Are Personal Websites Valuable for Grads on the Market?

by Shannon Schorey

Several months ago I utilized my professional networks on social media to ask a question that had been on my mind for sometime: are personal websites valuable for grads on the market?

Ultimately I decided, for me, that the answer was yes. I’ve been asked to share some of the rationale for this decision, so I do so here with the hope that it may help other folks staring into the abyss of the academic job market, and possibly add a little tiny laser pen to your own repertoire so that when the abyss looks back at you you can say “hey, you are an ugly abyss and I’ma shine your eyes out.” That’s probably what Nietzsche really meant to say anyway. It’s, like a metaphor or something.

So, let’s begin with the negatives, because we are Proper Academics and Negatives Are Our Jam. Here are some of the reasons I approached creating a website with wariness, and you should too:

  • Lots of people have bad websites. Bad websites are a bane, not a boon (and not even a sexy Bane). Bad websites make you look boring, out-of-touch, and – at worse – indistinguishable in a crowd. Bad websites can, in other words, take you out of the running. What makes a bad website? Unattended blogs, hard to read fonts, hard to navigate pages, and stock templates. Think of a bad website as a bad CV – a two second glance and it’s either going in the trash or on a “hmm, let’s read more” pile.
  • There is a cult of productivity in workplaces that, if you are a Hyper Nerd like me, can be very attractive. Resources on writing the dissertation, article, monograph, schedule balancing, teaching, etc. abound. These can be wonderful, life saving resources. They can also allow you to procrastinate and Not Feel Bad at all. Because, of course, you are researching How To Do The Things, and what are scholars, if not researchers? Because of the threat of the Bad Website, putting in the effort to make a good website walks that fine line between helpful work and You Should Really Be Writing Stop Doing This Now kind of work. Crafting a good website demands a thoughtful time investment that can be difficult to balance while teaching, writing, and compiling the very many materials required for the market. This is not an insignificant balancing act.
  • Websites can be expensive. Given the very real material constraints of those entering the academic workforce (and therefore surviving on either graduate or adjunct stipends), deciding what works for you may take time and resources that you may not be able to stretch. (Places like https://hcommons.org/ may be a good workaround for this.)

The counter to all of this is that we live in a Google world – and having some amount of control over what your potential employers, students, and peers find when they Google you (because they will and are) is more than compelling. In this job market, it is increasingly necessary.

The tl; dr here is that websites that are not molded to you do not demonstrate your strengths, full stop. Often, they demonstrate weaknesses – not just in your teaching, research, or publication record, but in your ability to translate yourself and your work in an interesting and compelling way. Ultimately I found it useful to think of a website as a portfolio – translate your CV into a digital short hand that is best suited to your strengths.

Feature what you want to be featured, and do not feel beholden to categories that do not make you look Stellar. Love teaching? Have that be your landing page. Only have one (or maybe even no) publications? Then write up a research blurb and a description of your current projects. Find a clean design that is colorblind and mobile friendly, and compile a list of researcher websites that you find compelling to understand what draws you in. Start with a template and adjust, adjust, adjust. Don’t include a blog unless you are Very Dedicated to it (dead blogs make the whole site look dead). Include contact information, and maybe an “events” page to advertise what you are doing next. Experiment, and update whenever you update your CV.

A good website demonstrates skills that departments are looking for but often don’t articulate in a job search: PR, design, and advertising skills. A great website should make you feel good as you are finishing it; treat the creation of one as an act of self love, an I Am Awesome And Have Done Some Things page on the internet just about you. And then go have feelings about capitalism, personal branding, and Marx.

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Theses on Professionalization Series: Tara Baldrick-Morrone

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In this feature 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 Tara Baldrick-Morrone

Thesis 6. Although it is necessary, the doctoral degree alone is hardly a sufficient credential for being admitted to academia as a full-time employee because most of the other applicants also possess this credential (i.e., it is the level playing field onto which ABDs have yet to be admitted). There was a time, prior to the early 1970s, when the job market was such that merely possessing a Ph.D. would lead to multiple tenure-track job offers; in the Humanities that time has long passed.

