Posts

A Tacit Case for Autoethnography as a Crucial Research Method for Befuddling Times

The November 25 episode of the Religious Studies Project (Straight White American Jesus, the podcast) illuminates the capacity of a particularly powerful qualitative research method: autoethnography. Without ever explicitly referencing this academic mode of inquiry, Bradley Onishi makes a compelling case for it as a significant tool for cultivating an understanding of white evangelicalism in Trump-era America. He does so when he explains the goals of his own podcast, Straight White American Jesus. Onishi describes how he and his co-host, Dan Miller, strive to marshal the power of their own evangelical-insider stories in order to help their listening audience members

“think themselves into the places of evangelicals…so they can see the human element in it. It is so easy to reduce those we disagree with—especially those who seem to be harming our public sphere—to just reduce them to something demented, something that’s not right and just sort of push them away as hopeless…My hope is by sharing my story and Dan’s, too, that we can show folks that this is a very human culture, it’s a very human set of events, it’s a very human community. And if you can get a window into that, maybe it can help you when you’re at a school board meeting, or you’re at your election for the city council, or when you’re dealing with parents on your kid’s soccer team, or having a Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe it can give you a better approach for how to discuss these things with your neighbors, with your fellow citizens, with your colleagues…For me, the personal element is really, really important. It adds something…that makes it easier for a general audience to identify with and it also makes it easier for those who are ex-evangelicals—like I am—to feel like they have a way in to understand [the] academic discourse surrounding the culture that they are emerging from.”

Onishi and Miller’s histories are similar: formerly zealous evangelical leaders who no longer identify as evangelical; who nonetheless find themselves in possession of rich and copious amounts of insider knowledge about American evangelical thought, behavior, and belief; and who currently serve as professors with expertise in religious studies. While they rely on their personal stories to help their listeners make sense of American evangelical trends (with a primary purpose of examining why Donald Trump appears more like Jesus than any other politician white evangelicals have ever encountered), they weave together their own narratives with historical and social scientific insights from podcast guests who are prominent scholars of evangelical history and culture (e.g., Randall Balmer, Kristin DuMez, R. Marie Griffith, and Chrissy Stroop, to name just a few).

Autoethnography

This fusion of the personal with the scholarly is a hallmark of autoethnography, an autobiographical research method that uses personal narrative to represent and make sense of culturally produced texts, experiences, beliefs, and practices. Autoethnographers consider personal experiences—packaged in well-crafted and detailed storiesas data that can offer a window into political and cultural norms and expectations. When rendered through a process of rigorous self-reflection (or “reflexivity”), autoethnographic accounts examine how the self and the social intersect. Ultimately, autoethnography shows people attempting to live their lives as they grapple with making meaningful sense of a particular struggle. It invites the reader to assume the role of a companion who responds, emotes, feels, and senses a need for something different. Bochner (2012) states it this way:

“Autoethnographies are not intended to be received, but rather to be encountered, conversed with, and appreciated. My concern is not with better science but with better living and thus I am not so much aiming for some goal called ‘truth’ as [I am aiming] for an enlarged capacity to deal with life’s challenges and contingencies. The truths of autoethnography exist between storyteller and story listener; they dwell in the listeners’ or readers’ engagement with the writer’s struggle with adversity, the heartbreaking feelings of stigma and marginalization, the resistance to the authority of canonical discourses, the therapeutic desire to face up to the challenges of life and to emerge with greater self-knowledge, the opposition to the repression of the body, the difficulty of finding the words to make bodily dysfunction meaningful, the desire for self-expression, and the urge to speak to and assist a community of fellow sufferers.”

[Image above taken from the cover of Bochner and Ellis’ (2016) Evocative Autoethnography: Writing Lives and Telling Stories]

Adams, Holman Jones, and Ellis (2015) highlight three interrelated concerns with traditional social scientific qualitative research that led to the development of autoethnography:

  1. Changing ideas about—and ideals for—what counts as “research” (including an acknowledgement of the limits of social scientific knowledge and an emergent recognition of the power of personal narrative, story, the literary and the aesthetic, emotions, and the body).
  2. Heightened concerns about the ethics and politics inherent in traditional positivist research practices and representations.
  3. Increased emphasis on the importance of examining social identities and identity politics.

Taken together, these concerns emphasize a need for reflexivity in research, which reveals how social identities like race, class, age, gender, sexuality, religion, and health impact what and how we study, what and how we see, and how we go about interpreting various phenomena. It requires researchers to accept and recognize that their situated knowledge and experience weaves itself into every stage of the research process. As a result, autoethnography rejects the notion that scholars should hide their subjectivities behind the guise of positivist ideologies. Thus, the chief purposes of autoethnography include:

    • disrupting traditional research norms,
    • working from insider rather than outsider knowledge,
    • maneuvering through pain, confusion, anger in order to make life better,
    • breaking silences, and
    • making scholarly work accessible to audiences outside the academy (Holman Jones, Adams, and Ellis, 2013)

Straight White American Jesus, Autoethnography, and Intellectual Rigor

Some skeptics of autoethnographic research deem it as self-indulgent, narcissistic, too emotional, self-absorbed (Anderson, 2006), as well as limited in its ability to develop, refine, or extend theory (Douglas and Carless, 2013).

Onishi anticipates that the Straight White American Jesus podcast might encounter similar critiques:

“I know there will be people out there in the religious studies world who will say ‘Dan and Brad, you are blurring the lines between insider and outsider, you’re blurring the lines between scholar and data.’ And I understand that perspective. I don’t necessarily agree with it.”

He explains how they work to ensure that each episode is held to rigorous intellectual and ethical standards:

“So when Dan and I go into any episode we do, we want to make sure that as we tell anecdotes from our past—as we recount what it was like to come home and have your family not be there and have your first thought be maybe the rapture happened and everyone got taken away and I didn’t—as we tell those stories, we always want to balance that with very rigorous scholarship. We want to do our homework. We want to go to the primary sources. We want to go to the data. We want to make sure we have that right so that we can make sure as scholars, and as people who have a platform, we are owning up and responding to that responsibility.”

Likewise, champions of autoethnography address their detractors by noting that high-quality autoethnographic projects must be held to rigorous standards. Adams, Holman Jones, and Ellis (2013, 2015), for instance, identify numerous goals and contributions of excellent autoethnographic works. I repackage some of them here as a series of six multifaceted questions that can be used to assess an autoethnographic text for its rigor and usefulness:

    1. Does it contribute to knowledge? Does it extend existing knowledge? Does it connect empirical knowledge with personal, grounded, intimate, hands-on insider insights? Does it critique current theoretical conceptualizations of a phenomenon? Does it ask questions about what current research leaves out or obscures?
    2. Does it prize personal experience? Does it feature a situated subject grappling with a cultural/social phenomenon? Does it present an intentionally vulnerable subject so readers might understand these experiences and the resulting emotions? Does it demonstrate the risks involved in making oneself autoethnographically vulnerable?
    3. Does it demonstrate the power and responsibilities of storytelling? Does the researcher place just as much weight on the craft of writing as on the demonstration of analytical prowess? Does the researcher use stories to describe and critique culture? Does the researcher use reflexivity to compel the reader to respond with constructive empathy?
    4. Does it demonstrate conscientious research? Does the research aim to engage and improve the lives of self, co-participants, and readers? Are safeguarding techniques used to secure the identities and privacy of vulnerable participants?
    5. Does it purposefully investigate problematic or confusing cultural practices? Does it demonstrate how some elements of society diminish, silence, or deny certain people or stories? Does it disrupt taboos, break silences, and reclaim lost and disregarded voices? Does it disrupt canonical narratives and question hegemonic beliefs and practices? Does it push itself away from simplistic autobiography (the mere illustration of something sad, joyful or problematic) and push itself toward a more complex autoethnography (a critique and analysis of the phenomenon under investigation)?
    6. Does it make the research findings accessible to multiple audiences? Rather than producing esoteric, jargon-laden texts, does this piece demonstrate a consideration of non-academic audiences? Does it consider the storytelling traditions and ways of using language that those outside the academy might engage?

Autoethnography: A Crucial Research Method for Befuddling Times

The aims of autoethnography—careful, creative, and responsible deployment of personal narrative as an illuminating force in the study of the cultural and the political—align with those of Onishi’s Straight White American Jesus in his attempt to avoid “reduction and demonization [of evangelicals]” while maintaining “the courage and the audacity to point as critical and unflinching of an eye on what’s happening.” At a time when mainstream understanding of evangelical culture is often laced with consternation and bewilderment, autoethnography and Straight White American Jesus (the podcast) offer themselves as crucial tools for gaining and conveying incisive insight and understanding.

Straight White American Jesus, the podcast

In this week’s podcast, Skidmore College Professor Bradley Onishi speaks about Straight White American Jesus, a podcast he co-hosts with Dan Miller that blends insider religious experience with academic expertise about American Evangelicalism. “The goal is never reduction,” Onishi argues about the mix of insider/outsider frames. Instead, he shares how the podcast tries to provide better access to complex religious worlds and how careful historical framing and rigorous critical analysis can humanize rather than demonize evangelicals. Looking honestly at religion, warts and all, is worth the effort since it leads us to increased religious literacy outcomes designed to understand the “human condition writ large.”

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, sardines, popcorn, and more.


Straight White American Jesus, the Podcast

Podcast with Bradley Onishi (25 November 2019).

Interviewed by David McConeghy

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/straight-white-american-jesus-the-podcast/

PDF at https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Onishi_-_Straight_White_American_Jesus-_the_Podcast_1.1.pdf

David McConeghy (DMcC): Welcome. My name is David McConeghy. And today I’m joined by Dr Bradley Onishi, Associate Professor of Religion at Skidmore College in New York. He’s the co-author of Christian Mysticism: An Introduction to Contemporary Theoretical Approaches; the author of The Sacrality of the Secular, a major work about the philosophy of religion. Today he’s here as the co-host, with Dan Miller, of the really excellent podcast, Straight White American Jesus. Brad, thanks so much for joining us today.

Bradley Onishi (BO): Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

DMcC: So I’ve been listening to your podcast for a while now, and I know you share it with everyone. But for those that haven’t come across this yet, where did you get the idea for this podcast?

BO: So in the kind-of aftermath of Trump’s election Dan and I got together and talked about wanting to share our stories, and also wanting to share kind-of our scholarship on evangelicalism and American religion. For those who haven’t listened, my story is basically that I converted to evangelicalism when I was fourteen. And by the time I was twenty I was a full-time minister, I was married, and I was really on my way toward a kind-of life in ministry and in the evangelical world. All of that changed, of course. And I’m still in the religion game – as I like to say – but just from a much different perspective. And so, for Dan and I, we wanted to help folks have an insider perspective and understanding of white evangelicalism in this country. We also wanted to provide a kind-of historical and social scientific lens on white evangelicalism. Our major goal is basically this: we want to explain, basically, why Donald Trump appears more like Jesus than any other politician white evangelicals have ever encountered. And so we do that through both the telling of our stories and a kind-of tracing the history of evangelicalism in this country.

DMcC: I found that mix of personal experience blending in to academic rigour, blending into full-on interviews with really important scholar like R. Marie Griffith and Randall Balmer. It’s really compelling. Did you know from the beginning that you had that kind-of really effective dialogue between those two halves? That you and Dan both share, right, share a background?

BO: Yes, you know it all comes so naturally. Because evangelicalism was my world. I mean I was. . . . It’s hard to explain how zealous I was, when I converted. I was that sixteen year-old kid who went from sneaking around the back of movie theatres to do teenage stuff, to standing out in front of the movie theatre, trying to convert people. And so when evangelicalism is that much a part of your life reflecting on it is sometimes painful, but it comes very naturally. So Dan and I knew we could do that. We also knew we had a passion for enabling . . . or creating a platform for scholars to help a wider audience understand, like: how is that more white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump than for George W Bush, or Mitt Romney? How does that happen? Well, we knew there were people out there who could help us understand that. And so we wanted to just provide space for those analytical, historical, critical, sociological perspectives.

DMcC: What I take from the moment that we’re in right now, is that we really have a great opportunity, right, as scholars, as outsiders, to kind-of present some of the research that’s been done, especially into those theoretical perspectives that the public often doesn’t see. Because they’re framed in language or framed in books that are hard to market to public audiences. But the insider approach really gives you that colloquial, fundamental access to an authenticity, when you speak about it, that makes it – when you switch, then, to the academic narrative – so much more alive. When you say it’s hard to convince audiences of how zealous you were, there was the moment when you were describing in the podcast, how you would go, in the high school lunch room, up to students that were your high school peers and evangelise to them at lunch. Because you were convinced that their mortal souls were at risk, and if you did not do everything you could do at that moment that you were going to leave them behind.

