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What does religious literacy mean in your context?

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.

 

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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:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/what-does-religious-literacy-mean-in-your-context/

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.

CJ: Hurrah!

RK: Yes!

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 . .  . ?

CJ: One.

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.

RN: Thereabouts.

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.

All: Thank you.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.


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Sociology of Religion and Religious Studies: Disciplines, Fields, and the Limits of Dialogue

As it happens, just two and a half weeks ago, I was in the audience of a panel called ‘Rethinking Theory, Methods, and Data: A Conversation between Religious Studies and Sociology of Religion’ presented at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion.  The panel was advertised as a ‘conversation’ discussing the: ‘overlaps and differences between the role of theory, method and the collection of data in the respective fields. Panelists will focus on “what counts” as data and how religious studies and sociology of religion can mutually benefit from this discussion.’

Whilst the papers were generally very well-conceived and presented, it was the subsequent Q&A session with the audience that revealed a number of so-called fault lines as well as a general lack of consensus on what exactly religious studies is: discipline or field.  Indeed, it seemed that those with a background in religious studies were generally more open to the idea of their academic arena being framed in terms of a broad ‘field of study’ in which many disciplines and approaches participate.  Yet, those representing the sociology of religion seemed more keen to posit religious studies as a stand-alone ‘discipline’, complete with its own questions, methods, and theories.  When an audience member suggested that to insist on religious studies as a distinct and entirely separate discipline was also to limit even further the appropriate ‘house’ for the sociology of religion, one panelist argued steadfastly that that was not a problem; the sociology of religion was firmly located within sociology departments at the institutional level and had its own associations and publications to prove its established position within academia generally.

This seems to be a particularly American response – as pointed out by Paul-Francois Tremlett and Titus Hjelm in their interview with David Robertson.  Whilst many sociologists of religion in American are, indeed, ‘housed’ in sociology departments where they teach courses beyond those focused on religion, the picture is quite different in the UK and elsewhere.  In the latter contexts, sociology of religion is most frequently encountered within departments of theology and religion, or religious studies.  Indeed, it was refreshing to hear Tremlett and Hjelm agree on this and note that the sociology of religion is therefore sometimes understandably uncomfortable in its own arrangements with higher education as it attempts to maintain a cohesive (and coherent) body of scholarship detached from departments of social science and within a strikingly amorphous and ill-defined branch of the academy.  What is perhaps more interesting, however, is that the scenarios on both sides of the Atlantic highlight a consequent desire to distinguish between a discipline and a field of study.

I concur with those on the panel as well as with Tremlett and Hjelm, then, that such a distinction seems warranted and helpful as we grapple with the nature of religious studies and its relationship to the sociology of religion.  Setting aside the argument that could be made concerning sociology of religion’s status as a ‘sub-discipline’ of sociology – an argument that hardly seems rebutted by the presence of organizations and publications dedicated to the sociology of religion – it does seem clear that a classificatory disparity exists here.  Religious studies has always included a number of approaches, methods, theories, lines of inquiry, etc.  In some sense, religious studies is a both/and endeavour: it is both science-based and humanities-based, both data-driven and theory-driven, both political and apolitical.  At the very least, it contains the potential to be any number of those things.  Accordingly, Hjelm’s observation that religious studies spends too much time looking inward, debating the definitions and theories of religion rather than analysing instances of religion, is likely astute.  As a large inclusive field, religious studies was perhaps always doomed to expend a great deal of energy on self-definition and self-clarification.

Yet, sociology of religion seems a narrower discipline, right?  It has a history traceable to Durkheim and Weber, perhaps Marx as well.  It is ostensibly science-based and data-driven.  Therefore, as both Tremlett and Hjelm suggested it is perhaps more amenable to, or palatable for, the uses put to it by politicians, journalists, and some of those involved in public policy.  In other words, sociology of religion is perhaps more scientific than religious studies because the latter’s scientific qualities are diluted by the presence of non-, or less, scientific approaches.  That being said, it does appear that putting sociology of religion ‘in conversation’ with religious studies is something like putting an apple in conversation with an orange, or putting an apple in conversation with the fresh produce section of the supermarket.  Although such an analogy is doubtlessly flawed in significant ways, it does serve to highlight one of the most striking aspects of these discussions.  To what extent is this a dialogue, a two-way conversation?

I suggest that the answer may be found in the issue of theory.  If an academic discipline is not only defined by a set of acceptable methods, a focused realm for data collection, and a cannon of resources but also is made to include the ‘development of theory’ – a characteristic highlighted as belonging to the sociology of religion but not to religious studies by members of that same AAR panel – then we begin to see the relationship of a discipline to a field more clearly.  Religious studies arguably has its own cannon, acceptable methods, and circumscribed territories for data gathering, even its own popularly used theories, but it is more difficult to contend that it has produced those theories apart from the contributions of the individual disciplines comprising the larger field.  As the interviewees noted, something like ‘lived religion’ as a concept came to religious studies from the sociology of religion.  Likewise, one can easily highlight yet again that the history of religious studies is a history of the development of other narrower disciplines like sociology and anthropology who analysed religion as a central focus of their own agendas.

