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.

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.

Alumni Spotlight: Rebecca Friedlander ’17

Rebecca Friedlander

Rebecca Friedlander ’17

Besides her suitcase and backpack, Rebecca Friedlander ’17 had a lot of intellectual interests to unpack when she arrived at UVM as a first year student in 2013. She was curious about psychology and archaeology—her family paid regular visits to the Chicago Science Museum and she participated in digs near her native Chicago.

To fully explore her options, she enrolled in UVM’s Integrated Humanities Program, which offers a series of courses that studies topics in-depth, from several different disciplinary perspectives. Participants live and learn together. By sharing the same intellectual journey under the same roof, she developed close relationships with her peers and faculty mentors.

It was just the sort of academic experience Friendlander was looking for. She had attended Stevenson High School in North Chicago was interested in pulling up stakes and exploring a new environment. UVM popped up as an option during her college search, and a visit to campus confirmed her early impressions—a substantial research university that projected a friendly, progressive vibe. “I ended up meeting a lot of professors on Admitted Student Day,” she recalls. “They were really impressive people, but also very down to earth.”

The program exposed her to courses she otherwise might have overlooked, and she was fascinated by her class in religion. It led her to take more religion courses, and she was especially inspired by classes with professors Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst and Vicki Brennan. “The professors in the department really helped me grow as a person,” she said. “They pushed you academically, while at the same time being very approachable.”

Freindlander completed a double major in anthropology and religion at UVM, and after taking a year off to carefully explore her options, she enrolled in a master’s program in archaeological biology at Brandeis University. She’s interested in paleopathology (particularly osteology, the study of the structure and function of bones) in sites in mesoamerica, particularly those that were invaded by the Spanish. “I want to use the scientific aspects of archaeology to broaden our anthropological understanding of past cultures.”

Now in her first year at Brandeis, her current plan is to earn a PhD and teaching in higher education. She’s convinced that her broad liberal arts background has made her a better learner and deeper thinker.

“Both human development and religion are very closely intertwined–they inform each other,” she said. “Studying both gave me multiple areas of human understanding to draw on.”

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!

Alumni Spotlight: Jillian Ward ’11

MIND, BODY AND SPIRIT*

If a university education is meant to build not just a career but a productive and meaningful life, Jillian Ward’s UVM experience provides a compelling example. A native of Woodbridge, Conn., Ward ’11 was interested in entering the helping professions and declared psychology as her UVM major. It wasn’t until her second semester that she took an introduction to Asian religions class. She liked it so much, she took a few more religion courses, including sections on African religion and Buddhism. After a while she realized she was accumulating enough credits to earn a double major.

“They were the best classes I ever took, so I just kept taking them. By the time I got to upper level classes, I felt this amazing sense of community shared by a small cohort of students and professors.”

When it came to deep discussions, developing ideas for a thesis project or getting advice on writing and other academic projects, it was mostly faculty in the religion department whom she turned to for guidance. “The department became a sort of a sanctuary for me,” she said.

After UVM, Ward graduated from the University of San Diego with a master’s degree in nursing, and now works as a trauma and neurology RN at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego. The perspectives she gained in her religion courses at UVM, and her interest in yoga, have informed her holistic approach to healing. “I did yoga at UVM and enjoyed it. Then I did it more intensely as a way of dealing with the stress of graduate school. I received my certification as a RYT (registered yoga teacher) and teach part time at Core Power YogaI. Now I see yoga as a key part of providing care that treats the patient’s mind, body, and inner spirit.”

As she becomes grounded in her career, Ward is looking forward: “My goal is to work in palliative care and hospice nursing…One of the reasons why my experience in the religion department was so powerful was the passion the instructors—every one of them—had for the subject matter and for their students,” Ward recalls. “They showed me how important it is to find something to be passionate about.”

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!

