Theses on Professionalization Series: Tenzan Eaghll

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by Tenzan Eaghll

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 #2: A Ph.D. is awarded not only as a mark of intellectual competence and disciplined method but also as a professional credential that signals one’s eligibility for employment as a researcher and teacher within academia. Although these two aspects of the degree can complement one another, they can just as easily conflict, as in when one’s research expertise fails to overlap with ever changing employment needs.

I am entering the sixth (and final) year of my doctorate at the University of Toronto, so I am right at the cusp of encountering the gap between my area of expertise and the demands of the job market, and I am worried. It is not that I am unprepared, I mean, I have been studying religion for 12 years and feel confident in the subject matter. It is just that the gap between my area of expertise and many of the classes I will be expected to teach is so big as to make the latter seem like a foreign territory. Moreover, given the current job market, this foreign territory may be a place I am exiled to for a very long time. With the shrinking pool of tenure-track jobs and the rise in the amount of poorly paid adjunct positions, I have to prepare myself for the possibility of getting stuck in the adjunct loop.

Early on in my studies I had assumed that by developing intellectual competence in one particular area of religious studies I would be preparing to teach both my topic of expertise and more general introductory classes in the field, but I am coming to believe that this is incorrect. Part of the reason for this is because my area of expertise is philosophy of religion/method and theory, which doesn’t see a lot of job postings, but also because PhD grads are not trained to be experts in any of the “bread and butter” classes on which religious studies departments depend. Most entry level positions require teaching a whole slew of introductory classes I have only basic knowledge in: Introduction to World Religions, Nature of World Religions, Introduction to Christianity, Religion and Violence, Religion and Film, etc. Although I have served as a Teaching Assistant and Course Instructor in some of these classes, I have never been tested to prove my competency in any of these particular subjects. In order to attain my PhD I have only passed comprehensive exams that tested my knowledge within the fields of study related to my dissertation topic. Never once was I tested in my knowledge of “Hinduism,” “Buddhism,” the “religious experience of mystics,” or even the “history of Christianity,” yet those are the topics I will be expected to teach with sublime proficiency (lest I be fired for poor student reviews!).

Of course, I am not suggesting that there should be exams for these general subjects in all PhD programs but am simply trying to underline the fact that the particular reasons for which a PhD is awarded doesn’t necessarily overlap with the demands of the job market. Moreover, I am trying to point out that the gap between intellectual competence and employment opportunities is not just a result of changing employment needs but a systemic problem in religious studies.

Religious Studies is not a discipline with a rigidly defined phenomenon of investigation, and this makes the leap from graduate research to the job market all that more difficult. In Critics Not Caretakers McCutcheon writes that the introductory religious studies classroom is,

[T]he site of some of the most unsophisticated scholarship we collectively produce. It is the place where we often fail to live up to our responsibility of educating critical thinkers and future scholars and, instead, where we often act as trustees concerned for the general well-being of religion. (66)

Perhaps part of the reason these introductory classes are so “unsophisticated” is that they are dumped upon lecturers who have expertise in a very specific area of research, and very little experience teaching general subjects. How are PhD grads fresh out the gate expected to reinvent the wheel when they have neither the experience nor the departmental weight needed to refashion out-dated course models?

Traditionally, it has been expected that new lecturers will spend several years teaching these introductory subjects in order to prove their acumen, and then after a certain period of time they will be given more advanced classes that reflect their area of expertise and their research. However, given the current job market this latter opportunity may never arise for some aspiring academics, and many, including myself, may get stuck at the introductory level teaching “bread and butter” classes for a department that is looking for neither “sophisticated” nor “original” input into traditional courses.

Tenzan Eaghll is Ph.D candidate in the department of religious studies at the University of Toronto. His dissertation analyzes Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on the Deconstruction of Christianity.

