Senior Spotlight 2020: Carolynn Van Arsdale

a series about our graduating seniors

“The greatest skill a student can learn in [a Religion course] is being able to debunk mass generalizations and stereotypes, which is crucial to understand regardless of what career one has.”

–Carolynn Van Arsdale
Carolynn Van Arsdale ’20

Why did you major in Religion?

One of my first classes at UVM was a TAP course with Prof. Anne Clark titled What is the Bible? I thoroughly looked forward to doing the work for the course, and the class discussions constantly “blew my mind.” During the following semester I enrolled myself in Introduction to Islam with Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst, which totally sealed the deal for me to spend a large part of my undergraduate degree on the academic study of Religion.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

What a scary, but fun question! No matter what industry I end up in… my hope is that I will be helping others, whether that be teaching, advocating, leading, etc. I am looking forward to working hard for others as well as my own happiness.  

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

Considering the fact that we live in a dominantly Protestant society, I would suggest that a first-year take Introduction to Islam. Not only did I enjoy this course, but it is most definitely a class worth taking if one wants to improve their religious literacy. The greatest skill a student can learn in this course is being able to debunk mass generalizations and stereotypes, which is crucial to understand regardless of what career one has.  

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

Save the Humanities: How the Liberal Arts can better our World 

Any fond memories of 481 Main Street you want to share?

In What is the Bible? our class had dinner together in the Religion Seminar Room before heading to a Medieval Christmas Choir Concert at Southwick Hall. I became closer with my classmates, and it was such a treat to eat good food in a casual setting with one of my favorite professors. I managed to find two of my best friends from that class, and I am so grateful for that awesome experience.

COVID-19 Bonus Question! You’re finishing up in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell us something about that experience!

I want to say a HUGE thank you to the Religion Department for going above and beyond during this time in how we as students are being cared for. It is not in a Professor’s job description to make sure that students are safe and healthy, but Religion Professors do it anyway. This has been and will continue to be a meaning-making experience for me, and completing my undergraduate degree will be a part of that.   


EDITOR’S NOTE:
Carolyn Van Arsdale is the 2020 winner of the
Outstanding Major Award.

Challenging a Disciplined Norm: A Longform Piece

As an undergraduate student at the University of Vermont (UVM) my academic career has taken quite a few turns, to say the least. I came into the University as a Political Science student, who aced her AP Government and Politics Exam in high school, and who totally “felt the Bern.” Looking back on what I wanted, I thought that I would now have two political internships and months of campaign work under my belt, ready to be a staffer for some big, up-and-coming name in American Politics. Who knew that a class called “What is the Bible?” (of all things) with Professor Anne Clark would change this.

What I aim to discuss in this context is how the Liberal Arts “saved me,” or—to make it less dramatic—challenged me to learn differently. What I mean by this, is that taking this singular class that discusses arguably the most popular book in the world’s history opened my eyes to a new way of learning that I never found in my Political Science courses. I am not saying that one field is better than the other, but actually that they bolster one another to give me rich, foundational, and holistic knowledge on issues I deem important.

As I have advanced in my academic career at UVM I have taken a wide range of courses, which include international relations, political ideology, Islam’s place in modernity, as well as the nexus of religion, the nation, and the state. The topics I just listed have been taught in both of the departments I am currently in: Religion and Political Science. However, the messages and methods to go about learning these topics was dependent upon whether or not it was a Political Science or Religion class. I did not realize this until I reached higher-level courses, which allowed me to better challenge the knowledge thrown at me rather than simply absorb it. During one of our classes in “Religion, Nation & State,” Professor Borchert said something that stuck with me: “our disciplines make us blind to certain things.”

Within the field of Political Science, I have become quite interested in the topic of international relations. In Religion, I have spent much of my time and energy on the study of Islam(s). Here, I aim to discuss these two topics and how they are constantly intertwined, as well as how they have been made to have this type of dichotomy with one another. If I only studied Political Science, I would have never come to terms with how Islam is consistently homogenized, racialized, and even seen as a “foreign policy concern,” which will be better understood once Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and Cemil Aydin are brought into this discussion later on. If I only studied Religion, I would not have been able to put the pieces together to discern why U.S. Foreign Policy in particular has been failing when it pertains to topics involving Islam. This personal example of mine is exactly why interdisciplinary thinking is essential for tackling the world’s most complicated and multifaceted problems. Therefore, in the rest of this blog post, I aim to demonstrate how interdisciplinary thinking when used in international relations, specifically in relation to Islamic studies, has the potential to make a real-world impact that is positive and ever-lasting.