After reading this thesis again, I had three reactions, two of which can be defined as “knee-jerk” and perhaps not as insightful as the last one. Each is defined by a key phrase from the thesis:

1) The doctoral degree “is the level playing field …”

Although I will not say too much about this because Drew Durdin will no doubt address this in his comments on thesis #7, this playing field is frequently uneven, as an institution that has awarded one applicant’s degree can certainly carry more social capital than the institution of another applicant (e.g., someone applying for a tenure-track position in early Christianity who has received their doctoral degree from the University of Notre Dame may, in many cases, outweigh the applicant who has received their degree from a state school such as, say, Florida State University). Though, to be sure, there are many factors at play besides the award-granting institution when considering an applicant for a particular position (the institution’s need, letters of recommendation, maybe even teaching experience, etc.).

2) “There was a time … when the job market was such that merely possessing a Ph.D. would lead to multiple tenure-track job offers …”

Although the narrative that we have been told is that tenure-track jobs are going the way of the Cabbage Patch Kids Snacktime Kids Doll, Table 27 in the 2013-2014 jobs report from the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature that Caleb Simmons referred to in his comments on thesis #4 makes it seem as if the tides have actually been turning:

But we cannot look at 80.3% and deduce that the “crisis” is over, or that we should stop attempting to address the contingent faculty issue, which I would argue is of the utmost importance (see the PBS NewsHour’s stories on adjuncts, as well as Kelly J. Baker’s “Contingency and Gender” and “What Can Learned Societies Do About Adjuncts?”). The implications of Table 29 from the report indicate as much:

As Mike Altman has pointed out in his comments on the report, “[O]nly about a third of the jobs went to people fresh out of grad school. The others all spent at least a year doing something else — either outside the academy or in some sort of ‘contingent’ position. This is the new normal … Success isn’t a tenure-track job, success is a job period.”

3) “[T]he doctoral degree alone is hardly a sufficient credential …”

On my reading, this is the crux of the thesis. If we take the playing field as level, then it stands to reason that there are actions that we can/ought/must/are forced to[1] do to set ourselves apart from one another. Thinking about this reminded me of a line in Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. Donoghue writes, “We in the humanities have adapted to the conditions of our profession by developing a culture as steeped in the ethos of productivity and salesmanship as anyone might encounter in the business world” (2008:26). This hyperprofessionalization, as Donoghue and others have termed it, has crept into the halls of the academy, especially for those of us in the trenches, that is, those of us who have not yet been legitimated by the academy that many of us so desperately wish to be a part of. These things that we can engage in that work to legitimate our existence in the field of the study of religion (e.g., being the Instructor of Record for eight courses [so far], writing an essay for an edited volume, presenting at the annual SBL/AAR meeting, perhaps even writing a blog post or two, etc.) help us to make a name for ourselves, to network with more established scholars, to gain experience that we can use when we obtain that piece of the Aggro Crag that is a tenure-track job (or a job outside of academia, depending on your definition of achievement[2]).

And yet this 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. Donoghue makes a discomforting point in saying that such developments as hyperprofessionalization “seem to have caught professors by surprise, leaving them unprepared to deal with the very phenomena that directly affect their jobs” (2008:134). It is for this reason that my outlook cannot be as optimistic as Matt Dougherty’s when he says that his “hope is that reflection on McCutcheon’s thes[e]s will encourage mentors of graduate students to make choices that foster the growth of specific professional skills without assuming that work on professionalization must happen in addition to, or even in competition with, the normal demands of a graduate program.” Sure, perhaps steps have been made to rein in the lofty expectations of graduate students, but until there is a sustained conversation of such expectations that are demanded of us (especially in terms of what hiring committees may expect), not much will change.

__________

[1] What I refer to here is that some of us have to sing for our supper (i.e., teaching or assisting a professor in research while we are in coursework, preparing for comprehensive exams, and writing our dissertations in exchange for a stipend). There are many graduate students who do not share this burden.

[2] Commenting on Altman’s response to the jobs report, one of his friends critiqued his definition of success by saying: “You continue to maintain the very unhelpful status quo idea of ‘success’ as a teaching position. You revise expectations ‘downward,’ I suppose, but you don’t look outside of teaching at the college level as any form of ‘success.’ I think this expected outcome, and the way that graduate programs indoctrinate students into this form of reproduction, is one of the most myopic and harmful aspects of PhD programs in our discipline. We need an entirely different kind of subject formation that has a wider vision of ‘successful’ outcomes.

I agree that we have to broaden outcomes beyond just teaching positions. However, this report has nothing to say about that. One takeaway, then, is that a report like this is too narrow to address the larger question of what counts as success for a Ph.D. graduate.”

