The $200 Handshake: Why We Should Stop Doing Job Interviews at Conferences #SBLAAR14

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It is time for search committees to stop interviewing candidates at national conferences. It is time for the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature to dissolve the (un)Employment Center.

Over the weekend I noticed some posts in my Facebook timeline from friends and colleagues who are on the job market about the upcoming American Academy of Religion meeting in San Diego. One person was lamenting the $500 she spent out of her pocket for a plane ticket to a conference where she wasn’t even sure she’d have any job interviews. Another was asking when he should arrive in order to be there the right days for any interviews he might get. So, here are two young scholars, not yet on the tenure track, trying to find the time and money to attend a conference for imaginary job interviews they don’t even know about yet. This makes absolutely no sense. The constituency within the AAR with the least resources, the least funding, and the least institutional support is required to attend the annual meeting with no promise that it is even worth their while.

I had the privilege of landing a tenure-track job in my second year on the job market. I was fortunate. But both those years, I did not hear about job interviews at the AAR until a week or so before the conference. Luckily, I was already planning to go because I was presenting papers and involved with programming. Luckily, I had institutional funding to go. But what if I didn’t? What would have happened if I told a search committee chair on the phone, “I won’t be at the AAR, but I’d be happy to interview over Skype?”

Look at the conference fees and the membership dues for the AAR. Even if they register in May (for imaginary November interviews) student candidates will have to pay $140 in registration and membership fees. Someone who has finished their Ph.D. but is still looking for a tenure-track job would pay at least $210 and up to $465 depending on what they make in their non-TT position. These non-TT members are the one’s who are least likely to have funding. On top of these fees you also have to add in travel and hotel costs for an imaginary interview you don’t even know you’ll really ever have.

Why do we charge an admission fee for a job interview?

At the heart of this ridiculousness sits the AAR/SBL Employment Center.  There are two sides to the Employment Center. First, there’s the digital side. These are the job listings that departments pay to have listed. They are only available to AAR members who have paid the membership dues. For an extra $25 ($50 if you do it on-site) candidates can also submit their C.V. to a database, get a sweet printout of the job listings at the conference, and communicate with search committees through an arcane messaging system. I paid to register for this twice and I think it was totally worthless. The other side of the Employment Center is physical. It’s a place. A place deep in the bowels of a conference center. It is a large ballroom divided into cubicles for interviews and a bullpen for candidates to wait until someone emerges and calls their name. It is the most depressing place on Earth. It is unnecessary. The Employment Center is a wast of resources. Rather than force candidates to travel to the national meeting, search committees should take advantage of Skype or one of the many other options for conducting video interviews. Moving job candidates to a central location is wasteful, foolish, unnecessary, and puts an undue burden on job seekers. The constituents of the American Academy of Religion do not need the Employment Center. It is a matchmaker in the time of Tinder.

So, all of that said, what should the AAR do for candidates? Here are two things.

1. Get rid of the Employment Center

2. Take the Employment Listings out from behind the paywall. Free the jobs!

If the AAR can’t do these two things, then it has an obligation to do something else:

No conference registration fees for students and recent Ph.D.s (within the past 2 years).

Students make up about a third of the AAR membership, according to the AAR. I don’t know how much of the meeting attendees they make up but I’d guess a lot. Nonetheless, it’s time to get rid of the $200 handshake. If the AAR won’t stop the conference interview then it should at least make them cheap–as in free. I’m not the first to recommend something along these lines. When you get that phone call from a search committee chair saying, “We’d love to speak with you about our position.” You’re reaction shouldn’t be “How the hell will I pay for that?” It should be:

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UPDATE 2:48 pm 10/20:  I’ve gotten a lot of feedback that I’ve low balled the costs. It’s not just a $200 handshake. This is true. I went with 200 bucks anticipating a “REAL scholars always go to the meeting anyway” response from those defending the status quo. Philip Tite has a great breakdown of the full cost. He sets the minimum at $1525 and the max at over $2400.

How To Rid Yourself of a Constructivist Argument in 3 Easy Steps

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Step one: Assert that the constructivist is saying nothing new.

A constructivists’ criticisms are obviously true and we know this already and we’ve already incorporated them into our work and so all this is old news

Step two: Assert that the constructivist is wrong.

These criticisms are obviously false because they misrepresent how real people (ie., not academics) understand religion themselves

Step three: Assert that it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter whether these criticisms are true or false because we’re just going to do what we’ve been doing anyway and so all this critique amounts to is time-wasting navel gazing that distracts us from doing the real work that we’ve already decided to do. For this last reason, deconstructive critiques that tell us that work in religious studies is analytically incoherent are not helpful because they might prevent scholars of religion from doing the analytically incoherent work that we will inevitably do because, hey, no one’s perfect.

(Thanks, Finbarr.)

What Podcasts Do You Put in Your Ears?

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I’m working on a review essay that covers the various academic podcasts about religion and religious studies  that have appeared in the past few years. I’m limiting myself to academic podcasts, or at least podcasts that feature academics. So, I’m not including things like Interfaith Voices or On Being. I am interested in podcasts not necessarily in religious studies but that have scholars discussing religion, such as the Junto Podcasts. Here’s a list of what I have so far.

What am I missing?

Let me know in the comments or on Twitter/Facebook/Morse code/carrier pigeon/YO.

Publications
Journal of Southern Religion http://jsr.fsu.edu/new-media/
Directions in the Study of Religion- Marginalia http://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/category/interviews/
First Impressions- Marginalia http://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/category/interviews/

Groups/Projects
Religious Studies Project http://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/
New Books Network http://newbooksnetwork.com/

Universities/Centers
McGill http://podcasts.mcgill.ca/tags/religious-studies/
Oxford http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/keywords/religion
Research on Religion http://www.researchonreligion.org/
Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict https://itunes.apple.com/itunes-u/religion-and-conflict/id383721017?mt=10#ls=1

Subfield
The World of Islam: Culture, Religion, and Politics http://aminetais.podbean.com/
The Junto Podcast Network: http://earlyamericanists.com/the-junto-podcast-network/

Hindoos, Hindus, Spelling, and Theory

What is the relationship between spelling and theory? I often tell people my research is about “Hinduism in nineteenth century America.” But it’s really not. It’s not about Hinduism at all. It can’t be because the idea of “Hinduism,” a world religion comparable to other world religions, isn’t invented until the late nineteenth century. That’s kind of the point of my research. Most other scholars writing about this period will still use the term “Hindu” to describe the people that Americans or Britons were describing during this period. But when an American missionary or Unitarian pastor refered to the people in India doing something that they recognize as religion they most often used the term “Hindoo.” Hindoo–that double O of colonialism.

So, here’s the question: Is the difference between Hindoo and Hindu just a matter of spelling? Or is there more going on here?

On the one hand, you could argue that though the sources read Hindoo, it makes sense for the scholar today to write Hindu, even when talking about the 1820s. There are all sorts of terms that we alter when we bring them into the present from the past. No one puts the long S in their scholarly prose, for example. So, maybe Hindoo to Hindu is just like taking that long s out of Congress in the Bill of Rights?

The long s in "Congress" from the Bill of Rights

The long s in “Congress” from the Bill of Rights

But maybe it’s not. It seems to me a Hindu is actually someone quite different from a Hindoo. That is, a Hindu is someone tied up with this world religion called Hinduism. There is the Hindu American Foundation, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (or World Hindu Council), and the Pew Research Center tallies up the number of “Hindus” in America. But in the early nineteenth century, a Hindoo was a product of the American and British imagination. When I discuss what Americans thought about India and the people who lived there and these things they did that Americans thought were religion, I am not talking about people in South Asia. I’m talking about representations of people in South Asia. These Hindoos are imaginary. “Hindoos” and their religion were invented by Europeans and Americans. During this period, people in India did not present themselves to an American audience. Rather, they were represented by American and European authors to an American audience and in that process they were represented as Hindoos.

Perhaps the one exception to this would be the Indian reformer Rammohun Roy who wrote in English to an American and British audience. However, Roy self-identified as a “Hindoo,” as in his work “A Defence of Hindoo Theism.” Swami-Vivekananda-Hindoo-Monk-posterEven as late as the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, Americans represented Swami Vivekananda, the South Asian who garnered an audience throughout America, as a “Hindoo Monk.” Vivekananda and Rammohun Roy served as transitional figures as Hindoos became Hindus. That is, as South Asians went from imagined representations to immigrants representing themselves in American culture. In 1893 Vivekananda was a “Hindoo monk” but by 1930 he is part of a “Hindu Movement” in Wendell Thomas’s book Hinduism Invades America. Vivekananda goes from Hindoo to Hindu, from a South Asian represented by Americans in Chicago to the founder of a movement representing itself in America.

Here’s the shift from Hindoo to Hindu in one handy Ngram. The lines cross in the year 1884:

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For most of my brief career I’ve fallen back on the term “Hindu religions” to describe whatever it was that Americans and the British were trying to describe in their writing. But I’ve decided to eject that term from my work going forward because it implies that there is something there that is essentially “Hindu” before someone labels it as such. There is no there there, however. There is only the discourse about whatever people in South Asia seem to be doing to Europeans and Americans. So, I’m going back to Hindoo, colonial Os and all, to emphasize that nothing is “Hindu” or “Hindoo” until someone categorizes it as such. And then, once categorized, my job is to unpack the conflicts, arguments, ideologies, claims, and competitions behind that categorization. But I am curious to hear from others on this question–and similar questions about, say, “evangelical” or other such categories. Is this all simply a word game?

 

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Europeanizing the Buddha and Constructing a World Religion

The Buddha, as many in the West understand him, was invented in the nineteenth century, says Donald Lopez.

This Europeanized image of the Buddha emerged after hundreds of years of Christian misconceptions about the Buddha, argued Lopez. During visits to Asia, Europeans had seen different images of the Buddha, represented in the various artistic styles of places such as Thailand, India, China, and Japan. In each country, the Buddha also had different names that were translations of Indian names and epithets into the local languages. Seeing different images and hearing different names, Christian writers assumed that Buddhists worshipped multiple gods, and that the representations of the Buddha were idols of several different deities.

Eventually, European scholars gained the skills to translate Buddhist texts, and European readers began to have a better understanding of Buddhist thought and beliefs. At the same time, however, the Buddha became more European.

Lopez’s point about the various representations of the Buddha that European (and American) missionaries encountered is well taken. It took a long time for Europeans and Americans to unite “Lamaism” in Tibet and “the religion of Foe” in China and those texts and statues they found in India under the term “Buddhism.” In A Dictionary of All Religions, Hannah Adams scattered what we now call Buddhism among various groups including: “Birmins,” “Budso,” Chinese, and “Thibetians.” And, of course, all of these fell under the larger rubric of “heathens.”

But I do take issue with the idea of “misconceptions” and a later “better understanding.” Hannah Adams did not necessarily get it wrong. There’s good reason to treat what folks are doing in Burma or Thailand as something very different from what they are doing in Japan or Tibet. There was no essentially real Buddhism out there to be misconceived or better understood. As Tomoko Masuzawa wrote in her excellent chapter on Buddhism in The Invention of World Religions:

In effect, the scholarship on Buddhism was from the beginning constructingor “discovering,” as one might prefer to put it–a decidedly non-national religion, a qualitatively universal(istic) religion, that is to say, a Weltreligion, or world religion.

Europeans and Americans conceived of Buddhism as a world religion not because of “misconceptions” that were corrected by “better understandings,” but because it served their purposes within a growing discourse of “world religions” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Buddha became European because Europeans imagined him in their own image to server their own purposes. The “Europeanized image of the Buddha,” is not a misconception of a pan-Asian religion, but an example of a European construction of religion that can reveal something about what was on the mind of nineteenth century European and American scholars of religion.

Incidentally, I’m teaching a class along these lines in the fall.

“Diverses Pagodes et Penitences des Faquirs.”

“Native” is not a native term

A colleague on categories of practice and categories of analysis:

That this distinction between practice and analysis is itself a form of identification for that thing we come to call the academy is certain (for we can indeed study the social practice of scholarship itself, no?), but I would argue that the result of these practices, the social formation that we call the academy, is comprised of interests different from those of the people whose lives its members describe. This difference cannot go unnoticed, however, all depending on the degree of affinity the scholar may feel for the lives of the people he or she may study. But we must never forget that defining and studying their culture is our culture, no matter how sympathetic or empathetic one aims to be in carrying out that role; for it is hardly a compliment to the people they may happen to study for scholars to fail to see that their own lives are rather different from living the lives of those others who have no benefit of the critical distance and time for reflection, reconsideration, writing, reading, and discussion that scholars may take for granted.

So, “native” isn’t a native term. That is, there is no “other” out there in the world without first an “us” to posit them. This is what I’ve seen in my study of American encounters with India during the nineteenth century. For American Protestants, the “Hindu” and “Hinduism” came into being through a process of categorizing everyone that wasn’t “American” or “Protestant.” So it was that the “heathen” in the late eighteenth century became a “Hindu” in 1893.

Not a Native Term: A New Blog for a New Job

The title of this blog has changed along with the design. The new title, “Religion is Not a Native Term” comes from the chapter, “Religion, Religions, Religious” written by Jonathan Z. Smith in Critical Terms for Religious Studies. It’s part of Smith’s larger argument that the category “religion” is an invention of the scholar. There is no “religion” out there in the world. Scholars decide to call this or that practice, text, person, or group “religion.”

As I transition into a new job as an assistant professor specializing in religion and conflict, I keep finding myself retuning to this basic idea. Religion is not a native term. In fact, I argue that religion is a term that emerges because someone has run into “the natives.” When Christian missionaries encounter someone in the New World or in Asia doing something that isn’t Christianity but somehow looks familiar they reach for a category. Sometimes that term is heathenism or paganism. Sometimes that term is religion.