Profile photo of Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst

About Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst

Assistant Professor of Religion

Senior Spotlight: Lily Fedorko

Lily Fedorko in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors

Lily Fedorko ’16

Why did you major in Religion? 

When considering a major at the University of Vermont, I was stuck because my interests derived from history, politics, sociology, philosophy, and anthropology. I found that I could pursue all of those subjects in the religion department.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

I hope to be living abroad and pursuing a career in the direction/administration of a Museum.

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

I would have to ask which subject she’s most interested in. I love religious history and if she is likeminded – she cannot miss Anne Clark’s Christianity course. But if she wants to engage with a text through a more conversational course, she shouldn’t miss studying with Sugarman.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

It would be on post-Holocaust art resistution and its effects on Jewish identity recreation. It is also the subject of my colloquium paper (on a much smaller scale). I have fallen in love with the topic and want (and hope) to pursue it past this one paper.

Senior Spotlight: Linda Biafore

Linda Biafore in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors

Linda Biafore ’16

Why did you major in Religion?

After transferring from art school, I decided on Religion and Classics majors because I was interested in world mythology. It was during my first Intro Comparative Religion class with Professor Morgenstein-Fuerst that made me decide to focus on Religion. In short, it blew my mind, and I was very excited and eager to learn more.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

My plans change pretty constantly. I hope to get a job at a college or university, as staff, in financial aid, admissions or advising–something that helps students with the hard parts of college and post-college life. (Bonus: this job within a college or university will help pay for a graduate degree.)

Imagine a first-year student has asked your advice about REL courses. What’s the one she shouldn’t dream about missing? Why?

I would highly recommend REL196: Race and Religion in America with Professor Chipumuro. The class was engaging, intense, and introspective. You learn about the world that is right in front of you; aspects of our daily lives that we overlook every day. Every class discussion was relevant to current events, because we were learning about how religion motivates movements, traditions, and our own worldviews in our society.

If you could write any book, what would it be?

To be honest, I would write a book in the style of “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” by Horace Mitchell Miner. I love turning the lens around on our own society and analyzing the way we talk about cultures that aren’t our own.

Notes from our Classrooms

Pedagogy is a major facet of any faculty job, and it is a source of conversation–and pride–at 481 Main Street. Religion faculty have been nominated for and won teaching awards, regularly attend pedagogical workshops, run innovative programming linking research and teaching as well as classrooms and internships. We often exchange notes on best practices, ideas that worked (and flopped!), and our students’ best work. We thought we’d kick off a series in which we shared these Notes from our Classrooms.

Last semester, Prof. Vicki Brennan taught student-favorite REL103: Sacred Sounds. While many enroll thinking it is a class about sacred music, Prof. Brennan dissuades them of that on day one–this is a course committed to thinking through theories of sound, how sound becomes labeled “religious,” and how those religious sounds enter and shape public and private spaces.

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 9.07.21 AMProf. Brennan asked her Sacred Sound students to craft the Burlington Soundscape Project. This digital humanities project is an impressive collection of student work that physically and aurally mapped the sounds of Burlington. Students collected sounds (listen here) and then analyzed those sounds in the theoretical and practical terms of sound (e.g., “noise” and legal noise ordinances), the study of religion, and concepts of mapping.

Tagged topics of Islam & Modernity student blog posts

Tagged topics of Islam & Modernity student blog posts

In REL195: Islam & Modernity, Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst had students research specific geographic areas (Iran, South Asia, and Turkey) alongside concepts of modernity. Instead of producing research papers, students were asked to distill their theoretically-driven and detail-heavy work into short blog posts, meant for public readership. Prof. Morgenstein Fuerst has used blogging before in other courses, and in light of overwhelmingly positive student responses to it, repeated the assignment in this brand-new course. Students wrote about trends in modernity and Islam with respect to gender, imperialism, power, secularism, and what it’s like to learn and unlearn, among other topics. See the full blog here.




As the Spring 2016 hits its stride, we’ll have more Notes from our Classrooms to share! 

Reblog: Prof. Todne Thomas (Chipumuro) in the September issue of Anthropology News

New newspaper column written by Professor Todne Thomas (Chipumuro) on a black church burning in Knoxville, TN for the online September issue of Anthropology News. 

Read it here: When a Black Church Burns (But not to the Ground) by Prof. Todne Thomas (Chipumuro) Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 4.48.57 PM

Seen on campus: “Islam vs. Democracy”

Last Thursday, I received an anti-Islam, anti-Muslim flyer titled “Islam vs. Democracy” at my campus office address. I’d been mailed the same flyer during the Spring semester, as well. At that time, I responded by holding a class session in my REL096: Islam course in which we analyzed and critiqued the two-sided flyer, line by line, in the theoretical terms we’d explored all semester (Orientalism, imperialism, authenticity, categorical definitions) and compared to the definitions for Islam we’d read by scholars (like Ernst, Shepard, and Curtis, to name a select few).

