Field Note: AAR -SBL Annual Meeting a Reception for the Journal of Religion and Violence.

Academic Publishing and the AAR Groups on Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence, Cultural History in the Study of Religion and Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion are proud to sponsor a reception for the Journal of Religion and Violence.
Meet the editors Margo Kitts and Michael Jerryson, the editorial board of the Journal of Religion and Violence and the committees for CARV, CTDR and CHSR.  Join us for Desserts, Wine and Gourmet Coffee.
Posted in Announcements, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Theses on Professionalization: Sarah Kleeb


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

by Sarah Lynn Kleeb

Thesis # 19Although it can be intellectually stimulating, developing new courses is time consuming. Depending on the needs of their Department, teaching multiple sections of the same course provides early career professors with fewer course preparations, helps them to quickly establish their area of expertise in the curriculum and among students, and allows them to gain teaching competencies far quicker, thereby enabling them to devote more time to their research and writing.

In the 19th Thesis on Professionalization, McCutcheon reminds us of the often substantial weight that comes with developing new courses term after term, and encourages teaching multiple sections of one course, in order to refine teaching skills while still leaving time for one’s own research and writing. Developing new courses is indeed time consuming, and doing so can potentially feel overwhelming, depending on how many courses one is developing at the same time; each course can easily become a substantial research project in and of itself. These multiple sections, however, are entirely dependent “on the needs of [the] Department,” and there, I fear, is the proverbial rub. Are multiple sections of religion courses even a thing anymore? Because I, for one, am not seeing much evidence of that. Only the obligatory 1st year “World Religions” course at my university had multiple sections – and by “multiple”, I mean two: one day section and one evening section, with one of these generally taught by regular faculty, the other by a sessional lecturer.

I can only speak from experience (having just defended in August), but perhaps my perplexity is due to the idiosyncrasies of my former home department, where ABD students are rarely hired to teach the same course twice (in the admittedly admirable interest of giving as many opportunities for development to as many students as possible). In such an environment, I never found myself in the position to teach multiple sections of a religion course, and only once was I able to teach the same course twice. Even then, it was at a year’s remove – it was our “Study of Religion” course (a method and theory primer for undergrads), for which they had trouble recruiting an instructor during a summer term. I’d taught the course the previous summer. That said, upon attaining a permanent position, or even a “stable” adjunct position (an oxymoron, perhaps), it may be possible to teach the same course within or across different terms, but it’s also worth considering how much time is actually saved in doing so.

First, though, some background: while I only had the opportunity to teach one of my religion courses twice, I also spent the last few years of my doctoral work teaching a general humanities course. It was an introductory survey course that functioned as an academic writing “boot camp” for 1st year students. This was a course that I just kind of fell into, and I was in the fortunate position of being hired to teach this course for multiple terms, over multiple years. In this role, I was able to teach two sections per year (one in the fall and one in the winter, on a semester model), but never multiple sections in the same term. While this meant that I didn’t have to build from the ground up every term, it also never saved as much time as I thought it would.

In my experience, very few courses can be run verbatim multiple times. Perhaps that is the case if one is teaching multiple sections during the same term, but, again, if anyone sees that actually happening with great frequency, please let me know. Even my twice-taught “Study of Religion” course underwent significant changes from one year to the next, despite the subject matter being essentially the same. Every course I teach is as much a learning experience for myself as it is for my students, and there are many reasons to tweak courses from term to term, year to year. Some ideas, approaches, or theories that I think will be really engaging for students end up flopping, and I’m often surprised by students’ enthusiasm regarding concepts that I fear will be too weighty or abstract for them. Each time either of those things happen, a revision is necessary. Of course, that’s not even taking into account the need to keep current with the scholarship I bring into the classroom, nor the need to re-work and re-structure readings and assignments each term to help curb plagiarism, particularly with the increasing access students have to purchasing work submitted in previous terms. None of this is to suggest that lectures, readings, and general content can never be recycled. When this is possible, it is undoubtedly a time-saver. But a one-size-fits-all approach to courses taught across multiple terms or years isn’t necessarily realistic. The recycling I’ve done has always been partial, at best.

