UVM Student Research Conference 2019

As in years past, the 2019 Student Research Conference has quite a showing of Religion majors and minors! Students will give traditional conference papers, poster presentations, and a creative presentation that utilizes sound. Topics engage notions of idigeniety, imperialism, nationalism, sustainability, gender, race/racialization, sound, capitalism and tourism.

The Student Research Conference has a 12 year history at UVM and continues to grow in its scope, format, and impact. It is an all day event on Wednesday April 17 in the Davis center. We are really proud of our seven scheduled presenters. Join us if you can!

Authors & their projects (alphabetically):

Katie Arms, “Vermont’s Empire of Identity: Tracking Ideological Processes to ‘Sustainable’ Agriculture” https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/src/2019/program/247/

ABSTRACT: I was born in Vermont but I’m not a “Vermonter”. What is this statement based upon? and why do we have it? and what work is it doing knowingly or not? I attempt to trace the ideological process behind this identity claim—one that carries significant capital in terms of marketing and brand building but is also reflective of an American rural ideal that is racially and ethnically crafted and inherently gendered and nationalistic. I question why this identity is so celebrated and powerful in an effort to think about how imperialism and empire operate ideologically and economically. While Vermont appears to be a thriving “sustainable” agricultural state, it is structured to take for granted the patterns of marginalization and power that were inherent in the shaping of the identity. If we take for granted these markers of identity without critically assessing them, we will continue reiterating the hegemonic colonial metanarratives that are not “sustainable”, but are, as we know, harmful socially, environmentally, and economically.

Margaret Bennett, Alnôbak Agency in a Colonized Landscape” https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/src/2019/program/246/

ABSTRACT: The question of historical agency and sovereignty is one that cannot be easily answered, as history is dictated by agents of imperialism rather than their subjects; such is the case of the Abenaki, or Alnôbak. The Abenaki, as explained by Frederick Matthew Wiseman, are “the descendants of people who lived in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Western Maine ‘since time immemorial,’ as they said in 1766” (9). Despite their long history, spanning thousands of years in Northern America, Wiseman says that many White-Anglo settlers throughout Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire assumed until the early twentieth century that the Abenaki had left, essentially exiled from—and Othered in—their own land. He specifically notes that “Anglo historians seem to lack research interest or tools to discover much about the Alnôbak of this time, so their lore is lacking” (118). This lack of interest in the native inhabitants of a since colonized land is not surprising, as acknowledging the original and sustained presence of a sovereign Native people could prove problematic for modern American government and legislation. Through this project, I will elucidate how the distinct yet deeply intertwined influences of race, religion, and science affected the Alnôbak and their interactions with Anglo-settlers, with an aim to understand how the Alnôbak express their agency in a colonized space.

Katherine Brennan, “Tout a Changé! The Spectre of Islam in a (Secular) Catholic France” https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/src/2019/program/379/

ABSTRACT: Beyond simply a category of explanation, religion is a category of contestation. Despite the instability of the category of religion, governments worldwide participate in signifying what does and does not count in their laws and legal systems. The systems of law in France provide no exception. French laws reflect a desire to differentiate church and state, or laïcité. However, beneath the surface, particular institutions remain privileged. France is a country that claims secularity, yet within that secularity lies an institutional understanding of what religions are and what that means for the law. Legal systems in France are saturated with Catholic undertones, and laws regarding religion disproportionately affect minority religious communities under the masquerade of neutrality. Thus reflecting anxieties emerging from the encroaching “other” which are obscured by labels such as ‘Islamophobia.’ In this project, I examine legal efforts to differentiate religion and non-religion with a focus on recent court cases around school lunches and the rights of religious minorities.

Abra Clawson, “Sounds from a Dream Place: Politics, Religion, and Tourism in Kagbeni, Nepal” https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/src/2019/program/6/

ABSTRACT: Kagbeni, Nepal is a town which sits at a series of overlapping crossroads. With the restricted region of Upper Mustang to the north, and a popular pilgrimage site to the east, the town is constantly being shaped by globalization, religious and cultural identities, and tourism. I explore each of these forces in turn, centering my analysis around the mode of sound. This project combines anthropological methods of participant observation with theories from sound and religious studies in order to present a new way of understanding the forces shaping Kagbeni. How does sound claim space, and how does it reshape the communities who live in Kagbeni? In order to better answer these questions, I have curated a series of sound compositions to accompany this project. Each composition focuses on a theme: politics, religion, and tourism. Taken as a series, along with a written analysis of daily life in Kagbeni, these sound compositions draw attention to the ways that outsiders perceive the Loba community who lives there, and how these perceptions impact the lives of the Loba in turn.

