April 18 2021

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.

Mara Benjamin, Irene Kaplan Leiwant Professor of Jewish Studies at Mount Holyoke College, experimented with genre in her 2018 book "The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought," blending an academic approach to analyzing the concept of childrearing in Jewish intellectual history and offering her own intervention, informed by personal experience, to this undertheorized area in Jewish intellectual history. In this interview, she talks about realizing her role in expanding this conversation across disciplines and her hope that other scholars feel liberated to construct new ideas in the fields they study.

Benjamin's "The Obligated Self" won the AAR's 2019 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the Constructive-Reflective Studies category.

Michelle May-Curry, NHA Humanities for All project director

a collage of illustrations, clockwise from left: woman at a desk facing a desktop screen with faces in the conference window; woman walking and wearing a mask and yellow sweater; man with a backpack faces a bookshelf; man in a cap and mask walks while carrying a tote bag; a woman sitting with a laptop on her lap and sniffing a flower in front of a large window; a man faces his computer and gestures as if he's speaking

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many humanists set out to document the quickly worsening global health crisis. As the months progressed, a summer fueled by national protests against police violence and immigrant detention made apparent the overlapping social consequences of public health disparities and racial injustice amidst the COVID-19 crisis. In this context, scholars from a range of humanities disciplines created public-facing projects that aimed to record and understand the effects of social isolation, mass-death, higher mortality rates for Black and brown people, a steep economic downturn, and our collective digital existences. 

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

students walking along campus courtyard on a fall day

This article is the first 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.

As religious studies departments start to contend with the effects of the pandemic, recent studies provide critical insights into the state of the discipline on the eve of the crisis. Noting these prior shifts will be helpful to contextualize the many changes likely on the horizon, as the pandemic, directly and indirectly, alters the material conditions that surround the academic study of religion. Recent data collected by the Humanities Indicators and US Department of Education show the far-reaching impact of the 2007 recession on religious studies and the humanities more broadly. Many researchers have noted that US higher education has not sufficiently recovered from early-recession cuts and was already ill-prepared for another economic downturn. Since the recession, there have been a number of resulting or concurrent changes in state and institutional funding and student choice. We hope these data prompt reflection on a number of critical questions relating to the future of the academic study of religion.

To begin at the institutional level, an initial data point to note is that the number of institutions awarding degrees has been fairly stable in recent years. Between 1999 and 2011, the number of colleges and universities awarding at least one religion degree grew from 510 to 596. From that peak in 2011, the number declined 4% to 571 in 2017 (the most recent year with data; Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 Number of Institutions Awarding Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctoral Degrees in Selected Humanities Disciplines, 1999 to 2017

Source: IPEDS Completions Survey from Department of Education, tabulated using the NCSES Data Tool at https://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/ids/ipeds_c.

Karin Vélez explains how the 12th century myth of the flying house of Loreto, which tells the story of the home of the Virgin Mary flew away from the Holy Land and settled on the coastal town of Loreto, Italy, served as narrative grounding for the expansion of Catholicism through varied, voluntary, independent devotional movements across the world.

Vélez is assistant professor of pre-1800 global history at Macalester College and the author of "The Miraculous Flying House of Loreto: Spreading Catholicism in the Early Modern World" (Princeton University Press, for which she won AAR's 2019 Award for the Best First Book in the History of Religions.

Photo of Elias Bongbmba with text, "An interview with Elias Kifon Bongmba 2020 Ray L. Hart Service Award Recipient"

AAR is pleased to present an interview with Elias Bongmba, recipient of AAR's 2020 Ray L. Hart Service Award which recognizes AAR members' whose dedication and continuing efforts of service to the AAR have been exemplary. Bongmba is Harry and Hazel Chavanne Professor of Christian Theology and Chair of the Department of Religion at Rice University. His service extends beyond his participation in various AAR steering committees, committees of the board, and juries and into his native Cameroon and across Africa, where he has lectured and advised national and educational institutions on social justice issues, including poverty, gender, disability, and homosexuality. 

Bongmba will be formally presented the Hart Award on December 3, 2020, at 6 PM Eastern during AAR's Annual Business Meeting (A3-400). All members are invited to attend this session during the Virtual Annual Meeting to celebrate Bongmba's contributions to the field and to learn more about the ongoing work of the AAR.

You have contributed your time and energy in so many ways to the AAR, including on AAR's International Connections Committee, as a member of the Graduate Student Award Jury, and as a steering committee member of several program units. What are some of the highlights of your AAR service?

Serving the AAR has been a privilege for me because those opportunities gave me insights into the AAR's work from different angles. The International Connections Committee allowed me to work with colleagues from outside the United States who attend the Annual Meeting. The committee's programs extend a warm welcome to the United States and work with our colleagues to enhance the annual meeting experience and establish in-person connections with our colleagues from around the globe. One of my most cherished memories was joining colleagues from southern Africa who have several academic societies for the study of religion, and a big Joint Societies conference every three years that brings people from around the world to share their appreciation for the hospitality they received at the AAR and SBL that year. The research universities of southern Africa send many participants to the Annual Meetings, and it is always a pleasure to go to their panels to learn from the research that is taking place in that region. The yearly reception for international scholars at the Annual Meeting remains a highlight of the committee's work. It brings scholars together to connect, discuss shared research interests, and explore ideas for future meetings. It was a joy to work with the International Connections committee and the AAR staff on the Africa Focus at the AAR and SBL Annual Meetings in 2006.

This is a the second post in called A Proven Practice, an initiative of AAR’s Teaching Religion Program Unit and Committee on Teaching and Learning to collect and share faculty pedagogical techniques that have shown promise in the transition to online learning as a result of COVID-19. Do you have a successful technique to share with colleagues? Submit it for publication. Read Part I of A Proven Practice.

Synthesizing Student Discussion Posts to Facilitate Critical Reflection

I teach World Religions at a medium-sized regional public university in a writing-intensive upper-level undergraduate course taken mostly by non-majors. Each week I assign chapters from our textbook as well as short articles and documentaries (these often serving as a way of complicating the textbook’s presentation of a given tradition). To guide student engagement with the assigned material, I give students two discussion prompts. They are required to write an original post and a response post totaling approximately 600 words. I identify which of the two prompts generate the most posts and compose a longer post of 1200–1500 words in which I quote from each of the students who posted on that prompt (making sure to write students’ names in bold), comment on the developing discussion, and offer additional resources (e.g., documentaries, music, further readings, etc.). Students are not required to respond to this longer post, but I have heard back from students anecdotally that they appreciate the synthesis because often times it is “annoying” to sift through 20–30 original posts from their classmates.

Text of image: "Conversation with Geraldine Heng, 2019 AAR Book Award Winner" with cover of Heng's book, "The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages"

Geraldine Heng discusses the obstacles in conceptualizing race in premodernity and the evidence for racialized thinking in the European medieval period. Heng is professor of English and comparative literature, with a joint appointment in Middle Eastern studies and women’s studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is also the founder and director of the Global Middle Ages Projects.

In this interview, she talks with Kristian Petersen about the research in her book "The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages" (Cambridge University Press, 2018), which won AAR's 2019 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the category of Historical Studies.