Is It a Review Essay? Strategies of Classification

a card catalogKatie Lofton’s recent review essay of On Teaching Religion in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion has generated significant feedback on social media, both favorable and not. One point of debate is the appropriate classification for the essay. While the journal editor labeled it a Review Essay, others have described it as a tribute to J. Z. Smith’s scholarship, a teaching evaluation, a memoir essay, etc. Other terms describing the essay (a different manner of classification) ranged from narcissistic and Oedipal to a great read. 

So, what difference does the classification make? Certainly, the classification of published materials influences the ways a reader approaches the words on the page. Readers typically expect a different topic of analysis in a review essay than in a memoir. The standards of argumentation also frequently differ in a scholarly journal as opposed to a letter to the editor. When a reader’s expectations are not fulfilled, the disconnect can create a pleasant surprise or exacerbate frustration.

Classification in these ways also implies a certain level of authority, such as the difference between a peer reviewed publication and a Facebook comment. Thus, classification becomes a strategic point to contest the worth of writing. In other words, my sense of the debate over the classification of Lofton’s essay is that the classification becomes a way to express broader responses to the essay and through the classification support or diminish the authority of her assertions, for she makes some bold statements that, surprisingly to me, have not been secondary to the issue of classification in many of the discussions that I have read. For example, while respecting Smith’s influence on her own scholarly habits, Lofton basically discounts the value of his method in rather stark terms. She asserts,

Yet, there is an imperceptible center to all this talk of difference and its management, a coldness that often leads readers of Smith to feel he is explaining well the abstract meaning behind a ritual, myth or community decision, but that he is not capturing anything like their anthropological or psychological reality (537).

Following this, she suggests that Smith’s approach fails to work “in life,” a claim that probably needs a little more development than the simile of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings (what seems to be a bit of an overstatement in itself). Lofton’s apparent assertion that other methods better convey “reality” and reach students on a more complete level enters into a significant debate in the academic study of religion. While I find the empiricism implicit in her assumptions problematic, I know that many in our field do not. That the debate about her essay has not explicitly tackled these assertions, either supporting or rejecting them, suggests to me that the act of classification here (as often happens) is a proxy for the debate over method and reductionist approaches. Lofton suggests as much in relation to the responses to Smith’s assertion that “religion is solely the creation of the scholar” when she declares,

This passage [of Smith’s] seems utterly idiotic, argumentatively important, or perfectly axiomatic, depending on your relationship to religion as a problem for humanistic inquiry.

And that is to be expected. Descriptions, definitions, and classifications typically have embedded within them particular assumptions and interests of the person presenting the description, definition, or classification. That is why I am skeptical of Lofton’s assertion that other methods get to that “anthropological or psychological reality,” since these representations also contain the representer’s assumptions rather than some purified description of reality.

Thus, all of our representations are data for analysis, including my own construction of what is really at stake in these debates over classifying an essay.


Photo by Tulane Public Relations (Card Catalog  Uploaded by AlbertHerring) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


7 Replies to “Is It a Review Essay? Strategies of Classification”

  1. Hi, Steven! I want to thank you for offering an analytical appraisal of the responses to this piece. I couldn’t agree more that arguments about whether the essay is rightly classified are arguments about whether the essay is, actually, right: right in its location, right in its arguments implied and explicit, and right in its voice. I think you do a great job of beginning to think through how reactive perspectives are embedded in arguments about classification. (I also think the references to Oedipus and Narcissus suggest that the reactions are also embedded in deeply disturbed presumptions we have about the self-other relation, but I’ll leave that for other conversational climes.)

    Now, onto one point where you note possible difference in our perspectives: You suggest that when I hear students reject Smith’s arguments because they don’t recognize and “anthropological or psychological reality” that I agree with the students. No. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It is actually quite funny to me that so many of my critics think I am invested in the Real! (This suggests that I am right to imagine that most of my critics have never read anything else by me.) I wouldn’t keep teaching Smith if I didn’t find his essays to be opportunities precisely for a confrontation between what they imagine religion to be and what the scholarly study of religion does.

    Nobody I know working in the humanities today believes in the purified rendering of reality. That said, this doesn’t mean that we don’t (a) encounter that desire in our students, or (b) encounter that ambition in our documents and data — or in other .

    How then do we actually explain and justify our sciences? If I accuse Smith of anything, it is that he wasn’t a very good teacher of his best thinking, even though he was, obviously, a powerful teacher to me. Smith was not good at explaining the grounds for his choices, about the method of his translation, even though his choices — and his translations — have become quite canonical to us. On this point, I recommend highly Nancy Levene’s extraordinary critique, “Courses and Canons in the Study of Religion” in the December 2012 issue of JAAR.

