Religious Symbols with a Hipster-Sikh Twist

by Matt Sheedy

For those paying attention to Canadian politics these days (beyond the occasional swoon-fest over Justin Trudeau, Canada’s “super hot Prime Minister”) one of the more popular figures to have emerged in recent months is Jagmeet Singh, a representative of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, and former deputy leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party (the NDP is Canada’s national “left-of-center” party).

Singh drew widespread attention in Canada as the first credible Sikh person to run for the leadership of a national party (Martin Singh ran in 2012) when he announced his bid to head the federal NDP on May 15, 2017. Singh is also quite young (38), and has been credited with mobilizing the youth vote with his affable character, tailored suits, and hipster-esque persona, which has served to de-stabilize common associations between piety and “religious” modes of dress. Like all symbols, however, their meaning is fluid and is often used as battle-ground to hash-out other things.

More recently, Singh gained international attention after a protester at a “meet and greet” (which Singh playfully calls a “JagMeet & Greet“) got up in his face shouting “When is your Sharia going to end,” to which Singh responded calmly, repeating his campaign slogan of “love and courage.” Singh’s response gained him many accolades in the mainstream media and a bump in the polls to boot  (see here, here, and here). The heckler, Jennifer Bush, has since defend herself by stating that she is not racist (see here and here), though her membership in the nationalist, anti-Islam group Rise Canada makes this claim hard to square for many. In the aftermath of this event, Singh has became a symbol of divisions within Canada over such issues as racism, free speech, the limits of secularism, and the perceived meaning of “religious” symbols.

Earlier this week Singh became the target of Bloc Québécois leader Martine Ouellet (the BQ is a separatist party exclusive to the province of Québec), who claimed that Singh’s candidacy reflects the following trends:

  • It highlights the “rise of the religious left”;
  • It poses a threat to secularism in Québec, which underwent a dramatic separation between (Catholic) church and state in the 1960s;
  • It shows “religious values” and not “progressive values”;
  • The wearing of “religious symbols” is equivalent to the promotion of religious values.

On this last point Ouellet explains:

“Wearing religious symbols is showcasing one’s religion, and that is promoting one’s religion and promoting religious values, no matter what the religion is,” the Bloc leader added. “When you are promoting religious values, it is always the promotion of one religion, and that is always to the detriment of others.”

No religion should be highlighted more than any other, she said.

One thing that stands out for me in Ouellet’s claims is the way that she attempts to naturalize the link between so-called “religious symbols” and “religious values.”

On the one hand, it is hard to decouple Ouellet’s statements and the racialization of certain groups within the Euro-West, whose visible differences, such as skin color and modes of dress (especially niqabs, hijabs, and turbans) provide an easy symbol of estrangement. For some this is seen as a threat to “Western” (or Canadian) values (here the discourse ranges from what constitutes a “reasonable accommodation” to racist epithets), while for others it harkens the spectre of immigration (including refuges) as a tide that must be kept at bay. In Québec the niqab and hijab have been the most prominent symbols of estrangement in recent years, while Sikh turbans have remained largely under the radar, despite making an appearance in the province’s proposed ban on “religious symbols” back in 2013 (see image below).

There are many interesting threads to this story that I can’t touch upon here, including the metonymy of symbols, the slippery lines between “culture” and “religion,” and the discourse on Islamophobia, to name a few. What I’d like to focus on is the attempt to naturalize the meaning of “religious symbols” within public discourse, which I would claim is fuelled by essentialized definitions of religion that fail to account for its imbrications in culture, politics, and the like, along with its ever-shifting meaning.

Ideologically speaking, the Bloc Québécois are perhaps best known as a separatist party with social democratic leanings that tend toward a mode of cultural politics that resembles the French Republican model of laïcité. For example, both France and Québec have sought to place restrictions on the public display of so-called “religious symbols” under the premise that such displays undermine the secular character of the state and represent a thin edge of a wedge toward the acceptance of conservative religious norms (in the case of Québec, see here).