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Whose Symbol Is It Anyway? The Rainbow in Public Space

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by Sarah “Moxy” Moczygemba

Even the most ubiquitous public symbols have histories and, as such, can result in public debate over use and meaning. Recently, the rainbow has been at the center of public discussion. This week, Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis (AIG) broadcast that the Ark Encounter in Kentucky will be lit with a rainbow each night. He tweeted his logic for doing so, along with a photo, saying, “Christians need to take back the rainbow” because “God owns the rainbow.” This announcement comes shortly after widespread public debate over Facebook’s decision to make a “LGBTQ Pride” react available during the month of June. Ham’s claim of God’s ownership of the rainbow has been met with both ridicule from the LGBTQ community and support from Christians who want to #TakeBacktheRainbow. What may at first look like a grab for headlines on Ham’s part is in actuality tied to larger histories and debates about the public use of symbols as well as the acquisition and maintenance of political power. Navigating the histories of symbols and the groups that utilize them allows for a more complex understanding of why negative reactions may actually reinforce both groups’ worldviews.

The rainbow flag is one of the most recognizable symbols of LGBTQ identity today. Gilbert Baker designed and collaboratively handmade the first rainbow flag in 1978 while living in San Francisco. In an interview with the Museum of Modern Art after their acquisition of the original flag, Baker explained that he conceptualized the flag “as a symbol … something that everybody instantly understands” that is also about “proclaiming power.” He elaborated that he intended the new flag to be a positive representation of the LGBTQ community, replacing the pink triangle originally assigned to gay persons by the Nazis. While that symbol had been reclaimed by the 1970s, Baker saw the need for the community to develop its own symbol and was motivated in part by the activism of the day. To Baker, the rainbow was a logical choice because “it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things. Plus, it’s a natural flag—it’s from the sky!” This assertion that the rainbow is a fitting symbol because it promotes diversity and is natural is in direct opposition to Ken Ham’s interpretation.

Ken Ham is perhaps best known for being the public face of Young Earth Creationism in the United States. He is the President and CEO the organization Answers in Genesis, which runs both the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter theme park in Kentucky. Ham is no stranger to holding positions counter to mainstream belief and seems to thrive on generating controversy as a way to publicize those beliefs. The announcement about the rainbow nighttime display at the Ark Encounter is only the most recent and most public attempt to promote the goal of taking back the rainbow from the LGBTQ community, a position he has publicly written about since at least 2007. For Ham, the rainbow is inextricably linked to the story of Noah and represents “a covenant of grace” and is a “symbol of Christ Himself” that is “sadly…even used on a flag for the gay and lesbian movement.” It is important to note the idea of reclaiming the rainbow may not have originated with Ham, and support for this cause is found on a variety of conservative news sites (for example here and here). What is key here, however, is that this idea has now entered mainstream conversation thanks to Ham’s ability to generate mainstream media coverage.

This isn’t the first time in 2017 the rainbow has generated controversy. In June, Facebook announced the availability of a Pride/rainbow reaction to celebrate Pride Month. Users had to opt in to use the reaction by liking the official Facebook LGBTQ page, but it nonetheless garnered outrage from those who viewed this as Facebook promoting homosexuality. Some Christians petitioned that Facebook should add a Cross reaction, but ultimately Facebook declined. With AIG’s rainbow at the Ark Encounter we see something different than the conservative Christian reaction to the Facebook rainbow. For Ham and others, it’s not enough to have equal access to both LGBTQ (rainbow) and Christian (Cross) symbols; it’s necessary to publicly reclaim symbols like the rainbow.

Both the LGBTQ community and conservative Christian groups are aware of the power of symbols and, as such, this AIG announcement allows both groups to revisit their historical claims over the rainbow. For LGBTQ groups, controversy over the rainbow serves as a reminder that conservative Christians are often the most opposed to LGBTQ rights as witnessed recently in their fighting against marriage equality and promoting so-called “Bathroom Bills.” For conservative Christians like Ken Ham, publicly rejecting the LGBTQ community’s claims over the rainbow and facing ridicule for doing so bolsters his position that “Christian persecution is on the rise.” In recent arguments about the rainbow, the reactions by both groups involved allow them to claim a marginal position in the world, thus reaffirming their continued involvement in disputes over public symbols like the rainbow.

