UPDATED: The AAR Vice Presidential Election and the Illusion of Choice

I just started (binge) watching the USA show Mr. Robot. It’s good. You should watch it. One thing  really like about the show is that it often turns critical attention the language of freedom and choice in our society. The whole show is really built on the question of how free we are in modern neoliberal late capitalist America. Of course, all of this on a network owned by Comcast. I especially liked this scene from the second episode:

Choice seems like a moment of freedom. It’s agency, right? But choice always happens within regimes of power that dictate the choices on the table. Choice is an illusion. And, as the show explores, it is the illusion of choice that constructs the modern self as consumer, voter, actor, and agent. Yet that self is always hemmed in. Choice is never free. Our choices are always between the things given us.

And so, let’s look at the two options presented by the nominations committee of the American Academy of Religion for AAR Vice President. One the one hand there is David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics and director of a theology center at Mercer University. On the Other hand there is Kendall Soulen, a systematic theologian at Wesley Theological Seminary. Whoever is elected Vice President will serve as VP for a year, then President-elect, and then, finally, President. They will have three years of work within the AAR and one year of important influence as President. They are elected by the AAR membership.

For members of the AAR who, like myself, do not do theological work, who do not engage in constructive work within a religious tradition, who approach religion as social/historical/cultural/discursive construction, and who work within state universities, there is no representative candidate. I am not a theologian.

While there is a lot that could be said about the two candidates–and I encourage AAR members to investigate who these candidates are beyond their brief AAR statements–it is the lack of a real choice that I find frustrating in this situation. Looking back at the last three years, the nominations committee has offered members a choice between a theologian/constructive/ethicist candidate and a more religious studies/historical/cultural studies candidate. Granted these categories are my own invention and imprecise, but a look at the candidates reveals real differences in their approaches to the study of religion. For example, last year Eddie Glaude, a historian in a religious studies department, won against Dwight Hopkins, a theologian in a divinity school. Before that, Thomas Tweed won against Mark Jordan–another historian/religious studies scholar winning election over a theologian (though Jordan’s work is much broader than just theology, in my view). Three years ago bioethicist Laurie Zoloth defeated religious studies scholar Naomi Goldberg. My point here is that for the past three years at least, there has been a choice between two scholars with very different approaches to the study of religion and, one would assume, different visions for the AAR. I don’t know if this has been the case even further back because such information isn’t readily available.

Either way, the decision to nominate two Protestant theologians, one of whom is an ordained Baptist minister, strikes me as major problem. There’s not a real difference between Soulen and Gushee in their vision for the future of the AAR. For example, here’s Gushee on the need for methodological diversity within the AAR:

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And here’s Soulen:

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Both candidates want more theology in the AAR and they want those who do critical work to play nicer with the theologians. That many AAR members would consider a Baptist minister and theologian their subject of study rather than their conversation partner doesn’t seem to strike either candidate as a problem. That critical scholars of religion might not want to “hospitably” “embrace” their data and would rather the AAR spend its energy promoting and supporting critical academic work in religious studies is ignored. “Methodological diversity” is assumed to be a universal good without any fear about how such methodological diversity can lead to institutional and disciplinary incoherence.

How do I defend my discipline to my dean and my students if our major professional organization chooses to build a tent so big it’s incoherent?

More to the point, why has the deck been stacked? Why is the only choice for our future AAR leader a choice between theology and theology? Why even give us the illusion of choice?

But of course, I should know better. Critical scholars of religion should know better. Because this is how institutions work. AAR activities produce AAR members. It is only in this moment of frustration at the AAR election that I really feel like an AAR member and thus the power of the institution is reinforced. In short, it doesn’t matter what the election is, it only matters that there is an election. Because the illusion of choice reinforces the authority of the institution.

Yet, I still wonder why the nominations committee chose these two candidates. Was there a fear that we’d have a third straight religious studies scholar VP? Are there theologians out there complaining?

Only the people on that committee know. And we’ll probably never know. And one of these two candidates will win. And the AAR will go on. And I’ll be there in Atlanta this November and the next year too.