For those of us working in British religious studies contexts, this relationship is witnessed on a daily basis.  My own department, for example, consists of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and literary scholars all engaged in the study of religion.  The field of religious studies, thus, encompasses massively diverse disciplinary perspectives and questions.  Large varieties of methods and theories are used to explore and analyse equally broad sets of phenomena.  Somewhere in the cacophony, sociology of religion is speaking to the religious studies enterprise.  It is offering up ideas and methods, sure, but it is also developing theories which may subsequently support or engender the work of other scholars in religious studies.  In the end, the relationship of the discipline to the field is possibly, justifiably, unilateral.  The sociology of religion may have something to say to religious studies, but I am not sure what religious studies has to say to the sociology of religion.  Of course, by placing sociologists of religion in departments of religious studies for a few generations, we may just find out how the latter shapes the former.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 1 March 2016

Calls for papers

Freedom of/for/from/within Religion: Differing DImensions of a Common Right?

September 8–11, 2016

Oxford, UK

Deadline: March 31, 2016

More information

Public Religions and Their Secrets, Secret Religions and Their Publics

October 27–28, 2016

University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Deadline: April 1, 2016

More information: Conference, Master Class

CHAOS-symposium: Religion og materialitet

April 29–30, 2016

University of Bergen, Norway

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information (Norwegian)

AAR panel: Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

AAR panel: Religion, Media, and Culture Group

Deadline: March 1, 2016

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

More information

Events

Religious Diversity and Cultural Change in Scotland: Modern Perspectives

April 19, 2016

University of Edinburgh, UK

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Les Politiques du Blasphème: Perspectives Comparées

March 7, 2016

Paris, France

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Postgraduate Workshop on the Materiality of Divine Agency in the Graeco-Roman World

August 29–September 2, 2016

University of Erfurt, Germany

Deadline: May 31, 2016

More information

Open Access

Open Theology: Cognitive Science of Religion

Available here

Jobs and funding

Postdoctoral teaching fellowship

Kenyon College, OH, USA

Deadline: March 25, 2016

More information

Lecturer in Hebrew

University of California, Santa Barbara, USA

Deadline: April 30, 2016

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University Lectureship in Anthropology and Islamic Studies

Leiden University, The Netherlands

Deadline: May 18, 2016

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Editor: Shambhala and Snow Lion Publications

Boulder, CO, USA

Deadline: May 17, 2016

More information

Assistant professor of Religious Studies

Utrecht University, the Netherlands

Deadline: March 11, 2016

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Instructor in Religion and Culture

Virginia Tech, VA, USA

Deadline: March 14, 2016

More information

AAR-Luce Fellowships in Religion and International Affairs

Deadline: March 31, 2016

DC, USA

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Dean of Graduate Jewish Studies

Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership

Deadline: May 22, 2016

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Postdoctoral Fellow in Judaic Studies

Virginia Tech, VA, USA

March 14, 2016

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Funding

CSA Research Fellowship

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Two fully funded PhD positions, one Postdoctoral position in the Study of Religions

Creative Agency and Religious Minorities: “Hidden galleries” in the secret police archives in 20th Century Central and Eastern Europe

University College Cork, Ireland

Deadline: April 22, 2016

More information: PhDs, Postdoc

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 2 February 2016

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest and would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has submitted calls for papers, event notifications, job vacancies, etc. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

We thank you for your contribution.

Calls for papers

7th Queering Paradigms Conference

June 11–12, 2016

Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands

Deadline: April 4, 2016

More information

Undergraduate conference: “Faith and Power”

August 4–7, 2016

Central European University, Hungary

Deadline: April 1, 2016

More information

Law and Religion Scholars Network

Cardiff University, UK

Deadline: February 29, 2016

More information

Sacred stuff: Material culture and the geography of religion

August 30–September 2, 2016

London, UK

Deadline: February 8, 2016

More information

Religion, literature and culture: Lines in sand

September 9–11, 2016

University of Glasgow, UK

Deadline: April 18, 2016

More information

Historical Re-Enactment, Contemporary Paganism and Fantasy-Based Movements

May 20–21, 2016

Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania

Deadline: March 21, 2016

More information

Islam and Peaceful Relations

April 5, 2016

Coventry University, UK

Deadline: February 15, 2016

More information

Postgraduate Conference on Religion and Theology: “Perfection”

March 11–12, 2016

University of Bristol, UK

Deadline: February 19, 2016

More information

Time and Myth: The Temporal and the Eternal

May 26–28, 2016

Masaryk University, Czech Republic

Deadline: March 15, 2016

More information

Fetish Boots and Running Shoes: Indecent Theology Today into Tomorrow

July 8, 2016

University of Winchester, UK

Deadline: March 7, 2016

More information

AAR 2016: Religion and Public Schools: International Perspectives Group

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Fieldwork: Doing Ethnographic Research

