Will #religiousliteracy save Religious Studies? At the 2019 AAR in San Diego, Dave McConeghy moderated a roundtable with early career scholars about the meaning of religious literacy in their context. Join us for a lively discussion about what it means to teach religious studies with Richard Newton, Chris Jones, Rebekka King, Jenna-Gray-Hildenbrand, Kevin Minister, and Bradly Onishi.
In San Diego at the 2019 American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting, Dave McConeghy sat down with six early career scholars to discuss religious literacy in the context of the release of the AAR’s Religious Literacy Guidelines. The guidelines were a multi-year project funded by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, and speak not only to the needs of teachers in higher education like the panelists in this roundtable, but also more broadly to primary school education in the U.S. The panelists gathered here represent significant voices in the next wave of changes to religious studies programs, where market pressures mean we must think deliberately about how to position religious studies within the academy to advance our field and its work. Among the central questions explored in this episode, perhaps the most fundamental is this: What is the role of our teaching and scholarly contexts on the way we approach religious literacy? If one-size cannot fit all, then what is different about religious literacy when it comes to a public versus a private college? What is the impact of teaching to a regional versus national student body? How do the varied missions expressed by our universities encourage or limit our dialogue with the critical theoretical wings of our discipline? Join us for a lively conversation with Richard Newton, Chris Jones, Rebekka King, Bradley Onishi, Kevin Minister, and Jenna Gray-Hildenbrand.
Exclusive action shots during recording by David McConeghy:
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It is generally accepted - at least as far as most academics are concerned - that there is a distinct difference between religious studies and theology. As you shall see from this interview, however, things are much more complicated, and Professor Wiebe is particularly qualified to present his own take on the relationship between these two distinct disciplines.
The Insider/Outsider problem, relating to where scholars position themselves relating to the subject matter (whatever that may be), is one of the most perennial problems in the academic study of religion. Does one have to be a member of a community for your testimony about that community to be valid? Or does your membership of the community invalidate your objectivity?
What Does Religious Literacy Mean in Your Context? [transcript]
What Does Religious Literacy Mean in Your Context?
Podcast Roundtable discussion with Richard Newton, Chris Jones,
Rebekka King, Jenna Gray- Hildenbrand, Kevin Minster and Bradley Onishi (25 May 2020).
Interviewed by David McConeghy.
Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.
Audio and transcript available at:
David McConeghy (DMcC): Hello! I’m David McConeghy, and I’m again at the American Academy of Religion. It’s 2019 and we’re in lovely San Diego. And I have so many people – so many amazing people – to introduce to you today! We are going to be talking about religious literacy, and what that means for my guests, today. They’re going to tell us – we’re going to have a discussion about it – but also in the context of the American Academy of Religion’s newly released religious literacy guidelines for schools, for people that teach religion, for people that teach religion not in Religious Studies departments, for people that are in high schools. And it is a very broad and interesting document. And I’m hoping that we’ll have some interesting geographical, different thematic, different theoretical thoughts about it today. First, I’d like everyone to introduce themselves. And we will start with . . .
Richard Newton (RN): Richard Newton. I teach at the University of Alabama, in the Department of Religious Studies. Most of my courses are on issues of race and social formation, particularly looking at how the idea of text or scriptures are a tool for those kinds of politics.
DMcC: And next?
Chris Jones (CJ): My name is Chris Jones, and I teach at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. We’re a small, municipally operated, public university. We’re the only four-year public university that’s municipal (audio unclear). Fun fact! And I am the only tenure track, the only professor of Religious Studies there. I run the programme – the major and the minor in Religious Studies – and teach a lot of Gen Ed classes, and upper division classes, as my students need them.
DMcC: And next?
Rebekka King (RK): Hi. I’m Rebekka King. I’m Associate Professor at Middle Tennessee State University. I’m here with my colleague, who’ll introduce herself in a minute. But I was hired with her, to found a Religious Studies programme and teach a number of courses on religion in the world.
DMcC: Excellent. Moving round the table – we have so many people, we’re so happy! (Laughter).
Bradley Onishi (BO): My name’s Brad Onishi and I’m Assistant Professor at Skidmore College, up in Upstate New York, Saratoga Springs. And it’s a liberal arts college. And it’s actually . . . I think it’s worth pointing out it’s a very, very secular part of the country. And most of my students identify as non-religious. And so in my teaching that is something that is always on my mind.
Kevin Minister (KM): I’m Kevin Minister. I’m Associate Professor of religion in Shenandoah University, which is a United Methodist school. I’m an hour-and-a-half outside DC, with two thousand undergrads and two thousand grads. We have a very strong professional focus. So the religion programme is small. We only have two lines. But we also have the centre for Islam in the Contemporary World which complements our programme. And our teaching is mostly in Gen Ed. So we have to figure out how to teach Religious Studies with students who identify as pre-Health majors, or Business majors, or Performing Arts majors.