Sarah “Moxy” Moczygemba is a doctoral student at the University of Florida studying Religion in the Americas with a focus on Catholicism in the United States. She can be found on twitter @s_moxy.

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Theses on Professionalization Series: Matthew W. Dougherty

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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

Matthew W. Dougherty

Thesis 1. Academia is unlike other professions in that the pre-professional period of training–which includes coursework, dissertation research and writing, and teaching assistantships–is not akin to an apprenticeship. Accordingly, there is no direct linkage between the accumulation of credentials and admission to the profession, no necessary relationship between feeling oneself to be qualified and the ability to obtain full time employment as a university professor.

The value of McCutcheon’s first thesis lies in its canny assessment of the gap between the expectations of the market and the listed requirements of the Ph.D program. Reflecting on it as a current doctoral candidate, my main reaction is twofold. First, most doctoral students I’ve encountered already seem to be aware of the realities addressed in this thesis, even if they are not aware of what, precisely, are the “extra” things they need to do beyond the program requirements. Second, because of disparities in the amount of time and prior preparation graduate students have it is critical for their mentors to reflect on this thesis and think about how they can help their students learn the many skills necessary to survive in academia that are not conveyed by the credentials accumulated in graduate school.

Most doctoral students I know started graduate school already knowing that they couldn’t count on finding jobs in higher education, let alone tenure-track ones, simply by ticking off the boxes on their program’s list of requirements. My peers and I are already dogged by the feeling that there is always something we could, and probably should, be doing to better our chances on the job market: cultivating an online presence, talking to potential collaborators at conferences, publishing additional articles, or finding mentors to help with our self-identified weaknesses. At the root of all this activity is the belief that, ultimately, doctoral students are responsible for our own education and professionalization. Whether a new Ph.D gets a job or not is, if you listen to most doctoral students I know, a function of that student’s success or failure at professionalizing above and beyond what the program requires.

Approaching graduate school this way holds both promise and peril. It encourages thinking intentionally about one’s doctoral training, which can have personal as well as professional benefits. If graduate school is to be more than simply an exercise in getting a job, if there is joy and fulfillment to be found in scholarship and research, then one of the most vital goals of graduate education has to be for students to become intentional about their own learning and thinking. Academia holds out the promise, even if it is often illusory for the increasing number of contingent faculty, of a career spent researching whatever one finds most interesting. When doctoral students take charge learning to direct our careers and research while there are still mentors readily accessible to help, we are preparing ourselves for such a life far better than when we concentrate on simply accumulating credentials.

But expecting graduate students to discern what they must do to professionalize and to take steps in their own time to fill those needs has its dangers. It ignores the fact that not all graduate students have equal amounts of time “free” after teaching, coursework, and research to work on professionalization. For example, those with family responsibilities such as young children or aging parents—a group that includes disproportionate numbers of women and people of color— have significantly less extra time available to strategically professionalize themselves after hours and on the weekends than those without. Neither do all graduate students, even as separate Master’s degrees become more commonplace in our field, arrive in doctoral programs having had equal amounts of exposure to academic culture and knowing equally well where to direct their energies. Knowing what conferences are most relevant, which books to read, how to write a book review, or how to craft an academic CV are all necessary skills for success in our field. Some doctoral students will have acquired many of these skills during their undergraduate years, but others will not. Often, this is a result of class divisions: colleges and universities that don’t expect many of their graduates to go into academia will be much less likely to offer opportunities to learn skills relevant to that field.

With that reality in mind, graduate students can be expected to take responsibility for directing their own education, but they cannot be expected to learn to do so without help. This is where McCutcheon’s thesis has the most value from my perspective: in reminding mentors of graduate students of the realities of getting a doctorate in today’s market and helping them to be clear—to themselves and to their students— about what it will take to succeed. Sending, even by omission, the message that accumulation of credentials is enough does the most harm to those students with the least additional time or prior knowledge of academia.

