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AAR Annual Meeting
San Diego, CA
November 23-26, 2019

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  • Professional Development
Teaching and Learning Committee and Critical Theory and Discourses on Religion Unit and Cultural History of the Study of Religion Unit
Theme: Theory and Method 2.0: Reconceiving Shared Space
Constance Furey, Indiana University, Presiding
Monday - 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Convention Center-24A (Upper Level East)

This panel examines how “methods and theories” in the study of religion might be revitalized in a manner that simultaneously challenges the field’s colonial and otherwise parochial heritage and works to overcome its present state of fragmentation. The four papers consider the role of such courses in bringing—or failing to bring—scholars who work on religion in very different times and places into a shared discipline. Doing so requires asking how methods and theories courses can play this integrating role without championing the revivification of a 19th- and early 20th-century male European canon. We also reflect on the significance of this integration itself at a moment when the humanities often feel threatened. We argue that the kind of integration of the discipline of religious studies that revitalized methods and theories courses could yield is essential to providing compelling arguments for the discipline’s significance.

Thomas A. Lewis, Brown University
Theory and Method and the Stakes of a Fragmented Discipline

Courses in methods and theories in the study of religion represent the most promising basis we have for bringing the academic study of religion into the common conversation or argument that constitutes a discipline. At present, religious studies is strikingly fragmented, with little engagement or shared criteria of excellence among those in different subfields or—in many cases—the same subfield at different institutions. This diversity in what we do is part of the field’s strength. Nonetheless, without an on-going, shared discussion of what we—as scholars of religion—are doing, it becomes very difficult to articulate to the public, to non-RS colleagues, to university administrators, and to students why the study of religion matters. We too often fall back on platitudes to justify our department’s existence, thereby leaving religious studies particularly vulnerable at a moment when many humanities disciplines face declining enrollments and institutional support.

Noreen Khawaja, Yale University
Old Enemies, New Friends

This paper explores what the Theory and Methods course might look like, were it structured by an outward gaze, as a study of how our discipline fits into broader webs of stories and methods governing academic work in the US. How to isolate the work that unites our field without dividing it from the rest of the humanities? Whose problem is the problem of the study of religion? I’ll propose a curriculum preparing students to think synthetically about the way their work is already working (and for whom it is working) in broader contemporary systems of knowledge.

Sonam Kachru, University of Virginia
It’s Easy If You Try: A Plea for Imagination and Experiment in Theories and Methods

This talk begins with a case study and concludes with an experiment. The case study derives from a class session at the University in Virginia in which undergraduate majors in Religious Studies, equipped with the basic outlines of the hermeneutic theory developed by scholars working in the Mīmāṃsā tradition of South Asia, developed a reading of select passages of Genesis. The concluding experiment involves a reconstruction of a theory of ritual and a philosophical anthropology from materials in A Hundred Paths (Śatapatha Brāḥmaṇa; circa 8th century B.C.E.), materials taken by Mircea Eliade, when suitably “translated” by him from primitivese, as evidence for his better-known theory. The point of both, case study and experiment, is to gauge the contours of what theory and methods is, and what it yet can be.

Robert A. Orsi, Northwestern University
Theory and Method beyond the Great Derangement

What does it mean to teach theory and method in the study of religion at a time when the future of the planet is in doubt? There is a dizzying incommensurability here: on the one hand, a familiar problem of the religious studies curriculum; on the other, global catastrophe. Incommensurable it may be, but we are compelled to live and work today in this existentially perverse space; otherwise we yield to “the great derangement,” in Amitav Ghosh’s phrase. So, the question again, insistently, is: what does it mean to ask the pedagogical question about theory and method in the study of religion at a time when the future of the planet is in doubt? One thing it means is that expertise and authority have become irrelevant: no one is prepared to speak confidently about such questions in this unprecedented epoch of radical precariousness. Instead, once the question is asked, we are called to search together as an academic community for a way forward.