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Religion, threskeia (θρησκεία) and the Return of the Hellenes: On Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion

Ever since the publication of Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s The Meaning and End of Religion (1962), various scholars have engaged themselves with the issue of religion not being “a universally applicable first-order concept that matches a native discursive field in every culture across time and throughout history” (Nongbri 2013, p. 158). Nongbri’s approach to this issue is influenced by the work of scholars like Talal Asad, Jonathan Z. Smith, Russell McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzerald, Tomoko Masuzawa, and David Chidester to name a few. However, his approach differs, from say Fitzgerald’s, in that he does not dismiss the term altogether. Instead, for Nongbri, the realization that religion is a modern concept with a specific history and that all our concepts are virtually anachronistic when we apply them to antiquity, allows us to use the term ‘religion’ in a more creative way. For example, by drawing on the work of the church historian Eusebius (4th century CE), Nongbri argues that religion is not “the most useful tool for trying to describe ancient practices” since Eusebius was not dividing the world up into different religions.

Writing for an English speaking audience, Nongbri justifiably dedicates most of his work on the Latin term religio from which derives the modern western concept of religion. However, the Greek term threskeia (that one would conventionally translate into English as religion) remains a marginal term both in the field of religious studies and in the discourse on the concept of religion. Nongbri dedicates little space on this term in his work (Nongbri 2013, pp. 34-8), but manages to show its different meanings with references ranging from Herodotus in the 5th century BCE to Photius in the 8th century CE, while he stresses the absence of a detailed study of how the term was used in the Byzantine era. The term threskeia still is the standard term that Greek-speaking people use when referring to religion. The problem of understanding how this particular term was used both in antiquity and during early Christianity within the Greek speaking world is simultaneously at the root of the problems that stem from the very fact that ancient Greek threskeia (arhaia Helleneke threskeia) remains the standard modern Greek terminology employed when referring to ancient Greek religion.

Modern Greeks Re-Enacting Ancient Practices

Modern Greeks Re-Enacting Ancient Practices

A peculiar case that touches upon – and could well be studied with the help of – Nongbri’s work is a relatively new movement in Greece known as The Return of the Hellenes. As Matthew Brunwasser wrote last June on the BBC official webpage, every 21st of June (summer solstice) the members of this movement participate in their annual festival of the Prometheia, a celebration of the Greek Titan Prometheus (see picture below). What is interesting, however, is the statement given to Brunwasser by the founder of the Hellenes movement, the philosophy professor Tryphon Olympios: “They [Orthodox church officials/priests] have understood that we are not dangerous and we are not pagans and Satanists… We are peaceful people that come with ideas that are useful for society”. These religious (theskeutikes) practices that, according to the members of this movement, go “back to the roots” and generate the feeling of “continuation through the millennia” virtually allow people to “identify with something in the past – where they come from – so as to know where they are going”.

Prometheus

Prometheus

 

I find such phraseology extremely interesting and at the same time deeply problematic. One could argue that, like Eusebius, the members of the Hellenes movement do not adhere to a religious but rather to a different classification of the world by seeing the ancient Greek practices (including but not confined to the threskeutikes) as a means of identity formation that link the modern to the ancient Greeks. Herodotus in the 5th century BCE, in describing the Greek nation, spoke of “the common blood, the common language and the common sanctuaries and sacrifices” (Histories 8.144.2). Even though Herodotus does not use the word threskeia in this passage he nevertheless sees the world through the lens of different elements constitutive of a specific group, in this case the Greeks. Likewise, the Hellenes movement acknowledges the importance of both sanctuaries and sacrifices as a constitutive element that links them to the ancient Greeks in, as it were, a Herodotian way. It comes as no surprise, as Brunwasser informs us, that the followers of the movement include “New Age types who revere ancient traditions, leftists who resent the power of the Orthodox Church, and Greek nationalists who see Christianity as having destroyed everything that was truly Greek” (emphasis added).

Nongbri’s work, as I see it, offers a very valuable tool not only in approaching and interpreting the ancient usage of terms such as religio and threskeia and their respective history but also how those ambiguous terms are adopted and used by modern people who long for those ancient practices that scholars label “religious” in order to establish claims that touch upon different matters: from regional politics to ethnicity and from nationalism to anarchism to mention just a few. As with the term religion, threskeia does not so much need a definition but rather an examination of the various connotations that the term employs when in the hands of different people with different agendas. As Russell McCutcheon put it in another podcast published in the Religious Studies Project some time ago, “I am really not interested in what religion is or isn’t or even if there is such a thing that pairs up to that word; instead it’s a word I am using defined in this or that way that allows me to do this or that with the world; that allows me to talk about this versus that”.

I think that Before Religion, which draws heavily on McCutcheon’s work as Nongbri himself acknowledges in his interview, can contribute to the study of those identity formation and classificatory systems employed by people that are today conventionally called neo-pagans. The very fact that the Hellenes and their umbrella group known as the Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes are “campaigning to get their form of ancient worship classed as an “ethnic religion [threskeia]” of Greece” shows in the most vivid way that to define the term threskeia (and religion alike in other places of the world) offers less than the more promising study of the ideologies that accompany the term in its different contexts, both in antiquity and in the modern world.

Tomato: Fruit or Vegetable? Discuss.

Budding theorists may find themselves conscripted into the ideological battles over the nature of religion or, to put a finer point on the argument, how scholarship in religious studies should be done. For even if one has not openly sided with a particular group regarding what ‘religion’ is, it is very likely you do have some inkling regarding how scholarship in religious studies should be done. As Russell McCutcheon notes in this interview one of his teaching texts is a brief opinion from a lawsuit in 1893 (Nix v. Hedden) regarding the nature of tomatoes. Are tomatoes fruits or are they vegetables? And why does it matter?

For the Purposes of…

McCutcheon, like the presiding judge in this case, is not terribly interested in the intrinsic nature or essence of the ‘tomato’ but rather what the tomato will be for purposes of trade and tariffs. This case upheld the Tariff Act of 1883 which did not charge a tax on imported fruit but did charge a tax for imported vegetables. If this case appears to have nothing to do with the battles over ‘religion’ look again and ask what happens when you supplement the word ‘tomato’ with ‘religion.’ Make the categorical division not between ‘fruit’ or ‘vegetable’ but rather envision a litany of possible interpretations such as ‘religion’ is at heart really about wielding knowledge and power, money and manipulation, primordial man’s explanation of the terrors and wonders of the natural world, individual neurosis, or a deep, personal and private encounter with an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity, etc. How quickly seemingly solid categories come unraveled… suddenly, I am much more comfortable becoming an arbitrator on anything, tomatoes included, than on what I supposedly study.

Okay, let’s return to the tomato argument for a moment as perhaps it will shed some light on our predicament. In order to come to a conclusion we must look at precedent (i.e. how has the word been used before). We can also compare dictionary entries and call ‘expert’ witnesses. Oxford Dictionaries even weighs in on the argument… it seems that this issue arose because scientists and cooks use the word differently. According to Oxford Dictionaries, scientifically speaking, a tomato is a fruit. In the culinary world, the tomato is referenced as a vegetable because it is savory. Notice that the argument has morphed from pertaining to what category the tomato is in based on its qualities to a matter of who is doing the speaking.