While assembling the academic content of courses and lectures admittedly takes the most time, we shouldn’t disregard how much time is gobbled up by the basic ins and outs of course development: establishing course timelines, late policies, general assignment structures, methods of evaluation, and grading rubrics; creating generic and reusable blurbs regarding academic integrity, accessibility, lecture notes policies, and useful campus resources; constructing explanations of intended learning outcomes and general expectations for students in our courses, etc. While content may need to shift somewhat (or, sometimes, considerably) from term to term, these little things are often relative constants, and, particularly as early career scholars, developing a firm understanding these fundamentals of putting a course together will likely save time in the long run. These are foundations that are generally reusable, regardless of the content or approach of a course.

As such, I’d recommend honing general and widely-applicable course construction skills and refining your pedagogical approach, particularly while in the final years of graduate school or the first couple of years after graduation. Consider creating “stock” syllabi for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th year courses – general frameworks with clear parameters that take into consideration the needs of these different groups of students (i.e., 1st year students will generally need more specific direction than 3rd or 4th year students), into which specific readings and topics can be inserted later. Take advantage of pedagogical development and instructional skills workshops on campus to learn “best practices” for such things. While the content of courses tends to be our primary focus – that, after all, is what gets our juices flowing and excitement levels elevated – having a consistent, comprehensive, and transparent set of policies in place will not only save you time, it will improve the learning environment for your students.

I would also recommend familiarizing yourself with the resources available to undergraduate students (e.g., writing centers, language resources, research librarians, etc.), and doing so as early as possible. Solidifying relationships with such departments can help take the pressure off some of the more tedious, but still time consuming, aspects of running a course. Resources available through campus writing centers, for example, can help keep us from feeling like we have to “reinvent the wheel” each term, as we assign our students essays and other writing assignments. Librarians are often happy to hold research skill development clinics for undergrads, allowing us to devote our attention to course content, rather than telling students over and over again what a “peer reviewed” source is, and why it matters. I always encourage students to take full advantage of all the campus resources available to them (and for which they’re paying, via their tuition, whether or not they use them), but am often surprised at how little we instructors and professors ourselves are encouraged to make use of these same resources in our classes, aside from simply telling students that they exist. While the applicability of such things may depend on the kinds of work you plan to assign in your courses, when they are relevant, they are invaluable, and they absolutely free up time that can be used in other ways. All those little emails about acceptable sources and essay formatting really add up, especially if you have hundreds of students per term, all with the same sets of questions.

So, while McCutcheon’s advice here isn’t necessarily unsound, the ideal and reality don’t always match up quite so tidily, in my experience. Recycled courses don’t require the same time commitment as newly-developed courses, but they still often require significant reworking (again, unless the “multiple sections” fall in the same term, which seems an increasingly distant possibility). Taking time early on to develop expertise in the fundamentals of course construction benefits your students by your knowledge of pedagogical best practices, it benefits campus programs by encouraging students to utilize them, and it benefits scholars by making course development second nature, which opens up time that can be used for research and writing.

Moreover, in an academic world that relies heavily on adjuncts and sessional lecturers, and in a context in which humanities disciplines face ever more cutbacks, McCutcheon’s advice might not be as widely applicable as it once was. As more scholars end up taking on sessional or adjunct positions in which they are at the mercy of the market, the hope of reducing one’s workload by teaching multiple sections of a course may not be realistic. As pessimistic or defeatist as this may sound, to fill and maintain the kinds of positions increasingly available to many scholars, we may just have to do more for less.

Sarah Lynn Kleeb received her PhD in August 2015, and is an on-the-market scholar currently teaching courses in humanities, academic writing, and religion and media at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus. Sarah’s doctoral thesis, Gustavo Gutiérrez’s Notion of “Liberation” and the Legacy of Marx’s “Ruthless Criticism”, critically examines connections between religious belief and (social, political, economic) dissent, particularly as manifest in Gustavo Gutiérrez’s liberation theology. Current research interests include the rise of Pope Francis, who frequently uses liberationist language and economic critique in interviews and encyclicals, yet who has long distanced himself from liberation theology.

Posted in Pedagogy, Theses on Professionalization, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Field Note: Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion #CTDR15 November 20-24, 2014, Atlanta, GA, AAR


Statement of Purpose: This Group seeks to provide a forum in which scholars of religion from a wide range of disciplines can examine and question their disciplinary presuppositions. The work of this Group can be placed under three main rubrics:

Critical investigation of the categories generated and employed by the discourses on religion, such as experience, the sacred, ritual, and the various ‘isms’ that can be found in classic and contemporary studies of religion. Analysis of new and neglected theorists and works central to the critical study of religion, including those produced in cognate fields such as anthropology, political science, or literary theory. Theoretically informed examination of elided and often neglected themes in religious studies, including class, race, gender, violence, legitimation, and the material basis of religion.