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Forcing Tradition

by Craig Martin

Recently on Netflix I watched an interesting episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (“Producer’s Backend,” season 16 episode 3, which originally aired 8 October 2014). The narrative in the episode focused on a movie producer named Brubeck who used his power over young actresses — i.e., girls under the age of consent — to force them into sexual quid pro quos. Throughout the episode, the SVU detectives uncovered a number of victims, but in each case their hands were tied insofar as the assaults took place so far in the past that the incidents were past the statute of limitations.

As they investigated victims coerced more recently, they found that the movie producer had learned to cleverly skirt age of consent laws:

Detective #1: In the last nine years, all of Brubeck’s movies have been shot in Pennsylvania, Washington, or Montana.
Detective #2: All states with an age of consent of sixteen, and a mistake of age defense.
Prosecutor: Meaning, the guy can have sex with a fourteen-year-old and claim that he thought she was sixteen.

Despite this, the captain insists on moving forward with the investigation: “We’re not giving up. … There has got to be a way to stop him.”

Upon reviewing audition tapes turned over by the producer’s defense lawyer, they discovered one that was filmed in Winnipeg, Canada. The producer had flown to Winnipeg, auditioned, and then had sex with a sixteen-year-old girl — but for a movie idea invented by the producer merely as a pretense for the sexual excursion to Canada.

In the climactic scene of the episode, the detectives and the prosecutor confront Brubeck and his defense lawyer with the evidence.

Brubeck: Look, are you asking, did I sleep with young, wannabe actresses? Yes, but I kept it legal.
Prosecutor: You may have thought you did.
Brubeck: No, I did. … She’s sixteen, the age of consent in Canada. Not illegal.

At that point, the prosecutor confronts the producer with a subpoenaed script for the invented film, which turns out to be ten pages of gibberish.

Prosecutor: There was no movie. There was never any intention to make a movie. [Turning to the producer’s defense lawyer:] Your client traveled to Canada with the primary purpose of having sex with someone under the age of eighteen. A federal crime.
Brubeck: What is he talking about?
Prosecutor: Sexual tourism. Section 24-23-C of Title 18. “Engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places.” Punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
Defense lawyer: You can’t be serious. That law’s intention is to stop pedophiles from flying to Thailand to have sex with twelve-year-olds.

The captain retorts, “If this is the only way that we can get you, then this is the way you’re going down.”

In this example, the police and the prosecutor were hermeneuts entirely uninterested in the purported original intentions of the law’s authors. Instead, they viewed the law as a repository of authoritative rules that could be activated (or potentially ignored) at will for their immediate social goals—in this case, punishing this rapist.

We might better understand “religious practitioners” of particular “traditions” better if we thought of them like these prosecutors or lawyers rather than “faithful adherents.” Like the law, cultural traditions have wide variety of authoritative rules, doctrines, etc. that can be activated or ignored at will for whatever immediate social goals practitioners might be pursuing.

Why do Muslims avoid alcohol? We might say: “the Qur’an forbids wine.” But such an answer ignores the fact that millions of people who identify as Muslim and consider themselves faithful followers of the Qur’an do, in fact, drink alcohol. Like lawyers, interested hermeneuts can dig through available archives to find forgotten qualifications, exceptions, and so forth, which can be activated to justify contemporary social interests.

Lawyers swear to defend the law, but as scholars we would be foolish to assume that “the law” exists independently of its interested application and ongoing precedent. Similarly, religious practitioners might swear fealty to their cultural traditions, but we would be foolish to assume that those traditions exist independently of their ongoing and interested interpretation.

Rather than explaining people’s behavior as something caused by tradition — i.e., “that’s what Islam requires” — perhaps we should explain the “tradition” as something retroactively caused by contemporary interests.

While common sense tells us that people “follow” tradition or that tradition forces people to behave in certain ways, common sense also tells us that lawyers will use whatever resources from the tradition of law at hand to get the result they want. The relationship of the agent to tradition in the latter stereotype is arguably far more helpful for understanding how culture functions than the former.