One need only remember that Gershwin classic “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” to know that how one pronounces a word denotes not just dialectic difference but class distinction as well.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZ3fjQa5Hls]

The tomato has a long and varied history. A native to South America, the term originates from the Nahuatl tomatl. Although recently heralded as a cancer-fighting food, historically the tomato has an infamous reputation.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) Film Poster

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) Film Poster

A member of the night shade family, the tomato has sporadically been labeled as poisonous, or at least suspect, and some naysayers have even gone so far as to dedicate websites to (www.tomatoesareevil.com) or make cult classic films about their true diabolical nature like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. And many readers are probably aware of the tales of throwing rotten tomatoes at bad actors! What may come as a surprise to these same readers is that tourists in Spain can pay $13 to participate in the world’s largest tomato fight!

Who knew that the tomato could be so polarizing?! Who knew this tiny fruit/vegetable could arouse such vitriol?! Fruit? Vegetable? Poisonous? Nutritious? Good? Evil? Is it a panacea or pandemic? It seems that the tomato defies our categories. It appears to transcend barriers. It is irreducible. And yet where are the departments of Tomato Studies? Where are the calls for the study of sui generis Tomato?

So before we sharpen the pitchforks and enter the fray, we should note that this doesn’t seem to be an either/ or (as in a tomato must be either a fruit or a vegetable) battle at all but a squabble addressed best by thinking about context. Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Is it good or evil? My answer to the ‘tomato’ question is one I offer frequently regarding the ‘religion’ question, much to the chagrin of my students, when they ask questions like “are Mormons Christians?”… it depends on who you ask and it depends on the context. And in a classic McCutcheon twist, I might ask them, who gains and who loses if we admit or deny Mormons (or tomatoes) entry into the halls of Christendom (or fruitdom)? And are any Mormons (or grocers or botanists) stopping by our classroom to ask our opinion?

Essence of Tomato

So we may never know the true, deep meaning, of ‘religion’ or ‘tomato.’ ‘Tomato’ as a Platonic ideal may always elude us. ‘Tomato’ like ‘religion’ may defy our categories. By using this example, McCutcheon is pointing out to us that perhaps we are too wedded to our conceptions of sui generis (unique, irreducible, pristine) ‘religion’ to see the social and political implications on our scholarship. Suddenly, the situation is a lot less dire when I apply these same questions to the enigma of the tomato. But before we dismiss the tomato controversy, we need to remember that the above case was judged by the Supreme Court. So, what do we do if declaring the true essence of ‘tomato’ or ‘religion’ is not within our jurisdiction as academics?

The judge in this case, along with McCutcheon, appears to nudge us towards a more terrestrial interpretation. Perhaps we will never know what a tomato, vegetable, or a fruit really is (ontologically speaking) but for purposes of trade and tariff, we can decide what a tomato will be. After all, our categories themselves (fruit and vegetable) as well as the term ‘tomato’ are products of language. Our categories and words could have been otherwise and in other cultures often are. As McCutcheon might argue our categories and words are contingent, conditional, and contextual.

‘Religion’ as ‘sui generis’

Is ‘religion’ sui generis? In other words, do scholars of religion study something that forms a unique and special domain of things in the world unlike any other? Wittgenstein thought religion constituted a distinct “form of life”. Eliade spoke of the ‘Sacred’ as existing in a separate reality above the mundaneness of the everyday (i.e. the profane).  Historically and in more modern times, other scholars have held similar views that paint the category of religion as naming a specific and stable set of things in the world set apart from all other. However, it is a view that has fallen out of favour as noted by Dr. Russell McCutcheon.

In this interview with Thomas Coleman, McCutcheon discusses what he terms as the “socio-political strategy” behind the label of “sui generis” as it is applied to religion. The interview begins by exploring some of the terms used to support sui generis claims to religion (e.g. un-mediated, irreducible etc.) followed by a brief overview on the rise of religious studies departments mid-20th century using such claims to obtain funding and autonomy from other disciplines. In closing, Dr. McCutcheon explains one example of how the ideological foundations of belief are ontology centered, examines how the term religion is “traded” and departs leaving us to consider the role of social agreement in defining what religion is or is not.

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

Dr. Russell McCutcheon is a full professor of religion and the department chair for the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His main interests lie in the academic study of ‘the academic study of religion’, focusing on how the category and term ‘religion’ has been employed throughout time. He has published several books such as Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia and more recently The Sacred Is the Profane: The Political Nature of “Religion”  (co-authored with William Arnal). Dr. McCutcheon is a member of Culture on the Edge, an international scholarly collaborative looking at how “identities are produced, managed, and continually reproduced” in society and in academia. Be sure to check out his latest book titled Entanglements: Marking Place in the Field of Religion coming out this March!

Identity or Identification?

Identity or Identification? In this second podcast for Identities? Week, the Culture on the Edge group address the issue of religious identity.

groupedge

“There is no such thing as identity, only operational acts of identification.” – Jean-Francois Bayart

Is our identity – cultural, religious or other – something which causes us to act, or something which we choose to mobilise in certain circumstances? And what part do scholars have in reifying these discourses? Why are certain groups “militant” and not others? And what does this have to do with Hinduism? (Don’t ask me, though – I’m a straight white British male and therefore have no cultural identity…)

The group’s blog can be read here – although we’ll also be featuring their posts on the RSP facebook page. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Culture on the Edge is an international scholarly working group, centered at the University of Alabama and begun in the Spring of 2012, whose aim is to use social theory to offer more nuanced understandings of how those things that we commonly call identities are produced, managed, and continually reproduced. Culture on the Edge therefore tackles, at a variety of social sites, the contradiction between, on the one hand, the historicity of identity (which is now generally seen by scholars to be always fluid over place and time), and, on the other, the nagging presumption of a static and ahistorical origin against which cultural change is thought to be measured.

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Russell McCutcheon has a dog named Izzy.

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K. Merinda Simmons is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at The University of Alabama. Her manuscript, Mary Prince and Her Sisters: Gender, Race, Migration, and the Problem of Authenticity, has recently been contracted by Ohio State University Press and her other books include Studying Religion: A Reader (Acumen, forthcoming) and the co-edited Race and Displacement (The University of Alabama Press, 2013). She is also the co-editor (along with Houston Baker) for the newly contracted collection, The Trouble with Post-Blackness(Columbia University Press), examining the assumptions that make possible the ideal of “post-blackness” that many media moguls, politicians, and public intellectuals have now adopted.