Fortunately, although, again, most doctoral students I’ve met are remarkably self-directed, not all professionalization has to happen in students’ “spare time” or entirely under their own steam. I have taken graduate seminars that required students to create syllabuses or write book reviews— assignments which teach research and argumentation while having a more direct relationship to daily life in academia than does the traditional seminar paper. New student orientation in my program includes discussions of the job market and advice on assembling a teaching portfolio. Many of the professors I’ve served as a Teaching Assistant have taken the time to observe me teaching and to discuss strategies for improvement with me. These were all concrete decisions that the professors in my program made to help their students keep sight of the longer-term goal of professional development rather than focus only on the short-term challenges of coursework and teaching. My hope is that reflection on McCutcheon’s thesis 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.

Matthew W. Dougherty is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He studies race and religion in North America from 1500-1860, focusing on missions, whiteness and Native American Christianities. https://unc.academia.edu/MatthewDougherty

Posted in Pedagogy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Theory and Method, Theses on Professionalization, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Teaching and Theorizing Religion and Food

The following is the editor’s introduction, written by Philip Tite, to the June 2017 issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion (the full table of contents having already been posted). We offer this editorial, which is also freely available from the publisher, here on the blog in order to give readers an overview of the most recent issue of the Bulletin.

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I love to eat. It’s an important part of my life. I eat every day. Since I was born, it’s been a daily activity. In fact, I’ve yet to meet a person who doesn’t eat (at least a living person; and I know of some cultures where even the dead eat). In addition to the succulent experiences of consumption, I also love to cook. It’s a passion. I enjoy jumping into my kitchen, throwing open cupboards, grabbing random ingredients, and, while dancing around to old Queen tunes, just seeing what emerges from the flurry that ensues.

This whimsical opening is not just playful; it taps into an unstated insight: food and foodways matter. Yet food is often overlooked as data in the study of religion. A few years ago, I was asked to design a course for a university core program—and the department chair gave me almost complete freedom to come up with whatever I wanted. As I was dancing around listening to Queen and tossing ingredients, I glanced over my collection of cookbooks. I have several “world religions” cookbooks and the thought hit me: why not use them as textbooks? Food matters, I thought. And religion often intersects food and foodways. We don’t usually consider the role of food in what often gets called “religion”—except, perhaps, when dealing with dietary restrictions (kosher, halal, or vegetarianism). But is that all there is? So, I designed my course: Cooking Religion: Food, Culture, and Community. It was a hit with my students.

Through that course I learned that not only is food an important part of religion, but that religion is often constructed, normalized, migrated, and literally internalized through food. We explored the world religions paradigm, colonialism, tourism, migration, and the formal and informal uses of food. Economic systems are as relevant as systems of mythologizing. Social structures, along with gender roles and ethnic identities, were studied. In the end, food really did matter. I ran that course several times and it was a fantastic experience for me as a teacher and a scholar—and not only as a foodie.

From that course, I decided to expand the conversation with other scholars working on food and religion. In recent years there has been a surprising rise of interest in the topic. Not only has there been a flurry of publications in book and article formats, but scholars are tackling the topic with greater theoretical refinement. The AAR Food and Religion group, with an active community on Facebook, is illustrative of the attention being directed to food and religion. I think that food is significant because it focuses our analysis on what is being called “lived religion”; not, for me at least, in the sense of a second naivety privileging emic perspectives and caretaking religious traditions. Rather, by analyzing food, we can look at how religion is constructed, internalized, and played out by real social actors in actual social settings. Unlike some social processes, food is unique. It stands on the margins, often beyond the visual scope of those “playing out” their religious roles. I think that these tacit cultural elements contribute even more to religious identity construction than overt “religious” practices, be that in ritual or sacred text performance. In my teaching, I discovered that the course was less a “religious studies” course (in the typical sense of that department’s offerings) and more a “cultural studies” course that intersected a range of disciplines, theoretical perspectives, and social questions.