Quinn Cosentino, “Native Saints: Hagiography and Racialization in Colonial New France” https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/src/2019/program/389/

ABSTRACT: In October, 2012, the Catholic Church canonized Kateri Tekakwitha, an Iroquois convert to Christianity who lived in the 17th Century in modern day New York and Quebec. The actual story of Kateri, colonial sainthood, and the missions of the French Jesuits, however, is one that illuminates a discursive warfare whereby Jesuit missionaries used sainthood to assert gender roles that they relegated to distinct racial groups. These gender roles perpetuated a traditional medieval discourse that justified imperial invasion. The martyrdom hagiographies and Jesuit Travelogues I investigated expose this discursive operation. Martyrs were portrayed as physically effeminate to highlight the brutality of the Iroquois as well as spiritually heroic and masculine to justify their control of the North American landscape (which was a feminine force that needed male protection). Other hagiographies operated to endow the Jesuits with a sense of collective identity with Old World Catholicism. This set them apart from and above their native neighbors who, in hagiographies, were often treated as objects to accentuate the white saint’s holiness, either as villains to overcome or as lost souls to convert.

Through motifs of martyrdom, Catholic collective identity and gendered landscape, the Jesuits created a mythic narrative that enforced a racialized state, glorifying white Christian identity and vilifying native identity. While this rhetoric created a nearly infallible conception of race (then and now), the Jesuits were challenged by the category of native saint. Native saints abandoned their indigeneity, but were still not considered to be on the same tier of perfection as European saints because of their inherent racial otherness. My project locates the discursive machinations behind the creation and maintenance of that racial otherness and, through investigating native sainthood, exposes the ultimate fallacy of race as an absolute, heterogeneous category.

Juliet Castleman Duncan, “Male Representations of Female Sanctity: Thomas of Cantimpré and Lutgard of Aywières” https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/src/2019/program/412/

ABSTRACT: Medieval manuscripts concerning the daily lives and miraculous experiences of living saints contain a great deal of information on how devout Catholics interpreted and understood religious practice and bodily suffering. These manuscripts were written by either the saints themselves, or a scribe and confessor of the saint. In this presentation I examine one such manuscript, Thomas of Cantimpré’s vita of Lutgard of Aywières, in order to understand how medieval fasting practices and conceptions of the body contributed to ideals of female piety in medieval England. In particular, I utilize feminist theories on medieval texts to explore how male scribes writing about female saints contributed to these ideals and thus reinforced gender norms within the catholic church. Based on the emphasis in these texts on Lutgard and other female saints taking on the role of Christ’s virgin bride, I argue that the emphasis placed on female bodily suffering depicted in these texts reflect a societal desire for a more passive female subject. My investigation of this case sheds light on how religious texts attempt to structure religious and social behavioral norms within a society as a whole.

Eliana Fox, “Colonialism in Israel/Palestine: Bedouin Indigeneity & Racialized Religious Definitions” https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/src/2019/program/390/ 

ABSTRACT: The area that is now deemed as the state of Israel has a complex colonial history. From the Ottoman Empire to the British Empire, this region has always been occupied by a form of colonial power. Indigenous Bedouin people inhabited this region before and alongside these empires, and since Ottoman times have been treated as an internal colony of each empire. With this massively influential history, it should come as no surprise that Israel itself has now become a colonial state. In an exertion of its colonial might, Israel has maintained the internal colony status of indigenous Bedouin people through the decimation and claiming of their spaces.Through processes of imposing racialized, religious categories on Bedouins, the Israeli government defines them as people who are outside of the “normal” body politic, stripping them of rights and humanity. This dehumanization allows Israel to justify its claim to Bedouin spaces. In claiming Israeli authority over these spaces, the government subsequently redefines them as Jewish. The Israeli government imposes a strict definition of white Jewishness to place, completely undermining Bedouin cultures and lifestyles that are deeply tied to land they have inhabited for thousands of years.

There is no Capital “T” Truth: Traveling with Students Abroad

By Abra Clawson ‘19

Looking across at the Mihintale Buddha. All photos taken by the author.

“So, the other tour guide was wrong, then?” one of our students asked from the back of the group. The branches of an enormous Bodhi tree stretched above us, the fence around it decorated with strings of Buddhist flags. Located in Anuradhapura, the tree is said to be one of the oldest in the world. It was the first Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka, planted using a branch from the tree in present-day India under which the Buddha reached enlightenment. The colors of the flags woven through the fences and branches were the subject of our discussion.

Our guide had just finished explaining the significance of the flag. Each color represented a different quality of the Buddha, he told the class. In his description, yellow was for the Buddha’s robes, orange for skin, and white for purity. The day before, a different tour guide in Polonnaruwa told us that the colors signified body parts of the Buddha. There, it was blue for eyes, orange for gums, white for teeth and bones, and red for blood. These colors come together in a final stripe to represent the Buddha’s multicolored aura.

