How to Make More from More? the Large Conference Loner Challenge

“Less is better” is a dictum that doesn’t just haunt Matt Sheedy. I feel as though that spectral proverb from J.Z. Smith may apply as much to conferences as the classroom. The phrase resonates with my cultural heritage, too.  There’s a cookbook title, famous among certain generations of Mennonites, that encapsulates the bent of that culture: “More-with-Less.”

Conferences come in a variety of sizes. Some are attended in the dozens to hundreds whereas others tip past the thousands. Each conference ranges between more and less in a variety of ways, but it seems to me that Smith’s pedagogy and my cultural heritage converge on the direct correlation between attendance and outcomes. The more the people, the less I appreciate the conference.

What follows is not theorizing that supports the claim, but anecdotal evidence accompanied by some ideas for action. Continue reading

Summer Plans: Prof. Loewen

We asked the faculty what they were up to this summer; after all, just because the Spring semester is done doesn’t mean they’re all off gardening. And so this is what we learned…

The first item on Prof. Loewen’s summer 2018 agenda is to present at the 2018 Derrida Today conference at Concordia University in Montreal (May 23-26). The presentation, “Historicizing the Orthodox, Anglophone Philosophy of Religion,” is based on his recently-published book. There are two projects on the docket for June: one week will be dedicated to revising a journal article about teaching, “The Data Is in the Details: Designing a Critical Online Introduction to Studying Religion” (which is based on what he learned while designing the online course REL 104 “Religion in Pop Culture”) and the remainder of June and all of July will focus on writing a book chapter about “evil” for the Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion seminar. The summer will likely be capped off with a week-long intensive course on “digital literacies” at Mary Washington University for the 2018 Digital Pedagogy Lab, and the completion of a an “instructional supplement” page and links on College of Arts and Sciences’ Teaching Hub. In, around and between all of this will be a family vacation to Quebec with a curious four year-old, completing some home renovation projects and building up a new ride!

The REL Journal Group: Reading Amid the (phenomenological) Lines

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The following exchange between Prof. Nathan Loewen and Emma Gibson, a graduate student in our MA program, reflects on the recent meeting of REL’s monthly journal reading group, part of our Religion in Culture MA.

Nathan: So, Emma, you have a background in the study of philosophy and you came to the religious studies department at UA in order to complete an MA in religious studies. Your first semester at UA has included plenty of coursework on critical theory as well as an independent study with me focused on major publications from Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida. The faculty and graduate students in our department convened for our journal group for its third and time in order to discuss the article that you chose. What went into your decision to have us read and discuss an article from 1985?

Emma: In the article, John Caputo outlines the moves Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida make to transgress Western metaphysics. I chose the article in order to engage with the department about my interests in phenomenology. I first encountered phenomenology my freshman year of undergraduate studies in my 20th century philosophy course and was drawn into the way these thinkers considered the subject and experience rather than assuming logic, observations, and reason were sufficient in the quest for knowledge and truth. Edmund Husserl pioneered phenomenology when he argued that our own perceptions precede the object. Our perceptions (or, phenomenological experiences) come together to construct our “ideas” of objects and always refer back to other experiences and instances. If this is the case, then we would have to conclude that our knowledge of the world is primarily non-empirical. Approaches that emphasize an external, objective world are incapable of producing a complete and true narrative of reality. Phenomenology is a distinct field in philosophy, and its methods are applied differently in religious studies. While philosophy considers phenomenological experiences as a continual processes that call for a restructuring of the way we make sense of the world, religious studies uses phenomenology to argue that God can only be known by one who has encountered religious experience. In recent weeks I also recently read Caputo’s book, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derridaso this article covered several thinkers pertinent to my research interests.

NL: What does it mean to “transgress Western metaphysics”? Is that the business kind of thing that scholars of religion should be doing?

EG: Western metaphysics refers to a set of philosophical arguments about the nature of reality as fixed and predictable. That view contested by a reading of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida. Each argues reality is constructed from a multiplicity of phenomenological experiences, we are unable to form a linear, singular narrative about objects and ideas. We are always already becoming and this means that we should avoid imposing structures on thought that mask the unknowable and unpredictable qualities of existence. I have thought a lot about disrupting assumed structures and categories, which is exactly what “transgressing Western metaphysics” seeks to accomplish. I figured that an article about “transgressing” Western metaphysics would be relevant to my professors and cohort since they also use methods and theories that critique attempts to rigidly categorize and systematize concepts such as religion. I believe it is useful to discuss how the phenomenological approach considers the experience of the subject such undertakings.

NL: The article makes an argument that Heidegger has a “creative misunderstanding” about Nietzsche. The group was surprised by this claim, and we discussed it at some length. What did you see as the issue in terms of how postmodern, critical theorists work with the texts they choose to read?

EG: I enjoyed how the group debated the relationship of the philosopher to the text; Should we consider the intentions of the author or only focus on the text itself? Are we ever able to have the “correct” interpretation of an author’s work? After discussing these questions at length, I believe that Caputo’s claim that Heidegger “misread” another thinker is a rhetorical strategy to validate his argument. On the one hand, if we accept that the author is dead and there can be multiple readings of a text then we might fall into relativism. On the other, making claims that suggest one person is able to correctly interpret an author brings up questions of who has the authority to make these kinds of statements. I do not have answer to how postmodern thinkers should approach the texts they read, but I do think it would be beneficial to consider what it means to misread something.

