Highlighting NAASR Research! A Call for Submissions

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As a publication affiliated with the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR), and published by Equinox, the Bulletin for the Study of Religion wants to highlight recent and forthcoming publications by NAASR members, especially books and articles that engage theoretical and methodological insights into the academic study of religion. Although a small academic association, NAASR has long had an aggressive publishing program—including, of course the Bulletin, Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, and the “Key Thinkers” book series–, but NAASR is also comprised of a number of dynamic scholars who are restless in their attempts to shape and direct the academic study of religion, specifically attempts to increase the critical or theoretical study of religion. Through textbooks, monographs, edited books, or scholarly articles (along with online contributions), our members have promoted not just the study of religion but, more importantly, the critical study of religion.

The Bulletin, both in print and through our blog presence, wishes to highlight many of those works and, therefore, we encourage members to contact us with recent publications. We are hoping to not only publish review essays (we have one in the works for Theory in a Time of Excess, a collection arising from the 2015 NAASR annual meeting) and summary presentations (ideally for the blog), but also critical engagements with NAASR member publications. We want to keep the conversation going in the pages of the Bulletin, to challenge and debate, to extend and refine, and to add and correct scholarly positions being advocated.

Please contact the editor, Philip Tite (philip.tite@mail.mcgill.ca or titep@uw.edu), if you would like the Bulletin to highlight your work!

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Teaching Theory in the Introductory Classroom

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This is part of an ongoing series of posts in a collaborative effort between the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy and the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blogs. On November 23, 2014, approximately 20 scholars of religion, from grad students to more seasoned professors, participated in a NAASR workshop in San Diego, CA on the question of how to introduce theory in an introductory religious studies class. Participants were divided into three groups addressing: 1) who/which theorists to include; 2) what data should be included, and; 3) where should theory come into play (e.g., at the start, middle, or end?). What follows are reflections from two of the participants. For previous posts, see here and here.

Matthew King: I don’t think a method and theory 101 course should claim to help students think more deeply about religion. By design, as we all know, such a course de-naturalizes the category of religion and turns instead to working with its histories, its locations, and power-laden functions. Our 101 course about method and theory in religious studies actually deals with histories of colonial encounter, imperialism, and the like. Those same moments of encounter, those same moments that birthed new lexicons of human difference amongst Western Europeans are the very moments that birthed our own academic inquiries into the topic (like history and anthropology). So, 101 classrooms, 101 students and the university itself are implicated already in the power-laden histories of thinking (or ‘knowing’) human difference; of which ‘religion’ is just one organizing concept alongside ‘culture’. What remains is a category unbound and a group of students already implicated.

I think that the method and theory 101 course should actually proceed from this point. Our students must be encouraged to consider the implications of typologies of difference and be encouraged to speak back …. It’s useful to go through the process using religion as an example. To that end, I prefer students read a group of founding figures (usually Taylor & Frazer, Weber, Durkheim, Freud, James, Marx & Engels, Mauss) and then more contemporary critics (the feminist critique, the ecological critique, the post-colonial critique, etc.). Student reading and lectures thus focus on so many ‘conversations’ (open to student rejoinders) rather than a ‘canon’ (closed to such rejoinders).

For those reasons, for the sake of garnering some excitement (and not stepping back from some strategic hyperbole) I usually suggest at the start of my 101 courses that the study of religion is not a discipline but a critical field of inquiry. Thinking about how we think about religion (and human difference more broadly) is political, as others on this list know well. I prefer my lower division students to leave my courses seeing theory as the way they organize their own thinking about such difference. To that end, our workshop conversations on scaffolding, and on limiting the field of theory we introduce in the interest of depth, has been immensely helpful.

One question remains for me after our dialogue (one which could bring us all into conversation once again?): How to keep any continuity between method and theory 101 and the other sorts of introductory courses we teach. How do we avoid leaving critical reflections on method and theory in a silo? In other words, how can we even evoke those same driving questions when we turn next semester (with some of the same students) to an Introduction to Buddhism, and struggle to do anything other than reify one other blueprint of religious difference?

