DSR Graduate Dr. Sarah Rollens – Assistant Professor at Rhodes College – recently won a grant to reimagine Rhode’s theory and method courses. So We sat down with Sarah to see how her experiences in the department had shaped how she studies religion. Read the full interview below.
What was your path after the PhD?
When I was in my fifth year of my PhD, I applied for nearly every job and postdoc that I could find. I knew the job market was competitive, and that I probably wouldn’t get my dream job right out of grad school. Though I was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship, I ultimately opted for a contingent position at the University of Alabama, so that I could get more teaching experience. I’ve never really had a problem carrying out research alongside teaching, so I didn’t feel that I necessarily needed a postdoctoral program to have dedicated research time. I’m currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College, a small liberal arts college in Memphis, TN.
You recently won a grant to draft a new Rhodes Method and Theory Course. Congrats! What are some of your plans around that? What is Rhodes current curriculum in Method and Theory, and what changes are you proposing?
Thanks! This is really exciting, especially because our department is in the midst of reviewing its entire curriculum. I applied for the grant with my colleague Daniel Ullucci. We both came out of graduate programs that emphasized method and theory in the study of religion (I, of course, come from University of Toronto, and Daniel comes from Brown University), and so we’ve consistently designed courses that engage with theoretical issues. At Rhodes, our Methods and Theories course is required for all of our majors, and in the past it had been organized around classical theorists such as Durkheim, Geertz, and Eliade. I think it’s critical for students to understand those classical theorists, but there have also been important developments since their thinking, which is why I’ve sought to expand the types of material that students read. It’s a challenging project, because there are many ways this course can be taught.
Right now, the course is organized in the following way. First, we spend some time thinking about issues of defining religion and classifying phenomena as “religious.” Second, we turn to examining the history of the concept of religion and of the discipline of religious studies; for this we’re reading Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion: The History of a Modern Concept. The third part of the course treats social and anthropological perspectives on religion, while the fourth deals with different ways people have tried to understand religious experience, exploring everything from Freud’s theory of the unconscious to more recent cognitive studies of experiences deemed religious. The last part of the course questions the hegemony of many of the perspectives by bringing in feminist theory, subaltern voices, and postmodern critiques.
After I teach it this semester, Daniel and I will assess what worked best and what might need to be changed. We’re also consulting with the rest of our department to create the ideal learning goals of the course and to draft new language for the College’s course catalogue.
Do you think your training at the University of Toronto shapes how you interpret and teach the methodologies of the discipline?
Absolutely. My year-long graduate seminar in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion provided me with a strong sense of the diversity of theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches in our field. It was also useful to have two different professors over the course of the year, so that we were exposed to different understandings of “method” and “theory.” I haven’t yet team-taught a course, but I hope to have the opportunity to do something like that in the future. What’s also great about UofT is that even scholars working in very specialized areas encourage their students to use theory. So, for instance, I worked a lot with early Christian writings, but I was able to do so in a way that interacted with wider issues of ancient intellectual culture, literacy and text production, and the socio-economic conditions of different ideologies.
What three critical texts do you think all scholars of religion should read?
That’s a tough one! Three that have been influential for me have been: Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions, and Asad’s Genealogies of Religion. Whether or not we read every word, religionists should know about the contributions that these books make. And Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life—we should all read as least a few passages from that classic.
Are you reading anything interesting/fun right now?
Over the summer, I read David Wheeler-Reed’s Regulating Sex in the Roman Empire: Ideology, the Bible, and the Early Christians, and it was great. In preparation for my Method and Theory class, I read Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion, which was fantastic; I’m really looking forward to reading it this year with my students. Our department also has a critical theory reading group, and we’re about to start reading Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech by Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood.
How is the Study of Religion different at Rhodes?
Unlike other departments, ours has a strong emphasis on studying the Bible, not because Rhodes has a theological affiliation but because the College was once granted a generous fund to support the teaching of such classes. Since it allows us to have a lot of faculty, we’re happy to work with it, and we have a lot of freedom in how we approach the topic. For instance, I’ve taught classes on early Christian gospels, apocalyptic thought, and violence in the Bible. Because we’re a liberal arts college, students are required to take a certain number of humanities courses, so our religious studies classes routinely fill up. But though we have many Bible-related courses, we also offer a variety of other courses in religious studies just like most other religion departments.
What role do you think the Study of Religion plays in the university? Or what role should it?
I’m not sure it should necessarily have a “role.” I think it provides an excellent space for students to learn how to think critically about such issues as ideology, authority, and identity, and to examine how cultural resources—such as religious texts—can be mobilized for such purposes. Students can certainly learn these skills in other classes, but I think we have ideal opportunities in religious studies classes to engage with these topics.
What are you currently working on/researching right now?
I’m involved in several projects right now, but my primary research project is one on violence in early Christian texts. I’ve presented a number of papers on this topic, and they’ll eventually be adapted into a monograph. I’ve also been working on a few smaller projects on social class in the Roman empire, intellectual culture and Christian origins, and apocalyptic thought.
Do you have any advice for our undergraduates and graduate students?
Undergrads: take a variety of classes and explore different topics—you never know what you’ll discover. Very few people go to university to major in religious studies—I sure didn’t!—but I discovered it just by taking a class that sounded interesting.
Graduate students: get involved with as much as you can and make yourself into a desirable colleague. Most graduate students are already very bright and will do (or are already doing) valuable research; what will set you apart on the job market is presenting yourself as an asset to a department/university.