More recently, the 2013 Québec Charter of Secular Values, which failed to pass into law, proposed restrictions on the wearing of ‘religious symbols,” requiring the removal of hijabs, yarmulkes and turbans for those in positions of public authority (police, judges, etc.), as well as for most employees who work for and do business with the provincial government. Much of the political manoeuvring behind this proposed policy can be seen, in part, as a by-product of Québécois nationalism. As I wrote in 2013:

For those who are paying attention to the internal politics in this affair—which does not, it seems to me, constitute a majority of Canadians, let alone those outside of the country—it is commonly held that the Charter is being used as a wedge issue by some within the Parti Québécois, which is a separatist party with aspirations to cede from the country. Following this logic, a Supreme Court ruling against the “Charter of Québec Values” can be used as evidence that the government of “Canada” is trying to limit Québec’s sovereignty, thus bolstering the party’s popularity.

Fast forward to Ouellet’s charge against Singh, part of what distinguishes the “progressive values” of the Parti Québécois from the NDP is a form of cultural politics that is commonly traced to the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s, where the province made a radical break with the Catholic Church and its role within the state (e.g., in schools, hospitals, etc.) in favor of a strong version of secular ideology, which included a popular feminist sensibility that often equates Islamic veiling practices with a nun’s habit. This ideology contributed not only to the Charter of Secular Values, but also, more recently, to the firm opposition against the wearing of the niqab during citizenship ceremonies (see my post on this here), a recent parliamentary motion against Islamophobia, M-103, and a current proposal in Québec, Bill 62, targeting niqab-wearing women. It is worth noting here that Singh has shown support for M-103 and rejected Bill 62, which helps to explain why his turban stands-in for more than meets the eye.

What may appear to outsiders as mere racism or a bizarre conflation between symbols and values on the part of the Bloc Québécois, is perhaps better explained by digging through the entanglements of things like sovereignty, identity, and perceived difference, which provides a rather striking instance of how the identity formation of particular groups is shaped by political interests that condition “meaning” in ways that are hard to shake. What Singh’s hipster-Sikh image will churn out down the road remains to be seen, though if he continues to be in the spotlight it may be the case that this symbolic tug-of-war is just warming up.

Matt Sheedy holds a Ph.D in religious studies from the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism and atheism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.

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Theses on Professionalization: Jeffrey Wheatley

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by Jeffrey Wheatley

In this series with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For other posts in this series, see here

Thesis #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.

Most of Russell McCutcheon’s theses on professionalization provide important suggestions for how young scholars can develop their academic careers. The eighth thesis is a bit different. It suggests that we might do well to embrace on some level the vicissitudes of pursuing an academic career. McCutcheon writes that:

[A]lthough 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.

However deserving we might think ourselves to be and however much we professionalize and develop research that fulfills our particular field’s current desires, the truth is that academia in all of its institutional, personal, financial, and political dimensions will in all likelihood defy any attempt on the part of young scholars to understand the academic job market fully, much less master it completely. There are always unknowns. The academy is a game of risks.

In some ways Thesis #8 resonates with Tara Baldrick-Morrone’s response to Thesis #6. Regarding the demands of professionalization, she writes that:

[Th]is constant ratcheting-up of expectations does not guarantee us a thing, not even an interview with a third-tier institution. Performing any combination of the aforementioned tasks (or all of them, for that matter) does not equate to a job.

Acknowledging the reality of these vicissitudes does, I think, contribute to the development of a healthier realistic mentality in young scholars. To put it one way: failure to get a secure job does not indicate a failure in effort. But as I consider Thesis #8 and the Theses on Professionalization broadly, I am stuck thinking not about the “additional” skills, forms of consciousness, or exercises that will serve young scholars should they pursue an academic career (even if one of these skills is the acceptance of a lack of control), but, as Tara notes at the end of her post, I am stuck thinking about the responsibilities that the field broadly has toward young scholars. Furthermore, Thesis #8 prompts me to consider the structural forces that are more harmful and open to challenge than the examples McCutcheon provides. So, even as I acknowledge the utility and intent of Thesis #8, I want to use this opportunity to pivot towards these issues.

