Good Riddance 2020, But Wait . . .

Happy New Year 20212020 has been a strange and rough year in so many ways, but, speaking as REL’s Graduate Director, our Department still has much to celebrate among our M.A. students and the program’s alums. They did not simply survive the shift to online learning and the challenge of moving to a new city in a pandemic; they have thrived in so many ways.

In May, in the middle of the first wave of the pandemic, we graduated 4 M.A. students, our largest graduating class so far. Among those grads, two went on to Ph.D. programs (Ohio State and Florida State, neither school chosen based on their football teams, btw), and one used her publishing experiences, digital skills, and museum internship to work with Landmarks of Dekalb County, Alabama, cataloging material in their collection and promoting their collection (see their Instagram account). She has discovered fascinating pieces about Fort Payne (the “New England City of the South,” see images below) and the region “lost” in the storage rooms.

Advertisement for Fort Payne, AL in 1890s

Advertisement for Fort Payne, AL in 1890s, courtesy of Landmarks of Dekalb County

Our continuing grad students have been busy, too, with some second year students now applying for Ph.D programs while making progress on various research projects of their own. In August, we welcomed our largest incoming class yet, with 8 new M.A. students, all of whom tackled our required foundation courses on social theory and public humanities—courses that intentionally throw a bit of a curve at students, to get them thinking broadly not just about how to study religion but also about the wider relevance of the skills we can gain in a graduate program. Through all of their activities, they have been engaging and applying social theory in ways that they might not have expected, writing about Lovecraft Country (read Allison’s post), the Nones, rhetoric about “godless China,” healthcare, survey instruments, and much more.

Our M.A. students have been creative and productive, despite the challenging circumstances and everyone’s need for flexibility. In addition to traditional academic labor, writing (read Jacob’s recent post defending Religious Studies), TAing, teaching online courses, and preparing lectures of their own, they have built websites and made podcasts and videos (see a compilation of their work in the Public Humanities course), helped produce the newest issues of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, created animations (currently in production) for our Luce-funded American Examples initiative, and arranged Spring semester internships in publishing, digital technology, and international education. Our students’ work has even moved beyond Tuscaloosa virtually, with one editing videos for the Religion for Breakfast video series, another presenting a paper at the virtual American Academy of Religions, and another moderating a panel at the virtual North American Association for the Study of Religion conference (both virtual conferences in November and December). And look for one of our MA students to present a virtual paper in the Spring, as part of the southeast region’s AAR meeting.

Despite all the challenges of 2020, our students generate enthusiasm and hope, things that we want to tell the world about as we move towards the new year.

Switchboard operators in 1950 Dekalb County Alabama

Switchboard operators in 1950 Dekalb County, Alabama, from the collection of Landmarks of Dekalb County

Images credits

“Happy 2021 new year on blue bokeh background” by wuestenigel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Fort Payne ad from archives of Landmarks of Dekalb County, AL. Photo courtesy of Caitlyn Bell.

Switchboard operators photo from archives of Landmarks of Dekalb County, AL. Photo courtesy of Caitlyn Bell.

Should Your Name Be On Our Mail Boxes?

Main Office Mail Boxes

It’s the time of year when students are considering applying to graduate school, and we hope that those thinking about earning an M.A. in the study of religion consider the University of Alabama.

Our graduate program began four years ago and we’ve so far graduated seven students and they’re all putting their degrees to good use — from doing archival and museum work to studying architecture or earning a Ph.D. in the study of religion elsewhere in the U.S. And, with 9 incoming M.A. students who began their degree this past August, we’ve expanded the main office’s mail boxes, so there’s plenty of room for your name to be added. Continue reading

Family Resemblance and the Social Risks of Guess Who

Years ago, before I had kids, I was chitchatting with an acquaintance. I cannot recall what we were actually talking about. The memory is remarkable to me because these days I am rarely alone enough to enjoy a leisurely adult conversation. I can’t believe now how much I took such moments for granted back then.

Anyway, in the midst of the conversation, the acquaintance’s young daughter came out of a building to meet her mother. They can’t have been apart for more than a few hours, but their reunion would make you think it had been days or weeks. The scene was heartwarming even from the position of the third-wheel.

As I watched them embrace, I felt a second-hand joy. And maybe out of some weird sense of guilt or obligation, I felt the need to say something the way people do when they find a silence awkward. I had never seen the young girl before, and I said something about how I thought she resembled her mother.

I don’t think the little girl heard or cared to listen to what I said. However, the mother took the comment in, looked at me, and said that they the daughter was adopted.

In hindsight, maybe I should have endured the silence! 😉

I don’t even know if this acquaintance would remember the incident. But my confusion about the moment left an impression enough for me to write about it years later.

You see, I did not intend for my remark to be a commentary on the genetic legitimacy of parentage. All I meant was that, in my observation, the child and the adult had similar appearances. But if you think about a game like Guess Who–the object of which is to deduce the identity of a select person by asking the selector questions about the person’s appearance, then you can see just how derivative such observations can be. If anything, I meant to point out something about the emotional closeness of the parent and daughter. I happened to riff on a physical relationship to do so. My acquaintance did not grant the authority of my metaphor.

