Reinventing Graduate Education in the Study of Religion [transcript]

Podcast with K. Merinda Simmons and Michael J. Altman.

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Chris Cotter (CC): We spend quite a lot of time on the Religious Studies Project discussing Religious Studies as a discipline or a field of study, what it means to study religion with or without quotation marks, and what exactly it is that the critical study of societal discourses surrounding religion might have to offer. However, up until today, we’ve never tackled the institutional location of Religious Studies within a higher education environment that is becoming increasingly stretched and dominated by market forces and political whims. In particular, how might this situation affect graduate education in the study of religion? What can scholars of religion do about this situation? Are we powerless? Must we simply sit on the sidelines and stick to our guns? Or are there constructive, alternative ways forward? To discuss these questions and an exciting new graduate programme looking at religion in culture, I’m joined today by Drs Merinda Simmons and Michael Altman, who are both Associate Professors of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. Merinda’s books include Changing the subject: Writing women across the African Diaspora, and two co-edited volumes: The Trouble with Post-Blackness and  Race and Displacement. She’s the editor of the book series, Concepts in the Study of Religion: Critical Primers and is a member of the collaborative research group: Culture on the Edge. Mike’s research ranges from American Religious History to Critical Theory and his first book, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721- 1893, will be published by OUP in 2017. He’s also published an article in the journal Religion, entitled “Podcasting Religious Studies, that features the Religious Studies Project. And we might even discuss that later on, who knows? First of all, Merinda, Mike, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Merinda Simmons (MS): Thank you

Michael Altman (MA): Thanks. You gave me a free promotion there, Chris! I’m only an Assistant Professor.

CC: Oh no!

MS: Congratulations

MA: It’s ok. I’ll take it! That’s how good the book is!

CC: That you get instant promotion with it. Excellent. Well on that note, that’s an institutional dynamic that we don’t quite know here in the UK, the associate/ assistant thing. But we’re talking today about reinventing graduate education in the study of religion. Why are we even talking about that? What’s the context?

MS: One of the conversations that we’ve been having over the past handful of years has been about what a lot of people call the “crisis in the Humanities”. So that’s really what began the conversation here, departmentally. We have a Humanities speaker series that our chair is on the committee for planning, we’ve been doing some things within the department to try to talk about that issue. And we also have been – in the last handful of years especially – on the front end of social media in the department, making videos, doing things to promote the department. Because a lot of people don’t come into their undergraduate programmes, anyway, knowing what the academic study of religions is. So we have to do a lot of self-promotion and just getting the word out about what it is to even get a degree in Religious Studies. So with those two things in mind, with our social media presence and with the conversations that have been going on about the so-called crisis of the Humanities, that’s really what began the conversation of : What would it look like if we don’t. . . We don’t want to think about the Humanities as “Crisis-ville”. We all have jobs in this space of perceived crisis, so maybe we should be thinking about that, or doing something about that? Or what does it mean to re-conceive that? So that’s the background for where the conversation initially began.

CC: And just for the benefit of our listeners who could be at any level. . .

MS: What is that crisis?

CC: Yes.In broad brush strokes.

MA: I don’t know. I think it’s a combination of a lot of things.(5:00) It’s a shift. I was introduced to this crisis through the 2008 financial crisis. That’s when I snuck into graduate school just before Emory University’s endowment tanked in September 2008. And you can just look around over the next two years and watch all the free lunches on campus literally go away. And I think that moment of. . . that financial moment, and the impact it had on jobs in the US, kind of created a bit of a panic about, “Well, if I’m going to spend money on a degree, if I’m going to spend time on a degree” – especially at under graduate level , where you had a financial crisis happening as a bubble was growing around higher ed and higher ed prices were going up, everyone taking out theses student loans –  “ I ‘d better damn well be able to get a job when it’s over.” And I think, the idea that Humanities – because they were not very vocational – didn’t prepare one for that, that has been a longstanding discussion-point and problem-point I think since the ’70s, became even more acute. So students came in, I think. . . . As I transitioned out of grad school into teaching, in the last four years, I’ve seen all these undergraduate students who went through who were in high school or middle school when this happened, and they don’t know a world that wasn’t in financial crisis, or where financial anxiety wasn’t dominant. I grew up in a world dominated by terrorism fear, they grew up in a world dominated by banking and stock market fear.