As a graduate student in the early stages of a PhD program, I cannot lay claim to any direct knowledge of the visceral realities of being on the job market—the ways in which the unknowns play into hiring; the ways in which the ideals of a meritocracy cannot capture the messiness of the whole process. In some ways the academic career market to me remains an abstraction, albeit one whose presence looms. Thankfully, I have been fortunate enough to have graduate colleagues and faculty members who have made frank discussions about the job market a part of academic training and central to my sense of being a member of an academic (and social) community. Furthermore, many scholars have utilized digital spaces to give priority to discussing #altac, the future of tenure, contingent labor conditions, the presumptuous privileging of those trained at elite institutions, and the ways in which gender and race structure academia today. We need to continue to examine and scrutinize these variables and how they influence our relationships, our hierarchies, and our scholarly production. Because of the efforts of these vocal scholars, I and many other young graduate students, it seems, are getting a much better sense of what awaits us and what the costs (and the rewards!) might be should we pursue an academic career.

Some of the persistent “unknowns” in academic hiring are inevitable. In truth, the phrase “the unspokens,” rather than “unknowns,” better captures what I mean in this post. We might do better to accept some of the academy’s “unspokens” as they are. The latter two examples that McCutcheon provides in Thesis #8 qualify for this treatment. However, McCutcheon’s first example—“the unstated needs, interests, goals, and even insecurities of the hiring Department” as factors beyond the control of applicantsdeserves more criticism. I think hiring institutions have a responsibility to craft pointed and relevant job descriptions that provide as transparent a view as possible to their intentions. Surely, this is a burden on these hiring committees. But I care more about the burden placed on job applicants lured by job descriptions whose authors have not disclosed (or figured out) what or whom they are really looking for. Applying to jobs is a costly and time-consuming endeavor that often occurs during a period in which many young scholars have diminishing or no support from their graduate institutions. We should question and challenge such a damaging “unspoken” variable alongside the ones I list in the previous paragraph.

I use “we” in a broad sense. I use it normatively, with the hope of drawing in scholars at all levels of academia to openly engage these issues. Young scholars have the most reason to be vocal about some of the more problematic unspokens that structure the academy today. Young scholars also occupy a position of vulnerability, which might be exacerbated if they are vocal in challenging the structures of the academy, especially if they are alone in doing so and especially if their social positionality (e.g., gender, class, race) already weakens their placement in the academy. The critique of some of the academy’s unspokens, I would like to think, should be the responsibility of our institutions, not just a burden placed upon young scholars as they navigate the complicated world of the academy. I make this claim not because I think Religious Studies is a site that, because of its objects of study (variously defined), creates a unique demand for ethical practices and responsibilities. I do not. I make this claim because I am invested in these institutions and fields. I care about the knowledges, methods, and theories we produce, and I care about the professional exercises and institutions that undergird this production.

Jeffrey Wheatley is a doctoral student in American Religions at Northwestern University. Jeff holds an MA from Florida State University. He is primarily interested in studying religion alongside politics, race, and imperialism. His current project explores the dynamics of race and religion within US colonial governance of the Philippines. Other research areas include secularism, capitalism, theory and method, and US Catholic history. He is on Twitter @wheatleyjt.

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Bulletin Book Reviews: Kunze on Altman (2017)

Editor’s note: Bulletin Book Reviews is the newly developed book review portal for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, associated with NAASR and published by Equinox. We are interested in reviewing titles of wide relevance to the academic study of religion, particularly those which themselves foreground issues of method and theory in the study of religion or from which such issues can be gleaned and discussed productively. We encourage submissions from doctoral students and established faculty alike. For more information, please visit the page linked above.

Altman, Michael. Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721–1893. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. xxii+175. $34.95 (hardcover).

by Andrew Kunze

Michael Altman’s Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu turns a critical eye toward history of Hinduism in America and the nationalist, orientalist discourses of formative debates, from the Colonial era up to Chicago’s World Parliament, in order to revise the standard “Transcendentalist-Theosophist-Vivekananda-1965” trajectory (xvii). Taking a genealogical approach to his historical sources, Altman shows how ‘hazy notions’ of Indian religion variously served as discursive foils and straw-men against white, Protestant American identity. When these Americans talked about religion in India, Altman argues, they were really “talking about themselves” (xxi) and constituting their own racial, national, and religious identities (140).

Altman first unpacks the religious cargo of three loaded terms—Heathen, Gentoo, Hindoo. First, Cotton Mather dismisses of all forms of ‘Heathen’ religion in 1721 (1); by 1784 Hannah Adams’ ‘liberal’ account aspires for a more ‘impartial’ description of, what she called, the ‘most tolerant’ religion of ‘Gentoos’ (16); and in 1811 Claudius Buchanan’s ‘evangelical’ representation portrays ‘Hindoo’ religion as violent and superstitious (30–1). With several such ‘evangelical’ accounts, Altman demonstrates that missionary organizations “used representations of Hindoo depravity to foster support for the missions and to increase their institutional strength” (38).

Altman then lays bare the racial and religious hierarchies of American national culture in the mid-eighteenth century, with two main sets of sources: Geography schoolbooks and stories from Harper’s magazine. In many regards, these publications reified the national identity of white, Protestant America by rejecting its foil in India: its ‘half-civilized’ caste system, its treatment of women as ‘slaves,’ and its ‘false’ religion (53). This chapter contains one of Altman’s most important contributions—he expands our view beyond elite religious circles and gives us a glimpse of more wide-spread American representations of Hinduism during this period.

Next, Altman adds nuance to our understanding of the Transcendentalist writers and their complicated appreciation for Indian religion. Emerson maintained a belief in the superiority of the Western mind and essentialized the oriental other, but unlike the preceding racial hierarchies, he sought a balance between Eastern and Western thought, instead of outright Western dominance (78). Both Emerson and Thoreau were guilty of essentializing Indian religion and the ‘Eastern mind.’ In their ‘liberal’ publications, like The Dial and The Atlantic, Transcendentalists attempted to ‘universalize’ and decontextualized Sanskrit texts (90) and portrayed Indian civilization through narratives of decline (94).

Chapter five portrays the Theosophical Society as the mystical cousins of their Transcendental peers, and Altman brilliantly shows their orientalist assumptions suddenly challenged by contact with the Arya Samaj of Swami Dayananda Saraswati. For Blavatsky, “[t]he wisdom religion derived from India […] did not belong to Hindus” (107). Little surprise, then, that the Theosophical Society’s 1878 merger with the Arya Samaj was short lived. After a personal meeting with Dayananda Saraswati in 1880, the Theosophists agreed to separate the two organizations, and mutual public denunciations quickly followed (109). Saraswati derided Blavatsky as an atheist and a huckster, while Theosophists criticized the Arya Samaj as sectarian, dogmatic, and exclusivist (109). These voices of Indian resistance become all the more important as the book sets up its 1893 conclusion in Chicago.

It’s hard to say something new about the Parliament of World Religions, but his work in the preceding five chapters helps Altman paint a critical, Masuzawa-inspired portrait. Some ‘liberal’ organizers hoped the event would unite religious peoples in their pursuit of higher ideals (122), and other ‘evangelicals’ saw the Parliament as forum to assert Christian (and mostly Protestant) supremacy (123). Stepping into the Protestant debate, two Hindu speakers—Protap Chunder Mozoomdar and Swami Vivekananda—elicited two distinct responses. Representing the Brahmo Samaj, Mozoomdar described his ‘religion,’ and Unitarians happily claimed him as their own (131). By contrast, Vivekananda not only defended Hindu practice, but also chastised the Parliament’s organizers and the Christian West for its religious intolerance and imperial violence (133–34). His fiery critique, as well as his polished English diction, made Swami Vivekananda an instant celebrity in Chicago and around the US.

