About Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst

Assistant Professor of Religion

Senior Spotlight 2020: Conor Murphy

a series about our graduating seniors

“I also like how the Religion Department let me be in my Ivory Tower crafting theories–but, more importantly, encouraged me to really think about what’s happening on the ground, where the real bodies are at, and to be self-critical and retrospective of the words, ideas and agendas we talk about. I have not noticed this type of radical self-awareness of academia in other departments..”

–Conor Murphy ’20
Conor Murphy '20

Why did you major in Religion?

I really like people watching–looking at people’s behavior and whatnot. Why do people do the things they do while thinking about what they are thinking? How do we each construct our own realities every day that affect our actions? A big part of that reality construct is religion or these things that may or may not be religion, but definitely sometimes “religion.” 

I also like how the Religion Department let me be in my Ivory Tower crafting theories–but, more importantly, encouraged me to really think about what’s happening on the ground, where the real bodies are at, and to be self-critical and retrospective of the words, ideas and agendas we talk about. I have not noticed this type of radical self-awareness of academia in other departments.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

Oh god! Still studying Chinese, maybe ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. I have a lot of dreams that can’t all exist at once in the future. So I at least hope I am producing helpful knowledge and advocating cross-cultural communication. Whether it’s on a macro-scale like producing papers and research for universities or other large institutions or a micro-scale like teaching the Chinese language or helping students travel abroad. Maybe even through brewing beer! Who knows?! I sure don’t! 

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

First, everyone should take a REL course! Religion is always in the room and you need to figure out the ways colonialism has naturalized in your ideas. Colonialism is lame.     

For me, the one course they shouldn’t miss is REL 145: Religion in China. Asia and specifically China–in my opinion as a Chinese & REL double major–is an interesting location with unique problems where we see the failure of translation of the word “religion.” Also, I am a big fan of Chinese ghost stories and ghost culture which is also covered in the course. A lot of popular ghost stories and horror movies come from Asia!

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

Something about Chinese ghosts. It could be fiction or nonfiction, probably a little of both. 

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

It’s my favorite building on campus. I just love the atmosphere of the whole building. More importantly, I have had a really tough college experience: rocky waters and weak knee(s)! 481 Main street and REL classes make me feel safe and valid. All of the Religion Department profs are my heroes.

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

It blows! It is so difficult for me to work, regardless of me recovering from my second right leg surgery of 2020.

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the cycle of Orientalism to emerge again. Thanks to the Religion Department I feel really comfortable navigating through and debunking xenophobic and racist discourses. As someone who has spent time in China and has done a lot of academic work about the country, it’s just a  bummer to see this stuff going on. 

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.

Religious Literacy Month: Liz Kineke

On October 28, we hosted our fourth event in our Religious Literacy Month slate of events! Liz Kineke, a producer, journalist, and director on the “God Beat” joined us to talk about how, as a journalist, she sees religion as always in the room!

At her talk, Ms Kineke walked students through how being able to read religion in the room–a religious literacy issue–came later on in her career as a journalist. She said, “while 4 years ago I would have said religion is a white noise hum, today it is a blaring siren,” and warned students that religion and freedom of the press are tied up, literally, in the first amendment. In her view, freedom to think and write are the bedrocks of democracy; she quipped that if students wanted to become journalists, they need a first amendment scholar on speed dial, but if students wanted to write about religion they need two.

Ms. Kineke also–perhaps obviously–showed the audience clips of documentaries. She highlighted Faith on the Frontlines, a piece about the prominent role of clergy in the Charlottesville, VA anti-racism, anti-fascism demonstration that left one dead. She also spoke about Religion & Identity in Young America, a documentary that follows three young people from minoritized religions and attends to them not as victims but as protagonists dealing with increased religious-racial scrutiny.

The talk was attended by about 100 students, faculty, staff and community members and wrapped up with a panel discussion featuring Ms. Kineke, Dr. Vicki Brennan, and Dr. Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst.

Religious Literacy Month: Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt

On October 22, we hosted our third event of Religious Literacy Month! Dr. Tia Noelle Pratt, a sociologist of religion and scholar of systemic racism and Catholicism, joined us for a talk titled “Catholic Young Adults & Pro-Life Teachings: a Bellwether for the US Catholic Church.”

In her talk, Dr. Pratt talked about how “pro-life” has come to only mean “abortion,” despite Church documents, leaders, and theological orientations having a far more expansive understanding of what “pro-life” includes. She talked about how for young Catholics, this collapsing of issues is a problem–for them and for the Church. As a sociologist, Dr. Pratt approaches these issues institutionally: how have institutions made choices? how do those choices impact the members of those institutions? what is lost or gained in such translations?

Dr. Pratt pointed out in her talk that moving into public-facing scholarship–that is, research and writing aimed at a mass audience, rather than a paywalled, University-library audience–is a new feature of her research, and perhaps even part of her ongoing thinking about religious literacy. Here are some examples of this work:

You can find Dr. Pratt’s reflections on writing about Black Catholicisms here.

And as Dr. Vicki Brennan pointed out in her introduction, a really moving piece reflecting on Toni Morrison after her death here.

Dr. Vicki Brennan (right) introduces Dr. Tia Pratt

Religious Literacy Month: Abenaki Spirituality and Religion

As but one session of a day-long event celebrating, honoring, and reflecting upon Indigenous Peoples’ Day, our second Religious Literacy Month event was “Abenaki Spirituality and Religion.” Dr. Vicki Brennan presided and moderated a panel led by Nulhagen Abenaki Tribe Chief Don Stevens and Dr. Frederick Wiseman, Director, Wôbanakik Heritage Center.

Dr. Vicki Brennan organized the event in conjunction with the larger, UVM-wide Indigenous Peoples’ Day Celebration.

Unlike our other Religious Literacy Month events, this panel featured practitioners–on purpose. Part of Religious Literacy, as well as the study of religion, is coming to understand how some voices have historically been marginalized, ignored, oppressed, and–importantly–seen as incapable of being experts on their own traditions. 

from left to right: Chief Don Stevens, Dr. Frederick Wiseman, & Dr. Vicki Brennan

In this event, we sought to center practitioners, as a way to prioritize Abenaki voices when, far too often, non-Native scholarly (or governmental) voices have dominated the discourse around Native/Indigenous histories, religions, practices, and, yes, spiritualities. Similarly, we sought to center practitioners as a way to round out our work on religion, religious literacy, and reading these lectures.

The event saw over 100 people–and had even more breaking fire code and sitting in the aisles. Event photos thanks to Dr. Tom Borchert.

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Packed house in John Dewey Lounge

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.

Senior Spotlight 2019: Juliet Duncan

481 always has such a calming, supportive, and knowledgeable atmosphere and it has never ceased to inspire me as both a student and a critical thinker. The passion for knowledge and care for students is always palpable within the religion department building and I have always really appreciated that. 

juliet duncan ’19

Why did you major in Religion?

I decided to major in religion after taking a course on Religion in Film and Television taught by Professor Andrus. I loved both sides of the course so much and it reminded me of the interest I had always hard towards those topics. I decided to continue taking film and religion courses afterwards and when it came time to choose a major I committed to both!

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

I see myself working in television production in some form, utilizing the skills I gained as a religion major to adopt and critique different perspectives and be more thoughtful in the ways we both create and consume different narratives. 

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 say that a first- year student should make sure not to miss one of Professor Andrus’ Religion in Film and TV/Pop Culture classes because it relates more to your everyday life and allows you to see religious inspiration and thought in the secular world. It is a great introduction to religious studies for those that are not particularly religious or do not think they would be interested in it because it teaches you about the religious perspective while applying it to mundane/everyday actions/behaviors that you either don’t put much thought into or feel a strong connection to. It also demonstrates the power of storytelling across different medium and how those powers are mirrored in (or arguably stem from) religious tradition. 

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

If I were to write a book it would most likely be related to the social roles and influences of television in our everyday lives. Specifically, I would analyze the life expectations TV shows create for us as well as what we seek out in allowing a storytelling medium to become so intimately enmeshed in our lives. 

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

My fondest memories at 481 Main all revolve around the professors there and the religion department in general. 481 always has such a calming, supportive, and knowledgeable atmosphere and it has never ceased to inspire me as both a student and a critical thinker. The passion for knowledge and care for students is always palpable within the religion department building and I have always really appreciated that. 

Senior Spotlight 2019: Quinn Cosentino

a series about our graduating seniors

On a campus consisting of massive, towering, and overwhelming structures with floor to ceiling windows and hyper-modern architecture, the Religion House has acted as a sanctum for me, precisely because it is just that, a house- a home.

quinn cosentino ’19

Why did you major in Religion?

My reasoning for choosing the major is a bit embarrassing, to be honest. When I was in high school, I was somewhat obsessed with the History Channel(or Pseudo-History Channel) show, Ancient Aliens.The show stoked a fascination in me for learning about diverse religious traditions and the cultural contexts that accompanied them. The show always lost me, though, at “it was aliens!” It was this fascination (minus the radical theory) that brought me to the Religion department my first semester, freshman year. What the Religion program offered me, however, was far more thought provoking than “fascination” and that is the reason I remained a Religion major. Passions I never knew I had, such as investigating gender and race theory, were fostered through this program and it has made me the complex thinker I am today.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

In ten years, I picture myself as a museum curator, working on projects that relate to gender theory and racialization. More specifically, I hope that I will hold a position that relates to colonialism and sainthood and saints in America. This has been the focus of the major research project I conducted in the Religion Department and it will undoubtedly follow me into my graduate program, and (with any luck) into my career. On a more personal note, I will be able to afford a dog and a mortgage.

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

Prior to Fall Semester, 2018, I would have said the most valuable class for me was “REL 224: Seeing the Sacred” which is about the role of visuality and visionary experience in the Christian tradition prior to the Early Modern period. That class was the most valuable for me, personally, and I want to plug it here because it is incredibly engaging (and Anne Clark is, of course, amazing). In the Fall of 2018, however, I entered into Ilyse Morgenstein-Fuerst’s “REL 297: Religion and Empire.” This class explored in incredible depth how gender, race, religion and science (to name a few) functioned to advance Empire from early colonialist efforts to today. I firmly believe this class changed the way I engage with the world on a professional and personal level. I believe every human being (let alone every religion student) should be required to take this course.

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

I would definitely write a book about colonial saints and the role of sainthood in America as I mentioned earlier. I’ve also been very interested in the gender relations and expectations of Medieval and Early Modern Christianity. More specifically, I would write a book about medieval witch trials. I’ve had an informal goal for the past few years to write creatively and I’d like to write a book that’s less academic. 

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

I don’t have any specific memories of 481 Main, but the building has played a significant role in my collegiate life. On a campus consisting of massive, towering, and overwhelming structures with floor to ceiling windows and hyper-modern architecture, the Religion House has acted as a sanctum for me, precisely because it is just that, a house- a home. I love it because, like me, it exists on the margins of the status quo (as does the religion major itself on a science-oriented campus). When I look back and reflect on my time as an undergraduate, I don’t think I’ll remember UVM; I’ll remember 481 Main Street and the countless amazing experiences I had there.

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.