BO: Yes. And you know one of the goals is not to soften, or make more palatable the politics and culture of evangelicals in the Trump era. We are not here to sort-of “make nice” in any case. But what I do want to do, by telling stories like the one you just mentioned, I want people to be able to think themselves into the places of the evangelicals, not so that they can agree, not so that they can accept it, but so they can see the human element in it. It’s so easy to reduce those we disagree with – especially those who seem to be harming our public sphere – to just reduce them to something demented, something that’s not right. And just sort-of push them away as hopeless and helpless and whatever. My hope is by sharing my story, and Dan’s too, that we can show folks that this is a very human culture. It’s a very human set of events. It’s a very human community. And if you can get a window into that, maybe it can help you when you’re at a school board meeting, or you’re at your election for the city council, or when you’re dealing with parents on your kids’ soccer team, or having a Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe it can give you a better approach to how to discuss these things with your neighbours, with your fellow citizens, with your colleagues – whoever that may be. And so all that is to say, for me, that the personal element is really, really important. It adds something, I think, that makes it easier for a general audience to identify with. And it also makes it easier for those who are ex-evangelicals, like I am, to feel that they have a way in to understand more of the sort-of academic discourse surrounding the culture that they’re arguing from.

DMcC: Right. And for those perhaps outside of the US, it’s been a very kind-of English language discussion and very much on Twitter with folks like Chris Stroop, and others who #Exevangelical, are talking about their de-conversion experiences. There really is that kind-of two sides to what’s going on, in the sense that there are some folks that worry that perhaps the level of honesty that you’re approaching this topic with is unfair to evangelicals. And I think, all of the folks that I’ve heard from have been really forceful advocates for: “We’re not going to dismiss what’s wrong here, and we’re going to call out things that we see are wrong, and we feel like we have a space to do that.” But on the other hand it is about explaining experience and opening dialogue and trying to find the allies that are there for you. On the other hand, though, do you think . . . ? (Laughs) I’m guessing that maybe there’s been some push-back as well? Can you talk about the kinds of different responses that you’ve received from those that have been very supportive, as ex-evangelical community members, to those that are remaining evangelical, and may have some less than kind words for the work that you’re doing.

BO: Yes, I mean just to go to the beginning of your question there: my goal is not to. . . . I’m a scholar. And even when I’m talking about my own experiences, I want to be able to have an analytical lens. And so on our podcasts and with the work we’re doing, the goal is never reduction; the goal is never demonisation. The goal is always to say: “We want to examine these issues as best as we can.” And that includes returning to sources. That includes returning to documents and facts and histories that have been covered over that people don’t know about. We did this in one of our very first episodes with the abortion myth. Randall Balmer came on and . . . . Let me outline the history for you regarding the formation of the religious right. It was not about abortion. And the idea that it was is revisionist history in service of an evangelical propaganda or mission. In fact it was race. And my response to those who would have a pop at that, I would say “We’re doing historical work here. If you feel like our historical analysis is off in some way, we can talk about that. But just to say that somehow pointing these things out is unfair or not warranted, I just don’t buy that.”

DMcC: That’s such a good response. Because, you know, it allows you the space to say let’s take Darren Dochuk who would place oil, and empire, and commercialism, maybe even above race, at the start of the kind-of consolidation of the religious right. And it gives you that space to say, “Even scholars have disagreements about this. But we can all narrate the problems that we’re seeing at the same time.”

BO: I think that’s exactly right. And it leads to who has kind-of responded to the podcast. I can say that we’ve had two groups respond very positively. One are ex-evangelicals who’ve said “ You’re able to speak my language. You speak the language of evangelicalism that I came out of. And yet what you’re doing is giving me a road into understanding the history and all of the cultural and political factors that shaped that religious community that I’m now emerging from. What it’s doing is helping me kind-of put my world back together, after sort-of coming out of a very strict religious community that most of the time made no sense to me.” We’ve also had many people say, “I’m a secular person in Portland” or “I’m a Reformed Jew in New York City. I have no idea how to understand why white evangelicals are so in love with Donald Trump and why they vote, and act, and think the way they do, so you’re helping me gain a window into a culture that for me is completely alien. It seems so far from my understanding of the world that I just didn’t know where to start in order to understand all of this.” And so those two communities have really reached out over Twitter, and everything else, to say that they’ve really appreciated what we’re doing. There’s been a little bit of pushback, but not much. One of the things that I like to tell students and tell folks I discuss things with is, I am totally open as a scholar to argument, and debate, and dialogue. Those are the things I love. But you’re not going to out evangelical me! I’m like “level expert” at evangelical. So when it comes to theology, and language, and jargon, and colloquialisms, and clichés – I’m fluent in that. And so when you want to discuss those things with me, just know that I’m going to be speaking your language better than you. And so you’re not going to get the upper hand on me! And the last thing is, I’m not going to assume – and I think this is part of the ex-evangelical community online, the work they’re doing is – we need to stop assuming that if you call yourself a Christian that that means you are a good person. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not calling Christians bad people! Do not come at me on Twitter for that! What I’m saying is there is a privilege in this country that if you’re a straight, white Christian – especially a straight, white Christian male – you’re given a kind-of cover as “Oh, you must be a true, good, old-fashioned patriot.” We just sort-of have this assumption. And part of the work we’re doing – along with many other people – is just saying we need to stop giving that benefit of the doubt, just because someone claims those identities. And we need to just be willing to look very critically, and with an unflinching gaze, on what’s actually happening in those communities. That could be everything from church, too, and sexual misconduct and abuse. That can be authoritarian structures that can be supporting candidates who are authoritarian and abusive – whatever it may be. And so anyway, all of that is part of the work I feel like we’re doing, and will continue to do, and are very proud to do.

DMcC: I’m tempted to ask whether you think you would ever run out of topics. But . . .

BO: (Laughs)

DMcC: since you describe your access to evangelicals as both fluency in a language, but also access to a world that is very closed off, and inaccessible to those that at are not fully immersed in it, it feels like you can just take any aspect of an evangelicals life: how they think about the economy, how they think about death, how they think about marriage, how they think about the value of life. And every issue, right, has to be encapsulated in some way by that worldview. It has to be addressed with fluency by that language. Do you feel that way? That there’s really never . . . this is an eternal wellspring for you?

BO: Well I don’t know about eternal, but what I will say is when you’re in something long enough you have the muscle memory to either know how to do it, or to find the person who does. And so I don’t want to make out that the evangelical community in this country, including the white evangelical community in this country is homogeneous. There’s a lot of difference between small house churches in West Texas and Liberty Baptists with the Falwell Family, there’s a lot of difference between the Vineyards in South California and what’s happening in rural Georgia. With all that said – at least in the Trump era – there is no shortage of need to discuss things related to evangelical culture. And so at least for the moment, it’s not hard to find things that are not only relevant but seem very pressing for our public sphere.

DMcC: It reminds me of the way that people have spoken about Trump’s election as a net gain for the media, even amid its attacks that the constant stream of scandals – or things that sound like scandals to some people – generates that kind-of a gravity of its own. And that we’re lucky, as religion scholars who happen to work on things that are so central to understanding what’s going on in American politics right now. It makes me feel very fortunate. But also it seems to carry a lot of responsibility. Do you feel that weight, as well?

BO: I do. And I know there’ll be people out there in the religious studies world who will say, “You know, Dan and Brad, you are blurring the lines between insider and outsider. You’re blurring the lines between scholar and data.” And I understand that perspective. I don’t necessarily agree with it. So when Dan and I go into any episode we do, we want to make sure that as we tell anecdotes from our past, as we recount what it was like to come home and have your family not be there, and have your first thought be “Maybe the rapture happened?” Where everyone got taken away and I didn’t. As we tell those stories we always want to balance that with very rigorous scholarship. And we want to do our homework. We want to go to the primary sources, we want to go to the data, we want to make sure we have that right, so that we can make sure, as scholars and as people that have a platform, that we are owning up and responding to that responsibility.

DMcC: Right. It also strikes me that it’s kind-of like you have an ethnographic project that you were living. And then you decided that the project was over. And then you realised that you could actually . . . that you had collected all this data that was really valuable. So, from one perspective, you know, is it blurring the line between insider and outsider? Well, it might be. But on the other hand, you were living in the same way that an ethnographer might live, as if they were doing full-immersion field work. And now you’ve pulled back from being within that perspective. And now that you’re not in that perspective you can clearly demarcate your outsider-ness – right? – in relation to your previous insider-ness

BO: And I think that’s right in ways that I think ethnographers experience. You begin . . . if you’re an ethnographer you form relationships within the community. And even when you might find the politics or practices of that community detestable, at that turning point, the relationships you form affect you. And believe me, I still have friends and many family members who are still part of the evangelical world. They are people for whom I have great affection. I love them. And so for me to do this project, again, means I want to avoid reduction and demonisation. But I also want to have the courage and the audacity to point as critical and as unflinching an eye as we can on what’s happening.

DMcC: Right. So, do you think – and feel free to share specific episodes that you’d like to direct people to if they come to mind – are there things that really resonate best with the community where the clarity of that kind-of-like worldview switch that you’ve had, that you’re revealing to everyone, really appears best? Your gold star podcast episodes?

BO: Well the thing we’ve been focussing on this season has been Beyond Belief. And what we want to do is explain not only what evangelicals believe, but what their culture and beliefs do for them. And so let me give you an example. We’ve spoken several times on our podcast about abortion and “cultures of life” – quote unquote – And one of the things we’ve tried really hard to explain is that, yes, there is a focus on abortion. Because many rank and file evangelicals go to bed at night believing that any form of abortion is equivalent to murder. Ok. However there’s whole nother package of goods that come with that belief. I know personally, from my own experience, that every time that I explained to my church elders that I wanted to vote for a Democrat because their emphasis on equality, or social justice, seemed more in line with the gospel of Jesus Christ, they would sort-of say to me “Look, you can do that if you want. But what you’re condoning is the murder of millions of children.” Why do I bring that up? Because that one belief in abortion meant that I could turn off my brain completely when it came to all other issues. So when I went into a voting booth I did not have to consider whether or not all the things related to healthcare reform, education initiatives, tax hikes, immigration, what all of those things meant for who I should vote for. What I was going to vote for was who was “pro-life”, quote unquote: who was against abortion. And so I got to turn off a whole set of moral and ethical decisions. I got to disengage politically, and go to bed at night knowing that I had done the right thing: that I was a good person, because I stood against murder. And that happens all over the place in evangelical culture. I could give you similar examples when it comes to apocalypticism. I could give you similar examples when it comes to God and guns, or gender. And so, what our audience has been really reacting to is unpacking what beliefs do for you more than just simply explaining theological frameworks or evangelical doctrines.

DMcC: And I’m so thrilled to hear you present it in that way. We’ve been having kind-of a religious literacy discussion on Twitter, some of us going around, and that really strikes me as one of the operational moves that religious studies really can take advantage of: that it’s not simply the content that we can present – it’s the critical appraisal of the work that religion does, in particular instances, for particular people. So on abortion, the work that it does is potentially make hard political decisions a lot easier, right? It clarifies what the expectations are for them. And, as an element of religious literacy, presenting religion in that way to the public is a really powerful way to think about it. It’s very different than thinking about religion as simply a collection of beliefs that we hold and then not really much beyond that, right?

BO: It is. And you know that in every Intro to Religion class, most scholars and teachers are not going to ask, you know, “Let’s ask their students to make a list of what Hindus and Muslims and Christians and everyone else believes.” They’re going to ask, “Let’s try to define religion.” and then they’re going to say, “What does religion do for people?” Well I know the question I ask my students on the first day, is “Why do people do religion?” and when I say why do people do religion, they immediately get away from belief and they start raising their hands. And it’s like “Community” “tradition”, “family”, “belonging”, “identity”. And as soon as we start talking about why people do religion instead of what do religious people believe, all of the dimensions of religious studies opens up. And what you see is that when we study religion we’re also studying race, we’re also studying embodiment, we’re also studying gender, and we’re also studying group formation. I always tell kids who want to major in religion, I’m like: “Look, when you sign up with us, you get to study it all. You don’t have to compartmentalise what you’re doing into one domain. Studying religion means studying the human condition writ large.” One of the things I like to say is that, when you study religion you get a window into human conditions. That means communities and worlds that at one time probably seemed indecipherable. And you also get a window into the human condition in a way that I think is really unique. In the humanities, yes, but in religious studies even more so.

DMcC: I’m so pleased to hear you say that. It’s really been quite a pleasure to speak with you today about this. Thank you so much for joining us. And where can people find your podcast online?

BO: Yes, so you can find Straight White American Jesus on Apple Podcast, on Stitcher, on Google, on most places that people find podcasts. You can find me on Twitter @BradleyOnishi. And we still do have a Straight White American Jesus Facebook page as well.

DMcC: Perfect. Thank you so much for joining us.

BO: Thanks for having me.

 

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.

Challenges and Responsibilities for the Public Scholar of Religion

In this interview, Megan Goodwin examines the current state of public religious studies scholarship. “Public scholar” has become a buzzword in some corners of the discipline of religious studies, variously referring to scholars who share their research to a broader audience on social media platforms, in popular media outlets, or through multimedia such as podcasts and online video. As more scholars have entered these ranks, the broader field has taken notice. The American Academy of Religion even declared the 2018 presidential theme as “Religious Studies in Public: The Civic Responsibilities, Opportunities, and Risks Facing Scholars of Religion.” What challenges do public scholars of religion face? Are academic institutions prepared to support these scholars as they are exposed both to greater scrutiny from their academic peers as well as vitriolic hate from trolls online? Where is public religious studies scholarship headed in the coming years?