Jenna Gray- Hildenbrand (JG-H): And I promise, dear Listeners, that I am the last person at the table! (Laughter) I am Jenna Gray-Hildebrand, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and, along with Dr Rebekka King, the co-founder of our Religious Studies major at Middle Tennessee State University, which is a public institution in Middle Tennessee. And I teach Religion in the US, but many other religion classes.
DMcC: Excellent. Well, thank you all so much for agreeing to take the time! We all have such busy schedules at conferences! And I’m so thankful to get so many people, all at once. It’s such a treat! Let me throw a question out. For some of you, maybe religious literacy is a thing you think about all the time, and write about, and teach about. When we ask: “Religious literacy, what is that thing?” what are some of the first things that you would say? How would you tell your neighbour about religious literacy, if you happened to meet them while mowing the lawn, or taking out the trash? What would you say to them about religious literacy?
JGH: I’m curious what Brad will say, since he says that he lives in a very secular non-religious area. So what does this conversation look like with your lawn-mowing neighbour?
BO: Well, it’s funny because my neighbours are probably religious, but my students aren’t! (Laughter). So when I’m explaining to my students, who take a Gen. Ed. class and they say, “Oh, maybe I’m interested in a major or minor, but why would I do this?” and “My mum’s going to hate it, and I don’t want to have to have that conversation.”, what I turn to is: “Look, if you sign up with us, and you sort-of dedicate yourself to this project of becoming religiously literate – through a minor, through just a couple of the classes, a major, whatever it is – what we do is, we enter into the world’s communities of religious people, religious actors. And that’s sometimes uncomfortable. (5:00) It’s sometimes difficult. It’s wondrous. It’s heart-breaking. It’s infuriating and it’s inspiring. And, by foregrounding religion, you get to do it all, student.” Right? So we do gender, we do race, we do immigration, we do law, we do philosophy. But by using the prism of religion first, you then get to illuminate all those other aspects of the human condition. To me that makes Religious Studies unique. To me, I’m a Religious Studies scholar. And that’s something else. Because that prism is so expansive that if you want a window into the human condition, this is the great place to start. And if you want to develop the virtues of patience and empathy in a way that will allow you to reckon with the complexity and inconvenient facts of our lifetimes – like the climate apocalypse and so on – this is the great place to start. And so, for me, that is . . . that, to me, is like my go-to speech, my “Hurrah!” speech about religion, literacy and entering into this whole project of becoming religiously literate.
DMcC: So – you said “Hurrah”, Chris!
CJ: I did say “Hurrah”!
DM: Would you pitch things similarly, to your students? What would you tell your students?
CJ: I would pitch things similarly. I think there’s great intrinsic value in studying religion, because – for the reasons that Brad enumerated – it does give us this window into the human condition. At the same time my students, like Kevin’s students, are very much pre-professionally focussed. Looking at the learning goals that the AAR has outlined, I would have to translate those into résumé-ese. I would have to look at those and figure out how they would connect to LinkedIn, in order to sell this to my Dean, or to my VP.
DMcC: Should we be putting our syllabi through the résumé scanners and see how they scan? Is that where we’re headed?
CJ: Well I’m part of a working group at my university, right now, looking into translating syllabus learning outcomes into things students can put on LinkedIn. So yes, that is where we are. For better and for worse. For worse.
DMcC: But if your students are consumers of education . . . . Not that I would think that everybody at the table here would say that religion [education] is a business. I think there’s many negative, perhaps, feelings at this table about that. But at the end, they are buying a kind-of product from us. And if that product has certain expectations, framing what we do within some of their expectations seems a reasonable compromise to get them into the door. Maybe? I’m seeing Richard’s hedging more, so tell us how that doesn’t work.
RN: So at the University of Alabama we are a large public school in the middle of the Bible Belt. It’s a Research One institution. And I think the idea of religious literacy is tempting: the idea that we can inform you about the way that religious actors work in the world, and the histories attached to it. But the problem, I think, for a department like ours in that case – and also the way that those guidelines become limiting – is that there are a lot of other departments that promise similar things. We share Religious Studies classes – or classes on religion – with History, and Anthropology, and Sociology, and anybody else who wants to talk about religion. And so the thing that we are providing is actually something different. I don’t think it’s really about knowing religion more, and religious people more. And I don’t think that’s the product that we are selling, either. I think the metaphor that I would use is we are providing a skill set, a sort-of toolbox for students to analyse the human, understand how humans work, in light of a history that involves this thing called religion. And I think when you separate religion from culture, you know, religion from general human activities, then you’ve actually created a narrow lane for yourself to operate.