This book promises to become an important resource for studies of American Hinduism, American history, and religious studies. Packed with fascinating sources and incisive analysis, each chapter flies by in a quick 20 pages. I can mention only two small critiques, both of which are unpacked in the forthcoming print version of this review. First, the text’s liberal-vs.-evangelical framework might be occasionally overplayed in a way that suggests every religious actor of this period fits neatly into one or the other category. This excludes liberal, evangelical abolitionists like Henry Ward Beecher, or even Charles Grandison Finney. Second, the text omits Protap Chunder Mozoomdar’s 1883 tour of the US, when he spoke at many Unitarian churches, and newspapers debated his religious identity, a full decade before the Chicago Parliament. These quibbles aside, Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu is an excellent history, which will help readers see the nineteenth century precedent for our contemporary politics of Hindu representation. Altman’s critical historical analysis will help both undergraduate and graduate students see the American embrace of Vivekananda in stark new light, and his powerful historical sources will drive home the nationalist and orientalist forces behind many a debate on ‘religion.’

Andrew Kunze is a fourth year PhD student in Anthropology of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He studies the Hindu diaspora, and the ways new mass media affect contemporary Hindu practice. His research focuses on American Hindu communities and their connections with Indian religious institutions.

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“Gender” in/and the Study of Religion: Introducing WoNJAR

In this series, the Bulletin asks scholars if and how they critically engage “gender” in the study of religion. Contributors consider how gender intersects with method & theory, pedagogy, professional practices, or matters of race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc., and how such intersections are handled within the study of religion. For previous posts in this series, see here.

Introducing WoNJAR

by Helen Lee and Joanna Pedder

WoNJAR stands for Women’s Network for Junior Academics of Religion, and is based in Leeds, England. Three of us – Joanna Pedder, Rebecca (Bex) Anthoney, and Helen Lee – founded WoNJAR two months ago, and each of us has various thoughts about the challenges women academics in Theology and Religious Studies face more generally, as well as personal experiences, that led to our forming this network. Here, we introduce WoNJAR and our goals for the network.

Who is WoNJAR?

Helen: WoNJAR began because two of our group wanted a project to sustain them academically between the MA and PhD. Joanna is currently working on her MA dissertation (due in December) and Bex already completed her programme back in July. Bex had also worked outside of academia for a substantial period of time between undergraduate and taught postgraduate level, so she knows what it is like to miss having an academic focus and being part of an academic community. At the start of 2017 Bex and Joanna applied for PhD programmes, which they found stressful and lonely. This links to numerous anxieties about entering the academic world and how welcoming it might be in practice, especially for us as women.

Particularly the following:

  1. The ‘inside voice’ that tells us our work is not at a high enough level to be considered for a PhD, despite grades saying otherwise.
  2. ‘Imposter Syndrome’- the feeling of not belonging and eventually being found out and rejected. I for one never cease to be amazed when tutors are excited about my ideas.
  3. Specific confidence issues related to class and family background (at MA level I am already more highly qualified than anyone in my family has ever been). There is also the fear of not securing a decently-paid, permanent position at the end of a PhD, the question of having children and when, the issues that could arise within a long-term relationship with another aspiring academic… and the list goes on. Perhaps it is the nature of aspiring academics to overthink, and especially for women, who are socially conditioned to observe with micro precision the risks of social rejection or of taking up too much space in the world.

All of the above factors have been noted by Guest, Sharma and Song in their study of women academics in TRS in the UK context (2013). In particular, Guest et al have discussed how these factors feed into an academic culture where male researchers outnumber female researchers as status increases (ibid.).

