July 18 2018

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.

by Melissa M. Wilcox, Whitman College

by Melissa M. Wilcox, Whitman College | Thousands of undergraduates are currently majoring in religious studies in North America, yet most religious studies programs have only limited and anecdotal knowledge of what happens to students after their final classes. As one religious studies faculty member writes, at present “it’s really more a matter of students keeping track of us than our keeping track of them.” The AAR would like to reverse this dynamic. 

The AAR, with support from the Teagle Foundation, conducted a national survey of religious studies majors in 2014 and the spring of 2015, asking graduates what fields they currently work in, what graduate programs they attended, and how the religious studies major impacted their values and career choices. The Survey Report aggregates the results of 1,675 respondents from 35 participating colleges and universities. The survey is designed to answer via empirical evidence a central question that is asked—often with growing suspicion—by various stakeholders: “What can I do with a major in religious studies?” Learn more about the survey and how your institution can participate by visiting AAR’s website.

Over the coming days, RSN is happy to present analysis on the Survey Report from Melissa Wilcox and Charles Mathewes. E-mail rsn@aarweb.org if you have thoughts on the data you'd like to share with readers.

by Kirk VanGilder, Gallaudet University

"Southern secessionists raise flag at Yale College." Illus. in: Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, v. 11, no. 271 (1861 February 2), p. 173.

I recently found myself able to identify with the American bobsledder, Johnny Quinn, as he punched his way through a stuck bathroom door in a Sochi hotel during the recent winter Olympic games. I identified with his story because I’ve often been a “door breaker” in my professional life.

I was born hard of hearing into a mostly hearing family. In high school, my hearing became progressively worse. During my undergraduate years at Ball State University I began my transition from being a “kid with ears that don’t work right” to a participant in a vibrant Deaf culture and community.

And I’ve been breaking down doors ever since.

Wendy Doniger delivering her 2015 Haskins Prize Lecture on May 8, 2015, in Philadelphia, PA

This year, longtime member and former president of the AAR, Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, was awarded the 2015 Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lectureship by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). Named for the first chairman of ACLS (1920–26), the Haskins Prize Lecture series is entitled “A Life of Learning” and celebrates scholarly careers of distinctive importance.

Doniger presented her lecture at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the ACLS on May 8 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The ACLS has posted the video of her lecture and the accompanying text.

Brian Pennington with Krisitan Petersen

Photo of destroyed businesses and homes along the Bhagirathi river, which were flooded in June 2013.

Brian Pennington, director of the Center for the Study of Religion, Culture, and Society and professor of religious studies at Elon University, was awarded an AAR Individual Research Grant in 2014. He talks to RSN about his project Natural Disaster and Divine Agency: Hindu Theodicies of Climate Change.


Thomas Tweed

Thomas A. Tweed is the 2015 president of the American Academy of Religion and a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame where he also holds the Harold and Martha Welch Endowed Chair in American Studies. Tweed’s historical, ethnographic, and theoretical research has been supported by grants and fellowships, including three from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and his diverse professional service includes work as external reviewer, expert witness, blog contributor, and media consultant. He edited Retelling U.S. Religious History (University of California Press, 1997) and coedited Asian Religions in America: A Documentary History (with Stephen Prothero, Oxford University Press, 1998). He is the author of The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844–1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent (Indiana University Press, 1992) and Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (Harvard University Press, 2006).

by Sarah Levine, American Academy of Religion

In the fall of 2010, I was a MA student beginning my second year of graduate school at Georgia State University. Molly Bassett was a new hire for our department, in her first year teaching in a tenure-track position. The previous semester I had taken a graduate seminar with her on material culture theory and method in religious studies, and it was there that I found her perspective and approach to teaching really engaging.1[1] She presented her ideological stance in that course, often reiterating that religious studies is more a field than a discipline, and that became even more in clear the course we discuss here, "Religious Dimensions in Human Experience." In our preliminary discussions about this series, Molly referred to her pedagogical approach to that class as an “ensemble approach.” That will bare itself out in my reflection on the iteration of the course I took in 2010 and in our discussion about the one she’s organized for this fall. It’s also, I think a meta-term for the way she methodologically approaches religious studies more generally.

"Religious Dimensions" had two primary lenses that Molly made clear in her syllabus. The first was that the class was anthropological in nature. “In this course,” she noted in the course introduction, “we will not assume the category of ‘religious experience,” but rather interrogate various dimensions of human experience that we might call ‘religious’.” While this may not satisfy all scholars skeptical of phenomenological approaches, it was more than adequate for reasons I’ll explain later. The second lens, a subcategory of the first, was that of narrative. Overall, one of the main takeaways of the class was an implicit request that we become more cognizant of the primacy of narrative—not just in “religions,” but in the ways we make sense of the worlds we encounter as scholars. The sheer variety of approaches, media, and sources in the syllabus—the ensemble approach—worked together to make this latter point clearer over time.