Monday, October 23, 2017

Explaining a Religious Studies Degree Part Two: Elevator Talks

We recently asked educators to weigh in on a problem some students face while completing their religious studies degree: figuring out how to explain to parents and friends that their degree does not mean they are entering the ministry. 

Q: Students sometimes ask how they can explain to family members or friends that their decision to complete a degree in religious studies does not mean they are pursing a career in ministry. Have you responded to these concerns before? If so, how did you frame your answer?

Russell T. McCutcheon

Elevator Talks

A few years ago, members our undergrad student association had the idea to host a bit of a competition making elevator talks—you know, that few minute spiel about something, or yourself, such as describing what it is that the study of religion is or what a scholar of religion does.

For I think it safe to say that many of us—depending what sort of scholar of religion we are, that is—have had the experience of someone not quite understanding that we’re not here to become a priest. (Perhaps you’ve seen the ongoing series over at the Bulletin blog on this very topic?) Sure, some (many?) scholars of religion do things that the general public might easily understand, such as those academics who try to figure out which form of this religion is more authentic and which type of that religion is more dangerous; if you look around the field you’ll quickly realize that such normative scholarship is hardly reserved for theology. But if you make the critical shift to study the way normative claims function, the way identities are negotiated, or the way that discourses on authenticity can be far more curious than simply assuming something can be purer than something else—and then adding religion to the mix—well, it might be a little tougher than you realize to describe one’s work to others.

Especially if you’re an undergrad, surrounded by friends and family who today often seem to assume a direct link between university and a life-long profession. For one studies accounting in order to become an accountant, no? And why studying engineering if you’re not going to become an engineer? So why study religion if you don’t want to be ordained? What do you even do when you study religion at a public university?

Looking back on these elevator talks, it’s clear that these questions still occupy our students—and for good reason. For although some may wish to further their studies after their undergrad degree, and become scholars of religion themselves, many more will go into who knows what all different fields, such as all the teachers and business people who are out there working right now, not to mention the doctors and lawyers, who all once sat in our classrooms, took our seminars, and majored in our Departments. That means that after they left our classes they’ve each probably sat in front of an interviewer, let alone a whole committee or even multiple committees, and fielded the inevitable question, “What has the study of religion got to do with X?”—where X means whatever carrer the student hopes to go into.

And, in our experience, answering that question is a real challenge if you define the field by its objects of study—such as seeing its relevance as directly linked to studying, say, the Bhagavad Gita or the Gospel of Mark; for it might be a bit of a stretch to connect either of them to fields outside Gita or New Testament studies. Thus the field, when defined in this way, can appear as arcane and out of touch.

But if you understand the study of religion as a place where one acquires skills, that just happen to have been used reading certain sorts of texts, or studying certain sorts of people and institutions—skills like definition, description, comparison, interpretation, and explanation—well, at least here at the University of Alabama we tend to think that those students will be in a rather strong position to someday convey to others what it is that they do and why it might matter to a profession, far afield from our content, but where those tools can come in handy.

So, like I said, a few years ago, some of our students had a little fun with all this (but there’s a serious topic just beneath the surface, of course)—we all got together one night, ordered some pizza, premiered the videos that they had made, and enjoyed how they met the challenge of giving a brief talk on what it is that a scholar of religion does.

Thanks to former majors Emily, Catie, Anna, and Jared
for producing these timeless classics.


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    Real stories


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