This issue of the Bulletin brings together a dynamic group of scholars who are part of such conversations. The focus of these articles is largely on teaching, but, as with any good pedagogy, they each engage various theoretical issues relevant to the study of religion and culture. The articles by Martha Finch, Rachel Diane Brown, Emily Bailey, Jason Ellsworth, and Aldea Mulhern offer insights not only into their own research and teaching on religion and food, but also suggestions for those who may wish to teach such a course or incorporate such data into their scholarship. I invite readers to pull up a chair and to dine away on these intellectual delicacies. Our hope is that this thematic issue will only be a sampling, encouraging readers to join an ongoing conversation as we theorize and teach about religion, food, foodways, and cultural identity formation.

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Now Published: Bulletin for the Study of Religion 46.2 (June 2017)

We are pleased to announce the publication of the June 2017 issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion in both online and in print formats. This issue focuses on the theme of “teaching and theorizing religion and food”. This issue brings together a wonderful collection of articles, engaging pedagogical and theoretical perspectives on a data set often overlooked in the study of “religion”.

 

 

Table of Contents

Bulletin for the Study of Religion Volume 46, Issue 2

(June 2017)

“Teaching and Theorizing Religion and Food” Philip L. Tite (University of Washington) – (p. 2) [Editor’s introduction – Open Access]

“Food Matters: Tasting, Teaching, Theorizing Religion and Food” Martha L. Finch (Missouri State University) – (p. 3-8)

“Bread Beyond Borders: Food as a Lens Into Tweed’s Theory of Religion” Rachel Diane Brown (University of Evansville) – (p. 9-17)

“Making Sense of Religion and Food” Emily Bailey (Towson University) – (p. 18-24)

“Am I a Buddhist Because I am Vegetarian? Teaching at the Intersections of Religion and Food” Jason W. M. Ellsworth (Dalhousie University/University of Prince Edward Island) – (p. 26-29)

“A Recipe for Success, or for Assignment Starvation? When Students Wanted an Assignment Outline, What I Gave Instead, and What Happened Next” Aldea Mulhern (University of Toronto – (30-36)

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#naasr2017 Program Announcement: The Things we Study when we Study Religion

Note: This post originally appeared here on the NAASR website.

Following NAASR’s annual programs in 2015, devoted to theory, and 2016, on method, the program for 2017 will focus on the things that we, as scholars of religion, study. What, for instance, counts as data? How is it imagined, handled, or constructed? Who decides what is a valid or invalid research topic—and which approach suits it?

There exist longstanding and still active debates in the field regarding whether the items that we study pre-exist our approaches or whether our approaches actually create the conditions in which the former come into existence. It should come as no surprise, then, that the inter-relationship between theory, method, and data is complex and hardly settled. In fact, for some the term “data” itself is to be avoided because it is thought to remove us from the human subjects whom we study. Such subjects, it is assumed, embody intentional centers of meaning-making and therefore they require methods of study that differ, both qualitatively and quantitatively, from those employed by scholars in other fields. Yet for others, people’s self-understanding as agents does not lessen the importance of the non-agential structures in which they live (from genetics to class). Such recognition requires scholars to study people’s claims and behavior in a way that is far less impacted by intentionality than some may assume. We could also add to this mix those who examine the conditions and shape of the field itself, thereby finding scholars themselves as the item of interest. It is clear, then, that to identify as a scholar of religion does not necessarily mean that we all study the same thing, let alone in the same manner. For the distance between those who now study what is called embodied or lived religion, on the one hand, and, on the other, the processes examined by cognitive scientists is great indeed. A pressing question, however, is whether this breadth strengthens or undermines the field.

Following the model used for the past two annual meetings, three main, substantive papers were invited and will be distributed both to respondents and NAASR members approximately one month prior to the meeting. These main papers will only be summarized at the session. Each paper will then have four respondents, who will have ten minutes each to reply to the main paper. This will be followed by an open discussion of roughly one hour. As per the past two years, the aim once again is to see this this session published as a book (with responses from the main paper presenters).

