Religion@UVM: the Class of 2016

Our most recent alumni graduated on May 22, 2016, and–while we say this annually–we couldn’t be prouder of this accomplished set of students.

They’ve presented (and even organized) at the UVM Student Research Conference, served in various leadership positions in our undergraduate Religious Studies Club, served organizations across the University, held jobs, did community service, and–most importantly–learned, worked, read, wrote, read more, and rewrote about religion.

This class was our second to complete the 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. These research projects included work on defining religion China, religion and state politics in Tibet, colonial categorization of religion in Jamaica, religion and/in the transatlantic slave trade, the politics of Nazi art seizures, conversion of German Jews in the modern era, vodou in the media, and state-funded, faith-based work with refugees. This year’s colloquium was led by Prof. Trainor, who hosted a potluck for our cohort at his home.

Class of '16 potluck at Prof. Trainor's house

Class of ’16 potluck at Prof. Trainor’s house

Prof. Trainor may have been this cohort’s formal usher from student to alumni, but the whole department has, in the course of four years, watched them wrestle with ideas about, around, and beyond the study of religion. We will miss them in our home at 481 Main Street, and hope they remain in touch as their post-UVM futures become realities.

As is our ritual, the Department of Religion hosted a reception for our graduating students (majors and minors) and their families at the Waterman Manor after Commencement. Here are a few scenes of that party, with hopes we get to gather together again soon. Congratulations, Class of 2016!

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CAS Honors Awards 2016 Event

CAS Honors Awards 2016 Event

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Senior Spotlight: Stephen Franze

Stephen Franze in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors


EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re proud to announce that Stephen Franze is this year’s recipient of the Department’s Outstanding Senior Award. 


Why did you major in Religion?

Stephen Franze '16, Outstanding Major Award recipient

Stephen Franze ’16, Outstanding Major Award recipient

My undergraduate career brought me all over the College of Arts and Sciences including Philosophy, Sociology, Political Science, and Psychology. Up until a year ago I was actually on a BS track for Psychology. However, the Religion Department was finally the place I felt at home. I decided to switch to double major once I realized that Religion is the crossroads between all the disciplines I had been studying. What really won me over was the emphasis on critical theory and the fact that, for once, the professors were actually interested in what I thought about the material we were reading. Instead of regurgitating the information I was supposed to know, a major in Religion challenged me to express what I had learned.

 

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Well, for one thing, I’m hoping to be debt free! Besides that fantasy, I see myself having finished at least a Master’s program in religious studies with an emphasis on Religion and Media. I think American culture has tried so hard to label itself as secular that religion has become a taboo at worst and “That thing my grandparents still adhere to” at best. Media has done a disservice to religious scholars and adherents across the country by not engaging the public with religion generally and not just in regards to terrorism or controversial social justice issues.

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

Without hesitation I can say the one class people should not miss out on is REL 100 with Professor Morgenstein Fuerst. This was the class that made me say “I must be a Religion Major.” I cannot think of another class in any department where you can engage such a wide variety of theoretical topics and issues while being constantly invited to share the things with which you agree and disagree. It was the first time I actually felt like I was a scholar participating in the contemporary discourse.

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

If I could write one book, it would be a satirical novella reflecting the current role and function of religion in contemporary US society. I want to find a way to get readers engaged so they can start to see and explore the ways religion impacts and constructs their lives regardless of whether they explicitly adhere to a particular religion.

Congratulations on receiving the 2016 Outstanding Senior in Religion Award! In addition to your actual award, you’ve also won the opportunity to answer an additional question:

How to you think what you’ve learned in Religion might helping you navigate challenges in your future?

The fact is we never stop learning, so I guess you could say Religion taught me how to learn. Some say we are living in the Information Age and thus we are constantly being bombarded with supposed facts and claims, with the worlds wealth of information sitting right at our fingertips in the form of the Internet. In a time of so much noise and so many voices, it is invaluable to learn the skills necessary to weed out the superfluous details and invalid arguments in order to find those kernels of truth that can so often get lost in all the noise. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Religion taught me how to critically approach anything that I want to learn and to identify the guise of misinformation which leads people to fully accept claims such as “A Glass of Red Wine a Day is the Equivalent to an Hour at the Gym.” (Yes, this is an actual article being shared by major news outlets!)

Senior Spotlight: Cristina MacKinnon

Cristina MacKinnon in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors

Cristina MacKinnon '16

Cristina MacKinnon ’16

Why did you major in Religion? 

I decided to switch into a Religion major pretty late in my college career (Spring of Junior year?) because I realized how much I enjoyed the critical thinking and engagement we do that intersects with a variety of disciplines. Religion is never simply just religion, but something that is constantly interacting with history, politics, lived experiences, authority, and power – just to name some of my favorites. I have also found all of the Religion faculty members that I have worked with to be endlessly encouraging and supportive of my interests and goals, which makes me feel truly validated as someone who aspires to be a scholar.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Either pursuing a graduate degree in Religion (ancient/early Christianity, in particular) or happily teaching. Probably a dog-mom!

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 recommend Anne Clark’s “Religion and Ways of Knowing” because it stimulated conversation around a topic at the heart of the study of religion throughout the semester by using a variety of different traditions. It also introduced me to the book, the Impossibility of Religious Freedom by Winnifred Sullivan which I think provides an insightful and impactful look into how religions are understood and its practitioners treated in an American context.

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

NOT Religion-related but — I am a huge music nerd and engaging in local (and even online) music scenes has had a huge influence on who I am today. So, I spend a lot of time thinking about how gender and race/ethnicity show up in localized music communities. I would love to explore these ideas more critically and write about it!

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.

Monks and Neuroscience: Contemporary Interactions between Buddhism and Science in America

With so many recent developments in the fields of quantum physics, medicine and neuroscience it’s no surprise that Science is one of the dominating domains of authority in modern American culture. Religion, on the other hand, occupies an increasingly turbulent place in the American cultural landscape and in this day and age we have to wonder how these two domains – Science and Religion – will negotiate an ever more complicated interaction.

Historically speaking, Buddhism has been involved in the discourse of Science and Religion in a particularly concentrated and easily visible manner. In the past twenty years a large volume of scholarship has been written on the historical interaction between Buddhism and Science, including works such as:

Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy (2015) by Evan Thompson, Buddhism & Science a Guide for the Perplexed (2008) by Donald Lopez, The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation (2012) by Richard Davidson, as well as numerous peer-reviewed articles. There is no denying a certain American fascination with Buddhism and how it relates to Science (Lopez, 208). A fascination so enchanting, that I chose to spend my last semester at UVM engaging in a guided research project on the topic with UVM Chair of Religion Kevin Trainor.

Naturally, it follows that it is appropriate, if not enlightening, to put Buddhist meditators in fMRI machines and see what we can learn. Quite frankly, this is one of the coolest things going on within the discourse of Science and Religion, but like any cool idea, there are problems beneath the surface that excessive enthusiasm can overlook.

“Contemplative Neuroscience,” also referred to as “Neurophenomenology,” is an exciting new field posited by many researchers that looks to reimagine the ways in which religious and scientific approaches can be used to inspect cognitive phenomena. In the article “Neurophenomenology” (2000), Frederic Peters aims to “[introduce] a new methodological approach to the analysis of religious phenomena” (Peters, 379). Peters frames this methodological revision as a relatively necessary step for the proper progression of the analysis of religious phenomena. Why? According to Peters, much of this pressure to update approaches to analyzing religious phenomena comes from modern advancements within fields of Science, particularly that of neuroscience.

It’s notoriously difficult to say, or even argue about what religion is. Definitions have been thrown into the ring that is academic religious discourse for hundreds of years, and Peters highlights the difficulty in arriving at a consensus through academic writing and debates. Perhaps in this modern day and age our scientific meandering has guided us through an approach that will enhance our understandings of religion. Although other scholars are more reluctant to assent to the kind of conclusions that Peters arrives at, Peters has no problem thinking of “religious data” as a “[property] of consciousness” (Peters, 381). From this starting point, coupled with a specific take on consciousness and brain activity informed by modern neuroscience, Peters also makes the assertion that “[recent] technical advances in brain imaging together with increased sophistication of experiments have now made it, at the very least, increasingly difficult to resist the conclusion that brain activity and mental activity are one and the same” (Peters, 389). Even without drawing the same conclusion as Peters it is clear that modern technological developments in Science are relevant to our discussions of religion and religious phenomena.

The basis of this claim pivots on a certain understanding of consciousness and the brain, somewhat reminiscent of a dichotomy between the physical and immaterial. Martin Verhoeven discusses this apparent gap in his article “Buddhism and Science: Probing the Boundaries of Faith and Reason” (2001). By conceding that the mind and neurological brain activity are the same thing, the argument – which claims that approaches to religious phenomena can be enhanced by a coupling with scientific experiments – loses some ground. Verhoeven writes of “the unfortunate disjunction of matter and spirit that afflicts the modern age. It can assume many forms: a split between matter and spirit, a divorce between faith and reason, a dichotomy between facts and values. At a more personal level, it manifests as a mind-body dualism” (Verhoeven, 80). Juxtaposing a radically materialist scientific approach to a culturally informed approach to religion that resists being reduced to any all-encompassing explanation of religious phenomena characterizes much of this debate. Peters writes, “Neither the radically dualist nor the radically materialist stream of philosophy has made much headway in accounting for both the obvious physiological hardware and sheer fact of phenomenal awareness” (Peters, 384-385). It appears as though there is something within this debate that demands priority over other considerations. With all of the recent developments in modern neuroscience, it seems silly to ignore the fact that there seems to be some link between consciousness and brain activity. It seems even more foolish to pretend that we can talk about religion without it.


Evan Thompson’s
book Waking, Dreaming, Being (2015) provides an excellent overview of the interaction between Science and Buddhism and takes an interestingly philosophical approach to the question, which helps us understand the arguments on both sides. Instead of hastily assuming that adding modern scientific empiricism to religious analysis will enhance our understandings of religion, it may be worth considering how religious understandings of the mind can inform and enhance scientific knowledge. In this way Thompson challenges Peters’ assertion that neuroscience can be superimposed on religious data as some kind of enhancement; instead, their mingling can be seen as a collaboration, which is mutually beneficial for both fields. There is a “gap” present in our understanding of the brain and the mind, which Thompson characterizes as an open-ended problem. Thompson writes, “The gap consists in our not understanding how something subjective or experiential could possibly arise from something that fundamentally lacks subjective or experiential properties” (Thompson, 81). For Thompson both Religion, and more surprisingly, Science, have an interpretive dimension that Science somewhat avoids admitting in claims to objective truth and an authentic access to reality.

Regardless of which view is taken there are still potential casualties and inadvertent oversights latent in the commingling of these historically culturally antagonistic fields. Francisca Cho, although focusing on the role of karma in understanding research relating to Buddhists, highlights an important aspect of what can be lost in a premature intercourse between Science and Buddhism. While a neuroscientist may be quick to dismiss karma as an unnecessary cultural “ball-and-chain” in understanding what meditation does to the brain (or mind if they are not assumed to be the same thing), Cho urges us to reconsider how entire epistemological systems influence how we perceive data, including that of Science. Cho writes, “[The] challenge of karma is not its supernaturalism but its substantial sophistication about what is real, which is far more nuanced than contemporary distinctions between the ‘wishful thinking’ and ‘fantasy’ associated with religion, on the one hand, and the ‘objective truth’ attributed to science, on the other” (Cho, 117). Adding an empirical element to the study of religious phenomena is all fine and well, but what if scientific understandings of physicality and religious understandings of physicality aren’t the same? Even sticking to a phenomenological lens which only looks what appears to be undeniably in front us doesn’t mean that we agree on what is real, what is physical, what is undeniable or what is in front of us.

Thus the debate rages on, as the logistics become more and more tangible, and the concepts more and more ethereal. If the discourses of Religion and Science seem like their intersection doesn’t allow them to say anything nice about each other, maybe they shouldn’t say anything at all. On the other hand, theoretical disagreements about what “physical” really means or if brain activity and consciousness are the same thing seem serious enough to keep debating. The cultural relevance of this topic appears as though it will only increase. As Richard Davidson writes, “[The] Mind and Life Dialogues [become] an ongoing mutual exploration of some of the most profound questions facing humanity in terms of science, ethics, and morality, such as the nature of mind, the nature of the universe and our place in it, the nature of reality, and the potential for the healing and transformation of afflictive emotions into more positive mental states, leading to greater health, harmony, happiness, and possibly both inner and outer peace” (Davidson & Kabat-Zinn, 4). For now Buddhism seems to be at the forefront of this interaction, and with all this at stake it doesn’t seem like it would hurt to keep putting as many monks as we can fit in fMRI machines as possible.

Works Cited

Cho, Francisca. “Buddhism, Science, and the Truth About Karma.” Religion Compass 8, no. 4 (2014): 117-27.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon, and Richard Davidson, eds. The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation. Oakland, CA, California: New Harbinger Publications, 2012.

Lopez, Donald S. Buddhism & Science a Guide for the Perplexed. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Peters, Frederic H. “Neurophenomenology.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 12, no. 3 (2000): 379-415.

Thompson, Evan. Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

Verhoeven, Martin. “Buddhism and Science: Probing the Boundaries of Faith and Reason.” Religion East & West 1 (2001): 77-97.

Images

https://pennmindsthegap.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/when-meditation-met-mri/

http://www.npr.org/books/titles/373965266/waking-dreaming-being-self-and-consciousness-in-neuroscience-meditation-and-phil


Shakir Stephen ’15 is currently a writing tutor at UVM’s Writing Center specializing in writing for religion and philosophy and writing research papers. Shakir also works at Mansfield Hall as an Academic Coach and is hoping to go to graduate school next year to study Religion or English.

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.

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

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graduate Shakir Stephen

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

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

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

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Prof. Thomas Chipumuro and graduate Joey Oteng

 

Spreading the Good News: AAR’s Religious Studies Major Survey

As some of you know, we here in the Religion Department–thanks to Kevin Trainor‘s successful grant application–participated in the American Academy of Religion‘s Survey of the Long-Term Impacts of the Religious Studies Major. Here’s what AAR says about the purpose of the survey

The focus of the survey is not merely upon what former majors are currently doing, but also upon what they learned (and what they wish they had learned), what parts of the major they have found to be useful, and how the study of religion has shaped their values and actions.

We are thrilled to report that of our roughly 330 alumni, 116 participated in the survey; our 58% response rate far outpaced the 37% response rate for the survey as a whole. Not only does this (statistically significant) data help us pinpoint what we do well so that we might keep on doing it, but in the couple of months we’ve had the results, it has already helped us think critically about where we might better serve our current and future students. We are so grateful to all those who participated, and as we continue to sift through the data and comments, we will make available additional information.

Here are some highlights:
(click the images to enlarge)

  • Our alumni report a 95.7% employment rate, which is more than 10% higher than the national religion major data (82.3%).

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  • Our alumni work in a variety of fields, from medicine to education to environmental science. The following represent the top areas of employment (i.e., above 7% of respondents):

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  •  The majority of our alumni report being satisfied or extremely satisfied with their Religion degrees:

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  •  And, our alumni overwhelmingly agree that their education contributes to their quality of life.

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This last chart is sure to please Prof. Richard Sugarman, who not long ago quipped to Seven Days that:

“Right now everybody is concerned with making a living. Perfectly understandable,” he says. “But you also have to make a life.”

We are pleased to see that our alums seem to be making both a living and a life.

To those who participated: thank you! We were happy to hear from you–and, well, about you. Look forward to us reaching out again, with opportunities to keep us posted on your life, get involved with students as well as other alumni, and perhaps even contribute to this blog.