Alumni Spotlight: Shakir Stephen ’15

INTELLECTUAL JOURNEY LEADS TO NYU*

Shakir Stephen was born in Montreal and grew up in Southeast London, and his intellectual journey reflects a broad set of interests and potential career paths. After working in as an academic coach in Burlington for three years after graduation, he is bound for New York University where he begins an M.A. program in religion.

Stephen was a talented science student, and his interests in high school seemed to lead him towards the STEM disciplines. “The educational system in the UK is different: the choices for undergraduate study are narrower, and you need to make a decision about your path for studies at a pretty young age, around 16.”

Stephen declared physics as his major upon entering UVM, but something was tugging him  towards the humanities. In his first year at UVM he took several liberal arts courses and found his home in the religion department.

“I took a course on the bible with Anne Clark and she really focused on writing, which I was OK at but because I was concentrating on the sciences I was a little rusty,” he recalls. “She emphasized how important writing was for success in college and beyond, and that really resonated with me.”

Stephen discovered that religion was an ideal prism that brought together perspectives from other disciplines that interested him, including history, philosophy,  sociology and anthropology. At the same time he developed critical thinking, reasoning, writing and presentation skills important for any post-graduate undertaking.

Stephen works as an academic coach at Mansfield Hall in Burlington, an organization offering academic support to college-aged students with learning differences and executive functioning challenges. “These are often high functioning people with executive challenges who need help building skills that set them up for success sin higher education,” Stephen explains.

The job draws on Stephen’s broad educational background, and he’s discovered that he’s a talented teacher. He sought out religion department members Kevin Trainor and Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst for advice on graduate programs and he settled on NYU. He received a fellowship that covers tuition and fees for the two-year program.

“If it feels right I’d consider going on to get my PhD. Eventually I see myself in the education field in some capacity.”

See a post Shakir Stephen wrote before he left UVM for NYU!

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!

Alumni Spotlight: Kathryn Meader ’15

Skills for Success

When Marshfield, Mass., native Kathryn Meader began burrowing into her college search as a high school junior, one thing in particular about UVM stood out: The university’s first-year Integrated Humanities Program (now called the Liberal Arts Scholars Program, or LASP).

“I had already declared history as my major, and I was attracted by the idea of living and studying with 30 other students who shared my interests,” she said. “I felt like I had 30 new friends the moment I arrived on campus.”

LASP encourages students to wrestle with life’s big questions through an intensive multi-disciplinary approach. Students live in the same Living/Learning Center residence complex, so conversations in the classroom tend to spill over into meals, community activities and events throughout the year.

“We took three courses each semester—in English, History and Religion,” Meader explained. “Professor Sugarman, who was my teacher for fall semester religion course, told me ‘yeah, I think you are really a religion major at heart.’”

The twin majors gave her complementary perspectives on her interest in medieval Christianity, and her research on the twelfth-century abbess, Heloise d’Argenteuil.

The intensive emphasis on critical thinking, writing, and communication–she cites her involvement in the annual Student Research Conference as sharpening her presenting skills—began with her IHP experience and continued on throughout her UVM education. After graduating in 2015 with the religion department’s Outstanding Senior Award, she got a job as a development assistant at the UVM Foundation. She has since been promoted to assistant director of annual giving, and she credits her academic preparation as a key to her success.

“The anthropological reading you do in religion courses help you to consider perspectives outside your own experience,” she says. “ I think that training really helps me in my current work. In the writing that I do every day, it’s important to think about how the recipient is going to read it. This way of thinking also definitely helps me to tell other people’s stories in ways that are inspiring, and effective.”

*In this series, we have pulled text from our newly relaunched website–we want to highlight our fantastic alumni in as many venues as possible!