NAASR Conference Schedule 2017

Council Meeting
9:00-9:50am, Friday, November 17—Back Bay Room at the Fairmont Copley Plaza

“Subjects,” Annette Reed (University of Pennsylvania)
10:00-11:50am, Friday, November 17—State Suite A at the Fairmont Copley Plaza
Respondents:
Adam Stewart (Crandall University)
M. Adryael Tong (Fordham University)
John Soboslai (Montclair State University)
Jennifer Shelby (Memorial University of Newfoundland)
Chair: Drew Durdin (PhD student, U of Chicago)

“Objects,” Matthew Baldwin (Mars Hill University)
1:00-2:50pm, Friday, November 17—State Suite A at the Fairmont Copley Plaza
Respondents:
Petra Klug (University of Bremen)
Holly White (Syracuse University)
Peggy Schmeiser (University of Saskatchewan)
Lucas Wright (UC Santa Barbara)
Chair: Kevin Schilbrack (Appalachian State University)

“Scholars,” Craig Martin (St. Thomas Aquinas College)
3:00-4:50pm, Friday, November 17—State Suite A at the Fairmont Copley Plaza
Respondents:
Vaia Touna (University of Alabama)
Martha Smith Roberts (Sewanee)
Jason Ellsworth (Dalhousie University)
Joel Harrison (Northwestern University)
Chair: Ian Cuthbertson (Queens University)

Annual Reception (co-sponsored by Equinox Publishing)
7:00-9:00pm, Friday, November 17
Location: Lir, 903 Boylston Street (click here for a map)

“Theorizing Ancient Theories of Religion” (co-sponsored by Greco-Roman Religions)
9:00-11:30am, Saturday, November 18—State Suite A at the Fairmont Copley Plaza
Respondent: Nickolas Roubekas (University of Vienna)
Participants:
Jennifer Eyl (Tufts University)
William W. McCorkle, Jr. (Laboratory for the Experimental Research of Religion)
Additional panelists tbd

Business Meeting
1:00-1:50pm, Saturday, November 18—State Suite A at the Fairmont Copley Plaza

“Bans, Boycotts, Institutional Statements: A NAASR Perspective”
9:00-10:50am, Sunday, November 18—State Suite A at the Fairmont Copley Plaza
Participants:
Edith Szanto (American University of Iraq-Sulaimani)
Nathan Loewen (University of Alabama)
Suzanne Owen (Leeds Trinity University).
Chair: Adrian Herman (Univ of Bonn)

“Roundtable: The State of the Study of Religion”
11:00-12:50pm Sunday, November 18—State Suite A at the Fairmont Copley Plaza
Participants:
Sarah Dees, Labor (Northwestern University)
Richard Newton, Teaching (Elizabethtown College)
Rebekka King, Departments (Middle Tennessee State University)
Greg Alles, Research (McDaniel College)
Chair: Steven Engler (Mount Royal University)

“…But what do you study?”: A NAASR Workshop on Theory & Method in the job Market, Session I
1:00-2:50pm Sunday, November 18—Back Bay Room at the Fairmont Copley Plaza

“…But what do you study?”: A NAASR Workshop on Theory & Method in the job Market, Session II
3:00-4:50pm, Sunday, November 18—Back Bay Room at the Fairmont Copley Plaza


“…But What Do You Study?”: A NAASR Workshop on Theory & Method in the Job Market

This session proposes to explore the employment challenges facing early career scholars who are interested in issues of theory & method in the study of religion, through both a discussion and workshop. This session addresses issues important to junior NAASR members (notably, but not exclusively, ABDs now entering/about to enter the job market) by demonstrating how a professional organization can provide a practical and strategic forum for job-market advice.

The following activities will take place during the session:

I. Workshop

In the first half of the session, participants will break into small groups, each led by a more senior scholar. Within their groups, participants will discuss in focused ways how they might best represent themselves, their work, and their scholarly interests on the job market. The smaller setting will allow for more “hands on” advice, taking as examples the CV and cover letters the organizers will have pre-distributed among participants. Simply focusing on what one says in a cover letter’s opening paragraph, for example, or how one orders a C.V., will provide the way into larger questions of representation in these small group discussions. Participants should be ready to share and discuss their CV and sample cover letter with fellow group members (though hopefully all will have some familiarity with the materials in advance to facilitate a more focused workshop).