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Monica R. Miller is Assistant Professor of Religion and Africana Studies at Lehigh University and among other publications, author of Religion and Hip Hop (Routledge, 2012). Miller is Principal Investigator of a large scale survey project entitled “Remaking Religion” which examines changing patterns of religion and irreligion in youth culture in Portland, Oregon. Monica also is editing Claiming Identity in the Study of Religion, the first book in the Culture on the Edge book series. Follow Monica on Twitter.

craigedge

A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox, 2012), and Religious Experience: A Reader, co-edited with Russell T. McCutcheon (Equinox, 2012).

rameyedgeSteven Ramey is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Director of Asian Studies at the University of Alabama. His book Hindu Sufi or Sikh (Palgrave, 2008) focuses on communities who identify as Sindhi Hindus and the ways they contest dominant understandings of identities, both in India and beyond. His newest project addresses the assumptions in the language of religious labels and the ways those assumptions determine research and valorize particular constructions of religions. He is Series Editor of Culture on the Edge: Studies in Identity Formation, a book series with Equinox Publishers.

smithedgeLeslie Dorrough Smith is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Avila University (Kansas City, MO). She has just finished a book manuscript, contracted by Oxford University Press, that explores the uses for rhetorics of chaos within such groups as Concerned Women for America, one of the nation’s most powerful and vocal conservative Christian groups. Among her articles are: “Divine Order, Divine Myth: Uncovering the Mythical Construction of Gender Ideals in Protestant Fundamentalist Circles” (ARCThe Journal of the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, 2002) and “What’s in a Name?: Scholarship and the Pathology of Conservative Protestantism” (Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 2008), and a chapter in After the Passion is Gone: American Religious Consequences (AltaMira Press, 2004) entitled “Living In the World, But Not of the World: Understanding Evangelical Support for ‘The Passion of the Christ’.”

vaia2Vaia Touna earned her BA and MA at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, in the study of Hellenistic religions, and ancient Greek literature, and is currently writing her doctoral dissertation at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Her research focuses on the sociology of identity formation with examples drawn from ancient, to modern Greece. Vaia is the Editorial Assistant for the journal Method & Theory in the Study of Religion (published by Brill of the Netherlands). Among her publications are: “The Manageable Self in the Early Hellenistic Era” published in The Bulletin for the Study of Religion (2010) and “Redescribing Iconoclasm: Holey Frescoes and Identity Formation,” a chapter in Failure and Nerve in the Academic Study of Religion (Acumen, 2012). Vaia is also the editor for The Problem of Nostalgia in the Study of Identification in the Culture on the Edge Book Series.

Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?

If you have been listening to the podcast for the past couple of weeks, you will be aware that we are about to go on a brief hiatus until September, to give our listeners some time to catch up, and to give Chris and David a chance to catch up on some of their other commitments. The website will still be releasing content on a less regular basis, and we have at least one more roundtable discussion for your delectation over the coming weeks. We will also be re-releasing our ‘editors favourites’ from the first batch of podcasts – so there will still be plenty of material to keep you occupied. However, before we ‘leave you’ we wanted to go out with a bang, and it is therefore with pleasure that we present the second of our compilation episodes.

As with the first of our compilation episodes (What is the Future of Religious Studies?), every time David, Chris and Jonathan have conducted an interview, they have been asking the interviewees an additional question: ‘Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?’ The result is this compilation of differing opinions and interpretations of key terms from eight top scholars from a variety of disciplines – sociology, psychology, religious studies, theology – on how academics should position themselves in relation to the groups and individuals that they study.

However, we decided to push things one step further with this one. The inspiration for this episode came from one of Russell McCutcheon’s works which we had encountered through the undergraduate Religious Studies programme at the University of Edinburgh, entitled ‘Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion‘. We thought it would be an excellent idea to invite Russell to respond to the opinions of the other scholars in this podcast, and are very grateful that not only was he happy to be involved, but he sent a ten minute response recording. Enjoy.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Some of these academics have already appeared on the Religious Studies Project, others’ interviews have yet to be released, and others’ are still on our ‘to-do’ list, yet each has their own unique perspective to offer, and we hope that you appreciate this compilation. We apologise for the UK-centric nature of these recordings… that’s just what happened in this instance.

Featured in this podcast (with links to their previously released interviews):

Whether you stick with us over the break, or come back to us in September, we can assure you that we have another great lineup in store. Future podcasts include interviews with David Morgan (Duke University), Kim Knott (Lancaster University), Robert Orsi (Northwestern University), Gordon Lynch (University of Kent), Suzanne Owen (Leeds Trinity University College), J Gordon Melton (Baylor University), Brian Victoria (Antioch University) and more…

Please keep telling people about us… if you are a lecturer, please consider incorporating this material into your courses… and please keep supporting us on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for listening!

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Theses on Professionalization

By Russell T. McCutcheon, University of Alabama

Too many graduate students seem unprepared for what awaits them once they complete their dissertations. Sadly, in many cases their professors seem not to have considered it to be their responsibility to provide them with some of the tools necessary for navigating the job market and beginning their careers. It is into this gap that the following twenty-one thesis statements–which have benefited from the comments of a variety of people at different career stages–are offered. I do so with a deferential nod not only to Martin Luther’s ninety-five and Karl Marx’s twenty-one, but also to the thirteen offered more recently by Bruce Lincoln.

  1. Academia is unlike other professions in that the pre-professional period of training–which includes coursework, dissertation research and writing, and teaching assistantships–is not akin to an apprenticeship. Accordingly, there is no direct linkage between the accumulation of credentials and admission to the profession, no necessary relationship between feeling oneself to be qualified and the ability to obtain full time employment as a university professor.

  2. A Ph.D. is awarded not only as a mark of intellectual competence and disciplined method but also as a professional credential that signals one’s eligibility for employment as a researcher and teacher within academia. Although these two aspects of the degree can complement one another, they can just as easily conflict, as in when one’s research expertise fails to overlap with ever changing employment needs.

  3. Pursuing a Ph.D. purely for the “love of learning” is one among many legitimate reasons for graduate studies. Pursuing such studies for both intellectual stimulation and eventual employment requires candidates to be as intentional as possible about opportunities to increase their competitiveness on the job market.

  4. Applying for full-time employment prior to being awarded the Ph.D. degree (i.e., when, after successfully completing comprehensive or general exams, one holds the status known as ABD [i.e., All But Dissertation]) is not uncommon; however, failure to gain employment at this stage must not undermine one’s confidence. Apart from extraordinary circumstances (e.g., the so-called “fit” between your expertise and a Department’s needs), the doctoral degree remains a necessary condition for entrance into the profession.

  5. Whether as an ABD or after having been awarded the Ph.D., some candidates accept year-to-year work as a full-time Instructor or Lecturer (sometimes also called a Sessional position or a Part-time Temporary Instructor). Such positions often entail teaching loads that are heavier than tenure-track or tenured faculty members and, depending on the salary offered, may necessitate supplemental teaching (e.g., evening or summer courses) for one to earn sufficient income. Although the benefits of teaching experience and an academic home can be invaluable to an early career person, the costs such temporary employment entails for one’s ability to carry out research and writing can be high. Navigating these costs/benefits is no easy task; for instance, one might learn that, sometimes, time is more valuable than money.

  6. Although it is necessary, the doctoral degree alone is hardly a sufficient credential for being admitted to academia as a full-time employee because most of the other applicants also possess this credential (i.e., it is the level playing field onto which ABDs have yet to be admitted). There was a time, prior to the early 1970s, when the job market was such that merely possessing a Ph.D. would lead to multiple tenure-track job offers; in the Humanities that time has long passed.

  7. For some of those who will be judging candidates’ credentials to determine their admission to the profession, the reputation of the school from which they have earned their Ph.D. plays a significant role in assessment of applicants’ skills and future promise as colleagues. Although one’s alma mater does communicate with whom one has trained and what traditions of scholarship one may pursue, for yet others the reputation of candidates’ schools is secondary to the quality of their current research, the places where they have published their work, and the experience they have had in the classroom.