June 24, 2016

Birmingham City University, UK

Deadline: March 25, 2016

More information

Events

Inform seminar: New Religious Radicalisms

May 21, 2016

London School of Economics, UK

More information

Arbeitskreis interdisdisziplinäre Hexenforschung

February 18–20, 2016

Stuttgart-Hohenheim, Germany

More information

Research Methods in the Study of Religion

University of Kent, UK

Deadline: February 5, 2016

More information

Jobs

2 PhD positions in sociology project: “Postsecular Conflicts”

University of Innsbruck, Austria

Deadline: February 15, 2016

More information

3 PhD studentships

Coventry University, UK

Deadline: February 19, 2016

More information

PhD position: “Multiple Secularities: Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities”

University of Leipzig, Germany

Deadline: February 5, 2016

More information

PhD studentship: Cognitive Science of Religion

Belfast, UK; Aarhus, Denmark

Deadline: April 29, 2016

More information

Visiting Fellowship

Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore

Deadline: March 31, 2016

More information

Associate Professor, Full Professor: Jewish History/Studies

Case Western Research University, OH, United States

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Postdoctoral fellowship

University of Pennsylvania, USA

Deadline: February 15, 2016

More information

Instructor: Buddhist Studies

Antioch University, OH, USA

Deadline: April 15, 2016

More information

Postdoctoral Fellowship: Chinese Buddhism

Columbia University, NY, USA

Deadline: April 20, 2016

More information

Getting to Know the North American Association for the Study of Religion

In this interview, Russell McCutcheon and Aaron Hughes discuss the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), an international organization dedicated to historical, critical, and social scientific approaches to the study of religion. McCutcheon and Hughes (the president and vice president of NAASR, respectively) discuss the history of NAASR, their attempt to help return NAASR to its original mission, various publications associated with NAASR, and the philosophy or motivations that guided their annual conference this year.

In January 2016, we welcomed the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) as an additional sponsor. We are indebted to NAASR for their generosity, and we look forward to working with them in the years to come to continue what we do, and to bring about some important and long-planned innovations.

The North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) was initially formed in 1985 by E. Thomas Lawson, Luther H. Martin, and Donald Wiebe, to encourage the historical, comparative, structural, theoretical, and cognitive approaches to the study of religion among North American scholars; to represent North American scholars of religion at the international level; and to sustain communication between North American scholars and their international colleagues engaged in the study of religion.

Please see their website for more information on their activities, and for membership details. NAASR is incorporated as a nonprofit in the state of Vermont. A brief history of NAASR, written by Luther H. Martin and Donald Wiebe, can be found here.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, incense, driving gloves, and more.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 September 2015

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest!

We would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has forwarded notifications. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

We thank you for your contribution. And now for this week’s digest:

Calls for papers

Conference: Yoga darśana, yoga sādhana: traditions, transmissions, transformations

May 19–21, 2016

Uniwersytet Jagielloński w Krakowie, Poland

Deadline: December 21, 2015

More information

Conference: Visual Narratives of Faith: Religion, Ritual and Identity

July 10–14, 2016

Vienna, Austria

Deadline: September 30, 2015

More information

Conference: Religion and Non-Religion in Contemporary Societies

April 21–24, 2016

Zadar, Croatia

Deadline: November 15, 2015

More information

Conference: Symposium Peregrinum

June 16–19, 2016

Tarquinio, Italy

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Journal: Women: A Cultural Review

Special issue: Religion and Gender

Deadline: October 31, 2015

More information

Events

Annual meeting: American Academy of Religion

November 21–24, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

More information

Annual meeting: American Anthropological Association

November 18–22, 2015

Denver, CO, USA

More information

Annual meeting: North American Association for the Study of Religion

November 20–22, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

More information

Research report launch: What should young people leave school knowing about religion and belief?

November 26, 2015, 5–6:30 p.m.

London, UK

More information

Conference: Radicalization & Islamophobia: Roots, Relationships and Implications in Religiously Diverse Societies

November 30–December 1, 2015

Sydney, Australia

More information

Conference: Pluralism and Community: Social Science History Perspectives

November 12–15, 2015

Baltimore, MD, USA

More information

Grants and awards

Miklós Tomka Award

Deadline: January 10, 2016

More information

Jobs

Postdoctoral Fellowship: History of Religion and Religiosity

German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C.

Deadline: December 1, 2015

More information

Two PhD scholarships in Buddhist Studies

LMU München, Germany

Deadline: October 18, 2015

More information

Fully funded PhD studentship

Newman University, UK

Deadline: October 23, 2015

More information

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 10 February 2015

Calls for papers

Conference: In Search of the Origins of Religions

September 11–13, 2015

Ghent, Belgium

Deadline: March 1, 2015

More information (English)

Conference: Second Undegraduate Conference on Religion and Culture

March 28, 2015

Syracuse, NY, USA

Deadline: February 15, 2015

More information

Symposium: Society for the Study of Religion and Transhumanism (SSRT)

June 27, 2015

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: March 31, 2015

More information

AAR group: Secularism and Secularity

Deadline: March 2, 2015

More information

Journal: Studi e materiali di storia delle religioni

Theme issue: Religion as a Colonial Concept in Early modern History (Africa, America, Asia)

Deadline: May 15, 2015

More information

Article collection: Religious subcultures in Unexpected Places

Deadline: May 1, 2015

More information

Events

Conference: International Tyndale Conference

October 1–4, 2015

Oxford, UK

More information

Congress: “Ad Astra per Corpora: Astrología y Sexualidad en el Mundo Antiguo

February 19–21, 2015

Málaga, Spain

More information (Spanish)

Jobs

Research assistant: Indology

Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, Germany

Deadline: February 28, 2015

More information (German)

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 3 February 2015

Dear subscribers,

We are happy to provide you with this week’s thick and juicy digest, full of opportunities to present intriguing thoughts, discuss important matters, and—not least—do some really engaging research!

