Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Instituting Religion: Closing Remarks

Finally, here are my closing remarks that I gave during the closing round-table discussion:

I originally envisioned this conference as an ongoing dialogue. And I attempted to implement this in the very organization of the panels. The panels, in some ways, can be seen as interactive, with later panels commenting on the topics of earlier panels. With this in mind, I created the closing discussion as a “respondents’ panel,” in which the respondents could take the insights from their panels and put them directly into dialogue with one another in order to identify cross-panel themes as well as identify a few gaps in the conference, providing fertile directions for further inquiry. (Unfortunately, our third respondent, Jack Hawley, could not be with us, and so I am going to fill in for him, but by no means are my comments or interests reflective of his.)

Bracketing issues suggested in the call for papers but not really discussed today, one key aspect of the institutional shaping of religion that has briefly emerged in this conference and should receive serious sustained interrogation as we move on from this setting is pedagogy. In fact, I was discussing this with Adam Lobel, and told him if I were to organize this conference all over again, I would have called for a panel on pedagogy. Indeed, we are primarily hired as professors in order to teach. And so how we teach what we teach and navigate the vagaries of funding, student interest in particular subjects, student expectations of certain topics, and institutional habits of course development (even how course titles are negotiated between student interests and “inherited” courses) will shape how religion is understood as we present it primarily to our undergraduate students.

When it comes down to it, who reads our research? How many people will read my dissertation and our scholarly monographs? Versus how many people will we teach? And, in this instance, how textbooks for such courses are used (or ignored) and how those books present “religion/s” to students, whether upheld or deconstructed by the instructor, have great impact, in my opinion, for the dissemination of our understandings or misunderstandings of what we study. We should think of how we communicate (or do not communicate) with our students engaging both their and our assumptions (Luke’s discussion of competitive economies of knowledge may be helpful here). Thus, in teaching, how we do what we do develops in interaction with institutional habitus (so to speak) as well as student interest and expectation. The exact analysis of these interactions at various institutions would be an important contribution to the concerns we have investigated today. (Adam’s analogy [given in the discussion period of the first panel] of seminar reading practices versus Buddhist monastic reading practices of the same text producing different forms of knowledge illustrates this point quite well.)

Instituting Religion: Introductory Remarks

As noted in my previous post, I decided to post my introductory remarks to the "Instituting Religion" conference:

Good morning and welcome to “Instituting Religion: Investigating Trajectories of the Study of Religion in Institutions of Higher Education.”

This is the Columbia Religion Graduate Students Association’s fourth interdisciplinary conference. This year we are sponsored by the Department of Religion and the Graduate Student Activities Council.

Our first two conferences focused primarily upon theoretical and methodological issues regarding the study of religion within and without religious studies. Last year our theme turned to a more thematic discussion of Religion and Popular Culture. This year, returning to earlier concerns, we hope to take the institutional setting and shaping of the categories, theories, methods, general approaches, and assumptions we use in the study of religion/s (including the concept of religion itself). Therefore, instead of trying to define what religion is, per se, we hope to investigate disciplinary and departmental divisions and interrelationships. As such, throughout the day, one will find many of the papers peppered with references to such figures as Talal Asad, especially his Genealogies of Religion, Timothy Fitzgerald, and especially Russell McCutcheon, who are in their own ways interested in the genealogical, social, political, or ideological aspects of “religion” and religious studies. These developments will be discussed in conjunction with the rise of particular sub-fields in religious studies, often coinciding with constructions of traditions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.

This conference strongly focuses upon the interrelations between Religious Studies departments and departments of history, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, area studies departments, and so on. In this way, the two afternoon panels are partially inverse images of each other. Thus, “Religion Outside Religion” investigates where and how religion, or particular religious traditions such as Islam and Buddhism, is studied in such departments and places, as well as the historical, conceptual, institutional, and ideological implications of this. In converse, “the interdisciplinary study of religion” discusses how the theories and methods developed in departments of sociology, anthropology, and history among others have been used and combined in religious studies, looking toward the implications and emerging possibilities of their interactions in religious studies.

To discuss these broad-brushed issues in particular instantiations, we are pleased to have participating students and faculty from the Departments of Religion and Socio-Cultural Anthropology at Columbia. And we are very happy to feature panelists and participants from Boston University, Brown, Drew, Florida State University, Harvard, University of Colorado at Boulder, and Yale.