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Theses on Professionalization Series: Matt Sheedy

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In this new feature 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 Matt Sheedy

Thesis 5. Whether as an ABD or after having been awarded the Ph.D., some candidates accept year-to-year work as a full-time Instructor or Lecturer (sometimes also called a Sessional position or a Part-time Temporary Instructor). Such positions often entail teaching loads that are heavier than tenure-track or tenured faculty members and, depending on the salary offered, may necessitate supplemental teaching (e.g., evening or summer courses) for one to earn sufficient income. Although the benefits of teaching experience and an academic home can be invaluable to an early career person, the costs such temporary employment entails for one’s ability to carry out research and writing can be high. Navigating these costs/benefits is no easy task; for instance, one might learn that, sometimes, time is more valuable than money.

I am reminded here of the now-infamous remarks by Mitt Romney in his presidential bid in 2012, when he stated the following about how college students struggling with debt might find a way out of their predicament:

We’ve always encouraged young people: Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business.

While borrowing money from one’s parents is not an option for many the idea that those with an advanced education (either pursuing or having recently completed a Ph.D) could be strapped for cash seems to be at odds with what many (rightly) take to be a path of privilege that leads to the ivory tower, instead of the unpaved road that it often resembles, with numerous casualties along the way. The recent student strike and arbitration settlement for TA’s at the University of Toronto is but one of numerous examples of present challenges.

All of which is to say that we must acknowledge the larger issues at play effecting departments in the humanities—political, economic, and structural—giving rise to both creative solutions, entropy (left unlinked for professional reasons), downsizing or mergers (both with other humanities departments or, in the case of the Study of Religion, with departments of classics, philosophy, historytheology [or some kind of realignment]), and death. Although McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization was written before the economic crisis in 2008, and thus before the most recent round of belt tightening effecting the academy, such realities are nothing new (see Part VI: Religious Studies and Identity Politics in Reinventing Religious Studies 2014).

To whatever extent creative solutions might aid this current lull, it cannot be overlooked that the primary reason for the plight of sessional and part-time temporary instructors has much to do with larger social forces and the glut of recently minted Ph.D’s trying to fill fewer positions in a highly competitive market. Unless these problems are addressed, time will be a commodity only available to a privileged few who are able to avoid the need to teach more than a productive scholarly life can easily afford.

I find myself in a similar situation to that described in thesis 5, though with several important caveats that offer a useful point of comparison.

I defended my Ph.D in January 2015, waded through three months of bureaucracy to finalize the process, and convocated in May. Having been without the official Ph.D stamp throughout most of the application process for positions starting in 2015-2016, I was (arguably) at a competitive disadvantage and did not secure anything for this coming academic year. Despite these obstacles however, my position is an extremely fortunate one… for the time being.

For some years now I have taught a course with Distance and On-line Education at my university, which functions as a public-private partnership, and thus offers a different pay-scale than other in-class sessional positions that fall under collective bargaining agreements (the pay for these is quite paltry at my institution). This has, in certain years, provided more money than my yearly fellowship (which was good for four years) and has allowed me to keep my financial head above water without having to search out a heavy teaching load or (as is not uncommon) find part-time work outside of the university. Criticisms of on-line courses and MOOCs notwithstanding, I know of no other Ph.D student who has had such a position, and therefore take it to be an anomaly and not a path toward the future. This is doubly fortuitous in my case, since recent cutbacks at my institution have meant that there are no other teaching positions available for this coming year in my department. Add to this the fact that I am located in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which, unlike Southern Ontario or, say, the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, does not have many other universities in close proximity where I can find part time work.

As editor of this blog, Bulletin for the Study of Religion, I have been afforded numerous opportunities to gain contacts and establish professional relationships. I’d like to think that those who have contributed to the Bulletin over the years have also been able to establish contacts through this forum, contributing not only the occasional blog post, but also essays that have appeared in the Bulletin’s journal. Likewise, my tenure as editor has given rise to opportunities for collaboration with other scholars on a number of projects, and the Bulletin has benefited greatly from our affiliation with the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR). All of which is to say, there have been numerous opportunities outside of research and teaching that I have been fortunate to tap into that have aided my process of professionalization.

In the coming six months I have three conference presentations (two at the upcoming NAASR/AAR conference in Atlanta), a few book projects that I am planning to edit, two essays slated for books, and at least three essays to submit to journals. On top of this, I will be chipping away at the dissertation-to-book process (see the helpful guide by William Germano, From Dissertation to Book, Second Edition 2013), and fielding the firestorm of job and post-doc applications that come my way starting in September. This will be a grueling period, to say the least, and one that aim to rise up to with shinny gold stars.