Talking about these issues together has encouraged all three of us, and has reinforced the truth that none of us are alone in this journey, which feels crazy at times, and requires massive leaps of faith when working to acquire a PhD or have an academic career. To start our venture we met with Dr. Rachel Muers, who has been very supportive of WoNJAR, and agreed that a network was probably the best approach. We also agreed to base the network in Leeds for practical reasons; all three of us live in Leeds, are Leeds alumni, and we are familiar with the university’s facilities and ways of facilitating conferences and events.

What will WoNJAR do to address the problems facing Junior women scholars of religion?

Joanna: We deliberately call ourselves a network to develop mutual support amongst Junior women scholars. In my own experience, and I think Helen and Bex can also attest to this, upon starting our MA/PGT programmes, we realised how lonely it can be as classes and face-to-face interactions are fewer and far between. WoNJAR stands against this isolating culture through a forum of mutual encouragement to speak about Junior women scholar’s own research and experiences of researching. This, we hope, promotes the representation of women who are interested in academic research on religion, so those considering further research (be they final year undergraduate, Masters, or PhD students) are not alone in their ambitions. While I am acutely aware of the gender imbalance in my own research area of political theology and am accustomed to it, I see WoNJAR as an important opportunity to break out of the predominantly male surroundings of political theology conferences.

WoNJAR plans to host conference days, which will allow for interdisciplinary perspectives on topics within the study of religion, and provide contributors the opportunity to share their own passion with other engaged researchers. This will provide the opportunity to ask constructive questions and build confidence and assertiveness, but in a setting of trust and mutual curiosity in our respective research interests. Another dimension of the conference is orientated towards career development skills and experiences. Our aim is to dedicate part of the conference day to an aspect of the academic experience, with professional input on matters such as submitting a journal article, writing books, and delivering conference speeches.

Online networking will also play an important role in WoNJAR. Being neurodiverse myself (I have dyspraxia-dyslexia in addition to anxiety and low-mood), I understand that not everyone has to contribute in the same way for their contribution to be valuable. The WoNJAR site will be opening for blog submissions (and perhaps other digital formats). The plan is to have a mixture of set topics and open contributions regarding both research interests and academic interests, similar in scope to our conference days.

Finally, to those interested in our project but who aren’t perhaps set on an academic career, do not worry! Completing a degree, be it a BA/MA/MPhil/PhD can be challenging and rewarding experience alone. WoNJAR was established to create a supportive academic environment in the study of religion specifically for both ‘pre-career’ (BA/MA) and ‘Junior academics’ (PhDs) with this in mind. The point is that we are here to take you seriously, precisely because we are not established academics. However, we have also corresponded with early-career academics (post-doctoral) regarding their potential involvement in our project. Post-doctoral academics are certainly welcome to contribute, especially with regard to mentoring. We encourage anyone interested to connect with us on Twitter and Facebook and at our WordPress Blog. Stay tuned for events and opportunities!

Joanna Pedder is studying for a MA in Religions and Theology at the University of Manchester. She researches religion and political theory, with a particular interest in Catholic mysticism and its intersection with conservatism.

Helen Lee is studying for an MA in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. She researches issues of religious identity and is currently writing about Islamophobia in the UK.

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NAASR Announcement: Editorial Appointment for NAASR Working Papers Book Series

An Announcement from NAASR: Brad Stoddard has been appointed by the NAASR Executive Council as the founding editor for the newly formed NAASR Working Papers book series (with Equinox Publishers).

The series description reads as follows:

NAASR Working Papers provides a venue for publishing the latest research carried out by scholars who understand religion to be an historical element of human cognition, practice, and organization. Whether monographs or multi-authored collections, the volumes published in this series all reflect timely, cutting edge work that takes seriously both the need for developing bold theories as well as rigorous testing and debate concerning the scope of our tools and the implications of our studies. NAASR Working Papers therefore assess the current state-of-the-art while charting new ways forward in the academic study of religion.

Congratulations, Brad!

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Theses on Professionalization: Andrew Durdin

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In this series with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For other posts in this series, see here

by Drew Durdin

Thesis 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.