 

Lest you think I’m trying to defend my actions, you should know that as a Black father of bi-racial children whose facial features are often the subject of exoticizing conversations, one of my nightmares is that at the wrong place and the wrong time, someone seeing a difference in our physical features will lead to a well-meaning but prejudicial concern about our emotional distance and result in our separation. So if anything, I was happy to be schooled in the aforementioned moment.

Maybe I should have paid better attention to Durkheim and thought about the social function of my comment. The incident has got me thinking more about the limits of a “family resemblance” approach to religion. Because while there’s no problem with simply remarking that something is a religion or like a religion, it leaves unclear what that resemblance  means explicitly. As Timothy Fitzgerald says, “There is a human drama being played out here and we may want to know the story” (231).

Guess Who: The Classic Mystery Face Game. People are trying to guess identities based upon cartoon facial features.

But to essentialize a relationship is to grow comfortable with more ambiguity, not less. Besides that not being a great game, what are the consequences of that complacency?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Heineken Beer Dismantles the Traditional Family

A dozen people are smiling and holding Heineken beers. Text at the bottom of the image say, "Tradition doesn't always have to be traditional."

Caity Bell, a student in Prof. Ramey REL501 course, ponders the invention of tradition. This post originally appeared on the REL 501 Religious Studies & Social Theory: Foundations course blog.

 

The holiday season is fast upon us and with it a substantial rise in commercials meant to tug upon consumers’ heartstrings, to invoke that special sense of holiday cheer that drives us, no doubt, to purchase more products than we have year-round. If you don’t run from the room the second the commercials start rolling then perhaps you’ve seen Heineken’s most recent holiday-themed ad, wherein those traditional notions of the American nuclear family are torn away.

As you can see in the video above, while the camera pans around the room—with Dean Martin’s classic You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You playing in the background—we’re exposed to what at first appears to be a holiday gathering composed of that classic family schema we’ve come to expect in American media. The father (as designated by small white text which briefly lights the screen) sits in a corner of the room, bottle of beer nearby (this is after all an advert for Heineken), while across from him sits the mother and sister, both pleasantly smiling at the camera as it glides across the large living room. Then, however, the camera shifts to a man cheerily painting, who’s designated to be the mom’s new boyfriend and from here we continue on our tour of the busy household with introductions to the boyfriend’s stepdaughter as well as various members of the dad’s “new” family (and a quirky moment when an apparent stranger is present, introduced as simply “and whoever that guy is”). The commercial ends with the image of this diverse family standing poised together before the fireplace while the words “tradition doesn’t always have to be traditional” flash across the screen.

Yet has tradition ever been traditional? In short, no. Tradition, rather than being some ancient, set in stone way of doing things, is more often than not a more recent invention, a way of authorizing one group’s set of ideals over another’s. A tool for providing a sense of social cohesion within a group, tradition serves as a means of binding present ideals and beliefs to some distant past as a way of validating their continued persistence. The word itself becomes invoked when something is at stake, a way of bringing value or necessity to some practice or ideal as being time-honored and revered when in fact it may not actually be so.

Take, for example, a 2014 Supreme Court case wherein the language of tradition was used by the defendants to win their trial. In the Town of Greece v. Galloway hearing, the town, brought to court on charges of violating First Amendment rights by beginning their council meetings with Christian prayer, was allowed to continue this practice on the grounds that, rather than being religious, the practice was a part of the town’s “tradition”. Thus, by rooting the practice in the town’s history, it was granted a semblance of authority and presented as a seemingly unbiased argument rather than a practice with some utility or underlying motive for an interested party. Have the town’s meetings always, in fact, began in this fashion? Perhaps, perhaps not, yet what is interesting to note, rather than debating the authenticity of this claim, is how the label of tradition comes into play as soon as the practice is contested.

The idea of the American nuclear family as well, with its image of one mother and one father together raising 2.5 kids, is not as traditional as we believe it to be, the idea largely popularized after the emergence and success of capitalism during the Industrial Revolution and only further cemented as the American ideal through popular television shows aired in the 1950s. Throughout our history families have held to many molds which don’t fit this traditional image—as long reaching and ever-present as it may seem. Even our beloved holiday traditions bear roots to a less distant past, as Christmas itself, with its festive trees and jolly ol’ Saint Nic, was banned for a time in the U.S. by Puritans who saw those traditions as having no place in a Christian nation. In fact many of the traditions now prominent in Christmas celebrations were not in practice until the late 19th century when they were merged into popular culture by the immigrants who brought them over.

So then, tradition doesn’t always have to be traditional? Well, it seems that tradition itself has never actually been “traditional.”  Thus the Heineken ad’s final line is absolutely right. Using the language of tradition to describe a family or a practice does not have to reflect some longstanding form; tradition has never been traditional.

