New Semester, Old Complaints

A new semester is upon us. Classes have begun, and I’m getting back into the swing of things. So, naturally, it’s time for me to gripe about the state of the academy.

A few days ago I ran into a friend’s boyfriend who is starting his undergraduate degree as an adult student. As we chatted, he lamented that he had ordered a book too late for a class, and would not have it in time for the first reading assignment. “Have you checked the library?” I asked. He looked flabbergasted. The idea, which seemed so second nature to me at this point, had simply not occurred to him- that the textbook for a class would be in the school library was completely outside of his frame of reference.

This got me thinking. I remember how lost I felt when I started grad school. I am lucky enough to be part of a department that is incredibly supportive and helpful, and it still took me at least two semesters to feel like I had the slightest inkling of what was going on.

I recall similarly feeling pretty overwhelmed when I started my undergraduate education. However, I was one of those privileged students who begins college right out of high school, so I at least wasn’t out of practice when it came to doing my homework, etc. My first year was still pretty rough (especially when you add “struggles with mental illness” to the standard adjusting to college life). I imagine it must be so much tougher to go to college as an adult.

The professor I T.A. for at UNCC spends an entire class period during the first week of her LBST (Liberal Studies) classes going over “the freshman myth” (or, the idea most incoming first year students have that college will be no different from high school, and therefore they will not have to change their study habits). She additionally teaches them how to take notes, how to listen to lectures, and how to write an argumentative essay. I have never encountered another professor who does this for any class.

To be fair, incoming freshman at UNCC have, as a whole, distinctly different backgrounds from those at UNC, where I did my undergrad. While there it could be assumed that most of them had already gone through the rite-of-passage of writing five paragraph essays, the same cannot be assumed for UNCC- which is one reason why I love this school, while at the same time am profoundly frustrated as a T.A. Many students are the first in their family to attempt higher education, and most are working and taking classes simultaneously. Plenty are coming back to school as adults.

Clearly the adjustment to college is hard. And clearly many don’t know how to ask for help, or even that they can ask. So why don’t more professors these basic introductions to academic expectations when teaching classes filled with first year college students?  

I think part of the reason is that they- we- forget what it was like when we were first starting. I know that I have to make myself remember how disoriented and lost I was when I started grad school, and that was only two years ago. Imagine how hard it must be to recall these feelings of anxiety and confusion when it has been more like fifteen, twenty, or even thirty years.

I think that I need to make more of a conscious effort to remember these feelings. Instead of getting frustrated with students for now automatically knowing how the academy works, I should try to be compassionate and patient. After all, I only barely know what I’m doing- and it wasn’t so long ago I was in their shoes.

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Revisiting the AAR

As the semester draws to a close, I wanted to revisit the inaugural post of my blog, in which I discussed some of my thoughts and impressions of the American Academy of Religion conference in Atlanta last fall.

At the time, I was highly distressed by the amount of “masculinity” that I encountered during the conference: there were substantially more men than women in attendance, and the women for the most part seemed to be performing more muted femininity.

Though not surprising for academia (especially for the Religious Studies field), I now wonder if my initial comments were a bit harsh.

I wonder if I could have seen my surroundings in a more nuanced light, rather than taking a solely condemnatory stance. Could I, for example, instead take into account concepts like disidentification, as discussed by José Esteban Muñoz?

In his book Muñoz discusses the ways in which individuals and groups who fall outside of normativity (specifically with regard to race and sexuality) must often form their identities through a failure to interpellate within the dominant public sphere. For Muñoz, for many there is no complete assimilation into the dominant culture, just as there cannot always be complete rejection.

The fiction of identity is one that is accessed with relative ease by most majoritarian subjects. Minoritarian subjects need to interface with different subcultural fields to activate their own senses of self.*

I don’t think that (mostly white) women in the academy were quite what Muñoz had in mind when formulating this concept, but I think that it can still apply.

At the time when these women were entering into the academy (and even today, to a large extent) there were not models within the academy with whom they could identify- i.e. other women. In order to “fit in” and continue their work, they had (and still have) to find a way to negotiate the awkward space of the double bind: you can’t be too feminine if you want to be taken seriously, but you have to be feminine enough so you don’t come off as cold or b*tchy (Think about all the buzz about Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits over the years).

Identifying in complete opposition to their male counterparts isn’t really an option, especially if they want to succeed within the academy. And of course they can’t completely identify with these male counterparts and be taken seriously.

I want to rethink my initial reactions to the gendered expressions as I interpreted them at the AAR. After all, who wants to wear lots of glittery make-up after a long flight? And who wants to wear six inch heels to walk around a conference for four days? 


* José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 5.
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Feminism and Alcoholism

I recently heard a paper at the SEWSA entitled that purported to focus on the intersectionality of feminism and alcoholism. I was intrigued, and had high hopes. The beginning of the presentation shed light on the true nature of alcoholism, emphasizing that it is a medical condition rather than merely a lack of will-power. The presenter then discussed similarities between rape culture and substance abuse, victim blaming, and the stigma attached to the labels “feminist” and “alcoholic”.