If I were saddled with three or more courses to teach during this time (I will be teaching one on-line course in the fall), as many in my position are, methinks that premature wrinkles and grey hair would be sure to follow. Indeed, for many early career academics, myself included, time is more valuable than money.

Matt Sheedy recently defended his Ph.D in religious studies at 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, 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 Series: Caleb Simmons

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by Caleb Simmons

In this new feature 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 previous posts in this series, see here

Thesis 4: Applying for full-time employment prior to being awarded the Ph.D. degree (i.e., when, after successfully completing comprehensive or general exams, one holds the status known as ABD [i.e., All But Dissertation]) is not uncommon; however, failure to gain employment at this stage must not undermine one’s confidence. Apart from extraordinary circumstances (e.g., the so-called “fit” between your expertise and a Department’s needs), the doctoral degree remains a necessary condition for entrance into the profession.

The Religious Studies job market can be daunting. According to the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion’s annual job advertisement data, there has been a steady decline of Religious Studies positions available since 2008 during which time there has been an increase in Ph.D. degrees awarded.[1] Understandably, this can produce anxiety towards the end of graduate school as the whirlwind of writing and defending meet the flood of economic realities of unsecured income, student loans, etc. This begs the question, “when do I need to start applying for jobs?”

McCutcheon’s fourth thesis “the doctoral degree remains a necessary condition for entrance into the profession” remains accurate as “holding a Ph.D.” continues “to be ranked highest among skills and/or experiences desired or required by hiring institutions” in the field of Religious Studies.[2] However, the numbers released by the SBL/AAR that covers 2005-2012 suggest that it is not uncommon for ABD job candidates to receive the job offer. According to the data released in the 2013-2014 SBL/AAR job data:

Less than five percent of hired candidates interviewed more than one year in advance of completing their Ph.D. 32.7% completed their Ph.D. the year after interviewing. 28.2% completed their Ph.D. during the year in which they interviewed or within one year prior to interviewing. 34.3% completed their Ph.D. two or more years prior to interviewing.[3]

This data suggests that 37.5% of hires did not have their doctoral degree in hand when they started their position and another 17.1% were interviewing in the year when their degree was expected to be awarded. Therefore, the majority (54.6%) of candidates hired in Religious Studies from 2005-2012 were not Ph.D.s when they received their job offers.

There are, however, problems with putting too much stake in these numbers. The SBL/AAR report includes competing statistics with 81% of hiring institutions stating that the candidate that was hired had completed their Ph.D.[4] Additionally, this report provides no data for the degree status of applicants for each position (though average number of applications is provided); so one cannot know how many ABDs or Ph.D.s were unsuccessful on the job market. The biggest risk for the ABD job candidate is adding the possible rejection of the job market into the tumultuous emotional field that accompanies the final stages of the doctoral process. As McCutcheon states, “failure to gain employment at this stage must not undermine one’s confidence.” That is the last thing one needs while walking into your dissertation defense.

There is another option, however. Part of graduate school that is often neglected in our focus on research is professional development. While some of us teach while in graduate school, many other aspects of our future careers are unknown and are learned “on the fly.” Unfortunately, for many of us the job application process is one of these overlooked components, even though at the end of the day it very well might be the most important. Testing the job market early in the doctoral process provides a way around this lacuna. With the help of trusted advisors, the green ABD can develop the professional skills required to write a good cover letter, prepare an efficient curriculum vita, and practice the academic interview. By engaging the market earlier than later, the candidate has the opportunity to learn from mistakes when the stakes are lower, knowing that there is still a year or two before the rubber really meets the road.

I entered the job market early. This was not with any sort of foresight regarding professional development, but through the process I have been convinced that these experiences helped me develop the skills to be successful when I was eventually a viable candidate further along. When I passed into doctoral candidacy, the joy of this rite of passage was short-lived as I realized that my life had become a complex balance of time and funding with the goal of gainful employment seemingly farther away than when I entered my Ph.D. program. Luckily, at the University of Florida my advisors were extremely upfront about the job market and the uphill battle that I might face coming from a school with a young doctoral program and lacking the “name-brand” in my field (South Asian Religions). With this in mind, they paid special attention to my professionalization, including teaching, publishing, presenting at conferences, etc. The last piece of the puzzle, however, was actually getting a job.

