Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Instituting Religion Conference Results

It has now been a few weeks since my little conference, "Instituting Religion" at Columbia on April 10. I think I have finally recovered! And so I'll just give a few observations.

Firstly, the conference went rather well. I enjoyed the presentations, the questions, and the discussion. I almost wish I could have recorded some of the Q & A times. As usual with such conferences, there just never is enough time for discussion early on, and by the end of the day everyone is a bit too tired to discuss too much.

There were some very solid papers. Given that I was the conference organizer, I was in and out much of the day, and so I missed a few of the papers. But I was able to stay in the room for the entire first panel and response, and it was definitely very solid: Luke Moorhead (Yale) gave a theoretical discussion of Bourdieu with regard to the field, capital, and habitus of Religious Studies as it is negotiated with the competing capital of other fields of study in the university and funding structures within and without the university (such as the government); Adam Seth Lobel (Harvard) provided some possibilities for the method of phenomenology through an analysis of persistent misunderstandings of phenomenology, especially with regard to "experience," and, I must say, I was disappointed (as Adam seemed to be) that he had to drop his discussion of pedagogy in terms of how the institutional structures of the academy (versus others, such as monasteries, for example) produce different types of knowledge even though people may be studying the same texts within those different institutional frameworks; and Greg Scott (Columbia) provided a detailed discussion of of the revival of the "Weishi" school, giving the various competing institutional factors in this background. In some senses, it would have been interesting to see Luke's method applied to Greg's evidence. And in another way, one can see the overlap between Adam's concerns about "experience" and the "Weishi" school's emphasis on "consciousness." As I fully expected, J. Terry Todd's (Drew) response was fantastic, drawing together a lot of the themes and gaps of analysis, especially drawing attention to the important themes of pedagogy, and the trinity of race, class, and gender.

What I heard of the later papers was also very good and much of it provocative, bringing up institutional interrelationships between departments, such as how religion is studied outside of religion departments and how other departmental methodologies (such as history and anthropology, to name just representative examples) find their ways in eclectic fashion in religion departments. John Kinsey (University of Colorado at Boulder) drew attention to the formation of philosophy curricula and its almost exclusive focus on Euro-American analytic thought and its neglect of other philosophies, particularly Buddhist thought. Martyn Oliver (Boston University), in a provocative paper, analyzed various institutional departmental arrangements from around the U.S. in how various universities configure (or fail to do so in a coherent manner) the study of Islam. And, although I missed it, I understand that Jack Hawley (Barnard) gave a good, thorough critique of both of these papers.

Our final panel ended up focusing upon anthropology/ethnography in various ways, although this was not necessarily the original intention of the organizer (oh well). Lauren Gray (Florida State University) discussed the benefits and pitfalls of historical and anthropological methods and how those pitfalls can be avoided through the use of "postmodern" critique and methodological fusion. Lori McCullough (Brown) provided a critique of J.Z. Smith in order to open discussion of the use of comparison, especially with the inclusion of anthropological models. Uma Bhrugubanda (Columbia), actually a student in the anthropology department, discussed her research in South Asian popular cinema, which, unfortunately, I missed much of as well as the response by Rosemary Hicks (Columbia), although I do understand that her response was thorough.

Afterward, we had a nice, semi-formal discussion, in which Terry, Rosemary, and I discussed some larger trajectories within the conference as well as some of the possibilities for further inquiry. And, come to think of it, perhaps I should post my opening remarks and my closing discussion remarks as well.

In short, it was a very productive conference and I hope its conversations continue beyond the four walls of the conference room! In fact, I have been discussing publishing the proceedings, and I hope that will spark a wider conversation of these issues.

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