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, Tori Amos CD’s, Super Mario Bros. U. Deluxe, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Challenges and Responsibilities for the Public Scholar of Religion

Podcast with Megan Goodwin (25 March 2019).

Interviewed by Andrew Henry.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Goodwin_-_Challenges_and_Responsibilities_for_the_Public_Scholar_of_Religion_1.1

Andrew Henry (AH): Welcome Listeners. I’m recording from Boston, at Northeastern University. I’m with Dr Megan Goodwin. She’s a scholar of gender, sexuality and race, and contemporary American minority religions at Northeastern University. She’s a visiting lecturer at Northeastern University and the programme director of a new initiative called “Sacred Writes

Megan Goodwin (MG): W-r-i-t-e-s.

AH: Right, OK. Tell us a little bit about this new initiative.

MG: So Liz Bucar and I last year worked on a grant that Liz proposed to ACLS and Luce for Religion Journalism and International affairs. And working on this Reporting Religion project we started conversations around what would best help shift the conversation around religion, right. How would you make the most impact with the work that folks were already doing in the academy and make sure that that’s not a conversation that’s only happening within the academy? So we spent last year proposing a project that helps train scholars to translate their work for non-experts and to think about partnering with media outlets – who were already doing fairly smart reporting, often on religion but are just under-sourced. And even when they’re not under sourced they’re not trained as experts in religion. So, how do we make the most out of both media expertise and religion expertise, and make that the most useful for folks who are not experts in media or religion?

AH: So you’re looking to be the creative bridge between the academy and . . . not just the general public – however we define that – but, specifically, journalist and media outlets.

MG: So we can think of it, I think, broadly as a communication breakdown, right? (I got that Led Zeppelin thing happening in my head.) So we are in a political moment where religion is deeply shaping so many facets of public life. At the same time religion is not something that gets taught as a subject of scholarly enquiry, right. It’s something personal, it’s something you do at home, it is not something that we’re taught how to think about. So the folks who have been taught how to think about it have developed that expertise, but aren’t trained to do that translation work. And frankly, largely speaking, institutions haven’t valued that work as scholarship. It’s seen as, potentially, “community service” or an amusing side-hobby for tech nerds, but not something that’s serious scholarship, that people who are really invested in being intellectuals would ever really invest in. So the way that we’re thinking about the work that Sacred Writes does is both helping scholars shift public conversations around religion – helping non-experts understand why they need to know something about religion in order to understand the election process, or the conversation about healthcare – and at the same time, hopefully, teaching institutions how to value that work as legitimate scholarship, as opposed to something we do for funsies.

AH: So you’ve brought up a lot of interesting ideas here. And I want to try to take them systematically. And the one that you mentioned was how the discipline of Religious Studies, the academic discipline, values engaging the public. You mentioned that it would count as community service but presumably, if you’re going up for tenure, the monographs from a good university press would count much more than running a podcast like this, for example?

MG: Right. And best-case scenario is that it’s seen as public service or a civic good. Worst case scenario, it works against your tenure case. And I certainly know folks who have raised this as an issue for reasons they’ve been denied tenure: that participating in public-facing work suggests a lack of investment in scholarly gravitas. So what we’re hoping, as part of the outcome of Sacred Writes, is using this incredible pool of expertise that we’ve gathered in our leadership team to take those areas of expertise, and frankly the weight of those scholarly identities, back to institutions and help them understand that this is serious scholarship. And cultivate best practices for scholars who are interested in doing this work, so that their work can be legible, again, to non-experts but also to their own institutions. My thinking on this is largely informed by the work that Hannah McGregor is doing currently. She hosts a podcast called “ Secret Feminist Agenda“ (audio unclear) but one of the things that’s really remarkable about Secret Feminist Agenda is that it’s currently being experimentally peer reviewed (5:00). So there is a peer reviewing institution that is crafting a mechanism by which this work that she’s doing, which is so smart but also so accessible, can be valued by her tenure granting institution. And I’m hoping that possibly in conversation with her, but certainly in conversation with our leadership team, we can think about what peer reviewing a podcast or a YouTube series might look like, so that it can count toward tenure, promotion, scholarly gravitas, being a valued part of the institution and not just, again, best-case scenario, something that you do for fun or something that you do in your spare time as community service.

AH: So I want to focus in on this idea of why is public-facing scholarship – whether it’s a podcast or a YouTube series – why is it looked down upon by some corners of the academy. Is it because there’s a lack of nuance . . . like there’s nuance being lost in that translation process from the scholarly to the public? So we, in the academy, are trained to be critical: trained to pull apart arguments. And I wonder if that plays into the scepticism of these public-facing outlets. Because you must necessarily go through this translation process to make academic research more accessible. And through that translation process nuance is lost, and therefore it invites more criticism and scrutiny from scholars.

MG: So I think there are a couple of moving pieces here. The training criticism is, I think, a well-made point. But i also think there’s frankly a counter-productive valuation of . . . trying to think of nice way to say this . . . . I think we often interpret nuance as

AH: You could say it meanly, too!

MG: OK. We don’t value clear writing. And we don’t value clear communication. And part of that is academic hazing. I think being the folks who had to read Hegel and Heidegger in order to read Derrida in order to make something of contemporary postmodern feminist thought, for example ( I bring this up for no reason whatsoever; it certainly didn’t impact my reading!) There’s an expectation that your writing will reflect the complexity of your thought, right? And so I think we tend to elide complex thinking with complex writing. As someone who was trained in critical theory, as someone who attempts to write theory, it is so much harder to communicate abstract nuanced thinking in clear concise language. It is incredibly challenging. And possibly not something that everyone can do. I think there is a suspicion of folks who try to communicate with non-experts, despite the fact if for no other reason, this is where funding comes from, right? You never get funding for Religious Studies work from a Religious Studies specific-to-your-mini-discipline funding institution. You have to be able to say: this is the work that I’m doing and here is why you should care. It is, I think, a failing on our part that we can do that work in order to fund our own research, but we can’t do that work to shift the public conversation about why folks should care about religion. I also think, frankly, that there is –certainly not at Northeastern, but at some institutions – a devaluation of teaching over research. And not thinking about those two pieces as part of a whole scholarly identity. So when I’m thinking about public-facing work, I’m thinking about first and foremost it’s a pedagogical challenge. How do I take these incredibly complicated ideas and get to the root of : here’s why the public should care; here’s why this should inform, frankly, how they’re voting; how they’re living in their communities; how they’re thinking about . . . I’ve been watching a lot of “The Good Place“ so forgive me . . . But how does this help us think about what we owe to each other as a society, right? If you work in an institution where not only is public-facing scholarship devalued but, frankly, pedagogy and teaching is devalued, how do you learn to see the value in translating your work to non-specialist audience? And, again, most of us are required to do that every week. You get in front of an audience of very highly paying non-experts and you explain to them why they should care (10:00). We in the academy talk a very good game, very often, about pedagogy or teaching and how much we value it, possibly in job interviews. I don’t see that, frankly, translated into a whole lot of departmental politics. The folks that are most highly-valued at most institutions, small liberal arts colleges aside, are the folks that are turning out the most research. And frankly there’s not a whole lot of departmental or institutional support for learning how to be good at teaching. And again small liberal arts colleges are an exception here. So again, I think the significance of the work that we’re trying to do with Sacred Writes is potentially one we can think about as a pedagogical challenge. How do we teach these scholars to be teachers, not just of their students, but of the public? And how to we teach the institutions to recognise this? To be able to read this as legitimate scholarship? And I don’t think that you have to sacrifice nuance. You have be patient. The pacing is different. And this is also I think a place where American Religion scholars maybe have a particular challenge. So some of my very closest friends in the academy are Islamicists and they get very grumpy at me because I can say things like, “the Civil War” and I can just expect everybody in the audience to know what I mean when I say the Civil War. I should be able to rely on them to know the time period, the basic political arguments there, as opposed to – I’m thinking very specifically of my friend Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst who just wrote a book about Religion, Rebels and Jihad and how Muslims were coded specifically as inherently rebellious against the crown. The 1857 rebellion, I’m given to understand, was quite an important moment in Indian history. And the reason that I know that is because I read her book. Right? She can’t just say, “the Rebellion”. There is this necessary instruction of readers who are not experts in Islam or Indian history or Salvation history. Americanists don’t have to do that. So I am thinking particularly of my own scholarship, I have had to learn from these experiences of folks who don’t work on American Religion to say: what am I assuming when I go into these conversations? How can I help folks understand these incredibly intricate, multi-faceted historical moments without losing them, without not being able to explain why they should care? Right?

AH: Yes. And this pedagogical challenge raises issues of religious literacy at this point. Where you can mention the Civil War in an American context and assume that there’s a baseline knowledge there. But having taught undergraduates, that’s often dangerous that there’s baseline knowledge there.

MG: True. Yes!

AH: So, how does that introduce a further challenge to this work of public engagement? That you want to bring in nuance, you want to bring in complexity, but sometimes you just don’t even know the difference between . . . your audience doesn’t even know the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism.

MG: Yes. So, you know what? Honestly, I think you have to earn nuance. If the American public doesn’t know the difference between Catholics and Protestants and the scholarship of religion in the United States is – let’s be generous – call it a hundred and fifty years old, what have we been doing for a hundred and fifty years that the public doesn’t know the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant? That’s on us. And I understand that the make-up of the United States has complicated public education about religion for some very important reasons. At the same time, and I’m thinking very specifically of . . . . I’m a product of a public school, right? I did my doctorate at UNC. So the first conversation we had every single semester was, “How does the work that we’re doing when we teach serve Carolina, and serve the voters?” Right? These are folks who are going to be citizens or participate in the public sphere in some way. So how are we helping them do that? I think, I hope that public scholarship done well can first build baseline knowledge about how religion is functioning in the United States; how religion continues to function around the world; how that is wrapped up in things like power and colonialism and imperialism. And then, hopefully, we can get to a nuanced conversation of like, “You’re really not understanding healthcare if you don’t know something about the Conference of Catholic Bishops. You just don’t.” But first, yeah, you need to know what a Catholic is. So good, earn that and then you can have a conversation in public about why you need to know about the Catholic bishops’ interference around reproductive justice.

AH: OK. We’re going to think more broadly here, then. How would you rate the academic discipline of Religious Studies? (15:00) Like how successful is it at public engagement, in the past, let’s say, five or six years? And we’re both Religious Studies scholars here, so it’s hard for us to see exactly how other disciplines are doing it. But I have at least enough friends in History departments that seem to be doing a pretty good job. There’s dozens upon dozens of solid academic history podcasts, for example. How would you rate the discipline of Religious Studies in this endeavour? Because the reason why I ask is that there might be many people out there listening to this who say, “Hey, we’re doing this already!” Like we’re both on Twitter. There’s a ton of Religious Studies scholars on Twitter. So to respond to those people that might say, “Hey, this is already happening! There’s already committees at the American Academy of Religion doing this hard work.”

MG: I think you’re right. I think History has been a really impressive force in trying to shape public conversations around nuance and historical nuance. I was particularly impressed with the conversation around medieval race and racism. That Twitter conversation blew up and resulted in a number of really smart pieces. And engaged thousands of people from all over the world. That was really impressive. The places where I see this being done really well, if I’m thinking Twitter I’m thinking the scholars who take the time to really translate their incredibly nuanced thinking to two hundred and forty characters, now, right? So, top of my list: Judith Weisenfeld – obviously; Anthea Butler – obviously; Nyasha Junior – obviously. It isn’t, I don’t think, an accident that these are all black women, who are incredibly nuanced thinkers but also participate in this really rigorous – but, again, usually very accessible – public conversation. Ed Curtis through the Journal of Africana Religions (JAR) is another really good example of folks that have taken the time to engage with non-experts and explain, for example, why using the word “cult” in a headline – while click-baity, while eye-grabbing – compromises the integrity of the folks participating in a group. It doesn’t think about the racist imperialist history of categorising religion, particularly religions that involve largely black people as cults, when white religions, civilised religions, get to count as actual religions and not cults. Other places where this has been really good: the African American Studies podcast, AAS 21, at Princeton, I think has been really impressive – but again, my favourite episode of that was Judith Weisenfeld’s episode with Eddie Gloude; the (audio unclear) Project – I think it’s in a transition period right now. But one of the things that was really exciting about that project was that it paired open access, rigorous scholarship with more contemporary kind-of pop culture analysis. So there was something there for everyone. And, again, the commitment to open access I think is deeply, deeply important, if we’re going to think about public-facing work as a civic good. But also, shout out to “The Immanent Frame“ – not that blogging is particularly innovative anymore – but they have been leading the conversation for, what, a decade, in trying to . . . not necessarily address the public at large, but at least the field of Religious Studies at large, and help Religious Studies scholars broadly understand some of these really complicated nuanced issues, in the context of Religious Studies. And this is not to say that the JAR doesn’t do that as well. But the JAR really rewards dense, nuanced writing in a way that just doesn’t work in a blog format, right? So when I’m thinking about teaching, for example, contemporary sexual scandals – which is where a lot of my own work lives, and something that informs my religion and sexuality class – one of the first places I go is to The Immanent Frame to review all of the stuff on the clergy sex abuse scandal. This is scholarship that was . . . information, right? That conference happened, what, five years ago at Yale? And you’ve got some of the brightest scholars who work on religion and sexuality thinking out loud about what to do with this material. And coming at it from all different angles. So those would be my big hits.

