June 25 2021

Image that reads "Conversation with Justine Buck Quijada, 2020 Book Award Winner" with a cover of her book next to it

The fall of the Soviet Union provides the cultural space for a revival of the religious practices of the Buryat, an indigenous people of southern Siberia who live on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal, just north of the Mongolian border. Justine Buck Quijada, author of "Buddhists, Shamans, and Soviets: Rituals of History in Post-Soviet Buryatia" (Oxford University Press, 2019) joins Kristian Petersen to discuss her research into how the Buryat people recontextualize the rise and fall of the Soviet period into Buddhist and shamanic histories. Quijada's book won AAR's 2020 Best First Book in the History of Religions.

Alyssa N. Rockenbach, North Carolina State University

a group of yound adults sit on couches and around a table eating while celebrating Jummah. Flags with symbols of religious faiths are affixed to the ceiling

In a time of heightened polarization and discord—when those of different religious and political persuasions find reason to disagree on everything from the efficacy of masks in a global pandemic to the results of a contentious presidential election—pathways to cooperation seem elusive. Higher education has long been touted as a promising intervention for reducing prejudice and building bridges between people of different social identities and worldviews. Indeed, campuses today are rife with curricular, co-curricular, and social opportunities that hold great potential when it comes to disrupting the boundaries that divide us and inspiring newfound appreciation for others.

Ramón Luzárraga, Benedictine University

abstract image of a yellow and orange circle blurring into a light blue background

The Theological Education Committee of the American Academy of Religion chose as its topic for the 2019 Annual Meeting in San Diego, “Is Theological Education Entering a Post-Christian Future?” Historically, when the majority of people in the United States think of “theological education” or “seminary,” the assumption is that an institution of higher education, either with a current or historical sponsorship by a Christian church, is engaged in one or more programs of study to educate people for ordained or lay ministry or to prepare them for further study beyond the masters degree for an academic career.

On a white background, text appears on the left "Conversation with Sugata Ray 2020 AAR Book Award Winner" and on the right is the image of his book's cover

Sugata Ray's 2019 book "Climate Change and the Art of Devotion: Geoaesthetics in the Land of Krishna, 1550-1850" (University of Washington Press) won AAR's Religion and the Arts Book Award in 2020, the award's inaugural year. In this interview with Kristian Petersen, Ray talks about his book and explains how a landscape transformed by the Little Ice Age became part of evolving conceptualizations, rituals, and aesthetics involved in devotional practices of Northern Indian worshippers of Krishna.

Sugata Ray is associate professor of South and Southeast Asian art at the University of California, Berkeley.

Scott Muir, Study the Humanities project director

In the context of the financial fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread decline in humanities majors and enrollments precipitated by the last recession, faculty and administrators across the humanities are redoubling their efforts to attract more students. Over the past three years, the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) has been researching the field of undergraduate humanities recruitment to identify effective approaches that can be adapted across disciplines and institutional contexts. At the 2021 Virtual NHA Annual Meeting in March, we released Strategies for Recruiting Students to the Humanities: A Comprehensive Resource, which highlights a wide range of strategies through over 100 exemplary initiatives. The report is part of NHA’s Study the Humanities initiative, which, with funding from The Andrew W.

Josh Patterson, PhD, Research Fellow, American Academy of Religion
Rob Townsend, PhD, Codirector, Humanities Indicators, American Academy of Arts and Sciences

This article is the third in a series that unpacks and contextualizes data on religion departments collected by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Indicators project. All three articles were written in collaboration between the American Academy and the AAR. Various data sources are noted along with numerous links to reports and indicators maintained by the Indicators. The first article in this series explored trends related to undergraduate and graduate enrollments and degree completions; the second article focused on indicators related to graduate students and faculty as well as those pertaining to working conditions.

The recent Humanities Departmental Survey (HDS) offers a rich set of data on vital structural aspects of religion departments, such as engagement with digital skills in the curriculum, use of online education (before the pandemic), and support for student careers. One particular value of these data comes from the ability to compare religious studies to other humanities fields. Taken together, these data present a number of strategic avenues for action in religious studies, especially in light of the growing demand for digital skills and teaching experience.

Digital Humanities

Perhaps most notably, religion departments appear modestly less likely to engage with digital tools than their peers in other humanities departments. The Humanities Indicators measured engagement with digital humanities through four measures: the presence of a dedicated center or lab on campus, specialized faculty in the department, relevant course offerings, and departmental guidelines for the evaluation of digital scholarship (see Fig. 1). Among these, religion departments reported higher rates than the average across all humanities on only one question: the provision of guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship. That finding may be a result of work done by AAR members and staff to develop and share the Guidelines for Evaluating Digital Scholarship. Such an example would underscore the importance of such actions on behalf of professional associations to raise awareness of and set standards for emergent issues.

