If I Only Knew Then … Tenured Scholars on Professionalization: Greg B. Johnson


On the heels of a successful series based on Russell
McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, where 21 early career
scholars weighed-in on a separate thesis, we at the Bulletin would
like to continue with the theme of professionalization as it relates
to mid-to-late career scholars, asking them to name one thing (or several) about
their career (in either teaching, research, or service work) that they
know now but wish they had done earlier on. For other posts in this series, see here.

Group Work Sucks. Why Collaborate?

Greg Johnson, University of Colorado

In retrospect, I now see that the most productive years of my career were marked by an intensive individualism. Left to my own devices and discoveries, I could See Spot Run with laser lucidity. Joey, in stark contrast, was in the dark. He didn’t know where to begin to look for Spot. Bereft of any workable epistemology, Joey also had no viable phenomenology or ontology. He was stuck. And so was I—Joey was my reading group partner in first grade. Thus began my resentment of group work, now called “collaboration.” It was asymmetrical, yielded little more than wasted time, and was inevitably awkward. Group work was best left to the playground. Such was my early assessment, which has left a mark on me years later. In memory of Joey, I never inflict group work on my students.

Perhaps this pedagogical rigidity is also defensive. After my white-hot early career—roughly kindergarten through fourth grade—I went through a pensive phase that was decidedly unproductive, at least by conventional measures. This decade was spent “cooking” ideas, a solitary pursuit. Authority structures (namely, homework) were called into serious question. And yet the pedagogical fetishization of “group think” demanded sacrifices. Thus it was that Julie eviscerated me in science lab every week. My failure to prepare was tanking the group, she screeched. I began to understand Joey. Group work sucked from his perspective, too.

I emerged from my pensive phase in college. Thinking less and writing more seemed like the right mix for this exercise. Group work occasionally came my way, but I managed to avoid the worst or it. Then came graduate school. To my delight, group work was virtually nonexistent in this particular climate. But that lack of human engagement was a bit unnerving, too. Even so, I appreciated the presumed professionalism behind the individualistic model. The unmistakable message was: “Succeed on your own merits or go home.” Fair enough. I got in this groove the best I could and had some productive if uneven years that entailed roughly equal measures of key ingredients of academic success: reading, thinking, and writing.

Once on the job market and in my first (great) job, this basic mix—life in the silo of one’s own head—continued to prove productive. But I also had the dawning realization that regular and sustained conversations with my new colleagues at Franklin & Marshall College were helping me grow intellectually in ways I hadn’t expected. Organic collaboration! During that same period, I served on a student conduct committee. A rather large entity, this committee grappled with a range of issues from petty to serious. To make a long story short, it was a humbling experience to see “group think” in this context. The committee included students, faculty of all ranks, and administrators. Time and again we can came to decisions that I supported but had not anticipated. Here was a model of collaboration that was very persuasive to me. Tasked with tough decisions, but ones that would not impact any of us directly, we grappled aloud with heavy issues, including procedural ones. This was a profound learning experience. In my current role as Program Committee (go team!) chair for the American Academy of Religion, I frequently look back to what I learned then about the merits of group thinking.

Even so, it would take a few more years for this realization about constructive collaboration to influence my academic work. And in some ways this was to my benefit. Namely, with the tenure clock ticking, it was in my best interests to keep my head down and do “my own work.” As we all (should) know, the current configuration of reward structures in the humanities (at least in North America) is such that collaborative work is undervalued at best and frequently dismissed. On that note, I wish to point out that the following account of collaborative successes should be read in the context of institutional constraints. Sadly, “group work” is largely a function of privilege (of rank and resources), and it is unfortunate and perhaps even backwards that the formative stages of careers in the study of religion are shaped in relative isolation. Lucky for me, just about the time I received tenure, I was asked to participate in several collaborative projects.

Collaboration, I suppose, would have come my way eventually due to the nature of my work, which is both interdisciplinary and marginal (relative to normative categories and structures of our field). My primary research focuses on contemporary indigenous traditions and law. Over the past fifteen years, most of my fieldwork has been in Hawai`i, about which I have no complaints whatsoever. Of the many great things about my research site (ok, I’ll stop soon…), what stands out foremost—indeed it is the condition of possibility for my work—are the terrific relationships I maintain with a number of Hawaiian colleagues, some of whom I count among my closest friends. I have learned so much from them and have been able (on occasion) to offer something back with regard to my knowledge of relevant legal issues and other forms of modest advocacy (See Johnson 2014).