  8. Like all institutions, academia provides a case study in the complex relationship between structure and agency; for, although there are a variety of things that one can do to increase one’s competitiveness, job candidates must recognize that there are also a host of factors of which they are unaware and which are therefore beyond their control (e.g., the unstated needs, interests, goals, and even insecurities of the hiring Department; the number of other candidates qualified at any given time in your area of expertise; the impact of world events on the perceived need for scholars in your subject area, etc.). Success likely requires one to learn to live with the latter while taking control of the former.

  9. A structural element that must be taken into account is that Departmental search committees often fail to entertain the difficult questions in advance and, instead, go on “fishing expeditions” by defining their open positions far too broadly and vaguely, such as looking for “the best qualified” applicant (without ever articulating what counts as “qualified”). Making explicit their implicit and often competing preferences may strike members of a Department as being too costly an exercise. It is into this mix of unstated disagreements and longstanding rivalries that job applicants can be thrust, affecting such things as how their letters of application are read, their credentials judged, and their performance during campus interviews measured. While one cannot control such factors, when representing oneself one at least ought to be aware of their potential presence and impact.

  10. Whether working at a publicly or privately funded institution, professors are comparable to self-employed entrepreneurs inasmuch as they can increase their social capital (i.e., reputation) by seeking out new books to read and review, unique topics on which to research and write, novel and timely courses to develop and teach, and different professional service opportunities to provide them with additional experience as well as new national and international contacts. Graduate students are in much the same position and the additional qualifications that result from their entrepreneurial pre-professional activities can serve to distinguish one job applicant from another. Documentation from such activities, as recorded on one’s c.v., communicate to the hiring committee that one is already skilled at participating in the many aspects of the profession that will surely be required of a tenure-track Assistant Professor.

  11. While higher education is organized so as to train ever increasing specialists–a process that begins with surveys and broad course work, examines candidates on their knowledge in general areas, and then culminates in writing a dissertation on a highly technical topic–eventual full-time employment can just as easily depend upon one’s ability to contribute lower-level, so-called Core or General Education introductory courses to a Department’s curriculum. Because many Departments of Religious Studies justify their existence not simply by appealing to the number of their majors or graduates, but also the number of Core or General Education courses that they offer to students pursuing degrees in other areas of the University, gaining early experience in such courses as a Teaching Assistant is an important step toward being able to persuade future employers of one’s ability to be a colleague who helps to teach their Department’s “bread and butter” courses.

  12. Many doctoral students do not realize that finding authors willing to write book notes, book reviews, etc., is sometimes difficult for journal editors. As a first step in professionalizing themselves, graduate students should become aware of the journals in their field and write to their book review editors, suggesting that the journal allow them to write and submit a review (especially for books that they are already reading for their courses or research, thereby minimizing on work additional to their class and dissertation research). Besides providing experience in writing and a much needed line on one’s c.v., one never knows who will read the review or what other opportunities might follow upon it.

  13. Because there is no direct relationship between seniority and the quality of one’s writing, one’s familiarity with the literature, or the novelty of one’s ideas, graduate students ought never to refrain from submitting their work to a scholarly journal for possible peer review publication simply because they understand themselves to be novices. Even if rejected, the comments that result from the blind review process will be of benefit to students who have so far only received feedback from professors already familiar with their work.

  14. Depending on the type of institution into which one is hired (i.e., its teaching load, service obligations, emphasis on research, sabbatical opportunities, etc.), the dissertation may constitute one of the few, or quite possibly even the last, opportunity a candidate has to devote an extended period of time to one, focused project, free from the many obligations routinely expected of an Assistant Professor. Given the pressure to publish that, for some time, has attended academic careers, graduate students would be wise to write their dissertations while keeping in mind their eventual submission for possible publication-whether as a monograph (which, depending on a Department’s “Tenure and Promotion” requirements, may be preferable) or as separate peer review essays.

  15. Having successfully defended the dissertation, the manuscript does candidates no good in their desk drawer. However, before making revisions (unless they are dissatisfied with its argument or quality), graduates should create a prospectus containing a brief cover letter, annotated table of contents, and sample chapter (e.g., the Introduction) and submit it to a select number of top tier publishers in their area of expertise. Obtaining an outside experts’ assessment of the manuscript-a step often essential to a publisher’s process of evaluation-provides the best place to begin one’s revisions of a manuscript with which one is intimately familiar and, perhaps, too closely tied.

  16. Apart from professionalizing themselves through research and publication, candidates should consider the cost of regularly attending regional and national scholarly conferences simply as the price of being a graduate student. Waiting until one is on the job market is therefore too late to consider attending and trying to participate in such conferences–especially when one learns that being placed on the program of such annual meetings often comes about gradually, over the course of several (or more) years. Whereas regional meetings are often useful places to try out one’s research, become accustomed to speaking in public, and learn the rituals of the question/answer sessions that follow the presentation of papers (knowledge especially important during on-campus interviews), national meetings play a crucial role in efforts to integrate oneself into networks of colleagues at other institutions who share one’s interests.

  17. National scholarly conferences and professional associations often host on-site job placement services and publish employment periodicals. Becoming thoroughly aware of such services and resources, long before actually being on the job market, may not only assist one’s decision-making when it comes time to select an area of expertise (i.e., judging national employment trends over time may shed light on areas likely to require staffing in the coming years) but also prepare one for the eventual time when one is on the market and seeking campus interviews.

  18. Despite being the primary, and sometimes even the exclusive, focus of candidates’ attention during the last years of their Ph.D., once hired into a tenure-track position a variety of other just as time consuming tasks compete for their attention. Learning to juggle many balls simultaneously–knowing which will bounce if dropped and which will break–is therefore an essential skill for early career professors who wish to continue carrying out original research while also teaching a full course load and serving the needs of their Departments and the profession at large.

  19. Although it can be intellectually stimulating, developing new courses is time consuming. Depending on the needs of their Department, teaching multiple sections of the same course provides early career professors with fewer course preparations, helps them to quickly establish their area of expertise in the curriculum and among students, and allows them to gain teaching competencies far quicker, thereby enabling them to devote more time to their research and writing.

  20. Despite what some maintain, teaching and research are complementary activities, inasmuch as teaching, somewhat like publication, constitutes the dissemination of information gained by means of prior research. Based on one’s strengths, candidates can understandably emphasize one over the over, but declining always to carry out both, integrating them together when possible, is to shirk one’s responsibilities as a scholar.

  21. As with the effort to enter any profession, a price must inevitably be paid–economic as well as social–in terms of the other activities and goals one might instead have worked toward and possibly attained. Candidates must therefore not only be as deliberate as possible in determining which costs they are willing to pay and which they are not, but they must also learn to trust their own judgments when, regardless how their job search turns out, they someday look back on the decisions they once made.