I would like to thank all of our presenters for their participation. I’d like to thank Terry Todd, Jack Hawley, and Rosemary Hicks for responding to today’s panels and for agreeing to form a “respondents’ panel” as our closing discussants, providing general reflections on today’s events and productive possibilities for further inquiry. Thanks to the Religion Department and the Graduate Student Activities Council for sponsoring this event. In this connection, thanks to Jon Keune who acts as our department’s representative to GSAC. This event would have never gotten off the ground without the help of Rick Moore, off of whom I bounced ideas many months ago as this conference was still being conceptualized, and who sent out the call for papers and conference announcements to institutions throughout North America. I would like to thank Dan Vaca for setting up our website. And Emily Brennan has been absolutely indispensable the past couple of weeks, taking care of the catering for this event and assisting in the development of our promotional flyers, which Maryum Saifee designed. And thanks to Susie Andrews, Udi Halperin, Asha Moorthy, James Hare, Todd French, Greg Scott, Dan Vaca, Stephanie Lin, Drew Thomases, Andrew Frankel, Arvind Sabu, and Sajida Jalalzai, who volunteered to do the many necessary last-minute tasks, such as putting up posters throughout the campus, setting up this room, and obtaining the sound equipment. Finally, I would like to thank our moderators (Todd French, Jon Keune, and Heather Ohaneson), who agreed to keep our speakers in line or, at least, on time!

We have a busy day ahead of us; one that I hope you will all find intellectually rewarding. I especially hope that the discussions extend beyond the panels themselves, whether during our breaks or over a glass of wine at our evening reception (please do join us for some wine, food, and conversation this evening). And from there, may ongoing conversation and dialogue spill out beyond these walls and this campus.

And so, without further ado, let the investigation of the institutional settings of religion begin, as I now turn things over to our first panel, “The Production of Religion/s,” and its moderator, Todd French.

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.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Recent Readings: Hegel

I usually read a variety of things at the same time--I often have stacks of books that I have started. So, today I am reading some good old Ugaritic texts (though not in Ugaritic--alas, that is a language I have not picked up) while reading Hegel's Introduction to the Philosophy of History. Here are some excerpts from Hegel that have so far caught my eye, and maybe someone would like to comment on:

"When we are occupied with a remote world of the past, that world becomes present to the mind through the mind's own activity--and that recaptured world is the mind's reward for its labor. The events vary, but they are connected into one pattern in their universal and inner meaning. This is what negates the event as past, and makes it present. Pragmatic reflections, abstract though they might be are thus what is in fact present, and they bring the accounts of the past to life in our present-day world. But whether reflections of this kind are really filled with interest and vitality depends on the mind of the author."

"Rulers, statesmen, and nations are told that they ought to learn from the experience of history. Yet what experience and history teach us is this, that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, nor acted in accordance with the lessons to be derived from it. Each era has such particular circumstances, such individual situations, that decisions can only be made from within the era itself. In the press of world events, there is no help to be had from general principles, nor from the memory of similar conditions in former times--for a pale memory has no force against he vitality and freedom of the present. In this respect, nothing is more trite than the repeated appeal to Greek and Roman examples, which was so commonplace at the time of the French Revolution. No difference could be greater than that between the nature of those ancient peoples and our own time."

Contrast this last statement with that of Hume in Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding VIII, I: "Would you know the sentiments, inclinations, and course of life of the Greeks and Romans? Study well the temper and actions of the French and the English.... Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange int his particular."

Then, especially for people who study religion or have an interest in religion, check out this final, short quotation from Hegel: " modern times we have come to the point where philosophy has to take up the defense of religious truths against many types of theological doctrine."

And, I guess so people can grasp the contrast in my readings, here is something from the Canaanite epic, Aqhat:
"She [Anat] stamped her feet and left the earth;
then she headed toward El,
at the source of the two rivers,
in the midst of the two seas' pools;
she opened El's tent and entered
the shrine of the King, the Father of Time."

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Smelly Books!!!

I have always liked the smell of old books. I am the guy who prefers to walk the stacks at the library rather than check the online catalogue. I would take having a book physically in my hands rather than reading it online any day. So, on the note of the wondrous musty smell of old books, the following was in the Chronicle today (and click here or on the link below for a longer version from Glasgow's website)...

Investigating the Smell of Old Books

Researchers at Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde are studying the smell of old books to “sniff” out the chemical signs of aging.

Books are placed for 24 to 48 hours in a sealed chamber, where “material and compounds responsible for the odour from the books” will be extracted and analyzed, according to a university press release. Findings from the analysis will be used to determine the best practices for storing old books—and may also explain where that musty old-book smell comes from.

The study is being conducted by the university’s Department of Pure and Applied Chemistry in partnership with the British Library, on a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.—Catherine Rampell

Friday, April 4, 2008

Some New Page Elements

Please note the extra page elements I have placed on the right hand side. Firstly, I have posted a link to my newly written online academic bio on the Columbia Religion Department website. Secondly, I have posted the flyer for the "Instituting Religion" conference occurring this Thursday! Be sure to come if you are around! Soon, I hope to add a slideshow as well that will show some of my pics from my travels around the Mediterranean.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Instituting Religion Conference

The Columbia Religion Graduate Students Association's conference, "Instituting Religion," is merely a week away now.

If you are going to be in the New York City area on April 10, please feel free to stop by and hear some up and coming graduate students speak.

For a schedule and to register (for free), check out our website: