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Posts Tagged ‘the academy’

My Teaching Philosophy

I’ve received a few emails asking about my approach to pedagogy. These are mostly in response to my “Dear Liberal Professor” essay published at Vitae, in which I call for empathy in the classroom and take down the silly suggestion that students are the center of all that ails higher ed. I haven’t written about pedagogy in awhile because I’ve been out of the classroom for two years now, so I’m posting my teaching philosophy statement from 2012. I still stand by most of what I say here.

Teaching Philosophy

“The human capacity to injure other people has always been greater than its ability to imagine other people”—Elaine Scarry

“We need to know where we live in order to imagine living elsewhere. We need to imagine living elsewhere before we can live there.”—Avery Gordon

Teaching is as much art as it is embodied practice, engagement, and content knowledge. This craft is flexible and variant, and it shifts from class to class, student to student, evolving not only from worn lecture notes and expected PowerPoint slides but also to our shared performance as students and teacher. Pedagogy feels like some sort of happening that appears as experimental and meaningful as it is multi-variant and chaotic. No classroom experience is ever the same as I describe, redescribe, and recreate my content, my expertise, to mesh with the interest, the varying levels of student expertise, and the classroom atmosphere.

Yet, my courses, no matter what the content, share a common emphasis on empathy and critical thinking. To imagine what life is like for other people is the first step for engaging their lives, and I would argue it is first step toward critical thinking and close analysis. If we cannot imagine what their lives might be like, we cannot begin to comprehend the historical and cultural forces that place them and us where we happen to be.

If we cannot imagine, we cannot analyze. (more…)

The Elusive I

I’ve been thinking about academic writing and the absence of the I, the signifier of the first person. Some disciplines find the I useful as a method to that places you, the author in the text. The scholarship marked explicitly by your person, as if it could be any other way. Religious studies, however, is not entirely sure what to do with the I.

For some, relying on the first person becomes a marker of confessional identity, religious commitment, or activism. For others, like ethnographers of religion, the I is a necessary part of their practice. The scholar must be present because of the interactive relationship between you and subject. You must use the I to place yourself in conversation, events, and analysis. Sometimes, you need to note where you are and what you think. Often, this will require a shift to the first person.

My own training in American religious history seemed nervous about the I. For a long while, I was also nervous about what the use of I in my own scholarship and writing might mean.

My own journal articles (except for my article on evidence), my book (except for the introduction and afterword), book reviews, conference papers were all shorn of the author’s presence. I deleted (almost) every instance of the I.

In graduate school, advisors explained that “I think” “I feel” “I believe” weakened your arguments. This made you seem wishy-washy, ambivalent, or unconvincing. Make claims forcefully, they told me. Don’t qualify your analysis with I. Yet, I wanted to seem ambivalent because I was. I wanted to signal that this was my opinion, not a definitive statement about the subjects that I researched. I wanted less certainty, not more.

What I came to realize was that inserting your self into academic work made one’s work somehow lesser. Absent authors made bold arguments. Who needs visible qualification when you can stay hidden behind your evidence and arguments?

Graduate training eroded my presence in my scholarship. Not all of my courses sought to remove the I, but most massaged the personal pronoun away. The I slipped away in edits, revisions, and finished papers. (more…)

Bad Feminist

Here’s a teaser of my review of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist for Women in Higher Education. In the review essay, I describe my own ambivalence about the term “feminism” and my experiences being a feminist in academia. (Note to self: Some people are jerks.) This book is fabulous, and I would argue that what higher ed needs is more bad feminists.

I bought into the vision of feminism that its detractors portray: strident, unyielding and unwelcoming. I still believed in gender equality, equal pay, reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy. In practice, I was a feminist, but the word tripped me up. I found myself uttering, “I’m not a feminist, but …” in conversations.

Graduate school clarified the social need for feminism as well as my personal need, but the word proved to be problematic.  I noted the way male colleagues acted toward women who proclaimed their feminism with sighs, eye rolls, guffaws, and snorts. I observed how professors assumed feminist scholars were too subjective and not rigorous enough.

The derision and hostility that feminism engendered even inside the academy gave me pause. If feminism couldn’t find a home in academia, where would it be accepted? (I found pockets of safe space.) My feminism became stealthy and quiet, even as I studied and taught gender theory. I was happy with my background feminism. I knew what I stood for. Who cared if I labeled myself a feminist or not?

At my previous university, a senior male colleague pulled me into his office to explain that he was a better feminist than I was. This was not a random encounter. I was invited to participate in a methods and theory group, and he was not. He wanted me to know that I was only a token.

