Critical Questions Series 2: A Reply by James Crossley


In this piece, James Crossley offers a reply to the 11 posts in this second instalment of the Critical Questions Series, dealing with questions of politics and scholarship within the study of religion.

Reading through the Critical Questions Series on politics, advocacy and higher education, some broad agreements emerge. It is clear, and perhaps unsurprising, that the range of writers acknowledge that everything is politicised and therefore there is inevitability in discussing issues relating to political engagement (even if we do not think we are doing it). A number of contributors show that the classroom or research is at least somewhere to engage with denaturalizing and destabilizing power and stereotypes. It would be difficult to dispute that this is happening in classrooms and that we are dealing with worthy aims.

There is, however, a recurring acknowledgement among the contributors (with varying degrees of disillusionment) that there are structures in place which restrict ideas and protect power, arguably more keenly felt the closer to the more ‘establishment’ universities the academic gets. For all the rhetoric of academic freedom, we know that tenure can be threatened, we know that writing grant applications on that sort of issue will almost certainly be unsuccessful, and we know that universities (at least in the context of the writers in the Critical Questions Series) are embedded in state and private power. All these points were well made by the contributors. Anyone thinking they will find extensive radical political engagement in a university will either be disappointed by the dominant liberalism or just crushed by the bureaucracy.

If histories and critiques of scholarship have shown anything, it is just how deeply embedded in the power structures of their times academics really are. And for anyone who answers with reference to the voluminous leftist scholarship, we might answer like this: yes, there’s lots of it, even if not as prevalent as the dominant liberalism but, while there are exceptions, it is easily absorbed and controlled. Critiques of capitalism are undoubtedly present in universities but universities continue to be a place, as contributors noted, where the ‘business model’ flourishes with ease.

But the space to carry out research remains important and it is within the limited scope available that this can be further developed. Works of political engagement and even advocacy are, as noted, what we might expect of people outside the university and so academics who have wonderful political ideas should also be trying to engage with people who also have wonderful political ideas beyond the university (as many do). But the idea of simply entertaining knowledge deemed ‘useless’ or ‘irrelevant’ and not obviously ‘advocacy’ should also be part of this agenda (and its very labelling as ‘useless’ and ‘irrelevant’ shows it does in fact have political significance vis-à-vis the dominant discourses concerning education). The university is a place where knowledge is preserved, analysed, explained, and unravelled (which applies – note – as much to the more obviously ‘political’ scholarship as so-called ‘detached’ or ‘objective’ scholarship). But why should it should it remain in the university alone, or as a benefit for the (typically) more privileged middle class consumer/student? I want to advocate (I use the term deliberately) two possible ways of pushing university scholarship beyond the university.

1. Open Access

Open access is mentioned in Hussein Rashid’s contribution and can be developed further. The way this debate is being framed in the UK is between two broad choices (and I caricature): don’t really do it at all (stick to the learned journals for learned academics) or make sure universities pay publishers money so that articles produced by academics are freely available online. I don’t think this debate has gone far enough. Let’s take the example of academic journals: typically an institution or individual has to pay money to a reputable publisher. Academics are not paid to edit journals or peer-review articles (at least in my experience) so why don’t scholars just run an online, open access journal which is free of charge, open to all and where the reviewers and editors get paid just as much as they would from an established journal? Of course, it will not be easy to challenge the dominance and prestige of the established journal with the established publisher but it is not an impossible task. In Biblical Studies this has already happened (so far, successfully) with the journals Bible and Critical Theory and Relegere. This seems a model worth emulating.

2. External Engagement

To take the UK as a starting point again, there is something that everyone in universities is talking about (often negatively) and that is ‘impact’. UK universities now have to provide some justification showing that their research has wider social, cultural and economic impact. Some of this is merely an extension of the economic argument dominant in university teaching culture (and noted by a number of the contributors): justify how the university contributes to employment, the economy and so on. But it doesn’t have to be this way and even in the official assessment of universities it doesn’t have to be this way entirely. This is partly because arts and humanities (and some areas of science) are often deemed ‘useless’ in economic terms. Whether that’s a correct assessment, I leave to one side but the idea that research can have a social and cultural impact is something that can be developed (and certainly so outside the official ‘measurements’ of research). I know several people who are excellent at external engagement, working with a wide range of different groups who do not typically have access to universities or the research carried out in them. In many regards, this has something in common with the tradition of adult education associated with a number of academics (most famously historians) of the mid-twentieth century. What’s also significant about external engagement is that it means that perhaps most, if not all, areas of academic life can be discussed beyond the university. And, yes, that even includes academics who proudly proclaim that their work on Akkadian roots has no impact on the wider world. Human curiosity is wide ranging. Don’t just think you – yes, you – are some self-confessed ‘nerd’ who works on things no one cares about other than you and maybe a handful of other academics (read: ‘Look at me, I’m so clever aren’t I!’). If you do think like this, then you might find yourself surprised.

James G. Crossley is Senior Lecturer of New Testament studies at the University of Sheffield. He presently edits the BibleWorld series for Equinox Publishing, is on the editorial board of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. Among his books are Jesus in an Age of Terror: Scholarly Projects for a New American Century (London and Oakville: Equinox, 2008); Reading the New Testament: Contemporary Approaches (New York and London: Routledge, 2010); and Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Scholarship, Intellectuals and Ideology (Equinox: London and Oakville, 2012).

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