Thank you to everyone who forwarded calls for papers, notifications of events, and job openings. Please continue to do so in the future! You know the address, right? (No? It’s oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com.)

Calls for papers

Conference: American Academy of Religion: Annual conference

November 21–24, 2015

Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Deadline: March 2, 2015

More information

AAR group: Religion in Europe

More information 

AAR group: Sociology of Religion

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AAR panel: Religion in Public Schools: International Perspectives 

More information

Conference: The European Sociological Association

August 25–28, 2015

Prague, Czech Republic

Deadline: February 15, 2015

More information

Conference: Latin America Peace Research Association

October 26–28, 2015

Guatemala City, Guatemala

Deadline: May 1, 2015

More information

Conference: Asia-Pacific Peace Research Associaton

October 9–11, 2015

Kathmandu, Nepal

Deadline: March 31, 2015

More information

Conference: The Sacred Journeys: Pilgrimages and Beyond Project

July 3–5, 2015

Oxford, UK

Deadline: March 13, 2015

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Symposium: Marginal presences: Unorthodox belief and practice, 1837–2014

April 23, 2015

Deadline: March 9, 2015

London, UK

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Journal: Religion & Theology

Looking for book review(er)s

Deadline: N/A

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Events

Conference: European Network of Buddhist-Christian Studies

Munich, Germany

June 25–29, 2015

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Resources

Open access: Entangled Religions: Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Religious Contact and Transfer

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Jobs

Lectureship in Radicalisation and Protest in a Digital Age

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: February 22, 2015

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Doctoral student: Religious history

Universiteit Antwerpen, the Netherlands

Deadline: February 22, 2015

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Postdoctoral researcher: Religious history

Universiteit Antwerpen, the Netherlands

Deadline: February 22, 2015

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Postdoctoral fellow: Media studies

Stockholm University, Sweden

Deadline: February 28, 2015

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Research associate: Magic and the Expanding Early Modern World

University of Manchester, UK

Deadline: March 1, 2015

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THATCamp Roundtable on Digital Religious Studies

At this past year’s meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Baltimore, Maryland, over 70 scholars met to participate in the AAR’s first THATCamp. The Humanities and Technology Camp is an open meeting for those desiring a conference experience outside of the presentation of formal papers. Participants submitted ideas ahead of time to the AAR THATCamp website, but the final shape and content of the event was decided on-site by a vote. In the busy weekend of paper sessions, THATCamp AAR was an oasis of facilitate first, pontificate second. As digital religious studies emerges within the broader digital humanities movement, the Camp was a rather bold move for the AAR, whose interaction has been driven by more conservative timelines.

THATCamp represents one of the bright spots of the digital world and its potential for conference goers. It emphasizes hands-on experience, privileges active learning, and puts expertise and enthusiasm for technology side-by-side. It can be chaotic with its impromptu schedule, but the advantage is the flexibility it offers to solve problems, foster dialogue, and teach digital skills.

Over the course of the day participants had the option to become more familiar with the online curation platform Omeka, learn about the many options for digital publishing, brainstorm ways to harness outside technological expertise for humanities projects, discuss the role of media in the classroom, learn the basics of big data, and even get tips about doing digital ethnography with students. The schedule is still up here, but it was as full a day of information as even the most seasoned technophiles could handle.

For the conference organizers that sat together for a few brief minutes over lunch, there was awareness of both the promises and perils of the digital world. As a fledgling research method whose products are varied and often unique, there is a great need for clear standards of evaluation of “good scholarship in the digital realm.” This should be of special concern to early career scholars who may have to fight for the presence of digital work in their tenure portfolios or in grant applications. This problem would be addressed not only by the development and promotion of open platforms for scholarly work, but also by sincere discussion about basic digital literacy and professionalization with digital tools and methods. Publishers, professional organizations, libraries, departments, scholars, and students–everyone in the academic chain will need to work out their roles for digital methods and digital work.

With so little time, several questions were pre-circulated to help things move along quickly on these topics.

What does it mean to teach or research religious studies digitally?

Does religious “data” make digital religious studies distinct within the digital humanities?

What is a digital religious studies research project you think more people should know about?

How can departments and the field better support digital methods and pedagogies?

For each of the six participants, digital methods and platforms are a key element in their identity as scholars. While there was not an opportunity to to fully explore their contribution and work, if you would like to learn more about them, please use the links below:

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.comlinks to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

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.

Podcasts

What does religious literacy mean in your context?

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.

 

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


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:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/what-does-religious-literacy-mean-in-your-context/

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.

CJ: Hurrah!

RK: Yes!

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 . .  . ?

CJ: One.

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.

RN: Thereabouts.

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.

All: Thank you.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Sociology of Religion and Religious Studies: Disciplines, Fields, and the Limits of Dialogue

As it happens, just two and a half weeks ago, I was in the audience of a panel called ‘Rethinking Theory, Methods, and Data: A Conversation between Religious Studies and Sociology of Religion’ presented at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion.  The panel was advertised as a ‘conversation’ discussing the: ‘overlaps and differences between the role of theory, method and the collection of data in the respective fields. Panelists will focus on “what counts” as data and how religious studies and sociology of religion can mutually benefit from this discussion.’

Whilst the papers were generally very well-conceived and presented, it was the subsequent Q&A session with the audience that revealed a number of so-called fault lines as well as a general lack of consensus on what exactly religious studies is: discipline or field.  Indeed, it seemed that those with a background in religious studies were generally more open to the idea of their academic arena being framed in terms of a broad ‘field of study’ in which many disciplines and approaches participate.  Yet, those representing the sociology of religion seemed more keen to posit religious studies as a stand-alone ‘discipline’, complete with its own questions, methods, and theories.  When an audience member suggested that to insist on religious studies as a distinct and entirely separate discipline was also to limit even further the appropriate ‘house’ for the sociology of religion, one panelist argued steadfastly that that was not a problem; the sociology of religion was firmly located within sociology departments at the institutional level and had its own associations and publications to prove its established position within academia generally.

This seems to be a particularly American response – as pointed out by Paul-Francois Tremlett and Titus Hjelm in their interview with David Robertson.  Whilst many sociologists of religion in American are, indeed, ‘housed’ in sociology departments where they teach courses beyond those focused on religion, the picture is quite different in the UK and elsewhere.  In the latter contexts, sociology of religion is most frequently encountered within departments of theology and religion, or religious studies.  Indeed, it was refreshing to hear Tremlett and Hjelm agree on this and note that the sociology of religion is therefore sometimes understandably uncomfortable in its own arrangements with higher education as it attempts to maintain a cohesive (and coherent) body of scholarship detached from departments of social science and within a strikingly amorphous and ill-defined branch of the academy.  What is perhaps more interesting, however, is that the scenarios on both sides of the Atlantic highlight a consequent desire to distinguish between a discipline and a field of study.

I concur with those on the panel as well as with Tremlett and Hjelm, then, that such a distinction seems warranted and helpful as we grapple with the nature of religious studies and its relationship to the sociology of religion.  Setting aside the argument that could be made concerning sociology of religion’s status as a ‘sub-discipline’ of sociology – an argument that hardly seems rebutted by the presence of organizations and publications dedicated to the sociology of religion – it does seem clear that a classificatory disparity exists here.  Religious studies has always included a number of approaches, methods, theories, lines of inquiry, etc.  In some sense, religious studies is a both/and endeavour: it is both science-based and humanities-based, both data-driven and theory-driven, both political and apolitical.  At the very least, it contains the potential to be any number of those things.  Accordingly, Hjelm’s observation that religious studies spends too much time looking inward, debating the definitions and theories of religion rather than analysing instances of religion, is likely astute.  As a large inclusive field, religious studies was perhaps always doomed to expend a great deal of energy on self-definition and self-clarification.

Yet, sociology of religion seems a narrower discipline, right?  It has a history traceable to Durkheim and Weber, perhaps Marx as well.  It is ostensibly science-based and data-driven.  Therefore, as both Tremlett and Hjelm suggested it is perhaps more amenable to, or palatable for, the uses put to it by politicians, journalists, and some of those involved in public policy.  In other words, sociology of religion is perhaps more scientific than religious studies because the latter’s scientific qualities are diluted by the presence of non-, or less, scientific approaches.  That being said, it does appear that putting sociology of religion ‘in conversation’ with religious studies is something like putting an apple in conversation with an orange, or putting an apple in conversation with the fresh produce section of the supermarket.  Although such an analogy is doubtlessly flawed in significant ways, it does serve to highlight one of the most striking aspects of these discussions.  To what extent is this a dialogue, a two-way conversation?

I suggest that the answer may be found in the issue of theory.  If an academic discipline is not only defined by a set of acceptable methods, a focused realm for data collection, and a cannon of resources but also is made to include the ‘development of theory’ – a characteristic highlighted as belonging to the sociology of religion but not to religious studies by members of that same AAR panel – then we begin to see the relationship of a discipline to a field more clearly.  Religious studies arguably has its own cannon, acceptable methods, and circumscribed territories for data gathering, even its own popularly used theories, but it is more difficult to contend that it has produced those theories apart from the contributions of the individual disciplines comprising the larger field.  As the interviewees noted, something like ‘lived religion’ as a concept came to religious studies from the sociology of religion.  Likewise, one can easily highlight yet again that the history of religious studies is a history of the development of other narrower disciplines like sociology and anthropology who analysed religion as a central focus of their own agendas.

For those of us working in British religious studies contexts, this relationship is witnessed on a daily basis.  My own department, for example, consists of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and literary scholars all engaged in the study of religion.  The field of religious studies, thus, encompasses massively diverse disciplinary perspectives and questions.  Large varieties of methods and theories are used to explore and analyse equally broad sets of phenomena.  Somewhere in the cacophony, sociology of religion is speaking to the religious studies enterprise.  It is offering up ideas and methods, sure, but it is also developing theories which may subsequently support or engender the work of other scholars in religious studies.  In the end, the relationship of the discipline to the field is possibly, justifiably, unilateral.  The sociology of religion may have something to say to religious studies, but I am not sure what religious studies has to say to the sociology of religion.  Of course, by placing sociologists of religion in departments of religious studies for a few generations, we may just find out how the latter shapes the former.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 1 March 2016

Calls for papers

Freedom of/for/from/within Religion: Differing DImensions of a Common Right?

September 8–11, 2016

Oxford, UK

Deadline: March 31, 2016

More information

Public Religions and Their Secrets, Secret Religions and Their Publics

October 27–28, 2016

University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Deadline: April 1, 2016

More information: Conference, Master Class

CHAOS-symposium: Religion og materialitet

April 29–30, 2016

University of Bergen, Norway

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information (Norwegian)

AAR panel: Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

AAR panel: Religion, Media, and Culture Group

Deadline: March 1, 2016

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

More information

Events

Religious Diversity and Cultural Change in Scotland: Modern Perspectives

April 19, 2016

University of Edinburgh, UK

More information

Les Politiques du Blasphème: Perspectives Comparées

March 7, 2016

Paris, France

More information

Postgraduate Workshop on the Materiality of Divine Agency in the Graeco-Roman World

August 29–September 2, 2016

University of Erfurt, Germany

Deadline: May 31, 2016

More information

Open Access

Open Theology: Cognitive Science of Religion

Available here

Jobs and funding

Postdoctoral teaching fellowship

Kenyon College, OH, USA

Deadline: March 25, 2016

More information

Lecturer in Hebrew

University of California, Santa Barbara, USA

Deadline: April 30, 2016

More information

University Lectureship in Anthropology and Islamic Studies

Leiden University, The Netherlands

Deadline: May 18, 2016

More information

Editor: Shambhala and Snow Lion Publications

Boulder, CO, USA

Deadline: May 17, 2016

More information

Assistant professor of Religious Studies

Utrecht University, the Netherlands

Deadline: March 11, 2016

More information

Instructor in Religion and Culture

Virginia Tech, VA, USA

Deadline: March 14, 2016

More information

AAR-Luce Fellowships in Religion and International Affairs

Deadline: March 31, 2016

DC, USA

More information

Dean of Graduate Jewish Studies

Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership

Deadline: May 22, 2016

More information

Postdoctoral Fellow in Judaic Studies

Virginia Tech, VA, USA

March 14, 2016

More information

Funding

CSA Research Fellowship

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Two fully funded PhD positions, one Postdoctoral position in the Study of Religions

Creative Agency and Religious Minorities: “Hidden galleries” in the secret police archives in 20th Century Central and Eastern Europe

University College Cork, Ireland

Deadline: April 22, 2016

More information: PhDs, Postdoc

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 2 February 2016

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest and would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has submitted calls for papers, event notifications, job vacancies, etc. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

We thank you for your contribution.

Calls for papers

7th Queering Paradigms Conference

June 11–12, 2016

Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands

Deadline: April 4, 2016

More information

Undergraduate conference: “Faith and Power”

August 4–7, 2016

Central European University, Hungary

Deadline: April 1, 2016

More information

Law and Religion Scholars Network

Cardiff University, UK

Deadline: February 29, 2016

More information

Sacred stuff: Material culture and the geography of religion

August 30–September 2, 2016

London, UK

Deadline: February 8, 2016

More information

Religion, literature and culture: Lines in sand

September 9–11, 2016

University of Glasgow, UK

Deadline: April 18, 2016

More information

Historical Re-Enactment, Contemporary Paganism and Fantasy-Based Movements

May 20–21, 2016

Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania

Deadline: March 21, 2016

More information

Islam and Peaceful Relations

April 5, 2016

Coventry University, UK

Deadline: February 15, 2016

More information

Postgraduate Conference on Religion and Theology: “Perfection”

March 11–12, 2016

University of Bristol, UK

Deadline: February 19, 2016

More information

Time and Myth: The Temporal and the Eternal

May 26–28, 2016

Masaryk University, Czech Republic

Deadline: March 15, 2016

More information

Fetish Boots and Running Shoes: Indecent Theology Today into Tomorrow

July 8, 2016

University of Winchester, UK

Deadline: March 7, 2016

More information

AAR 2016: Religion and Public Schools: International Perspectives Group

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Fieldwork: Doing Ethnographic Research

