Sounding on the Academy for May 2, 2011

May 1st, International Workers’ Day, is my favorite holiday. I yearn for it all year long, and watch the sun set reluctantly in the evening, sad to see it leave.  May Day was yesterday, and here in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, we had flurries. God, apparently, hates parades.

There isn’t a lot of religious studies-field news this last week, so I’ve decided to focus, instead, on the academy.  There are lots of new changes affecting educational institutions across the US. Lots of us have various opinions about these changes, some of them quite complicated, but few have a sense of how things *should* change, or reasonably *could* change.  The winners in this transformative moment for the academy will be the group that manages to arrive at a consensus on these issues, and institutionalizes them on the basis of their collective power.  A few stories I’m watching. Both longtime readers will be thoroughly unsurprised that I have chosen to focus on class issues – both in terms of academic culture, and in terms of collective employee rights – as the most important changes to watch in the academy:

  • Why the United States is Destroying its Educational System, by Chris Hedges
  • How to destroy your political enemies with video the Breitbart way: lie
  • Separate and Unequal: two-tiers of instructors?
  • Is Being Transgender a Promotion Problem?
  • Why Academic Publishing Sucks, by Larry Lessig
  • Anthropology Professors reflect on Fieldwork
  • Take Better Notes! (please) Continue reading

Academic Freedom Note: County Sheriff interrupts Class

If this sort of incident wasn’t really far more average than we would like to believe, it would be even more amazing.  Even for the jaded amongst us…well, what can I say?

At around 9:20, a half hour before the class’s scheduled 9:50 end time, Sheriff Kevin C. Larkin, dressed in a trenchcoat, opened the door to Prof. Glass’s classroom. According to one student attending the class that night, Max Grindlinger, “[Larkin] said, ‘Michael, can I see you for a minute?” 

According to Buckley, Grindlinger and another student, Diane Walker, Sheriff Larkin and Prof. Glass had a roughly three-minute conversation outside of MS 205. No one overheard the conversation. The two then reentered the classroom, Prof. Glass introduced Sheriff Larkin and apologized for “making disparaging comments” about the Sheriff. 

“[He] gives an apology while Sheriff Larkin is standing no less than six inches from him,” said Grindlinger.

Both Buckley and Grindlinger report Sheriff Larkin as saying, “This isn’t over,” on his way out of the classroom. According to Buckley, Larkin’s aide, who was waiting outside the classroom, said as the classroom door was closing, “You’re a terrible teacher, you should get your facts from a book.”

I know what I can say: this is fantastic journalistic writing from a student reporter, for a community college paper. Somebody needs to option this kid’s first job now; Dmitry Gurvits should be headed straight for the shattered ruins of print journalism – maybe he can make it better with more stories like this one.

LAW AND DISORDER: County Sheriff interrupts class – News.


Laryngitis=Typed Class Notes Introducing Victor Turner

I feel pretty good, but have no voice whatsoever.  So, since I have four and a half hours of class to teach today, I’ve spent the morning typing out my introduction to Victor Turner for my class on Ritual.  We’ve spent most of the first three weeks discussing Durkheim’s Elementary Forms and van Gennep’s Rites of Passage, but the students have not been given formal introductions to Marx or Weber in this class (though they’ve likely encountered them elsewhere).

The reason I’m really posting this here, though, is that I’d like to submit these notes to the collective wisdom of both of my readers.  Anything in here you’d care to quibble about?  Let me know!

RITUAL – Introducing Victor Turner
Erik W. Davis

In many ways, Turner sets the stage for contemporary interventions in the anthropological theory and study of ritual. He combines in his person and scholarship a lot of the concerns from conflicting and previously unassociated theoretical approaches: Marxism, Durkheim, and Van Gennep.

Durkheim and His Competitor Trains of Thought

Recall that Durkheim is considered one of the three major founders of Social thought (inclusive of both Anthropology and Sociology), along with Karl Marx and Max Weber. Each of these founders has a distinctive approach to key problems: the nature of the social division of labor, the relationship of economic and social organization to ideology and religion, ‘modernity,’ and the role of institutions in social life.

Each of them were confronted by an apparently radically novel social situation – capitalism – which seemed to break definitively from all previous forms of traditional society. It is difficult to overemphasize the extent to which all three of these thinkers, regardless of their differences, saw the contemporary modern period as a period of profound social flux and change. All of them also tied these changes to capitalism, the new division of labor in society into classes, and the role of religion. Summarizing any of these individual’s thought does violence to their subtlety. However, schematically, we can characterize them in the following ways:

Continue reading


Sounding on the Academy, February 24, 2010

Some interesting stories along the garden path of my day:


Macalester Religious Studies a “Thriving Department”

Whoo-hoo.  Macalester Religious Studies gets a nod in Newsweek as one of the “Thriving” religious studies departments.  In an article largely critical of Harvard’s religious studies, (not critical of the faculty, but of the organization of the faculty), the author writes

Religion at Harvard doesnt even merit its own department. Professors who teach religion classes generally belong to other departments—anthropology, say, or Near Eastern languages. A Committee on the Study of Religion oversees the courses, but it cant hire and fire, and it cant grant tenure. Diana Eck, the top scholar of world religions who runs the program, argues that its second-class status prevents it from drawing the biggest talent to campus—and, as a result, the most gifted students. There are great teachers of religion at Harvard, she says, but because theyre members of other departments, their reputations dont enhance the religious-studies program. Eck mentions Emory, Oberlin, Swarthmore, Smith, Carleton, and Macalester as places where religion departments thrive. Continue reading


RIP, Yoneo Ishii, great scholar of Southeast Asia

The great scholar and historian of Southeast Asia, Yosheo Ishii, has passed.  He passed on February 12, 2010, at the age of 81.  His published work on Buddhism in Thailand, including most especially his influential and magisterial work, Sangha, State, and Society.

A guru of Southeast Asian scholars, the great professor cultivated, encouraged, and influenced an enormous number of students, some of whom are themselves continuing this tradition of  generosity to their next generation. The memorials on the Thailand/Laos/Cambodia email list continue, and some of these scholars have made touching declarations, including this excerpt from one of my own teachers, Professor Charles Keyes of the University of Washington, who wrote touchingly that

Although Aj. Ishii has left behind his moral remains, his karmic legacy will continue to have very positive influences on generations of scholars of Thailand to come. I personally owe him a great debt for providing a model for being a student of Thai culture and history.

Rest in Peace, Ajaan Ishii.