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.

I would note that I only started publicly writing about academia, once I decided to no longer apply for tenure track jobs. Before then, I was cautious about what I wrote online. Conservative even. Yet, search committees still pointed to my blogging about American religions as an area of interest and concern. Who will speak up if you can be sacked or if your job chances are tanked? This applies to graduate students too. Should we encourage activism in this current climate where a tweet can lead to a rescinded job offer? It is so easy to surveil us now. What kinds of activism become safe in the neoliberal university? Or is there still a place for activism at all?

Second, I want to work through this pairing of activism and academia. I was trained in a graduate program, which did not encourage activism, but didn’t discourage it either. If you wanted to volunteer at the homeless shelter, that was fine, but maybe you should focus on your research more. In seminars, there was a disdainful approach to scholars who were labeled activists, as if their work was compromised because of their actions or their honesty.

So, are academics supposed to be activists? I ask this, not to be an asshole a jerk, but to think carefully about academia’s preferred types of activism. To be more pointed, what are the acceptable forms of activism for Religious Studies scholars? Certain types of activism appear acceptable or even expected, while other types would raise red flags. What are we expected to support?  Liberal Protestant causes? Movements toward liberation? Muslim Student Associations on campus? Interfaith dialogue? Tolerance? Giving voice or equal footing to religious movements both off and on campus?

I say this as someone who was previously a lecturer at a big state university.

In that department, preferred activism included support certain interpretations of biblical text that align with leftist politics, study abroad to Africa to work with religious leaders to resolve conflict, helping out the Muslim and Pagan Student Associations, hosting events in which we dialogue about religion, responding to religious hatred with peace parties, and writing about “religion” at a variety of online venues. I have colleagues who help members of religious minorities seek asylum and work for a variety of non-profits. Some protest; others march. They still employ contingent laborers. This is what activism has looked like to me in religious studies, and this is only a partial picture. Is this what our activism should be?

I have the sense that activism has merit when it can be neatly attached to one’s scholarship or a vision of a shared politics. Since most of my work was on religious hate groups, my scholarship doesn’t always neatly align with expectations. There’s often a sneaking suspicion that my work revealed a white, conservative agenda. That, perhaps, a Klansman is hiding in my closet. Maybe I should have invested in SPLC t-shirts or a Co-Exist bumper sticker to ease suspicion. I did neither.

Instead, I’ve always viewed my scholarship as kind of activism toward my field and a larger public. I trusted in interventions of the scholarly kind. Those in which we bring critical analysis and nuance to the forefront for our peers and our students. Yes, Klansmen are bad; thank you for noticing! What do we learn about the need to label some groups religious authentic or not is a better and more pressing question.

I wonder kinds of activism can’t we participate in. What might that tell us about the politics of religious studies? What does this tell us about what we imagine religion to be? Looking at what activism we do might tell us much about how we construct religion, for better or worse.

The classroom used to be the space where I pushed for intervention, where I didn’t allow simplistic rhetoric to obscure complicated social negotiations, and where we interrogated everything together. In my classes, I wanted students to realize that life is complex, not as the ending point to discussion but as the beginning. Religion is just but one of those complexities. I no longer have a classroom, but my writing works to similar end. And now, I write as a way to point out inequality in academia as a way to make higher education better. I’m not sure it is working, but I keep trying anyway. Maybe, I’m an activist after all. Maybe, that label shouldn’t chafe.

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