Critiquing the Norm

I remember the first time I was taught Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations?” piece in my Middle Eastern Studies class in high school. My teacher showed us the map that portrays Huntington’s thesis, which uses a ‘cultural’ approach to understanding the world’s divisions, and therefore carves up the world into a set of “civilizations.”[1]

mage result for clash of civilizations map

Source

When I got to college, this same map and thesis was explained in my Intro to International Relations class, to showcase what the state of our world was after the end of the Cold War. Then, I entered into my Introduction to Islam class, which did not focus on his thesis in a fundamental way at the beginning of the semester, like other courses. Rather, his argument was brought up later in the semester to further denounce the notion that Islam is a monolith civilization, among other critiques. Finally, in my Political Islam course, Huntington’s “Clash of Civilization’s?” was the first academic work listed in the syllabus.

What exactly am I trying to prove here? The consistent importance, precedent, and normalization of a scholarly work, which has been detrimental to the lives of people all over the world as a result of its rhetoric.

There is a plethora of academic works that denounce and thoroughly critique the thesis that arguably made Huntington the most prominent scholar in his field. To begin, Cemil Aydin, a historian, questioned in his book titled The Idea of the Muslim World, “Why has the idea of the Muslim world become so entrenched, despite the obvious naïveté of categorizing one and a half billion people, in all their diversity, as an imagined unity?”[2] The entire purpose of Aydin’s book is to debunk Islam as a monolith, and especially as a “civilization,” as Huntington puts it.[3] This homogenization of an entire religion leads to stereotyping, among other more detrimental consequences. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a political scientist who studies religion, emphasizes in Beyond Religious Freedom that we need to “understand the world that is being created when the category of religion is privileged as a basis for developing foreign policy.”[4] This is another unfortunate outcome of the ways in which the power given to Huntington’s thesis has deeply impacted how we think of the global community and the factions within it. Having “Islam” and the “West” juxtaposed as civilizations that oppose one another encourages foreign policy to base its actions off of gross generalizations and assumptions. All in all, it’s quite obvious just from these two examples that the “Clash of Civilizations?” is problematic and unhelpful in fostering good policy and ideologies.

This poses my next question: why? Why did several of my classes cite Huntington in their syllabi, and spent time during lecture discussing his argument? This is not just a trend among UVM courses, but this is a nationwide, American expectation that Huntington be used in syllabi when Islam and politics are intertwined. Take for instance the American Political Science Association (APSA), which claims that it is the “leading professional organization for the study of political science.” The APSA recommends that whenever international security and terrorism are taught, that Huntington’s piece should be cited and used. This is dangerous, to be quite frank. It is not enough to cite Huntington, and spend an entire class period debating on whether or not he should be credited for his thesis. Including “The Clash of Civilizations?” as the first academic work on a syllabus gives it power, prominence, and makes it to be seen as fundamental to the course being taught. Students in such classes will continuously cite his work and will think that his name is worthy to remember.  This only reaffirms the several consequences as stated above.

A Well-Needed Reality Check

I would have never been able to come up with such conclusions if I had only stuck to Political Science courses. I would have never realized how fundamentally wrong Huntington is if I had just taken Religion courses. Hopefully it can be seen as to why I spent several hundred words denouncing “the Clash of Civilizations?”—to showcase what the Liberal Arts is capable of doing: provide interdisciplinary ways of thinking that challenge the norm. It’s because of this that I am better able to raise my hand in lecture and push back on what is being taught to me. It is because of this that I am able to look at syllabi in a critical manner. It’s because of this that I am a worthwhile candidate for the work force once I graduate—because I understand the value of a Liberal Arts education.

Let’s take this a bit further, and expand upon what should be fixed to recover from the mistakes that have been made in U.S. Foreign Policy. To go back to Hurd’s thesis in Beyond Religious Freedom, she cites that we must use “three heuristics” to go about how we discern religion in an international context. These are “expert religion, lived religion, and governed religion,” and each emphasizes “a different set of themes and topics that are important to the argument as a whole.”[5] In my opinion, most of what we discuss in international relations focusses on expert (religious leaders, academics, and other professionals speaking about religion) and governed (state officials, heads-of-state, and representatives) religion. Therefore, what gets missed is probably the most important viewpoint of all: the lived lives of everyday people. Lived religion is characterized as being “practiced by everyday individuals and groups… to navigate and make sense of their lives, connections with others, and place in the world.”[6] If I ever enter into a foreign policy career, my advocacy and attention will hold this concept to the highest standard. Decision-making at the highest level tends to focus less on the individual and more on the entirety of a nation-state. Proper training in the Liberal Arts can thus offer holistic approaches to how we should handle international dilemmas.