The roster for CTDR’s sessions with abstracts is available as a PDF.

SORAAAD Canon & the Analytical Study of Religion   Program PDF

Friday 12:20-5:45 pm                        

Georgia State University – Location disclosed to those registered

SORAAAD wants to thank the University of Regina Religious Studies Department for sponsoring the workshop, pre-workshop refreshments, and the workshop break.

To register, place “Register” in the subject line of an email addressed to

A21-323 The Medicalization of Religion: Bodies and Brains as Loci of Control

Saturday – 4:00 PM-6:30 PM

Marriott-International 6 (International Level)

Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group and the Cultural History of the Study of Religion Group

A22-113 Empire and the Raw Materials of Religious Concern

Sunday – 9:00 AM-11:30 AM

Hilton-Grand Salon E (Level 2)

Religion and Politics Section and Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group and Cultural History of the Study of Religion Group and Religion, Colonialism, and Postcolonialism Group

A22-221 Class, Cohort, and Aesthetics in the Study of Religion

Sunday – 1:00 PM-2:30 PM

Marriott-L508 (Lobby Level)

Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group

A23-207 Sex, Ascesis, and Historiography

Monday – 1:00 PM-3:30 PM

Hilton-401-402 (Level 4)

Critical Theories and Discourses on Religion Group, Cultural History of the Study of Religion Group and Sociology of Religion Group, or STAR (Social Theory and Religion Cluster)

A23-321 Critical Perspectives on the Cognitive Science of Religion

Monday – 4:00 PM-6:30 PM

Hilton-401-402 (Level 4)

Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Group and Cultural History of the Study of Religion Group

For those live tweeting the Annual Meeting, use #CTDR15

CTDR will post session announcements or updates from @SORAAADworkshop

Posted in Announcements | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Violence, Religion, and the Death of René Girard

By Philip L. Tite

On November 4, 2015 the renowned literary theorist, René Girard (Stanford University) passed away at the age of 91. In an online announcement on the Stanford News, Cynthia Haven offers a comprehensive and glowing overview of the life and work of this seminal thinker of the 20th century. Girard is referred to as “the new Darwin of the human sciences” – though, I must add, a very controversial “Darwin” for those of us who study myth, violence, and religion.

Girard 1Cynthia Haven on Girard

As Haven correctly observes, or at least hints at, Girard’s work did not go uncontested. Indeed, since my own introduction to Girard’s work back in the 1990s, I have noticed that Girard’s theories tend to evoke either admiration to the point of near hagiographic devotion or disdainful dismissal by those repulsed by not only his grand theory on scapegoating and mimetic violence, but also the various subtexts of his thinking. Rarely have I found scholars or students who react to Girard without falling into one of those dichotomies. Scholars are either Girardians or anti-Girardians. There is little room for neutrality in the academy, at least with such a provocative thinker.

Girard is well known for his theory of mimetic desire leading to the scapegoating mechanism to defer the rivalry that causes social disintegration. The scapegoat, due to the social harmony evoked by the death or exile of the scapegoat, is transformed into a hero or god figure. However, the cycle continues to arise, resulting in further scapegoating – via sacrificial systems – until, so Girard argues, Jesus Christ appears and dies as an innocent victim. Christ’s death, therefore, breaks the cycle by revealing the scapegoating process. For Girard, Judaism almost got it right, but missed the mark, while Islam – despite its monotheistic foundation and chronologically following Christianity, is a problem in that it fails to recognize the importance and function of Christ’s death. Christianity, according to Girard, is the answer for the world’s problems today.

When I teach my Theorizing Religion and Violence course, I include a section on Girard, specifically while dealing with myth-ritualism and violence (we also deal with Frazer and Raglan among others). My goal is not to impose Girardian theory on my students, but rather to expose them to an important thinker who has had – and likely will continue to have – a profound impact on the academic study of religion and violence. Often presentations of Girard’s theory are highly inaccessible to the undergraduate student (and rarely do we have enough time in a general course on religion and violence to thoroughly read through his major works, such as, especially, Violence and the Sacred). So what I’ve done is to have my students watch an interview where Girard’s presents his own views on his theory:

