Tag Archives: teaching

impermanence

The Impermanent Adjunct

This piece appeared at Chronicle Vitae on February 26, 2014.

As my year off moves by slowly, I often wonder how I arrived at the situation I am in. Was there a pivotal moment that set me on this path? When did I begin to doubt that I would ever fit neatly within the academy? When did quitting become an inevitability rather than a possibility? There’s one answer to all these questions: when I became a contingent laborer.

I never planned to have a temporary job. I fell into one, as people often do. While finishing my dissertation out of residence, I started adjuncting. I moved with my husband to a place 23 hours from home for his paid internship (which eventually turned into a paid postdoc). I was lonely and isolated. My cohort was far away, as were my other friends and family. I missed teaching—in my graduate program, we taught early and often—and I craved familiarity. Adjuncting put me back in the classroom, and it was (supposedly) a way to avoid the dreaded gap on my CV.

I ended up adjuncting at a community college and a university simultaneously. At the university, the pay per course was about $1,500, with a promise of $1,800 when I finished my Ph.D. At the community college, the pay was less, and I had no control over curriculum or books. This 20th-century Americanist ended up teaching Early World Civilizations.

Most fall and spring semesters, I taught two courses for the community college and one for the university. In my second-to-last semester, I taught a total of five classes between three campuses. I had agreed to teach only four courses, but at the forceful cajoling of an administrator, I took over one more.

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fireworks

2013: Year in Review

2013 was more eventful than other years. I won the Chancellor’s Award in Teaching Excellence, and then, I quit my job as a lecturer. My family moved to my home state of Florida. We bought a house. The Zombies Are Coming! was published in July (Listen to me talk zombies with Carol Howard Merritt and Derrick Weston of God Complex Radio.)

In August, my big girl started voluntary pre-Kindergarten. In September, I had a healthy baby boy. Just two days ago, I celebrated twelve years of marriage with my husband.

It was a big year.

I also started writing more, including a column for Chronicle Vitae. Here’s the list of my pieces that were published in 2013. I’m proud of all of them because they signal a move to try new things and maybe start a new career. I’ve listed them in chronological order.

1. Evil Religion? Then & Now, The Christian Century, May. It was sixth most read post for this column.

2. Can Brad Pitt save us from the (secular) apocalypse? Then & Now, The Christian Century, July. Pitt’s manscarf cannot distract from the reliance on yet another white savior.

3. Walking Dead and Zombie Ethics, Religion Dispatches, October. We save the world, bullet by bullet, and we feel fine.

4.  After Halloween, more zombies, Then & Now, The Christian Century, November. The zombies, they won’t go away, which is good for me but bad for the rest of you.

5. The zombie preppers among us, Washington Post’s On Faith, October. Some people believe that the zombie apocalypse could really happen, and I document zombie preppers.

6. My Post-Academic Grace Period, Chronicle Vitae, November. This is, hands down, my most important piece of the year followed closely by Not A “Real” Academic.

7. How to (Not) Avoid the Job Market, Chronicle Vitae, December. Ever wonder what the job market does to someone psychologically? I explain.

8. The Creepy Surveillance of Elf on the Shelf, Religion Dispatches, December. This was the funnest piece to write. Elves, even creepy ones, were a nice distraction from zombies.

jonestown_story

Throwback Friday: “I have tried to recover a sense of humanity…”

Today, I introduce a new feature for this poor inactive blog (a valiant attempt to make it active) entitled “Throwback Friday.” And yes, I know everyone else does this on Thursday, but I’m a non-conformist. My goal is to repost previous posts from a variety of different blogs as method to archive my work at this particular blog, but also reintroduce things that I have previously written. This is especially necessary because I am terrible at cross-posting for reasons I don’t entirely understand. I will be posting new content. I promise. Cross my heart.  Hope to die. You get the point. This post on Jonestown and “evil” religion first appeared at Religion in American History on May 7, 2013.

