Photo Credit: Dr. Russell McCutcheon
From November 19 to November 23, 2015, I had the privilege of traveling to Atlanta, Georgia with my advisor, Dr. Craig Martin, for the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) / American Academy of Religion (AAR) / Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) annual conference.
With my graduation from STAC approaching quickly and my desire to pursue a career in the academic study of religion, Dr. Martin and I felt that it would be helpful for me to have some early exposure to the kinds of work currently developing in the field, as well as to network with the scholars I may one day have the opportunity to work or study with.
It is, perhaps, an understatement to note that I was a little nervous as I settled into my hotel Thursday night and prepared for an early start on Friday morning. After all, I was off to meet the very scholars I had up to this point only studied in my classes, or whose books I had read in my free time over breaks. The idea of being surrounded by so many brilliant intellectuals was daunting at best, downright terrifying at worst. I wondered what kinds of questions they would ask me, or if they would pay any attention to me at all, being only an undergraduate. As I heard often leading up to and during my time in Atlanta, it was pretty rare for undergraduates to experience a conference as large as this one. And despite Dr. Martin’s constant reassurances, I could not help but feel like I was, if you will forgive the cliche, quite out of my league.
On Friday morning, I was formally introduced to Dr. Russell McCutcheon, current president of NAASR and one of Religious Studies’ more controversial scholars and one of Dr. Martin’s esteemed colleagues. Though I had spoken to him before via Facebook, I was excited to have the opportunity to meet him in person, especially after hearing so many great things from one of his former students last semester when I visited the University of Colorado at Boulder to learn more about the graduate program offered there. I was also privileged to meet Merinda Simmons, Aaron Hughes, Philip Tite, and Matthew Bagger before NAASR’s first panel.
NASSR themed its panels this year on “Theory in a Time of Excess,” and what it means to “do” method and theory in a field which has for so long been steeped in theological and devotional research. NAASR, at least as it is organized currently, focuses much more on the historical/critical examination of religion and culture. The first panel presenter was Jason Blum. His paper, “On the Restraint of Theory,” focused on the idea that scholars’ theoretical interpretations should be tempered insofar as applying a theory to data necessarily obscures the data; that is, to apply a theory to a person or group’s religious expression is to reshape that expression in the scholar’s own terms, which, Blum argues, leads to what he calls a “corruption” of data.
I was surprised to realize, as Blum moved through his paper, that I had just been dissecting this very subject in the Methods and Theory course I am currently enrolled in with Dr. Martin. Although we had not been discussing Blum’s work, we had been unpacking the same questions that Blum sought to answer through his paper. Not only could I follow the arguments of the paper with more ease than I had expected, but I had already formed an opinion about the topic, one which I discussed at length with Dr. Martin after the presentation. Although I mostly kept my opinions to myself during the panel Q&A sessions, I was somewhat surprised to find myself reacting with fervor to the different presentations, and I felt that, in a discussion with any of the scholars I encountered, I could have held my own. In other words, I could see myself there, somewhere down the line and preferably after completing a degree, doing the same kinds of research and engaging in the same kinds of discussions. Even amongst so many people I hardly knew, I started to feel strangely at home.
Following the panel, I got to have lunch with a few of Dr. Martin’s colleagues, including Merinda Simmons and Vaia Touna, who I recognized from the Culture on the Edge blog that Dr. Martin had introduced me to when I was a sophomore. It was then that the question I had been most anticipating surfaced: “What kind of research would you like to do?” It was something I had been thinking about since junior year, when Dr. Martin and I first discussed the idea of me going on to graduate school after finishing up my B.A. at STAC. The truth was, though, that I did not really know. I had enjoyed all of the critical work Dr. Martin had been doing as well as everything I had been learning in his classes, but I had no idea what I wanted to look at in terms of area studies. I had been trying to figure out a way to incorporate both my English and Philosophy/Religious Studies majors, but had yet to find a way to do it. And the idea of doing empirical studies did not wholly appeal to me either, since I was most comfortable doing critical readings of other books. So, I mostly shrugged off the question with vague “I’m not sure”s and “Kind of something similar to what Dr. Martin is doing,” and I hoped that the answer would come to me soon.
Next, I got to watch Dr. Martin sit for an interview with David McConeghy for the Religious Studies Project. The interview focused mainly on Dr. Martin’s newest book, Capitalizing Religion, which I already fancied myself an expert on since I had read it several times over for classes, papers, and the first time just for fun. I have to say that there is perhaps nothing quite as inspiring as seeing a scholar you respect talk about their work. There is a particular kind of nerdy passion that seems to drive Dr. Martin and many of his colleagues about what they do, and to know that I was not the only one who geeked out over the scholarship of the field was reassuring and quite satisfying. I also found myself becoming fast friends with David, who was sure to tell me that Dr. Martin had way too strong of an influence over me and warned me at length about the state of the job market for recent graduates.
Since I had heard the same lecture so many times from Dr. Martin himself, this news was neither particularly shocking nor upsetting. The truth was that I was having so much fun at the conference, just sitting in on meetings and getting to meet so many really intelligent and encouraging people, that my fears about the job market in fact subsided the more I heard the warning. It sounds paradoxical, but I could not deny to myself the kind of elation I was experiencing at being around so many like-minded people, so many people who were equally fascinated by and dedicated to the study of religion as I was. I was meeting people whose names I had only seen before on the covers of books or various Religious Studies blogs, including (among those mentioned above) Leslie Dorrough Smith, Brad Stoddard, Dennis LoRusso, Rebekka King, Hugh Urban, Erin Roberts, Steven Ramey, and Jennifer Eyl to name a handful; and not only was I amazed and impressed by them, but I found myself able to talk to them regarding the things that I have loved learning about most throughout my time at STAC. Everyone I spoke to seemed eager to engage with me, and they were just as excited to discuss the field as I was. If anything, being at the conference in Atlanta helped to curb my doubts, not because I am somehow misguided about the state of the job market, but because I found myself among a group of people that I felt like I could fit in with; I could see a place for myself there sometime in my future. It was that enthusiasm I felt my entire time at the conference that made me decide for certain that graduate school was the right next-step for me.
Having decided that, I knew that I would need to solidify at least a general direction for my research before I begin applying to graduate schools. I was surprised that after being asked enough times and sitting on enough panels, a way in which to mix the skills I had gained through both of my majors at STAC occurred to me; that is, to focus on ideology and discourse studies. That way I would not necessarily need to pick a particular group, but could focus on expanding my knowledge of method and theory, and work on applying those skills across not one data set, but many.
Coming to this conclusion filled me with a new kind of vigor in lieu of the many doubts I experienced before the conference. I had suffered many an existential crisis in Dr. Martin’s office, wondering whether or not changing my major from Childhood & Special Education in sophomore year had been the right decision. For a time, it had seemed like I was being introduced to something I loved only to be told repeatedly that there was no future in it (I can only imagine what actresses and musicians must endure on a regular basis). But the conference, mercifully, had shown me another side of the work I was doing, had introduced me to a community that I could see myself being a part of. It was difficult to say goodbye on Monday morning, but it was bittersweet in that it felt rather cheesily like a “see you later.” I cannot begin to express how grateful I am to have been able to experience such a rare and wonderful opportunity, especially as an undergraduate. I gleaned so much valuable insight into a field I really enjoy, and more importantly, discovered some important things about myself and my future research in the process.