Religious Literacy is Social Justice [transcript]

Religious Literacy is Social Justice

Podcast with Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst (27 January 2020).

Interviewed by David McConeghy

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

David McConeghy (DMcC): Welcome. I am David McConeghy, and today I am joined by Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst PhD, an Associate Professor of Religion and Associate Director of the Humanities Centre of the University of Vermont. Her research centres on Islam and Muslims in South Asia; theories and histories of religion, race and language; and imperialism. She is the author of Indian Muslim Minorities in the 1857 Rebellion: Religion and Rebels and Jihad, published in 2017 – but fresh in paperback, in just a little bit, here in 2019. She’s also the author of numerous articles on Islam, Islamic studies and religion in South Asia. Thank you so much for joining us here today.

Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst (IMF): Thank you so much for having me.

DMcC: Now we’ve brought you today – and I’d love to have you back a second time to talk about Indian Muslim minorities – but we have you here today because there is something really interesting happening at your programme at the University of Vermont. Before we share the exciting new addition that you have to your programme, can you tell us a little bit about the University of Vermont and what it’s like there?

IMF: Sure. Well – shocking no-one – we are in Vermont! And we are the land-grant flagship University of the State of Vermont. Folks mostly know us for our leaves and our snow, and Ben & Jerry’s, and maybe a guy you’ve heard of named Bernie! But Vermont is actually a really small state, despite how much out of its weight class it punches in the national imaginary of New England. We have about 650,000 residents. So we’re really tiny. So the University – while being a land-grant which, in theory, serves the state of Vermont – ends up serving more of New England, broadly, and the mid-Atlantic states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut a little bit more than it serves exclusively Vermont. So, as a student body, we’ve got about ten thousand students, most of whom are drawn from Massachusetts, and New York, and New Jersey, with Vermont being the fourth kind-of representative here.

DMcC: Right. And you’re right there, on beautiful Lake Champlain!

IMF: We are. We’ve got a monster and everything. It’s a religion professor’s dream!

DMcC: I know! It’s hard to compete. When I was at Santa Barbara, a long time ago, everyone always said, “How can you get anything done with the beach being right there?” But having visited Vermont when I was a college student, I felt the same way. “How does anyone get anything done?” And I fear there’s a good answer, and it comes from the sky – during a very particular time of year!

IMF: I think faculty employees do get a ski and snowboard discount at a local mountain! But I’d like to describe myself as an indoor cat. No thank you! (Laughs).

DMcC: The fireplace is nice. And watching it fall outside is great. But . . .

IMF: It’s better on the inside.

DMcC: Yes. So at the University of Vermont the religion department probably wears, like in many universities, a lot of hats. Are the majority of your students general education students, and you’re doing part of the university’s general curriculum? How many kind-of majors do you have in your programme?

IMF: That’s a really good question. So, yes – we are a teaching-and-service-heavy department. We serve quite a lot of students, and we serve a number of different programmes at the university. But our majors are pretty small. We’ve got about . . . . We graduate between a dozen and twenty majors, let’s say, a year. And the count of our majors over four years is really challenging, because most first year students don’t come in as religion majors. So we’ve got that same hustle that every other religion department has, where not only do you have to exist in a sea of options, but we need to both un-teach what folks think about religion, and then re-teach the study of religion from that secular academic perspective. But the department is really interdisciplinary, like most religion departments. Until this year, we had four directors of other programmes located in our seven-person department. Including the Middle-East studies, African Studies, Asian Studies and Jewish studies. And I’m the reason that that’s not true anymore. Everybody but Middle-East studies (5:00). I turned that over to another colleague, as I stepped up into the role of Associate Director of the Humanities Centre.

DMcC: Right.

IMF: Our classes count as many as you can imagine. They count across the university: gender, women and sexuality studies; cross-listed with history; anthropology; political science; the Honours College. Our Gen. Ed. diversity requirements are a big draw for students in our field. But in terms of majors and minors it’s a relatively small population.

DMcC: Right. And within your programme – and I know every programme is a little bit different about this – but in general, where do your majors typically go on after they complete their degrees? Is there a common theme among them, or is it as diverse as many programmes find for the graduates?