Fig. 1: Share of Departments Engaged with Digital Methods, Fall 2017

Bar graph of the number of religion departments compared with all humanities departments engaged in digital methods showing religion less engaged than other humanities departments
Humanities Indicators, The State of Religion Departments in Four-Year Colleges and Universities (2020), tables REL21 and REL19.

Asma Afsaruddin, Indiana University, Bloomington
AAR Committee on the Public Understanding of Religion

photo of Khaled Abou El Fadl sitting with a cane in front of a bookcase

The Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion was established in 1996 to recognize extraordinary contributions to the public understanding of religion. The award goes to individuals whose work has a relevance and eloquence that speaks, not just to scholars, but more broadly to the public as well.

image of the cover of Matthew King's book, "Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood," with text that reads "Conversation with Matthew W. King 2020 AAR Book Award Winner"

Through a case study of Zava Damdin, a monk living on the frontier of Mongolia at the end of the Qing empire (early 20th century), Matthew King invites scholars to consider non-Eurocentric ways of studying religion in modern history.

King is associate professor in transnational Buddhism in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside, and he is the author of "Ocean of Milk, Ocean of Blood: A Mongolian Monk in the Ruins of the Qing Empire" (Columbia University Press), which won the American Academy of Religion's 2020 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the textual studies category. He is interviewed by Kristian Petersen.

Josh Patterson, PhD, Research Fellow, American Academy of Religion
Rob Townsend, PhD, Codirector, Humanities Indicators, American Academy of Arts and Sciences

This article is the second in a series that will unpack and contextualize data on religion departments collected by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Indicators project and written in collaboration between the American Academy and the AAR. Various data sources are noted along with numerous links to reports and indicators maintained by the Indicators. The first article in this series explored trends related to undergraduate and graduate enrollments and degree completions.

The recent Humanities Departmental Survey (HDS) contains a rich set of data on graduate student and faculty life. In light of many concerning trends, these data provide an empirical base for discussions about graduate student stipends, faculty research funding, and faculty employment and demographic trends. They also provide an opportunity to assess conditions in religious studies in the context of the humanities, show differences that result from heterogeneous departmental and institutional contexts, and offer some reflections on those differences. Where possible, HDS data are connected to other related and relevant data sources can that inform these conversations.  

Graduate Students

The HDS includes questions related to graduate student financial support, often referred to as stipends. Within the humanities, religion departments reported the second-lowest percentage of full-time first-year doctoral students receiving full financial support for their studies (Table 16 HDS-3). Among the religion programs that completed the survey, there was little change across indicators over the past ten years, with only a slight decrease in the percentage of doctoral students receiving no financial support.

Approximately 540 teaching assistants were serving as instructors of record in religion departments nationwide in 2017, with an average of 5.3 per department. Among the various humanities disciplines, only 6 of the 17 humanities disciplines had a higher average per department (Table 17 HDS-3). The share of courses where graduate students were instructors of record was very near the average for all humanities departments, at just over 18% (combining values from Tables 11 and 18, HDS-3).

The Humanities Indicators project did not collect data on funding dollar amounts, but a number of religion and theology PhDs are represented in the self-reported stipend data from PhDStipends.com. Among those respondents were 60 observations from religion and directly adjacent fields. Analysis of that data in spring 2020 revealed that the average stipend for religion graduate students is just over $24,000 per year. The reported stipends differed quite a lot, however, ranging from $4,500 to $45,000 (the standard deviation of values was $7,757). Among those reported, 20 of the 21 highest-paid respondents were at private institutions and 11 of the 21 lowest paid were at public universities.


Employment and Hiring

Religion departments had an average of 9.3 faculty members per department in Fall 2017, which ranks near the middle by number of faculty members among humanities departments (Table 1a. HDS-3). Unlike many of the other humanities disciplines, however, the average number of humanities departments is relatively consistent among the various department and institution types. At colleges classified as “primarily undergraduate” institutions (often liberal arts colleges) there was an average of 8 faculty members per religion department, while at research universities, there was an average of almost 11 (Fig. 1). In most other disciplines (classical studies, history, English, other modern languages, and philosophy) the average number of faculty at research universities was two or three times as large as the average at primarily undergraduate institutions.

Jessica L. Tinklenberg, Claremont Colleges

illustration of a group of masked people

In a timely piece for Inside Higher Ed in June, 2020, Dr. Mays Imad speaks to the unbelievable reality of our times: in this COVID-19 academic year, we are all traumatized, anxious, and scared.1 Our trauma may come from feelings of isolation, constant ambiguity, a vague awareness of unseen danger, food or housing insecurity, unrelenting racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic violence, or from any intersection of these and more. Wherever our trauma originates, Imad ensures us that it is real, pressing, and impacting our ability to teach, learn, and survive right now.