Syllabus: Honors Introduction to Religious Studies

I’ve shared syllabi in the past and I thought I’d do it again this semester. Below is the syllabus for my Honors Introduction to Religion Course this semester. As always, I’d love to hear feedback from folks and feel free to steal this and use it as you see fit. No twitter or blogging this time around–saving that for my upper level seminar.

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Why the U.S. State Department Should Take My Introduction to Religious Studies Course

I wrote a piece last week over at Medium.com about the problems I saw in the U.S. State Department’s new Office of Faith Based Community Initiatives. Here’s a taste:

Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry introduced the new Special Advisor of the new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives, Shaun Casey. I invite both the Secretary of State and Mr. Casey to read along with my Introductions to Religious Studies course this semester because, from the statements they gave yesterday, both men are dire need of a more nuanced approached to religion. As Kerry himself remarked:

In fact, if I went back to college today, I think I would probably major in comparative religion, because that’s how integrated it is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today.

Well, I invite you to my class Secretary Kerry.

If they took my course Secretary Kerry and Mr. Casey would learn three things.

Read the rest at Medium.

UPDATE: Check out this piece from Gary Laderman on the State Dept. program. He has a similar take but with a different emphasis than mine.


Who is YOUR #HistoricalJesus?

Saturday evening I got to thinking about Jesus because of Ross Douthat. Not the third member of the trinity. Not the Son of Man. Not the Christ. But the “historical Jesus.” You know, the one that scholars are able to discover by searching through the first century sources. There’s a book that you may have heard about recently by a certain author who had an interview on a certain cable news channel that engages in this project. Like other scholars before him he says he can tell us who the REAL historical Jesus REALLY WAS. I summed up my problem with a tweet Saturday night:

(Why must folks always RT the one with typos?)

I then began to muse what MY “historical Jesus” would be like. He’d be awesome.

You get the idea.

Well, other folks began imaging there historical Jesus.

If you can’t get enough #HistoricalJesus, check out this storify: “The Very Best of #HistoricalJesus”


Towards a Symbiotic Relationship Between Academic Pundits and Academic Academics; Or, another post about Reza Aslan.

I hope this is my last post about Reza Aslan. We’ll see.

A friend of mine posted to Facebook an excerpted an interview Nathan Schneider did with Aslan in 2010 where he discusses the guff he took for his early work writing for a general non-academic audience. As the questions of Aslan’s credentials, the role of religion scholars in public, and the difference between “academic” and “popular” work have come up this week it seemed to me my friend had a good eye for the timely. Aslan talks about the problem scholars have addressing the general public:

RA: ..That, to me, is an example of the problem academia has, which earns it legitimate criticism for being out of touch with the concerns of people outside of its walls.

NS: How do you think scholars can learn to take part in broader conversations?

RA: It’s often a total waste of time. You can’t be trained to speak to the media in a weekend seminar before going on Anderson Cooper. You have to be immersed in the kind of world in which there is no division between the academic and the popular. I honestly think that the best hope that we have is to foster a new kind of student, one who doesn’t spend eight years in the basement of Widener Library at Harvard poring over a thirteenth-century manuscript and writing a dissertation on the changes in the vowel markings of a sentence. That kind of scholarship has a very small role in the world we live in now. We need scholars who understand that there is no division between the world of academia and the popular world. Trying to take staid academics and teach them to use words with fewer syllables is not the way to break that wall down.

I think Aslan misses something here. Through the wonders of Amazon’s “Look inside!” feature, I took a gander at Aslan’s bibliography for Zealot and No god but God. Guess what? They are both full of academic journal articles and books from academic presses! You know, those things written by folks in musty library basements. That stuff that “has a very small role in the world we live in now.” Aslan’s work does a fine job of offering Barnes and Noble customers and Fresh Air listeners an accessible account of “the historical Jesus” or an introduction to Islam. But his books are built from the work of other academics writing for an academic audience. Aslan is a translator and he needs that initial highfaluting academic work to fashion into his accessible prose and media punditry. And in doing so, he adds value to the original research by disseminating it more widely.

Some people are talented enough to do both sorts of this work. Some can only do one or the other. But accessible Barnes and Noble CNN work and hardcore ancient language dusty archive work need each other. They are so happy together.

Now which one is the rhinoceros…


Reza Aslan and the Impossibilty of an Expert in Religion in America

I think there has been one thing missing from all the blogging and twittering and Facebook posting over the Reza Aslan interview with Fox News:

For many Americans, the idea of an expert in religion is impossible. Sure, you may have a Ph.D., you may know texts in their original languages, you may even have written some books about the history of religions. But you aren’t an expert, in their eyes. Because you don’t REALLY KNOW. You haven’t FELT IT. DEEP DOWN. For most of America, to be an expert in religion one must be a TRUE BELIEVER.

For these Americans, to be an expert in religion makes as much a sense as being an expert in someone else’s mother’s lasagna recipe.

So, when the host, Lauren Green, asks Aslan why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus she is channeling a popular understanding of religion in America. She is denying that Aslan could be an expert in anything other than his own Islam. Thus, Aslan’s response that he has a Ph.D. and that this is his job and that he has lots of footnotes will never satiate Green and her audience because they all fall short of expertise. Unless he is a true believer in Jesus, these folks believe, it is impossible for Aslan to be an expert.

It’s like being a true vegan.