So far, so good.

Unfortunately, I felt as though the paper did not meet its full potential. The presenter stated that she had attended a few AA (alcoholics anonymous) meetings with her newly sober partner, and had had her “feminist alarms” go off. Essentially, she was struck by the use of the term “him” in the 12 steps and 12 traditions of AA to refer to God or a higher power.

For her, this meant that AA was patriarchal.

Additionally, she saw the emphasis on anonymity as encouraging a continuation of the stigma and preventing individuals from self identifying.

In the AA literature (such as in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions,  the supplemental text to the basic AA book) there is a great deal of discussion surrounding this foundational principle. The original intention is to prevent power imbalances (based on identity or occupation outside of the AA rooms) and give individuals who attend the meetings an opportunity to de-center the self. It is my opinion that many AA’s would see this encouragement of anonymity not as increasing stigma that perpetuates the patriarchal and ableist status quo, but instead as an opportunity to attempt to disrupt and provide an alternative to the power imbalances that exist outside of the AA rooms.

The principle of anonymity refers not simply to keeping one’s status as a recovering alcoholic quiet in the “real world”, but additionally to the attempt to keep recovery the sole purpose of AA.

Sure, power imbalances from the outside world are going to sneak in. After all, if you are a white man who is used to speaking over others, that is not going to change just because you walk into an AA meeting. AA is a microcosm of the wider society, so problematic relations between individuals are guaranteed to occur. I am not trying to argue that AA is a perfect utopian society.

I was astounded by the lack of critical inquiry that seemed to go into this paper. The presenter advocated for self-disclosure and the telling of one’s own story (which is one of the critiques she had about anonymity), yet it appeared as though she had not actually talked to any members of AA outside of her husband. She claimed that it was an oppressive structure because the founders had been two men, and the text referred to God as a male. I think that if she had spent more time interviewing and talking with individuals (especially minorities) who had been members of AA for a wider range of time periods her research findings would have been drastically different.

She’s not wrong that the original founders were men, and the earliest forms of AA catered mostly to men. It is also true that the 12 steps refer to “God as we understand him”. But I don’t think that this makes Alcoholics Anonymous unequivocally sexist. I think that an approach that incorporates concepts like José Esteban Muñoz’s disidentification, in which minority groups engage with dominant discourses (such as misogyny, racism, etc.) in complex and nuanced ways. I think it would be extremely interesting to see what the presenter could find in examining how marginalized people use some of the concepts in AA that could be seen as sexist in ways that to them feel positive.

That is a paper I want to see.

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Kripal’s “Biological Gods”

Jeffrey Kripal, a professor at Rice University, came to speak at my university earlier this week for our annual Witherspoon Religious Studies lecture.

His lecture, “Biological Gods: Science (fiction) and Some Emergent Mythologies”, focused on three specific works by individuals who identify themselves as “Experiencers”, or those who have had alien or UFO encounters.

Kripal discussed how these kinds of experiences are socially scripted into our psyches. A contemporary tale of an alien encounter is the modern equivalent of ancient tales of divine encounters. For Kripal, this scripting doesn’t mean that the experiences are necessarily invalid (though he remains neutral, neither advocating for the objective reality of UFO sightings or alien encounters nor dismissing them as hogwash).

As I understood it, he thinks that it makes perfect sense that a culture so enmeshed with technology would perceive these supernatural experiences through a technological lens. Just as a Catholic Catholic child in, say, the 1500’s would naturally see a Marian apparition.

He finds that these seemingly radically different experiences are linked; they are an emergence of the scripted form of some sort of encounter that is inexpressible. The person sees a UFO (or Jesus’ face in a piece of toast) because they expect to, but this is the result of some sort of other-worldly touch that only has the option of emerging through the lens of something we are already familiar with.

I think Kripal’s approach is interesting. He advocates for putting the mysterious (or the divine) back into the study of religion. While I think that this can create some issues (some might immediately jump to the realm of the miraculous when attempting to explain religious phenomena), but I think it is an interesting idea.

Religious Studies is so often incredibly depressing, Kripal noted. I’m afraid I agree. Though I love the field with all my heart, sometimes I feel like it is missing an air of wonder and incredulity.

Maybe it’s just me, but at times I feel that everything is reduced to a theory or explanation, and all of the amazing “stuff” that makes up the so much of what we study is ignored or extinguished.

What would it mean to attempt to reinvigorate the study? How could this be done carefully? Could it be done at all at this point?

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fail me!

In academia we are not often given the opportunity to fail.

We are definitely not encouraged to.

I am taking a class on teaching religious studies and the humanities this semester, and the professor brought up an interesting point on the first day of classes.

Would it be possible to see failure as a good thing?

