Something I Learned from J.Z. Smith: Jay M. Stanton

This is part of a new series where scholars reflect on something they’ve learned from the influential work of Jonathan Z. Smith, who died on December 30, 2017. For other posts in the series see here.

by Jay M. Stanton

One of my favorite office hours memories comes from Autumn Quarter of my fourth year. J.Z. and I were splitting our time between reading Linnaeus and discussing my senior project on social aspects of communal prayer ritual. I had to leave early because it was Sukkot, sundown was approaching, and I had not yet shaken the four species. So I apologized to him and said I was running out of time to wave a bull roarer. His eyes widened and he exclaimed, “You’re going to make it rain? Incredible!” In that moment, I had transformed from a student of religion to a native informant. J.Z. was so excited at the prospect! Despite his curiosity, he restrained himself from an ethnographic interview. In doing so, he preserved me as student rather than subject.

In the final years of his career, each of J.Z.’s college courses had one assignment in addition to class readings. He called it a reflective paper: ten pages with no prompt other than to engage with the material of the course. Students were permitted to write the whole paper on one topic or to divide the work into several disjointed sections. Having academics for parents, I initially thought this was a strategy to minimize J.Z’s grading duties. Yet, as I discovered, J.Z. was never one to regard work as something that needed minimizing. The reflective paper was J.Z.’s way of inviting students to present him with those aspects of the material that we found naturally interesting. He used class time to gauge our content retention and our critical views of texts. The reflective paper was an exercise in noticing what fascinated us: aspects of the reading we didn’t touch in class discussion, new or persistent questions, and applications worth exploring. Confident in his ability to teach the most useful concepts in the material, J.Z. tasked students with presenting the most salient ones.

In retrospect, J.Z.’s reflective paper served a dual purpose. First, it communicated the agency of students in the College over our learning. We were not cogs in an academic machine churning out endless arguments about the flaws in Durkheim’s definition of religion or explaining the centrality of the corroboree. We did not need to write a persuasive essay. J.Z. took pains to see that we would not become alienated from our labor of learning in his course. Our learning and our work for him were ultimately ours. Second, the reflective paper was an opportunity for J.Z. to encounter new approaches to texts he held dear. Unlike what the field English calls “a reflection paper,” J.Z. did not expect a narrative of a change in a student’s perspective due to the course. He wanted to know what interested us at the end of the course. In response to the section in my final paper for his course on The Elementary Forms of Religious Life on Durkheim and mathematics, J.Z. wrote two paragraphs about the differences in approach that mathematicians and agrostologists may take in making meaning with Durkheim and their relative advantages in understanding human experience. J.Z. proudly told me of another student’s reflective paper for his comparative mythology course, Thinking with Stories. A creative writing student, she composed a short work of science fiction. I need not worry about my status in his eyes; my work on subversive myth and counterculture was “a close third or fourth,” he said with a smile that indicated his pride. J.Z. both respected and delighted in the creative thought of his students.

The reflective paper is one of many examples of J.Z.’s particular approach to educating college students. He would correct us if we said “undergraduate.” You are an adult in a college; you are not under anyone. His assertion was both hierarchical reality and emotional exhortation. His openness to teach and learn was available to anyone with sufficient motivation to reach him outside class. He enjoyed company on his walks from various classroom buildings back to his office. I quickly learned that signing up for the final office hours slot of the day gained you the privilege of conversing until he felt guilt for keeping his wife Elaine waiting. His office hours were an endless series of back and forth questioning, book recommendations, and inquiries into life and intellectual progress outside of the narrow confines of a course. Whenever I asked a question about one of his published works, instead of answering my question, he would present me with his updated thoughts on the subject. When I casually mentioned an area of interest in which he was not well-read, he would ask me for a starter book recommendation. I learned to be specific: to talk about Buddhisms instead of Buddhism, the Renaissances instead of the Renaissance, and to discuss Bibles instead of the Bible. He claimed that he learned this from his long-standing intellectual friendship with the late Jacob Neusner, but it has every hallmark of J.Z.’s taxonomical ingenuity. In office hours, I learned to use language that allows classifications, maps, and models, language that works well with the tools of comparison and generalization, language that safeguards cultural production against the false arguments of universal authenticity and absolute relativism. In J.Z., I gained an academic guide to a new discipline, a mentor, and a friend.

As one of J.Z.’s last students in Religion and the Humanities, I cherish encountering him in the retrospective phase of his career. His conscious and subconscious efforts were focused in the early 2000s on communicating the continuing relevance of the humanities and its tools, chief among them the project of comparison. I often return to “The Devil in Mr. Jones,” which I take as a privileged example of J.Z.’s comparative efforts for its brevity, clarity, and simplicity. In urging us not to place Jonestown outside the parameters of the study of religion, he ends, “For if we do not persist in the quest for intelligibility, there can be no human sciences, let alone, any place for the study of religion within them.” (Imagining Religion:From Babylon to Jonestown,” 120). But this is the weak form of his argument. I prefer the strong form. If we create a category of the never-intelligible, that is to say, the incomparable, then we sacrifice not only the project of comparison, but also the project of understanding. In J.Z.’s view, as long as some data are made sacred, our approach remains religious rather than scientific.

Jay M. Stanton is an alumnus of the College at the University of Chicago and a student in the rabbinical program at the Academy for the Jewish Religion in New York.

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