MS: At the same time, when I came to grad school, which was like in 2001- 2002, I was exposed to a kind of generational shift from the faculty perspective, where. . . . I think the reason that this so-called crisis is resonating for academics themselves, is that there was also a kind of sea-change from a faculty perspective and from an academic perspective about what it meant to study the Humanities. Suddenly – in response to these kinds of economic factors and the sorts of anxieties about job markets that our students were grappling with – suddenly it didn’t make as much sense to approach one’s teaching and one’s research in quite the same classic model of:  “I know all. I will tell all. Come learn at my feet and then take this knowledge to do whatever, but that’s your thing to process later, and it’s not really so much my jam as your faculty advisor.” So in response to that shifting landscape, too, I think there’s been, within people who already have jobs and are trying to get a sense of what they’re doing as faculty within the Humanities, and scholars in the Humanities, what it is that their job is – because it doesn’t seem like it’s quite so much the same sort of: receptacles of knowledge that we dispense nebulously to people and then just take that as self-evidently important as some kind of service that we’re doing them.

MA: Yes, for better or worse, the self-evidence of the value of Humanities research isn’t taken for granted any more.

MS: Right. And so that’s a thing that students, who want to go get jobs, have to grapple with. And it’s also a thing for those of us doing research in the Humanities to also kind-of start re-conceiving as well. So, into that space, enter cutting-edge new grad programme!

CC: Wonderful! And that scans quite well with my impression of things here in the UK. Here we certainly don’t have college fees to quite the same level as you have in the States, but when I started as an undergrad you were talking just about £1,000 a year. And now its gone up to £9,000 a year.

MS: Wow.

CC: . . .in that length of time. So there’s a real sense of: “What am I going to get out of this?”, students as consumers, and also the perceived value of,“Well, a degree in study of religion, that’s kind of near the bottom of the pile in terms of monetisation, isn’t it?” But need it all be doom and gloom?

MS: Not necessarily.

CC: Well, first of all, before we talk about your graduate programme, graduate students are going to be slightly different to undergraduate students. (10:00) So, again, maybe if you just tell us a little bit about that dynamic and then let’s see what you’ve been doing.

MS: You mean: what do we conceive of as our student cohort, coming in?

CC: Yes. The general purposes of graduate school.

MA: Oh yeah, that’s a whole bees’ nest of questions! There’s a whole argument going on in the US about graduate school. There was an article yesterday in the Chronicle, or this week, basically wagging its figure at literature professors around the country, saying: “Your entire career is built on the exploitation of graduate students!” And yet, at the same time – I’ve become such a reactionary old man at he age of 32 – I’m like: “You’re getting paid to go to school” in lots of cases! So there’s a whole back-and-forth about graduate school. And there’s a whole conflation of different programmes and the way they rely on graduate student labour to teach large classes, which keeps costs down, and buttresses the explosion of administrations and administrative costs. So there’s a whole big argument about the value, the importance, the ethics of graduate education in the US that I think we’re trying to navigate. We’ve thought hard about it. I want people to know that the committee who’s been working on this – from the proposal all the way down to the implementation – take those concerns very seriously. But they’re very real and they’re very thorny, I think.

MS: Mike and I were just talking about this earlier. I think, before the economy changed so dramatically, there was a sense that education and more of it was just a net gain. You know, education is an end in itself: it is always a good. The more you get of it, the more it will enrich your life, or pay you back monetarily, or just be this net gain to pursue. And I do think that – as we’ve already been discussing – those dynamics have shifted a bit. But I don’t think that means that, just because students are interested in making sure that they try to at least stack the odds for some kind of professional return on their investment, they leave their BA programmes without still this kind of sense of: “I don’t know, necessarily, if I have this very specific career path set out ahead of me. I’m still interested in all of these ideas that I’ve only just barely been exposed to. What do I want to do with those? Is there a space for me to continue to think about things in more depth?” So I don’t want there to be a kind of mutually exclusive, sort-of antagonistic relationship between professional security or job sensibility on one hand and intellectual curiosity on the other. And so one approach from academia I think, in a lot of ways, has been to sort of stake its flag, and sort of double-down and say, “No! What we study is super important! Did you hear? I’ll say it louder for the kids in the back – it is SUPER IMPORTANT!” Or on the other side, they just turn into a kind of profit machine, which I think results in . . . and maybe those things work together – I don’t know that those are two sides of the same coin – maybe they’re the same thing. So there’s this kind of exploitative factory of grad student labour on one hand and contingent adjunct labour that even spreads into the faculty arena. But there’s also, I think three’s been an ongoing failure – which I think is not too strong a word – on behalf of academicians to rethink and retool why it is that what we study matters, and why that should translate to student interest and to the lives that they’re living.(15:00) Because their interest does not live and die with their intellectual pursuits inside of that classroom. It’s also about the lives that they want to live, it’s also about the jobs they want to have, the places they want to live. It’s geographical concerns, its family concerns, it’s all sorts of different kinds of things. And so to try to think seriously about all of these issues, yes, is the job for people in Humanities in the 21st century now.

CC: Excellent. So that’s set a really good scene. So your department. . .Is your department called “Religion in Culture” or is it..I know that that’s quite a thing at Alabama.

MA: Yes, with the italics on the in.

MS: We have a webpage explaining our approach to that.

MA: The department is the Department of Religious Studies but when we came up with the Master’s – I don’t know who came up with the idea.Maybe it was on an email?

MS: We went back and forth about it.

MA: We decided to just call it the MA in Religion and Culture.

MS: It’s not quite. . . . You know, my PhD is from an English department, another colleague’s PhD is from an Anthropology department: we come at the study of religion from a lot of different disciplinary angles and we knew that this wasn’t going to be a traditional Religious Studies degree, as it’s popularly conceived still in the academy. But we also wanted to establish it as an intervention into that field, where a lot of us still have a great deal of a stake. But it’s not quite Cultural Studies, we didn’t want to go completely off the grid. So it’s our attempt at, kind of, charting out a specific path within a field that we all still have a great deal of stock in.

CC: And so you’re approaching it with two broad stands then: social theory and Digital Humanities. Why those choices?

MS: I’ll pitch this one to Mike with a little bit of background, because he’s one of our resident Digital Humanities gurus. But from me – with a background and training in literary theory – the reason I’m in a Religious Studies department is because of a commitment to social theory and questions about identity studies, and a kind of critical theory analytic that’s operative in my work. So the department has a longstanding commitment to thinking broadly about why it is that we study what we study, rather than just landing upon the self-evidency of  “what we do matters”. So in that sense, social theory has been something that we’ve been already flexing our muscles with for quite a number of years. And again, we also just got into the social media thing. It started with just advertising events on campus through Facebook and then having a Facebook page for our student association. But then our students started writing blog posts and then: “Well, maybe we should have a blog?” So the grad degree is emphasising two strengths that we already had. We’re not inventing anything new in either of these two platforms, but it is – especially for me who still is relatively new to the Digital Humanities scene – taking it to a kind of new and more substantive direction, especially with the Public Humanities bit.

MA: Yes, I think of it as really the two strengths of the department. And I think for a long time, because of Merinda’s work and Steven Ramey’s work and Russell McCutcheon’s work, our department has been known for its theoretical rigour. Theoretical swagger, I like to think of it as! So I think that’s manifest in this programme. So if you’re a student and you don’t want to be hemmed in by the same school of religious theorists, or if you’re not even thinking about religious theorists but you don’t want to be hemmed in by a content area, then what we’ve envisioned beginning with. . . . One of the first classes students take in this programme is a foundation course in social theory. And they’re introduced to a whole bunch of social theorists. This is something Merinda’s helped develop with Steven Ramey, and she can say more about that. But on the other side I think people have known less, until the last couple of years – it’s sort-of blossomed. (20:00) It’s like, we were one of the first departments to really utilise a website and to do all sorts of things. I mean back in the day, before cell phone cameras (I wasn’t here, I don’t know what I was doing, I was in high school) but they were taking photographs at events and scanning them, putting them up on the webpage. I say “they”, it was Russell and the faculty that were there then: Russell McCutcheon. And so that website predates Facebook. There was no Facebook but we had this website – and it’s actually about to get a facelift, soon – but you can go look at the archives of all this old stuff that we have buried, if you’re interested.

MS: And so much of that is this sense of trying to tell students what it is that we do in this department. Because so often they come out of high school without a sense of what Religious Studies, as a kind of academics base, is. And so I think that there is this hard work of just self-awareness, but then self-promotion and advertising that a department like ours had to do. And so, since we’ve been doing that for so long already, and since we have this analytical approach, by and large, how do we make the most of both of those two things?