Lauren Horn Griffin: In addition to being more thoughtful about the choices I make in critiquing various theories, one idea that emerged for me during our workshop concerns course (and even department) structure. Group One discussed a few textbooks, pointing out the benefits and drawbacks of each. The workshop-wide discussion continued to critique the theorists themselves as well as the presentations of those theorists in the textbooks. Of course, in a class like this whose entire driving question is “what is religion?” there is going to be a breakdown between primary and secondary sources, as each text becomes our “data.” But I began to wonder, is there a constructive element here, or is our work in a course like this necessarily and solely deconstructive?

Like many of us, I structured my theory and methods class around problematizing the definition of religion, starting with the question “what is religion?” and continuing throughout the course to help students expose these categories as artificially constructed. As we encounter and disrupt various theories, students see that any definition is socially constructed, restrictive, and possibly harmful. Also, considering explicitly the “methods” side of the course, I promoted the idea that we would use religion as an angle of vision from which to explore the types of questions asked by disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. So the course could also give students a taste of those disciplines as well as an introduction to the ways in which people have thought about and approached religion. This helps students see that certain approaches, questions, and sources make certain answers possible, thus creating their own objects of study. Since the group was pretty unanimous in deciding that it doesn’t matter what theorist or method we include as long as we are constantly disrupting them and exposing the ways in which they construct the category, perhaps the main takeaway here is to be more aware about which scholars we are choosing as “disrupters” and how we/they choose to disrupt. I realized in new ways after our discussion that our choices are powerful, and I need to be more purposeful with those choices and more explicit in my defense of those choices.

But as I thought about the discussions during our workshop, I also kept returning to the question of course structure. Do we continue to cover various theories and methods and then expose the problems created by them, or should we structure our classes completely differently? Are we in danger of reinforcing the ideas we are trying to disrupt by keeping this structure and using their vocabulary? Should a “theory and methods” course even be offered as a stand-alone course, since all courses necessarily involve both theory and content? Furthermore, should we be restructuring our course offerings and departments so that our job is not always to disrupt and critique the structure of our own courses and departments, or is this as it should be?

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Enabling Constraints: A Symposium on the Demands of Frameworks and Data in the Study of Religion

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April 27-28, 2017

With Keynote Addresses from:

Dr. Winnifred Sullivan, Indiana University Bloomington

Dr. John W. Marshall, University of Toronto

The study of religion operates in a tension between the demands of its frameworks and the demands of its data. Scholars of religion construct their object of study within the bounds of inherited disciplinary and methodological frameworks, while the distinct contours of data — experienced in the field or the archive — shape our contributions to the discipline. The successful integration of framework and data reveals essential elements and critical questions about our object of study. But it also hides curiosities in our data, and potential alternative inquiries.

In 2017, the Graduate Students’ Association at the University of Toronto’s Department for the Study of Religion is dedicating its annual Symposium to the centrality of this tension to the practice of the study of religion. As enabling constraints, frameworks (historical, sociological, philosophical, anthropological, legal, affectual, environmental, etc.) are the grounds for both creativity and examination. The Symposium invites participants to examine the advantages of these bounded frames and archives, to experiment with categorical deviance, and to explore the constructive possibilities of interdisciplinary practice and vocabulary. Enabling Constraints will be an opportunity for graduate students to present such examination, experiments, and explorations specific to their work. This conference will encourage reflection and reflexivity about what it is to study religion, and how we do it. Accepted proposals will demonstrate conscious engagement with these meta-discussions.

The topics Enabling Constraints strives to discuss include, but are not limited to:

  • Ethnographic data resisting determination of a framework
  • Archives that challenge standard modes of categorization
  • Applied theory gone awry
  • Constitutive vocabulary or methodology that works across disciplines
  • Reflection on the boundaries of practice
  • Frameworks implicated in the construction of data
  • Data implicated in the construction of frameworks
  • Theoretical or methodological interventions
  • Interrogation of central topics of concern
  • Excavation of marginal topics of concern

Please submit abstracts of no more than 300 words by Monday January, 30 to 2017symposium@gmail.com

Annual Graduate Student Symposium

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CFP: Bulletin for the Study of Religion

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As one of NAASR’s journals, the editors of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion wish to extend a warm invitation to NAASR members to contribute articles, review essays, interviews, response articles, and announcements.

The Bulletin is the premiere non-refereed journal in the academic study of religion, publishing articles addressing method & theory in the study of religion, history of the discipline, pedagogical reflections, and accessible research arising from various area studies. The Bulletin has a long history of engaging and challenging both theoretical and professional trends in the study of religion.