Alumni Spotlight: Simeon Marsalis ’13

GRAD PLUMBS UVM EXPERIENCE, HISTORY IN DEBUT NOVEL
– By Tom Weaver, Vermont Quarterly, Spring 2018

Simeon Marsalis arrived on the UVM campus in 2009 focused on playing varsity basketball. Though he stepped away from the game after his sophomore season, Marsalis stayed at the university to earn his degree in religion in 2013 and had the rare opportunity to sit among his fellow graduates for a commencement address from his own father, famed musician Wynton Marsalis. Post-graduation, Marsalis has lived in cultural capitals New York City and New Orleans, but Burlington’s hooks remained set within the creative center of his mind. Last year, Catapult Books published Marsalis’s first novel, As Lie Is To Grin, which follows a protagonist named David on a nonlinear journey from his home in New York City to the University of Vermont, and back again.

Between the writing required in his courses and the journaling and fiction he tackled in his free time, Marsalis was well on his way as a writer by the time he graduated. “My work with the Religion Department was essential to my growth as a writer,” he says.

photo: Chris Buck

Post-graduation, Marsalis has lived in cultural capitals New York City and New Orleans, but Burlington’s hooks remained set within the creative center of his mind. This past October, Catapult Books published Marsalis’s first novel, As Lie Is To Grin, which follows a protagonist named David on a nonlinear journey from his home in New York City to the University of Vermont, and back again.

After leaving Burlington, Marsalis found himself frequently returning to study the architecture on campus. The book includes beautifully detailed descriptions of some of UVM’s most notable buildings. Marsalis also spent many hours combing the university archives to research the school’s blemished racial past, which plays a central role in protagonist David’s character development.

“It is about a freshman in college who questions the reasons why he has arrived at that particular university,” the author says, discussing the book’s plot. “He begins to research his own reasons for attending that university, and discovers an alumni ritual with a deeply personal resonance. The campus itself is its own character within the novel. I couldn’t have written this novel if I had not gone to UVM.”

Marsalis’s family roots, surrounded by musical artists, helped instill the confidence and work ethic to pursue a career in writing. “Watching my father and grandfather and uncles all those years allowed me to see the amount of work it takes to make it as an artist,” he says. “It helped me see art not as an abstract pursuit, but as an approachable entity. I had a very real connection to the amount of time it takes to hone an art. I didn’t see it as something that was foreign and unapproachable. I saw it as a distinct language that you had to learn, but once you learn that language, that’s where the freedom and play comes in.”

Spending weekends at his father’s house growing up, Marsalis also saw the amount of work required to make a living off of one’s art. “My father practices obsessively, it was all day,” says Marsalis. “There was always something to work on, whether it be the next piece, refining an old piece, or anything else. As an artist, it can be maddening because there is something you could be working on literally every second of the day. Seeing him and that work ethic, it originally really had an impact on the way I played basketball, because it made me see my goals in that sport as an attainable thing that had to do with work more so than something esoteric like talent or luck. More recently, I place my belief in work and work ethic as a way to develop my writing talent and to cultivate some of my own luck as an artist.”

Between the writing required in his courses and the journaling and fiction he tackled in his free time, Marsalis was well on his way as a writer by the time he graduated. “My work with the Religion Department was essential to my growth as a writer,” he says.

Since the book’s release, Marsalis has traveled widely—Seattle to Austin to Boston and many points between—to promote his novel at readings and festivals. The book has been well-received and got a cover-blurb boost from noted UVM poet/professor Major Jackson. “There are so many people at UVM who have been a big help to me,” says Marsalis. “Obviously Major Jackson, but also Sean Witters and so many people from the Religion Department, like Vicki Brennan and Kevin Trainor.”

Senior Spotlight 2018: Simon Wolfe

Simon Wolfe ’18 in the Spotlight:
a series about our graduating seniors


Why did you major in Religion?

Simon Wolfe ’18

I initially chose religion because I didn’t really know what I wanted to study, but at the time

I thought I might want to be a rabbi.  I stuck with it because religion turned out to encompass quite a lot, and I’ve always thought of it as the best parts of literature and history smooshed into one.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

No idea.  The world is big and scary and there’s somehow to much and not enough to do at the same time.