Girard 2Interview with Girard

We use this video along with supplemental readings as our “data” to analyze. Our discussion afterwards often evokes from students surprise at much of Girard’s thought. I’m not sure how much of my own view – as a non-Girardian – influences my students (I do try to present various positions so that my students can make their own evaluations of the material studied), but several common problems arise in class discussions. Some of the key problems I see in Girard’s theory include the following:

(1) This is a grand theory and grand theories have fallen out of vogue in the latter half of the 20th century. This is the kind of theory that Daniel Pals once referred to as a kind of functionalism that “lead[s] logically to reductionist conclusions” (Eight Theories of Religion, 149); i.e., all of religion, and not just an element or aspect of religion, is reduced to a singular origin or cause, a type of totalizing reduction found in the work of Marx, Durkheim, and Freud (in contrast to Weber). Unlike methodological reductionism, such functionalism, according to Pals,

… is not just a matter of explaining one aspect of religion while other theories explain other aspects. The premise of such functionalism is that it has found what is basic and fundamental. Religion – all of religion – can be fully accounted for by tracing it to a single underlying circumstance or elemental cause: to humanity’s universal state of neurosis, to the universal claims of society on the individual, or to the world dynamics of class struggle. Such explanations reach wide to sweep evidence from all cases into the embrace of a single formula. That is the key to their appeal. (Eight Theories of Religion, 149)

With Girard, such a totalizing causal explanation covers not just the origins of religion, but of violence, culture, and group formations. Not only all of religion, but all of civilization is accounted for by his theory. Basically, everything tends to go back to mimetic desire and the rivalry it evokes. This is the single formula proposed by Girard and that formula definitely has held a strong appeal for many humanities scholars.

(2) Girard is ahistorical in his approach, even though he offers an origin (an originary moment) for religious violence. In our video, he blatantly states as much. Given that his hypothetical “first killing” or rivalry is not just symbolic, but an actual event, it would seem that a greater sensitivity to history and prehistory would be needed. It is also insightful to notice that his work is tied directly to literary sources (“texts”), as if mythology and folklore are the key to human psychology and social psychology. History and prehistory – including cognitive research into human evolution – play no part in Girard’s work. Rather, we are treated to a walk through classical literature that dances in opposition to Freudian approaches to religion and myth.

(3) The theory works too well. This critique may seem odd, but think about it for a moment. If a theory works in all cases, then might that theory be forcing data to fit into the theory with no symbiotic “check” between theory and data? This is a grand theory. Grand theories work because they are totalizing. Totalizing theory obscures the particularity of the data and thus obscures rather than struggles with and through the tension between particularity and generality. (Cf. Tite, “Categorical Designations and Methodological Reductionism: Gnosticism as Case Study,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 13.3 [2001]: 269-292.)

(4) There is a very clear Christian bias in the work, transforming an explanatory theory into a confessional statement of Christian theological superiority. Although the Christian bias is not as obvious in Violence and the Sacred (indeed, I once had to point out this bias to a specialist in myth studies while discussing Girard’s theory), it arises starkly in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (on Judaism) as well as in the video we watched as a class (on Islam).

In a sense, accounting for Judaism and Islam vis-à-vis Christianity suggests that Girard is addressing a rivalry between the so-called Abrahamic religions (might Girard’s theory now be applied to his own theory? Does mimetic rivalry between world religions, in particular Abrahamic religions, underlie this very theory of religious violence?). I’m reminded of the genealogical analysis of Abrahamic religions offered by Aaron Hughes (“Abrahamic Religions: A Genealogy,” Bulletin for the Study of Religion 44.1 [2015]: 3-11). By placing Girard within such a genealogy, Girard seems to fit less with Hughes’s third stage of interfaith dialogue and more with the first or second stage of supersessionism or an interreligious dialogue where Christianity (or an aspect or form of Christianity) remains dominant and superior.

Thus, Girard’s treatment of the New Testament Gospels, in particular, attempts to preserve and apply the soteriological significance of Christ’s death within a world split by geopolitical and ideological violence. In the end, Girard is more a Christian theologian than a social scientist or anthropologist.


There are strengths to Girardian theory, of course. One of them is the importance of desire as a psychological – indeed, social psychology could be evoked here – factor in the emergence of conflict. Girard is also one of the few who see “violence” in a positive, or slightly positive, light. Most studies of religion and violence approach violence as a negative thing, something to explain and/or overcome (e.g., Cavanaugh, Juergensmeyer, Lincoln, and Jewett all come to mind). Girard offers a view of violence contributing to social cohesion. This is one of the distinctions I’ve seen between modern approaches to religious violence and the older myth-ritualist school of thought.