IMF: I would say . . . . We did our survey about this, I guess, in 2014, now. And at that time the data showed that we’d got a pretty good spread amongst private sector/public sector: health professions, education and social work. But I would say, most of our graduates go on to what we’ve been calling the “public good”: things like education, social work, non-profits, or private sector businesses that have social missions. And so we’ve been using the language of public good, in part because it dovetails with UVM’s mission statement. We have . . . . We call it the “common ground”, where there are certain values we’re supposed to be teaching the across the curriculum and across disciplines.

DMcC: I see.

IMF: But we noticed that a lot of our students really do want to contribute. They want to “help the world”, and that can mean really different things, for all the obvious reasons. But the trend we see, if any. . . . We don’t see. . . . Even the students that go on to law school, the kind of law that they articulate wanting to practice is more along the lines of social justice kinds of legal pursuits than corporate law. Not that there’s anything wrong with corporate law!

DMcC: I find it really interesting the way that you’ve framed that. Not only are you integrating with all of these departments – so you start off from an interdisciplinary kind of approach, you can’t help it – and then, because of the situation at Vermont with its mission, you can kind-of directly draw those lines to how the perspectives of what you’re doing within the religious studies orientation within the university really can play a huge role in the kinds of employment that students might be thinking about after they finish. It leads us directly into, I think, your new certificate programme. So can you share with us the brand new programme that you’ve got?

IMF: Yes. I would love to! So, like many religion departments, we – and Humanities, I think, across the board – were thinking about things like: how do we go from limp years of graduating six majors to something a little bit bigger than that? And if we can’t do that, then how do make sure that the value that we bring to the university is evident and clear both to our students and the other publics that we serve as a land-grant institution – but also to the bean counters in central administration, you know, at the next rank above us? And so one of the things that we played with were these ideas of a certificate, and drawing on expertise we already have. We think our major and our minor already do work in the fields of religious literacy and the public good. But we also notice that students . . . . So, UVM is a university with technically ten colleges that comprise that university. And a number of those – we’re in the College of Arts and Science – but a number of those colleges are essentially professional schools. The Business School, the School of Education and Social Service, the Nursing School. And what we’ve noticed for years is that students in those professional schools do not have the flexibility in their curriculum. They are not liberal arts degrees, and so they do not have the spaces for electives. However, when they do have an elective they come to us. And then they leave their student evaluations, emails, you name it, begging for more classes and more opportunities (10:00). And so we really created what we’re calling the Certificate in Religious Literacy for the professions, with those students in mind. How can they complement their nursing degree, their education degree, their social work degree, their business degree with limited time in their curriculum to graduate in a four-year schedule? And so they don’t have the space for a minor – so how could we reach them where they are, and get them something that they’re already saying is attractive to them?

DMcC: It’s such a smart move, right? You have students that are in your programme for one course, and they don’t have room for five or six courses, but maybe they have room for two related courses? And so, you just get that next level of ask from those students – that second course. And then you reward them very clearly for it, right? You give them a clear expectation of what they get out of it. And you really have, across those ten schools – I’m looking at Agriculture, and Life Sciences, and the Business School, and Education and Social Services, and Nursing, like you mentioned. And I have nursing students. They have such a demanding schedule at my university. And they are so stressed out. And they want to have the opportunity to take electives that are interesting, but also relevant to their professional aspirations. And I think you’ve really captured a kind of way to do that at your institution.