“I have tried to recover a sense of humanity…” 

Last week, I wrote a post for The Christian Century‘s Then and Now, curated by Edward J. Blum, on the label “evil” religion. As some might suspect, this label is often applied to the movements and people that I study (the Ku Klux Klan, doomsday cults, and new religious movements) among many other groups. The label, to put it mildly, is a problem, and the post catalogs my unease with quick judgments about the nature of “evil” religious movements versus other “good” religious movements (those that make us comfortable rather than uneasy). I wrote:

When people label religion “evil,” they almost always include Jonestown, Aum Shinrikyo and the Branch Davidians (who are represented here in an image accompanying Blake’s article). The common assumption follows that these religious groups can be marked as evil because they are imbricated in violence, death and destruction. We can cluck our tongues sympathetically at the supposedly brainwashed people deluded into joining these movements, and we can rest easier at night by assuming that our religious commitments must be the safe kind.

Moreover, we can hold onto the vision of “healthy religion” that [John] Blake espouses. If only we were versed in these four signs, the argument goes, then maybe these tragedies wouldn’t happen.

If only it were this easy. Such an understanding of “evil” religion is predicated on a sense that religion is inherently “good.” Blake even writes that “religion is supposed to be a force of good,” as if claiming this aloud necessarily makes it so. 

Unsurprisingly, I am increasingly wary of labels like “good,” “healthy,” “authentic,” “bad,” “evil,” or “illegitimate” when they function as modifiers for religion. The normative bounds of how we wish the world is/was present themselves in such labels. Yet, what does that do for analysis? I have spent much of my career thinking about how assumptions about religion and religious people guide our narratives. Villainy, as I tell my students, might make a good story, but it does not provide analysis. To claim the “evilness” of some religions marks others as safe and good, and in both instances, it ignores the sheer ambiguity and ambivalence of that thing we call religion. We lose something with every normative claim.

More and more, I find myself returning to David Chidester’s Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown to think through his claim of religion as “being a human person in a human place” (xviii), even if that means engaging and analyzing revolutionary suicide and mass death. This book prompts us to think about how to make the incomprehensible (the mass suicide of 913 members of the Peoples Temple) into something comprehensible. How do we make sense of these tragic events? Can we avoid the urge to moralize, to label “good” and “evil,’ or to rely on easy narratives of villainy, destruction, and madness? Can we approach instances of violence and terror with empathy? How do we humanize victims and perpetrators? Or can we? (Or do we want to?)

Chidester writes, “I have tried to recover a sense of humanity of the people who died in Jonestown” (xvii-xviii). Rather than provide another caricature of Jim Jones or Jonestown, Salvation and Suicide provides a more complicated portrait of the lives and deaths of 913 people in the Guyana jungle. No easy labeling of “evil” or “good” appear in its pages. Instead, we are left with haunting images of corpses littering the ground without easy explanations as to why. His book, then, works against dehumanization of the Jonestown dead in media coverage, scholarship, and public perception. To do this, he relies upon Ninian Smart’s concept of “structured empathy,” which is empathy structured by categories like symbol, myth, classification, orientation, and ritual that allows engagement with the worldview of another (xiv). I find this concept compelling as I employed it in my work on the Klan, but it is also unsettling. What might it mean to engage Jonestown or the Klan empathetically? What do we gain by emphasizing the humanity of our historical actors? What kind of scholars are we if we ignore their humanity? This question, in particular, appears and reappears in every research project of mine. I can’t escape it, nor do I want to.

What this means is that Salvation and Suicide lingers with me. Maybe, it even haunts me. The book forces me to think carefully about the methods I use to study religious people. It warns me to be careful and considerate. It presents the perils of dehumanization. It gives me pause. It keeps me awake at night. It gives me hope about scholarship. Chidester writes:

Perhaps I have taken the method of “structured empathy” to the breaking point here. However, if I had to push this brief observation on method a step further, I would argue that the method of structured empathy is already a moral strategy. It requires the recognition of the irreducible humanity of others upon which any ethics of the interpretation of otherness must be based (xv).