Reproduced with permission from Mathieu E. Courville’s edited collection of essays, Next Step in Studying Religion: A Graduate’s Guide (London, UK: Continuum, 2007)

Podcasts

Religion, threskeia (θρησκεία) and the Return of the Hellenes: On Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion

Ever since the publication of Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s The Meaning and End of Religion (1962), various scholars have engaged themselves with the issue of religion not being “a universally applicable first-order concept that matches a native discursive field in every culture across time and throughout history” (Nongbri 2013, p. 158). Nongbri’s approach to this issue is influenced by the work of scholars like Talal Asad, Jonathan Z. Smith, Russell McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzerald, Tomoko Masuzawa, and David Chidester to name a few. However, his approach differs, from say Fitzgerald’s, in that he does not dismiss the term altogether. Instead, for Nongbri, the realization that religion is a modern concept with a specific history and that all our concepts are virtually anachronistic when we apply them to antiquity, allows us to use the term ‘religion’ in a more creative way. For example, by drawing on the work of the church historian Eusebius (4th century CE), Nongbri argues that religion is not “the most useful tool for trying to describe ancient practices” since Eusebius was not dividing the world up into different religions.

Writing for an English speaking audience, Nongbri justifiably dedicates most of his work on the Latin term religio from which derives the modern western concept of religion. However, the Greek term threskeia (that one would conventionally translate into English as religion) remains a marginal term both in the field of religious studies and in the discourse on the concept of religion. Nongbri dedicates little space on this term in his work (Nongbri 2013, pp. 34-8), but manages to show its different meanings with references ranging from Herodotus in the 5th century BCE to Photius in the 8th century CE, while he stresses the absence of a detailed study of how the term was used in the Byzantine era. The term threskeia still is the standard term that Greek-speaking people use when referring to religion. The problem of understanding how this particular term was used both in antiquity and during early Christianity within the Greek speaking world is simultaneously at the root of the problems that stem from the very fact that ancient Greek threskeia (arhaia Helleneke threskeia) remains the standard modern Greek terminology employed when referring to ancient Greek religion.

Modern Greeks Re-Enacting Ancient Practices

Modern Greeks Re-Enacting Ancient Practices

A peculiar case that touches upon – and could well be studied with the help of – Nongbri’s work is a relatively new movement in Greece known as The Return of the Hellenes. As Matthew Brunwasser wrote last June on the BBC official webpage, every 21st of June (summer solstice) the members of this movement participate in their annual festival of the Prometheia, a celebration of the Greek Titan Prometheus (see picture below). What is interesting, however, is the statement given to Brunwasser by the founder of the Hellenes movement, the philosophy professor Tryphon Olympios: “They [Orthodox church officials/priests] have understood that we are not dangerous and we are not pagans and Satanists… We are peaceful people that come with ideas that are useful for society”. These religious (theskeutikes) practices that, according to the members of this movement, go “back to the roots” and generate the feeling of “continuation through the millennia” virtually allow people to “identify with something in the past – where they come from – so as to know where they are going”.

Prometheus

Prometheus

 

I find such phraseology extremely interesting and at the same time deeply problematic. One could argue that, like Eusebius, the members of the Hellenes movement do not adhere to a religious but rather to a different classification of the world by seeing the ancient Greek practices (including but not confined to the threskeutikes) as a means of identity formation that link the modern to the ancient Greeks. Herodotus in the 5th century BCE, in describing the Greek nation, spoke of “the common blood, the common language and the common sanctuaries and sacrifices” (Histories 8.144.2). Even though Herodotus does not use the word threskeia in this passage he nevertheless sees the world through the lens of different elements constitutive of a specific group, in this case the Greeks. Likewise, the Hellenes movement acknowledges the importance of both sanctuaries and sacrifices as a constitutive element that links them to the ancient Greeks in, as it were, a Herodotian way. It comes as no surprise, as Brunwasser informs us, that the followers of the movement include “New Age types who revere ancient traditions, leftists who resent the power of the Orthodox Church, and Greek nationalists who see Christianity as having destroyed everything that was truly Greek” (emphasis added).

Nongbri’s work, as I see it, offers a very valuable tool not only in approaching and interpreting the ancient usage of terms such as religio and threskeia and their respective history but also how those ambiguous terms are adopted and used by modern people who long for those ancient practices that scholars label “religious” in order to establish claims that touch upon different matters: from regional politics to ethnicity and from nationalism to anarchism to mention just a few. As with the term religion, threskeia does not so much need a definition but rather an examination of the various connotations that the term employs when in the hands of different people with different agendas. As Russell McCutcheon put it in another podcast published in the Religious Studies Project some time ago, “I am really not interested in what religion is or isn’t or even if there is such a thing that pairs up to that word; instead it’s a word I am using defined in this or that way that allows me to do this or that with the world; that allows me to talk about this versus that”.

I think that Before Religion, which draws heavily on McCutcheon’s work as Nongbri himself acknowledges in his interview, can contribute to the study of those identity formation and classificatory systems employed by people that are today conventionally called neo-pagans. The very fact that the Hellenes and their umbrella group known as the Supreme Council of Ethnikoi Hellenes are “campaigning to get their form of ancient worship classed as an “ethnic religion [threskeia]” of Greece” shows in the most vivid way that to define the term threskeia (and religion alike in other places of the world) offers less than the more promising study of the ideologies that accompany the term in its different contexts, both in antiquity and in the modern world.

Tomato: Fruit or Vegetable? Discuss.

Budding theorists may find themselves conscripted into the ideological battles over the nature of religion or, to put a finer point on the argument, how scholarship in religious studies should be done. For even if one has not openly sided with a particular group regarding what ‘religion’ is, it is very likely you do have some inkling regarding how scholarship in religious studies should be done. As Russell McCutcheon notes in this interview one of his teaching texts is a brief opinion from a lawsuit in 1893 (Nix v. Hedden) regarding the nature of tomatoes. Are tomatoes fruits or are they vegetables? And why does it matter?

For the Purposes of…

McCutcheon, like the presiding judge in this case, is not terribly interested in the intrinsic nature or essence of the ‘tomato’ but rather what the tomato will be for purposes of trade and tariffs. This case upheld the Tariff Act of 1883 which did not charge a tax on imported fruit but did charge a tax for imported vegetables. If this case appears to have nothing to do with the battles over ‘religion’ look again and ask what happens when you supplement the word ‘tomato’ with ‘religion.’ Make the categorical division not between ‘fruit’ or ‘vegetable’ but rather envision a litany of possible interpretations such as ‘religion’ is at heart really about wielding knowledge and power, money and manipulation, primordial man’s explanation of the terrors and wonders of the natural world, individual neurosis, or a deep, personal and private encounter with an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity, etc. How quickly seemingly solid categories come unraveled… suddenly, I am much more comfortable becoming an arbitrator on anything, tomatoes included, than on what I supposedly study.

Okay, let’s return to the tomato argument for a moment as perhaps it will shed some light on our predicament. In order to come to a conclusion we must look at precedent (i.e. how has the word been used before). We can also compare dictionary entries and call ‘expert’ witnesses. Oxford Dictionaries even weighs in on the argument… it seems that this issue arose because scientists and cooks use the word differently. According to Oxford Dictionaries, scientifically speaking, a tomato is a fruit. In the culinary world, the tomato is referenced as a vegetable because it is savory. Notice that the argument has morphed from pertaining to what category the tomato is in based on its qualities to a matter of who is doing the speaking.