JGH: So that’s where Dr King and I wrote this . . . . I mean, Richard, and all of you, I think this is a great conversation. Thank you for inviting us. There’s an amazing article that was written by Gray – Hildenbrand and King recently, on teaching Theology and Religious Studies, about where we talk about the creation of our program. We talk about this very issue. And it’s something that we contemplated very seriously, because we had this opportunity to create a programme where one didn’t exist. And we realised that we were in that unique situation. And so, similar to what we see here with the literacy guidelines, you see a combination both of religious literacy thinking about it as content, right – memorising the content of that religion – but also certain skills that we use when we’re looking at religion, religious content. And so in our programme we identified three skills – description, analysis and critique – as what would work best in our institutional context (10:00). And we might wrestle you for the heart of the Bible Belt, my friend, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee! But maybe my colleague wants to talk a little more? We can do back and forth like we do, Rebekka! We have a whole thing . . . ! (Laughter).
RK: Thanks, Jenna. I think that one of the nice things about teaching in a place like Middle Tennessee is that we don’t have to convince our student that studying religion matters. A lot of students come into the classroom with a sense that they want to know more about religion, that it’s important in their lives. And a lot of them have grown up in families where they’ve been told a certain story about other religious communities that they know isn’t quite right, that they know might come from a place of sort-of bias or misunderstanding, and they want to know what is right. So they’re really coming in with this question that is drawn out of, I think, a need for religious literacy. So certainly the AAR guidelines, I think, are really coming at building from a ground-up level in that way. For us, what we’re trying to do is think beyond the level of literacy to what we call competency. And in a previous life I spent a lot of time working in higher education. And one of my areas in my portfolio was literacy basic skills. And literacy basic skills are the ability to read menus, to understand how signs work, very basic forms of literacy. And when we translate that into thinking about religious literacy, that’s important – but that is work that I see campuses doing in a number of places. Like Richard mentioned: Anthropology, Sociology, History, a number of different disciplines. And so what we do in Religious Studies is, I hope, a step beyond that towards competencies, building skills, doing something more than content and data-based information.
JGH: And one of the criticisms – I’m sorry – the feedback that we got when we were working on our programme and writing our article was, “Well, anyone can do description, anyone can do analysis, anyone can do critique.” And our argument was, “No.” There is something unique about doing description, analysis and critique – not unique, but takes a certain Religious Studies skill – to do that for the content of Religious Studies, to describe and analyse something. Maybe we can have this conversation? Maybe people around this table disagree, when you’re analysing human beings who . . . . For example, if I go to my serpent handling church and I’m having to describe what is happening when they say they’re anointed by God to drink strychnine, that’s different than describing what’s happening when people are driving a car. Not that it is inherently different, right? I’m not saying that there’s some sui generis category of religion. But it does take a different type of skill to describe and analyse that. So we’re saying that there is something of value that we are adding to Middle Tennessee State University that they can’t get in History, I would argue. We have argued!
DMcC: It’s funny, if we had video you could see that there are nodding heads and there’s thumbs up, and people are smiling and kind-of like, “Is this my moment to say how much I agree?” I think for a long time we have had that conversation about sui generis. And I saw Russell McCutcheon’s post recently on . . . I think it was Facebook, maybe first, or Twitter later, where he had put a google Ngram of “sui generis” vs “lived religion”. And there’s this moment when sui generis appeared and then escalated up to a peak, and then declined extremely rapidly. And what took off was lived religion. And I’m hearing a little bit in the way you describe. . . . There’s something about the thing that we’re describing, there’s something about the analysis we’re doing, there’s something about . . . .What’s the third one? I’m sorry!
JGH: The critique.
DMcC: The critique that we’re doing, that has to do with that object that’s at the end. And that that object has not uniqueness from everything else, but distinctiveness in a certain way that merits our focus. Am I following this?
JGH: I don’t think it’s the object that has the distinctiveness. I think there’s a distinctiveness in the way we talk about it. So when I talk to colleagues at my institution from History, or from Sociology, who are studying religion, they talk about religion differently than we do. Oftentimes they have what I would say is a more prescriptive stand: religion is a problem to be solved. In Religious Studies we don’t talk about religion as a problem to be solved. It’s something that we try to understand. Am I wrong? Am I wrong Kevin? Help me out! (15:00)
KM: No I think you’re right and, coming from a smaller school that is in the United Methodist tradition, it’s been complicated by the history of the religion programme as a Christian Studies programme before I arrived there six years ago. So the other departments really thought this was something that they should not touch. And they should send students . . . if you want to talk about religion at all, you have to go somewhere else. And we actually saw in our data, for our freshmen as they moved forward – they have to take the global perspectives inventory – that they improved on all of the metrics related to global perspectives except for understanding religious difference, in which they actually declined. And we, fortunately, were able to get a grant from the Wabash Centre to study this, and found, really, that it was our colleagues outside the religion programme who thought that they couldn’t touch religion. So they would bring up issues and then just drop them! And so students for the first time were really seeing, “Oh there are problems related to religion in the world.” And my colleagues were like, “Yep and we’re not going there. So if you want to do that, go take a Religious Studies class.” So I think that was something that we had to deal with across the disciplines.