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

I’ve said for years that Intro to Islam with Professor Morgenstein Fuerst should be required for everyone in arts and sciences.  That course fundamentally changed the way I see not only Islam, not only religion, but the whole crazy entangled world all together.

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

I wish I could expand my term paper from Religion and Empire which was about the abolitionists Maria W Stewart and Angelina Grimke.  It would be titled something like The Nasty Christian Women of Abolition: Race, Gender, and Religion in the Discursive Struggle for Liberation.

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

No memories in particular, but its always been my favorite building on campus.  The seminar room and all its beautiful dark wood and old books have always made me feel very comfortable.  I had my first class ever in that room, a TAP course on the Bible with Professor Clarke.  Every other classroom has been something of a disappointment since then, but luckily religion classes end up in there with some regularity, and it’s always been a little spot of home on a campus that so often seems to value STEM over the humanities.  When/if I come back to visit campus, that will be the first and one of the few spots on my list.

Senior Spotlight: Maria Lara-Bregatta ’17

Maria Lara-Bregatta in the Senior Spotlight:
a series on our graduating seniors


Maria Lara-Bregatta ’17

Why did you major in Religion?

Instead of obsessing about mainstream professional aspirations and ultimately choosing a traditionalist path—I chose to be adventurous and became a scholar of religion. I thought to myself: it couldn’t possibly be true that certain majors somehow equated to higher earning in the future or whatever mumbo-jumbo big departments try to convince prospective students across the globe of. Even if these assumptions were true, I was eager to learn not to amass some great fortune. That’s when it clicked. The place for higher learning is in a department that focuses on high-power. Religion stuck that cord for me. I was eager to know more about all-things human and not just from one singular perspective. Committing to one subject area over the next felt too definite, so I ended up choosing a location with overlap. Life as a religion major eased my anxieties about the future. As a scholar of religion I have dabbled in everything from theory to politics. Go figure. How else can one understand the nature of our universe if not by understanding the nature of humanity, and the many paradigms of thought that pervade our world? By becoming a religion major I narrowly escaped the trend of rigid and pre-formed studies and opened up my mind to a truly objective, empirical and careful location. I may not be a religious devotee, but as a student of religion I am devoted to a life of scholarship that seeks to understand all things real (or existential) from several vantage points.

Where do you imagine yourself in 10 years?

 I see myself working for a non-profit organization or something that requires compassion and a knowledge of culture/religion…the real hippy-dippy stuff! I also am toying with the idea of going back to school and getting my masters. Whatever it is I do end up doing, it will have to feel like a vocation. I want to have that Aha! moment and just know I am where I belong.

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

I would say that taking a class on Islam is critical this day in age. We are constantly confronted with propaganda and biased assumptions about the east that I think a religion course can help individuals unscramble. Opening up our minds to the religious-culture and history of Islam will help proliferate a new generation of hope and understanding regarding our views towards the East. If a class is offered on Ritual/Ritualization I highly suggest that too. A deeper look into ritual performance is mindblowing!

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

If I had the opportunity to publish a book it would probably end up as a dystopian novel. I am really interested in post-apocalyptic society and “fresh starts.” After all, religion has its place in these types of things. This year I reread 1984 and got some ideas! I would probably add some mystic details, maybe some mythology.

The Phonograph and the Research Process

This post will be the final one on my research on Yoruba gospel music. It has also been the most difficult to write. In part, this is because I want (need?) to be more speculative and abstract in my discussion of the recordings of Yoruba Christian songs made by the Reverend J.J. Ransome-Kuti in London in 1927. My previous posts have been based on the historical and musicological sources that I have been able to find concerning Kuti’s life and music. In Part 2 I looked at how Kuti’s biographers positioned him as a Christian pioneer who mediated between old and new in colonial Nigeria. In Part 3, I discussed how Kuti’s musical compositions resolved a problem of musical translation for early Yoruba Christians; namely, the tone-tune issue where the tonal aspects of Yoruba language clashed with the musical melodies of translated European hymns. Today I want to return to some of the questions I raised in my first post and to ruminate on the issues and further questions raised by my investigation into these recordings.