To recognize the “irreducible humanity of others,” on the surface, appears not to be a radical claim, but it is. Chidester’s careful reconstruction of the worldview of Peoples Temple represents the allure and appeal of a utopian commune in Guyana, in which members could escape the dehumanizing forces of American life, capitalism and racism, and remake themselves. Chidester demonstrates how suicide became a choice of being human or becoming subhuman. In the end, the Jonestown dead emerge as both. In heartbreaking detail, he guides us through the last moments that result in mass suicide, a choice of humanity, and the resulting interpretations of the event that make the Peoples Temple subhuman again. Finding humanity is not always an uplifting journey or a tale of liberation. Sometimes, finding humanity means confronting violence, terror, and death. We can be left haunted rather than inspired.

 

Teaching Bodies and Embodiment

A design for a unisex bathroom sign.
A design for a unisex bathroom sign.

How do we make the theoretical tangible and personal? How do we show the expectations of a gendered being? How do we interrogate embodiment and the expectations beset on bodies? How do we understand our bodies as archives of the cultural and the personal? What do we learn when we turn to our archives? What do we have the ability to discern?

These are all questions that haunt me each time I teach my gender course. Showing how gender is lived becomes the primary way to push against simple views of biology or construction. What happens to bodies weighed down by cultural expectations and the reality of the flesh? The complicated mess of embodiment is essential to exploring how people live, past and present. Where does flesh end and culture begin? Can we even ask that question?

One of the ways I help students think about embodiment is to allow students to allow them to gender me. I stand in front of the class and ask them to analyze how I perform gender. The students, then, get to rate my performance of gender as a way to make the abstract theory real to them. But importantly, this exercise allows me to discuss gender habits, stereotypes, and subversion. I might appear “feminine” but the students pick up on my strategies of subversion too. Gendering me provides a mechanism to ground discussions of Judith Butler, Donna Harraway, Lise Elliot, and Joan Scott. How does my bodily performance demonstrate gender? In particular, I want them to think very carefully about the role of religion in our construction as gendered beings:

Religion defines men and women in intimate and powerful ways. But, class debates and my lectures on gender theories don’t always make these topics approachable for students. Gender emerges as something academic and distant rather than something personal and tangible. Ann Braude noted the still potent and important fact “women’s history is American religious history.” But, how can you convince students that gender matters historically and today in interpretations of religion and American culture? … My teaching approach to gender and religion has become much more personal and face-to-face. (Read more here).

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“the all too-real, imaginary narrative of sex and race”

LisaFooToday in my #rest320 (Gender in Global Religions), I am teaching Donna Haraway’s “‘Gender’ for the Marxist Dictionary: The Sexual Politics of a Word” (1991).* The article provides a theoretical introduction to the complexity of “gender” as a term of life and analysis. Haraway pivots between the languages/constructions of gender and sex, theories/theorists of gender, and intersections of identity in the embodied lives of historical actors and modern selves. I assign this article for several reasons, but my primary goal is to demonstrate to students the complicated grammar of gender and many attempts to define gender and sex separately. What is at stake in the definitions of sex and gender? Why do the strict boundaries often enforced between the two tell us about the study of gender and/or sex? Does the bifurcation hinder more than it helps? What work (social, political, cultural) do definitions do for us?  What might definitions hide?

I deeply love that Haraway engages the fraught politics of language and life in the attempted divisions between gender and sex in the English-speaking world. In rereading, I also become sorrowful as I ponder the resistance (still) to gender as a category of analysis in some subfields and disciplines. Or the more insidious response that gender no longer matters as an analytical tool (I have aired these complaints before). Her insights  still resonate powerfully (at least to me) in 2013. Similar debates still rage about biological determinism and social construction. Discussions of gender somehow stall (in intriguingly different ways) around the tired bifurcation of sex and gender. As it always seems, there is still work to be done.

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