The academic job market is not a level playing field. This should not come as any surprise. But in my conversations and commiserations with other early-career scholars, I’ve frequently found that the full implications of this sentiment are rarely appreciated, nor are they taken as a potential point of empowerment to those facing the uphill battle for employment where the odds seem always stacked against them. In my view, embracing the fact of the uneven field and using it to adjust our expectations can help us avoid some of the negative dispositions that authors have raised in these posts during the past few weeks. It also frees us up to be strategic with those things we can control in potentially new and creative ways.

In thesis #7 McCutcheon has pointed us to two criteria on which candidates for academic jobs might be assessed: “some” will weight a candidate on the reputation of her institutional affiliation while “others” might find this secondary to the quality of her scholarly work. My almost automatic response to this duality is to claim that things are far more complicated: as written, thesis #7 is a false dichotomy. As Tara Baldrick-Morrone indicated in last week’s post, many factors are at play when considering an applicant for a particular position. Even as I’ve perused the first job postings of the season, I’m struck by the list of qualifications (preferred and essential) that departments claim are relevant in judging applicants. In addition to the obvious qualities such as possessing a PhD, submitting letters of recommendation, and having an “active” and “competitive” research agenda as well as teaching qualifications, most job postings also contain administrative and “catch-all” language that point to a general desire for a candidate willing to act as an overall team player, a “good” colleague to work with. These latter qualities are much more intangible and interpersonal, less able to be assessed on paper, and must be navigated “in the room,” i.e., in the interviews where both applicants and committee members can negotiate between explicit matters on the page and more implicit qualifications.

While a number of things can and likely do get factored into assessing candidates, in my experience—albeit limited—and based on my rather anecdotal and informal interactions with others on the job market, the two elements McCutcheon gives us here—institutional affiliation versus individual quality—often take on a specific relationship. Put plainly, the latter is often appealed to as a response to the frustration felt in relation to the former. In fact, these two criteria seem already morally coded. That is, it’s not really a choice among equals: the quality of a candidate’s work is almost intuitively preferable to said candidate’s institutional affiliation. We’re struck with a sense of injustice when we entertain the possibility that hiring committees might select job candidates based solely—or mostly—on the prestige of their degree. After all the years of work and financial hardship in graduate school, it is a disquieting thought that it all might come down to a question of affiliation. This disquiet is not helped by recent studies (which perhaps reinforce our intuitions) that show a small coterie of elite academic programs perpetuate themselves through hiring practices in a closed network. [1]

By contrast, we often hope that solid scholarly work will somehow allow us to punch through the inequalities of our field and the academy in general—that by sheer effort alone, we’ll be able to transcend the disproportionate accumulations of social capital and end up being the exception to the bleak landscape testified to in article after article floating across our social media feeds. But merit—as a possible response to the inherent unevenness of the job market—simply defers the issue. In appealing to merit, we’re acting as though long-entrenched status hierarchies don’t exist or don’t matter—at least not to “us.” To plow ahead in a game rigged in advance, all the while acting as though this isn’t the case, leads to burnout, frustration, and resentment. It results in the loss of confidence or the compulsive need to “do more,” as other contributors have touched on in past weeks. To paraphrase a sentiment from Slavoj Žižek: many of us are fetishists in practice but not in theory when it comes to the job market. We know the general state of the academic job market—we’ve read the stats on the shrinking number of tenure positions, the indentured servitude of adjuncting, and the closing of religious studies departments as STEM fields reign supreme. And we know that the whole idea of meritocratic “bootstraps” is a myth often perpetuated by the most privileged. Yet, for all this, our own particular situation often remains mystified, and a latent conception of meritocracy lingers. We are perfectly content to commiserate over the abysmal state of the job market, in what can only be understood as the antecedent to a future explanation of why we never made it or the beginnings of a triumph narrative, in which we succeeded against all odds (likely because of the quality of our work, not the prestige of our degree). Either way, we are perpetuating the idea that if one works hard enough and produces quality scholarship then one might breakthrough the entrenched hierarchies in our field and beat the house at its own game.