As you may recall, I am especially interested in the recordings themselves and the issues concerning technology and materiality that they raise for our understanding of Yoruba Christianity. These questions speak to wider concerns in anthropology, African studies, and the study of Religion: the place and contributions of colonized Africans in the making of our modern world, the role of sound technologies in transforming religious and cultural practices,and  the transformations of the senses—in ways of hearing and soundings—by recording technologies which enabled a new way of transmitting and circulating sounds.

phonographWhile I can’t address all of these issues directly here, I want to reflect a bit on the phonograph, a technology central to the story I have been telling so far. There are numerous scholarly writings about the place of the phonograph in the shaping of modern experience and conceptions of music in particular and sound more generally. A key theme in these writings has to do with how recordings enable sounds to be dislocated and disembodied from their original sources, resulting in what R. Murray Schafer has termed “schizo-phonia,” a term with which he meant to indicate the troubled nature of such a relationship between sound and source. A similar strain may be found in the critical writings of Theodor Adorno, who in 1934 wrote of the phonograph record as designating a “two-dimensional model of a reality that can be multiplied without limit, displaced both spatially and temporally, and traded on the open market.” Thus, for Adorno music becomes less about technology serving human needs and desires, but rather about the subjection of humans to things, and the reduction of music to an object that can be bought and sold, thus transforming human history and experience.

More recent writings on the phonograph have complicated these arguments, seeking to uncover the assumptions about the nature of sound, music, and hearing that underlie them. For example, Jonathan Sterne in The Audible Past outlines the history of the possibility of sound-reproduction in order to show how many of our now taken-for-granted ideas about sound and human experience emerge in relation to sound-reproduction technology itself; so that, for example, the universal primacy of face-to-face human interaction which is assumed in arguments such as Schafer’s is actually a historical and specific set of ideas that emerge out of an engagement with sound technologies. Other writers have considered the ability of sound technologies to repeat and circulate sounds outside of their original contexts in the formation of racial categories and subjectivities. For example, the role played by the phonograph in colonialism, particular in the kinds of racial imagination and desires enabled by the technology have been discussed by writers such as Michael Taussig and William PietzAlexander Weheliye considers  the creative possibilities of sound-reproduction technologies as enabling of black cultural production and productive of a “sonic Afro-modernity” that entails new modes of and new possibilities for being.

Placing the technology of the phonograph recording at the center of the story I am telling here shifts priorities, questions, and possible conclusions. For example, why is it that Kuti’s biographers merely mention the fact of the recordings rather than emphasizing them as part of his mediation between old and new? Certain events, such as Kuti’s challenge to Yoruba traditional authority through the desacralizing of the umbrella, or his encouragement of the Christian ogboni as an Africanization of Christianity, receive detailed, chapter-long treatments in Delano’s biography. In contrast, the recordings are only briefly mentioned, in Chapter Nine of the book entitled “In Remembrance” which describes Kuti’s efforts at maintaining the church in the context of the loss of independence of the Egba nation to the colonial government. Delano writes of the recordings in a single sentence, which appears in a paragraph documenting Kuti’s travels outside of Nigeria. Here is the paragraph in its entirety:

In 1922, by the kind munificence of the late Mrs. J. B. Wood, one of the early European missionaries, he visited the Holy Land. By invitation of the CMS Authority he travelled through Europe, and attended the CMS Exhibition in London. He took this opportunity of making some gramophone recordings of his songs. This was his second visit to London; the first had been in 1905, when he preached in St. Paul’s Cathedral. On his return form his travels  he was made a Canon of the Cathedral Church of Christ, Lagos. [emphasis added to original.]