It was a challenging class. Most students were horrified–one actually gasped out loud, another approached me after and apologized, having done nothing wrong, for the existence of such material. Many students expressed genuine feelings of disgust and exceptionalism: UVM is a friendly, liberal place, they said; this shouldn’t have happened here. Some asked questions about the role of open spaces and free speech on a public campus; others asked if free speech rules applied on a campus and to whom; and others still asked about the overlapping issues of free speech and campus safe spaces, accommodations, and UVM’s On Common Ground ideals. We solved none of these problems of a contemporary campus broadly or of our own.

But, in April, near the end of the term, so many of my students–even some who rarely spoke in class–offered real critique of the content of the flyer, citing theorists of religion, scholars of Islam, and critics of both. We read the flyer as a primary source to be interrogated, analyzed, and placed in its multiple contexts (what kind of literature was this? who or what was its audience? what do we do with unsigned writings? where was its information factually wrong? to what avail? & etc.).

That was my response this past spring. I scrapped a class about American Muslims in the earliest part of the 20th century so that we could instead talk about a two-sided flyer found on campus for an hour. We applied what we’d learned about Islam, the study of religion, and reading primary sources critically to a new primary source document–the flyer itself. We had an academic conversation first, but also addressed the affective responses it elicited, which ranged from thinking the flyer a joke unworthy of our time to tears, frustration, and anger.

This time the flyer surfaced, however, students hadn’t yet arrived. I sent out a call on Twitter and my personal Facebook account asking if anyone else had seen these flyers. Two colleagues responded that they had seen them in Williams Hall both recently and back in April. I’d found another set of flyers postered in Bailey-Howe Library, and a student sent a direct message on Twitter to say he’d seen them in the Davis Center, a center of student activity (and food) on campus.

Islam vs Democracy close upI won’t republish here the anti-Islam, anti-Muslim diatribes beyond this (purposefully incomplete) photo. There are lots of responses to Islamophobic content, in the broadest senses; and there are responses to those responses. There are books, journals, blogs. I am not a scholar of Islamophobia, and I am deeply aware of the various risks publishing about it can be. The broadest sense of all this isn’t the point, anyway. It is the peculiarity.

In this context, a broad post I might write about how anti-Islam, anti-Muslim rhetoric actually limits engagement on a campus by using fear is too general. It feels like a general response to a general phenomena on campuses writ large. But this wasn’t a general flyer, out there somewhere. This was a flyer on our campus, right here.

These flyers certainly speak about a vast, faceless, dangerous, and imagined Islam, but because they appear on campus, they are directed at us, the members of the UVM community–Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Moreover, because it has been mailed to me personally (but not to my departmental colleagues), I can assume I am a targeted audience for the message of the flyer, and I might further imagine this is specifically in my capacity as the professor of courses about Islam and Muslims in the Religion Department.

So, my response is this: a lament that students arrive in our classrooms today, August 31, and that my classes won’t begin until tomorrow.

Had these flyers gone up in a week, I’d have a clear sense of what my job is, what my obligations are, in terms of my campus. I’d ask students to talk about it. We’d read it, in the constructed space of a classroom which is purposefully set up for interrogation, investigation, and critique. We’d take its claims seriously, talk about where they came from, and what work they do now; we’d maybe theorize why UVM’s campus–why the library, the student-centered Davis Center, Williams Hall, and my mailbox–were imagined to be good spaces for an anonymous poster and author declare “the truth” about Islam in the form of double-sided, photocopied flyers. We’d talk about the possibilities, responsibilities, and challenges of free speech on campuses. We’d talk about reading about religion beyond classrooms, and the value of the skill sets needed to do so. We’d talk about microaggressions and safety for our classmates, colleagues, and staff who were the subject of the flyer’s message. We might even place this flyer in a conversation about Muslims and racialized religious identity–a conversation we normally get to toward the end of the semester.

My classes begin tomorrow. And my syllabus has already changed.

Religion@UVM: The Class of 2015

Our Class of 2015 graduated on May 17, 2015. As we’ve come to know and love, they weren’t shy in proclaiming their success!

They are an accomplished bunch! As we featured before, Maeve Herrick won the Robert D. Benedict Award for the Best Essay in the Field of International Affairs. Kathryn Meader received the Outstanding Senior in Religion Award. At commencement, the Class of 2015–and their families and friends–learned that Joseph Oteng was a recipient of the prestigious Class of ’67 award. We are always honored to our students so visibly recognized for their hard work and achievements.