MA: And so the website gave way to Facebook, gave way to the blog, that came in under . . . that was invented by Ted Trost, that began as a promotion of a Humanities series on campus, but then became this blog that is now read internationally. And people send us guest posts. And I think it’s become a pretty interesting space in the field. I mean, I’m a little biased, but. . . . And now our Twitter feed is doing really well, and we have an Instagram, and we’ve done all sorts of videos, and so I look at this as the next step in both those aspects of the department that have been going for the past ten-twelve years. And actually we have a podcast coming up soon, of our own, that I was just talking to Russell McCutcheon on as I was recording that. And there’s a great interview with him where he talks about this. And actually, the two are more connected than you think. We posit them as: there’s going to be a foundation class in social theory and a foundation class in Public Humanities and digital methods (that I’m putting together with Nathan Loewen) but they work together. Because really, all the stuff that we’ve begun to do in a social media space on the website is just applying social theory to our own environment,. Like: Why do we have a blog? Because getting students to write little pieces and see them creates a sense of. . . . It’s Durkheim!

MS: Right.

MA: We ought to know. . . . Academics who study religion from a social theory/social science/ human science perspective ought to be really good at understanding how to form a tight social group. That’s what we’re studying. That’s what we’re talking about. And we’ve kind of taken that seriously in a way. And so there’s the way these two things kind of feed off of each other, and have done in the life of department, and now we’re sending that momentum spinning forward into this graduate programme.

MS: It also means that their culminating thesis project can be a traditional publishable academic work that will send them to a PhD programme of their choice, or into a different kind of academic arena. But they can also, for their thesis requirement, do a digital project of equal substantive weight and value. So [we’re] thinking seriously about what that looks like and what that means, how to make them marketable. And not just in relation to how they can talk about themselves and their own skill sets – which I think is just such a thing that grad students could use – because I think that a lot of them with all of these kinds of critical skills, writing skills, argumentative skills, can only really talk about themselves of think about themselves in relation to the professoriate. Which I think is a shame, because those skills are super-marketable and very much in demand across a lot of different kinds of jobs sectors. (25:00) So, not only will they be able to talk abut themselves and think about their skills differently, but will also have a thing in hand that they can go to a museum with, or to a non-profit with, or to academic publishing, or. . .

MA: A start-up

MS: Or a start-up, or whatever kind of. . . and to help them get creative about where they can take those skills and equipped with something that isn’t just: “I have this killer essay, that’s an amazing, critical intervention.” They can do both.

CC: We’ve been nattering away here and time is already running away with us. This sounds fantastic and it sounds right in the same ballpark as why we started the Religious Studies Project five years ago: to try and find a way to get academia out there in a more accessible form.

MS: Right.

CC: But two questions just to maybe finish with, one would be: so, you know, stereotypical student wants to come and do a Master’s in the study of religion and they find themselves getting social theory and Digital Humanities. I can well imagine, based on some of the experiences that I’ve encountered , a jarring sense of: “Where’s the religion here? I just wanted to study some Buddhists!” So that’s one, and then the other question is: it sounds like you’ve got a really supportive department and university there. I can imagine in a perhaps more. . . I’ll use the word straight-laced or more traditional university, you might meet some resistance to proposing a course of this nature. So what advice might you have for scholars of religion who are working within the same context as you and are trying to instil the same sense of excitement and career development into their students, but maybe can’t quite found this innovative course? So on the one hand there’s the “Where’s the religion?” and two, advice for others in different contexts.

MS: Well, I mean to the first – at the end of the day we are still a department of Religious Studies and can still call ourselves that. So whatever kind of nominal traction we have to make ourselves legible in a field called Religious Studies is still present in the kinds of faculty areas and research that we do. Our approach is different, though, in relation to how it is that we think about the importance of [for example] the question of Hindus and American religion or a colleague who studies the spread of global Christianities in the global south, and Japan migration. So we have areas of the world and traditions that we use as data sets. There are still levels of study that people can kind-of come into and get that sort of traction if they want to do that. Especially if they want to go on to have an even more focussed approach with that, with their PhD. They have the opportunity to do language study while they’re here within the Master’s programme. But, you know, yes it is right that someone who is coming into our programme is probably not satisfied with thinking about a specific group of ritual practitioners in the 18th century, from this space, and then leave their enquiry to live and die inside of that space. So. . .

CC: And given that what you’re already saying about your social media presence etc, it’s going to be quite unlikely that a grad student’s going to turn up at the door not knowing what goes on.

MS: Right!

MA: They should certainly know what they’re getting themselves into!