RN: Yes, and prior to working at the University of Alabama I worked at a small private liberal arts college, Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. And I worked on redesigning the curriculum for our Religious Studies department. And I see a lot of similarities, of course, in what I was doing there and what I’m doing at the University of Alabama, so far as we’re often competing with these other disciplines within the school for the right to talk about and do what we say is our expertise. And I think, I guess, that my argument has been not so much that these other disciplines can’t do it, but that they haven’t done it. And every time we have to win the students over. And I think, at the University of Alabama, what we’ve seen with our students is that they often come into disciplines where they’re more familiar with the term. So they’ve heard of Anthropology, they’ve heard of Psychology and Sociology. We get them in Religious Studies because of our core in General Ed. And then they continue, because they like what we’ve done, and they see that it’s something different than what they’re getting elsewhere. And so their work has to be their proof, their work has to be what they put on LinkedIn. And our graduate students in our Masters programme, similarly, are having to make that case. That they’re using the idea of digital humanities, digital skills and public humanities to articulate what it is that they’re doing differently, seeing, and presenting, that’s not being done elsewhere. And so it sort-of puts their backs against the wall to make the case that what they’re saying matters. But I think it’s from that place that they’re most interesting to people. I think audiences are responding well to what they working on. They’re doing well, in terms of placement and things. And so I think it’s convenient for the Literacy Guidelines to be like, “See, here’s our place.” But if our students, and if our scholarship, doesn’t do that work, then I think we end up in the kind-of trouble that Kevin was referring to.
CJ: Yes. And I want to go back to some of the things that Jenna was saying, and that Rebekka was saying as well, that there is something . . . of a degree in religion. There’s an intensity in religion that other areas of human life don’t necessarily have. And one of the things we contribute is the competency to engage critically, to engage inter-culturally, interpersonally with people around things that matter more to them than anything else, and do that in a way that is productive, respectful, but also critical, and sincere, and that does not simply leave it alone, as Kevin says. We don’t tiptoe lightly around religion, we come right at it. And we have hard conversations. And we give our students a comfort level at having hard conversations. And that is a life skill, that is a citizenship skill, and that’s also a job skill. I mean the ability to . . . . Sorry! Go ahead, Brad.
BO: Yes, I agree. And I think, just coming back to this idea of what do we do that’s distinct, and how does that train students who are then able to explain those distinct skills and training sets? I think what we do is we’re saying, we don’t begin with the idea that religion is compartmentalised. So many of our colleagues begin with “Oh religion’s a component of this community. And once we get that component in place we can put the set together and then we’ll really understand gender, or race, or politics, and whatever’s going on there. We begin with…well, hey – religion is our primary object of study, and we’re betting on the fact – and we’re all sitting round the table and I wonder if we all agree – that if we bet on that thesis then we’ll be able to unlock those other aspects that we’re really interested in that overlap, in ways that would’ve never been possible before, right? And so why do we need Religious Studies? Because it’s a unique way of foregrounding one aspect, religion, that we think pervades every other aspect. And then that unlocks views and approaches and understandings and perspectives that would have been unavailable if we had just sort-of approached this from what we take to be mainstream sociological, anthropological and historical methodologies.
DMcC: So, let me read for just a second from the document. Let’s be textual for a moment! (20:00) “Students in any field, from the Humanities to Political Science, to Business, to the STEM disciplines should learn something about how religion shapes, and is shaped by, the way humans view the world.” I know that some of the criticism that I’ve heard of these guidelines, initially, was that it was giving the field away, right, with the broadness of it? And they describe it in some of the ways that we’ve been doing it. But it says at the top of the executive summary, the first line in the document, “Every college graduate ought to have a basic understanding of religion as a part of the human experience.” So, if we, in the criticism of this document, if we let the historians talk about religion – not that we could ever prevent such a thing – but if Religion departments fold, and History, or Philosophy, or Anthropology becomes the places where religion is talked about, I’m hearing that we lose something that I think everyone at the table thinks is really vital about the perspective here. Jenna phrased it as a perspective.
