May 30 2024

A (Second) Conversation with AAR President, Thomas Tweed

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). His books America’s Church: The National Shrine and Catholic Presence in the Nation’s Capital (Oxford University Press, 2011) and Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Catholic Shrine in Miami (Oxford University Press, 1997) both won AAR Awards for Excellence.

Religious Studies News: This has been a busy presidential term. What are the accomplishments of the Board of Directors you’re most proud of?

Thomas Tweed: Yes, we’ve been busy. The accomplishments I’m most proud of have come from generous collaboration among the board, staff, committees, and the wider membership. I’m not just being polite. It’s true. From the start of the year, I’ve been touched and inspired by the warm response to my suggestion that we think more about the AAR’s institutional values and how well we’re enacting them. The good ideas we’ve pursued have come from different sources. That might be what I find most gratifying, our attempts to continue to move toward an institutional culture that enacts our shared commitments to transparency, equity, and inclusion.

We can and must do better, of course. But working together we’ve done some small things I find gratifying. Personally, I’m thrilled that we no longer charge graduate students to enroll in the employment center, and the staff came up with a wonderful new program to provide twenty-five $500 travel grants for underrepresented minorities, graduate students, contingent faculty, independent scholars, and anyone else who cannot afford to attend the Annual Meeting. We think it’s the most generous program of it’s kind among ACLS organizations, and—to shamelessly appeal for help—if folks would like to support it, they can visit the AAR's donations page and select Annual Meeting Travel Grants .

I’m also happy that we’ve begun a process to develop a five-year plan for the AAR. I’m gratified that we now have a policy on when and how the board makes public statements, including directions for how members can request that we speak out on an issue. We’re revisiting our statement on academic freedom and sexual harassment and, with the inspiration and diligence of many, we’ve been thinking about research ethics and contingent faculty. I’m especially thrilled that for the first time the AAR has posted drafts of some statements so we can solicit member comments and questions. We can still improve that new strategy, I think. But without collaboration between the board and the staff, including the folks at Religious Studies News, we would not have had been able to seek that feedback. I’m gratified—and grateful—for that.

Can you say more about those policy statements and where they stand now? Maybe you can start with the policy on public statements and the revised statement on academic freedom?

Sure. Those two statements are linked in some ways since we felt the need for a clearer policy on public statements, in part because we had been asked to make statements on academic freedom cases. While some of those cases in recent years elicited nearly univocal support from AAR members, others stirred passions and generated controversy.

The conflicting advice we received from members made us realize we needed more guidance about when and how we issue public statements. So we returned to the AAR’s official documents for help and decided that we may issue a public statement if the request is consistent with our mission statement and Article 2 of the Bylaws. That means we ask if the issue concerns the understanding of religion and the professional interests of members. So we left the January board meeting with a new policy on public statements, which included detailed instructions about how members can bring issues to the Board’s attention.

We also concluded that we needed to revisit our 2006 statement on academic freedom. So a subcommittee of the board was formed to expand and refine our official statement, and we posted a new draft online for comment in August. We also decided that there seemed to be enough interest among members to provide even more opportunity for comment. We have scheduled an open session (A21-342) at the Annual Meeting in November to discuss the statement further.* The subcommittee will listen to suggestions we receive in Atlanta and then submit a final version to the board for review in early 2016.

You also posted another draft statement on RSN.

Right. The statement on responsible research practices. We hope that also will go to the board early in 2016. In my personal statement on the AAR election ballot, I promised that I would help produce the organization’s first official statement on research ethics. Unlike most other ACLS groups we have had no document detailing the researcher’s responsibilities and the rights of those we study. I personally had confronted a number of moral dilemmas doing both archival research and fieldwork. I had the usual IRB training and knew the ethics statements of other learned societies, including the AHA and the AAA. But since religion is a particularly contested subject, I thought the AAR should think more systematically about all that.

It turns out that other AAR members agreed. So for the past two years the executive director, Jack Fitzmier, and I, have led a group of ten scholars in crafting a document. We solicited member feedback during a public session at last year’s Annual Meeting and posted the draft for online comment this summer. We will seek still more advice at a session in Atlanta on “The Moral Challenges of Research” (A22-200) when we’ll ask four panelists to tell us how well our draft statement helps them deal with the most complicated moral challenges they face as religion scholars.** Then we’ll listen to audience feedback and revise the statement again after the Annual Meeting. As I said, we hope to submit the revised statement to the Board for its consideration at a meeting in spring 2016.

The Board is considering other policy statements too, including one on contingent faculty. Can you say more about that and whether you think the AAR is engaged enough with the realities of research, teaching, and professional development among non-tenure tack faculty?

Well, no. We haven’t done enough. But we hope to do better. We don’t have good data about the proportion of AAR members who serve as contingent faculty—data gathering is one thing to improve—but some available information suggests there is plenty of room for improvement. A recent report in the Chronicle of Higher Education listed religion departments as 17th out of 44 disciplines in what we pay adjunct faculty members, and that average compensation for a three-credit religion course was remarkably low ($3,208).1

The board and the staff hope to improve things by promoting more conversation about the responsibilities of administrators and the rights of instructors, including by urging institutions to address the problem of inequitable compensation and inhumane conditions. We established a Task Force on Contingent Faculty, and convened a subcommittee of the board to discuss and revise a document drafted originally by the Academic Relations Committee (ARC), which has partnered with the board on this effort. The ARC chair, as well as the Task Force’s chair, joined with several staff and board members to agree on a revised draft, and we tried to balance our concern to produce a document that might be implementable with our concern to also hold ourselves and our institutions accountable to the highest standards of conduct. We expect the revised draft on contingent faculty will go to the board for its review this fall.