    Our students want to understand their world, their understandings of their world, and their representations of those understandings (and the world). They want to understand how the mediation of their lives is so determining of their perceptions. Or they want to know what to do with their lives relative to the obsessive meta-critique that we train them to possess. It is this transom between students and our thinking that my essay emphasizes, and to which I think every scholar in the humanities ought to give a significant portion of their intellectual energies.

    Thank you, again, Steven — I really appreciated your post!

  2. I appreciate your clarification that a sense of “anthropological or psychological reality” is the assumption of your students, but perhaps we operate with a different conception of rendering reality, for I find an underlying assumption of reality in scholarship in the Humanities. Case in point, my recent blog post on Balmer’s Politico article centered on his argument about what “really happened,” a similar move to arguments about what Jesus or Muhammad really did/taught. To me, this is an assumption of a persistent reality that we can describe better, whereas in these examples we have simply various representations from different perspectives.
    Of course, Balmer’s article was written for public consumption, which gets at your point of the tension between our approaches and the expectations of our audience (general public or student). My concern with representations like Balmer’s (or world religions language, for that matter) is the manner in which they reinforce the assumption of the reality of historical explanations or religions as transhistorical entities. So, I certainly agree that we need to continually expend energies to address the gap that you highlight here.

  3. I liked your piece on Balmer’s article for two reasons: first, I have historian-in-drag reasons to disagree with Balmer’s emphasis on one historical origin for the so-called Religious Right over another. Second, I too worry about the identification origins as an academic labor. You say both as well, writing that you want “a more complicated narrative that acknowledges the multiple motivations and interests of all of us.” Yes.

    Before we get too excited about that commiseration, though, I want to worry that both of us are a bit out-of-step (in a good way, finally, but still: out of step) with the broader landscape. After all, doesn’t your and my resistance to wagers of the Best Origin make us somewhat anomalous? I think so.

    I want to continue to work in-between those two claims. First, that human action is complicated and can never be rendered as neatly motivated or neatly enacted; second, that human beings need, expect, request neat explanations for their actions. I have never had a student deny their own complexity of motivation or activity; nonetheless, they hunger for resolving explanations of themselves and others. How can we who are resistant to resolution provide thinking in-class that is not wholly resistant to this aspect of their inquiry? Because here to me the problem is not only “students” but also our other audiences like “readers of news blogs” and “governments” and, increasingly in my experience, “businesses.” I want to find ways of teaching our concepts of complexity in a way that doesn’t just sound to those audiences like academic blather.

    Blogs like yours (this one, on which I’m commenting) seem to me precisely what we should be trying to do. That is, public sites where we try, again, to say what we mean when we argue for contradiction and complexity. Smith did this kind of work in the courtroom and, to some extent, within higher ed itself (at least until the mid-Eighties, after which he described it a “losing proposition”). I think for our generation that work will be (in addition to our students) done online, as well as with interested business partners, and, as ever, in the administrative offices of our institutions. I name those three locations of conversation with no great happiness about any of them, but with a basic material recognition we must all face.

    Rather than linger on that somewhat grim note, I want to thank you again for your post — and indeed your previous ones. I will continue to read with interest the thinking of this blog!

  4. “Our students want to understand their world, their understandings of their world, and their representations of those understandings (and the world). They want to understand how the mediation of their lives is so determining of their perceptions. Or they want to know what to do with their lives relative to the obsessive meta-critique that we train them to possess….”

    I’m not entirely sure that’s correct–you seem here to be speaking rather freely for what our students want. I, for one, don’t know what they want and I don’t think they know what they want either. I’m not sure about the students you teach but, when they walk into my classes, the vast majority of the students I teach more than likely want a Core Curriculum credit in the Humanities which is not too difficult or a class that doesn’t require them to be on campus on Fridays or a class that confirms how they already think about the world…. This is not to critique these students–for that’s certainly where my head was at when I was 19. And 20. And 21… But it does raise the issue of voice, so important to so many in our field–for we’re talking for the students here, and so it would indeed be interesting to find out what they want (without the inevitable leading questions of the ethnographer or the self-selection of only the highly motivated students reading a blog post in June and commenting…) and how we disappoint them by not delivering that (perhaps a main motivator on those student evaluations we all get each semester)–for in many cases, delivering what they want would likely go against our own sense of professional duty and integrity–like wanting an A for just coming to class (and argument I’ve heard on plenty of occasions in my teaching career)…

  5. I agree with the need to express such ideas in a manner more broadly accessible, and that is one of my motivations for writing these posts. Hearing occasionally from friends outside the academy that a piece was thought provoking is especially encouraging. I may be a little more cynical, however, about the prospects of convincing some of these ideas, as many people (myself included) have significant interest in maintaining their position (socially as well as economically), and challenging rhetoric of origin narratives and the like is not always welcome for those who see such narratives as central to those position (e.g., some politicians, marketers, etc.). Like with responses to your essay, the accusation of “academic blather” becomes an easy way to dismiss analysis that challenges one’s position or assumptions. Despite my pessimism, I consider the effort important,while also working to avoid reinforcing (perhaps implicitly) the assumptions that our analysis challenges.