JGH: What did I say? What was the context?
DMcC: You did. I phrased it as an object of study, and you said, “No, it’s more about how we view . . .”
JGH: How we discuss that. Our discourse.
DMcC: Yes, discourse. Kevin, you seem like you want to chime in?
KM: Yes, the idea of “giving the discipline away”, I think, just doesn’t . . . it rubs me the wrong way. Like, for me, my students, the disciplines are done before they come to the school. They’re not here for Religious Studies. They don’t know why they have to take a Gen Ed class. They don’t actually have to take a Religion class, but that’s one of the frequent classes that they do take. They don’t know why they’re there. They think that’s not relevant to their professional programme and their job. So giving the discipline away is actually how we become relevant again, in my context. How we help students understand – and hopefully their advisors don’t tell them that “This is irrelevant to you”, right, as sometimes they do. So the students show up thinking, “Maybe actually this can be relevant to me.” Or, at least, I have the tools to say, “This actually is going to be relevant to you.” And, in fact, “Here are classes in your professional programme that your department has identified as trying to help with this too. But we’re going to go a lot deeper here.”
DMcC: You described yourself when you opened. Can you say, again, how many people there are in your department?
KM: There are two of us in our department.
DMcC: So I feel similarly. I teach at Salem State College which is a very small Massachusetts State school. And we only have two people: one permanent and one contingent – me! I think that might be the case for a lot of us, where we are teaching in extremely small departments. Chris is raising his hand. He’s a department of . . . ?
DMcC: One! Right? Richard might be, and Brad a little bit, but I think Richard even more is the one who’s at the largest department, right? You have a dozen faculty members now? Brad does too.
DMcC: Can we talk about, for a second, how religious literacy . . . because I hear a little bit in what Kevin’s saying that in his context, maybe, that doesn’t work. And I wonder if we can speak to that a little bit more?
KM: Well I think one of the interesting Rebekka was talking about, the difference between literacy and competence, is a really helpful distinction. For my department, first selling literacy is a big piece. Yes it’s basic, it doesn’t get us far, but it’s a skill. It’s not simply information and knowledge, it’s a skill that can serve students who are not majoring in religion. Because if we have eight majors in religion our programme is up. So the idea that this basic set of skills that can help them continue to learn and engage with people, not just have knowledge base but apply that in new contexts, learn new situations, learn religious traditions affecting different parts of life, not selling is huge.
RN: So I . . . Rebekka go ahead.
RK: Thank you. I think that building off of that, one of the things that when we think about how literacy works is that in order . . . before one can be literate, one has to understand the language. And one of the things that Jenna did when she first got to MTSU is she built the General Education Religious Studies course. And they really wanted her to do a course that was going to cover world religions, a comparative religions course. But she very intelligently and astutely observed that before we could even begin to think about religious content, our students had to learn how to talk about religion. And so that is what our introductory course is, a course called Religion and Society where the students learn how to speak about religion, how to classify it, how to think about it, before they even get to any of the content-based material (25:00).
JGH: And to build upon that, what I’m hearing about this . . . this interesting thing about giving away the discipline – I think it’s so interesting; it sounds very like it’s a birthday party, or something! (Laughter) – is to also think about how what our students actually want. We talk about packaging up this thing called this Religious Studies major, but we haven’t talked about what actually students want, or what’s working. I mean we talk to students all the time, and our institutional context flavours that, right? And you’ve actually done research, haven’t you, about what students . . . ? I can’t remember what your grant was – but at our institutional context, a lot of times – and Rebekka, you can correct me if I’m wrong – we have right now, I think thirty-two majors in Religious Studies and three faculty members. And we’re growing every year. A lot of times, what happens is they take our classes and they just want a reason to major. I mean, don’t you think? And so we’ll tell them “Religious literacy will help you in any context. Are you going to work with human beings when you graduate? Many human beings are religious. So having a basic . . .” – this is my spiel, right? – “So having that basic religious literacy will help you with your future patients, clients, students, co-workers etc.” Right? Yes, I think that that is true. But a lot of times they’re excited about the content. They’re enthusiastic. In our institutional context it’s Baptist, Church of Christ and Methodist are the predominant religions. And then people who are angry at the Islamic Centre down the road, right? And so that’s our institutional context, they’re very . . . . And those students are excited to be our majors. And it’s about double majoring. We’ve designed our programme specifically so that this is a very strong compliment to a second major. Rebekka and I were both double majors in undergrad, and here we are! (Laughs). And now we have come to the culmination of our careers on this podcast with you all!