One need only remember that Gershwin classic “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” to know that how one pronounces a word denotes not just dialectic difference but class distinction as well.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZ3fjQa5Hls]

The tomato has a long and varied history. A native to South America, the term originates from the Nahuatl tomatl. Although recently heralded as a cancer-fighting food, historically the tomato has an infamous reputation.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) Film Poster

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) Film Poster

A member of the night shade family, the tomato has sporadically been labeled as poisonous, or at least suspect, and some naysayers have even gone so far as to dedicate websites to (www.tomatoesareevil.com) or make cult classic films about their true diabolical nature like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. And many readers are probably aware of the tales of throwing rotten tomatoes at bad actors! What may come as a surprise to these same readers is that tourists in Spain can pay $13 to participate in the world’s largest tomato fight!

Who knew that the tomato could be so polarizing?! Who knew this tiny fruit/vegetable could arouse such vitriol?! Fruit? Vegetable? Poisonous? Nutritious? Good? Evil? Is it a panacea or pandemic? It seems that the tomato defies our categories. It appears to transcend barriers. It is irreducible. And yet where are the departments of Tomato Studies? Where are the calls for the study of sui generis Tomato?

So before we sharpen the pitchforks and enter the fray, we should note that this doesn’t seem to be an either/ or (as in a tomato must be either a fruit or a vegetable) battle at all but a squabble addressed best by thinking about context. Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Is it good or evil? My answer to the ‘tomato’ question is one I offer frequently regarding the ‘religion’ question, much to the chagrin of my students, when they ask questions like “are Mormons Christians?”… it depends on who you ask and it depends on the context. And in a classic McCutcheon twist, I might ask them, who gains and who loses if we admit or deny Mormons (or tomatoes) entry into the halls of Christendom (or fruitdom)? And are any Mormons (or grocers or botanists) stopping by our classroom to ask our opinion?

Essence of Tomato

So we may never know the true, deep meaning, of ‘religion’ or ‘tomato.’ ‘Tomato’ as a Platonic ideal may always elude us. ‘Tomato’ like ‘religion’ may defy our categories. By using this example, McCutcheon is pointing out to us that perhaps we are too wedded to our conceptions of sui generis (unique, irreducible, pristine) ‘religion’ to see the social and political implications on our scholarship. Suddenly, the situation is a lot less dire when I apply these same questions to the enigma of the tomato. But before we dismiss the tomato controversy, we need to remember that the above case was judged by the Supreme Court. So, what do we do if declaring the true essence of ‘tomato’ or ‘religion’ is not within our jurisdiction as academics?

The judge in this case, along with McCutcheon, appears to nudge us towards a more terrestrial interpretation. Perhaps we will never know what a tomato, vegetable, or a fruit really is (ontologically speaking) but for purposes of trade and tariff, we can decide what a tomato will be. After all, our categories themselves (fruit and vegetable) as well as the term ‘tomato’ are products of language. Our categories and words could have been otherwise and in other cultures often are. As McCutcheon might argue our categories and words are contingent, conditional, and contextual.

‘Religion’ as ‘sui generis’

Is ‘religion’ sui generis? In other words, do scholars of religion study something that forms a unique and special domain of things in the world unlike any other? Wittgenstein thought religion constituted a distinct “form of life”. Eliade spoke of the ‘Sacred’ as existing in a separate reality above the mundaneness of the everyday (i.e. the profane).  Historically and in more modern times, other scholars have held similar views that paint the category of religion as naming a specific and stable set of things in the world set apart from all other. However, it is a view that has fallen out of favour as noted by Dr. Russell McCutcheon.

In this interview with Thomas Coleman, McCutcheon discusses what he terms as the “socio-political strategy” behind the label of “sui generis” as it is applied to religion. The interview begins by exploring some of the terms used to support sui generis claims to religion (e.g. un-mediated, irreducible etc.) followed by a brief overview on the rise of religious studies departments mid-20th century using such claims to obtain funding and autonomy from other disciplines. In closing, Dr. McCutcheon explains one example of how the ideological foundations of belief are ontology centered, examines how the term religion is “traded” and departs leaving us to consider the role of social agreement in defining what religion is or is not.

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

Dr. Russell McCutcheon is a full professor of religion and the department chair for the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His main interests lie in the academic study of ‘the academic study of religion’, focusing on how the category and term ‘religion’ has been employed throughout time. He has published several books such as Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia and more recently The Sacred Is the Profane: The Political Nature of “Religion”  (co-authored with William Arnal). Dr. McCutcheon is a member of Culture on the Edge, an international scholarly collaborative looking at how “identities are produced, managed, and continually reproduced” in society and in academia. Be sure to check out his latest book titled Entanglements: Marking Place in the Field of Religion coming out this March!

Identity or Identification?

Identity or Identification? In this second podcast for Identities? Week, the Culture on the Edge group address the issue of religious identity.

groupedge

“There is no such thing as identity, only operational acts of identification.” – Jean-Francois Bayart

Is our identity – cultural, religious or other – something which causes us to act, or something which we choose to mobilise in certain circumstances? And what part do scholars have in reifying these discourses? Why are certain groups “militant” and not others? And what does this have to do with Hinduism? (Don’t ask me, though – I’m a straight white British male and therefore have no cultural identity…)

The group’s blog can be read here – although we’ll also be featuring their posts on the RSP facebook page. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Culture on the Edge is an international scholarly working group, centered at the University of Alabama and begun in the Spring of 2012, whose aim is to use social theory to offer more nuanced understandings of how those things that we commonly call identities are produced, managed, and continually reproduced. Culture on the Edge therefore tackles, at a variety of social sites, the contradiction between, on the one hand, the historicity of identity (which is now generally seen by scholars to be always fluid over place and time), and, on the other, the nagging presumption of a static and ahistorical origin against which cultural change is thought to be measured.

mccutcheonedge

Russell McCutcheon has a dog named Izzy.

merindaedge

K. Merinda Simmons is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at The University of Alabama. Her manuscript, Mary Prince and Her Sisters: Gender, Race, Migration, and the Problem of Authenticity, has recently been contracted by Ohio State University Press and her other books include Studying Religion: A Reader (Acumen, forthcoming) and the co-edited Race and Displacement (The University of Alabama Press, 2013). She is also the co-editor (along with Houston Baker) for the newly contracted collection, The Trouble with Post-Blackness(Columbia University Press), examining the assumptions that make possible the ideal of “post-blackness” that many media moguls, politicians, and public intellectuals have now adopted.

miller3

Monica R. Miller is Assistant Professor of Religion and Africana Studies at Lehigh University and among other publications, author of Religion and Hip Hop (Routledge, 2012). Miller is Principal Investigator of a large scale survey project entitled “Remaking Religion” which examines changing patterns of religion and irreligion in youth culture in Portland, Oregon. Monica also is editing Claiming Identity in the Study of Religion, the first book in the Culture on the Edge book series. Follow Monica on Twitter.

craigedge

A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox, 2012), and Religious Experience: A Reader, co-edited with Russell T. McCutcheon (Equinox, 2012).

