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Posts Tagged ‘the academy’


The Religion Bulletin is running a series of responses to Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization (2007) by early career scholars. Matt Sheedy, the editor of the blog, asked me to contribute, so I did. I tackled thesis 15 about turning your dissertation into a manuscript. Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote.

Before I graduated, I had a book contract and advance. My committee was convinced that I would have no problem getting a tenure track job. Any department, they assured, would be lucky to have me. I chose to believe them. I had four campus visits that year. Following my advisor’s advice about published seemed to work.

However, no amount of advice mattered after the market crash in 2008. The job market for tenure-track positions in the humanities, which already wasn’t good, became worse. The common lament was “there are no jobs,” but this wasn’t true. There were still jobs, but they were not tenure track. Contingent positions, those part-time and full-time jobs re-upped every semester or year, were readily available. I had no problem securing temporary lecturer gigs. My book contract might have helped. Yet, I’m not sure it mattered much when departments just need bodies in front of classrooms to teach students. I finished my book while teaching part-time and applying for tenure track jobs. I got a contract for another book after getting a full-time lecturer job.

I imagined that if I just worked hard enough and published more that I could cajole search committees into hiring me. I didn’t get a tenure track job.

So, while I agree that your manuscript does you no good in your desk drawer, I’m not entirely convinced that it does you any good out of the drawer either.

Read more.

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…)