KM: I find it really interesting that you mentioned communication about religion as being fundamental to becoming literate about it: knowing how to talk about it, being able to speak about it, being able to ask questions. That’s something I really don’t see in these guidelines is anything about communication skills. Or the interpersonal skills to be able to navigate the discourse, or talk about it in public contexts, whether that be professional, civic, yes? So I think that’s an interesting piece that is not coming through in these guidelines is those communication skills.
RN: I think, in part, to play at the metaphor of gift, I think actually what these guidelines do is buy a space for Religious Studies sort-of as a guild, or as a field, to have a discipline where they can begin to sell whatever they want to sell. And one space where I’ve sort-of been working on – thinking about how that works, and what are the ramifications – are in terms of sort-of the scholarship of teaching and learning. And I mean, that discourse comes out of an interest that is tied to public communication about religion, and the idea that religion needs to be part of the way that good citizens speak: understanding what it is and how that works. My problem with starting there, though, and making that the sort-of be-all-and-end-all of literacy, is that we don’t get to ask about who’s speaking. I see a lot of departments of Religious Studies use the John Kerry line – from a number of his speeches, as part of his stump speech when he was at the state department – about, you know, where he wishes he would’ve taken more comparative religion courses. And so “There we go!-There’s our ad!” But this is the same state secretary who created videos of, like, fake videos about Isis, saying “Look at how crazy Isis is!” – for their beheadings, and all this stuff. Which, of course, leads to an uptick in the kind-of work that Isis was doing. And so it’s that sort-of short sightedness – like, are we going to be in bed with that kind-of discourse, rather than analyse how that works? – that these literacy guidelines make me question. Like, I want to be able to do the types of . . . like present students with the skill sets that Jenna and Rebekka talk about in their article. And what I’m afraid of is that when you have guidelines that are attached to things like rubrics on “teaching properly about religion”, that you limit yourself to speaking about religion in ways that are legible to those kinds of interests, and not in the ways that ask about whose interest this serves: who gets to evaluate how religion works, and works well? (30:00)
CJ: I agree. I was nodding the whole time you were speaking. And to me, that comes back also to what do students want? And so, oftentimes, when we teach to the rubric, we’re looking past our students to our administrators, unfortunately. And when we . . . . My experience has been when my students come into the classroom wanting to understand. . . . I mean, once they take an intro class, just like all of you’ve said, they want to take more classes. And some of that interest is the fact that they’re finding in our department a way to understand like really critical issues in their world. And that could be counter-intuitive. That could be through studying medieval aesthetics. But somehow they’re finding the skills to not only have religious literacy, but that religious literacy is translating into self-literacy and sort-of their own world, and environment literacy. And I think we don’t sell that enough. I’ll be really honest. I think we’re getting better at selling the utility of the Humanities: “Oh, this’ll help you on the (audio unclear). This will help you here or there. Some folks don’t want to sell the soul-searching thing. “Oh, college is . . . not everyone has money for four years of soul-searching. And people need to get jobs.” But we often undersell, I think, the fact that the skills that we might offer, not only in Humanities but in Religious Studies particularly, are the abilities for that kind-of long-term, far-sighted thinking that doesn’t undercut the most critical issues of our time. You know I see Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter saying “We have so much knowledge and we don’t have any wisdom.” And I’m thinking “That’s what we do.” We want to give people the skills to sort-of like engage in the world wisely, through studying religion. But it’s often hard to explain that to funding bodies, and to our deans, and everyone else.
RN: Perhaps if I can ask Rebekka, because you’ve been part of the teaching against Islam
RK: Islamophobia! (Laughter)
RN: That’s it! (Laughter) You’ve been part of the teaching against Islamophobia workshop with Wabash that’s distinguishing between what it means to teach about Islam and what it means to teach against Islamophobia. And I don’t see the ability to wrestle with that distinction here. And so I was wondering if you would speak a bit about how you think that relates to religious literacy or religious competence.
RK: Yes. I think that I’ve been very fortunate to be part of that group and I think that part of what – when I first was applying for it – made it seem like . . . I didn’t think I was going to be accepted into this cohort, was partially because I’m a scholar primarily of Christianity. And so, we tend to assume that Islamophobia is an issue around Islam, and that it’s about Muslims. And so for me, being part of that cohort, the majority of Islamophobia is being practised by Christians, right? And so thinking about how Islamophobia works out as a Christian practice. And then, how do we teach these very difficult practices, discourses, rhetorical moves from within religious traditions. So there’s kind-of a number of different layers that are at play there. And when we’re thinking about teaching about, or against, Islamophobia for example, or really anything, what we’re doing is teaching our students to ask the questions. So I’m not standing up and saying, “Islamophobia is bad, and here are all the reasons.” I’m saying “How does this come out of Christianity and out of the discourse, the rhetoric, the foundations of particular Christian traditions, or particular Christian communities?”, and let the students tease it out. And what they do with that at the end is their choice, where they move from there. Because our role of course always, as scholars, is to not kind-of come with these moral or ethical conclusions.
DMcC: So as we end – because everyone has a very busy schedule here – one of the things that I was really struck by in the last few minutes, is how do we translate this to our administrators, right? Because I have learning outcomes, as a contingent faculty, that I cannot change. And one of them, very explicitly, says that my courses are supposed to enhance the spiritual dimension of our students’ lives. That’s written in the course description. So spiritual growth, personal growth is part of the extension of what has been built into the programme and courses, prior to my arrival. Whether I achieve it I will leave for my students to decide! But as we end, one of the important things that I think for all of us – because we all have higher-ups that we answer to within the administration – what would you say, as a final comment about these Religious Literacy Guidelines, and how you might move forward in your own context to dealing with them?
RN: I think the guidelines, perhaps, become a . . . you know, if the administrators interested in the guidelines themselves, then so be it. But I guess what I would punt to . . . the idea of my students are proof positive of the work that the department’s already doing. (35:00) You know, whether it’s the fact that we have students that are working in museums, that we have students who are placed in graduate school, that students are going to law school, medical school, or talking in their communities about these complicated issues. Or just, they recognise that what they were doing in our department was useful. I think that is pleasing to administrators. I think when departments are also sort-of on the forefront of what is going on in the university – largely because we have to prove we exist and we should be there – that’s a space where administrators get to be surprised. So for us, at the University of Alabama, it’s been starting a Master’s programme that involves sort-of digital humanities, public humanities and academic study of religion. It could also be our use of undergraduate research, which I think a lot of programmes – I follow the Twitter feeds of a lot of departments – they’re getting their students out there doing work. And their work, across campuses seem to be super-interesting to people even beyond Religious Studies. And I think that says a lot to administrators.
CJ: One of our learning outcomes, at Wasburn University, for general education is global diversity consciousness: the ability to understand how people are different in different parts of the world. We’re running a programme in the middle of Kansas, as far from other countries as you can get in the United States of America. And so, giving students windows into what it’s like to be human, if I weren’t born where I was, is very important. And these guidelines give me some language to convince my administrators “You need me”. If we want all four year student graduates to have this level of religious competence and religious literacy. Nobody else in this institution has the disciplinary qualifications to do that. So we need a Religious Studies programme. Even though we’re the only school our size in the Midwest that has one – don’t cut that. Because I know it comes up at Trustee meetings. Don’t cut that.
RK: I would say that, it’s easy for us to critique these guidelines. We are all academics and scholars and (audio unclear) critique is one of our core competencies. But my recommendation from this would be that people read these guidelines closely, and find ways that they are going to be helpful in your own institutional context. One of the co-authors, or co-leaders of it, Eugene Gallagher, has been an incredible resource to Jenna and I. He came to MTSU. We had a Wabash grant to bring him to campus. And he sat down with us, when we were in that key point of planning out the curriculum, and really helped us think through major issues. And then also took the time to meet with our university provost and people in upper administrations, to explain what the academic study of religion is, and its importance. So I really think that while it’s fun for us to sort-of criticise and say “They’re not doing enough! They need to do more, and do all the things,” these were written by people who really understand how to speak administrative languages. So we should be using them as is appropriate for our own contexts.
DMcC: And, before Brad next, the other thing to do is to remember how broadly these guidelines are written for. That it is meant to be high school, two-year college, four-year college, four-year small liberal arts, four-year research college – the whole range. And when you speak to a whole range like that, I think some of the criticisms that we have kind-of disappear in the appeal to that broadness. Go ahead.
RN: I was just going to say, to Rebekka’s point, I think one of the wisest pieces in the guidelines is that it’s not supposed to be used as a rubric against which departments are measured. But as the opportunity to have that conversation about, “Here’s how we fit into a national, international conversation about this stuff that’s going on.” And I think if used in that way, it gives space to sort-of show departments how unique they are. Which I think administrators like to see too. Like, how are we doing this differently? I think every school has some slogan about difference – like we are different than everybody else. Yes, all universities! (Laughter). So, to that work . . .