NL: Another point of vibrant discussion was a consideration of how the article used the terms “abyss” and “mystery” in order to introduce a reference to Meister Eckhart in the article’s conclusion. Would you summarize what developed in our talk as a common concern?

EG: There was debate over whether Caputo was successful in his reading of Derrida’s abyss. This is a question that I am actually going to examine in my final paper for my independent study. Using terms like “mystery” and mentioning Eckhart was a red flag for some people in the room. Was this a signals of a theological interpretation of Derrida’s abyss that actually ontoglogized it? Isn’t this something Derrida actively tried to avoid? The idea of breaking-through metaphysics in order to reach the abyss suggests that there is only one move towards the unknown. I would argue that Eckhart’s breaking-through does not necessarily have to assume a theistic nature in the context of Caputo’s argument as long as the breaking through is continuous. There is no one event of transgression, but, rather a continuous process. This is something that I will keep thinking about!

NL: Thanks for sharing your reflections on our journal group discussion. I think it was really useful for everyone. Where do you plan to go from here? Is this journal article going to form a part of how you complete your projects this semester?

EG: I am actually going to compare Caputo’s article with the paper presented by Craig Martin at the 2017 NAASR meetings to think about interpretations of Derrida’s abyss. There was also discussion about the differences between phenomenology in the field of religion and phenomenology in the field of religious studies that I found compelling. It is a topic I am now considering for my Master’s thesis. My hope is to identify where the two fields differ in terms of interpreting concepts like “abyss” and “anxiety” and what this means for scholars in each discipline.

Backstory: Prof. Nathan Loewen

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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. Continue reading

#RELResearch: Professors Simmons, Loewen, and Altman Publish Together

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If you pick up the most recent issue of the venerable journal Method and Theory in the Study of Religion you will find three essays from REL faculty discussing the recently published Norton Anthology of World Religion. Rather than a simple review of the multivolume work, the essays from Merinda Simmons, Nathan Loewen, and Mike Altman consider what the publication of the anthology means for the larger field of religious studies. Each essay puts the anthology into a larger context of how scholars research and teach about religion. Curious what they said? Abstracts and links for the essays are below. Continue reading

Ar·ti·facts Returns for the 2016 Semester!

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We’re kicking off the fall semester with the resurgence of the ar·ti·facts series, in which faculty showcase an item from his or her office that bears some significance or importance to the professor and his/her role in the department. This season starts off with Dr. Nathan Loewen and a bit of family history… Continue reading

Prof. Loewen Presents at the Center for Instructional Technology’s Showcase

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Faculty in REL, and throughout the University, are experimenting with technology in their classrooms every semester. Last week the Center for Instructional Technology (CIT) hosted a showcase for faculty to share the cool stuff their are doing with technology in the classroom. The Department’s own Prof. Nathan Loewen presented his work in developing The College of Arts & Sciences Teaching Hub, a digital resource center that provides tools for faculty to improve and innovate in their teaching.

Along with Jessica Porter, eTech’s Digital Editorial Specialist, Prof. Loewen presented features of the Teaching Hub and engaged the audience in dialogue about the site’s design, potential features and future content. In short, the focus of the Teaching Hub is to promote community, collaboration, and teaching innovation in the College; provide opportunities to develop and refine teaching skills throughout the year, including yearly workshops, peer coaching, and the common book event; identify and share resources regarding effective, research-based teaching practices; and foster cross-disciplinary conversations on teaching and learning, relevant to faculty members at any level.

Because teaching with technology is so much more than just Powerpoint.

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Start 2016 Off Right With #LoungeTweets

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The Spring semester begins this week and we want to start the new semester and the new year off with a bang! So, we’re brining back Live Tweets from the Lounge, that wonderful event where a faculty member sits in our student lounge and sends out tweets to you, our students and friends.

This time, Prof. Nathan Loewen will be the one behind the keyboard bringing you hot takes from the lounge at 2pm on Thursday January 14th. Don’t miss it.

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How Your Phone Defines Religion

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As the Faculty Technology Liaison to the College of Arts and Sciences at UA, I am part of a Mac Administrators forum. I was surprised to notice the exclusion of deities from emoji eligibility while glancing over an update notice. After some investigation, I was surprised to learn about the selection factors of the Unicode Consortium.

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In fact, the Unicode Consortium has produced a very detailed report, “Emoji and Symbol Additions – Religious Symbols and Structures,” for which “The objective has been to have symbols and structures of major belief systems worldwide represented with an emphasis on filling up existing gaps in the encoded symbol repertoire.”

The report is an excellent “common sense inventory” for what ready-to-hand assumptions exist for thinking about the study of religion. For example, the emoji for “place of worship”  is that of a person kneeling in prayer under a roof. What does this representation include or exclude from considerations about religion?place-of-worship