Writing and revising these policies is part of a larger goal, one that you’ve made explicit in the choice of the theme for the Annual Meeting—“valuing the study of religion.” So while you and the board have done a lot of work behind the scenes in trying to evaluate and employ the values of the AAR, the Annual Meeting is our main event, so to speak. How will that theme shape some of what happens in Atlanta?

The theme concerns two related sorts of issues. First, I hope to encourage us to think more about how religion is valued and devalued in the public arena. Second, I want to think more about the epistemic, aesthetic, and moral values we enact in our own work and in the work of the AAR. That theme might seem abstract, but I hope we’ll find that it directs us toward concrete issues and pressing problems.

A number of program units and committees have organized sessions that will advance the conversation about these two related issues—from “Description, Prescription, and Value in the Study of Religion” (A22-112) to “The Value of Religious Studies in an Age of Budget Cuts” (A22-302)—and I will address values and valuing in my presidential address and in the plenary sessions I have organized. In my presidential address, I’ll gesture toward the history of the study of religion and suggest that employing values in research and teaching is inevitable. So we should talk more about which values we want to affirm and enact.

As with our efforts to reconsider policy and procedure, an examination of our values can help us as individual members and institutional representatives to more fully identify and meet our professional obligations, including in graduate teaching, hiring practices, and research ethics. This attempt to be clear about our guiding commitments also promises to help us confront the internal debates among us—including by advancing the conversation about the relation between theology and religious studies. And shifting our gaze to the public arena and to our own campuses, I argue that thinking more systematically about values can help us improve the arguments we make to administrators and stake holders about the importance of the study of religion today.

The “values” theme has shaped your choices about the presidential plenary sessions too.

Right. I’ve organized three panels for our meeting. We’re committed to equity in our organization and in the public arena, but it’s been a heartbreaking year for race relations in the US. So I felt called to address that topic at the Annual Meeting. I organized a presidential plenary session on “Racial Injustice and Religious Response: From Selma to Ferguson” (A21-145). Imani Perry and Ruby Sales will join Cornell West to discuss the history of the problem and contemporary efforts to improve things. As I’ve noted, another session, “The Moral Challenges of Research,” will focus on our guiding values and individual responsibilities as researchers.

The third plenary session deals with one of the perennial problems under the big umbrella that is the AAR: the relationship between theology and religious studies. You’ll be presiding over a conversation between UCSB’s Ann Taves and Oxford’s Graham Ward on that topic. How can the AAR continue to best represent both theological and religious studies approaches while also acknowledging that there are philosophical and methodological tensions?

Well, to find out you’ll just have to come to the presidential address and to the plenary session on "‘Normativity’ and the Academic Study of Religion" (A23-147). But more seriously, I do think that this is an enduring and crucial problem. In my presidential address I’ll argue that we have to reframe the problem by focusing on the ways that all of us use value language to make normative claims. The question is not whether to enact values. It’s which values we want to affirm. Reframed that way, I hope, maybe we can clarify what we share and what we don’t. I’m not trying to say we are all the same. We’re absolutely not. But I suspect that if we can be clearer about our contested and converging commitments we might find that we share more than we suspected, including our concern to make sure that the study of religion in all of its myriad institutional expressions is valued.

Finally, you’ve talked a lot this year about inclusivity and transparency, but how can members who want to become more active in the AAR become involved? What are the best ways to take ownership in the guild?

If you’re a member, it’s already your organization, but there are many ways to give what you can and take what you need. I think effective membership in a learned society means enacting the virtue of reciprocal generosity, and that means both giving and taking in their proper proportion. It means making sure you do all you can to figure out how the AAR can help you, whether you are a new or long-time member, and discerning what you can give back.

If you are a graduate student or early career scholar, that might mean taking advantage of our travel grants or research grants. If you are an international scholar, it might mean applying for the collaborative research grants administered by the International Connections Committee or attending the annual reception for international members at the Annual Meeting. It might mean taking advantage of one of our great mentoring programs for women and underrepresented minorities or trying out our newest initiative, Have a Cup of Coffee on the AAR, in which we’ll arrange an opportunity for you to talk about your work with a senior scholar.

Taking and giving might mean nominating yourself to serve on an AAR working group or committee, and then stepping up to serve when asked. It might mean attending program unit business meetings to express your opinion about next year’s program—or contacting program unit chairs to ask their advice about how to best organize a successful panel submission. If you are in an embattled department you might want help in making the case for the study of religion at your institution; contact us and we will do all we can to advocate for you and your colleagues.

And, of course, taking advantage of membership means speaking up about the issues that concern you. Make sure you fill out the post-meeting online survey. When we post drafts of policy documents, you might offer public or private comments, as a number of you did this summer. At this year’s Annual Meeting, you might attend the open forums on research ethics and academic freedom—and offer your two cents about our working drafts. If you have a concern or a question, you can always contact the staff and the board. And, when we start the planning process next year, I hope you will seize the opportunity to express your views—so we can serve you better in the years ahead.

1^  “Average Pay for Adjuncts per 3-credit course, by discipline, 2014-15,” in Almanac of Higher Education 2015, special issue, Chronicle of Higher Education 61, no. 43 (August 21, 2015): 14.


* "Open Session on the AAR’s Revised Statement on Academic Freedom," A21-342, Saturday, November 21, from 4:00 to 5:30 pm in the Crystal BE meeting room of the Hilton (Level 1).

** "The Moral Challenges of Research: A Panel on the AAR’s Draft Statement on Responsible Research Practices," A22-200, Sunday, November 22, from 1:00 to 2:30 pm in the Dunwoody meeting room of the Hyatt (Atlanta Conference Level).