IMF: Yes. And so when we were doing research about religious literacy programmes, obviously Diane Moore’s path-breaking work at Harvard has been inspirational and important. And I know that the AAR just last week released their guidelines for what religious literacy would look like at the university. But when we searched – and we researched I think something like thirty-five schools across the country – no one was doing this at the undergraduate level. It was all on the model of master’s students or returning students. So, for example, K12 teachers who are getting credits above their master’s, or going for recertification based on state guidelines. And one of the things that we thought where we could fill a niche that would serve our public – which is the University of Vermont’s students – is to really look at these professional schools and say: “Listen, these professional schools are essentially setting up programmes that are either master’s inclusive” – so a five-year programme where you come out with a BSNS or a BANA – “or they’re meant to subvent the master’s where you don’t need it. You come out with a degree and the certifications you need.” And so these master’s level programmes are important and wonderful, but they’re missing this population – and, frankly, an aspect of this generation of students who are coming out saddled with all sorts of debt, and may not want to go to a master’s degree. And, on top of that, may not then add on this extra component. But I think undergraduates, regardless of their programme, are really mindful – and whether that’s a mindfulness in an intentional, optimistic way, or a deeply cynical “How will I get a job after school?” way (audio unclear) (Laughs). But I think what we have seen at Vermont is that students really want to learn. They want to know how to do their next phase well. And they want to be able to point to something on their transcript, on their résumé, that gives them the credential to do it. And so we really do think that pitching religious literacy as a job skill, and as a social justice intellectual pursuit, works at the undergraduate level here.

DMcC: Right. Can you talk a little bit about some of the responses you’ve had before? I know on Twitter, when you were sharing the development and the announcement of the programme with all of your Twitter followers, that there was a lot . . . you commented that you had got a lot of emails from other faculties, other programmes that were really interested in it. But within your university – from students, and other faculty members, and the administration – what has the initial response been like?

IMF: Yes. So we’re launching two things at once. So we’re kicking off the certificate. The only required course for the certificate is called Religious Literacy and we’ll offer that in the spring (15:00). And so the certificate is technically live, but the one requirement hasn’t yet been offered. And so we are running . . . we’re calling it the long month, the long religious literacy month, because it started at the end of September and will end at the beginning of November, so it’s – you know, I’m a nineteenth century historian, so it’s a long month!

DMcC: (Laughs).

IMF: And those events have been wildly popular. We’ve had three out of five of events and we’ve had no fewer than sixty students attend each event.

DMcC: I saw the pictures . . . . Every seat was gone!

IMF: We had . . . . I mean, it’s really been surprising. I don’t know what other universities are like, but in the end we don’t have a zero period. So there’s classes all the time. And so whenever you schedule an event you’re always scheduling against classes, or labs, or other events, obviously. So getting students to come out can sometimes be challenging – just based on what scheduling looks like here. And we’ve been shocked. I mean for Simran Jeet Singh’s talk, which was the kick-off event, we had over a hundred and twenty students come!

DMcC: Rock star!

IMF: We hosted a panel in conjunction with indigenous people’s day – it’s the first indigenous peoples’ day in Vermont. They changed the holiday – rightfully so. And we facilitated a panel featuring Abenaki practitioners. And that is a room that seats a hundred and ten, but there were over two dozen people in the aisles! So we don’t even know what the head count for that was, because we couldn’t see everybody. So we’ve been floored by how these events – which are meant to create a little bit of buzz, get people interested in what we’re doing – we’ve been really floored by the student response. We expected faculty to come; faculty always go to these events.

DMcC: Right.

IMF: But student response has been really impressive.

DMcC: That must be so rewarding, to have initiated a new thing and have this talk series, and have the students respond so powerfully to it.

IMF: Yes. It’s been a lot of work – I won’t lie – but it’s been really wonderful. You know, it’s one thing to have a thesis right? And we’re testing it out. We think that this is important. We think that this will fit with the student body, here at UVM, and we think that there is a demand for it – even though we don’t necessarily see that demand paying out in our minor and major. So to take this gamble and see it paying off a little bit, even, is validating, right? And then I think, also, what’s been really validating has been that our senior administration has been unbelievably supportive. So, in order to get the certificate passed, we needed to work with other units across the university. So the dean of . . . at the time, the dean of nursing – who has since been promoted to the provost’s position – wrote us a really glowing letter in support, saying that “it would only bring benefits to the nursing school”. And now, in her role as provost, she’s come to a number of these events and her office is a co-sponsor. Because five events, plus all the other hoopla that goes with it, is an expensive endeavour. So she’s been really supportive from the top down. The dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Bill Falls, has been to three of our faculty meetings. He has been actively stumping for this certificate in other places. And as we think about ways to expand it out beyond just the undergraduate programme – you know, on a two-three-five-year timeline – he’s really doing a lot. And his office are doing a lot of legwork in making connections with the state department of education, with chambers of commerce across the state, with other deans of the university, so that it’s not just our seven-person department, screaming from the rooftops. So we’ve felt really supported. And, you know, that makes all the difference. I don’t feel like we’re swimming up . . . . We might be swimming upstream, in the way that Humanities departments feel embattled. But I do not feel like we are fighting our administration, or our students, to demonstrate that this is a valuable programme.

DMcC: That’s so comforting to hear. Because we often hear about how imperilled the Humanities are. But we have an instance here, where we’re really seeing that the students are responding to the work that we do in the field, and are responding in high volume to it. (20:00) Which is. . . for those of us that worry about every time that another chronicle of higher education or the New York Times or Wall Street Journal article comes out, where it says the Humanities are dying and everybody should do STEM and have a professional career track, that it really feels like a nail in that coffin. But that’s not what I’m hearing here. And if you have goals for your students over the next two-to-five periods, as the programme develops, what are the goals that you see for students that are coming out of the programme, and for what things look like five years from now?

IMF: Yes. I think we’ve got similar goals that religious studies departments have across the country. I want folks to be able to read a newspaper article, a TV show, a situation, a comment and ask the question about “What is religion here?” Right? I always say, “Religion is what people do.” And to quote Megan Goodwin, she always says, “You might be done with religion, but religion’s not done with you.” So I think . . . . And that’s a line, you know . . . . Consider that stolen! It’s good to have best friends that are quippy! Because, you know, Vermont is the least religious state, or the most unchurched state, in the Union based on Pew reports. And we can debate the validity of those, and how we count heads, and whether what we mean by that is white Christians and not everybody else. But the truth is that we get a lot of students at UVM who identify strongly with spiritual-but-not-religious. And my sense is . . . what I want from students in this programme is: “That’s great. But spiritual-but-not-religious is still a religion question! It is still . . . . Religion is still in the room. It’s still part of that discussion. And if you can see that, then” – because we’re targeting pre-professional students – “you will be better at your job, whatever that job is.” Because if you work with people, you think about religion. If you work in communities, religion is in the ether. And I think making sure that we’re making that loud and clear is a really big piece of this. I think the other piece of it is that as a department we’re drafting articles about this. We’re doing real research. This isn’t just a passing fad to get butts on seats, so to speak. We’re actively . . . at least, devoting some of our collective research time to it. There’s a couple of co-authored pieces that Vicki Brennan and I are working on. And what we see as adding to the debate around . . . or conversation, not debate, around “How do you do this kind of work in the study of religion?” And I think what we’ve come up with is unlike interfaith conversations – that assume faith-based commitments, or at least a starting place of faith – and inter-religious studies – which is doing slightly different work around education and intertextual kinds of debates – I think where we see ourselves coming at this, is the study of religion plus social justice. So that this is not just about some theoretical turn where we can all quote all of our great theorists, and our students can all come out saying “Religion is complicated. Religion is what people do.” That’s great for the major and minor. But I think what we’re explicitly doing – we do in the major and minor too, but we have more time to do it – is to explicitly position religious literacy as an issue of social justice. The first line Simran Singh said, when he came to talk about religious literacy was that, for people who look like him, religious literacy is a matter of survival. For everybody else it’s matter of social justice. And that is what we asked him to come and talk about. That’s how I pitched this series for him. That’s how I saw him contributing. And I think that’s the piece that we’re really trying to get at. If you’re a nursing student and you want to treat a body, you have to treat their whole person. And for many people, even people who claim to be atheist, that is still within that frame of religious studies. I think that’s . . .