Both men had authority as Sri Lankans and as official tour guides, yet the answers they provided conveyed the complications of searching for a single, “true” Sri Lankan reality.

Questions about the colors of monks’ robes elicited similarly mixed responses. One man in a small village near Kandy told us the differences in color is due to a monk’s status, with the head monk in the village wearing maroon while lower-status monks were orange. Days later beneath the Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, the class was told that monks are just given whatever robes are available, and that the colors do not mean anything beyond what resources are offered. His answer also implied that some colors were more expensive to produce than others.

Taken aback by the contrast in the multitudes of answers from guides and locals we had talked to, some students immediately sought to find and label one answer as the “correct” one. They were asking questions which should have simple, concrete answers. Or so it seemed. This assumption is ultimately what led to the comment that one of the other guides had given us incorrect information the day before.

Later in the evening, after leaving the Bodhi tree behind, we clambered back onto our bus in order to drive to Mihintale. About a half hour’s drive from Anuradhapura, Mihintale is known as the site where Buddhism first came to Sri Lanka.


We were met in the parking lot by a monk who would be our tour guide, and would later be referred to as “everyone’s favorite.” He told us he was a “liberal, open minded” monk, and that he would answer any and all questions candidly.

The students immediately took to his openness, asking questions about the history of Mihintale, his own path as a monk, and the workings of the monastery. As our conversation continued over tea, he challenged some of the assumptions that students brought with them, especially about how and why people become monks. In our guide’s case, he had asked his mother to allow him to join the monastic community when he was 12 years old, going against his family’s wishes.

From the beginning, one of the goals of the UVM travel study course “Travel Writing in Sri Lanka” was to convey the various realities of this South Asian country and its people. In a country that has been involved in a 30-year civil conflict which ended barely a decade ago, it is especially important to acknowledge the differing experiences and stories of people living there. In addition, this context asks us to question why we hear certain kinds of answers, and maybe don’t hear others. Which histories are promoted, and which are pushed to the side as less valid – less “Sri Lankan”?

Over the course of our two weeks in Sri Lanka, this theme of stories and capital “T” Truth kept coming up. This culminated at the International Buddhist Museum in Kandy. As the Teaching Assistant for the travel writing class, I welcomed the opportunity to explore the museum by myself for an hour or so, while our class was observing and writing about the Temple of the Tooth complex across the street. As a religion major, I was intrigued by what information would be offered in the museum, and how it would connect to classes I have taken back in Vermont.

The first four rooms of the museum are all designed to explain the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and the significance of various sites around the country. After traveling through this detailed description of Sri Lankan Buddhism, the visitor is expelled into the main hall, from which you can continue through the ground floor through rooms with artifacts from India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Or, you can walk up the central staircase to rooms on Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, China, Tibet, Japan, and Korea. This format of the museum in some ways mirrors the spread of Buddhism, and is accompanied by maps showing exactly how the different forms travelled across the continent. What was most interesting to me about this museum was the message conveyed about Buddhism which worked to give further authority to Buddhism in Sri Lanka specifically.

Take, for example, the single room containing objects from Nepal. Of the 15 or so pictures and items on display, the majority were from Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. The introductory panel to the room stated that Theravada monks in Nepal are the most respected, although they consist of a much smaller population than the Tibetan or “Lamaist” monks. The only artefacts related to forms of Buddhism found in the Himalayas were a picture of Swayambhunath stupa and a model of Boudhanath stupa, both of which are in the Kathmandu valley. This dynamic stuck out to me because Theravada Buddhism is what exists in Sri Lanka, and is highlighted in the museum as being most important Nepal, even though it is the minority of Buddhists there. Thus, the museum seemed to be primarily an exercise of nationalism, even as it taught visitors about Buddhism throughout the world.

Museums are spaces which are widely assumed to be secular, objective, and authoritative – or close to it. The International Buddhist Museum calls each of these qualities into question. Walking its halls, I once again found myself questioning how and why certain Sri Lankan realities become more legitimate or popularized than others. Sri Lankan organizations often promote a unified national identity, yet little attention is given to the minority Tamil population that is predominantly Hindu. It has become a recurring discourse of “oh, and also…” which can be seen everywhere from the nation’s constitution (in reference to language and religion) to the conversations of people on the street. Yet in reality there is no single “Sri Lankan” way of life. This was made clear to our class again and again, with every contradicting explanation and every person we met.

Looking back, Mihintale was a turning point at which many students began to realize that they would never find the one capital-t True answer to their questions, and that a more interesting project is to look at the nature of the conflicting responses. Perhaps it was the openness of our favorite Monk-tour guide that allowed them to begin to shed their obsession with objectivity and their grip on Western frames of thinking. Perhaps it was the beauty of the dagobas and mountains at sundown. Either way, we left Mihintale with our energy refocused towards seeking out and accepting difference and small “t” contextual truths.

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!