The group was mostly men, so he reasoned that they needed women. This could be the only possible reason that I was invited. He shamed me for my acceptance of the invitation. His feminism would not allow him to participate in such a group because of their gender politics. Thus, he was a better feminist, and I was a bad one. (more…)


Here’s my second paper for #sblaar14, which was an invited talk about activism at the junior level. This was another strong panel with a small audience. Unsurprisingly, I took the prompt “Can we BE activists at the junior level?” as an excuse to think about activism’s relationship to not only religious studies but also the modern university. It is a small miracle that there’s so little cursing.

Can we be activists at the junior level? Hell.

Kelly J. Baker

Over the summer, I mentioned to a dear colleague and mentor of mine that I would be participating on a panel about activism at the junior level. He laughed at me. “How can you be on a panel about activism at the junior level,” he asked, “when you never made it to the junior level?” His question was also my question when I received the invitation to join this panel. My name, it seems, pops up when you ask people about activists in religious studies. This is puzzling and also sad.

I’m at best adjacent to academia. I took a year off, which is now a year and a half, and I have no plans to return. After six years on the job market, I bowed out. Publicly. I’m now a freelance writer, who covers higher ed, gender, and religion. I never made it to the junior level (if we’re defining junior as assistant professor. I’m not sure we should).

Yet, I’m at the AAR presenting on a panel about activism, even though I wouldn’t label myself an activist. This is a label applied to me because I write starkly about higher ed and sometimes my own discipline. Maybe my bar for activism is too high, and writing should count. Maybe everyone else’s bar is too low. Yet, I agreed to participate for two reasons. First, I still care deeply about this field we call religious studies, despite my attempts not to. Second, I have things to say about about the role of academic activism in the age of contingency. I’ve lived with this question since I received the invitation. I’m not sure I have any good answers, only more questions.

First, I want to tweak the initial question. Instead of “can you be an activist at the junior level?”, I ask, “Can you be an activist if you are perpetually on the job market?” My tentative answer is a firm “no.” Under the current job market, in which contractual is king and tenure track is not, anything you write, say, or do can be held against you. Members of search committees admit that they look for reasons to ELIMINATE candidates rather than keep them. The question of activism is even more fraught for contingent workers, who work at the whim of department chairs and heads. With positions that can be terminated at any time, certain kinds of activism might prove too risky while others might guarantee you are back for another semester. (more…)

Gendering Contingency in Religious Studies

This paper was my contribution to a roundtable on contingency in religious studies at the annual AAR meeting. I talked through the paper rather than read it as written, so you miss my bad jokes , wild gestures, and animated facial expressions. What is striking to note is that the small audience was all contingent workers, who were mostly women. There were two men on our panel of five. Contractual labor needs gender analysis. Let’s hope this starts a much-needed discussion.

Gendering Contingency in Religious Studies at #sblaar14

I’ve only had contingent positions. I started adjuncting as a graduate student for extra money and continued adjuncting at multiple institutions in multiple states until I received a full-time non-tenure track job in 2011. I’ve taught at community colleges and big state universities, and for a long time, I taught heavy course loads while keeping up my research and searching for a tenure track job. I quit my lecturer job because I no could handle the strain of contractual work. Now I’m a freelance writer. I’ll say it again: I have only had contingent positions.

This shouldn’t necessarily be surprising since contingency is now the norm, rather than the exception despite the what the AAR/SBL jobs report tries to suggest. The AAUP notes that 76% of the instructional positions at American universities and colleges are non-tenure track. Since 1975 tenured and tenure track positions are up by 26% while part-time appointments are up 300%. My story and the stories of my fellow panelists illuminate the reliance (or dare I say over reliance?) on contractual labor in higher ed and within religious studies. Yet, I don’t want to talk today about contingency generally. Instead, I want to direct our attentions to the relationship between the casualization of labor and gender.

It first occurred to me that contingent labor might be gendered at non-tenure track faculty reception at my old university. My fellow lecturer (also a woman) and I entered a room filled with many, many women and few men. Our university was trying hard to be equitable to those off the tenure-track, and the reception was a meet and greet with one of the vice presidents, who was establishing a system for promotion for lecturers. I was struck by the abundance of women in lecturer positions from all over the university, not just the humanities.

Usually, when critics lament the adjuntification of higher education, neither gender nor race are prominently discussed. While contingent labor is a clearly problem for the modern university that learned societies like AAR must react to, it is not a problem that affects everyone equally. What does it mean for religious studies and the AAR if contingency is a problem that overwhelming affects women? How does, or should, this change our approaches to contractual labor within our discipline? More importantly, what does this suggest about the gender politics of religious studies more broadly?