A Personal Diary from the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, Chicago 2012

A Personal Diary from the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, Chicago 2012

Jack Tsonis, Macquarie University

Religious Studies Project Conference Report, American Academy of Religion – 16-19 November, 2012 – Chicago, Illinois, USA

When the RSP editors asked if I would be willing to do a report on the annual AAR meeting in Chicago, I eagerly agreed. However, when I arrived and actually thought about how I was going to do such a report, I realized that a different strategy was called for than the one I had envisaged. The AAR is one of those massive events in which every session has at least twenty panels on offer, not to mention the diverse array of evening functions. Attempting a report that provided wide coverage of the event would have prevented me from doing what I was primarily there to do: connect with scholars in my specific field by going to the appropriate sessions. Thus, instead of a full report on the meeting, what follows is a day-by-day personal account of my own little slice of AAR activity.

Day 1 – Friday, November 16, 2012

Having arrived in Chicago the day before to get my bearings, I make an easy bus trip downtown to the McCormick Centre, the location of the 2012 AAR Annual Meeting (which runs concurrently with the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting). The venue is absolutely massive, and is where President Obama held his election-night convention less than a fortnight ago. It is the biggest conference centre in the United States. It even has a metro stop built into the main lobby. It has four precincts (North, South, East, West), each being huge, multi-story halls in their own right. It is truly something to behold. The complex sits right on the shore of Lake Michigan, of which the East wing has an amazing view. The “lake” is more like an ocean. It, too, is massive.

Most of the sessions take place Saturday through Monday, but I have a workshop to attend from 2-6pm on the Friday afternoon. After registering at the main desk and taking care of the administrivia, I locate Room 353 East (situated opposite the aforementioned expansive view of the lake). The meeting is “The SBL/AAR Study of Religion as an Analytical Discipline Workshop”, co-hosted by the AAR’s Cultural History of the Study of Religion group and the SBL’s Ideological Criticism group. The theme for the workshop is “The Analytical Handling of Norms and Values in the Study of Religion”, a juicy topic that touches upon a lot of the methodological issues in my own work. I was very interested when I signed up. I am also hoping to meet a few new people, as that’s the best part of a conference, and the best way to have fun in the evenings.

The workshop is well attended, perhaps 30 people in total. There are four sessions, plus afternoon tea. The sessions are all interesting, though some more than others. The focus is upon both scholarly and pedagogical responsibilities in the study of religion. The following synopsis provided by the organizers is a good distillation of the workshop:

Analysis of academic norms for the study of religion focuses on construction of a secondary discourse that accomplishes the following: (a) treats all religious phenomena as primary sources, i.e. the object of study; (b) adheres to common academic practices in the humanities and social sciences, as appropriate for the research question under investigation; and (c) incorporates self-critical reflection on the problematic of scholarly, secondary discourse vis-à-vis the primary, intramural discourse of the people and practices studied. These three goals are necessary to adequately formulate the study of religion as a discipline of scholarship in alignment with the Humanities, Social Sciences and Sciences.

The discussion is enthusiastic, and the breadth of topic has attracted scholars from a wide variety of specialist fields within the study of religion. It is not the kind of thing where “resolutions” are reached on anything, but rather an invigorating open-floor exchange about strategies for methodological reflexivity in the production of knowledge about “religion” and other aspects of cultural. Some speakers gravitate towards theoretical issues, others towards the challenges involved in turning ethnographic fieldwork into legitimate (and ethical) knowledge. Others also focus on the treatment of marginalized religious communities, and how this actual social marginalization is perpetuated by certain androcentric, Eurocentric, and graphocentric norms that pervade western discourse. A particularly impassioned point is made by an organizer of the LGBTQ section of the AAR about the near-total discrimination of openly LGBTQ academics in the US job market, and how this reflects the kind of problematic assumptions that are embedded in the dominant discourse (which is to say, embedded in the power structures of Euro-American culture). Did I mention that the afternoon tea is also nice? The standout is some spectacular gingerbread cookies.

At a personal level, it is a great afternoon. I meet a lot of new people, including some who I will connect with again over the weekend. I touch base with a professor with whom I have been communicating via email for the last year, and we plan to meet properly tomorrow. One speaker whose paper I particularly enjoyed is a colleague of another scholar I have been in communication with in recent months, so we have a friendly chat afterwards too. I also get invited to the University of North Carolina reception on Sunday night by some fellow grad students, which I plan to attend in order to network further (and to get some free booze). I catch the shuttle bus back into town with a few nice people from the workshop, and it turns out that a guy I am sitting with is good friends with my current associate supervisor. So it is a bumper start to the AAR meeting at my end: stimulating discussion and some new connections. I ignore the evening’s welcome reception on account of the good mood, as I have no one in particular to meet there and I feel that my work is done for the day. The evening involves dinner, a beer, and bed.

Day 2 – Saturday, November 17

With last night going later than planned (emails always take longer than you think), I decide to sleep through the morning session. There are no sessions of critical import to my work, so I opt for the sleep and a lazier start to the day (loading my energy towards the evenings, as I put it). I thought about attending the 1pm session on the 100-year anniversary of Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, but at the last minute I see a session called “The Identity of NAASR and the Character of the Critical Study of Religion”. NAASR is the North American Society for the Study of Religion, and is an umbrella society within the AAR that promotes a more critical and “scientific” approach to the study of religion, with the related charge that much of what the AAR does is crypto-theology dressed up as critical scholarship (at one point the AAR is accused of “apologetic phenomenology”). The star panelists are Russell McCutcheon and Donald Wiebe, who are well known for their thoroughgoing criticism of the apologetic tendencies of the “discipline” of religious studies. The discussion is heated at times, and there is clearly no consensus about what precisely the character of NAASR should be. Weibe, one of its founders, wants it to be about scientific approaches to the study of religion (e.g. cognitive science), whereas McCutcheon, its most influential member, advocates a broader approach that also includes history and critical theory – although, as he points out, the problem then becomes that NAASR is little different from the AAR, at least on paper in terms of the sessions that it holds.

A number of the people from yesterday’s workshop are also in attendance, and turn out to be important members of NAASR (which is a big payoff for me). They invite me along to tonight’s NAASR reception, which will be great for more reasons than just the free food and drink. I am hoping to meet McCutcheon and others who will be there, as their work has been deeply influential for the development of my own critical/methodological approach to the study of religion. After that, I am also attending a party hosted by biblical scholars Dale Martin (who I will be interviewing for the RSP next week) and Bart Ehrman. The Bart & Dale Show (as they call it) is a long running Saturday night institution at the AAR/SBL, and presents another great networking opportunity – which I have learnt are far more important than whatever one might learn from attending sessions. Hence why I have decided to skip the AAR Presidential Address in favour of the NAASR reception. However I will have to be careful tonight, as I am attending 2 parties with free booze – this happened last year at the AAR Saturday night, and I awoke with a tremendous hangover that prevented me from absorbing much on the Sunday. I fear a similar outcome.

The final event of my day was a 4pm meeting held with Randall Styers of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Randall’s work (Making Magic [OUP 2004]) has also been deeply influential in the shape of my own project, and he gives me a very generous 90 minutes of his time; we even catch the bus back together. We discuss both my doctoral project as well as wider strategies for carving out a career in the academic world. His advice is extremely helpful on both fronts, and he has proven to be an invaluable mentor whom I am sure to be in contact with over the coming years. He will also be at the NAASR reception tonight, so that’s another plus. Speaking of the reception, I must get out the door.

Day 3 – Sunday, November 18

I emerge on Sunday (mid)morning relatively unscathed, although I would not describe myself as chipper. The evening’s activities were great fun. Good conversation was had and more friends were made. The NAASR reception was a mirthful affair with food and drink aplenty, and the Bart & Dale Show was in its usual swing. My day begins by meeting an old supervisor for coffee, and we have a good catch up. I then attend a stimulating session at 1pm, a 90 minute consultation on future of the newly-formed Social Theory and Religion Cluster, comprised of a number of groups in the AAR which are seeking to co-operate at a level beyond their own specific panel discussions (e.g. the Sociology of Religion group and Cultural History of the Study of Religion group). The theme is “Social Theory and Religion, 2013–2015”. The forum is well attended and the audience represents a diverse spectrum of interests; this bodes well for the future of the Cluster. Although there is a seven person panel, the meeting is more of an open-floor discussion about ways to collaborate at upcoming conferences – such as holding featured guest-speaker lectures, organizing debates, holding cross-group panels on important scholarly milestones (such as the 100 year anniversary of Durkheim), etc.

The evening sees me attend the UNC Chapel Hill reception, to which I had been invited by Randall as well as some of his very amiable doctoral students whom I met at the workshop on Friday. The catering is of a high standard, as is the crowd. There are a lot of nice people there, so further connections are made. It is truly lovely to have met so many nice people when I arrived at the conference knowing virtually no one. My planned early night is yet again railroaded by the “couple” of “quick” emails I had to send, and I crawl into bed just before midnight. Despite the exhaustion, it is difficult to sleep on account of the whirring mind induced by the weekend’s conversations.

Day 4 – Monday, November 19 (The Final Day)

Thankfully the morning session once again contains no panels of crucial importance for me, so the day begins more slowly by catching up for coffee with a friend from Brown University whom I only get to see at the conference every year. I then head into McCormick to attend the final session for the Cultural History of the Study of Religion group, starting at 1pm. The papers comprise a strangely eclectic bunch of topics. It seems odd that they have been placed together. After properly getting lost in McCormick for the first time (I’m surprised it took this long), I arrive just as the session is starting to a scene that I did not quite picture: about 30 people sitting around a large, squared table formation, with no discernible panel of speakers. I grab a seat just as the Chairs explain the slightly experimental format: all papers had been pre-circulated amongst the 6 speakers, and instead of being read, they were summarized for the audience (about 10 mins each). The chairs then lead a fascinating discussion between both speakers and audience, in which they tease out a number of theoretical issues that flow through and connect the otherwise quite disparate papers. If you think that the following topics – C19th protestant missionaries and the telegraph; early reformed Judaism in the US; William James and his concept of the composite photograph; two post-war female, French, Catholic scholars; the translation industry around the Daodejing; and the American civic discourse of religious pluralism – sound like almost completely unrelated issues, then you feel as I felt walking in. You would then have been utterly enthralled to sit through and participate in the discussion that followed, and the session was testament to the productive conceptual spaces that emerge when good thinkers come together sharing broad theoretical commitments. I am amazed at how quickly two and a half hours fly by. The final 15 minutes are the business meeting of the CHSR group, which plots out potential session themes for next year as well as further reflections on experimental formats. Most concur that the format of this session was a success, especially on the Monday afternoon of a long conference when simply listen to talks for 2 hours would have been seriously draining; discussion is also had about linking the group’s agenda with the agenda of the Social Theory and Religion Cluster.

There are further sessions in the afternoon, as well as the final ones on Tuesday morning, but this marks the end of my involvement at the AAR conference. I am extremely happy with how the weekend has gone. I arrived at the workshop on Friday apprehensive that I would not meet many people or that the conference might not be that productive, but those apprehensions appear quaint in hindsight. It was a combination of meeting nice people but also putting myself out there: not just attending sessions, but piping up. I made a comment or asked a question in every session I attended, which I have learned is a great platform to be able to approach people afterwards, introducing yourself, and continue the conversation. I wasted no opportunities, and the conference could not have gone better for me, all things considered.

To unwind from the exhausting frazzlement of the last 4 days, my final mission in Chicago is to head way uptown to The Chicago Sweatlodge for a relaxing sauna. Since visiting Finland 6 years ago I have been an almost evangelistic saunophile, and my motto for world travel since that point has been “Another City, Another Sauna”. Considering myself a connoisseur of intense heat, I was mightily impressed with this young establishment, and I emerge 3 hours later glowing like a saint. The Finns say that the human body is never more beautiful than 30 minutes after a sauna, and the tingle on one’s skin afterwards truly is a remarkable feeling unattainable by any other means. The glow remains with me all night, and I am not even worried about the $50 of cabs that it took to get there and back. This marks the perfect end to a great conference.

I am now at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport awaiting a flight to New York, where I will engage in further meetings and conduct an interview for the Religious Studies Project. Boarding time is close, so over and out.

2 replies
  1. Avatar
    Russell McCutcheon says:

    If I’m not mistaken, we did meet, though I was quite late for the reception; I had been at the JAAR editorial board meeting, trying to get the journal to reconsider opening with poetry and, now, art….


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