MS: But I do think it needs to be said that this is still for those people who are really still diehard, interested in getting a PhD in Religious Studies, as long as they think of that approach as kind of cool, this is still something that will still put them in a really nice position and I think, if anything, make their application stand out. Because they do have this other little edge to it.

MA: I think, to be completely honest, that our students coming out of here will be better prepared for a more traditional PhD programme. Because our programme will require them to go back to first questions.(30:00) Like we said earlier, that taking it for granted that your study of Vedic sacrifice is valuable just because it’s about something really old, that it is inherently valuable, that’s not. . . You’re going to be pushed to be able to articulate what is it about your study of Ancient Vedic sacrifice that has purchase for  larger theories about social formation, ritual, the way communities work, the way people think, the way texts are passed down, like. . . whatever: something bigger. And that emphasis will allow you, when you get to a PhD programme and beyond when you’re on the job market later, to talk to people outside of your super-small speciality in a way that will make you a better scholar.

MS: And that’s exactly the answer, too, that I would suggest for the second part of your question, Chris, about what this suggests to scholars implicitly in their field. Because I think that there is a way in which the field itself, as a disciplinary phenomenon, can also be taken for granted as a self-evidently important thing.

MA: Of course religion’s important!

MS: Right, and “because we’ve been studying it in these ways for this many years, this is what we should continue or because the field is so dominated by area studies, and continues by area studies, and descriptive ethnographies, that that’s how we should continue to approach our work”. And I think that our programme is an experiment in thinking otherwise about that, and really putting our programmatic money where our mouths are, in terms of thinking differently about how we can conceive this field. Because there are a lot of different directions it can take. And why do we need to think in classic terms about area studies? Because then, why should we win the battle over how to get grad students who would otherwise go into a History grad programme, or a Cultural Studies programme, or in Anthropology? You know, why go into Religious Studies? So I think this is also a way for scholars and faculty members and administrators to think about how to organise differently around the kinds of area studies that they have, and how to make more marketable students coming out of those programmes in the process.

MA: And I’ll underline . . . .You asked the second question about how are we able to do this, and the support. At the risk of sounding too parochial, I think we have had a lot of support from the College of Arts and Sciences here at the university. And I think that’s because we’ve shown that the approaches we’ve chosen work in other settings. We’ve been out in front of other departments in a lot of ways, with the blog and social media. And a number of different projects that we’ve done have pushed everyone in the college, in a way, and so that’s given us a certain amount of institutional capital that has opened the door for this. And I think part of that is because we haven’t taken for granted that we’re valuable. And on the flip side of that: I think we’re the hardest working department in the country, we’re incredibly productive pound for pound and – I mean, that’s enough bragging!

MS: I’ll also say our Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences is a mathematician who is, nonetheless, deeply invested in the Humanities, and that’s just so, so nice. It’s really nice.

CC: So, effectively: get out there, embody what you want the field to be! If you want to be relevant, get out there and make yourselves relevant! That’s probably a good rallying call.

MA: Yes. The entrepreneurism we want in our Master’s students has been modelled by this department for the past 10-12 years.

MS: And interestingly – I know you’re probably trying to close this down because it sounded like a nice [ending], but only very quickly – this is why social theory is so useful too, to make that entrepreneurial vein of professional emphasis, not become some super-problematic, “Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps kiddos! And if you just try hard enough you’ll get that job in blah blah blah”. Like, No! We’re thinking really seriously about structural dynamics, about power dynamics, about the kinds of economic underpinnings that create certain sorts of environments that allow you to take various modes of agency in different kinds of spaces. And I think that that’s also super-important, because I think it can be really disheartening as a grad student to hear the equation of, “If you just try hard, and if you just publish enough, you’ll get that job.” Because that’s just so not any more the case.

MA: No. Scholars of large institutions and large social formations ought to be really good at navigating university bureaucracy.

CC: (35:00) Well, on that note, thanks so much Merinda Simmons and Mike Altman for joining us, and hopefully you will both get some sign-ups for this course.

MA: Applications are open now!

CC: You’ve also given our listeners a lot of food for thought and a lot of inspiration, and hopefully we’ll have a couple of interesting responses to this – fingers crossed!

MS: Thanks so much for talking to us.

MA: Thank you.

CC: Thanks so much for joining us.

Citation:  Simmons, K. Merinda, and Michael J. Altman  2017. “Reinventing Graduate Education in the Study of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 3 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 4 April 2017. Available at:

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