Articles range in length from 3000 to 7000 words. Both standalone pieces and panels of papers are welcome. Guidelines are available online here. Please address any queries to the editor, Philip L. Tite (philip.tite@mail.mcgill.ca or titep@uw.edu), or the managing editor Arlene Macdonald (almacdon@utmb.edu).

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“All of the evil that he represents for me…”

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by Russell McCutcheon

Seeing cheering crowds in Miami celebrating Fidel Castro’s death, made me think a little about our disdain when there were rumors of people cheering after the twin towers collapsed (Trump routinely cited this early in his campaign); when is death — or better, whose death — worth cheering, I wondered?

But as the morning wore on and more news came out, my attention shifted to an issue that has long preoccupied me: our authority as scholars.

In fact, it’s a topic I spoke on last weekend, at our field’s main national conference, as part of a panel commenting on this year’s conference theme: revolutionary love. It struck me as entirely inappropriate for scholars of religion (but for liberal theologians, sure, why not?) for a variety of reasons, one of which was the problem of assuming that just because we study religion we therefore have something relevant to say about social issues, i.e., the ability to diagnose ills and provide remedies. For that’s what the panel was on: whether love was an effective political force.

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My argument was that only if we misplace authority would we assume that scholars of religion have something to say on this topic. But if you assume religion is a deeply meaningful, trans-human kernel, then it makes sense why you’d assume that scholars of religion are a relevant source of input on these questions.

I thought of all this again, while listening to the radio this morning, as stories on Castro were broadcast. It was an interview with a History and Religious Studies professor at Yale that I have in mind, in which the “evil that he [Castro] represents” was discussed by someone who was forced to flee Cuba as a boy.

Give it a listen.

As I heard his institutional home cited at the story’s close I wondered to myself which hat he was wearing during the interview and if others even think it relevant to swap hats, all depending on the context and the conversation.

For on the panel I made that argument — while as a citizen, for example, I may have strong views on how society ought to be shaped, but inasmuch as I am a scholar of religion my role in these conversations is rather different — but was informed in reply by another panelist that not everyone has that luxury, of compartmentalizing their life as I had suggested. In the case of the radio story, the guest is clearly speaking as a participant in this history of dis- and re-location, but then the institutional designation arrives and I begin to wonder what to make of, for instance, his use of the discourse on evil. For I see it as a rhetorical term, of as little analytic use as the category love, and thus a term to be studied — who uses it, when, and to what effect — and not a go-to nomenclature to help me talk about the world in ways that elucidate it. But here, I heard the discourse on evil used not as I would, as a scholar, but as someone I might study would use the term.

Was I listening to a colleague or a participant, what anthropologists some time ago called informants? Why identify the institutional location of the person and, instead, simply name the book he’s written on the topic of the interview? Isn’t the latter sufficient?

Simply put, which credential is relevant when and for what reason?

It’s a minor thing, perhaps, but my sense is that the legitimacy of an actor is linked to little identifications like that, like a Victorian letter of introduction that paves one’s way into new social circles. As scholars, we likely play on the authority lent by that diploma hanging on our walls in surprising ways — surprising because our credentials to study, say, the Reformation, can easily make us seem relevant to comment on virtually anything.

So are there limits to our relevance, as scholars of religion, or are we omnirelevant, inasmuch as we study religion? How you answer that might tell us much about the theory of religion with which you operate.

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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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Revolutionary Love, and the Colonization of a Critical Voice: An Outsider’s Reflections

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by Laura Levitt

I attended a recent plenary session at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) national meeting in San Antonio where I heard Michelle Alexander, the 2016 recipient of the Heinz Award for Public Policy, civil rights attorney and professor of law talk about her astonishing work, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010). In this session, she revealed the full extent of what she has named “the New Jim Crow,” the radical degradation of people of color, of especially Black men in the criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex that institutionalized these enactments and perpetuates them. She spoke eloquently about how she came to this work telling a number of powerful, piercing stories. These were stories of just a few of the myriad of young Black men who have been brutalized by this system.

The session was billed as part of the AAR president’s vision for the conference. This session was a part of something she called “Revolutionary Love.” This theme was, from the start, a decidedly Christian vision of social justice. It was proclaimed by the president, the president of not only this scholarly organization (the AAR) but also, at the same time, the president of Union Seminary, a progressive Christian bastion. Although, as a scholar of Jewish studies, I was a bit unnerved by this enactment of a Christian social justice ministry at the AAR this year, I chose not to publicly challenge this vision. I gave this president and the AAR the benefit of my doubt.