I had the great fortune of receiving a Visiting faculty position only a month after becoming ABD. I had applied because the position was close to my hometown and the call seemed like it was written exactly for my expertise. While this was a great opportunity both personally and professionally, it thrust me prematurely into the job market. I had had a taste of being a professor and didn’t want to go back. And for some reason, I thought I was ready for a tenure-track position. I wasn’t.

I was lucky again because my mentors could recognize that I felt like going back to UF would be a step backward, but they also knew that I was unprepared to compete for most jobs. Through our many discussions, we decided that I should apply for jobs that seemed like a perfect fit keeping in mind, however, that I was not ready. For the next two years while working on my dissertation, I applied selectively to several jobs receiving a few conference interviews each year, but without any real success. When I felt like an interview went well and heard nothing back (it is far too common that an interviewee never hears back from prospective employers), it hurt my ego. But that too became part of the professionalization process. Through this process I not only developed a sense of the interview process, I was able to get used to the inevitable rejection when the stakes were much lower (i.e. I still had time and funding to finish my Ph.D. program).

In 2013-14, I went back on the market with my dissertation research completed and the writing process nearly over. I was still ABD, but I was only months away from my defense and was a very different scholar than I had been when I accepted the VAP position three years earlier. Because of the accumulated experience of letters, c.v.s, and interviews I was thoroughly prepared for the job market in my final year of my doctoral program. I ended up accepting a position at an R-1 university. I can’t help but think that part of the reason for my success was my experience stumbling through interviews and marinating in anxiety that fills the bullpen at the SBL/AAR Employment Center. While it had led to periods of self-doubt, in the end just like the other aspects of professionalization for academia, the application process is a vital component for success within our profession.

[1] “Employment Trends | aarweb.org” https://www.aarweb.org/node/62

[2] “Job Advertisement Data 2013-2014: Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion” https://www.aarweb.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/Career_Services/AARSBLJobsReport2013-2014.pdf , p. 3.

[3] “Job Advertisement Data 2013-2014: Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion,” pp. 3 & 35 (Table 29).

[4] “Job Advertisement Data 2013-2014: Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion,” p. 35 (Table 28).

Caleb Simmons is an Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies Program at the University of Arizona. He research and teaching focuses on South Asian religions, particularly Hindu goddess traditions. He is currently working on a book project titled  The Goddess and the King: Devotion, Genealogy, and King-fashioning in the Kingdom of Mysore in which he examines genealogical texts and devotional traditions of Woḍeyar kings of Mysore.

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The Origins of the Juggernaut

This post originally appeared on the OUP blog.

by Michael J. Altman

People deploy the word juggernaut to describe anyone or anything that seems unstoppable, powerful, dominant. The Golden State Warriors, the recent National Basketball Association champions, are a juggernaut. National Economic Council director Gary Cohn is a “policymaking juggernaut.” Online retailer Amazon is also a juggernaut. Tennis player Roger Federer is a juggernaut at Wimbledon. In Marvel Comics there is a supervillain named Juggernaut that possesses seemingly infinite strength and invincibility. The word, with its double hard g’s in the middle and the same final syllable as “astronaut,” is fun to say and connotes an individual bigger than our world. This makes sense because the word “juggernaut” is the product of the collision between two forces, an encounter between two worlds: the English-speaking West and India.

“Juggernaut” is the Anglicized name for the Hindu god Jagannath, the “Lord of the Universe.” Jagannath, a form of the god Vishnu, presides over a massive temple in Puri, India alongside his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra. The most famous ritual at the Puri temple is the Rath Yatra. During the Rath Yatra the wooden forms of the gods are ceremonially placed on large towering carts, or chariots, and pulled through the streets of Puri by devotees. “Juggernaut” entered the English language in the early nineteenth century as colonial Britons in India encountered Jagannath and his chariot and tried to make sense of what they were seeing.