In our writing, we are always supposed to form a thesis and support and develop it in a well-thought out paper, which ends with a neat conclusion that summarizes how we have successfully proved our claim.

These papers are seen as problems to be solved, and the solution should never contradict the analysis- you’re not allowed to spend 10, 15, 20 pages playing with ideas and analysis and application and come to the conclusion that none of what you have been doing works or matters.

There has to be a purpose, and it has to solve some problem in order to be considered productive.

This very much echoes Robin James’ analysis of resilience discourse in her book “Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism”. In the book she describes the use and subsumation of narratives of overcoming within the economy of neoliberalism. The energy of dealing with a hardship and coming out on top is now being used as a kind of feedback loop- the amount of resilience you produce supports and reaffirms the racist, sexist, ableist, etc., system. In brief, James’ criticism of resilience proposes the solution of melancholy, which she describes as “going into death”. This doesn’t necessarily literally mean dying, but it can mean dying in the incorrect way or at the incorrect time.

“Resilience is the contemporary update of mourning; instead of conquering damage we recycle it. Damage isn’t a bug to eliminate, but a feature to exploit. In this context, melancholia is not the failure to resolve  a lack but a misfired resilience, the failure to bounce back enough and/or in the right direction” (19)

I would like to argue that what we view as “failure” in academia can instead be seen as a form of counter-resilience, an act of resistance. If I spend 20 pages of a paper working with an analysis that ultimately doesn’t make sense, I have failed only in the sense that I have not produced some easily summarizable conclusion that can be recycled and used in the next person’s analysis, the next student’s paper.

If we are, as bell hooks would advocate, to view the teaching and learning process as revolutionary and as an act of resistance, then we should be viewing failure as a good thing, as a positive force.

We should try to fail. We might end up succeeding.

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Reflections on the AAR

This weekend I attended my first ever AAR (American Academy of Religion) national conference. I was not presenting a paper, but decided to go anyway (as it was only a four hour drive from my university) to get the feel for networking and just take in the vast world of the academy.

What I took in was…a whole lot of masculinity.

Honestly, I am not surprised. It is no secret that “the academy” has traditionally been a male dominated arena. Religious studies, specifically, has been made up of mostly men until pretty recently. This is not to say that there weren’t a large number of women (and others) in attendance, and to be fair I have not examined statistics of who was at the conference*. Overall, though, I saw an awful lot of masculinity. A vast majority of the women who I saw seemed to be taking on more masculine modes of dress. The skirts and dresses that I saw could be described as “smart”. There were a lot of muted colors and neutrals. I did not see anyone presenting in a way that I would call “high femme”- no bright colors, no glitter, etc.

To me, this reemphasized that the academy is a masculine world. Whether or not these individuals (men and women included) dress in the same way when they are not in a specifically academic context makes no difference in my opinion. It was clear to me that the general consensus was that to be taken seriously in academia, and/or at the AAR one had to take on a certain level of masculine dress and presentation.

I also wish to make a few notes within the context of the specific panels I attended. Most of these were specifically focused on queer theory and its various applications within the study of religion. One, in particular, was focused primarily on “Engaging Trans Studies in Religion”. In this context one can expect a level of understanding of issues of gender that differs from that of the whole. Yet still the dynamics of the room were interesting for me to observe. The panel was made up primarily of men. The moderator, and three of the panelists were trans identified men, all but one of whom were not immediately readable as trans- the only way that we would have known is through their own self-identification. There was one AFAB (assigned female at birth) genderqueer identified person, who presented their gender in an androgynous-to-masculine way. There was one trans woman. All but one of the panelists was white: one identified as having a latino heritage, but was also not visibly readable as non-white without their self-identification. All were explicitly Christian, and one was Jewish. In the audience was one trans feminine person. I can confidently say that the two people in this room were the only obviously trans feminine people I saw during the entire conference**.

There were a few genderqueer/non-conforming people (including myself) at the LGBTIQ specific events throughout the conference, but the vast majority of them were white and more masculine presenting. Again, I don’t have statistics, and so am relying merely on the interactions I engaged in and witnessed. But I don’t think that I’m wrong. There was a definite lack of what is typically considered “feminine” at this conference. And I have noticed that this is the case in academia overall.

While the academy, and specifically Religious Studies, has begun to be less dominated by men, it is still a highly masculine place. I don’t think that simply allowing women to enter into the field is enough to end the male-domination of this space. Masculinity itself needs to be addressed and even confronted, looking at how women and other non-men are forced to align themselves with masculinity in order to be taken seriously in positions within academia.

 

* I would also like to note that these observations are not based upon interactions with many of the people I saw at the conference. I do not know what the gender identities of the thousands of individuals at the conference were. I am commenting here only on the gender presentations I witnessed within my panels and the conference as a whole.

**Again, there could have been other trans feminine people in attendance whom I did not encounter, or whom were not identifiable as trans. But I think that this speaks to a larger issue.

 

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