UPDATE: 12:41 pm central time

Aaron Hughes, at the University of Rochester, has published his own open letter to the members of the AAR expressing his fears about the nominations. As he puts it,

The key phrase for me here is “rich diversity.” I do not see any diversity whatsoever in these two candidates or in their visions for what the AAR should be. I think that the Nominations Committee has, thus, failed in its mission of providing members with a real choice of intellectual vision.

He is boycotting the election.

For my part, I did not cast a vote for the VP or for the At-large member of the board. I did vote in the other elections.

How Not To Be a Senior Scholar

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I remember almost two years ago when American historian Edmund Morgan died. I had read Morgan’s Visible Saints as part of my doctoral exams but, not being a historian by training or researching the colonial period, I hadn’t read much else of his work. But after his death I read a lot about Morgan. I read stories from his graduate students, from his colleagues, and from scholars who had come into contact with the man one way or another. It seemed like every historian of a certain generation had some story about him.

Jill Lepore called him “the E.B. White of the historical profession.” As she put it, “Edmund Morgan liked, especially, to teach his students how to make and sharpen a quill. None were ever so sharp as his.” John Mack Faragher described his experience in a two semester seminar with Morgan in graduate school. I love that moment in the fourth paragraph where Faragher drops from “Morgan” to “Ed.” Because he didn’t know MORGAN. He knew Ed.  Faragher quotes another of Morgan’s students, Karen Halttunen:

“But perhaps the most important thing I learned in Ed’s seminar,” Halttunen continues, “was conveyed silently. From the model of scholarship and teaching he provided, I learned that the greatest of historians–such as himself–do not tolerate intellectual arrogance whether in others or in themselves. To me, this wasn’t simply a lesson in good academic manners; it was an important insight into what makes intellectual greatness like that of Morgan’s. Towards the end of his life, Isaac Newton captured this quality, by likening himself to a boy playing on the sea shore, occasionally finding a smoother pebble or shell than ordinary, ‘whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.’ I think Ed conveyed to his students that we were all of us just like Newton’s boy on the beach. Most of us needed to hear this, and most of us, I suspect, have never forgotten it.”

It seems to me there are two ways to be a senior scholar at an elite institution. You can invest in your students and in the young scholars coming after you. You can teach them. You can mentor them. You can serve them. You can love them.

Or, you can imagine yourself too busy, too important, or too smart for that. You can imagine that you don’t have to engage with a graduate student that isn’t “yours.” You can offer “counsel” that doesn’t teach, or build up, or help a younger scholar grow.

At some level, regardless of prestige level, every professor makes this choice, whether he or she knows it or not. Do I serve my students, my colleagues, my field, or do I serve myself? There are two ways to be a senior scholar, be sure you choose the right one. Because when you’re dead, no one reads your C.V. But they do tell stories about you.


How To Use Your Scholarly Society to Promote Young Scholars

The following post comes from my new newsletter. I’ve decided to blog less and use the newsletter for thoughts like these. You should subscribe here to get the goods. 

The North American Association for the Study of Religion, or NAASR, just released its program for the 2015 meeting this November in Atlanta. And it is an excellent example of how to foster the careers of young scholars.

For those who don’t know about NAASR, I’d suggest you read this great interviewwith the new NAASR president (and colleague of mine here at Alabama), Russell McCutcheon. NAASR meets concurrently with the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and is an affiliated society within the AAR. As McCutcheon describes it, NAASR is “a small but active scholarly association, that meets annually and publishes peer review research, with an emphasis on the role theories and methodologies play in making scholarship on religion possible, persuasive, and innovative.”

Anyways, this year NAASR totally reimagined the usual call for papers and conference program formula. This year the call for papers solicited abstracts for papers to set up four panels at the annual meeting that would focus around pre-circulated full length papers. These full-length papers would then be responded to by a set of respondents who would think with and through the papers. But here’s the great part. When the final program came out this week it became clear that these respondents were all early career scholars–from graduate students to newly minted assistant professors. I am happy to be one of these respondents. And to make things even better, all the papers and responses from the meeting will become a published anthology.

This is how you grow the field. This is how you encourage good work. And this is how you help emerging scholars become established scholars. Get them involved. Invite them to serve as respondents on dynamic panels “with the grown ups” who have tenure. And get them published.

Kudos to the NAASR organizers for putting this promising program together. In ten years I hope we’ll look back at this program and we’ll all be surprised just how many “established” scholars were “emerging” at this conference.