Rev. Claudius Buchanan was the first British official to popularize “the Juggernaut” in both Britain and the United States in the early 1800s. Buchanan was an Anglican chaplain stationed in India and a staunch supporter of Christian missions to India. As might be expected from a missionary during the period, Buchanan’s took a negative view of Juggernaut. In his letters sent back home from India, Buchanan presented Juggernaut as a dangerous, violent, and bloody religious cult. These letters were reprinted throughout Christian missionary magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. Then, in 1811, Buchanan published Christian Researches in Asia, his broad examination of the religious state of India and its need, as he saw it, for Christian missions. In Christian Researches Buchanan described devotees throwing themselves under the wheels of Juggernaut’s chariots. He used a biblical reference to the Old Testament’s description of the heathen god Moloch (to whom people sacrificed their children) to explain Juggernaut to his Christian audience:

“The idol called Juggernaut has been considered as the Moloch of the present age; and he is justly so named, for the sacrifices offered up to him by self-devotement are not less criminal, perhaps not less numerous, than those recorded of the Moloch of Cannan.”

Engraving of Rath Yatra chariot from “Juggernaut,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, July 1878. Courtesy of Cornell University Library, Making of America Digital Collection. Used with permission.

Elsewhere in the book he claimed that Juggernaut “is said to smile when the libation of blood is made.” For Buchanan, Juggernaut represented everything that was wrong with religion in India that Christianity could solve. Juggernaut, to him, was a symbol of violence, bloodshed, death, and “idolatry.”

Buchanan’s description of Juggernaut became quite popular. Christian Researches in Asia was reprinted in numerous editions in America and Britain. The descriptions of Juggernaut were also excerpted in nearly every missionary magazine in the country. So, when the first American missionaries were sent to India from New England in 1812, it is no surprise that they sent back their own descriptions of Juggernaut to be published in America missionary magazines that continued to represent the god as violent and idolatrous. This image of Juggernaut was so well-known in Protestant missionary circles that one missionary magazine from 1813 even used Juggernaut as a metaphor for the vice of alcohol. Like Juggernaut, the article argued, alcohol has “shrines on the banks of almost every brook” and “four thousand self-devoted human victims, immolated every year upon its altars.” Thus, “juggernaut” started to become a term for any violent or dangerous force.

Over the next decades, as Americans learned more about India and Hindu religions, the meaning of “Juggernaut” began to split between its general use as a powerful dangerous force and its more specific reference to the Hindu god at Puri. For example, an article in Harper’s in 1878 titled “Juggernaut” quickly informed readers that “Juggernaut” was really named “Jagannath” and then proceeded to give the history of the temple at Puri. The article included a number of engravings depicting the floorplan of the temple, Jagannath’s chariot, and the forms of the god. Unlike the earlier missionary representations, the article in Harper’s sought to inform readers about the history of Jagannath and explain what devotees did and why they did it.

“Juggernaut” continued to be used as a reference to Jagannath, but its meaning was increasingly separated from any reference to the Hindu god. Use of the proper “Juggernaut” peaked in the early nineteenth century, while the use of the lowercase “juggernaut” slowly grew from the end of the nineteenth century to the present. By the 1930s, an anti-communist book labeled communism “the red juggernaut.” In 1963, The Juggernaut made his first appearance as a villain in Marvel’s X-Mencomics. Juggernaut no longer had anything to do with the temple in India, but it still represented power, violence, death, and danger.

The two hundred year history of American use of “juggernaut” teaches an important lesson. From the beginning, “Juggernaut” and “Jagannath” were not the same thing. The process of Anglicization and translation that Buchanan and others engaged in meant that “Juggernaut” was a product of the British and American imagination. To say that Christian missionaries “misrepresented” or “misunderstood” Jagannath would be putting it too softly. They imagined Juggernaut as a foil, an Other, against which they could advocate for Christian missions. The missionary image of Juggernaut in the 1800s tells us more about the fears and values of Protestant missionaries than it does anything about people in India. As “Juggernaut” spread beyond missionary magazines and became the lower case “juggernaut,” the Christian missionary image of an “idol” on a chariot rolling through the Indian streets dropped away, but the sense of a giant, powerful, violent unstoppable force moving ahead endured. For two hundred years, juggernauts have rolled on in American imaginations.

Featured image credit: Medieval era abstract iconography of Jagannath on towels and clothing in India by Steve Browne & John Verkleir. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Michael J. Altman is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama and author of Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu: American Representations of India, 1721-1893.

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Theses on Professionalization Series: Shannon Trosper Schorey

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by Shannon Trosper Schorey

In this new feature 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 previous posts in this series, see here

Thesis 3. Pursuing a Ph.D. purely for the “love of learning” is one among many legitimate reasons for graduate studies. Pursuing such studies for both intellectual stimulation and eventual employment requires candidates to be as intentional as possible about opportunities to increase their competitiveness on the job market.

