had the pleasure of hearing from Samantha Bush, an REL grad, about her life after the Capstone and how her REL degree has helped her get her career started. If you missed it last night, here are the highlights thanks to our intrepid team of live tweeters.

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A Grad’s Tale Tonight: Ask Questions & Follow the Conversation with #GradTales

thereandbackWe are happy to welcome another Religious Studies graduate back to talk about life after college. Samantha Bush will be joining us to reflect on her time in REL and the skills she learned in our department that have translated to her career after graduation.

Also, follow the conversation tonight and tweet us your questions for Samantha throughout the day today and tonight at @StudyReligion using #GradTales. See you tonight at 6:30 in the Anderson Room (205) of the Ferguson Center.

Grad Tales Begins Again

thereandbackLast year the Department of Religious Studies started a new speaker series, Grad Tales: There and Back Again. This Wednesday at 6:30 pm in the Anderson Room of the Ferguson Center (upstairs, in the older part of the Ferg) we will kick off this year’s series with recent grad Samantha Bush as our first speaker.

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No One Has a Monopoly on Teaching Critical Thinking

meanlsatupgaapp2013Yesterday my colleague Steven Ramey posted about a recent study of those who took the 2013 Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) — their undergraduate GPA, their undergraduate major, and their LSAT score. The means for each major were then graphed (above), with undergrad GPA on the vertical axis and LSAT score on the horizontal, making Classics majors (far top right corner) the highest preforming by both measures.

But you may notice that Religious Studies majors are also near the front of the pack (near the top right of the graph). Their LSAT score is just a little off the leader pack, yes, but their GPA makes them stand out — combined, they’re apparently strong contenders for law school.

The actual data is as follows (in which n = the number of people in each major):

Picture 5Picture 6(I leave it to others to draw conclusions about where Law and Pre-Law undergrad majors appear on the list.)

A related study looked at current law school students (i.e., matriculants, from the Latin, meaning to be part of the list) in terms of the same criteria, and found the following:

lsatugpamajormatric2013And the actual data for this study is as follows:

Picture 7Picture 9But why am I reposting all this?

First off, I agree completely with Ramey: “Does it even make sense to generalize about students who major in a discipline, using statistics such as test scores and GPAs? Probably not,…”. But with this in mind, what bothers me is how Departments and disciplines supposedly devoted to teaching critical thinking routinely portray some necessary connection and, in so doing, cannibalize each other in their rush to attract undergraduate majors. Instead of some sort of coordination across broad domains, involving a variety of fields, we’re all left to our own devises in the zero-sum game of scrambling for the coin of the realm: majors (and thus eventual graduates).

Thus, regardless how your students actually do on, say, the LSAT test or their studies in your program, you work very hard to persuade everyone that if they want to become a lawyer, well, then they’d better major in X or Y. But, sadly, too few students see this for what it is — marketing — suggesting that actually teaching self-reflexive critical thinking may not be as high on certain majors’ lists as they might say, for their numeric success depends on no one seeing behind this particular curtain.

So, what does one do with data such as this?

That I’m the Chair of a Department of Religious Studies and I’m writing a blog post about it indicates that I can’t resist the temptation to use it somehow. But I’d prefer not to use it to justify developing a pre-Law track (as I know other units have done) and thereby try to corner the market on law school hopefuls. Instead, I think the way to use this data is to continue doing exactly what we’re already doing in our Department: using a variety of opportunities to make evident to students, parents, colleagues, and administrators that, like so many other fields, the academic study of religion is not necessarily about the data (as interesting as someone may or may not find it). No; instead, it is all about the tools that we offer to students who are interested in thinking about issues of similarity and difference, issues of description, interpretation, and explanatory analysis — interested in making their world a little more complicated than they at first thought by considering how “they” do this as opposed to how “we” do. For it seems to me that these are the skills that are necessary for success in any profession, let alone in adult life.

We haven’t got a monopoly on teaching these skills, of course, but neither do other fields have exclusive rights to prepare people to be lawyers — let alone any of the many great carers that our grads have gone into.

All of which is a nice way of saying that you should keep an eye out for who we bring back next academic year as part of our Grad Tales series — we began it this year with four great grads and plan to continue it next year, making sure that the wide relevance of not just the academic study of religion but also the liberal arts is more than apparent to all of our students.