II. Open Discussion

With the issues and questions from the small-group workshop in mind, the second half of the session will be devoted to an open discussion. The group leaders will begin by providing brief introductory remarks on what they each see as constructive and strategic advice for early career scholars who are navigating the academic job market, aimed initially at how applicants can be strategic not only in trying to ascertain a Department’s needs but also in negotiating potential theoretical and political landmines in the field. A discussion will follow in which participants can talk about these issues in an informal atmosphere and share information. This guided discussion will focus on four central questions related to how might early career scholars interested in theory and method:

  • represent themselves strategically on the job market?
  • apply to calls for general positions, fitting themselves to broad departmental needs?
  • shape their cover letters and CVs to appeal to a wide range of departments?
  • respond to critiques that they have no “specialty,” “content,” or “area of study”?

The discussion is designed to reflect different opinions regarding the place of theory & method in the job market, as well as in the study of religion more generally.

**

Scholars of all concentrations within the field of Religious Studies are welcome to join the workshop—whether a NAASR member or not—though preference will be given to early career scholars, particularly those at the senior ABD stage (i.e., those already on or going onto the job market). Shortly before the workshop, but once the participants have been identified, each participant will be invited to share with the other members, via email or a closed social media group, their academic focus/dissertation topic, level of teaching experience, their level of experience with the job market as well as their own current position (e.g., PhD Student, Postdoc, Instructor, etc.) in order to ensure all participants come to the meeting somewhat familiar with the diversity of experience in the workshop. In addition, as stated above, each participant will be invited to provide a sample cover letter and CV for the organizers to pre-distribute. These materials will then be workshopped within their small groups. More details will follow after the participant list has been finalized.

Space is limited to 25 participants in this NAASR workshop, and participants can stay for as long or as little as they like. To register, please e-mail the organizer, Michael Graziano (grazmike [at] gmail [dot] com) by no later than October 15, 2017. In this request to register please include your current degree or professional career stage.

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What’s in Your Religion Syllabus?: Philip Tite

In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars of religion to share with our readers what’s in their religion syllabus, from a new class or a class they’ve taught for years, reflecting on what has worked, what has been modified, and how it has proven useful for covering a particular topic in the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here.

I just finished teaching another run of my “Theories in the Study of Religion” course at the University of Washington. I had just under thirty undergraduate students, each coming into the course from a range of backgrounds and areas of study. This was one of the most energetic and dynamic groups I’ve had the privilege to work with over the years and it was such a delight to walk into each class session. I already miss the learning community we built together.

One of the most successful and, from the students’ perspective, enjoyable assignments is what I call the “PNW Scholar Project.” Most of what we do in this course is to look at the historical development of various theoretical approaches or frameworks in the study of religion (mostly comparative religion) over the past two hundred years. A general premise of the course is that all theory is a product of the historical, cultural, and epistemological context of the scholar. Thus, theory is contingent rather than universal.

This broad approach—historically and geographically—risks making “religious studies” a vague and disconnected field of study for the student. The PNW Scholar Project, on the other hand, allows us to zoom our focus to the local or regional level by looking at the study of religion in the Pacific Northwest. Here is the assignment description from the syllabus:

PNW Group Scholar Project 

In studying the academic study of religion, it is helpful to look at our own local intellectual climate. Thus, students (in groups) will select (first come first serve basis) a scholar from the Pacific Northwest to study. This can be a scholar at UW or beyond (e.g., SU, PLU, WSU, Univ. of Victoria, Willamette, Concordia, etc.). The group will analyze this scholar’s work, career, thinking, methods, etc. and offer a critical analysis of how this particular thinker “fits” into the broader discipline. Scholars may work within religious studies departments, but they can also be located in other disciplines – such as political science, anthropology, sociology, classics, literature, the natural sciences, etc. – as long as this is a scholar who has a particular focus on “religion” as her or his object of study.

All selections must be approved by the instructor.

Ideally, the group will conduct an interview with the scholar if possible (in person or by email), but as coordinating such interaction with a busy academic may be difficult, this is not a requirement (though it is desirable).

The class presentation will be a 25 to 30 minute presentation. This should involve the whole group as far as possible and lead into a discussion. You have a maximum of 30 minutes to present (including discussion) – so ideally give us 15 minutes of presentation and 15 minutes of discussion.

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In the past, I’ve also required a ten-page paper on the selected scholar. Students have usually selected a scholar from our own university, though once they expanded their choice to a nearby university. Thankfully they have also been able to conduct a personal interview with the selected scholar. We have the group presentations on the last day or two of the course, as a kind of fun way to pull the course together. Students are told to treat the scholar as data, just as much as they would with others that they’ve studied in the course (e.g., Frazer, Lang, Eliade, W. C. Smith, Wiebe, Warne, Owen, McCutcheon, Hidayatullah, etc.).

As I reflect on the assignment, there are several advantages I see with it. Let me highlight just a few:

(1) The students have a chance to apply meta-critical analysis to living scholars in various disciplines, thus seeing scholars not as authoritative voices but as data to theorize. I never want my students to simply accept what a professor or scholar says because they are scholars or professors. To empower students to independence of mind, they should be allowed and encouraged to analyze the scholarly material presented to them (including the very act of such presentation). In the end, we are all data.

(2) We get a chance to see what “religious studies” (in part at least) is on the local, regional level. I think this assignment allows students to “get a taste” of what it would be like to study religion here in our part of the world in our current intellectual, political, and cultural climate. For those going on to other religious studies courses, or who may encounter religion in a course in another discipline (e.g., political science or women’s studies courses), such students will have a more critical appreciation for how “religion” is constructed and utilized within our “local academic culture”. My hope is that students will continue to theorize scholarship as data wherever they encounter it.

(3) Relevance of theory is vital. Too often theory, especially in religious studies, is treated as an overly abstract, meaningless game of intellectual self-obsession. And sometimes that can be very true (especially when I look at RS theorists whose self-reflexivity is so engaged that they end up cycling through the same debates and points that we’ve been debating for almost thirty years, yet without advancing the discussion even one step; to be honest, it’s frustrating to watch). But theory can and should serve an important role both in academic endeavors and when interacting with the broader political landscape that we live within. I’m not suggesting that theory be equated with method. That conflation has been a problem. Rather, I want my students to explore deeper structures and conceptual frameworks by which knowledge is created and rendered commonsensical and normative (even authoritative). Through the PNW Scholar Project, students get to theorize such epistemological dynamics right here, in the now, just next door. That look at real life academics (and not just dusty old names in a textbook or course reader) helps make theorizing religious studies more real and relevant.

(4) The generosity of my colleagues has been amazing. Without their kindness, the projects would have collapsed. However, the benefit goes both ways. The feedback I’ve received from colleagues, including from this most recent run of the assignment, is that it helped them as academics to reflect on their own assumptions and frameworks when studying religion. Several of them have gained new insights into their own work and how they have changed over the years in their own “theory” of religion (mostly without even realizing that they have a theoretical and methodological disposition).

So, the assignment has been successful, I think. The inspiration for this assignment was my own training as a graduate student. When I took at theory course at Wilfrid Laurier University under Michel Desjardins (now just retired), we were required to read works from local scholars, including those in our own department. We also had two significant theorists from the University of Toronto visit us (Marsha Hewitt and Don Wiebe) after we had read and analyzed a sample of their work. My own take on this “introducing local scholars as data” to students has taken a slightly different form, of course, mostly to highlight my own understanding of “theory” in the study of religion. But I think that this assignment has been a good one. I look forward to tweaking and running this assignment in future theory in the study of religion courses.

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