Of course this is not a call to give up and go get a “real job,” nor is it to say that we shouldn’t strive to produce quality scholarship or present ourselves as well-rounded applicants. On the contrary, as Mike Altman put so nicely in a comment a few weeks back, we should embrace job market nihilism. We should put off notions that one can “game” the system and spend our energy instead on what we might have some control over. Acknowledging that the game is rigged might open us up to playing the game more skillfully and strategically and to resist hanging our potential success on any one factor, whether it’s the reputation of our program or the quality of our work. We should accept that, despite our best efforts, we can’t know or control most aspects of the job search in advance. Based on what we can know—through whatever channels and connections—of the preferences and priorities of those “some” and “others” who here represent the judges and gatekeepers of vocational academic work, we should carefully craft our self-representation and qualities for each application and interview, tailoring ourselves as best we can to each specific imagined audience who will read our application, conduct our interviews, and, with any luck, eventually become our colleagues.

[1] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/02/13/study-suggests-insular-faculty-hiring-practices-elite-departments. While Religious Studies departments have not been included in these studies, a quick look at the websites of some “top” schools in our field and the degree-granting institutions of their faculty members suggests a provisional pattern.

Andrew Durdin is a PhD candidate in History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His research focuses on Roman religion, magic and religion in the Roman Empire, and scholarly historiography of ancient Mediterranean religions. His dissertation offers a critical redescription of certain evidences often taken as “magical” or as attesting to a strong concept of magic in the late Roman republic and early principate.

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The Social Functions of Obligatory Denunciations

by Craig Martin

In preparation for a new course I’m teaching this fall, I’ve been reading a great deal on Islam. I’ve surveyed both scholarly and popular narratives on Islam, particularly as I hope to compare and contrast such narratives in my course. One thing that has struck me is the near-universal and apparently obligatory denunciations of “extremist Muslims,” “Islamic fundamentalists,” or “Islamic terrorism,” and of course Al-Qaeda in particular. In addition, the condemnations are presented as if obvious or common sense. It’s apparently “obvious” that the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington D.C. are “terrible” or “evil.” Interestingly, these denunciations appear even when—or perhaps because—the prose that follows goes on to historicize or contextualize the form of violence under consideration. Apparently, if one is going to offer reasons for which a group might perpetrate violence, one opens oneself to the charge that one is excusing that violence—hence the obligatory qualifications of the following sort: “before getting to the reasons behind 9/11, I want to make it clear that Al-Qaeda’s actions were evil and unforgivable.” Such denunciations, it is worth noting, appear in both scholarly and popular literature.

For all of the reasons outlined by Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Derrida, signifiers signify only in relation to their differences from other signifiers. As such, condemnations of “illegitimate” violence are meaningful only in relation to its other: “legitimate” violence. For words like “illegitimate violence” to be meaningful, there must be a contrast—implicitly or explicitly—with “legitimate violence.”

Consequently, I would argue that these obligatory denunciations of illegitimate violence have a dual social function (and here I play off of the double [and opposite] meanings given to the word “sanction”): such denunciations negatively sanction—by decrying—illegitimate violence, but simultaneously positively sanction—by implicitly condoning, absolving, or excusing—legitimate violence. Every such denunciation is simultaneously a signal of approval.

This is why the one-sided or unidirectional nature of these obligatory denunciations are so revealing: in all of the literature I’ve been reading, I’ve not seen a single obligatory and obvious denunciation of, e.g., the violences perpetrated by the United States. Even when criticized, the actions of the United States are, at worst, complicated, lamentable, unfortunate, but never obviously terrible or evil.

So, as I head back to the classroom this fall, I’m going to think before I qualify my lectures by delivering “obvious” and obligatory condemnations of the forms of violence we’ll necessarily cover. Such verbal sanctions—especially when unidirectional—function implicitly to legitimate other forms of violence.

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