October 15 2019

Interview with Torang Asadi, PhD candidate, Duke University

Close up shot of woman in prayer

Torang Asadi is pursuing a PhD in religion and modernity at Duke University, writing her dissertation on religion in the Iranian diaspora. Asadi's research is firmly based on the close relationships she develops with the communities she studies and documents. She began developing her skills as an ethnographic researcher and filmmaker as a master's student and continues to champion the medium as a legitimate and productive method of research. In this interview, which was conducted via e-mail and has been lightly edited, Asadi discusses objectivity, methodology, ethics, and legitimacy in ethnographic film.

Sarah Levine: How did you first become interested in studying religion? When and why did you begin using film as a medium to study religion?

Torang Asadi: I graduated with a double major in pure mathematics and interior design. I discovered religion only in the very last semester of college, when I took a course on new religions with Becky Moore. It was during a field project for that class that I realized I needed to pursue this field. I grew up in Iran, where my mother attended underground classes in New Age philosophy and meditation, so my own experience with religion was quite bizarre. I was too intrigued to be content with a PhD in mathematics or a career in design, so I strayed and have never looked back. 

I became interested in film as a medium during that same semester. I spent most of my time watching audio and video footage from Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, and the Manson Family. There was an aspect of the human experience that could not be conveyed through text as secondary source, and an authenticity to the footage as evidence. During my master’s program, I began to take courses in the film department to develop filming and editing skills, and I worked with anthropology professors to both train as an ethnographer and think through theories of film as ethnography.

Do you think it’s important for scholars of religion to take film seriously as a research method?

Absolutely. Evidently, when we talk about ethnographic films, we are talking about work on contemporary lived religion. But there is not much engagement with film, even in that subfield. Anthropology has made a lot of progress in that direction, but religious studies remains far behind in modern methods of research. Why wouldn’t you use film, especially in the study of religion?

The subject of our study is the unique experience that can only be explained through an understanding of the community in which it is conditioned. And the religious space is unique in that it is not readily accessible. So if we have the privilege of being present and conducting research in that unique space, why not engage a medium that can more honestly communicate that experience?

It’s such a great teaching tool, too. In religious studies, we have already moved past the written text as the primary subject of study to lived religion and materiality. So why can’t we do that with our research methodology as well?

Do you use your films in your classroom teaching? As a producer of ethnographic films, do you have any insight for teachers who might want to use your film or others like it in the classroom? 

To my surprise, I’ve learned that students don’t like to watch too many films in class. I’ve also learned that they don’t like the traditional documentary format and get bored very quickly. The moment I realized I wanted to do away with commentary in my own work was also the one in which I realized that my students were unusually engaged with Peter Adair’s Holy Ghost People, a 1967 film about snake handlers. When the professor I was TAing for assigned the film, I thought the students would hate it. The footage is very rough, in black and white, and the audio quality isn’t great. But they loved it! The experience of that community felt authentic to them. It was very obvious from the final exams that the film was memorable for every one of the students. And they were all very aware of themes like leadership, personal engagement with the divine, and physical reaction to salvation. They had also picked up on one the most important moments: the fall of the prophet. So we were also able to have a very lively discussion about it. The traditional documentary acts as a textbook for them, but the ethnographic film feels more like a field trip.

I’ve also experimented with having students watch films at home, but engage in a discussion about it in class while the footage plays on mute. It’s been very useful to have the visual present during conversation.

In short, I think the best film for the classroom is one that shows the student a specific human phenomenon, and even maybe hints at certain themes and conveys an analysis; not the one that tells them what they need to know about something. The former is the kind of film that provides an opportunity for an essay question on an exam; the latter gives you a fill-in-the-blank at best.

by Fred Glennon, Le Moyne College

Guanyin, pictured in this statue in Dali, China, is a key heavenly bodhisattva who embodies the virtues of compassion and mercy important in Mahayana Buddhism.

Most Americans accept the notion that we should learn more about religious traditions other than our own (Wuthnow 2007). In our post-9/11 world, we recognize how difficult it is to comprehend fully the actions of religious people without understanding the impact their religious traditions have had on their motivations and behavior. One result of this new interest is that the comparative study of religion and religious ethics has become a critical part of today’s liberal arts education. A quick review of the Syllabus Project, a joint effort between the AAR and the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning, reveals a plethora of courses dedicated to this task.

by Rosemary B. Kellison, University of West Georgia



by Irene Oh, The George Washington University



On a Tuesday morning, about two-thirds of the way into the semester of our Ethics and World Religions undergraduate course, I begin our class discussion on the topic of marriage by asking, “Does your family have certain expectations about whom you may marry?” Students laugh. They often share their parents and grandparents’ desires for them to marry a person who meets very stringent, seemingly impossible criteria.

One woman states: “My grandmother wants me to marry not just someone Jewish, but a Russian Ashkenazi Jew who speaks Russian fluently and belongs to a Conservative congregation. And, of course, English, because my parents don’t speak Russian. My parents want me to marry someone with a graduate degree. And, oh yeah, it should be a guy.”

I inquire further: “What would happen if you brought home someone who was not of your religious background?” 

by Nahed Artoul Zehr, Western Kentucky University


by Steven Benko, Meredith College




Has an instructor ever said that they were not teaching critical thinking? What is an alternative, but still acceptable, answer to the question, “Are you teaching your students to be critical thinkers?” It would not be acceptable to say that we want nothing more from our students than to be passive receptacles of information that they will then repeat on a test. It would not be acceptable to kick the critical-thinking can down the road and say that the responsibility of teaching critical thinking is spread out among multiple classes and faculty and that students graduate from our programs and colleges as critical thinkers. The only acceptable answer to the question of whether instructors are teaching their students to be critical thinkers is “yes, of course we are.”

by Mark Larrimore, Eugene Lang College




I was once part of a discussion of the applicability of the category of “religion” in Japan. After a while, my host, a Tendai priest, said that nothing we’d been discussing fit the largely funerary ritual of the temple he inherited from his father. Rather than “religion” (shukyo), it might be better described as “ethics for the dead” (shisha ni tai suru rinri). This observation hit me like a thunderbolt. What he proposed as a way of interpreting a particular practice, for me raised general questions. “Ethics for the dead” has shaped my understanding of religion ever since. And also of “ethics,” whose default secularity it threw into dramatic question.

by Elizabeth Barre, Rice University



Classic Challenges

In some ways, the questions we are asking in this issue of Spotlight on Teaching are not new. Anyone who has taught an introductory course in religion, or even read about the teaching of such courses, is already well aware that the task of teaching a “tradition” is fraught with difficulties. It’s never quite clear what we’re supposed to be teaching when we’re assigned this task, and if we do manage to settle on a responsible answer to that question, it’s not long before the time constraints of a semester-long course make us wonder whether responsibility is simply a luxury we can’t afford.



Ali, Kecia. 2014. The Lives of Muhammad. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ambrose, Susan A. 2010. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2007. College Learning for the New Global Century: A Report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Bain, Ken. 2004. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

by Charles Mathewes, University of Virginia*

The bare fact that this survey was produced at all is perhaps the most important thing about it. It suggests a greater degree of seriousness about confronting the many challenges we face as teachers in the liberal arts, and in religious studies more specifically. We should all be grateful for that. But we have to be honest: the second most interesting thing about this survey is how little it tells us, and how much more we might want to know.

1. Two Problems: Curious Demographics and Lack of Context

Begin with a couple sampling problems that the survey seems to face. First, the population studied strikes me as remarkably white, with 89.5% of the participants at least partially identifying as white (and only 2.6% of them (at most) identified another ethnicity or race). Also, 55.8% were female. The latter seems to me more statistically similar with my department’s experience, but the former seems a bit off. Does this skew the findings of the survey? It’s a genuine question.

Second, we don’t really have any way to measure these findings against other majors, and so we don’t know how much of this is common to higher education graduates in general, and how much is specific to religious studies majors in particular. There’s nothing to do about this, except to note it, and recognize that this means any judgment we make is very obscure. In the future, it could be useful for the AAR to coordinate with other scholarly associations to produce a larger survey that procures findings for majors across a number of disciplines. That would help us with this problem, at least a bit.

2. A Concern: Subjectivity of assessment of religious studies major overall

Alongside those obstacles, it is also quite difficult to discern what exactly is demonstrated by the questions about how the interviewees think they improved, apart from their own current subjective self-assessment. But what does that tell us about their improvements? It is hard to know what these questions measure apart from interviewees’ current conception of their past, and they are hardly without incentive to tell a certain narrative. A skeptic might suggest that these questions demonstrate simply our ability, as teachers, to convince the students of a narrative. But we don’t need to be very cynical to admit that they do not speak directly to any objective assessment of actual learning.