This class has impressed us throughout their careers. They’ve presented at the UVM Student Research Conference, served in our undergraduate Religion Club, served organizations across the University, and–most importantly–learned, worked, read, wrote, read more, and rewrote about religion.

This class, too, had the special distinction of helping us launch our new REL202 and REL203 sequence, which comprises a practicum for extended research and a colloquium, where one’s research is revised and expanded in the context of the graduating cohort and a faculty mentor. This year’s colloquium was led by Prof. Borchert, who took the seniors bowling, perhaps indelibly making a pin the Class of ’15 totem.

We’ve spent the better part of four years listening to these students argue, engage, and wrestle with ideas ranging from religion and pop culture in America to racialized religious formations to Theravada Buddhists in Sri Lanka to the very term “religion” itself. As their faculty, we’ve listened to their presentations and papers, read their blog posts and research, and written recommendation letters. Prof. Borchert even saw them bowl. These are animated, thoughtful students alumni, and we cannot wait to see what lies in store for them as their post-UVM lives unfold.

We don’t know what comes next, but we hope the Class of ’15 keeps in touch; we hope some of them will be featured as alumni bloggers soon; but we ask very little–only that they continue to think religion, with breadth and depth, in whatever comes next.

As is our ritual, the department hosted a post-commencement reception for our graduates and their loved ones. These are a selection of the photos; for more, visit our Facebook page here.


Prof. Morgenstein Fuerst, graduate Zach Warner, and Prof. Thomas Chipumuro


graduate Shakir Stephen


graduate Maeve Herrick, Prof. Brennan, and Prof. Andrus


Profs. Trainor and Andrus, graduate Kathryn Meader, Profs. Borchert and Brennan


The Class of 2015! Joey Oteng, Kathryn Meader, Maeve Herrick, Shakir Stephen, and Zach Warner


Prof. Thomas Chipumuro and graduate Joey Oteng


Senior op-ed highlights Religion


Joey Oteng ’15 (image via UVM Orientation website)

In a recent article in the Vermont Cynic, UVM’s student newspaper, senior religion major Joey Oteng discussed religion and religion classes, and asked his readers to join the conversations so prevalent here at 481 Main Street.

Joey’s piece, “Why Religion Should be Discussed,” highlights some of the key questions religion majors are asked to tackle: religion in the public sphere; appropriation, adaptation, and adoption within and across religious traditions; how to talk about a subject fraught with politics and that might transgress mores of “polite dinner conversation.”

He wrote:

“We should want to study religion because it is all around us. Daily rituals as simple of rolling over every morning to check your phone, to mindful practices of yoga or even the culturally appropriated Hindu spring festival of Holi repurposed as secular color runs.”

Do read his whole piece, and then be sure to follow his advice: join us in the conversation.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 9.09.29 AM

Faculty featured in UVM Humanities Publication

Recently, the UVM Humanities Center produced an aptly titled publication, Humanities, which focused on humanities and the creative arts at UVM, and captured the depth, range, and relScreen Shot 2015-03-06 at 11.00.09 AMevance of work by UVM faculty, students, and alumni. It featured a number of Religion Department faculty!

Prof. Thomas Borchert‘s recent research on Buddhist monks in Thailand–a regular element of this blog!–was highlighted in a piece titled “Crisis in the Temple” by Basil Waugh (pp. 50-51). Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst’s use of social media and digital technologies in the classroom was featured in a piece titled “Follow that Professor,” authored by Amanda Waits (pp. 74-75). And Thomas Weaver wrote an article titled “Humanities at Home,” (pp.  78-79) which foregrounds Prof. Richard Sugarman talking about the Integrated Humanities Program (IHP), one of the College’s Teacher-Advisor Programs for first-year students, of which he serves as Director.

Download the whole Humanities magazine here (in PDF format).


Babies, Babar, and Yoga

BKHALDBabarsYogaLarge300I have an almost-two year old daughter, and she has a legion of Nanas, Pop-Pops, Grandmas, Grandpas, Aunties, Uncles, and general well-wishers who love buying things for her. (This is lovely and appreciated, even if often roundly met with frustration: Please bring less stuff into my house. Please.) In the midst of a now-typical “But, seriously, what does she need?!” conversation, Babar’s Yoga for Elephants, a book in the (revamped, English) Babar series, was suggested as a perfect gift. After all, it’s Babar! And he’s doing yoga! 