From my comments, it is obvious that I do not agree with Girard’s theory. I’m no Girardian. In part, I tend to resist any grand theorizing – my skepticism is evoked even when I recognize significance and even brilliance (e.g., I love and admire Carl Jung’s work, but I totally disagree with his theory of the collective unconsciousness). I don’t really love or admire Girard’s theory of mimetic violence, though I do teach it as an object of study (much as I do cosmogonic worldviews steeped in Platonic thought), but I am sad to hear of his death. He was a giant in the field, whose impact is less in what he said (i.e., his actual theory) and more the influence he has exerted among a wide range of talented scholars over the past several decades. There are few left that we could identify with myth-ritualism studies of religion and violence. Girard’s death may mark the final closure on an approach that goes back to James Frazer.

For those of us who study theory and religion – at that meta-level of studying the study of religion – it will be fascinating to see how his influence continues or wanes in the next decade or so now that this indomitable personality is gone, to see how the literary works he has left behind will continue to shape and direct theorization and debates over the nature of religion, violence, sacrifice, desire (perhaps in relation to affect theory?), and myth.


Philip L. Tite (Ph.D. McGill University, 2005) is the editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion and (with James Crossley) of Postscripts, is a specialist in early Christian studies with strong interests in method & theory in the academic study of religion, and is an affiliate lecturer in the Comparative Religion Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. He also serves on the AAR Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence steering committee and the editorial board of the Journal of Religion and Violence. He is the author of several books, most recently The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans: An Epistolary and Rhetorical Analysis (TENT, 7; Leiden: Brill, 2012).

Posted in Academy, Announcements, Pedagogy, Philip L. Tite, Politics and Religion, Reflections on Islamic Studies, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Accessibility and Complexity

Writing Tools

by Steven Ramey

Tenzan Eaghll’s post on this blog on Wednesday made a significant point. Calls for more accessible scholarly writing, which have been making the social media rounds lately, ignore the ways that critical theory often challenges assumptions, the status quo, and accepted ways of thinking, talking and writing. Not only does the challenge that critical theory presents make this work threatening to some who are comfortable with their positions of privilege and power, but the process of developing new language and ideas also can generate what some call, often dismissively, complex, even unreadable, writing.

In supporting his argument, however, Eaghll generates a problematic dichotomy. He asserts,

What this article forgets, like all others I have ever read on this subject, is that critical work in the humanities has always been ignored, at least initially, and no amount of pandering (scientific or literary) will change this. Why? Because the fields of study that cultivate critical thinking and encourage the critique of dominant ideologies will always be marginalized.

Implying that writing is either complicated and difficult to understand or amounts to pandering is overly simplistic and a false choice, as I suspect Eaghll would agree. Writing only to attract a broad public audience and measuring success of a work by the number of views or shares is problematic and limiting. However, if the ideas that develop in the critical humanities are important (and they likely can’t just be important to us), then the effort to express them more broadly, when possible, is surely useful. The pedagogical mode of communicating critical theory, which I see as an important aspect of public scholarship, is important in its own right. It is not that we will win over every person with more accessible presentations of critical theory, but my experience, most extensively with Culture on the Edge, has been that some people who are not usually counted among specialist readers will find the application of critical theory in accessible language intriguing and thought provoking. Much like the effort to engage undergraduates in the complicated works of critical theory, it is not necessarily simple to convey these ideas in an accessible fashion. While a one-time blog post is not the same as a semester-long engagement with students, of course, we do ourselves a disservice to diminish the potential of broader engagement, even as we also acknowledge the value of linguistically complicated wrestling with new ideas and language.

Eaghll also usefully highlights that many seminal, groundbreaking thinkers (e.g., Kant, Nietzsche, Derrida) had a limited audience for a decade or more, being dismissed by critics as unreadable. The selection of a few examples, though, does not prove that complex language is the only way to contribute to critical theory, even as it reminds us that complicated works can be important and that we must remain patient as they may take time to gain an audience. But it is not like these now seminal ideas suddenly became assimilated, without the significant effort of a range of scholars (e.g., editors, translators, commentators, reviewers) exploring these ideas and using them, interpreting them, applying them to engage a variety of audiences.

So while I appreciate Eaghll’s effort to highlight the value (and place) of specialized and thus complicated theoretical work, that recognition does not excuse us from putting in the effort to also engage a wide variety of audiences, in classrooms and other venues, with the explanation and application of critical theory.