June 24, 2016

Birmingham City University, UK

Deadline: March 25, 2016

More information

Events

Inform seminar: New Religious Radicalisms

May 21, 2016

London School of Economics, UK

More information

Arbeitskreis interdisdisziplinäre Hexenforschung

February 18–20, 2016

Stuttgart-Hohenheim, Germany

More information

Research Methods in the Study of Religion

University of Kent, UK

Deadline: February 5, 2016

More information

Jobs

2 PhD positions in sociology project: “Postsecular Conflicts”

University of Innsbruck, Austria

Deadline: February 15, 2016

More information

3 PhD studentships

Coventry University, UK

Deadline: February 19, 2016

More information

PhD position: “Multiple Secularities: Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities”

University of Leipzig, Germany

Deadline: February 5, 2016

More information

PhD studentship: Cognitive Science of Religion

Belfast, UK; Aarhus, Denmark

Deadline: April 29, 2016

More information

Visiting Fellowship

Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore

Deadline: March 31, 2016

More information

Associate Professor, Full Professor: Jewish History/Studies

Case Western Research University, OH, United States

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Postdoctoral fellowship

University of Pennsylvania, USA

Deadline: February 15, 2016

More information

Instructor: Buddhist Studies

Antioch University, OH, USA

Deadline: April 15, 2016

More information

Postdoctoral Fellowship: Chinese Buddhism

Columbia University, NY, USA

Deadline: April 20, 2016

More information

Getting to Know the North American Association for the Study of Religion

In this interview, Russell McCutcheon and Aaron Hughes discuss the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), an international organization dedicated to historical, critical, and social scientific approaches to the study of religion. McCutcheon and Hughes (the president and vice president of NAASR, respectively) discuss the history of NAASR, their attempt to help return NAASR to its original mission, various publications associated with NAASR, and the philosophy or motivations that guided their annual conference this year.

In January 2016, we welcomed the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) as an additional sponsor. We are indebted to NAASR for their generosity, and we look forward to working with them in the years to come to continue what we do, and to bring about some important and long-planned innovations.

The North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) was initially formed in 1985 by E. Thomas Lawson, Luther H. Martin, and Donald Wiebe, to encourage the historical, comparative, structural, theoretical, and cognitive approaches to the study of religion among North American scholars; to represent North American scholars of religion at the international level; and to sustain communication between North American scholars and their international colleagues engaged in the study of religion.

Please see their website for more information on their activities, and for membership details. NAASR is incorporated as a nonprofit in the state of Vermont. A brief history of NAASR, written by Luther H. Martin and Donald Wiebe, can be found here.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, incense, driving gloves, and more.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 September 2015

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest!

We would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has forwarded notifications. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

We thank you for your contribution. And now for this week’s digest:

Calls for papers

Conference: Yoga darśana, yoga sādhana: traditions, transmissions, transformations

May 19–21, 2016

Uniwersytet Jagielloński w Krakowie, Poland

Deadline: December 21, 2015

More information

Conference: Visual Narratives of Faith: Religion, Ritual and Identity

July 10–14, 2016

Vienna, Austria

Deadline: September 30, 2015

More information

Conference: Religion and Non-Religion in Contemporary Societies

April 21–24, 2016

Zadar, Croatia

Deadline: November 15, 2015

More information

Conference: Symposium Peregrinum

June 16–19, 2016

Tarquinio, Italy

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Journal: Women: A Cultural Review

Special issue: Religion and Gender

Deadline: October 31, 2015

More information

Events

Annual meeting: American Academy of Religion

November 21–24, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

More information

Annual meeting: American Anthropological Association

November 18–22, 2015

Denver, CO, USA

More information

Annual meeting: North American Association for the Study of Religion

November 20–22, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

More information

Research report launch: What should young people leave school knowing about religion and belief?

November 26, 2015, 5–6:30 p.m.

London, UK

More information

Conference: Radicalization & Islamophobia: Roots, Relationships and Implications in Religiously Diverse Societies

November 30–December 1, 2015

Sydney, Australia

More information

Conference: Pluralism and Community: Social Science History Perspectives

November 12–15, 2015

Baltimore, MD, USA

More information

Grants and awards

Miklós Tomka Award

Deadline: January 10, 2016

More information

Jobs

Postdoctoral Fellowship: History of Religion and Religiosity

German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C.

Deadline: December 1, 2015

More information

Two PhD scholarships in Buddhist Studies

LMU München, Germany

Deadline: October 18, 2015

More information

Fully funded PhD studentship

Newman University, UK

Deadline: October 23, 2015

More information

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 10 February 2015

Calls for papers

Conference: In Search of the Origins of Religions

September 11–13, 2015

Ghent, Belgium

Deadline: March 1, 2015

More information (English)

Conference: Second Undegraduate Conference on Religion and Culture

March 28, 2015

Syracuse, NY, USA

Deadline: February 15, 2015

More information

Symposium: Society for the Study of Religion and Transhumanism (SSRT)

June 27, 2015

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: March 31, 2015

More information

AAR group: Secularism and Secularity

Deadline: March 2, 2015

More information

Journal: Studi e materiali di storia delle religioni

Theme issue: Religion as a Colonial Concept in Early modern History (Africa, America, Asia)

Deadline: May 15, 2015

More information

Article collection: Religious subcultures in Unexpected Places

Deadline: May 1, 2015

More information

Events

Conference: International Tyndale Conference

October 1–4, 2015

Oxford, UK

More information

Congress: “Ad Astra per Corpora: Astrología y Sexualidad en el Mundo Antiguo

February 19–21, 2015

Málaga, Spain

More information (Spanish)

Jobs

Research assistant: Indology

Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, Germany

Deadline: February 28, 2015

More information (German)

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 3 February 2015

Dear subscribers,

We are happy to provide you with this week’s thick and juicy digest, full of opportunities to present intriguing thoughts, discuss important matters, and—not least—do some really engaging research!