 

Image credit: Still from video by HeinekenUSA (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5G15pfHZfNg

Is this “Rising” or even Equal?

Ana Schuber is a graduate student in our Religion in Culture MA program. This post was originally published on our Religious Studies & Social Theory: Foundations course blog.

So, here in the middle, actually right up on the final run toward the mid-term 2018 elections, it was amazing to see a political advertisement that turned the standard dialogue about women running for office on its head. Paid for by the Serve America PAC, a democratic effort, this ad features eight first time congressional female candidates running across the United States for elected office. You should watch it here:

I have a long and varied path from my early identification as a feminist in the 1960s to the present Pussy Hat wearing throng of women with political ambition or political desire. This ad was new.

Seeing the ad for the first time on Facebook, my old feminist heart leapt at the visual of these women, all having served America either through military service (Marines, Navy or Air Force) or governmental service (CIA). They spoke of their service in combat, as leaders, in high-powered jobs and their desire to continue to serve their country through political service.

First impressions being what they are and quite frankly after forty years of the old dialogue about the “little ladies” running for office, I was blown away and amazed at this political advertisement. I smiled and re-posted it to several feminist friends and colleagues and planned to show the ad to my undergraduate students in triumph of a new wave of possible women candidates who could win with such a message.

But then, the scholar in me woke up and shoved aside the feminist and I started wondering what I would say to my students. The language of this ad was different than any other “woman’s” political ad that I had ever seen. They were using the language that is usually associated with male power. They were talking about flying combat planes, leading men and women into battle, leading men and women on a huge ship, working in a male-dominated investigation unit. The linguistic images were those of men. Hold on a minute.  Feminists have been fighting the image of nature versus nurture for hundreds of years and endless reams of scholarship attempting to level the playing field for both men and women.  Scholars like Sherry B Ortner (see her article “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture”) associate women’s lack of social or cultural power to the fact that women are considered closer to nature due to their ability to give birth and nurture children. Men are typically identified with the power associated with the protection of weaker women and children through aggression and battle. This political ad was using what many would consider male language. Rather than considering women equal to men, was this not a usurpation of “male” language just to get females elected?

As women have been afforded secondary status historically, this ad leaves us with an incredible predicament because women are not unilaterally one thing across the globe and when it comes to the concept of power there are even more complexities. It seems that we have finally begun to un-separate the “duties” of men and women in culture and un-tangle the gendered language used to understand what power is acceptable within culture. More importantly, what does it say if these women win in the mid-term election of 2018? Do women have to usurp the heretofore language of male “power” in order to win? What does this say about a woman who occupies a “traditional” woman’s job in culture such as school teacher, non-profit worker or librarian? Is female “power” now only afforded to those women who have “made it” in traditional male jobs such as combat or the CIA? That seems to be the message of this political ad.

When all these ideas came rushing into my head, I was suddenly mad. Minutes before, I was ready to run out and vote and champion this moment and minutes later I was grumpy and back to my typical “HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE?” mood. In the long run, what happens if women win using what is considered male language, and what are the consequences?

Digital Religious Studies

Photo of old computer punch cards

If you’ve followed our Department then you might know about our new MA, which started this Fall. While it’s focused on helping students develop their social theory skills, it also has a focus on the digital skills that have become increasingly relevant in scholarship — whether to communicate with wider audiences, via a variety of online projects (what might be called the public humanities), or to enhance the traditional research that we do.

That’s why every incoming group of grad students takes two required Fall classes, one on social theory and the other on digital tools. Continue reading

Too Hard, Too Soft, Just Right

courtdecisionI’ve seen some comments on social media about this recent court decision — click the image to read about it. (If you don’t know much about Pastafarianism then go here.) As a scholar of religion interested not so much in studying religion but, rather, in studying those who use the term to accomplish practical social work (by classifying this or that as religion [or not!]), I admit that I can be a little disappointed when I see other scholars of religion chime in about such decisions. For by failing to see the term “religion” as a rhetorical device, as a tool some people use to manage social life by naming,  distinguishing, and then ranking assorted items, scholars often unwittingly enter into debates over what religion really is (or isn’t).

And, in the process, they make themselves data for people like me. Continue reading

“I Can’t Believe It”

whattha

Sometimes ordinary language tells us far more about social life than we at first realize.

For example, take two common phrases:

“I can’t believe it”

and

“Let it sink in…”

What’s going on when we say that? Or, better put, when do we say that? And what does it tell us about the word “belief” — a word we usually use as if it names some pristine interior realm that’s only secondarily projected out and expressed in public. Continue reading

Self, Society, & Religion

rel237fall2015Prof. McCutcheon’s Fall 2015 REL 237 will introduce and explore the application of social theory in the study of religion by reading and then applying the work of Prof. Bruce Lincoln, at the University of Chicago (and REL’s onetime Aronov Lecturer), to a specific episode of what we will come to term “affinity and estrangement” as represented in Dennis Covington’s well-known book, Salvation on Sand Mountain.

The class is limited to 30 students.