rameyedgeSteven Ramey is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Director of Asian Studies at the University of Alabama. His book Hindu Sufi or Sikh (Palgrave, 2008) focuses on communities who identify as Sindhi Hindus and the ways they contest dominant understandings of identities, both in India and beyond. His newest project addresses the assumptions in the language of religious labels and the ways those assumptions determine research and valorize particular constructions of religions. He is Series Editor of Culture on the Edge: Studies in Identity Formation, a book series with Equinox Publishers.

smithedgeLeslie Dorrough Smith is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Avila University (Kansas City, MO). She has just finished a book manuscript, contracted by Oxford University Press, that explores the uses for rhetorics of chaos within such groups as Concerned Women for America, one of the nation’s most powerful and vocal conservative Christian groups. Among her articles are: “Divine Order, Divine Myth: Uncovering the Mythical Construction of Gender Ideals in Protestant Fundamentalist Circles” (ARCThe Journal of the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, 2002) and “What’s in a Name?: Scholarship and the Pathology of Conservative Protestantism” (Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 2008), and a chapter in After the Passion is Gone: American Religious Consequences (AltaMira Press, 2004) entitled “Living In the World, But Not of the World: Understanding Evangelical Support for ‘The Passion of the Christ’.”

vaia2Vaia Touna earned her BA and MA at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, in the study of Hellenistic religions, and ancient Greek literature, and is currently writing her doctoral dissertation at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Her research focuses on the sociology of identity formation with examples drawn from ancient, to modern Greece. Vaia is the Editorial Assistant for the journal Method & Theory in the Study of Religion (published by Brill of the Netherlands). Among her publications are: “The Manageable Self in the Early Hellenistic Era” published in The Bulletin for the Study of Religion (2010) and “Redescribing Iconoclasm: Holey Frescoes and Identity Formation,” a chapter in Failure and Nerve in the Academic Study of Religion (Acumen, 2012). Vaia is also the editor for The Problem of Nostalgia in the Study of Identification in the Culture on the Edge Book Series.

Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?

If you have been listening to the podcast for the past couple of weeks, you will be aware that we are about to go on a brief hiatus until September, to give our listeners some time to catch up, and to give Chris and David a chance to catch up on some of their other commitments. The website will still be releasing content on a less regular basis, and we have at least one more roundtable discussion for your delectation over the coming weeks. We will also be re-releasing our ‘editors favourites’ from the first batch of podcasts – so there will still be plenty of material to keep you occupied. However, before we ‘leave you’ we wanted to go out with a bang, and it is therefore with pleasure that we present the second of our compilation episodes.

As with the first of our compilation episodes (What is the Future of Religious Studies?), every time David, Chris and Jonathan have conducted an interview, they have been asking the interviewees an additional question: ‘Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?’ The result is this compilation of differing opinions and interpretations of key terms from eight top scholars from a variety of disciplines – sociology, psychology, religious studies, theology – on how academics should position themselves in relation to the groups and individuals that they study.

However, we decided to push things one step further with this one. The inspiration for this episode came from one of Russell McCutcheon’s works which we had encountered through the undergraduate Religious Studies programme at the University of Edinburgh, entitled ‘Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion‘. We thought it would be an excellent idea to invite Russell to respond to the opinions of the other scholars in this podcast, and are very grateful that not only was he happy to be involved, but he sent a ten minute response recording. Enjoy.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Some of these academics have already appeared on the Religious Studies Project, others’ interviews have yet to be released, and others’ are still on our ‘to-do’ list, yet each has their own unique perspective to offer, and we hope that you appreciate this compilation. We apologise for the UK-centric nature of these recordings… that’s just what happened in this instance.

Featured in this podcast (with links to their previously released interviews):

Whether you stick with us over the break, or come back to us in September, we can assure you that we have another great lineup in store. Future podcasts include interviews with David Morgan (Duke University), Kim Knott (Lancaster University), Robert Orsi (Northwestern University), Gordon Lynch (University of Kent), Suzanne Owen (Leeds Trinity University College), J Gordon Melton (Baylor University), Brian Victoria (Antioch University) and more…

Please keep telling people about us… if you are a lecturer, please consider incorporating this material into your courses… and please keep supporting us on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for listening!

By sharjah_lover - http://www.flickr.com/photos/sharjahlover/327463339/in/photostream/

Theses on Professionalization

By Russell T. McCutcheon, University of Alabama

Too many graduate students seem unprepared for what awaits them once they complete their dissertations. Sadly, in many cases their professors seem not to have considered it to be their responsibility to provide them with some of the tools necessary for navigating the job market and beginning their careers. It is into this gap that the following twenty-one thesis statements–which have benefited from the comments of a variety of people at different career stages–are offered. I do so with a deferential nod not only to Martin Luther’s ninety-five and Karl Marx’s twenty-one, but also to the thirteen offered more recently by Bruce Lincoln.

  1. Academia is unlike other professions in that the pre-professional period of training–which includes coursework, dissertation research and writing, and teaching assistantships–is not akin to an apprenticeship. Accordingly, there is no direct linkage between the accumulation of credentials and admission to the profession, no necessary relationship between feeling oneself to be qualified and the ability to obtain full time employment as a university professor.

  2. A Ph.D. is awarded not only as a mark of intellectual competence and disciplined method but also as a professional credential that signals one’s eligibility for employment as a researcher and teacher within academia. Although these two aspects of the degree can complement one another, they can just as easily conflict, as in when one’s research expertise fails to overlap with ever changing employment needs.

  3. Pursuing a Ph.D. purely for the “love of learning” is one among many legitimate reasons for graduate studies. Pursuing such studies for both intellectual stimulation and eventual employment requires candidates to be as intentional as possible about opportunities to increase their competitiveness on the job market.

  4. Applying for full-time employment prior to being awarded the Ph.D. degree (i.e., when, after successfully completing comprehensive or general exams, one holds the status known as ABD [i.e., All But Dissertation]) is not uncommon; however, failure to gain employment at this stage must not undermine one’s confidence. Apart from extraordinary circumstances (e.g., the so-called “fit” between your expertise and a Department’s needs), the doctoral degree remains a necessary condition for entrance into the profession.

  5. Whether as an ABD or after having been awarded the Ph.D., some candidates accept year-to-year work as a full-time Instructor or Lecturer (sometimes also called a Sessional position or a Part-time Temporary Instructor). Such positions often entail teaching loads that are heavier than tenure-track or tenured faculty members and, depending on the salary offered, may necessitate supplemental teaching (e.g., evening or summer courses) for one to earn sufficient income. Although the benefits of teaching experience and an academic home can be invaluable to an early career person, the costs such temporary employment entails for one’s ability to carry out research and writing can be high. Navigating these costs/benefits is no easy task; for instance, one might learn that, sometimes, time is more valuable than money.

  6. Although it is necessary, the doctoral degree alone is hardly a sufficient credential for being admitted to academia as a full-time employee because most of the other applicants also possess this credential (i.e., it is the level playing field onto which ABDs have yet to be admitted). There was a time, prior to the early 1970s, when the job market was such that merely possessing a Ph.D. would lead to multiple tenure-track job offers; in the Humanities that time has long passed.