Thank you to everyone who forwarded calls for papers, notifications of events, and job openings. Please continue to do so in the future! You know the address, right? (No? It’s oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com.)

Calls for papers

Conference: American Academy of Religion: Annual conference

November 21–24, 2015

Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Deadline: March 2, 2015

More information

AAR group: Religion in Europe

More information 

AAR group: Sociology of Religion

More information

AAR panel: Religion in Public Schools: International Perspectives 

More information

Conference: The European Sociological Association

August 25–28, 2015

Prague, Czech Republic

Deadline: February 15, 2015

More information

Conference: Latin America Peace Research Association

October 26–28, 2015

Guatemala City, Guatemala

Deadline: May 1, 2015

More information

Conference: Asia-Pacific Peace Research Associaton

October 9–11, 2015

Kathmandu, Nepal

Deadline: March 31, 2015

More information

Conference: The Sacred Journeys: Pilgrimages and Beyond Project

July 3–5, 2015

Oxford, UK

Deadline: March 13, 2015

More information

Symposium: Marginal presences: Unorthodox belief and practice, 1837–2014

April 23, 2015

Deadline: March 9, 2015

London, UK

More information

Journal: Religion & Theology

Looking for book review(er)s

Deadline: N/A

More information

Events

Conference: European Network of Buddhist-Christian Studies

Munich, Germany

June 25–29, 2015

More information

Resources

Open access: Entangled Religions: Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Religious Contact and Transfer

More information

Jobs

Lectureship in Radicalisation and Protest in a Digital Age

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: February 22, 2015

More information

Doctoral student: Religious history

Universiteit Antwerpen, the Netherlands

Deadline: February 22, 2015

More information

Postdoctoral researcher: Religious history

Universiteit Antwerpen, the Netherlands

Deadline: February 22, 2015

More information

Postdoctoral fellow: Media studies

Stockholm University, Sweden

Deadline: February 28, 2015

More information

Research associate: Magic and the Expanding Early Modern World

University of Manchester, UK

Deadline: March 1, 2015

More information

THATCamp Roundtable on Digital Religious Studies

At this past year’s meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Baltimore, Maryland, over 70 scholars met to participate in the AAR’s first THATCamp. The Humanities and Technology Camp is an open meeting for those desiring a conference experience outside of the presentation of formal papers. Participants submitted ideas ahead of time to the AAR THATCamp website, but the final shape and content of the event was decided on-site by a vote. In the busy weekend of paper sessions, THATCamp AAR was an oasis of facilitate first, pontificate second. As digital religious studies emerges within the broader digital humanities movement, the Camp was a rather bold move for the AAR, whose interaction has been driven by more conservative timelines.

THATCamp represents one of the bright spots of the digital world and its potential for conference goers. It emphasizes hands-on experience, privileges active learning, and puts expertise and enthusiasm for technology side-by-side. It can be chaotic with its impromptu schedule, but the advantage is the flexibility it offers to solve problems, foster dialogue, and teach digital skills.

Over the course of the day participants had the option to become more familiar with the online curation platform Omeka, learn about the many options for digital publishing, brainstorm ways to harness outside technological expertise for humanities projects, discuss the role of media in the classroom, learn the basics of big data, and even get tips about doing digital ethnography with students. The schedule is still up here, but it was as full a day of information as even the most seasoned technophiles could handle.

For the conference organizers that sat together for a few brief minutes over lunch, there was awareness of both the promises and perils of the digital world. As a fledgling research method whose products are varied and often unique, there is a great need for clear standards of evaluation of “good scholarship in the digital realm.” This should be of special concern to early career scholars who may have to fight for the presence of digital work in their tenure portfolios or in grant applications. This problem would be addressed not only by the development and promotion of open platforms for scholarly work, but also by sincere discussion about basic digital literacy and professionalization with digital tools and methods. Publishers, professional organizations, libraries, departments, scholars, and students–everyone in the academic chain will need to work out their roles for digital methods and digital work.

With so little time, several questions were pre-circulated to help things move along quickly on these topics.

What does it mean to teach or research religious studies digitally?

Does religious “data” make digital religious studies distinct within the digital humanities?

What is a digital religious studies research project you think more people should know about?

How can departments and the field better support digital methods and pedagogies?

For each of the six participants, digital methods and platforms are a key element in their identity as scholars. While there was not an opportunity to to fully explore their contribution and work, if you would like to learn more about them, please use the links below:

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.comlinks to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

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.