DMcC: Right. This is, I think, more and more what I’m hearing from a variety of places about how scholars in this moment are really thinking about religious literacy. Some are willing to go, if they have a faith of their own and they’re speaking from their faith, then the interfaith perspective is really a way to kind of generate those conversations. I’ve read Interreligious/ Interfaith Studies; it’s a book about the new fields that Eboo Patel, and Jennifer Howe Peace, and Noah Silverman put out (25:00). And there’s a lot of really interesting conversations that are going on there. Whether people are asking, “How can we acknowledge that religion isn’t going to go away, it’s an important part of people’s lives, and at the same time as an academic field we have critical methods that we want to bring to it? And I hear you saying that for you, that combination of things is the religious literacy work that you’re doing right now. Is that how you feel about it?

IMF: Yes. And I think it’s also about being clear about our pedagogy. I think many . . . at least the folks I run with – so that might tell you more about me than in other fields – but most of our pedagogies . . . . Look, I’m in Islamic Studies. When I started my PhD adviser, Carl Ernst, flat out said, “You might not have a choice of being a public scholar. People are going to hound you, because Islam – whether we like it or not – is seen as controversy”. And that stuck with me. Because my training was not allowed . . . there was no possibility for my training to be inward-looking, navel-gazing. And so my pedagogy has always been about un-teaching. And I think I take Simran Singh’s quote, here, really vitally. Like, that un-teaching is a matter of survival for some of my research subjects. And so I think, for me, it’s really about naming our pedagogy as a process of social justice, and not shying away from the ways in which activism might be part of our universe. And I don’t mean activism like marching and rabble-rousing in our classrooms. But I do mean activism like there is a political intent to everything we do. There is no such thing as neutrality. And we name that in our classrooms. And we’re not that good at naming it programmatically. So I think the Religious Literacy Certificate is naming that programmatically, right? There are people you will encounter that you need to be able to make sense of, and not in a: do you know what the Qur’an is? That’d be great. But: can you read the situation? Can you figure out why someone might be comfortable, uncomfortable, threatened, not threatened? Can you imagine why ethical systems might be different from each other? So it’s less about knowing facts and more about applying theory. And for me, that’s an activist position.

DMcC: Yes. And this feels like, you know, you’re saying the things that I try to say to my students. “I’m trying to teach you to read religion in all the places that, if we were more literate, we would naturally see and find it.” We need the glasses that . . . you know, rose-tinted or green glasses, to look out at the world and see, “Oh! It really is absolutely everywhere!” And, for so many people, every day. Is that message the winning message for religious studies? Because I worry that there’s a longer conversation that we’re skirting the edges of here that, you know, maybe goes back to Timothy Fitzgerald and earlier, where folks worry that somehow there’s an illusion that there’s this sliding into non-academic discourse when we start talking in this way about the goals of our field. Is that a risk that you think is present? Or do you think that there’s a problem with that presentation of how we think about our programme?

IMF: Yes. I don’t, right? I think that, again, to come back to what I study, my sense of it is that there is no neutrality. And so simply saying “I’m a scholar of Islam”, I am already a politicised body. My comments are already politicised. I do not think that makes my research any less rigorous. I don’t think that makes my teaching any less rigorous. I don’t think in demanding students make applications and connections that are historically contingent, critical, across time, and place, and region, and sometimes language, I don’t think that that’s anything but academic. And so this idea that we need to be really careful about the future of the field, I mean, fields are supposed to move and change (30:00). And I think that naming what we do is an important way, in a time where the humanities are imperilled, I think precisely because we can’t put our finger on the deliverable – and I don’t like that language – but . . . I think I said this on Twitter: “I don’t like living in a neoliberal hegemony, but I do”. And so ignoring that, and pretending like I have some sort of rarefied data set that no-one else could possibly understand, that just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And I also think that that is. . . I think that’s a lie. I think that all of us are always translating these high-level, particularly specific sets of information that we have spent our whole careers mastering – knowing full-well that mastery is impossible, but working on aspects of that – and we translate that to our Intro level students all the time. We translate that to our senior level students because . . . . Because. And so, I think I’m not worried about that in the way that I hear other folks being worried about it. I hear the critique, but that’s . . . I don’t find it especially convincing.

