Barometers in the Field: Another Student Report from the Regional AAR

Sierra Lynn Lawson is an Anthropology and Religious Studies double major and a Spanish minor. She is from a small town in Wyoming and hopes to study the illegality of midwifery in Alabama as it relates to post-civil war identity formation.

I was most pleased with my experience at the Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion (SECSOR) because it provided me with the opportunity to see what is, and what is not, happening in the academic study of religion. As someone completing a B.A. this Spring and entering an M.A. program in the Fall, I believe the connections I made at SECSOR could be foundational to the work I hope to do in the near future.

Outside of attending panels such as ‘Religion and Ecology’, ‘Ethics, Wellbeing and Sexuality’, and another looking at narratives of Utopia and Dystopia, I made a point to be present at less-formal meetings, such as meals for marginalized groups. My method for choosing specific panels, and events, was to seek out individuals exploring critical issues of authorship, identity formation and representation in their work.

The majority of the conference was based around research reflecting Christian theological endeavors. As SECSOR is co-hosted by the Society of Biblical Literature, this was not particularly surprising. While Christian theology is on the opposite end of where I would place my academic interests on of the spectrum of religious scholarship, I found its presence critical to understanding of the current state of the field.

One of my peers, Parker Evans, was presenting his own undergraduate research regarding the influence of nationalism on Heidegger’s thought. Upon mentioning that he was from the University of Alabama before his presentation, the chair for the undergraduate panel replied that Parker was “…probably from the most South out of all of us”. While this was an erroneous comment in terms of literal geography, because many Floridian and Georgian schools were also attending the conference, in my mind it summoned all sorts of interesting discussions about where we draw boundaries for the ‘South’.

Similarly – it seemed academic approaches to religion also negotiate specific margins constituting different means to more or less critical ends. The name-dropping of Russell McCutcheon seemed to serve as a barometer measuring self-alliance with the study of religion as its own category. Academics from Emory to Florida State proudly displayed their loyalty to McCutcheon’s work and specific paradigms, and I chuckled at the serious tone they adopted when speaking of the man whose office I find myself in more often than my own living room. I knew McCutcheon was somewhat of a polarizing figure in the field, but I had never seen a group of people adhere so stringently to another individual as a euphemism for the paradigms they themselves operate from.

On the opposite end of the spectrum were academics who seemed to consider themselves, or their work, to lie outside of phenomena which is ‘fair game’ for data. From personal conversations I was aware of Dr. McCutcheon’s critique of Mircea Eliade, and was utterly dumbfounded by academics who counterintuitively avoided investigating  the obvious connection between their critical inquiries and their own predispositions or desires.

I consider the humanities to be integral to understanding the implicit and explicit intentions, which inform interactions between members of society as well as the phenomena they invest meaning into. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly difficult to find other individuals aligning with this mentality as students flock to majors providing a straightforward map for entering the work force.

The funding I received from both the University of Alabama, as well as the Amy Lynn Petersen Endowed Support fund within the Department of Religious Studies, provided me with the opportunity to travel to Raleigh, NC for the regional conference for the American Academy of Religion. At the SECSOR I engaged with fellow aspiring academics, as well as individuals who are well established in academia and known for their scholarship. I am forever indebted to the generous contributions, for without the connections I made at the conference I fear I may have never expanded my horizons to appreciate the field of Religious Studies, as it exists in its contemporary form, as well as the role I might play in it.

“Yes, and I’ve Met His Dog”: A Student Report from the Regional AAR

Parker Evans is junior studying English and Religious Studies. He spends most of his time drinking coffee and making reading lists when he should be reading.

The regional AAR, or SECSOR, was a fantastic chance for a professionalizing experience. Sierra Lawson, another REL major, and I arrived late in the afternoon, and between checking into the hotel and presenting my paper, I had just enough time to change clothes from my flight and eat dinner. I was the first presenter on the first undergraduate panel, but this was actually a relief. Once I gave my paper, I was free to sit back and explore the conference. The presentation itself was painless and even a little gratifying. I don’t consider myself afraid of public speaking, but I was a little anxious about how it would go over. Since there were other panels going on simultaneously, the nine or ten audience members who had chosen to come to the undergraduate panel were almost exclusively undergrads themselves. Our panel was loosely organized around our paper topics covering a range of subjects from my own paper on Heidegger to Orientalist travelogues to the effect of psychedelics on “spiritual” experiences to a close reading of a passage in the New Testament book of Hebrews. The audience members were very receptive to our papers, and we each received a couple of questions.

Just from the range of undergraduate paper topics, it was clear that this conference was not just gathered under the banner of Religious Studies. After my panel, Sierra, Dr. Finnegan and I attended the pre-reception event, which consisted of two short papers, one from a member of the American Academy of Religion and one from a member of the Society of Biblical Literature. For a field built on the colonial Christian enterprise of cataloging “religious” traditions, it was clear that the associations of the AAR still skew towards its roots. Both presenters were engaging, and they had an interesting conversation after their talks, but it was apparent that a Christian hermeneutic tradition still pulls at the academic study of religion. Along with the speaker from the SBL, several papers given at panels I attended were direct hermeneutic approaches to Christian scripture (although I understand that several papers were given on Islamic theology as well). By virtue of sharing a conference with the SBL, the AAR maintains a serious imbalance between its relationship with Christian academics and academic groups representing any other religious tradition, without even getting into the question of whether such a relationship should exist.

With that said, I had many interesting conversations with professors and students. On Sunday I had breakfast (out of coincidence) with a professor whose panel on ethics I attended on Saturday. Her paper focused on a study she did with her students in which she had them practice techniques analogous to Buddhist mindfulness practices. I found it extremely interesting that she had the students define religion before and after engaging in these techniques, and after engaging in them, the percentage of students who included practice (as opposed to, or in conjunction with belief) in their definition of religion doubled. We had an excellent chat about methodology and how to approach teaching the study of religion.

In addition to the ethics panel, I went to a panel on the philosophy of religion as well as another undergraduate panel. The papers on the undergraduate panel ranged from the relationship between “religiosity” and the sex lives of young Latinas in a community outside Raleigh to the long-lasting effects of the British colonial classification of a group of devotees as prostitutes. All the members of the panel did extensive research within the communities they discussed, and the resulting papers were impressive.

I was told before going to SECSOR that, as a student from the University of Alabama, I was marked by my association with Dr. McCutcheon. It was amusing how quickly I found this to be true. Several times, other students would say something along the lines of “Oh, you know Dr. McCutcheon?” to which I usually responded, “Yes, and I’ve met his dog.” Some professors took digs at a McCutcheon-y figure when discussing the direction of the field, while others would name-drop him to represent a vague counterpoint to which they were responding. (I am currently theorizing the phenomenon of the straw-McCutcheon argument.) But on the whole, our department received high praise whenever I mentioned it, and I was able to get a sense of where we reside in the larger field. The conference has given me a much better understanding of where my interests can expand within the field and how I can situate them within existing bodies of research. I’m already looking forward to Atlanta next March.