BO: I really loved what Chris said about basically, the practice of students rehearsing playing the roles of other people, or stepping into the shoes of the worlds of the communities of others. As you said, Chris, you’re in a place that is as far from other countries in this country as you can get. I mean that’s a wonderful example: what you’re offering is a set of skills where students rehearse or practice what it would mean to be someone born in South East Asia, into a certain religious community, whatever it may be. I don’t know – I’m sure everyone at the table is not comfortable calling that a spiritual practice. I don’t know what that is, but it is a practice. And I think if we don’t sell that, we overlook a lot of what we have to offer, right? We are saying, if we don’t want a world full of short-sightedness, full of crudity, (40:00) if we want something that avoids, what I’ll just say is sort-of overtaking our sort-of political and civic climates as we speak, then we have to have universities that are more than just pre-professional training. They have to include that kind-of practice – call it spiritual, call it personal growth, call it whatever you want. But if that’s not part of education, that’s not part of teaching and learning, then I don’t know what is. And to me, that’s why I still firmly believe in Religious Studies as something that’s incredibly, incredibly important for the modern research university, the liberal arts university, the two-year college whatever maybe.
DMcC: Kevin, do you want to share now?
KM: Yes. I really appreciate those powerful words, Brad. I think in my context, much like Christopher’s, like this backs up what we’re doing. There’re two of us, right. Our word only goes so far that our discipline isn’t central to, as everyone else is making that argument as well in the Humanities, so that this gives us something to really put forwards. That “No. You need us here as part of your Gen. Ed.” That we have vital things to offer students who are not coming here to major in religion, because that’s not what’s supporting the university and keeping it going. So it helps back us up, it helps us promote the understanding of religion as something that is studied to understand the world that had not previously been popularly understood on campus before we showed up. So I think there’s really a lot of value there for us to continue the sort of work we’re doing, and have something bigger than us, beyond us, that says “Oh no – actually these people are speaking from a disciplinary perspective”
JGH: Yes, and so I think that your original question had something to do with our learning or programme goals, and something like that, and speaking to administrators. And Rebekka and I are in the situation where we wrote the programme goals and learning outcomes. So if we are displeased with them we only have ourselves to blame. (Laughter). But as far as speaking to administrators, I’m going to echo what Richard said, in some ways, which is that our students are our best advocates and advertisement for the necessity of our programmes, and the importance of them. And the more I think that we invest our time in them, and don’t forget that they are the . . . at least in our institutional context – we’re not an R1 – and, I think, for those of us here that they are the reason that we’re here, and remind ourselves of that. And keep celebrating their successes and advertising their successes, like the proud teacher-scholars that we are. We won’t lose sight of our mission as Religious Studies teacher scholars that we are. Because they’re amazing. And I think that part of what you were saying, Brad, too, is that . . . that when Rebekka and I were creating the programme, we always used the word creativity also. And so that there is critical thinking, which is thrown about – and we were very specific about what we meant about what critical thinking meant. But also we always put in that word about creativity. Because we are a creative discipline and that is . . . and creativity and innovation is very important for this generation of students as well. So with that I’ll turn over to you.
DMcC: What a wonderful note to end on (Laughter). Because we have all sat here for forty-five minutes out of our busy schedule, and created something that we’re going to share with everyone. And I’m very thankful for your time today, and very supportive of all of your works in all of your different contexts. I’m so pleased to be able to share this with everyone today, and I hope you all have a wonderful conference.
This week we decided to do something a bit different. Every time David and Chris have conducted an interview, they have been asking the interviewees an additional question: “What is the Future of Religious Studies?”
The result is this highly stimulating compilation of differing perspectives and levels of optimism
The result is this highly stimulating compilation of differing perspectives and levels of optimism on what has become one of the most hotly debated topics in the academic study of religion at the start of the second decade of the twenty-first century.
After this week’s podcast, which involved eight scholars giving their views on the future of Religious Studies, there was really only one way we could create a suitably collective and varied response – six postgrads sitting around a table, accompanied by pink gin and our trusty dictaphone. Conversation ranges from the public perception of what Religious Studies does, ...
In another roundtable gathering, conversation ranges from the strengths and weaknesses of such data, whether there is more to the social sciences than quantitative methods, and the place of the social sciences within a multi-disciplinary Religious Studies field. Can we trust social sciences when we study religion? Is a social scientific approach the future of religious studies?
In this interview, Timothy Fitzgerald presents his critical deconstruction of religion as a powerful discourse and its parasitic relation to ‘secular’ categories such as politics and economics. Religion is not a stand-alone category, he argues; ‘religions’ are modern inventions which are made to appear ubiquitous and, by being removed to a marginal, ...
The inspiration for this episode came from one of Russell McCutcheon's works which we had encountered through the undergraduate Religious Studies programme at the University of Edinburgh, entitled 'Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion'. The result is this compilation of differing opinions and interpretations ...
In this interview, Professor Wouter Hanegraaff tells us about what he dubs “the biggest blank spaces of neglected territories in the study of religion”, namely Western esotericism. He tells how he first came over the German Folklorist Will-Erich Peuckert’s book Pansophie (1936) and discovered a group of renaissance thinkers he had never heard of, ...
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