DMcC: Yes. I think one of the problems with the critique . . . . I bring it up because I know that it’s kind-of the potentially straw person that’s waiting out there, to rebut: “Well, how can you have an academic field that is organised around social justice?” And I agree with you. I’m not sure that that’s necessarily a problem, right? I’m not sure that that’s how I, personally, would frame it. And I think the challenge with that approach is that social justice is different, potentially, depending on the agency and position of the person that you’re speaking to. And I think, when we look back at kind-of the narrative that has come from Fitzgerald about the ideology of religious studies, that when we move forward in time it’s always about who gets to claim that role. And when we tell our students, “Well we’re not really sure how to define religion. Here’s the definition we’re going to use right now – let’s see how far it goes.” That’s one kind of move. But then when you add social justice, you can make the same moves against that. Whose social justice, and for whom is it working? And why do we want it to work in a particular way? And, I think, opening that allows our students to actually make those choices. They can see social justice differently than we do. And if we open that possibility then they can make their own choices, critically, about how to apply that term – just like we ask them to make choices critically about how to apply the term religion.

IMF: OK. And I think . . . so Vicki Brennan and I are working on this article right now. And one of the first questions we ask is . . . . We’re pushing this thing, we’re talking about religious literacy, because its feels like it’s a marketable thing here at UVM. It’s clearly struck a nerve in other ways, because of the response we’ve gotten. But one of the questions we’re asking now, and one of the questions that we’re asking on this course that we’re teaching is: who is allowed to be religiously illiterate? Right? So, even the framing of religious literacy, to me, is already about cultural and social structures that are never apolitical and they are not neutral.

DMcC: Right. It’s the fish! It’s the old joke: the two young fishes are in the water and the old fish swims by and asks, “How’s the water today?” and the young fishes are like “What’s water?”

IMF: Exactly. So look. UVM is an overwhelmingly white school. We are an overwhelmingly white state. I think the last time I checked this data point, we are the second most white state in the nation. We have very few religious minorities, though that’s changing with patterns of refugee resettlement and other kinds of related issues. But this idea of like, who needs religious literacy? The elephant in the room is that it’s white, either post-Christian or Christian students who exist in the water and do not know they’re swimming in it. And so I think again, from the outset, religious literacy is already a politicised term, because it assumes that one was illiterate and now has become literate. And we know that for other folks – to go back to Simran Singh’s really poignant phrase – for him religious literacy is a matter of survival. And one of the things he talked about was that he cannot be religiously illiterate. He needs to know what’s going on around him (35:00). Often for his own personal safety. So when . . . again I get the (audio unclear) I’ve read all those theorists, but I think it feels unconvincing to me. Both because of my own intellectual commitments, my intellectual training as an Islamicists, and just again: who’s allowed to not know, always is a power. It’s always about power and hierarchy.

DMcC: Right. I was just about to say, is part of the argument that religion is about what we do, but religion is also about something else, right? The power structures that are using religion or being used by religion that we may not recognise.

IMF: That’s exactly right.

DMcC: Do you think that for your students, going forward in the programme, that the primary goal for them is to reveal the necessity of literacy in the sense that part of what we’re being religiously literate about is the fact that we assume that religion works in certain ways, and then we just don’t talk about it, right? This is the “water” that we’re doing. And that, with the rise of religious nones, that this is only an accelerating problem. That students that we get now . . . It used to be that they might have been, even if they were not Christian, that they might have been culturally Christian, and now we can’t even assume that. We’ve lost even that, as a starting point for where the conversation can begin.

IMF: I think that’s right. And I think that’s where, you know, we offer classes in our department – like many other departments – on secularism. The religion department teaches secularism, precisely because of these issues. And I think we’re all really well-versed and so on. But we want our students to become more equipped to see that.

DMcC: Yes. Well it’s been such a delight to talk to you about this today. I’m so happy for your students at the University of Vermont to have this really interesting conversation about it. If folks would like to continue the conversation with you about it, can they find you on Twitter?

IMF: They sure can. I am @PROFIRMF and they can also follow the department on Twitter which is @REL_UVM.

DMcC: That’s perfect. Thank you so much for joining me today.

IMF: Thank you for having me. This was a delight.

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