When I arrived at the conference I was eager to hear Michelle Alexander, and I entered this session without prior knowledge of Alexander’s new position as a visiting professor at Union Seminary nor her identification as a progressive Christian. I knew none of this prior to this session.

As I entered the darkened room, a vast ballroom, I joined hundreds of my colleagues for this brief session, just an hour. The podium stood high above the audience. There was a huge screen off to one side projecting close ups of the speakers. On the other side of the stage behind a large draped dais was the president, a petite blonde woman. On the other side of the dais were Michelle Alexander and Kelly Brown Douglas. Brown Douglas is a professor of religion at Goucher College and Canon Theologian at the National Cathedral. I was not aware of Brown Douglas’s work before this session or the book that brought her to this stage, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Orbis Press, 2015). Little did I know what her presence and that of the president of Union Seminary and the AAR would mean for the conversation that ensued.

Perhaps I was naive. In retrospect, that seems quite likely. I should have known this would become a Christian theological conversation. As the president/presider made clear, the format of the session would be a dialogue between these two formidable Black women, a dialogue focused primarily on Alexander and her extraordinary work.

For much of the hour-long conversation, Alexander told the story behind her book The New Jim Crow. She spoke of the people and events that led to her radical position on the need for revolutionary change in our criminal justice system. I want to be quite clear about this. I was deeply moved by every moment of this portion of the session.

And then the conversation took, what was for me, an unexpected turn. All of a sudden the revolutionary who had sung the praises of the Black Panthers, shifted gears. The revolution became spiritual, and, more specifically, a proclamation of the power of “the Church,” of Jesus’s suffering on the cross, on the brother/sisterhood of humanity, all of us “children of God.” This was a decidedly Christian universal message. Just as Alexander proclaimed the bankruptcy of American democracy she proclaimed the revolutionary power of the Church. I could not help but hear a call to crusade, a sacred revolution in the name of Jesus Christ and I was no longer a part of this story. The discourse had shifted, profoundly. I was in a different universe.

My scholarly organization has become an arm of Union Seminary. As that institution had brought Alexander into its embrace making her revolutionary message a part of its Christian repertoire, so too the AAR was becoming a part of this grand Protestant narrative. All of a sudden I was witnessing the conflation of so many stories into something called “the Church.” That act felt to me like a repetition, another instantiation of the appropriation of a radical, a revolutionary political voice in America into a progressive Protestant Christian vision. And with her, in this iteration, the whole AAR seemed to follow suit.

If this is radical love, I want no part. Here in the words of this most compelling social critic, I no longer felt welcome. The universal proclamation of this session and its revolutionary love had no place for Jews or Muslims, for Hindus or Buddhists, and certainly not for the many atheists and agnostics of any and all stripes who are part of this scholarly organization. In our bounded differences from these well-meaning and progressive Christians, we were, it seems no longer welcome.

What troubled me most was that there was not an inkling of recognition of what it might have possibly meant to so many of us in that room to hear that “the Church” is the revolutionary answer. There was no sense that, in fact, “the Church” in some of its other guises had galvanized support for a very different vision of America as a Christian nation, perhaps a different kind of revolutionary love. But either way, Christian hegemony reigns supreme. Recent public discourse has brought us one vision of a Christian nation while the AAR president and her seminary faculty brought us another. In both cases, albeit differently, Christianity is triumphant and those of us who insist on our difference from that universal vision have no place.

Laura S. Levitt is a Professor of Religion, Jewish Studies and Gender at Temple University where she has chaired the department of Religion and served as director of both the Women’s Studies and the Jewish Studies Programs. She is the author of American Jewish Loss after the Holocaust (2007) and Jews and Feminism: The Ambivalent Search for Home (1997). She is an editor of Judaism Since Gender (1997) and Impossible Images: Contemporary Art after the Holocaust (2003). Her current project, “Evidence as Archive” builds on her prior work in feminist theory and Holocaust studies to ask what material evidence held in police storage can teach us about the role of all those other objects collected in the Holocaust museums, libraries, and archives. This project is a meditation on what it means to do justice to traumatic legacies through an engagement with such objects.

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