Steven Ramey is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Director of Asian Studies at the University of Alabama. His book Hindu Sufi or Sikh (Palgrave, 2008) focuses on communities who identify as Sindhi Hindus and the ways they contest dominant understandings of identities, both in India and beyond. His newest project addresses the assumptions in the language of religious labels and the ways those assumptions determine research and valorize particular constructions of religions. He blogs for The Huffington Post and the Bulletin for the Study of Religion and serves as the Series Editor of Culture on the Edge: Studies in Identity Formation, book series with Equinox Publishers.

Posted in Pedagogy, Steven Ramey, Tenzan Eaghll, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Brief note on the Importance of Unreadable Critical Theory in the Humanities


by Tenzan Eaghll

Today I read my 500th article on why the humanities are failing. Since I began working in religious studies these articles have been published with abandon, all of them claiming that the humanities are devalued, underfunded, and destined to be fully eclipsed by science, neoliberalism―or some other boogey monster―and all of them suggesting some sort of reasonable solution to this crisis. Now, I do not want to detract from the value of these articles, or to deny the grave threat the academy faces from current austerity practices, but simply want to point out that this threat of obscurity and rejection has always been the horizon of critical theory in the humanities.

In the article I read today the author’s position was that the humanities have been eclipsed by scientific research and that this shadow of oblivion is not necessary. The author points to numerous scientific-like studies produced within the humanities that could revive it in a science driven world, or at least save it from irrelevance. “The humanities,” the author suggests, “are producing very scientifically relevant material,” and this should not be ignored. The article concludes, in a somewhat familiar tone, by calling for humanities scholars to make this evident, and to make their work accessible to the masses by engaging in “more public scholarship.”

What this article forgets, like all others I have ever read on this subject, is that critical work in the humanities has always been ignored, at least initially, and no amount of pandering (scientific or literary) will change this. Why? Because the fields of study that cultivate critical thinking and encourage the critique of dominant ideologies will always be marginalized.

Let’s face facts, as there is no point in denying the obvious, critical theory in the humanities, and the critical wing of religious studies along with it, poses a threat to the status quo. We question assumed hierarchies, gods, capital interests, white privilege, patriarchy, the predominance of mythic structures―basically, all dominant discourses―and as such, we are sidelined.

What is ignored by those who call for us to make our work more accessible, more scientific, to write more simply, or to appeal to the “public” (as if the public was some singular objective domain), is that many of our ideas stand in contrast to the (perceived) status quo, and that regardless of how accessible we make our ideas they will always be ignored by those who have a vested interest in maintaining the apparent order of things.

Moreover, what is often ignored is that the difficulty of critical work is its strength. Ideas from the humanities only take root after decades of assimilation, and even after this they are held at bay and labeled as dangerous, and it is precisely this obscurity and danger that makes the humanities so powerful.

To prove the point, simply think of the struggles faced by many of the literary and philosophical talents that humanities scholars hold in highest esteem. When Kant first published the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, barely anyone read it for almost a decade. What is arguably the landmark treatise of the Enlightenment was lambasted as hopelessly complex and filled with unreadable prose by a couple reviewers and then ignored for years. In fact, it is with Kant that the cliché of ‘bad philosophical writing’ began. The same can also be said for all of Nietzsche’s works, as almost no one read his books until after he died and to this day notable critics refer to what is arguably his greatest work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as illegible.  Harold Bloom, for instance, one of the humanities own “public scholars,” calls Zarathustra “a gorgeous disaster” and “unreadable.” In the twentieth-century this trend has continued in earnest. When James Joyce first published Ulysses in 1922 it was widely read in secret but met with outrage and disgust in public. To own a copy in Britain and the United states was a criminal offense for many years, and people had to ship it secretly through the mail just to get a copy. Or, to take an even more recent example, think of the opposition Jacques Derrida faced from other members of the academy in the early 1990s. Over 200 Analytic philosophers tried to stop Cambridge university from granting him an Honorary Doctorate in 1992 by suggesting that his philosophy is filled with “tricks and gimmicks.”