That’s it?! Really? This is the only mention of the recordings in a 64-page text about Kuti’s life. Of course, this passing mention might be understood in relation to Delano’s purpose in writing the book, which is to cast Kuti as a pioneer of Christianity among the Yoruba, and as an influential figure in the transformation of Egba society from old to new. Delano thus dwells mainly on Kuti’s activities in Egbaland, suggesting, perhaps, that the recordings had very little influence on Yoruba Christian life in Nigeria beyond the fact of their being made.

Extending this line of argument to the tone-tune issue discussed by musicologists, Kuti’s recordings then are also a document of his resolution of this issue in his compositions. Furthermore, as Akin Euba notes, it is one that has little impact on Yoruba Christian practice; as Euba writes, “ironically…the sings which today appeal most popularly to the grassroots of the Christian community…are songs in which the intonation of the words is often distorted, as if they were European hymns translated into Yoruba and sung to European tunes.” So much for Kuti’s impact on future Yoruba Christian musical production, whether through the printed hymn book or the recordings.

Further support for the lack of importance or impact of the recordings in Nigeria is provided by the journalistic website Sahara Reporters, in an article about “The Singing Minister: The unsung story of Fela’s grandpa.”  Here Kuti is depicted in reference to his grandson, Fela Kuti, the contemporary Afro-beat superstar whose life and music has been the subjects of numerous books, films, and even a Broadway play. The article about the “unsung story” of J.J. Ransome-Kuti provides the (apocryphal?) tale of Kuti’s grandson, Dr. Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, learning of the existence of the recordings from a librarian at the British Library. Olikoye is reported to have been “shocked to listen to his grandfather’s voice, not in Abeokuta, his ancestral home, but right in far away British Museum.” Certainly a displacement of object from source, a voice calling out across the generations. Could it be that Rev. J.J. Ransome-Kuti’s recordings really had so little impact in Nigeria that they were lost even to his family members?

From the blog Postcards: Then and Now (http://postcardsthenandnow.blogspot.com/2012/05/hayes-middlesex-station-c1914.html)

EMI Factory; Hayes, London; c.1914. From the blog Postcards: Then and Now

 

Coming at this issue from another direction, there is the possibility that the recordings were made for European audiences and that it was there where their impact lay.  Recall that Paul Vernon suggested that these records were “aimed at a European audience and regarded as novelties.” I dismissed this possibility in my first post, but now I want to reconsider it. Indeed, a number of novelty recordings of Africans and other colonial subjects were made for sale in European markets, though the majority of them were of folkloric songs or performances. Some recordings featured speakers of African languages demonstrating the diversity of human linguistic output. Other recordings were distinctly ethnological, intended to preserve aspects of local cultures that were seen as disappearing in the face of European colonialism.

Thinking about the recordings in this way opens up a number of new analytic questions: What does it mean to think of Kuti’s recordings as a novelty for European listeners? What did that even mean; in other words, in what way were they a novelty? Why might European listeners want to hear a Yoruba man sing his Christian songs in a language that they could not understand? How did these recordings impact British understandings of the colonial project and of the place of Africans in British conceptions of Christianity?

While I do not have the answers to these questions, they present fruitful avenues for further research into this topic. My intention in this series of posts has been to describe my current research and to provide insight into the research process. My posts make clear that the research process is often messy and incomplete, requiring one to move forwards and then back again as the researcher’s categories are refined and her questions reformulated. While I hope that you have enjoyed learning more about the recordings made by J.J. Ransome-Kuti, I also hope that you have learned a bit more about the nature of research in the humanities (and the humanistic social sciences). This is the reason why my series of posts on this topic ends with more questions than answers. As the sociologist Andrew Abbott writes:

In the humanities and social sciences we do not ask questions to to which final answers already exist, answers which can be found somewhere. We seek to adjust the questions we can ask and the answers we can find into harmonious writings that explore again and again the subtleties that constitute human existence. It is our pleasure to do this in a rigorous and disciplined way. That is what makes our research academic. But our research is not scientific, for the things we wish to discuss do not have fixed answers. We discover things, to be sure, but their discover merely opens further possibilities to complexify them.