In academic circles, pursuing Hawaiian studies within religious studies has demanded that I find conversation partners beyond my own specialization. By way of my own training and predilections, this push led to engagement with second order horizons of our field and the conventions by which they are constituted. Folks at the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) and others similarly inclined towards questions of method and theory became regular interlocutors. The pedagogical payoff of these engagements has been tremendous. I have for years taught a method and theory course that is in many ways the classroom incarnation of this multi-year conversational collaboration.

Religion and law debates became another site of collaboration, and it is my tremendous good fortune that Winnifred Sullivan, Robert Yelle, and others have been pushing the boundaries of this sub-discipline for the past decade, particularly on questions about discourses of religious freedom and the role of the state. Invited to join the conversation at various junctures, I have been challenged to “think law and religion” in ways that exceed the particular contexts of my research (burial protection and repatriation). These multi-disciplinary conversations disabused me of some “shop talk” habits learned in graduate school. I learned that navigating common languages for critical work carried a much higher payoff than speaking in one’s own particular tongue, no matter how inspired.

This lesson yielded returns back home. Over the past several years the University of Colorado, where I now teach, has launched its Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies. This is a fantastic initiative and one I’m delighted to be involved with in several capacities. One of my tasks has been to work with other faculty members to chart a vision for the Center. Here too there has been a premium on plain language framing of second order horizons. I want to emphasize this aspect of “group work.” Too often we academics assume—in practice, if not in principle—that jargon spewing and sparring is the most effective way to do collective theoretical labor. It isn’t so. Cogently framed second order horizons, in my experience, are best described, mapped, and approached by means of shared languages. My point isn’t against theory. It is that collaborative theorizing is built from common bricks. In the case of the Center, we have some wonderful plans for symposia exploring the intersection of narrative, law, and indigeneity, and we aim to reach our goals by collaborative means. I’m sure theoretical languages will emerge in the process. And that is just the point—to theorize (actively), as opposed to regurgitating and repeating a looping cycle of theory dribble. Collaboration at this level depends upon interlocative accountability—a commitment to speak to and with (rather than past) one another.

Interlocative accountability (something I never extended to Joey) can result in one of the best fruits of collaboration: generative comparison. This may seem painfully obvious, but it may also sound like a liability. “Comparison, really? Aren’t we over that?” At the end of the day, this is what collaboration amounts to, whether by design or not, and whether in terms of first order exempla or second order frames. So if you don’t like comparison, for sure don’t collaborate (or try to communicate with other human beings, for that matter).   If you do wish to collaborate (or have) and aren’t too allergic to the idea of comparison, perhaps you may find some inspiration in Marcel Detienne’s recent reflections on collaborative comparison:

For ‘a’ comparativist to become plural, it is necessary to form a microgroup of ethnologists and historians who are colleagues or even accomplices and who are prepared to think aloud, together. A regular meeting place is more important than a big research grant, for in that shared space, a comparativist can acquire the competence of a historico-anthropological microcommunity. The project may begin with no more than two members, the one a historian and the other an anthropologist, just so long as each partakes of the intellectual curiosity and competence of the other… (2008, 24).

I am currently involved in such a “microcommunity” by way of the Indigenous Religion(s) project housed at the University of the Arctic in Tromsø, Norway, and anchored by Siv Ellen Kraft and Bjørn Ola Tafjord. Constituted by a seven-member core group and numerous affiliates, this project is designed to last five years. It is explicitly collaborative and comparative. Our aim is to analyze the relationship between local indigenous traditions and articulations of indigenous religion(s) on the global stage. What are the networks that link the former to the latter? What about feedback loops from the global to the local? Which actors in what contexts invoke “religion” and to what ends? Pursuing these kinds of questions, we hope to be able to say something about the category “religion.” Is it serviceable here? Does it adequately name something “on the ground”? Does it productively frame a second order set of analytical rubrics? Might we venture alternatives?

The method to our madness is deceptively simple. We will make field visits to each other’s research areas as a group. Finding encouragement in Detienne’s vision, we aspire to hard-nosed comparison in the sense of seriously engaging the empirical-discursive stuff of one another’s data. In this sense, the challenge is to operationalize the best of post-Eliadean comparative work through empirical means. This is not a naïve call for some sort of revitalized sensory epistemology masquerading as method (“Hey, I see that too!”), though the simple affirmation that one isn’t making everything up is surely comforting. Quite the opposite, this sort of empirically based collaborative accountability is about ferreting out blind spots, missed opportunities, unexplained tendencies, and other forms of chastening excess. This kind of work requires serious collegiality and a willingness to place analytical rigor above mere collegiality. It requires openness and risk (of falsifiability—or at least demonstrable wrongheadedness).

As we travel to our sites we will be explicitly framing initial investigations in terms of four categories as a means to provide us structure and leverage: translation, performance, media, and sovereignty. We are just now launching into the field phase of the project. Already, however, we are seeing results. Even to frame our collective work (in grant applications and publication proposals) we have had to talk through and by means of our differences. Speaking for myself, this process has caused me to sharpen and focus some ideas while abandoning others. Most of all, through getting to know the other’s materials (content and theory), I am seeing ways this project may lead—at least provisionally—to the articulation of novel comparative analytical taxonomies. We are asking: what categories give increased purchase, if differentially, here (“here” being multi-sited) and there (also multi-sited)? Right now our collaborative patois is somewhat clunky, but we are building a language for posing a bedrock theoretical question: How do empirically based and collaboratively generated categories challenge or supplement received categories in the academic study of religion? In terms of “products,” we have several volumes planned, the most radical of which is to be jointly authored in real time in the course of our field visits. About this particular embodiment of collaboration I remain agnostic but hopeful. Ask me in five years how it turned out!

In terms of personal benefits from the Indigenous Religion(s) project, I look forward to the candid response of my colleagues with regard to my aforementioned advocacy activities. Once in the field with me, how do they perceive the nature of my relationships there? Do my colleagues resonate with my reasons for choosing to get involved with legal and political issues in Hawai`i (again, in admittedly modest ways)? Do they see analytical costs to the ways I am situated? Have I compromised my stance and vision as a scholar of religion? What would they do differently? Beyond these questions, I’m genuinely eager to see the contours of our categorical finding as relevant to my own work. I take for granted that Native Hawaiians are indigenous, as that category is invoked in academic and everyday contexts. But as the research collective takes a close and comparative look at the discourse of “indigenous” across a rather wide geographic and demographic range (from Polynesia to India) I wonder how I’ll rethink this category. I don’t know the answer, of course, but I strongly suspect I’ll be far less comfortable with it. And that is exactly one important task of collaboration and of academic life in general—to denaturalize the taken-for-granted character of the world, our categories included.

Group work can suck. And, as I noted above, it isn’t adequately rewarded by the academy. Furthermore, collaborative work is often slow, especially in terms of publication. Then there are human variables—of timing, attitudes, and so forth, not to mention doubts and worries. Am I Joey? Are you Julie? Even so, it seems to me that collaborative work is one important and fruitful path for improving our discipline. It’d be great if we could help nudge our field—and the humanities, generally—in the direction of collective and cooperative research and the generative theorizing this can foster.

Works Cited

Detienne, Marcel. 2008. Comparing the Incomparable. Translation by Janet Lloyd. (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Johnson, Greg. 2014. “Off the Stage, On the Page: On the Relationship between Advocacy and Scholarship.” Religion 44(2), 289-302.

Greg Johnson is an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado, where he is also affiliated faculty in the Department of Ethnic Studies and the Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies. Recent publications include “Bone Deep Indigeneity: Theorizing Hawaiian Care for the State and its Broken Apparatuses” in Laura Graham and H. Glenn Penny (eds.), Performing Indigeneity: Global Histories and Contemporary Experiences (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2014).

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3 Responses to If I Only Knew Then … Tenured Scholars on Professionalization: Greg B. Johnson

  1. Robert Yelle says:

    Greg, Thanks for the kind mention. Privilege to have known and learned from you!

    • Greg Johnson says:

      It has always been my pleasure, Robert… and your use of the the past tense sort of worries me. See you on one side or the other of the Atlantic!

  2. Steve Berkwitz says:

    I enjoyed reading this, Greg. Thank you. It’s funny how my essay in the series also emphasizes a similar lesson learned!

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