My point, of course, is not that the humanities is the domain of secret knowledge or that what we do in critical theory is so incredibly difficult that only a few gifted geniuses can understand it, but simply that we work with new ideas and new language, and new ideas and new language are often ignored and caricatured as illegible and hieroglyphic until they develop a wider audience (which sometimes takes decades). Two-hundred years after Kant wrote the Critique of Pure Reason the idea that our mental faculties determine our perception of the world is widely accepted across the sciences and popular culture. Similarly, though it is often misused and misunderstood, the term for Derrida’s philosophy, “deconstruction,” has entered the lingua franca of the modern age.

Hence, we don’t need to make the humanities more accessible or to write more simply when working with difficult ideas. In fact, I would suggest that it is precisely the illegibility and obscurity of some of our work that harbors its significance. As Derrida suggested in the wake of his controversial Honorary Doctorate at Cambridge University, when you question the rules of the dominant discourse, or try to politicize or democratize the university scene, you are bound to be attacked or ignored. Sometimes this silencing comes from within the academy itself, and sometimes it just seems as if the general public couldn’t give a damn about what we have to say, but it is precisely in this obscurity that some of the most important work in Western literature has been written―so rage on in a fog of oblivion, if you must.

In the coming years, hopefully the austerity that the humanities has faced in the past decades will lessen and we will see increased funding and hirings, but make no mistake, even if this happens the most critical work out there will always be ignored when it first arrives on the scene. For no matter how relevant our work is, the work produced in fields that cultivate critical thinking and encourage the critique of dominant discourses and ideologies will always be undervalued … at least for a time.

Posted in Pedagogy, Tenzan Eaghll, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Theses on Professionalization: Thomas J. Whitley


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

by Thomas J. Whitley

Thesis # 18: Despite being the primary, and sometimes even the exclusive, focus of candidates’ attention during the last years of their Ph.D., once hired into a tenure-track position a variety of other just as time consuming tasks compete for their attention. Learning to juggle many balls simultaneously–knowing which will bounce if dropped and which will break–is therefore an essential skill for early career professors who wish to continue carrying out original research while also teaching a full course load and serving the needs of their Departments and the profession at large.

Time management is at the heart of Thesis # 18. This is not something that all academics think regularly about; graduate students seem to be especially poor at cultivating this skill. Academics can be (read: seem) heroic when it comes to just getting done what needs to be done, not allowing evenings, weekends, or vacations to get in the way. This type of living on the edge may provide an adrenaline rush for graduate students, but it is only setting them up for failure. Yet, many graduate students, I fear, simply do not realize what will be expected of them when (read: if) they get that elusive tenure-track job. Taking three classes is simply not the same as preparing and teaching three classes. And while graduate students do understand this, even those who have only been given the opportunity to be a Teaching Assistant and have not been an Instructor of Record, their ability to realistically imagine what being a professional academic looks like is hampered by the fact that ours is a profession that holds its cards close to the chest. Very few graduate advisors talk to their graduate students about what service to the department, service to the university, and service to the field actually look like. And so graduate students prepare for a career in academia with a vision that is only as broad as their previous experience in academia, an experience that has been largely limited to the classroom.

The value in Thesis 18 can only be realized if graduate students heed McCutcheon’s advice. The best way to prepare for “juggling many balls simultaneously” is to juggle many balls simultaneously. As such, I encourage graduate students to not only learn more about time management techniques that work for them, but to get involved, as they are able, in their department, in their university, and in their field. Can you help organize a conference? Can you organize and propose a panel for your regional or national conference? Are there committees that you can serve on that will give you a glimpse into what the life of an academic really looks like?

In case you’re wondering, I have followed my own advice here. I serve on a departmental committee, I have co-directed and directed a graduate student conference, I chair a section of my region’s professional/academic society, and I serve on a national board for one of the major national professional/academic societies. All of this while being a doctoral student, writing my dissertation, writing regularly for online audiences, and working on peer-reviewed publications. While some of my (graduate student) colleagues think this is impressive, those who are already working in the field know that it is simply what life as an academic looks like. It is, as McCutcheon said, a juggling act. As someone who is currently on the market, I cannot say whether my attempts at this will help me land a job, but they have certainly helped me have a better idea of what life is like on the other side of the desk.

Thomas J. Whitley is a PhD Candidate in Religions of Western Antiquity at Florida State University. His dissertation, “The Greatest Blasphemy: Sex, Souls, and the Carpocratian Heresy,” analyzes the “heresy” of Carpocratianism and its role as an opposing voice to what would become the dominant narrative of asceticism and renunciation in the 4th-5th century church.

Posted in Pedagogy, Theses on Professionalization, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment