On the Spot with Vaia Touna

“On the Spot” backs members of Culture on the Edge into a corner to talk about their backgrounds, their ongoing work, and what might be gained by an alternative understanding of how identity works.

1. When people ask what you study, what do you tell them?

It all depends on, of course, to whom I’m talking. I admit that in the early years I was feeling quite frustrated explaining that what I was doing is not theology, that I’m not searching whether god exists or not, whether there is paradise, and that finishing my studies I would not become a priest or a nun. Yes, these were/are some of the standards questions I will get and I assume many of my colleagues do. Now, knowing full well that this is the reality and that people in general are likely not to have any knowledge of the Religious Studies discipline, I get less disappointed and in fact sometimes I wonder why should they even know. I certainly don’t know a lot about many disciplines and in fact even though I guard myself against my own misconceptions, it is likely that my own experiences or what ever knowledge I have of a particular discipline inform how I understand them or even misjudge them, so I welcome those misconceptions people have of my own discipline as a challenge. So back to the question, although I don’t have a standard answer that I give to everyone, in general in my reply I would explain that Religious Studies is a discipline within the human sciences and therefore interested in people and their behaviors, with a focus on how people use, talk, define, and understand religion and the consequences those usages, definitions, etc. have for them and the world around them. Then I would go into the more specifics, that is, how my data (the things I’m studying) relate to ancient and modern Greece and that in my research I’m interested in the way both scholars and people define religion (that is, how they understand religion) and how those definitions inform understandings of both the ancient and modern world (I might even give an example or two). If I see interest then I would explain that definitions whether of religion or any other term are one among many acts by which people come to identify themselves and understand, even construct, the world around them. Hashtag REL100. Continue reading “On the Spot with Vaia Touna”

Trick or Treat Doctors of Philosophy

Recently on Twitter, I was reflecting about the everyday encounters where the study of religion (and really “religion” as identity formation) becomes a topic of conversation.

In case it’s TL;DR, the long and short is that I’m convinced that there’s plenty of opportunity for scholars to contribute to public discourse if we hold vigilant in our commitment to observation and intelligibility. To me, the minute that we insist upon our expertise at the expense of our willingness to explain our point is when we’ve shifted a potential exchange with someone into an effort to change the other.

A really long essay explaining that "TL;DR" means "too long, didn't read," and advocating readers to "be precise."
A long explanation of what “TL;DR” or “too long; didn’t read,” means. Wikipedia, October 15, 2018.

And while I prefer to see change as a social fact rather than an intrinsically bad thing, there is something disturbing about clearly veiled efforts at affecting change.  They are all well and good when they go unnoticed, like the way I hand my kids a sealed salt shaker when they want to add more seasoning to their food. But when we know how this works, we label these acts differently–manipulation, lying, bait-and-switch, etc.

It’s the trick-or-treat conundrum. Continue reading “Trick or Treat Doctors of Philosophy”

Academic Style and the Voice of Authority

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I recently finished reading Stephen S. Bush’s Visions of Religion: Experience, Meaning, and Power (Oxford University Press, 2014). The book argues that scholars of religion who focus on power (e.g., those who use the theories of Foucault or Bourdieu) to the exclusion of the role of religious experience and symbolic meaning of emic discourses do a disservice, and that all three — power, experience, and meaning — should be included in an account of religion. He attempts to offer an argument as to why all three are important, and to counter objections that the different approaches are intrinsically at odds.

One thing that struck me about Bush’s writing style was how often he made a number of explicitly normative claims, as well as a number of “should” statements, which were put forward as if they were self-evidently authoritative. Consider the following passages. Continue reading “Academic Style and the Voice of Authority”

“You Will Get Nervous When You Learn…”

I recently watched Ethan Hawke’s foray into documentary filmmaking, Seymour: An Introduction, about the great pianist Seymour Bernstein. While it’s characteristically Ethan Hawke-y in a way that made me think Julie Delphy would show up at any minute to play sounding board to Hawke’s musings, and while there’s a bit with a career-mystic that I could do without, I was charmed by Bernstein’s soft-spoken enthusiasm. There are also a few terrific stories along the way. Like this one:

This idea of getting more nervous as one grows in sophistication and talent got me thinking about the respective confidence or jitters with which we approach our profession as scholars. Continue reading ““You Will Get Nervous When You Learn…””

Who Are You? I’m a Religious Studies Scholar

Religious Studies

Who Are You?” is an ongoing series that asks members of Culture on the Edge to reflect on one of their own many identities (whether national, gendered, racial, familial, etc.), theorizing at the same time the self-identification that they each chose to discuss.

The inevitable moment when people I meet for the first time ask what I do tends to be a bit of an awkward one.  It goes something a little like this:

“So, what do you do, Merinda?”
“I’m a religious studies professor at the University of Alabama.”
“What sort of stuff do you work on?”
“I’m interested in how and why people make authenticity claims… I focus mostly on these claims in relation to gender, race, and the South.”
“…wait, but didn’t you say you’re in a religion department?”
“Yeah.”
“So that’s the kind of stuff you can study in a Ph.D. program in religion?”
“Well, sure! My Ph.D. is in English though.”

It’s at this point that most people change the subject. But for those who act interested in how it happens that someone with an English degree is doing her teaching and research in a religious studies context, I try to explain the following.… Continue reading “Who Are You? I’m a Religious Studies Scholar”

Differentiating Fields

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S. Brent Plate’s recent post at Religion Dispatches suggests that when it comes to religious studies, scholars are, in a sense, both insiders and outsiders at the same time. He comes to this conclusion through a comparison of the field of art to the field of religious studies. Iconoclasm in art, he suggests, is actually its own sort of iconification (my horrible word, not his). Artist Ai Weiwei, for instance, photographed himself destroying ancient Chinese artifacts. According to Plate, “iconoclasm is itself an iconic act. One image replaces another. Ai was careful to have his iconoclastic act documented, skillfully shot on camera and reproduced for many to see.” Recently another artist publicly smashed some of Ai’s art in an art gallery, where the act appeared to be partly protest and partly performance art. Iconoclasm is yet again a new iconification. Outsiders who are critical of the tradition are at the same time insiders, extending the tradition in new ways. Plate concludes that, “Tradition is itself a series of creative and destructive acts, stability and instability; the icons are the tradition as much as the images of iconoclasm. Nothing stays the same.” Continue reading “Differentiating Fields”

Why Is the Study of Religion Important?

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You can make a range of excellent arguments for the value of the study of religion. In my department, we have been highlighting the value of the critical and creative thought that many of our students develop in our courses, their understanding of human behavior and social formation, and the recognition of the power of labels to discipline action and construct identifications, to name a few. Continue reading “Why Is the Study of Religion Important?”