Cue a surprise academic moment. This is Babar, an elephant king who shares his name with Babur, the first Mughal ruler. This is Babar, whom I read about avidly as a child–only to get to college and realize my love of Babar meant I had participated in the orientalist assumptions with which it was written. This is Babar, keeping up with the times and staying fit with yoga. This is Babar, practicing bendy, stretchy, mindful-but-not-religious yoga, at the feet of a stereotypically dressed yogi, fashioned as a dark-skinned, eyes-closed, bearded, bare-chested man in a white turban and wrapped, white bottoms (a dhoti?). B7zLqS6CEAADINa.jpg-large

At once, the obvious problems with depicting a generalized South Asian–the man in the image above–are as banal as they are startling. This image is readily critiqued, easily identified, and almost boring in its cliche; yet seeing these problems replicated not in an early-20th century text (when French and English colonialism were in full swing) but rather in a recent book, intended for children, is disconcerting, if not altogether shocking.

Before one even gets to the book, we encounter its dust jacket–which itself serves as fodder for analysis. It reads:

“Well before yoga became fashionable via Sting and Madonna, our friend Babar and all the residents of Celesteville were finding peace and tranquillity through yoga. And now elephants everywhere can join them! … Written by Babar himself, the book explains how yoga was introduced to Celesteville and how he and Celeste keep fit doing yoga on their many travels.” (Replicated here.)

There are multiple truth-claims within this short passage which, in turn, represents the universe in which Babar exists. The first is that Babar is an original practitioner of yoga; his instructional book is thus both authentic and accurate. It ought not to be confused with new iterations of yoga, or newcomers to the practice (like Sting and Madonna), which represent a passing fad and even a disingenuous interest. But while Babar and the residents of Celesteville originally found “peace and tranquility through yoga,” now, in his own words, Babar tells his audience how to “keep fit doing yoga.” What began as a way to find calm, well before it was popular among those living beyond Celesteville, is now a way to keep fit.

A yogi in a cross-legged position doing Machendra asana, British Library: Add.24099, f.14.

This, in some ways, reflects the adoption, adaption, and appropriation of yoga in contemporary, often Euro-American, contexts. What started as a set of disciplines–what yoga literally translates to–in some South Asian religions, for specific participants (usually male, high-caste, and ascetic, as argued by many, for example Sarah Strauss) is now a multi-billion dollar exercise (and perhaps self-help) business. While it’s easy and appropriate to point to the contemporary uses and alterations to yoga, it’s not the whole picture: there is ample evidence that many non-casted, non-Hindu or Buddhist actors have adopted, adapted and appropriated yoga in other historical periods. For example, Muslim Sufis utilized yogic techniques like breathing and meditation, with some even advocating for its adoption into appropriate Islamic praxis (see Ernst here and Kugle there). Yoga, as most other religious ideologies and forms of practice, has been adapted for and by different communities for centuries.

But that doesn’t mean we ought to label Babar practicing yoga as evidence of how normal and normative yoga has become, and move on. There are some for whom this appropriation of yoga is normal, but inappropriate. As schools debate incorporating yoga, mindfulness, and/or meditation into curricula, some Hindus have argued that this misuses their religion, of which yoga is a part; some Christians and atheists, likewise, have argued that allowing these practices in school promotes (a specific) religion, and is inappropriate. All the while, the American Yoga Association claims yoga is not a religion. Debates about what religion is, how it ought to count, and how what counts (or doesn’t) is used are all central to these ongoing conversations, in and outside the public sphere. They also all apply to how we read and see Babar’s Yoga for Elephants. Is Babar practicing religion? Is it spirituality that Babar practices? Is he just participating in a fun, hip exercise program? Or is it a mindful, meditative way to calm down?

If what yoga was, is, and might become is both historically delineated and constantly shifting, how do we read Babar and his instructive yogic text?

Part of my answer to this question lies in thinking about the historical implications and legacies alongside contemporary assumptions and conceptualizations. Babar isn’t just a fun children’s character. He’s an elephant king, developed at the height of colonialism, and, as others have argued, “a tool of colonialist oppression.” In this Babar book, he practices an ancient-but-living Indic form of religiosity (which is, as above, depicted as led by a stereotypically drawn man) for the purpose of “keeping fit.” Beyond contemporary popularity, scientific evidence of its efficacy as a medical treatment for certain issues and people, and the widespread availability of “yoga pants”–in other words, beyond the normative expression of yoga–is a familiar problematic in which someone else’s history, praxis, culture(s), languages, and religions are adopted, adapted, and appropriated, all for our contemporary uses.

My daughter (and I) do participate in yoga. There’s a lovely, local place that offers classes for kids, and my wild, busy toddler loves the space for wiggling, running, and when she slows down long enough, doing an occasional down-dog. Yoga, and our contemporary uses thereof, isn’t inherently a problem. But, with all the complex and overlapping colonialist and orientalist images in Babar’s Yoga for Elephants, she will not get a copy as a gift. Since it seems better suited for my research, I picked up a copy for myself.