  6. Well, it’s fair for you not to agree with my account of students if you have heard nothing like that. It seems to me that you summarize what students want by reflecting on your experience as a 19-21 year old, as well as by noting comments from your students about the need for an easy Humanities credit. That is one set of data. I have achieved my own perception of what students want from some of the same sources (my experience from age 19-21, comments from students about course credit) as well as from reading and listening to students talk about their experiences as undergraduates at five institutions. I assume you’ve done this to: asked them why they’re t/here, and listened to their long and short and shrugging and passionate answers in reply. Neither of your nor my data pool is consistent or thoroughgoing enough to make any perfect conclusions. But I have plenty of grounds to wager something, just as you have done.

    Where we differ is that I do think you have decided that “delivering what they want would likely go against our own sense of professional duty and integrity.” I am much less decided than you on that point. I don’t think students are only interested in having their ideas confirmed, nor do I think they only want Humanities credit. More importantly: even if I don’t know for certain and can never know what they truly do or don’t want, I would never treat anyone as decided on the subject of their learning.

    You and I can go around and around on every point because we do have somewhat different outlooks about higher education and the study of religion in it (I’m sure, too, we have different outlooks on football teams, classic rock, and flowers). We could say that these differences are determined by biography, temper, philosophy, politics, intellect, institution, race, class, or gender.

    However, what I find moving is that we are both on an academic blog in June, caring enough about pedagogical issues (the least popular issues to discuss in the academy) to consider them in such a place at such a time. To me finding common ground is more interesting than identifying differences. It would be predictable to many if we — you and I — could not find such common ground. I would hope to defeat those cynics.

    To that end, I was deeply formed by your thinking about the politics of the study of religion, and have read nearly everything you have written on that subject. Although you may not like the results, my essay is an attempt to consider the relationship between student and teacher as another terrain in the politics of religious studies — one which is increasingly imperative to understand and occupy powerfully if we are to argue well to our administrators, legislators, and funders our departmental and disciplinary merit. Again, you may not like what I wrote, but what I wrote was nonetheless motivated in some ways by my reading of you.

  7. “I don’t think students are only interested in having their ideas confirmed…”

    This is an important point, for I don’t think I ever said “only.” My point was to highlight “also.” That is, my comment was meant to be a counter-point to your own (in my reading) rather idealized notion of a student. No doubt there are students in our classes with big questions and grand hopes for the material/lecture, but there are students there with exceedingly mundane (or whatever we name them) concerns as well, and I didn’t see them present in your description–in fact, my interest is far more on the mundane since, in my work, it’s only later that it becomes grand or significant, i.e., in hindsight, in the eyes of the professor thinking back on their 19 year old self, in the eyes of the student only when asked why they’re in the class and what they hope to get out of it…, an effect of all origins narratives/narratives of the past, I think. So while of course working to be responsive to the needs that I am able to perceive in a class, I think my role is to model for them a certain way of problem-solving, reasoning through a curiosity, talking about what human beings say and do and how they organize, and it is their job, as students, to treat me as their datum, making them all fieldworkers, and to figure out if there’s anything to gain from talking this way, thinking this way, seeing the world in this way. For many in my classes, until I present them with a certain way of talking about the world that they’ve likely never much encountered before, I think it fair to say that they don’t know what they want–not until the unexpected menu item is placed before them, prompting a moment of alienation from what was formerly taken for granted, and only then, I think, can they be said to have a want, a desire, a goal, inasmuch as they now are placed in the unenviable position of having to make a choice where, prior to that moment, there likely was no distinction and thus no choice to be made. My job, esp. at the undergraduate level, I think, is to create anomalies, identify inconsistencies, find contradictions where, previously, none were seen to exist, prompting students to recognize themselves as players in the game of solving them (however they wish to do that–ignoring them and switching channels might be one way, of course). So, to be honest, I’m not sure they know what they want when they walk into my classes. They know what they’ve had and it is probably so familiar that they don’t even see or taste it anymore and thus I’m not sure they even walk in expecting anything much. Which is precisely why I so often start an intro level class with the Nix v. Hedden decision–let’s shake things up by talking about something that, on first glance, has nothing to do with what we’re studying… To create an anomaly and thereby some room for discourse and choice….

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