What does a real commitment to a certain way of thinking, speaking and behaving look like? Internally it means the idea gets such a hold on your brain that it would be impossible to abandon it without tearing apart the fabric of your being. You must tie yourself to the mast and make it neurologically impossible to change your mind on this one issue. You must be equivalent to your veganism such that to end your veganism would be to end yourself.

So how does one externally manifest this and, short of dying, authenticate a lifelong commitment to veganism? Some suggestions:

  • Refer to meat eaters as “carnists” and “corpse munchers.”
  • Address nonhuman animals in an inclusive manner that doesn’t obscure our own animality. Nonhuman animals are “other animals” or “animal others,” not “beasts” or “it.”
  • Get a visible and potentially career-undermining vegan tattoo.
  • Include a reference to anti-speciesism or sentience in your email address.
  • Bring most IRL conversations back around to the oppression of nonhuman animals.
  • Get a vasectomy, if a man, and an IUD if a woman.
  • Write a living will in which you ask to be euthanized if your memory degrades to the point that you don’t remember what veganism is.
  • Denounce so-called former vegans and call ex-veganism impossible.
  • And most important: Don’t stop believing.

Don’t stop believing, indeed.


Why I Embargoed My Dissertation

embargoed my dissertation.


I did it because I could.


I did it because everyone else who had graduated recently in my program did it.


I did it because every junior faculty member I know said their publisher told them to erase all evidence that there book was ever a dissertation. They said libraries wouldn’t buy the book if the dissertation was available for free. In an era of shrinking budgets, libraries cannot afford to buy the cow if they can get the milk for free in an open access database. But here’s the real problem, my milk isn’t ready yet. It hasn’t been processed and pasteurized. It doesn’t have the shelf life it needs.


Not yet.


Librarians out there: Is this true? Are you not buying books that seem like thinly re-published dissertations?


I have a book project that I’m working on and it is based on my dissertation. The dissertation is a really good dissertation (damn good, in my opinion) but it isn’t as good as the book will be. It doesn’t have the kind of sharp teeth I want the final book to have. It was written for an audience of three, not an entire field. And even though I was told to “write for the book” by my advisor, it is still the rough draft of the book. It is a damn fine dissertation, but it is not my first book.


When I was writing my dissertation I came across Richard Hughes Seager’s dissertation from Harvard as a printed and bound copy in the stacks of the Pitts Library at Emory. That dissertation became this book. I’m actually assigning the book in my seminar on Asian Religions in America this fall. The dissertation, well, it’s still on that shelf in the stuffy basement of a Methodist seminary.


The days of finding dissertations like Seager’s in the stacks are over. We are in the age of digital dissertations, digital research, and digital pedagogy. It strikes me that in the age of the MOOC, when scholarly teaching is imagined by some as something easily replaced, our research matters more than ever. We can write books–machines cannot. Our research, our books, our dissertations, these are not easily replicated massively. They should be open. I firmly believe that. We should be producing public knowledge. Open access journals are important. Public scholarship is vital. This is why I write on this blog. This is why I have written at Religion Dispatches and Religion in American History. But here’s the thing: openness does not mean a complete loss of control. I want to open my research up to the world–but I’ll do it when I know it is ready.


And it’s not just these online institutional repositories. When I finished my dissertation I was required by Emory University to pay ProQuest to take my dissertation for their database that they then sell to other institutions. Fight Club soap, all over again. Sure, I get a take of any sales of my particular dissertation, but if someone wants my dissertation bad enough to pay ProQuest for it I’d be happy to send them a PDF for free.


Right now, my dissertation’s abstract and table of contents are listed here, along with my committee members’ names. If you are working in the field and find this page in the next few years, it would not be hard to find me or one of my committee members. We will give you a copy of the dissertation, happily. I’ve done this already. Furthermore, in my case, I have been actively blogging about this project for two years and giving conference papers at national conferences. My research is not unavailable just because it isn’t in a mandatory open access database.


I have seen a lot of associate and full professors bemoaning the AHA’s recommendations. I think The Atlantic wrote something too. I cannot understand why scholars with the privileges of tenure fail to acknowledge the inequality and heavy handedness of forcing graduates to give away their research for free and outside of their control. Compensation and responsibilities for Ph.D. students vary from institution to institution. Support structures, research funding, and advising similarly range from wonderful to terrible. So, why not allow students to decide for themselves what to do with their dissertation work based on their particular circumstances?


For untenured or contingent faculty and recent Ph.D.s our research is all we really have left. They are MOOCing our teaching. But they can’t MOOC our books. There are three parties involved in this situation: junior faculty, libraries, and publishers. To all the senior faculty complaining about embargoing as a step backwards, I ask you to please talk to your librarians, talk to your editors at the presses your work with, use your role as series editors, to change the system. Get your library to stop settling for the free raw milk and make them buy it from the store. Get your publishers to think creatively about how to leverage the dissertation instead of treating it like an ugly step-child.


Because the junior faculty have little power in this.


All we can do is embargo.

Tuscaloosa Bound: My New Job at the University of Alabama

I’ve already posted about it on Facebook and I think someone sent out a tweet about it but I’ll post it here and make it official. I’m happy to announce I’ve accepted a one year faculty appointment in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama for 2013-1014. I’m really excited to join such a great group of faculty members for what should be a great year. I’m even more excited because I’ll get to teach a seminar on Asian Religions in American Culture that I’ve wanted a chance to teach for some time now. I’ll also be teaching the honors introduction to religion course, which should be a blast.

So, I guess all that’s left to say is….Roll Tide!

 


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