A Visit to Montgomery Museums

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL commemorates all documented cases of lynching in America. Each metal pillar is engraved with the victims’ names and the county where the crime took place.

Several weeks ago, along with Prof. Ramey, Caity Bell, Savanah Finver, and Keely McMurray (all first-year MA students in the study of religion) took the two hour drive to Montgomery, AL, to explore a variety of historical representations in museums and memorials. They began their tour at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice before visiting the Legacy Museum and finishing at the Alabama State Archives Museum. Continue reading

In or Out?

I’ve got to admit, I’m getting tired of all the “epistemological crisis” talk and the way it’s being pinned on the humanities in general and postmodernism in particular.

For the way I see it, members of groups that once benefited from a broad social consensus are now a bit angry that someone has pointed out the link between power and knowledge. Or, to rephrase, it’s curious to me how a socio-political issue is continually portrayed as an epistemological issue, as if this is all about how “we know” and not about “how we organize” and “who gets to organize.” Continue reading

Public Service Announcement

The day I meet postmodernists whose relativism does not disappear the minute they start talking about salaries and workloads is the day I will take relativism seriously.

That’s a quotation I saw posted on social media yesterday, from Steve Bruce‘s new book Researching Religion: Why We Need Social Science.

My comment on the site?

I find positions one disagrees with are easiest critiqued when one parodies them.

Fending off parodies of postmodernism’s influence in our field is a full-time job these days, whether they come from the theologians looking for evidence of God’s truth, the humanists in search of Meaning and the Enduring Human Spirit (the uppercase is intended), or, yes, the social scientists who equally need religion to be some real, tangible thing but in order to explain it in some fashion. But despite the obvious differences among these three broad approaches, I see representatives of each routinely drawing upon the same parodies of critical or postmodern stances.

So, as a public service, let me comment here that to take a self-interested and apparently absolutist stand concerning a salary or a workload RELATIVE TO one’s practical and changeable interests is not some sort contradictory “Aha!” moment that exposes the weakness at the heart of a social constructionist or so-called relativist approach. Instead, it is actually a pretty good argument for why we should take such an approach, as Bruce phrases it, seriously.

Social actors, after all, aren’t the most consistent players and I see no reason why scholars are somehow different from the rest of their peers. So an approach that they adopt in the study of others which they apparently suspend when advancing their own interests strikes me as a good example of how social life actually works, providing a pretty compelling case for why we ought to be doing anything but dismissing that approach in our study of human behavior and organization.

Studying Religion in Culture in Denver–AAR, SBL, and NAASR 2018!

Annual Meetings of the SBL AAR Denver 2018

If Manly Hall is a little quieter in Mid-November, trust that the faculty are keeping busy. Many in our Department will be headed to the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion (AAR, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), and the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR).

And as you can see, the Department will be well represented on the program.

Prof. Nathan Loewen continues to serve on the executive committee of the International Development and Religion program unit. This group supports interdisciplinary scholarship that informs and critiques the role of religion in humanitarian interests in the global South. He also co-organizes the “Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion Seminar.”

Prof. Emily Crews is presenting a response paper on gender and sexuality during a NAASR session.

Prof. Russell T. McCutcheon is chairing a NAASR panel on Jonathan Z. Smith’s contributions to the field. And for the AAR’s Cultural History of the Study of Religion program unit, he will be chairing and responding to a panel discussing religious philanthropy and the endowment of academic chairs.

Prof. Richard Newton is leading a workshop on Teaching and Trauma for the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion and presenting his recent paper on race and religion for NAASR. He will also be discussing the public humanities, politics and pedagogy, and teaching theory and method in the study of religion on various panels.

The scholarly working group Culture on the Edge will bring together Prof. McCuthceon, Prof. Newton, Prof. Vaia Touna, and Prof. Ramey and others to discuss future projects and celebrate the recent publications of Strategic Acts of Identity: Toward a Dynamic Theory of People and Place (ed. Prof Touna, Equinox 2019).

Strategic Acts in the Study of Identity: Toward a Dynamic Theory of People and Place, edited by Vaia Touna

The faculty will also be connecting with colleagues from other institutions. We look forward to seeing many of our not-so-local readers. And you can keep up with the action via social medi

Michael Scott twirling

It’s Time We Tackle This Directly

On Facebook the other day I read a post by a doctoral student in the US who, near done the degree, is venturing into a possible career outside the university; the post repeated a theme we’ve long heard in the humanities: we generally conceive of learning and research too narrowly and, by extension, graduate training ought to be re-calibrated to take into account the many other futures for which we might be preparing students.

I admit that I found this post rather frustrating — not because of what the student wrote but because we still inhabit circumstances in which this needs to be said. For, speaking as someone whose own doctoral training spanned the late 1980s and early 1990s, these conditions are entirely familiar to me.

Sure, we can cite the 2008 economic collapse as ramping up these problems but, as significant as that was, that’s just a change in degree, not kind. For the humanities job market has been terrible for decades and, despite each new generation of doctoral students bemoaning their plight, as they look toward a highly competitive job market, I really don’t see much that any doctoral degree granting school has done to try to address this head on. Simply put, I was writing on these same problems 20 years ago or more (for example, here [from 1996] and here [from 1997]), and I was hardly the first to see the problem and thus not alone in discussing it — so what have we been doing about it all this time? Continue reading

The REL Journal Group: Durkheim and Data Edition

The following exchange between Prof. Mike Altman and Sarah Griswold, a student in our MA program, reflects on the recent meeting of the journal reading group, part of our Religion in Culture MA.

Mike Altman: Sarah, for our first journal reading group you chose the article “Durkheim with Data: The Databse of Religious History” from a recent issue of JAAR. What’s the gist of the article and why did you think we should read it in our group of MA students and faculty?