Do I have faith in the notion that most other 2020 college graduates will have the same realization about their education? Not quite. The Political Science Department is one of the biggest at UVM, while Religion is one of the smallest. Also, other Universities such as the University of Connecticut do not offer a Bachelor’s degree in Religion, which I easily could have gone to being a Connecticut resident. The access as well as the choices I have made throughout my college career have allowed me to advance my knowledge in this subject. I have no doubt in my mind that my path would have been immensely different if I had never become a Religion Major.

What is at stake here is plain and simple: the inability for those such as myself, who are wildly passionate about international policy and conflict, to comprehend what sources of knowledge are sustainably damaging. This is a cyclical issue that feeds into higher systems of power and influence, which have real-world consequences. Cohorts of undergraduates that get placed into work forces that directly work with relevant topics should understand what I am understanding. The means of critically assessing knowledge must be made more accessible, as well as digestible. Shorter books such as Hurd’s that are made purposely for experts in relevant fields, blog posts and other short mediums of knowledge production; can hopefully bring about more critical reasoning in the field of foreign policy, such as my own realization of Samuel Huntington.

To put the cherry on top of this discussion, I would like to thank the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Vermont for encouraging me to take that class about the Bible my very first semester at this institution. Three years later, and I can say that I actually learned something.


[1] Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (1993), 23

[2] Cemil Aydin, The Idea of the Muslim World: a Global Intellectual History, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017), 2.

[3]Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” 31.


[4] Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Beyond Religious Freedom: the New Global Politics of Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), xii.

[5] Hurd, Beyond Religious Freedom, 9.

[6] Hurd, Beyond Religious Freedom, 9.

Work Cited

Aydin, Cemil. The Idea of the Muslim World: a Global Intellectual History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Bucar, Elizabeth M. Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-77, edited by Colin Gordon. 

Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3 (1993): 22–49.

Hurd, Elizabeth Shakman. Beyond Religious Freedom: the New Global Politics of Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Kurzman, Charles, and Carl W. Ersnt. “Islamic Studies in US Universities” in Middle East Studies for the New Millennium: Infrastructures of Knowledge. New York: New York University Press, 2016.

Lewis, Bernard. What Went Wrong. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: the Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Masuzawa, Tomoko. The Invention of World Religions: or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Morgenstein Fuerst, Ilyse R., and Zahra M. S. Ayubi, eds. The Muslim World; Special Issue: Shifting Boundaries. 4th ed. Vol. 106. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2016.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

Religious Literacy Panel Reflection: The Last Religious Literacy Month Event!

On Monday, November 4th, the Religion Department held their final Religious Literacy Month event. The month was topped off with a great panel of faculty, answering questions ranging from religious literacy, to the age of Trump, and even job and internship opportunities for Religion majors at UVM.   

The event started off with the faculty introducing themselves and a broad statement on what religious literacy means to them. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst opened with literacy as a social justice movement. She discussed how there’s many forms of literacy, including pre-literacy. She then went on to state that training people about religion as always being in the room is extremely vital. Then, Anne Clark noted that we must study religious past and history in order to make religious literacy more relevant in the present, thus creating a space of awareness and comprehension. Erica Andrus noticed in her large intro level classes that many students come in with barriers about religion, including that they only know that religion is about belief— but we learn that that is not the case. Tying these statements together, Kevin Trainor questions— what happens when religion is approached by what people do rather than what they believe? To wrap up, I think Vicki Brennan’s statement is also really important when approaching the subject of religious literacy. She states that learning about religion is about making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange. In order to learn and grow, we must knock down some preconceived notions and stereotypes of religion.  

Then the event moved onto a question and answer session, which lasted for the majority of the event. To include a few, one person from the crowd, a UVM writing staff member, questioned if the religion department will see a decline in students because religion is declining in America. Professor Morgenstein Fuerst hopped onto this question fast, stating that saying religion is disappearing is a white idea, just because white American Christians are leaving religion, doesn’t meant anyone else is.  

A recent UVM Religion grad asked: how do we facilitate a discussion in religious literacy without confusing people or upsetting them? Professor Morgenstein Fuerst notes that sometimes religious literacy discussions need to be used with a “velvet club.” Meaning, we should be gentle, understand where the other person is coming from, and help them to better comprehend. But of course, in toxic situations, a quick shut down on racist remarks is completely necessary.  

Lastly, one student, a senior majoring in religion, says she feels empowered with her knowledge of religious literacy and she’s ready to share it with others. Empowerment like this can really make a huge difference.  

So, even though Religious Literacy Month is over, we will keep learning and educating others on religious literacy. Because for some folks, religious literacy is a matter of survival. Like Liz Kineke said in her talk this month, religion is always in the room.  

Reflection on Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt’s Lecture

Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt gave an intriguing lecture at UVM on Tuesday for the Religion Department’s month(ish) of lectures and panels for Religious Literacy. Her lecture, entitled “Catholic Young Adults and Pro-life Teachings: A Bellwether for the U.S. Catholic Church” pinpointed on ideas of how college-aged Catholics felt about the Roman Catholic Church’s pro-life teachings, and how the pro-life teachings of the church have come to only translate to the argument of “abortion” (even though the church has an expansive assemblage of what “pro-life” means).  

Dr. Pratt’s lecture started off with discussing why she got into this work, which I believe is the most amusing part. Her main “hustle”, she describes, is systemic racism and the Catholic church. But she states that no one would even touch her work, let alone publish it, because it was “too edgy.” So, she decided to take a more conventional and boring path (in her words not mine), pro-life teachings of the Catholic church, thus creating her “side hustle.” I love her use of the term hustle here, mostly because I’ve never heard a scholar call their work this, and it’s always more entertaining when a lecturer can gather a laugh when talking about a serious topic.  

Throughout her research, Dr. Pratt noticed that the buzzword “pro-life” lacked usage in peer reviewed articles and studies, which seems strange because how can they be discussing pro-life without actually using the term? Until she stumbled upon Dr. James R. Kelly, who had published a mile-long list of public scholarship writing on pro-life related issues and the movement itself. This included an article from 1987 that discussed how the HIV/AIDS epidemic was a pro-life issue, which was monumental for the time. She joked, though, for students 1987 might as well be 1776.  

Her main focus of her lecture was on Catholic young adults, for which she included her methods and results of her research. As a sociologist, her study heavily relied on focus groups. She asked these groups about their feelings of pro-life issues, the church, and other specifics as well. Dr. Pratt’s discoveries included that abortion was overwhelmingly focused upon, and nothing else was getting through the “sieve” (she used the metaphor multiple times throughout her lecture). Her evidence gathered that most of the people in the studied agreed upon a “live and let live” mentality, meaning that they wouldn’t get an abortion themselves, but they believed the option to have an abortion should be available for those who seek it. Although, when Dr. Pratt asked about the death penalty, she was met with a contentious debate. The question here is why are other facets of pro-life messages from the church being lost in translation? Dr. Pratt presents that young adult literacy is limited because the teachings itself are limited. The more prolific issues, like capital punishment, murder, war, stem cell research, were simply not sticking with the public.  

What I found quite funny was that the disaffected Catholic youth weren’t mad about the church’s issues, but instead were mad about their personal childhood experiences. Dr. Pratt humorously stated, “They were mad about things that happened in second grade!” Which was indeed true, her study showed that these folks were angry that religion was forced upon them by their parents, and that they had to go to mass as punishment. So, what Dr. Pratt found was that the Catholic youth wanted civil courtesy and felt more connected to Pope Francis rather than local leadership, due to his statements of support for the LGBT community. 

 But the problem here, according to Dr. Pratt is that the Catholic church is a global religion, which is lived locally and can only thrive when there is local engagement. Dr. Pratt contended, that in order for the Catholic the church to continue to see people in the pews in the future, they must adapt to the ideals of the younger generation. If these catholic young adults are seeing mass as a punishment, then they’ll be less likely to bring their own families to church in the future. She stated that the expanded language around pro-life must move past just abortion, not only for political expediency, but for the survival of the church. Overall, Dr. Pratt’s talk was insightful and gave a new perspective in religious literacy regarding the Catholic church.  

Religious Literacy Lecture Reflection: Abenaki Spirituality

Yesterday I attended the second lecture in the religious literacy series that centered around the recent celebration of Indigenous Peoples day. The talk was led by two experts on Abenaki life and spirituality, Dr. Fred Weisman and Chief Don Stevens. Dr. Fred Weisman began his segment outlining the different types of Abenaki spirituality, distinguishing various traditions and elements of Native religion from each other. He went through the Way of the Animal Spirit, explaining the concept of animism to the attendees. Dr. Weismann wove central themes of native religious tradition throughout his talk, making clear that a connection between nature and mankind is at the core of Abenaki life. He labeled this concept “concentric ecology,” a relationship in which mankind is taken off a pedestal and a mutual relationship of responsibility if fostered between man and the earth. He spoke of different events ceremonies such as Forgiveness Day and Summer Solstice. In the way he spoke of the various ceremonies, Dr. Weisman embodied this spirit of wonder and awe that he described as coming from the traditions. He mentioned that at one event “it was as if our ancestors were there.” Ancestry, natural connection and upholding of traditions seemed to be at the core of his description of Abenaki spirituality. 

Chief Don Stevens entered the discussion as not a scholarly religious expert, but a lived expert. Being the chief of his tribe, Stevens scholarship is personal and activist in nature. He spoke about the religion of the Abenaki people as a “connection to the source,” concluding that when one loses their connection, they lose touch with the spirit of life. He touched on the Abenaki creation stories and mentioned the names of their central God and spirits. I found it interesting how a lot of his reference had to be put in Christian analogies; whether intentional or not, this need to “christianize” all native references spoke to me as a product of colonialism and backlash still faced today. Chief Stevens also tackled the mental side of his tribes spirituality. He spoke of the blessings a child is given before they leave their mothers womb, hammering the point of intentionality of life to the audience.

I found one of the most interesting parts of the lecture to be the discussion of climate change and its entangled relationship with indigenous people. Chief Stevens implied that Mother Earth is going to adapt and change, with or without humans. Without explicitly saying his personal position on climate change, I felt that Chief Stevens had maybe come to terms with the inevitability of a changing earth and humans destruction of it. This surprised me, but it seemed that Stevens work was more focused on the internal spirituality and less on the external world. Another thing I noted was his emphasis on expertise and “knowing.” He shared that he was imbued with the knowledge that allowed him to become a leader in his tribe, as if by magic. He stressed the importance of upholding tradition and protocol, seemingly discrediting those who practice publicly without “proper” knowledge and training. This talk was fascinating in light of my classes study of tradition, offering me a new perspective on what religion is for a community of people.

Religious Literacy Month: Simran Jeet Singh, Ph.D.

Join us on Thursday, September 26 for our kickoff event of Religious Literacy Month!

Dr. Simran Jeet Singh is a scholar of South Asian Religions, Islamophobia, race/racialization and religion, and Sikh traditions. He is also a noted activist, applying scholarship to social justice issues around race, racial profiling, anti-Muslim and anti-Sikh hatred and violence.

He has taught at Trinity University, Columbia University, Union Theological Seminary, and New York University. Dr. Singh’s public writings on religion, race, Sikhi, and Islamophobia have appeared in major news outlets (including the Washington Post, CNN, Huffington Post, and Religion News Service, where he is a regular columnist); he has appeared on television and documentary programs; and he serves the Interfaith Advisory Board Committee of New York State. In 2014, was invited to address President Obama and other members of government about Sikhs; in 2015, he similarly was invited to address the Pentagon.

His list of awards for this work is impressive:

In 2018, Dr. Singh won the Harvard Divinity School Alumni/Alumnae Council selected him as a 2018 Peter J. Gomes Memorial honoree, an award which “recognizes distinguished HDS alumni whose excellence in life, work, and service pays homage to the mission and values of Peter J. Gomes STB ’68 and Harvard Divinity School.”

In 2018, he was named a “faith leader to watch” by the Center for American Progress; in 2017, he was named Educator of the Year by the Dialogue Institute for the Southwest.

In 2016, he won the  Walter Wink Scholar-Activist Award from Auburn Seminary, which “recognizes courageous individuals who dedicate their lives to advocating for justice and peace in our world.”

Dr. Singh’s scholarship and activism demonstrate how and why religious literacy is necessary. We’re so honored to have him help kick off our month of events!

Religious Literacy Month

Starting Thursday, September 26, the Religion Department is hosting a (long) month of events centered on religious literacy! We’re marking the launch of the Certificate in Religious Literacy for Professions, the first undergraduate certificate of its kind in the U.S., with an all-star lineup of guest speakers, panels, and faculty forums.

Follow us on Facebook for event information. Check into the hashtag #RelLitUVM on Twitter and Instagram for live-tweets, related content, and photos. Or–better yet!–come to any or all events in person: they’re free and open to the public.

Reflections of a Summer Intern

by Becca Turley ’21

Over the summer I was given the great opportunity to work as a Government Affairs Intern at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-Chicago). CAIR-Chicago is a local chapter of a national non-profit organization whose mission is to defend civil rights, promote tolerance, and fight bigotry. At CAIR-Chicago, our Civil Rights Department provides legal services for members of the Chicagoland Muslim community, mostly focusing on immigration cases relating to the current administration’s limitations on travel and immigration status for Muslims. The pro-bono legal services at CAIR-Chicago provides protections for Chicago’s Muslim community in the face of discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity.

My first week on the job was interesting, to say the least. We were preparing for our Taste of Ramadan iftar and spent the week hanging up streamers and balloons to decorate our office for the event. While the arts and crafts time was a great way to get to know my fellow interns without feeling as though we were interrupting the workflow, I was nervous that the entire internship would be busy work and the negative clichés you always hear about internships- coffee, cleaning, photocopying, etc. Over the following weeks, I began receiving legitimate work to do and started to feel as though my time and effort was producing valuable work.

As a Government Affairs intern, my work mainly focused on civic engagement and policy research in addition to writing articles for our online publication. The bulk of my policy research dealt with the Illinois General Assembly where I compiled a list of relevant legislation that has been introduced or passed this year in both chambers of the Assembly. Most notably, the General Assembly passed landmark legislation relating to women’s reproductive rights, marijuana decriminalization and legalization, and employment civil rights.

Throughout the summer, the Government Affairs team and I planned a few events for the general public. First, we held viewing parties for the DNC debates in June and July where we wrote profiles on each of the 23 prospective nominees. We also made an appearance at Chicago’s World Refugee celebration in June where we participated in a march and set up a table to pass out information and “Know Your Rights” pamphlets ahead of the ICE raids in Chicago. In addition to these minor events that we participated in, we planned a larger event at the end of the summer called “Bridging the Gap: Conversations Between Politicians and People.” We invited local politicians from Illinois to have a panel discussion regarding issues that directly impact the Muslim community in Chicago. Although some of our guests never showed up, we were fortunate to have a Congressman from the Illinois General Assembly and a representative from a state Senator’s office in attendance. The state Representative, who had a long career before his appointment as a rabbi and an activist, brought a fresh perspective to our conversation and provided him the opportunity to speak to a politically underrepresented community that CAIR supports.

Beyond the day-to-day work at CAIR, the interns participated in a series of “Immersion Days” where department heads would teach us about a specific topic of interest to them. The most fascinating and inspiring Immersion Day that I attended was at the West Side Justice Center where we met members of the Black Panther Party and the Rainbow Coalition. These men, some of whom founded the Chicago chapter, took us on a tour of their exhibit which featured posters, newspapers, and documents from the founding days of the party with Fred Hampton at the helm. This immersion day was one of the best experiences I have ever had the privilege of attending and I learned so much about the underground history of my city.

Along with meeting some incredibly inspirational people, I also had one of the most challenging experiences of my life when an organization of former white supremacists and Neo-Nazis attended a two-day workshop at our office. In small groups, we discussed various questions relating to media coverage of terrorism and extremism and ultimately relating those biases to the experiences of our diverse group. After spending several hours talking to a former white supremacist in my group, I learned that in his past he committed hate crimes against Jewish people and synagogues. As a young Jewish woman, I immediately felt defenseless and terrified, never mind the fact that I had to wake up the next morning and sit at a table with this man for another 7 hours. The next day I walked into our office—putting all of my reservations aside— only to thoroughly enjoy our second day, including taking our “formers” to the local masjid to observe the midday salah.

Overall, my internship at CAIR-Chicago was a wonderful opportunity for me in both my personal and academic life. CAIR fostered an incredibly welcoming and friendly work environment where I met wonderful people of all different backgrounds, ideologies, and experiences. I learned so much about the incredible diversity in thought, practice, and belief within the worldwide Muslim community, and became friends with some inspiring and passionate young adults. My time at CAIR was significantly elevated by all of the intelligent, hard-working, and friendly people that I met along the way, and I still feel incredibly grateful for the opportunity.

Senior Spotlight 2019: Abra Clawson

a series about our graduating seniors


I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: declaring a religion major was the best thing I did at UVM.

-ABRA CLAWSON ’19



Why did you major in Religion?

It began as a quest for redemption. 

I signed up for a religion class my first semester at UVM, hoping to get an introduction to something I had never studied in high school, and about which I knew nothing. The class frustrated me endlessly (why was the answer to every question “yes… and no”!?), but it was also my favorite of the semester. A year later, I decided to give religion another shot and took a second class, determined to do better than I had in my first semester. I realized that my religion professors were the ones I found the most compelling, and who pushed me the hardest but also made it clear that they believed in me. The classes were interesting, but the people were really what drew me in. By the end of sophomore year, I declared a minor (after finding out that I would get a super cool mug if I did). 

Junior year came around, and I felt dissatisfied with some of my classes in other departments because I thought I was not being pushed to be critical of what I was studying. I was also in awe of the older religion students in my classes, because they said things that seemed so smart and important and different from my other classes. I wanted to take more classes with these people. I ended up transferring into “Religion and Secular Culture” the second week of the fall semester, declaring religion as my second major at the same time. From there, things just got better; I loved how the major built on and complicated what I learned elsewhere. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: declaring a religion major was the best thing I did at UVM.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

I could see myself going in a few directions over the next few years, so look for me: 1) working at a regional theatre in artistic management or sound design, or 2) living in another country doing research and creating multimedia projects.

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

The senior seminars (“Religion and Secular Culture,” “Religion and Empire”) were my favorites! I would tell younger students not to be scared by a course number; the intro classes were the hardest anyway. My seminar papers are the assignments I’m most proud of at UVM, and both Professor Borchert and Professor Morgenstein Fuerst made them feel manageable. Those are also the classes where I got to know the other students the most, and where the department began to feel like a family. But really, just take at least one class in something you’ve never studied before, something out of your comfort zone. Also, don’t wait until senior year to take Religion 100.

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

I’ve been obsessed with Shakespeare since 6thgrade, and I think it would be cool to work on a project about religion and Shakespeare which goes into the historical context of a few plays and their characters, and then takes a look at the way they have been produced over the years. 

Any fond memories of 481 Main Street you want to share?

The ability to feel comfortable just stopping by anyprofessor’s office to ask a question or just to say hello. Running into people in the hallways and having conversations that spilled out of the classroom. The early mornings sitting on the couches before class.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Abra Clawson is the 2019 winner of the

Outstanding Major Award.


Faculty News!

It’s been a while since we posted, in large part because we have been busy. Here’s a snippet of some of what the Religion faculty have been up to! And, as always, be sure to follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook for some real-time updates.

In January, Prof. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst was a speaker at an international workshop on Authority in Islam held in New Delhi, India. It brought American, European, and Indian scholars together and will be published as a book, soon.

As you likely heard, Prof. Vicki Brennan won the 2018-2019 Dean’s Lecture Award, an acknowledgement of her significant research and pedagogical contributions to the field and UVM. The Award is described as:

The series was established in 1991 as a way to recognize and honor colleagues in the College of Arts and Sciences who have consistently demonstrated the ability to translate their professional knowledge and skill into exciting classroom experiences for their students — faculty who meet the challenge of being both excellent teachers and highly respected professionals in their own discipline. The Award is a celebration of the unusually high quality of our faculty and has become an important and treasured event each semester.

https://www.uvm.edu/cas/deans_and_full_professor_lecture_series_news_and_updates

In January, Prof. Vicki Brennan gave the Dean’s Lecture. Her talk was titled “Exhibiting the Sacred: An Ethnography of Spirited Things.”

Breaking news includes that Prof. Vicki Brennan has just been named an inaugural fellow for the Luce Foundation-sponsored project Sacred Writes! This project aims to connect scholars of religion to various publics beyond their classrooms; Prof. Brennan will join an impressive cohort of leaders in the field of religion for a week-long intensive training session on public scholarship.

And, departmentally, we are excited to say that our newest initiative was recently passed by the Board of Trustees! We are launching an Undergraduate Certificate in Religious Literacy, the first of its kind in the nation. It is a program developed to address student demand for Religion courses beyond a major or minor; the Certificate has a related brand-new course “Religious Literacy,” currently in its first iteration. Stay tuned for more!