AH: Great.

MG: Although the way that is was phrased in the email was “whether or not religion is a special issue” which did a very Antaeus thing in my head. So like Antaeus would definitely say that it was a special issue. It is an issue of specialness. (That’s a dumb American Religions joke. I’m not even sorry.) But yes, I think it is a special issue in American context for two reasons. The first is that religion is – politics nerd, here – but religion, and the protection of specific kinds of religion, is enshrined in our founding documents (20:00). So we, as a people, have collectively agreed that religion does a thing that many other kinds of human culture do not. But the other piece is that frankly everybody thinks they’re an expert in religion, based largely on their personal experiences. I have thoughts about why this is. I think it has a lot to do with Protestantism and individual relationships with God, and individual experiences being valid. But it does lead to things like – I’m never getting over this: a reporter from a public radio asked me, a couple of years back, to comment on . . . I think it was a PRRI survey that had identified Maine as one of the least religious states in the country. And she asked me why that is. And I said, “Well, Maine is also one of the whitest states in the country.” And (I explained) why whiteness, and identifying as a religion or “spiritual but not religious”, might be connected. And she said, “No, I don’t think that’s it.” So, yeah. So I think the identification of personal experience as synonymous with expertise in religion does make this a particular challenge for Religious Studies scholars.

AH: Well, we mentioned earlier this idea of pedagogical challenges in this field of public engagement. And I think you hit the nail on the head with one, which is people already assume they know what religion is. So what is our role? Like, “Who are you to come in and tell me what religion is?” So let’s reflect more on that. I think this is an interesting thread.

MG: Well, I mean . . . I think that it is both “special because religion”, and then part of a larger conversation about a systematic devaluation of expertise in the public sphere for . . . call it fifty, sixty years. But yeah, religion is this very particular challenge because everyone feels authorised to speak on it. So as Religious Studies scholars, again, we have to earn the nuance. So let’s start with “What you think about religion does not exhaust all of religion.” So let’s start by thinking about multiplicity before we even get to complexity. What you know, even about Christianity, is not all there is to know about Christianity. So can we offer windows into: “Religion is more complicated than you think”; “Religion is always more than you think that it is”? And then, conservatively, I don’t know, maybe ten years from now, maybe we could get to, “Here’s why it’s important that we not emphasise religion equals faith or religion equals belief. Here’s how we, as a community, not just as a small chunk of experts, can think about what work it does to value religions that emphasise belief over religions that emphasise practice. And then, fifty years from now, we can worry about that US Catholic Conference of Bishops, I guess. It is . . . . One of the particular challenges, I think, of doing public scholarship is this question of time, right? The reason, frankly, that I was moved to pursue public-facing scholarship was that I taught a class called, “Election: Race religion and politics” in 2016. And the entire class is about providing historical context for the election that was happening that year. It’s a long game, right? And then the election made we wonder if we had that kind of time. So I got deeply invested in having conversations with folks who don’t work on religion about how religion helped shape what led up to the election and certainly what came after. It made me feel a real sense of urgency – a need to intervene. And I think I want to believe that public-facing scholarship can be that kind of critical positive intervention, at the same time as – you raised the level of religious literacy – just awareness of the scope of religious difference. The bar is so, so low. We have so much work to do that it can feel like we’re never getting anywhere. We’re never going to raise the bar to the point where we can really talk about lived complexity. But since the alternative is doing nothing I say, let’s intervene and hope for the best. This is better than just letting us all go down with the ship. Let’s shift the conversation as much as we can shift the conversation. If the Religious Studies Overton Window is simply “Hey! Religion is more than I thought it was!” I’m going to call that a win (25:00).

AH: Let’s pivot the conversation to the idea of the public intellectual. I hate this term. I prefer the term public scholar, because at least that points to our scholarship and not to our intellect. But doing this work – especially here in the twenty-first century – is difficult. It opens you up to a lot of criticism, not only from your colleagues but from the hordes of trolls, whether they’re on YouTube or Twitter. And you’re competing against public intellectuals in this space that are not scholars of religion and feel very comfortable to talk about it . . .

MG: (Coughs) Richard Dawkins!

AH: Right. What comes to mind would be Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the meteoric rise of Jordan B.Peterson who has entire lectures on the Bible on YouTube that get millions of views.

MG: And “Bless his heart”, as we say in the South.

AH: Then we also have Reza Aslan who’s problematic in his own ways. So we have this issue of public intellectuals, then we have to raise up our colleagues who are willing to be in this space to take those places of public scholars. So instead of turning to Richard Dawkins or Jordan B Peterson they go to someone that is trained in Religious Studies and who is skilled at doing this work of translation, of keeping complexity and nuance, and still be able to engage the public as it were. But this offers so many challenges. So I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this concept of the public scholar. And how this job is not cut out for everybody.

MG: Yes. So I think there are two issues that you raised there. And they’re both really important. I want to start with the vulnerability issue. It is not a safe thing to do this work. And it is doubly, triply unsafe to do it as a person of colour, as a queer person, as a woman. Because the internet is not for us, right? We are reminded of that every time we speak in public: that we should settle down and maybe smile more. There is an incredible vulnerability to doing any sort of public intellectual scholarship work. There is an incredible vulnerability to being, for example, a black woman scholar standing up and saying, “I know a thing and you should know it too.” That is . . . it should not have to be an act of courage, but it is an act of almost unimaginable courage to stand in front of the internet, in all its horrid glory, and say, “I know more about this than you do. Let me help you.” Which actually brings me to my second point pretty neatly. You mentioned public intellectuals versus public scholars. And I think the dichotomy I’d rather set up is public intellectuals versus public scholarship. Public intellectuals is about – you know what, I’m going to say it – it’s about a cult of personality. (I see you Jordan B. Peterson, I see you.) It is about building up your personal brand, it is about showing everybody that you’re the smartest – usually – straight, white boy in the room. I don’t think public scholarship necessarily needs to be about individual scholars. I think it is important for us to recognise the contribution of specific figures, particularly folks who are taking bigger risks, to say what needs to be said. But public scholarship, hopefully, is just raising the calibre of public knowledge, raising the quality of public conversation, promoting the public understanding of religion. And that doesn’t need to be about one individual scholar. That needs to be about all of us doing better, because we’ll know better. And in order to do that work we need institutional support. This is a conversation that Alice Hunt and I had last month, two months ago. So the American Academy of Religion (AAR) is very publicly supporting the promotion of public understanding of religion. And as you can imagine, I’m deeply invested in that. At the same time I worry about developing mechanisms for supporting scholars that we’ve invited, if not required, to be vulnerable in this way. If we are going to say that one of our two core goals as an academic learned institution is promoting the public understanding of religion – is engaging the public so that they can know better – how are we going to support people when they get death threats? Because they will get death threats. Particularly if they are people of colour. Particularly if they are women. Particularly if they are queer. Right? My concern is that we are ready to call for the public understanding of religion. We are not prepared to support the folks that are doing that promotion. And I don’t know what that looks like. And I know that the issue has been raised within the AAR, at least by me, because I’ve had this conversation both with David Gushee and with Alice Hunt (30:00). But it’s complicated, right? How do we promote institutional support for this? And that I think, I hope, is another piece of the best practices that Sacred Writes is hoping to help develop.

AH: So, talking about institutional support leads me to the next angle of the criticism. If you are putting yourself out there to talk about religion in public, you can get an untold amount of hate from random trolls on Twitter, especially if you’re a woman, person of colour or queer person. But you can also receive criticism from your own discipline, your institution – we talked about this earlier. And I feel like this is particularly felt if you are a part of the academic precariat . . .

MG: I love that!

AH: Whether you’re an adjunct, visiting faculty member, or a graduate student like myself, there’s a risk to do this. I frequently think about how, with my YouTube channel I could say something stupid accidentally on one video and torpedo my career. So how do we support the more contingent faculty side of the public engagement world of our discipline? Because I see a lot of public engagement happening from these scholars who don’t have full time positions, who don’t have tenure to protect them.

MG: Yes. I think that’s an incredibly important question that I don’t have a strong answer to, aside from hoping that the mechanism of Sacred Writes is, at least in part, teaching institutions to value this work. I think there’s a strong correspondence here with media personalities as well, right? Very often in order to land a position in any new sort of media outlet of impact, you have to have already cultivated something of a brand. Often that brand has been deliberately provocative. That’s how you get followers. That’s how you get noticed. And then, once you are elevated to this noteworthy publication, very often the women, queer people, people of colour are lambasted publicly for having said horrible provocative things like, “white people are white”. Horrible! For those who do not spend their entire lives on Twitter, there was a specific Asian woman science journalist who had a very provocative Twitter presence, landed a very plumb gig at an important publication, and then had to publicly apologise for having told white people that they were white. So this is something that I think about a lot. At the same time and this is not, I think, universally applicable advice. While I was teaching about the election I was in a visiting position and it just broke me. It broke me. It broke me in concert with the job market which I have spent more time than I’d prefer exploring. And I got to a stage where the sense of urgency that I felt around being publicly engaged around religious education – or education about religion, I should say – that urgency out-weighed my caution. And I am deeply aware of the ways in which that has increased my own precarity. And at the same time it has facilitated so many intellectually rich, personally fulfilling conversations around this issue and created all these support networks in the academy that I would not have had access to, had I not engaged, say, Twitter in this way. So I can’t recommend it. I am, for all that I am in this position of precarity, I am at an R1 institution, having been funded by a very large grant, having been sponsored, frankly, by some really impressive senior women scholars in Islam. And I am married and unlikely to wind up on the street, eating cat food. I was in a position where I could do that. I don’t know that that’s available to everyone. And I worry that the voices that are really taking risks, that have really innovative approaches to shaping this conversation, are the ones who are most at risk and who are potentially the most likely to suffer for having tried to do this incredibly important work. I don’t know that that’s a fulfilling answer, but that’s where I’m at with it.

AH: No, I think that that’s a good answer.

MG: So just in terms of: how do we do this work? Where do we start? If we’re thinking about what makes an engaging piece of public-facing scholarship I think we need to start by thinking about the audience, which is not something that scholars are trained to do, right? Sure, we think about audience in that we’re engaging a community of our peers who have similar levels of training (35:00). But if we’re not only ever talking to Religious Studies experts we need to think about who we want to talk to, and, what do we want to get across? And we have to be willing to do that in non-specialist language, which again is deeply challenging. But I mean, some of this is really simple, right? The thing that makes a good piece of scholarship is the same thing that makes any good media. Can you tell a clear, concise story and explain why the viewer or the listener or the reader should care? So being able to think about . . . alright: I am deeply invested in conversations about religious freedom and how they tend to privilege specific forms of Christianity, right? (Shout out to Beth Shakman Hurd.) How do I take all of that incredibly dense, nuanced, smart literature and bring that out to an audience that’s going to think, “Well, religious freedom sounds good. Let’s do that.” So thinking about: OK, am I going to do this as a blog post? Do I do this as a YouTube channel? What’s an infographic, and how do I put that together? (Something that Sacred Writes are still working on, but we’re interested, please stay tuned.) Thinking about where your energy is. How you can best communicate that idea in the clearest, most concise, most engaging way possible, is going to make a good piece of public scholarship. Again, I’m coming back to Hannah McGregor because I’m a huge fan. But one of the things that she’s said about her podcasting work is that despite the fact that she’s bringing her scholarly expertise in publishing to all of this work, she keeps having a hard time thinking of it as scholarly because it’s fun, because she’s enjoying it! And I wonder what it might look like to bring that kind of enjoyment, that kind of energy, that kind of fun, frankly, to doing this, often really serious, really hard work. I am somebody who works on sex abuse and violence in minority religions. And my case studies involve mothers holding onto beams and weeping because their children have been taken away. And the deployment of armoured personnel carriers against American citizens on American soil. So if I can do that by making jokes about Vanilla Isis and Captain Moroni, you know what? That’s the way to both explain to the public that they need to care about this, but also stay sane while you’re doing it. Because I think otherwise I think that the onslaught, and the scope of the problem, is just overwhelming.

AH: Well, thank you so much Dr Goodwin. I think this was a great conversation on the implications of public scholarship here in the twenty-first century, especially for Religious Studies scholars, as we try to bring more academic scholarship to more people.

MG: Thanks for having me.

AH: No problem.


Citation Info: Goodwin, Megan and Andrew Henry. 2019. “Challenges and Responsibilities for the Public Scholar of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 25 March 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 March 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/challenges-and-responsibilities-for-the-public-scholar-of-religion/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, 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.

Podcasts

A Tacit Case for Autoethnography as a Crucial Research Method for Befuddling Times

The November 25 episode of the Religious Studies Project (Straight White American Jesus, the podcast) illuminates the capacity of a particularly powerful qualitative research method: autoethnography. Without ever explicitly referencing this academic mode of inquiry, Bradley Onishi makes a compelling case for it as a significant tool for cultivating an understanding of white evangelicalism in Trump-era America. He does so when he explains the goals of his own podcast, Straight White American Jesus. Onishi describes how he and his co-host, Dan Miller, strive to marshal the power of their own evangelical-insider stories in order to help their listening audience members

“think themselves into the places of evangelicals…so they can see the human element in it. It is so easy to reduce those we disagree with—especially those who seem to be harming our public sphere—to just reduce them to something demented, something that’s not right and just sort of push them away as hopeless…My hope is by sharing my story and Dan’s, too, that we can show folks that this is a very human culture, it’s a very human set of events, it’s a very human community. And if you can get a window into that, maybe it can help you when you’re at a school board meeting, or you’re at your election for the city council, or when you’re dealing with parents on your kid’s soccer team, or having a Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe it can give you a better approach for how to discuss these things with your neighbors, with your fellow citizens, with your colleagues…For me, the personal element is really, really important. It adds something…that makes it easier for a general audience to identify with and it also makes it easier for those who are ex-evangelicals—like I am—to feel like they have a way in to understand [the] academic discourse surrounding the culture that they are emerging from.”

Onishi and Miller’s histories are similar: formerly zealous evangelical leaders who no longer identify as evangelical; who nonetheless find themselves in possession of rich and copious amounts of insider knowledge about American evangelical thought, behavior, and belief; and who currently serve as professors with expertise in religious studies. While they rely on their personal stories to help their listeners make sense of American evangelical trends (with a primary purpose of examining why Donald Trump appears more like Jesus than any other politician white evangelicals have ever encountered), they weave together their own narratives with historical and social scientific insights from podcast guests who are prominent scholars of evangelical history and culture (e.g., Randall Balmer, Kristin DuMez, R. Marie Griffith, and Chrissy Stroop, to name just a few).

Autoethnography

This fusion of the personal with the scholarly is a hallmark of autoethnography, an autobiographical research method that uses personal narrative to represent and make sense of culturally produced texts, experiences, beliefs, and practices. Autoethnographers consider personal experiences—packaged in well-crafted and detailed storiesas data that can offer a window into political and cultural norms and expectations. When rendered through a process of rigorous self-reflection (or “reflexivity”), autoethnographic accounts examine how the self and the social intersect. Ultimately, autoethnography shows people attempting to live their lives as they grapple with making meaningful sense of a particular struggle. It invites the reader to assume the role of a companion who responds, emotes, feels, and senses a need for something different. Bochner (2012) states it this way:

“Autoethnographies are not intended to be received, but rather to be encountered, conversed with, and appreciated. My concern is not with better science but with better living and thus I am not so much aiming for some goal called ‘truth’ as [I am aiming] for an enlarged capacity to deal with life’s challenges and contingencies. The truths of autoethnography exist between storyteller and story listener; they dwell in the listeners’ or readers’ engagement with the writer’s struggle with adversity, the heartbreaking feelings of stigma and marginalization, the resistance to the authority of canonical discourses, the therapeutic desire to face up to the challenges of life and to emerge with greater self-knowledge, the opposition to the repression of the body, the difficulty of finding the words to make bodily dysfunction meaningful, the desire for self-expression, and the urge to speak to and assist a community of fellow sufferers.”

[Image above taken from the cover of Bochner and Ellis’ (2016) Evocative Autoethnography: Writing Lives and Telling Stories]

Adams, Holman Jones, and Ellis (2015) highlight three interrelated concerns with traditional social scientific qualitative research that led to the development of autoethnography:

  1. Changing ideas about—and ideals for—what counts as “research” (including an acknowledgement of the limits of social scientific knowledge and an emergent recognition of the power of personal narrative, story, the literary and the aesthetic, emotions, and the body).
  2. Heightened concerns about the ethics and politics inherent in traditional positivist research practices and representations.
  3. Increased emphasis on the importance of examining social identities and identity politics.

Taken together, these concerns emphasize a need for reflexivity in research, which reveals how social identities like race, class, age, gender, sexuality, religion, and health impact what and how we study, what and how we see, and how we go about interpreting various phenomena. It requires researchers to accept and recognize that their situated knowledge and experience weaves itself into every stage of the research process. As a result, autoethnography rejects the notion that scholars should hide their subjectivities behind the guise of positivist ideologies. Thus, the chief purposes of autoethnography include:

    • disrupting traditional research norms,
    • working from insider rather than outsider knowledge,
    • maneuvering through pain, confusion, anger in order to make life better,
    • breaking silences, and
    • making scholarly work accessible to audiences outside the academy (Holman Jones, Adams, and Ellis, 2013)

Straight White American Jesus, Autoethnography, and Intellectual Rigor

Some skeptics of autoethnographic research deem it as self-indulgent, narcissistic, too emotional, self-absorbed (Anderson, 2006), as well as limited in its ability to develop, refine, or extend theory (Douglas and Carless, 2013).

Onishi anticipates that the Straight White American Jesus podcast might encounter similar critiques:

“I know there will be people out there in the religious studies world who will say ‘Dan and Brad, you are blurring the lines between insider and outsider, you’re blurring the lines between scholar and data.’ And I understand that perspective. I don’t necessarily agree with it.”

He explains how they work to ensure that each episode is held to rigorous intellectual and ethical standards:

“So when Dan and I go into any episode we do, we want to make sure that as we tell anecdotes from our past—as we recount what it was like to come home and have your family not be there and have your first thought be maybe the rapture happened and everyone got taken away and I didn’t—as we tell those stories, we always want to balance that with very rigorous scholarship. We want to do our homework. We want to go to the primary sources. We want to go to the data. We want to make sure we have that right so that we can make sure as scholars, and as people who have a platform, we are owning up and responding to that responsibility.”

Likewise, champions of autoethnography address their detractors by noting that high-quality autoethnographic projects must be held to rigorous standards. Adams, Holman Jones, and Ellis (2013, 2015), for instance, identify numerous goals and contributions of excellent autoethnographic works. I repackage some of them here as a series of six multifaceted questions that can be used to assess an autoethnographic text for its rigor and usefulness:

    1. Does it contribute to knowledge? Does it extend existing knowledge? Does it connect empirical knowledge with personal, grounded, intimate, hands-on insider insights? Does it critique current theoretical conceptualizations of a phenomenon? Does it ask questions about what current research leaves out or obscures?
    2. Does it prize personal experience? Does it feature a situated subject grappling with a cultural/social phenomenon? Does it present an intentionally vulnerable subject so readers might understand these experiences and the resulting emotions? Does it demonstrate the risks involved in making oneself autoethnographically vulnerable?
    3. Does it demonstrate the power and responsibilities of storytelling? Does the researcher place just as much weight on the craft of writing as on the demonstration of analytical prowess? Does the researcher use stories to describe and critique culture? Does the researcher use reflexivity to compel the reader to respond with constructive empathy?
    4. Does it demonstrate conscientious research? Does the research aim to engage and improve the lives of self, co-participants, and readers? Are safeguarding techniques used to secure the identities and privacy of vulnerable participants?
    5. Does it purposefully investigate problematic or confusing cultural practices? Does it demonstrate how some elements of society diminish, silence, or deny certain people or stories? Does it disrupt taboos, break silences, and reclaim lost and disregarded voices? Does it disrupt canonical narratives and question hegemonic beliefs and practices? Does it push itself away from simplistic autobiography (the mere illustration of something sad, joyful or problematic) and push itself toward a more complex autoethnography (a critique and analysis of the phenomenon under investigation)?
    6. Does it make the research findings accessible to multiple audiences? Rather than producing esoteric, jargon-laden texts, does this piece demonstrate a consideration of non-academic audiences? Does it consider the storytelling traditions and ways of using language that those outside the academy might engage?

Autoethnography: A Crucial Research Method for Befuddling Times

The aims of autoethnography—careful, creative, and responsible deployment of personal narrative as an illuminating force in the study of the cultural and the political—align with those of Onishi’s Straight White American Jesus in his attempt to avoid “reduction and demonization [of evangelicals]” while maintaining “the courage and the audacity to point as critical and unflinching of an eye on what’s happening.” At a time when mainstream understanding of evangelical culture is often laced with consternation and bewilderment, autoethnography and Straight White American Jesus (the podcast) offer themselves as crucial tools for gaining and conveying incisive insight and understanding.

Straight White American Jesus, the podcast

In this week’s podcast, Skidmore College Professor Bradley Onishi speaks about Straight White American Jesus, a podcast he co-hosts with Dan Miller that blends insider religious experience with academic expertise about American Evangelicalism. “The goal is never reduction,” Onishi argues about the mix of insider/outsider frames. Instead, he shares how the podcast tries to provide better access to complex religious worlds and how careful historical framing and rigorous critical analysis can humanize rather than demonize evangelicals. Looking honestly at religion, warts and all, is worth the effort since it leads us to increased religious literacy outcomes designed to understand the “human condition writ large.”

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, sardines, popcorn, and more.


Straight White American Jesus, the Podcast

Podcast with Bradley Onishi (25 November 2019).

Interviewed by David McConeghy

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/straight-white-american-jesus-the-podcast/

PDF at https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Onishi_-_Straight_White_American_Jesus-_the_Podcast_1.1.pdf

David McConeghy (DMcC): Welcome. My name is David McConeghy. And today I’m joined by Dr Bradley Onishi, Associate Professor of Religion at Skidmore College in New York. He’s the co-author of Christian Mysticism: An Introduction to Contemporary Theoretical Approaches; the author of The Sacrality of the Secular, a major work about the philosophy of religion. Today he’s here as the co-host, with Dan Miller, of the really excellent podcast, Straight White American Jesus. Brad, thanks so much for joining us today.

Bradley Onishi (BO): Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

DMcC: So I’ve been listening to your podcast for a while now, and I know you share it with everyone. But for those that haven’t come across this yet, where did you get the idea for this podcast?

BO: So in the kind-of aftermath of Trump’s election Dan and I got together and talked about wanting to share our stories, and also wanting to share kind-of our scholarship on evangelicalism and American religion. For those who haven’t listened, my story is basically that I converted to evangelicalism when I was fourteen. And by the time I was twenty I was a full-time minister, I was married, and I was really on my way toward a kind-of life in ministry and in the evangelical world. All of that changed, of course. And I’m still in the religion game – as I like to say – but just from a much different perspective. And so, for Dan and I, we wanted to help folks have an insider perspective and understanding of white evangelicalism in this country. We also wanted to provide a kind-of historical and social scientific lens on white evangelicalism. Our major goal is basically this: we want to explain, basically, why Donald Trump appears more like Jesus than any other politician white evangelicals have ever encountered. And so we do that through both the telling of our stories and a kind-of tracing the history of evangelicalism in this country.

DMcC: I found that mix of personal experience blending in to academic rigour, blending into full-on interviews with really important scholar like R. Marie Griffith and Randall Balmer. It’s really compelling. Did you know from the beginning that you had that kind-of really effective dialogue between those two halves? That you and Dan both share, right, share a background?

BO: Yes, you know it all comes so naturally. Because evangelicalism was my world. I mean I was. . . . It’s hard to explain how zealous I was, when I converted. I was that sixteen year-old kid who went from sneaking around the back of movie theatres to do teenage stuff, to standing out in front of the movie theatre, trying to convert people. And so when evangelicalism is that much a part of your life reflecting on it is sometimes painful, but it comes very naturally. So Dan and I knew we could do that. We also knew we had a passion for enabling . . . or creating a platform for scholars to help a wider audience understand, like: how is that more white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump than for George W Bush, or Mitt Romney? How does that happen? Well, we knew there were people out there who could help us understand that. And so we wanted to just provide space for those analytical, historical, critical, sociological perspectives.

DMcC: What I take from the moment that we’re in right now, is that we really have a great opportunity, right, as scholars, as outsiders, to kind-of present some of the research that’s been done, especially into those theoretical perspectives that the public often doesn’t see. Because they’re framed in language or framed in books that are hard to market to public audiences. But the insider approach really gives you that colloquial, fundamental access to an authenticity, when you speak about it, that makes it – when you switch, then, to the academic narrative – so much more alive. When you say it’s hard to convince audiences of how zealous you were, there was the moment when you were describing in the podcast, how you would go, in the high school lunch room, up to students that were your high school peers and evangelise to them at lunch. Because you were convinced that their mortal souls were at risk, and if you did not do everything you could do at that moment that you were going to leave them behind.

BO: Yes. And you know one of the goals is not to soften, or make more palatable the politics and culture of evangelicals in the Trump era. We are not here to sort-of “make nice” in any case. But what I do want to do, by telling stories like the one you just mentioned, I want people to be able to think themselves into the places of the evangelicals, not so that they can agree, not so that they can accept it, but so they can see the human element in it. It’s so easy to reduce those we disagree with – especially those who seem to be harming our public sphere – to just reduce them to something demented, something that’s not right. And just sort-of push them away as hopeless and helpless and whatever. My hope is by sharing my story, and Dan’s too, that we can show folks that this is a very human culture. It’s a very human set of events. It’s a very human community. And if you can get a window into that, maybe it can help you when you’re at a school board meeting, or you’re at your election for the city council, or when you’re dealing with parents on your kids’ soccer team, or having a Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe it can give you a better approach to how to discuss these things with your neighbours, with your fellow citizens, with your colleagues – whoever that may be. And so all that is to say, for me, that the personal element is really, really important. It adds something, I think, that makes it easier for a general audience to identify with. And it also makes it easier for those who are ex-evangelicals, like I am, to feel that they have a way in to understand more of the sort-of academic discourse surrounding the culture that they’re arguing from.

DMcC: Right. And for those perhaps outside of the US, it’s been a very kind-of English language discussion and very much on Twitter with folks like Chris Stroop, and others who #Exevangelical, are talking about their de-conversion experiences. There really is that kind-of two sides to what’s going on, in the sense that there are some folks that worry that perhaps the level of honesty that you’re approaching this topic with is unfair to evangelicals. And I think, all of the folks that I’ve heard from have been really forceful advocates for: “We’re not going to dismiss what’s wrong here, and we’re going to call out things that we see are wrong, and we feel like we have a space to do that.” But on the other hand it is about explaining experience and opening dialogue and trying to find the allies that are there for you. On the other hand, though, do you think . . . ? (Laughs) I’m guessing that maybe there’s been some push-back as well? Can you talk about the kinds of different responses that you’ve received from those that have been very supportive, as ex-evangelical community members, to those that are remaining evangelical, and may have some less than kind words for the work that you’re doing.

BO: Yes, I mean just to go to the beginning of your question there: my goal is not to. . . . I’m a scholar. And even when I’m talking about my own experiences, I want to be able to have an analytical lens. And so on our podcasts and with the work we’re doing, the goal is never reduction; the goal is never demonisation. The goal is always to say: “We want to examine these issues as best as we can.” And that includes returning to sources. That includes returning to documents and facts and histories that have been covered over that people don’t know about. We did this in one of our very first episodes with the abortion myth. Randall Balmer came on and . . . . Let me outline the history for you regarding the formation of the religious right. It was not about abortion. And the idea that it was is revisionist history in service of an evangelical propaganda or mission. In fact it was race. And my response to those who would have a pop at that, I would say “We’re doing historical work here. If you feel like our historical analysis is off in some way, we can talk about that. But just to say that somehow pointing these things out is unfair or not warranted, I just don’t buy that.”

DMcC: That’s such a good response. Because, you know, it allows you the space to say let’s take Darren Dochuk who would place oil, and empire, and commercialism, maybe even above race, at the start of the kind-of consolidation of the religious right. And it gives you that space to say, “Even scholars have disagreements about this. But we can all narrate the problems that we’re seeing at the same time.”

BO: I think that’s exactly right. And it leads to who has kind-of responded to the podcast. I can say that we’ve had two groups respond very positively. One are ex-evangelicals who’ve said “ You’re able to speak my language. You speak the language of evangelicalism that I came out of. And yet what you’re doing is giving me a road into understanding the history and all of the cultural and political factors that shaped that religious community that I’m now emerging from. What it’s doing is helping me kind-of put my world back together, after sort-of coming out of a very strict religious community that most of the time made no sense to me.” We’ve also had many people say, “I’m a secular person in Portland” or “I’m a Reformed Jew in New York City. I have no idea how to understand why white evangelicals are so in love with Donald Trump and why they vote, and act, and think the way they do, so you’re helping me gain a window into a culture that for me is completely alien. It seems so far from my understanding of the world that I just didn’t know where to start in order to understand all of this.” And so those two communities have really reached out over Twitter, and everything else, to say that they’ve really appreciated what we’re doing. There’s been a little bit of pushback, but not much. One of the things that I like to tell students and tell folks I discuss things with is, I am totally open as a scholar to argument, and debate, and dialogue. Those are the things I love. But you’re not going to out evangelical me! I’m like “level expert” at evangelical. So when it comes to theology, and language, and jargon, and colloquialisms, and clichés – I’m fluent in that. And so when you want to discuss those things with me, just know that I’m going to be speaking your language better than you. And so you’re not going to get the upper hand on me! And the last thing is, I’m not going to assume – and I think this is part of the ex-evangelical community online, the work they’re doing is – we need to stop assuming that if you call yourself a Christian that that means you are a good person. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not calling Christians bad people! Do not come at me on Twitter for that! What I’m saying is there is a privilege in this country that if you’re a straight, white Christian – especially a straight, white Christian male – you’re given a kind-of cover as “Oh, you must be a true, good, old-fashioned patriot.” We just sort-of have this assumption. And part of the work we’re doing – along with many other people – is just saying we need to stop giving that benefit of the doubt, just because someone claims those identities. And we need to just be willing to look very critically, and with an unflinching gaze, on what’s actually happening in those communities. That could be everything from church, too, and sexual misconduct and abuse. That can be authoritarian structures that can be supporting candidates who are authoritarian and abusive – whatever it may be. And so anyway, all of that is part of the work I feel like we’re doing, and will continue to do, and are very proud to do.

DMcC: I’m tempted to ask whether you think you would ever run out of topics. But . . .

BO: (Laughs)

DMcC: since you describe your access to evangelicals as both fluency in a language, but also access to a world that is very closed off, and inaccessible to those that at are not fully immersed in it, it feels like you can just take any aspect of an evangelicals life: how they think about the economy, how they think about death, how they think about marriage, how they think about the value of life. And every issue, right, has to be encapsulated in some way by that worldview. It has to be addressed with fluency by that language. Do you feel that way? That there’s really never . . . this is an eternal wellspring for you?

BO: Well I don’t know about eternal, but what I will say is when you’re in something long enough you have the muscle memory to either know how to do it, or to find the person who does. And so I don’t want to make out that the evangelical community in this country, including the white evangelical community in this country is homogeneous. There’s a lot of difference between small house churches in West Texas and Liberty Baptists with the Falwell Family, there’s a lot of difference between the Vineyards in South California and what’s happening in rural Georgia. With all that said – at least in the Trump era – there is no shortage of need to discuss things related to evangelical culture. And so at least for the moment, it’s not hard to find things that are not only relevant but seem very pressing for our public sphere.

DMcC: It reminds me of the way that people have spoken about Trump’s election as a net gain for the media, even amid its attacks that the constant stream of scandals – or things that sound like scandals to some people – generates that kind-of a gravity of its own. And that we’re lucky, as religion scholars who happen to work on things that are so central to understanding what’s going on in American politics right now. It makes me feel very fortunate. But also it seems to carry a lot of responsibility. Do you feel that weight, as well?

BO: I do. And I know there’ll be people out there in the religious studies world who will say, “You know, Dan and Brad, you are blurring the lines between insider and outsider. You’re blurring the lines between scholar and data.” And I understand that perspective. I don’t necessarily agree with it. So when Dan and I go into any episode we do, we want to make sure that as we tell anecdotes from our past, as we recount what it was like to come home and have your family not be there, and have your first thought be “Maybe the rapture happened?” Where everyone got taken away and I didn’t. As we tell those stories we always want to balance that with very rigorous scholarship. And we want to do our homework. We want to go to the primary sources, we want to go to the data, we want to make sure we have that right, so that we can make sure, as scholars and as people that have a platform, that we are owning up and responding to that responsibility.

DMcC: Right. It also strikes me that it’s kind-of like you have an ethnographic project that you were living. And then you decided that the project was over. And then you realised that you could actually . . . that you had collected all this data that was really valuable. So, from one perspective, you know, is it blurring the line between insider and outsider? Well, it might be. But on the other hand, you were living in the same way that an ethnographer might live, as if they were doing full-immersion field work. And now you’ve pulled back from being within that perspective. And now that you’re not in that perspective you can clearly demarcate your outsider-ness – right? – in relation to your previous insider-ness

BO: And I think that’s right in ways that I think ethnographers experience. You begin . . . if you’re an ethnographer you form relationships within the community. And even when you might find the politics or practices of that community detestable, at that turning point, the relationships you form affect you. And believe me, I still have friends and many family members who are still part of the evangelical world. They are people for whom I have great affection. I love them. And so for me to do this project, again, means I want to avoid reduction and demonisation. But I also want to have the courage and the audacity to point as critical and as unflinching an eye as we can on what’s happening.

DMcC: Right. So, do you think – and feel free to share specific episodes that you’d like to direct people to if they come to mind – are there things that really resonate best with the community where the clarity of that kind-of-like worldview switch that you’ve had, that you’re revealing to everyone, really appears best? Your gold star podcast episodes?

BO: Well the thing we’ve been focussing on this season has been Beyond Belief. And what we want to do is explain not only what evangelicals believe, but what their culture and beliefs do for them. And so let me give you an example. We’ve spoken several times on our podcast about abortion and “cultures of life” – quote unquote – And one of the things we’ve tried really hard to explain is that, yes, there is a focus on abortion. Because many rank and file evangelicals go to bed at night believing that any form of abortion is equivalent to murder. Ok. However there’s whole nother package of goods that come with that belief. I know personally, from my own experience, that every time that I explained to my church elders that I wanted to vote for a Democrat because their emphasis on equality, or social justice, seemed more in line with the gospel of Jesus Christ, they would sort-of say to me “Look, you can do that if you want. But what you’re condoning is the murder of millions of children.” Why do I bring that up? Because that one belief in abortion meant that I could turn off my brain completely when it came to all other issues. So when I went into a voting booth I did not have to consider whether or not all the things related to healthcare reform, education initiatives, tax hikes, immigration, what all of those things meant for who I should vote for. What I was going to vote for was who was “pro-life”, quote unquote: who was against abortion. And so I got to turn off a whole set of moral and ethical decisions. I got to disengage politically, and go to bed at night knowing that I had done the right thing: that I was a good person, because I stood against murder. And that happens all over the place in evangelical culture. I could give you similar examples when it comes to apocalypticism. I could give you similar examples when it comes to God and guns, or gender. And so, what our audience has been really reacting to is unpacking what beliefs do for you more than just simply explaining theological frameworks or evangelical doctrines.

DMcC: And I’m so thrilled to hear you present it in that way. We’ve been having kind-of a religious literacy discussion on Twitter, some of us going around, and that really strikes me as one of the operational moves that religious studies really can take advantage of: that it’s not simply the content that we can present – it’s the critical appraisal of the work that religion does, in particular instances, for particular people. So on abortion, the work that it does is potentially make hard political decisions a lot easier, right? It clarifies what the expectations are for them. And, as an element of religious literacy, presenting religion in that way to the public is a really powerful way to think about it. It’s very different than thinking about religion as simply a collection of beliefs that we hold and then not really much beyond that, right?

BO: It is. And you know that in every Intro to Religion class, most scholars and teachers are not going to ask, you know, “Let’s ask their students to make a list of what Hindus and Muslims and Christians and everyone else believes.” They’re going to ask, “Let’s try to define religion.” and then they’re going to say, “What does religion do for people?” Well I know the question I ask my students on the first day, is “Why do people do religion?” and when I say why do people do religion, they immediately get away from belief and they start raising their hands. And it’s like “Community” “tradition”, “family”, “belonging”, “identity”. And as soon as we start talking about why people do religion instead of what do religious people believe, all of the dimensions of religious studies opens up. And what you see is that when we study religion we’re also studying race, we’re also studying embodiment, we’re also studying gender, and we’re also studying group formation. I always tell kids who want to major in religion, I’m like: “Look, when you sign up with us, you get to study it all. You don’t have to compartmentalise what you’re doing into one domain. Studying religion means studying the human condition writ large.” One of the things I like to say is that, when you study religion you get a window into human conditions. That means communities and worlds that at one time probably seemed indecipherable. And you also get a window into the human condition in a way that I think is really unique. In the humanities, yes, but in religious studies even more so.

DMcC: I’m so pleased to hear you say that. It’s really been quite a pleasure to speak with you today about this. Thank you so much for joining us. And where can people find your podcast online?

BO: Yes, so you can find Straight White American Jesus on Apple Podcast, on Stitcher, on Google, on most places that people find podcasts. You can find me on Twitter @BradleyOnishi. And we still do have a Straight White American Jesus Facebook page as well.

DMcC: Perfect. Thank you so much for joining us.

BO: Thanks for having me.

 

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.

Challenges and Responsibilities for the Public Scholar of Religion

In this interview, Megan Goodwin examines the current state of public religious studies scholarship. “Public scholar” has become a buzzword in some corners of the discipline of religious studies, variously referring to scholars who share their research to a broader audience on social media platforms, in popular media outlets, or through multimedia such as podcasts and online video. As more scholars have entered these ranks, the broader field has taken notice. The American Academy of Religion even declared the 2018 presidential theme as “Religious Studies in Public: The Civic Responsibilities, Opportunities, and Risks Facing Scholars of Religion.” What challenges do public scholars of religion face? Are academic institutions prepared to support these scholars as they are exposed both to greater scrutiny from their academic peers as well as vitriolic hate from trolls online? Where is public religious studies scholarship headed in the coming years?

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, Tori Amos CD’s, Super Mario Bros. U. Deluxe, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Challenges and Responsibilities for the Public Scholar of Religion

Podcast with Megan Goodwin (25 March 2019).

Interviewed by Andrew Henry.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Goodwin_-_Challenges_and_Responsibilities_for_the_Public_Scholar_of_Religion_1.1

Andrew Henry (AH): Welcome Listeners. I’m recording from Boston, at Northeastern University. I’m with Dr Megan Goodwin. She’s a scholar of gender, sexuality and race, and contemporary American minority religions at Northeastern University. She’s a visiting lecturer at Northeastern University and the programme director of a new initiative called “Sacred Writes

Megan Goodwin (MG): W-r-i-t-e-s.

AH: Right, OK. Tell us a little bit about this new initiative.

MG: So Liz Bucar and I last year worked on a grant that Liz proposed to ACLS and Luce for Religion Journalism and International affairs. And working on this Reporting Religion project we started conversations around what would best help shift the conversation around religion, right. How would you make the most impact with the work that folks were already doing in the academy and make sure that that’s not a conversation that’s only happening within the academy? So we spent last year proposing a project that helps train scholars to translate their work for non-experts and to think about partnering with media outlets – who were already doing fairly smart reporting, often on religion but are just under-sourced. And even when they’re not under sourced they’re not trained as experts in religion. So, how do we make the most out of both media expertise and religion expertise, and make that the most useful for folks who are not experts in media or religion?

AH: So you’re looking to be the creative bridge between the academy and . . . not just the general public – however we define that – but, specifically, journalist and media outlets.

MG: So we can think of it, I think, broadly as a communication breakdown, right? (I got that Led Zeppelin thing happening in my head.) So we are in a political moment where religion is deeply shaping so many facets of public life. At the same time religion is not something that gets taught as a subject of scholarly enquiry, right. It’s something personal, it’s something you do at home, it is not something that we’re taught how to think about. So the folks who have been taught how to think about it have developed that expertise, but aren’t trained to do that translation work. And frankly, largely speaking, institutions haven’t valued that work as scholarship. It’s seen as, potentially, “community service” or an amusing side-hobby for tech nerds, but not something that’s serious scholarship, that people who are really invested in being intellectuals would ever really invest in. So the way that we’re thinking about the work that Sacred Writes does is both helping scholars shift public conversations around religion – helping non-experts understand why they need to know something about religion in order to understand the election process, or the conversation about healthcare – and at the same time, hopefully, teaching institutions how to value that work as legitimate scholarship, as opposed to something we do for funsies.

AH: So you’ve brought up a lot of interesting ideas here. And I want to try to take them systematically. And the one that you mentioned was how the discipline of Religious Studies, the academic discipline, values engaging the public. You mentioned that it would count as community service but presumably, if you’re going up for tenure, the monographs from a good university press would count much more than running a podcast like this, for example?

MG: Right. And best-case scenario is that it’s seen as public service or a civic good. Worst case scenario, it works against your tenure case. And I certainly know folks who have raised this as an issue for reasons they’ve been denied tenure: that participating in public-facing work suggests a lack of investment in scholarly gravitas. So what we’re hoping, as part of the outcome of Sacred Writes, is using this incredible pool of expertise that we’ve gathered in our leadership team to take those areas of expertise, and frankly the weight of those scholarly identities, back to institutions and help them understand that this is serious scholarship. And cultivate best practices for scholars who are interested in doing this work, so that their work can be legible, again, to non-experts but also to their own institutions. My thinking on this is largely informed by the work that Hannah McGregor is doing currently. She hosts a podcast called “ Secret Feminist Agenda“ (audio unclear) but one of the things that’s really remarkable about Secret Feminist Agenda is that it’s currently being experimentally peer reviewed (5:00). So there is a peer reviewing institution that is crafting a mechanism by which this work that she’s doing, which is so smart but also so accessible, can be valued by her tenure granting institution. And I’m hoping that possibly in conversation with her, but certainly in conversation with our leadership team, we can think about what peer reviewing a podcast or a YouTube series might look like, so that it can count toward tenure, promotion, scholarly gravitas, being a valued part of the institution and not just, again, best-case scenario, something that you do for fun or something that you do in your spare time as community service.

AH: So I want to focus in on this idea of why is public-facing scholarship – whether it’s a podcast or a YouTube series – why is it looked down upon by some corners of the academy. Is it because there’s a lack of nuance . . . like there’s nuance being lost in that translation process from the scholarly to the public? So we, in the academy, are trained to be critical: trained to pull apart arguments. And I wonder if that plays into the scepticism of these public-facing outlets. Because you must necessarily go through this translation process to make academic research more accessible. And through that translation process nuance is lost, and therefore it invites more criticism and scrutiny from scholars.

MG: So I think there are a couple of moving pieces here. The training criticism is, I think, a well-made point. But i also think there’s frankly a counter-productive valuation of . . . trying to think of nice way to say this . . . . I think we often interpret nuance as

AH: You could say it meanly, too!

MG: OK. We don’t value clear writing. And we don’t value clear communication. And part of that is academic hazing. I think being the folks who had to read Hegel and Heidegger in order to read Derrida in order to make something of contemporary postmodern feminist thought, for example ( I bring this up for no reason whatsoever; it certainly didn’t impact my reading!) There’s an expectation that your writing will reflect the complexity of your thought, right? And so I think we tend to elide complex thinking with complex writing. As someone who was trained in critical theory, as someone who attempts to write theory, it is so much harder to communicate abstract nuanced thinking in clear concise language. It is incredibly challenging. And possibly not something that everyone can do. I think there is a suspicion of folks who try to communicate with non-experts, despite the fact if for no other reason, this is where funding comes from, right? You never get funding for Religious Studies work from a Religious Studies specific-to-your-mini-discipline funding institution. You have to be able to say: this is the work that I’m doing and here is why you should care. It is, I think, a failing on our part that we can do that work in order to fund our own research, but we can’t do that work to shift the public conversation about why folks should care about religion. I also think, frankly, that there is –certainly not at Northeastern, but at some institutions – a devaluation of teaching over research. And not thinking about those two pieces as part of a whole scholarly identity. So when I’m thinking about public-facing work, I’m thinking about first and foremost it’s a pedagogical challenge. How do I take these incredibly complicated ideas and get to the root of : here’s why the public should care; here’s why this should inform, frankly, how they’re voting; how they’re living in their communities; how they’re thinking about . . . I’ve been watching a lot of “The Good Place“ so forgive me . . . But how does this help us think about what we owe to each other as a society, right? If you work in an institution where not only is public-facing scholarship devalued but, frankly, pedagogy and teaching is devalued, how do you learn to see the value in translating your work to non-specialist audience? And, again, most of us are required to do that every week. You get in front of an audience of very highly paying non-experts and you explain to them why they should care (10:00). We in the academy talk a very good game, very often, about pedagogy or teaching and how much we value it, possibly in job interviews. I don’t see that, frankly, translated into a whole lot of departmental politics. The folks that are most highly-valued at most institutions, small liberal arts colleges aside, are the folks that are turning out the most research. And frankly there’s not a whole lot of departmental or institutional support for learning how to be good at teaching. And again small liberal arts colleges are an exception here. So again, I think the significance of the work that we’re trying to do with Sacred Writes is potentially one we can think about as a pedagogical challenge. How do we teach these scholars to be teachers, not just of their students, but of the public? And how to we teach the institutions to recognise this? To be able to read this as legitimate scholarship? And I don’t think that you have to sacrifice nuance. You have be patient. The pacing is different. And this is also I think a place where American Religion scholars maybe have a particular challenge. So some of my very closest friends in the academy are Islamicists and they get very grumpy at me because I can say things like, “the Civil War” and I can just expect everybody in the audience to know what I mean when I say the Civil War. I should be able to rely on them to know the time period, the basic political arguments there, as opposed to – I’m thinking very specifically of my friend Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst who just wrote a book about Religion, Rebels and Jihad and how Muslims were coded specifically as inherently rebellious against the crown. The 1857 rebellion, I’m given to understand, was quite an important moment in Indian history. And the reason that I know that is because I read her book. Right? She can’t just say, “the Rebellion”. There is this necessary instruction of readers who are not experts in Islam or Indian history or Salvation history. Americanists don’t have to do that. So I am thinking particularly of my own scholarship, I have had to learn from these experiences of folks who don’t work on American Religion to say: what am I assuming when I go into these conversations? How can I help folks understand these incredibly intricate, multi-faceted historical moments without losing them, without not being able to explain why they should care? Right?

AH: Yes. And this pedagogical challenge raises issues of religious literacy at this point. Where you can mention the Civil War in an American context and assume that there’s a baseline knowledge there. But having taught undergraduates, that’s often dangerous that there’s baseline knowledge there.

MG: True. Yes!

AH: So, how does that introduce a further challenge to this work of public engagement? That you want to bring in nuance, you want to bring in complexity, but sometimes you just don’t even know the difference between . . . your audience doesn’t even know the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism.

MG: Yes. So, you know what? Honestly, I think you have to earn nuance. If the American public doesn’t know the difference between Catholics and Protestants and the scholarship of religion in the United States is – let’s be generous – call it a hundred and fifty years old, what have we been doing for a hundred and fifty years that the public doesn’t know the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant? That’s on us. And I understand that the make-up of the United States has complicated public education about religion for some very important reasons. At the same time, and I’m thinking very specifically of . . . . I’m a product of a public school, right? I did my doctorate at UNC. So the first conversation we had every single semester was, “How does the work that we’re doing when we teach serve Carolina, and serve the voters?” Right? These are folks who are going to be citizens or participate in the public sphere in some way. So how are we helping them do that? I think, I hope that public scholarship done well can first build baseline knowledge about how religion is functioning in the United States; how religion continues to function around the world; how that is wrapped up in things like power and colonialism and imperialism. And then, hopefully, we can get to a nuanced conversation of like, “You’re really not understanding healthcare if you don’t know something about the Conference of Catholic Bishops. You just don’t.” But first, yeah, you need to know what a Catholic is. So good, earn that and then you can have a conversation in public about why you need to know about the Catholic bishops’ interference around reproductive justice.

AH: OK. We’re going to think more broadly here, then. How would you rate the academic discipline of Religious Studies? (15:00) Like how successful is it at public engagement, in the past, let’s say, five or six years? And we’re both Religious Studies scholars here, so it’s hard for us to see exactly how other disciplines are doing it. But I have at least enough friends in History departments that seem to be doing a pretty good job. There’s dozens upon dozens of solid academic history podcasts, for example. How would you rate the discipline of Religious Studies in this endeavour? Because the reason why I ask is that there might be many people out there listening to this who say, “Hey, we’re doing this already!” Like we’re both on Twitter. There’s a ton of Religious Studies scholars on Twitter. So to respond to those people that might say, “Hey, this is already happening! There’s already committees at the American Academy of Religion doing this hard work.”

MG: I think you’re right. I think History has been a really impressive force in trying to shape public conversations around nuance and historical nuance. I was particularly impressed with the conversation around medieval race and racism. That Twitter conversation blew up and resulted in a number of really smart pieces. And engaged thousands of people from all over the world. That was really impressive. The places where I see this being done really well, if I’m thinking Twitter I’m thinking the scholars who take the time to really translate their incredibly nuanced thinking to two hundred and forty characters, now, right? So, top of my list: Judith Weisenfeld – obviously; Anthea Butler – obviously; Nyasha Junior – obviously. It isn’t, I don’t think, an accident that these are all black women, who are incredibly nuanced thinkers but also participate in this really rigorous – but, again, usually very accessible – public conversation. Ed Curtis through the Journal of Africana Religions (JAR) is another really good example of folks that have taken the time to engage with non-experts and explain, for example, why using the word “cult” in a headline – while click-baity, while eye-grabbing – compromises the integrity of the folks participating in a group. It doesn’t think about the racist imperialist history of categorising religion, particularly religions that involve largely black people as cults, when white religions, civilised religions, get to count as actual religions and not cults. Other places where this has been really good: the African American Studies podcast, AAS 21, at Princeton, I think has been really impressive – but again, my favourite episode of that was Judith Weisenfeld’s episode with Eddie Gloude; the (audio unclear) Project – I think it’s in a transition period right now. But one of the things that was really exciting about that project was that it paired open access, rigorous scholarship with more contemporary kind-of pop culture analysis. So there was something there for everyone. And, again, the commitment to open access I think is deeply, deeply important, if we’re going to think about public-facing work as a civic good. But also, shout out to “The Immanent Frame“ – not that blogging is particularly innovative anymore – but they have been leading the conversation for, what, a decade, in trying to . . . not necessarily address the public at large, but at least the field of Religious Studies at large, and help Religious Studies scholars broadly understand some of these really complicated nuanced issues, in the context of Religious Studies. And this is not to say that the JAR doesn’t do that as well. But the JAR really rewards dense, nuanced writing in a way that just doesn’t work in a blog format, right? So when I’m thinking about teaching, for example, contemporary sexual scandals – which is where a lot of my own work lives, and something that informs my religion and sexuality class – one of the first places I go is to The Immanent Frame to review all of the stuff on the clergy sex abuse scandal. This is scholarship that was . . . information, right? That conference happened, what, five years ago at Yale? And you’ve got some of the brightest scholars who work on religion and sexuality thinking out loud about what to do with this material. And coming at it from all different angles. So those would be my big hits.

AH: Great.

MG: Although the way that is was phrased in the email was “whether or not religion is a special issue” which did a very Antaeus thing in my head. So like Antaeus would definitely say that it was a special issue. It is an issue of specialness. (That’s a dumb American Religions joke. I’m not even sorry.) But yes, I think it is a special issue in American context for two reasons. The first is that religion is – politics nerd, here – but religion, and the protection of specific kinds of religion, is enshrined in our founding documents (20:00). So we, as a people, have collectively agreed that religion does a thing that many other kinds of human culture do not. But the other piece is that frankly everybody thinks they’re an expert in religion, based largely on their personal experiences. I have thoughts about why this is. I think it has a lot to do with Protestantism and individual relationships with God, and individual experiences being valid. But it does lead to things like – I’m never getting over this: a reporter from a public radio asked me, a couple of years back, to comment on . . . I think it was a PRRI survey that had identified Maine as one of the least religious states in the country. And she asked me why that is. And I said, “Well, Maine is also one of the whitest states in the country.” And (I explained) why whiteness, and identifying as a religion or “spiritual but not religious”, might be connected. And she said, “No, I don’t think that’s it.” So, yeah. So I think the identification of personal experience as synonymous with expertise in religion does make this a particular challenge for Religious Studies scholars.

AH: Well, we mentioned earlier this idea of pedagogical challenges in this field of public engagement. And I think you hit the nail on the head with one, which is people already assume they know what religion is. So what is our role? Like, “Who are you to come in and tell me what religion is?” So let’s reflect more on that. I think this is an interesting thread.

MG: Well, I mean . . . I think that it is both “special because religion”, and then part of a larger conversation about a systematic devaluation of expertise in the public sphere for . . . call it fifty, sixty years. But yeah, religion is this very particular challenge because everyone feels authorised to speak on it. So as Religious Studies scholars, again, we have to earn the nuance. So let’s start with “What you think about religion does not exhaust all of religion.” So let’s start by thinking about multiplicity before we even get to complexity. What you know, even about Christianity, is not all there is to know about Christianity. So can we offer windows into: “Religion is more complicated than you think”; “Religion is always more than you think that it is”? And then, conservatively, I don’t know, maybe ten years from now, maybe we could get to, “Here’s why it’s important that we not emphasise religion equals faith or religion equals belief. Here’s how we, as a community, not just as a small chunk of experts, can think about what work it does to value religions that emphasise belief over religions that emphasise practice. And then, fifty years from now, we can worry about that US Catholic Conference of Bishops, I guess. It is . . . . One of the particular challenges, I think, of doing public scholarship is this question of time, right? The reason, frankly, that I was moved to pursue public-facing scholarship was that I taught a class called, “Election: Race religion and politics” in 2016. And the entire class is about providing historical context for the election that was happening that year. It’s a long game, right? And then the election made we wonder if we had that kind of time. So I got deeply invested in having conversations with folks who don’t work on religion about how religion helped shape what led up to the election and certainly what came after. It made me feel a real sense of urgency – a need to intervene. And I think I want to believe that public-facing scholarship can be that kind of critical positive intervention, at the same time as – you raised the level of religious literacy – just awareness of the scope of religious difference. The bar is so, so low. We have so much work to do that it can feel like we’re never getting anywhere. We’re never going to raise the bar to the point where we can really talk about lived complexity. But since the alternative is doing nothing I say, let’s intervene and hope for the best. This is better than just letting us all go down with the ship. Let’s shift the conversation as much as we can shift the conversation. If the Religious Studies Overton Window is simply “Hey! Religion is more than I thought it was!” I’m going to call that a win (25:00).

AH: Let’s pivot the conversation to the idea of the public intellectual. I hate this term. I prefer the term public scholar, because at least that points to our scholarship and not to our intellect. But doing this work – especially here in the twenty-first century – is difficult. It opens you up to a lot of criticism, not only from your colleagues but from the hordes of trolls, whether they’re on YouTube or Twitter. And you’re competing against public intellectuals in this space that are not scholars of religion and feel very comfortable to talk about it . . .

MG: (Coughs) Richard Dawkins!

AH: Right. What comes to mind would be Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the meteoric rise of Jordan B.Peterson who has entire lectures on the Bible on YouTube that get millions of views.

MG: And “Bless his heart”, as we say in the South.

AH: Then we also have Reza Aslan who’s problematic in his own ways. So we have this issue of public intellectuals, then we have to raise up our colleagues who are willing to be in this space to take those places of public scholars. So instead of turning to Richard Dawkins or Jordan B Peterson they go to someone that is trained in Religious Studies and who is skilled at doing this work of translation, of keeping complexity and nuance, and still be able to engage the public as it were. But this offers so many challenges. So I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this concept of the public scholar. And how this job is not cut out for everybody.

MG: Yes. So I think there are two issues that you raised there. And they’re both really important. I want to start with the vulnerability issue. It is not a safe thing to do this work. And it is doubly, triply unsafe to do it as a person of colour, as a queer person, as a woman. Because the internet is not for us, right? We are reminded of that every time we speak in public: that we should settle down and maybe smile more. There is an incredible vulnerability to doing any sort of public intellectual scholarship work. There is an incredible vulnerability to being, for example, a black woman scholar standing up and saying, “I know a thing and you should know it too.” That is . . . it should not have to be an act of courage, but it is an act of almost unimaginable courage to stand in front of the internet, in all its horrid glory, and say, “I know more about this than you do. Let me help you.” Which actually brings me to my second point pretty neatly. You mentioned public intellectuals versus public scholars. And I think the dichotomy I’d rather set up is public intellectuals versus public scholarship. Public intellectuals is about – you know what, I’m going to say it – it’s about a cult of personality. (I see you Jordan B. Peterson, I see you.) It is about building up your personal brand, it is about showing everybody that you’re the smartest – usually – straight, white boy in the room. I don’t think public scholarship necessarily needs to be about individual scholars. I think it is important for us to recognise the contribution of specific figures, particularly folks who are taking bigger risks, to say what needs to be said. But public scholarship, hopefully, is just raising the calibre of public knowledge, raising the quality of public conversation, promoting the public understanding of religion. And that doesn’t need to be about one individual scholar. That needs to be about all of us doing better, because we’ll know better. And in order to do that work we need institutional support. This is a conversation that Alice Hunt and I had last month, two months ago. So the American Academy of Religion (AAR) is very publicly supporting the promotion of public understanding of religion. And as you can imagine, I’m deeply invested in that. At the same time I worry about developing mechanisms for supporting scholars that we’ve invited, if not required, to be vulnerable in this way. If we are going to say that one of our two core goals as an academic learned institution is promoting the public understanding of religion – is engaging the public so that they can know better – how are we going to support people when they get death threats? Because they will get death threats. Particularly if they are people of colour. Particularly if they are women. Particularly if they are queer. Right? My concern is that we are ready to call for the public understanding of religion. We are not prepared to support the folks that are doing that promotion. And I don’t know what that looks like. And I know that the issue has been raised within the AAR, at least by me, because I’ve had this conversation both with David Gushee and with Alice Hunt (30:00). But it’s complicated, right? How do we promote institutional support for this? And that I think, I hope, is another piece of the best practices that Sacred Writes is hoping to help develop.

AH: So, talking about institutional support leads me to the next angle of the criticism. If you are putting yourself out there to talk about religion in public, you can get an untold amount of hate from random trolls on Twitter, especially if you’re a woman, person of colour or queer person. But you can also receive criticism from your own discipline, your institution – we talked about this earlier. And I feel like this is particularly felt if you are a part of the academic precariat . . .

MG: I love that!

AH: Whether you’re an adjunct, visiting faculty member, or a graduate student like myself, there’s a risk to do this. I frequently think about how, with my YouTube channel I could say something stupid accidentally on one video and torpedo my career. So how do we support the more contingent faculty side of the public engagement world of our discipline? Because I see a lot of public engagement happening from these scholars who don’t have full time positions, who don’t have tenure to protect them.

MG: Yes. I think that’s an incredibly important question that I don’t have a strong answer to, aside from hoping that the mechanism of Sacred Writes is, at least in part, teaching institutions to value this work. I think there’s a strong correspondence here with media personalities as well, right? Very often in order to land a position in any new sort of media outlet of impact, you have to have already cultivated something of a brand. Often that brand has been deliberately provocative. That’s how you get followers. That’s how you get noticed. And then, once you are elevated to this noteworthy publication, very often the women, queer people, people of colour are lambasted publicly for having said horrible provocative things like, “white people are white”. Horrible! For those who do not spend their entire lives on Twitter, there was a specific Asian woman science journalist who had a very provocative Twitter presence, landed a very plumb gig at an important publication, and then had to publicly apologise for having told white people that they were white. So this is something that I think about a lot. At the same time and this is not, I think, universally applicable advice. While I was teaching about the election I was in a visiting position and it just broke me. It broke me. It broke me in concert with the job market which I have spent more time than I’d prefer exploring. And I got to a stage where the sense of urgency that I felt around being publicly engaged around religious education – or education about religion, I should say – that urgency out-weighed my caution. And I am deeply aware of the ways in which that has increased my own precarity. And at the same time it has facilitated so many intellectually rich, personally fulfilling conversations around this issue and created all these support networks in the academy that I would not have had access to, had I not engaged, say, Twitter in this way. So I can’t recommend it. I am, for all that I am in this position of precarity, I am at an R1 institution, having been funded by a very large grant, having been sponsored, frankly, by some really impressive senior women scholars in Islam. And I am married and unlikely to wind up on the street, eating cat food. I was in a position where I could do that. I don’t know that that’s available to everyone. And I worry that the voices that are really taking risks, that have really innovative approaches to shaping this conversation, are the ones who are most at risk and who are potentially the most likely to suffer for having tried to do this incredibly important work. I don’t know that that’s a fulfilling answer, but that’s where I’m at with it.

AH: No, I think that that’s a good answer.

MG: So just in terms of: how do we do this work? Where do we start? If we’re thinking about what makes an engaging piece of public-facing scholarship I think we need to start by thinking about the audience, which is not something that scholars are trained to do, right? Sure, we think about audience in that we’re engaging a community of our peers who have similar levels of training (35:00). But if we’re not only ever talking to Religious Studies experts we need to think about who we want to talk to, and, what do we want to get across? And we have to be willing to do that in non-specialist language, which again is deeply challenging. But I mean, some of this is really simple, right? The thing that makes a good piece of scholarship is the same thing that makes any good media. Can you tell a clear, concise story and explain why the viewer or the listener or the reader should care? So being able to think about . . . alright: I am deeply invested in conversations about religious freedom and how they tend to privilege specific forms of Christianity, right? (Shout out to Beth Shakman Hurd.) How do I take all of that incredibly dense, nuanced, smart literature and bring that out to an audience that’s going to think, “Well, religious freedom sounds good. Let’s do that.” So thinking about: OK, am I going to do this as a blog post? Do I do this as a YouTube channel? What’s an infographic, and how do I put that together? (Something that Sacred Writes are still working on, but we’re interested, please stay tuned.) Thinking about where your energy is. How you can best communicate that idea in the clearest, most concise, most engaging way possible, is going to make a good piece of public scholarship. Again, I’m coming back to Hannah McGregor because I’m a huge fan. But one of the things that she’s said about her podcasting work is that despite the fact that she’s bringing her scholarly expertise in publishing to all of this work, she keeps having a hard time thinking of it as scholarly because it’s fun, because she’s enjoying it! And I wonder what it might look like to bring that kind of enjoyment, that kind of energy, that kind of fun, frankly, to doing this, often really serious, really hard work. I am somebody who works on sex abuse and violence in minority religions. And my case studies involve mothers holding onto beams and weeping because their children have been taken away. And the deployment of armoured personnel carriers against American citizens on American soil. So if I can do that by making jokes about Vanilla Isis and Captain Moroni, you know what? That’s the way to both explain to the public that they need to care about this, but also stay sane while you’re doing it. Because I think otherwise I think that the onslaught, and the scope of the problem, is just overwhelming.

AH: Well, thank you so much Dr Goodwin. I think this was a great conversation on the implications of public scholarship here in the twenty-first century, especially for Religious Studies scholars, as we try to bring more academic scholarship to more people.

MG: Thanks for having me.

AH: No problem.


Citation Info: Goodwin, Megan and Andrew Henry. 2019. “Challenges and Responsibilities for the Public Scholar of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 25 March 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 March 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/challenges-and-responsibilities-for-the-public-scholar-of-religion/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, 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.