Sarah Griswold: The article is basically an introduction (and justification) for the Database of Religious History. This database is meant to serve two purposes: to be a database for “religious groups” in the premodern world and to provide evidence for a theory of religious evolution. In effect, the database tries to play both fields of holding and providing both quantitative and qualitative data. The article mostly reads as an attempt to draw more scholars in in order to add data to the database.

As far as why I thought we should read it, there were a few reasons. First, as someone with a background in both the humanities and math, I think understanding how and why qualitative data is quantified is really important to understanding and critiquing the purpose and use of databases like this one. Second, as the humanities (and particularly religious studies) moves more and more towards digital projects, we need to be aware of what’s out there so we can emulate what is done well and improve on what is lacking. Finally, the article also offers us insight into the theoretical workings of the project itself. Although titled “Durkheim with Data,” it seemed as though the creators of this project have not critically considered or defined the very categories they have opted to work within, making the move from qualitative to quantitative data suspect. That, I think, can be quite telling of the ultimate success or failure of a project of this size.

MA: As a student in this new MA program that has an emphasis on digital and public humanities what can you learn from this article and what can we as a program learn?

SG: Personally, this article reinforced the importance of thinking through the categories you use when quantifying data. It can be easy to point to something you “know” is religion and label it as such without thinking about why you’ve decided on that label in the first place. It’s also interesting to think about the collaboration across disciplines that these projects require. It would be impossible for one or two scholars to gain all the skills needed to make these things even work. It turns out that group projects exist in real life too and not just in school.

As a program, I think the biggest take away is to pay attention to the developments of these projects. Because the DRH has a capacity to refine their methods, I don’t think they should be entirely dismissed as uncritical. There are positive and negative take aways from critically examining any digital project. Learning more about digital projects and examining their goals and functions can and will tell us a lot about how to move forward in our own individual and collaborative projects.

“What Do I Talk About At the Job Interview?”

Photo of a job interview

I’ve written a number of blog posts over the years about the skills that students in the academic study of religion acquire. It’s worth thinking about because too many people seem focused only on the content of an undergrad degree, assuming that the thing that you study is the thing that you’ll do.

It’s an effect of the longstanding professionalization of the university, of course (whereby specialties once reserved for separate, two-year colleges or tech schools moved into the university and became degree programs, thereby lending undergrad the feel of job training), with a big dollop of the 2008 financial/housing/job market collapse thrown in for good measure. Add to this declining state support for public universities (whereby a significant portion of the costs of higher ed have been transferred from state coffers to individuals’/families’ bank accounts) and you understandably arrive at a situation where many have trouble understanding doing an undergrad degree in some wide or general topic that might not have many obvious or direct paths to a steady pay check.

But this isn’t just a problem for Religious Studies, for one would be naive to think that all those English majors become English teachers, right? And it’s not like History majors all become historians — whether that means going on to graduate studies to become history professors or getting jobs with historical preservation societies or wherever else an historian might work.

But it’s still worth being an English or History major, right? Continue reading

Democracy is Risky

Picture 9A couple years ago I gave a talk at Lehigh University (a lecture that became chapter 8 in a book I published not long after). The topic was on my frustration with how scholars of religion — because they define their object of study as a universally present and deeply meaningful human impulse — often assume their research is always relevant. As evidence I drew on a recent national conference where scholars of religion were encouraged to think about how their work on this or that ritual or text could contribute to solving the problem of climate change. I could just as easily have cited the program for that very annual conference (something I wrote on long ago, actually), and how the “religion and…” rubric was infinitely variable (e.g., Religion and Literature, Religion and Film, Religion and Science, Religion and Politics, Religion and Food, etc., etc.); we often presume our object of study always to be relevant because we think that it somehow points outside of, and thus before and beyond, the happenstance of history. So it is assumed to play a role in anything that happens.

The problem, though, is that we also claim to be historians, e.g., historians of religion — but, defining religion in this way, makes us historians who study the transcendental. And that’s very unhistorial if you ask me. Continue reading

On the Value of the Humanities and Religious Studies

Henking Pic.fw

Susan Henking is President of Shimer College, an unconventional great books college in Chicago, Illinois. She got there by going to college as a first generation college goer, majoring in Religion and in Sociology at Duke University and then pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in Religion and Psychological Studies. While there, she fell in love with undergraduate liberal education. Her scholarly work includes co-editing two books, Que(e)rying Religion (1997) and Mourning Religion (2008) as well as many articles and chapters in the fields of religion and the social sciences, and LGBTQ matters as they intersect with religious studies.  Susan was founding editor of the Teaching Religious Studies series of the American Academy of Religion and served on the AAR Board for 9 years. She taught religious studies, women’s studies and related matters for several decades and lives in Chicago and Geneva NY with her partner, Betty Bayer.  

Some time ago, I was in a beautiful office high up above the streets of Chicago, looking out over Lake Michigan with a man who once led one of the most powerful energy companies in the world. He was, I discovered, a history major in college – and no, he who was not “born” to the silver spoon.

Clearly, a humanities major could be highly successful.  Indeed, in his view, that humanities major – that history major – was something he used every day and not just since retirement. Continue reading

What Remain Constant

zakaria

Whatever job you take, the specific subjects you studied in college will probably prove somewhat irrelevant to the day-to-day work you will do soon after you graduate. And even if they are relevant, that will change. People who learned to write code for computers just ten years ago now confront a new world of apps and mobile devices. What remain constant are the skills you acquire and the methods you learn to approach problems.

– Fareed Zakaria
In Defense of a Liberal Education (2015: 78-9)