Teaching “Just the Facts”

An image of Andie Alexander and the quote

In the course I’m TAing for (a Masters level American Religious History course), I was given the opportunity to give a class lecture. The professor wanted me to bring my own work and knowledge, given that the lecture material was related to my own area of study (Catholic immigration and nationalism in the US). While I have had the opportunity to lecture in the past (and design my own portion of the syllabus to then teach), this was the first time I taught material chosen by someone else.  Continue reading “Teaching “Just the Facts””

“It becomes an identity. A part of you.”

A screenshot of a woman holding a child's foot with a cut

The New York Times published an interesting article yesterday — focusing on US factory worker, Shannon Mulcahy,  someone who is caught up in the effects of globalization (aka US jobs moving to Mexico).

I’ll leave it to you to read it, but among the many things that caught my eye was that line, quoted above, in my title. Continue reading ““It becomes an identity. A part of you.””

The Sun Never Sets on the Study of Religion

Sun Never SetsLots of scholars of religion are focused these days on studying such things as implicit religion, the Nones, or almost any other so-called worldview that people might be said to work with or inhabit (e.g., many are hot on the trail of secularism). What I find interesting about all this is the way in which a professional identity is being recreated, by those who work in this field, in the face of twenty year’s worth of critiques of the category religion itself (pretty obviously the field’s primary organizing concept); for it seems that the more the term is criticized (as being a Latin-based signifier that was exported in the age of colonial contact, making it hardly the universal designator that it was once thought to be — see here for a good primer on this argument) the more data these scholars seem to have to study. Consider the so-called Nones — those who answer a few questions on a survey, about belief in God or attendance at church, and who are now thought by many to comprise a cohesive social, political force: scholars of religion are intent on studying them despite their adamant denial that they’re religious. What’s curious is that while many such scholars criticize those of peers who fail to take the insider’s viewpoint seriously, as they might say, yet here, in the case of the Nones, people’s refusal to identify as religious is hardly a barrier to eager scholars of religion. Continue reading “The Sun Never Sets on the Study of Religion”

We’re All Counting on You

Picture 1Did you see this recent article at slate.com? I think it’s fascinating — why? Well, not because of the proverbial tribe that’s been found in deepest, darkest wherever, but because of the manner in which the article itself so nicely brings to light the (likely inevitable) problems associated with coming to know anything about the world around us. For in a piece on a group of people who apparently have no numbers in their language system (or at least an inability to think of quantities larger than a few) we see a whole bunch of numbers used by the article’s author to itemize big facts. There’s around 700 of these people, we’re told; we first learned about them in 2007, in a magazine article that was — count ’em! — 12,000 words in length.

My point? Unless we privilege our language system as if it is in sync with reality itself — as happens so often, when we start talking about facts — one can’t help but see this story as a moment when two no less local systems bump into each other (something I’m thinking from my position within one of them, of course — how crazy is that?). For our ability to “think itemized quantity” is so self-evident to us that we’re perplexed by how they get along without it — the “it” here is taken as a fact of nature and not some quirky acquisition that we happen to have, of course. That is, why isn’t the article on how peculiar it is that other language systems even have numbers?

Of course we have no choice but to use local assumptions and concepts and curiosities in coming to know those we take to be our others but we too often make the mistake of failing to see these assumptions and concepts and curiosities as our tools. Instead, we (especially if we happen to be in dominant groups) speak loudly and slowly and say such things as “How do you say ‘religion’ in your language?” — as if the fact that we happen to divide up and name the world in this or that way necessarily has some corresponding dance partner in all human systems.

Whether hubris or laziness accounts for this, it’s worth mulling over that a change in attitude toward owning our assumptions and concepts and curiosities might be the first step in doing any sort of interesting work on this thing we’re calling identification.

What’s the Point?

anecdoteI was watching a rerun of a show on television the other night, about emotions in animals, when one of the scientists interviewed talked about how a variety of solitary observations can build up to a considerable body of observational data — “the plural of anecdote is data” he said. It’s a line, I later realized, that has been attributed to, among others, Raymond Wolfinger, a retired political scientist professor at Berkeley (see more here). Continue reading “What’s the Point?”

Our Primary Expertise

snowblowingWhen I was a doctoral student, sometime in the late 1980s, I recall Will Oxtoby (d. 2003) — then a professor at the University of Toronto, member of my doctoral supervisory committee and, a few years later, editor of a very popular two volume world religions textbook — saying that theory was like a snowblower (using a suitably northern analogy to make his point); “it helps you to move things around,” he said. Continue reading “Our Primary Expertise”