Stuff That I Wrote Recently

My response as part of a panel on Amanda Porterfield’s book Conceived in Doubt appeared in Fides et Historia. 

I wrote an article about how I use blogging in my classes.

I’m also really proud of this blog post over at Religion in American history about belief and surveillance. I might work on this some more–there’s probably and article to write here.

Also, check out our new design over at Sacred Matters. Very clean.

What I’m Working on Now

I just finished a couple short encyclopedia entries on the India and Hinduism for the Diction of American History, Supplement: America in the World, 1776 to the Present.

I also just wrapped up an article reviewing the various podcasts in the religious studies that have been produced in the past few years. I also get into the question of what podcasting religious studies should look like. That should come out in Religion sometime in the future.

But the big project right now is a chapter for anthology on “the fiscal turn” in American religious history. I was asked to write about Hinduism and Buddhism (surprise) and business/money. Plugging away at that.

That’s it for this one. Now, don’t forget to subscribe!

What Podcasts Do You Put in Your Ears?


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.

Journal of Southern Religion
Directions in the Study of Religion- Marginalia
First Impressions- Marginalia

Religious Studies Project
New Books Network

Research on Religion
Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict

The World of Islam: Culture, Religion, and Politics
The Junto Podcast Network:

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…

Why I 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!


Tomorrow: Get Free Lunch and Hear Me Talk About Teaching With Twitter

I should have posted this earlier, but I’ll be speaking as part of the great Eat Talk Teach Run series at Emory. ETTR combines four short (4 minute limit) talks on teaching with free lunch and frozen yogurt. It’s awesome. Come check it out. Details:

Eat. Talk. Teach. Run!
An event to energize grad student teaching at Emory.
Wednesday, October 31. 12 PM – 1 PM.

Eat. Yogurt Tap frozen yogurt and bánh mì sandwiches from Buford Highway!
Talk. Meet grad students from across campus.
Teach. Hear short 4-minute flashtalks from other grad students.
Run. Get back to the lab or library on time!

Few Hall G27, convenient for scientists, humanities, and everything in between!
Find Few Hall G27 here:

Grad Student Speakers:
Michael Altman (Religion)
Kate Doubler (English)
Laura Mariani (Neuroscience)
Cassy Quave (Ethnobotany, Post-doc)

RSVPs Appreciated at:

“Like” Us at:

Shut Up and Start Writing: Week 2- The Starting Pistol

BANG! And we’re off.  Alright folks, time to check in with what you did this week and what your goal is for next week.

I actually got the chapter I’ve been working on revised and emailed to my adviser. So, if Dennis got his done too, that adviser should have a nice batch of summer reading. For next week, I’m starting a new chapter and I’d like to have a list of sources I need to go through put together by the end of the week. I’ll give myself bonus points if I can actually get through some of those sources. So, did I earn a sticker?

And what about yall? How was the first week? Did you start strong? Stumble out of the blocks? What can we do to help you? And what’s your goal for next week?

Your Taste is Killer: Ira Glass Provides Much Needed Dissertation Motivation

Ira Glass in a heart

I’ve been slogging through the dissertation work lately. I’m getting stuff done. But the joy is fading. Then I found this:


Oh, Ira. Thanks. I needed this.

I consider our work as academics creative. The very best academic writing has a creative flair to it, whether in the prose or the theory or the narrative or the use of sources. Those of us who choose, for better or worse, a career in the academic wing of the creative classes  are drawn here because of our “taste,” as Glass puts it. We read a book, take a class, research a project, or do something that ignites that taste and motivates us. Then we go to grad school and we start to produce seminar papers, conference papers, and eventually a dissertation, all the while reading works by brilliant academics. We start to notice the gap between what we’re doing and what these writers are doing. We want to do what they are doing, we always have, but we are afraid we can’t. We are afraid that our work will never live up to our taste.

Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems that we all feel this gap at some point in our training. For some it may come during course work or exams, but for me it has come at the dissertation phase–and not the beginning of the dissertation, about a third of the way through it. That’s why these words from Ira Glass were so motivational for me. My taste is killer. If you’re reading this, your taste is killer. Now comes the work. It’s time to fight your way through.

Ok, back to the fight.