Why I was scared to attend the AAR Conference this year

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by Hussein Rashid

Like many scholars of religion, I normally make my plans to attend the annual national meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR). This year, I decided I would not attend. Some of my friends and colleagues thought it was perhaps because I was an adjunct, and had no funding to attend the most important professional conference of our discipline. This concern is real for so many of our members, but was not my issue this year. Instead, it was that we were hosting the meeting in an open carry state, and one that allowed students to carry their weapons into classrooms. As a person of color and as a Muslim, the location of the meeting in San Antonio did not seem prudent.

Some of my colleagues took to lambasting the theme of this year’s AAR, Revolutionary Love, as being too theological, or too Christian. Some even suggested that it took us too far away from our goal of scholarly research into the realm of social activism. While I am not opposed to the critique of the Christian framing, it seems like that line is as divorced from the realities of parts of the AAR membership as the AAR itself is.

If we take seriously the idea that Revolutionary Love is a call to action, it is unclear what action is being called. It is not about living wages for adjuncts, or protection of academic freedom, or the safety of vulnerable faculty.

I am not speaking in the abstract. Faculty members of the University of Texas sued to have control over their classrooms and allowing students to bring weapons into the classroom. To make sure the point is clear, they believe that the effect of having guns in a classroom would have a chilling effect on free speech. They explicitly say that they have been threatened because of the content of their courses. The plaintiffs lost the first round of the process, the request for an injunction to campus carry. In a related case, previously professors could keep guns out of their offices, but even that position is precarious.

Nowhere that I can find does the AAR acknowledge the fact that academic freedom is under physical threat, and that they are hosting their conference in such an environment. Nor do they attempt to address genuine concerns for safety that their members may experience.

In the age of Trump, the call for the death of professors in Texas is even more explicit. See item #3 in this article, where there is a call to “ to organize tar and feather VIGILANTE SQUADS and go arrest and torture those deviant university leaders spouting off all this Diversity Garbage.”

Now, such a desire to speak to safety may be considered social activism. After all, there is an argument to be made that the world of scholarly research has no relation to what happens in the real world. As we know, the architects of the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo did not receive that memo, and took scholarly research to make it real in the world.

There should be no objection to any scholar who does not wish to engage with life outside the ivory tower. In fact, that is the norm and is rewarded. However, it should be noted that there is no such thing as pure research.

For those of us who do choose to be in the world, at best we are met with indifference, and at worst are penalized. And, I would posit, that the scholars most likely to engage with life outside the classroom are those who are at the margins of the society, because of race, religion, gender, and/or sexual orientation. It is the vulnerable in broader society who seek to apply their knowledge and skills to change their vulnerability, but who are then made more vulnerable in the profession that trained them to critique power in the first instance.

Perhaps protection of our members, or even consideration of what negatively affect them, should not be a professional concern; it is unscholarly. So, when we do not consider our freedoms and our humanity important enough to act upon, it is no wonder that academia suffers the vicissitudes of Scott Walker, who thinks education is essentially an apprenticeship.

My constant reference to the adjunct nation is not simply a rhetorical point. It is a manifestation of the fact that as a guild we do not take ourselves and our work seriously enough to fight for it. If our work can be done for less than $8/hr, there is no reason for anyone to think that it should be professionalized and draw full-time salaries. We have accepted that our labor is of little value.

The AAR’s theme this year is belied by their actions. There is no love. There is not empathy. There is no compassion. It may not be the academic way, and I am happy to say that I am doing academia wrong. I believe in a mission of the humanities that allows students to see the worth in themselves and in other people; to be curious and to explore. When I hear from students from the various institutions I have taught at that they want to talk about the recent election of Donald Trump, but none of their faculty are talking about it, I believe they have been failed. What they are being taught does not match up with their experiences.

This experience of my students is no different than when I know that going to an open carry state is dangerous, but my guild does not seem to understand that point. I have to question in what are they invested. Yet, I will hear reference to collegiality on a regular basis. My pre-academic thinking around collegiality was that it was a reciprocal relationship of respect. As an academic, I understand that collegiality means not to question what happens around me, but to accept it. Power is only meant to be critiqued in the abstract, not in practice.

I skipped the AAR this year. The love is not revolutionary. It is not even love. I hope those of you who went this year were safe.

Hussein Rashid is a contingent faculty member, currently affiliated with Columbia University. He is on the AAR’s Contingent Faculty Task Force. His consultancy, islamicate, L3C, focuses on religious literacy and cultural competency.

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6 Responses to Why I was scared to attend the AAR Conference this year

  1. Debra Majeed says:

    These times are indeed changing, and not always for the best. I appreciate your choice to be vulnerable, Hussein, and for remind us — your Muslim and non-Muslim colleagues — the varied ways in which the personal is political and the walls that remain within the academy.

  2. Yvonne Chireau says:

    Professor Rashid, thank you for this vitally important perspective. Like you, many of us are rethinking the meaning of our relationship to our professional society. You should also share this letter with other members of the AAR, its journal, as well as with the organization itself, which has already scheduled its 2021 meeting, to be held (once again) in Texas.

  3. Amy Hollywood says:

    Thank you for this cogent and necessary analysis, and for the reminder that there are those among us whose livelihoods and lives are literally at risk.

  4. laura levitt says:

    Thank you for making clear the materiality of the lives of so many scholars of religion. These are extremely dangerous times.

  5. Steve Berkwitz says:

    I contacted the AAR and the Board of Directors to ask that the annual meeting not be held in San Antonio in future years due to the campus carry law forced upon public universities. While the responses I received were sympathetic, it was also made clear that their primary concern is economical. Sadly, it seems that the AAR’s concerns for campus safety and academic freedom are secondary. I did not attend this year’s meeting for this reason, and I will not attend future ones in Texas either. Dr. Rashid has my sympathy and support.

  6. Thank you all for the kind comments. I am surprised at how many people shared my concerns, but few know how to express them.

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