Many who pursue a Ph.D. do so because they genuinely love their field of inquiry. Their passion and curiosity for their chosen subject is often offered as the explanatory device by which they endure years of long research and teaching hours, an extended period of meager pay and low (or no) benefits, family planning complicated by a variety of professional taboos and lack of resources, and the stress of an ultra competitive and unpredictable job market. As the adjuncting crisis seemingly looms larger than ever, more grads are accepting contingent positions to make ends meet as they struggle to land a tenure track position.

I read Thesis #3 to be a call away from this standard narrative of the relationship between graduate studies and the job market. While “love of learning” is a popular and widely accepted reason to pursue graduate studies, this phrasing often delimits our imagination of what “success” looks like after the Ph.D. With no guarantee for the higher education equivalent of the “American dream,” Thesis # 3 asks grads to be more reflective and self-directed in both their training and imagination of what may constitute the “job market.” While this may mean adopting a wide variety of strategies as one completes their training, I offer three reflections here:

Firstly, graduate departments would be well served by offering platforms (whether in the form of lectures, open table discussions, job fairs, conferences, etc.) for graduate students to engage a wider variety of career options and training for jobs outside of the academy. Most immediately this might mean paying attention to job opportunities that emphasize research, writing, and teaching skills more broadly. Some junior scholars have successfully made the transition from the academy to freelance journalism where their academic training has made them stand out as thinkers and writers capable of nuanced and provocative stories while also giving them a chance to reach audiences much wider than that of the average article or academic press monograph. While this is just one example of a non-academic career path, it does highlight that many of the things that graduate students find most compelling about the academy (e.g. “love of learning”) can be successfully found outside of the academy too.

Secondly, for grads to “be as intentional as possible about opportunities” they should weigh carefully the marketability of their chosen research areas with the very real political mechanisms by which the academy reproduces itself. The job market reflects contemporary trends of intellectual inquiry as much as it annually re-affirms the deep patterns of the field’s self-identification. Key terms serving at the heart of the field – ritual, text, world religions, etc. – are the most marketable because they are the most easily recognizable. Such terms are able to retain their social capital despite the important work deconstructing these categories precisely because they immediately orient one’s research into a wider pattern of comparative data and allow the “importance” of one’s research to be readily recognizable to university administration and students. It is a shorthand that attempts to collapse intellectual inquiry into niches that can be worked to identify what sort of scholar a department should hire. But over-reliance on keywords stresses the content of a person’s research – Hinduism, early Christianity, religion and science – over other sorts of criteria, thereby privileging certain and pervasive implicit assumptions about what kinds of content seem to essentially matter in the study of religion.

In practice this sort of shorthand makes sense, but grads must be willing to think critically about their own positionality and participation in the construction of our field’s peripheries and centers. I offer as an example the study of new religious movements – a subfield that, not long ago, was reserved for “playful” intellectual inquiry post-tenure. The implication was that these movements were neither serious nor important subjects of research, despite any potential methodological or theoretical framing. When, as an M.A. student, I announced that this was one of my chosen research areas I was strongly encouraged to work on classical texts or more readily identifiably “important” subjects instead so that I might land a position in a doctoral program and then a job. I am happy with my own decision to ignore this advice – a decision fueled by the important conversations about the canon of Religious Studies and its attendant colonial, political, and historical consequences (King, Masuzawa, McCutcheon, Styers, etc.). Yet at the same time I recognize that as a scholar I also have a duty to make my research relatable and part of a broader conversation that moves our field and re-makes it.

This leads me to my final reflection: “intentionality” here should be as much about the ways in which grads are able to translate their own professional identities as researchers, thinkers, and teachers as it should be about what kinds of opportunities and skill sets grads establish as they keep an eye on the job market(s). Grads should work closely with trusted advisors – both junior and senior – about how best to negotiate their interests with the contemporary job market. Grads should also recognize the enormous skill set that accompanies the completion of a Ph.D. What seems to be missing is not translatable skills but training and attention to how best wield that skill set in non-academic positions (this seems to me to also be part of our field’s struggle to identify what we offer undergraduate students as well). Unfortunately for many grads the work of finding alternative career paths is placed on them alone.

Shannon Trosper Schorey is a doctoral student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She studies the historical and cultural contexts in which information technologies and discourses of religion and religious rights have co-developed in the United States.

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