NAASR Notes is a new feature with the Bulletin where we invite members of the North American Association for the Study of Religion to describe books they are reading and/or research and writing projects that will be of interests to scholars in the field. For previous posts in this series, follow the link.
by Russell McCutcheon
In terms of my own writing, I published a couple collection of essays last year, one a set of responses (with Equinox) that I’ve written over the years, either replying to others’ criticisms of my work or as a respondent at a conference, and the other a collection of articles (with Brill’s new Supplements to MTSR book series), a few of which are published there for the first time (including two on some of the difficulties I see in New Testament and Christian origins scholarship and one on troubles with how the field is portrayed in recent volumes of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion). As I’ve written elsewhere, I seem to have ended up being an essayist for a variety of reasons, one of which was that, given how much I disagree with some work carried out in the field, it afforded me a series of discrete opportunities to tackle a specific issue in specific situations (hopefully always making evident how it was but an instance of a wider problem). Critics Not Caretakers (published in 2001) was the first time I had enough to collect up and that seems to have set the model for me ever since.
Given that a number of younger people now find the study of religion to be a worthwhile focus, seeing the sociology and politics of category formation to be interesting (case in point, just why do we [i.e., members of the media, politicians, and yes, scholars as well] worry so much over whether this or that group is, as they say, authentically Muslim?), I decided to collect up some of my responses over the years (a couple are newly published there) because they seemed to me to nicely represent the sort of challenges that sometimes (often?) greets scholarship on scholarship. And I explicitly had earlier career scholars in mind when I thought about my intended audience, as I wrote the introductions to each of its chapters, hoping they’d see here one way of addressing colleagues who inform you that your work isn’t real scholarship (a response I’ve heard, in one form or another, on more occasions than you’d think and it hardly subsides as you get older). But hearing, over the past few years, those same tired, old lines being tossed around with regard to the work of some newer writers in the field was particularly frustrating to me and it prompted me to think about collecting up the responses I’ve penned, seeing it all as a bit of a record of the back-and-forth that constitutes an academic field. After all, whether we agree or not, we’re both going to put our responses on our C.V’s and citation indices will log how many times I cite you even if it’s just to show how not to practice the study of religion. So taking seriously the way we’re all entangled in the formation of our own field seemed to me to be an interesting exercise, to try to make evident that critique is good for the health of an academic enterprise (even good for the C.V’s of those who say there’s no legitimate place for it).
Otherwise, I continue to blog, whether at my Department’s own site (which posts the work of profs, students, and grads as well, along with a guest or two every now and then—a recent post of mine was why I even blog in the first place) or at Culture on the Edge (a site devoted to identity studies, which involves 7 scholars in total, a few of whom are also NAASR members). Although I think publishing peer review articles and books is still crucial for the life of our enterprise, critiques of pay portals and the need for scholars to write for wider publics also strikes me as relevant, so I decided a couple years back to start writing online regularly, for good or ill. It’s something our Department takes pretty seriously too, especially trying to get students writing in the public domain, and it’s had a really positive effect within the unit. In fact, we do a lot of novel things in our Department, all aimed at injecting energy into it. It’s been a pretty successful experiment, I must say: like our university’s enrollment, we’ve doubled in size over the last decade (all tenure-track lines), a time during which my colleague Ted Trost and I have been Department Chair. Given how many people seem to, at least from my point of view, rush through something I’ve written and then conclude that I’m out to kill the field, well, taking a look at our successes here in Alabama might prove interesting—especially at a time when Humanities majors in the U.S. feel under siege. While we certainly have our share of challenges on our campus, we pay careful attention to as many factors as we can identify, factors that play a role in recruiting and retaining students as well as those that enhance the quality of life for those working in the Department—we’re even starting to experiment with podcasts now (Mike Altman and I were in a studio recording one not long ago), something to add to the movies our students are already making about life on the second and third floors of Manly Hall.
In terms of new projects, like everyone, there’s a variety of things I’ve got in pots and pans on burners with various flames under them, some boiling pretty hard and others just bubbling a bit now and then. The trick is to get to each before they either boil over or go cold, of course—so I’m knee deep in that and teaching classes, just like everyone else. I’ll be heading to Switzerland sometime in the Fall 2015 semester, to teach for a week or so, and hopefully also heading to Iowa and Rochester too, to give papers; I’ll be on a panel at the annual AAR conference in Atlanta, devoted to issues of academic labor and the work conditions of non-tenure track appointees, and, speaking of Atlanta, I’m really looking forward to the NAASR program this coming November, which prominently features a diverse group of early career scholars who, it seems to me, all have something to say about where the field ought to be going. (A workshop for ABDs and early career scholars on the job market has now been added to that program, by the way.) And Aaron Hughes, our Vice President (and MTSR’s editor), will even be collecting up all of these papers into a book. (Perhaps future programs can follow this same model?) Regrettably, I won’t make it to the IAHR World Congress in Germany this August—the first I’ve missed since Mexico City in 1995; I’ll sure miss seeing some old friend there and meeting in person some new virtual friends, so I’d really encourage anyone to go if they’re able to attend.