  7. For some of those who will be judging candidates’ credentials to determine their admission to the profession, the reputation of the school from which they have earned their Ph.D. plays a significant role in assessment of applicants’ skills and future promise as colleagues. Although one’s alma mater does communicate with whom one has trained and what traditions of scholarship one may pursue, for yet others the reputation of candidates’ schools is secondary to the quality of their current research, the places where they have published their work, and the experience they have had in the classroom.

  8. Like all institutions, academia provides a case study in the complex relationship between structure and agency; for, although there are a variety of things that one can do to increase one’s competitiveness, job candidates must recognize that there are also a host of factors of which they are unaware and which are therefore beyond their control (e.g., the unstated needs, interests, goals, and even insecurities of the hiring Department; the number of other candidates qualified at any given time in your area of expertise; the impact of world events on the perceived need for scholars in your subject area, etc.). Success likely requires one to learn to live with the latter while taking control of the former.

  9. A structural element that must be taken into account is that Departmental search committees often fail to entertain the difficult questions in advance and, instead, go on “fishing expeditions” by defining their open positions far too broadly and vaguely, such as looking for “the best qualified” applicant (without ever articulating what counts as “qualified”). Making explicit their implicit and often competing preferences may strike members of a Department as being too costly an exercise. It is into this mix of unstated disagreements and longstanding rivalries that job applicants can be thrust, affecting such things as how their letters of application are read, their credentials judged, and their performance during campus interviews measured. While one cannot control such factors, when representing oneself one at least ought to be aware of their potential presence and impact.

  10. Whether working at a publicly or privately funded institution, professors are comparable to self-employed entrepreneurs inasmuch as they can increase their social capital (i.e., reputation) by seeking out new books to read and review, unique topics on which to research and write, novel and timely courses to develop and teach, and different professional service opportunities to provide them with additional experience as well as new national and international contacts. Graduate students are in much the same position and the additional qualifications that result from their entrepreneurial pre-professional activities can serve to distinguish one job applicant from another. Documentation from such activities, as recorded on one’s c.v., communicate to the hiring committee that one is already skilled at participating in the many aspects of the profession that will surely be required of a tenure-track Assistant Professor.

  11. While higher education is organized so as to train ever increasing specialists–a process that begins with surveys and broad course work, examines candidates on their knowledge in general areas, and then culminates in writing a dissertation on a highly technical topic–eventual full-time employment can just as easily depend upon one’s ability to contribute lower-level, so-called Core or General Education introductory courses to a Department’s curriculum. Because many Departments of Religious Studies justify their existence not simply by appealing to the number of their majors or graduates, but also the number of Core or General Education courses that they offer to students pursuing degrees in other areas of the University, gaining early experience in such courses as a Teaching Assistant is an important step toward being able to persuade future employers of one’s ability to be a colleague who helps to teach their Department’s “bread and butter” courses.

  12. Many doctoral students do not realize that finding authors willing to write book notes, book reviews, etc., is sometimes difficult for journal editors. As a first step in professionalizing themselves, graduate students should become aware of the journals in their field and write to their book review editors, suggesting that the journal allow them to write and submit a review (especially for books that they are already reading for their courses or research, thereby minimizing on work additional to their class and dissertation research). Besides providing experience in writing and a much needed line on one’s c.v., one never knows who will read the review or what other opportunities might follow upon it.

  13. Because there is no direct relationship between seniority and the quality of one’s writing, one’s familiarity with the literature, or the novelty of one’s ideas, graduate students ought never to refrain from submitting their work to a scholarly journal for possible peer review publication simply because they understand themselves to be novices. Even if rejected, the comments that result from the blind review process will be of benefit to students who have so far only received feedback from professors already familiar with their work.

  14. Depending on the type of institution into which one is hired (i.e., its teaching load, service obligations, emphasis on research, sabbatical opportunities, etc.), the dissertation may constitute one of the few, or quite possibly even the last, opportunity a candidate has to devote an extended period of time to one, focused project, free from the many obligations routinely expected of an Assistant Professor. Given the pressure to publish that, for some time, has attended academic careers, graduate students would be wise to write their dissertations while keeping in mind their eventual submission for possible publication-whether as a monograph (which, depending on a Department’s “Tenure and Promotion” requirements, may be preferable) or as separate peer review essays.

  15. Having successfully defended the dissertation, the manuscript does candidates no good in their desk drawer. However, before making revisions (unless they are dissatisfied with its argument or quality), graduates should create a prospectus containing a brief cover letter, annotated table of contents, and sample chapter (e.g., the Introduction) and submit it to a select number of top tier publishers in their area of expertise. Obtaining an outside experts’ assessment of the manuscript-a step often essential to a publisher’s process of evaluation-provides the best place to begin one’s revisions of a manuscript with which one is intimately familiar and, perhaps, too closely tied.

  16. Apart from professionalizing themselves through research and publication, candidates should consider the cost of regularly attending regional and national scholarly conferences simply as the price of being a graduate student. Waiting until one is on the job market is therefore too late to consider attending and trying to participate in such conferences–especially when one learns that being placed on the program of such annual meetings often comes about gradually, over the course of several (or more) years. Whereas regional meetings are often useful places to try out one’s research, become accustomed to speaking in public, and learn the rituals of the question/answer sessions that follow the presentation of papers (knowledge especially important during on-campus interviews), national meetings play a crucial role in efforts to integrate oneself into networks of colleagues at other institutions who share one’s interests.

  17. National scholarly conferences and professional associations often host on-site job placement services and publish employment periodicals. Becoming thoroughly aware of such services and resources, long before actually being on the job market, may not only assist one’s decision-making when it comes time to select an area of expertise (i.e., judging national employment trends over time may shed light on areas likely to require staffing in the coming years) but also prepare one for the eventual time when one is on the market and seeking campus interviews.

  18. Despite being the primary, and sometimes even the exclusive, focus of candidates’ attention during the last years of their Ph.D., once hired into a tenure-track position a variety of other just as time consuming tasks compete for their attention. Learning to juggle many balls simultaneously–knowing which will bounce if dropped and which will break–is therefore an essential skill for early career professors who wish to continue carrying out original research while also teaching a full course load and serving the needs of their Departments and the profession at large.

  19. Although it can be intellectually stimulating, developing new courses is time consuming. Depending on the needs of their Department, teaching multiple sections of the same course provides early career professors with fewer course preparations, helps them to quickly establish their area of expertise in the curriculum and among students, and allows them to gain teaching competencies far quicker, thereby enabling them to devote more time to their research and writing.

  20. Despite what some maintain, teaching and research are complementary activities, inasmuch as teaching, somewhat like publication, constitutes the dissemination of information gained by means of prior research. Based on one’s strengths, candidates can understandably emphasize one over the over, but declining always to carry out both, integrating them together when possible, is to shirk one’s responsibilities as a scholar.

  21. As with the effort to enter any profession, a price must inevitably be paid–economic as well as social–in terms of the other activities and goals one might instead have worked toward and possibly attained. Candidates must therefore not only be as deliberate as possible in determining which costs they are willing to pay and which they are not, but they must also learn to trust their own judgments when, regardless how their job search turns out, they someday look back on the decisions they once made.

Reproduced with permission from Mathieu E. Courville’s edited collection of essays, Next Step in Studying Religion: A Graduate’s Guide (London, UK: Continuum, 2007)