Friday, June 17, 2011

Conversation, Congregations, and the Cape

Just returned from a fruitful meeting as part of the Congregational Studies Team including Steve Warner, Nancy Ammerman, Bill McKinney, Larry Mamiya, and Jim Nieman, with fellows Orit Avishai, Lynne Gerber, and Tricia Bruce, and special guest scholar John Bartkowski.  What a fine group! 

Having known some of this group for about 10 years (and nearly everyone since beginning my professorate at Davidson), I see a difference in the relationships among this group.

Building at 614 Main Street, Hyannis, Massachu...Image via Wikipedia
I arrived at Cape Cod on Sunday and came home Thursday -- nearly four days of fourteen-plus hours of conversation each day on religion and congregational life in the US and abroad.  We met informally around breakfast, kicked up conversations at our conference site next to the coast morning and afternoon, taking breaks to have lunch and dinner in Hyannis.  Visits to sites, including a large, Brazilian Pentecostal Church and their charismatic pastor. More informal meetings late into the night.

Such immersive conversation gives opportunity to think about the nature of "conversation" among scholars.  And how rare it really is.  While long-time relationships happen among some scholars, given the discussions of this week I can be fairly confident in saying that most scholars don't have opportunity for warm, relational, and consistently constructive encounters with others in their field.

Conversation among scholars is generally a polite affair, accomplished at receptions or before or after conference sessions.  Usually short, amiable, and generally quite distant.  Scholars have a nice way of getting along with each other (for the most part) even if they radically disagree.  But a "distant respect" is quite different from a "caring respect" that genuinely imbues the interactions among the people I was around this past week.

Not that disagreements or even outright arguments don't happen--they do.  And not that this team exists as some form of romanticized utopia.  That's not my view, and not my point.  Instead, my observation from these past few days is that there is a different level of scholarship that occurs among active researchers who respect and trust each other.

Meaningful Conversations?Image by tonyhall via Flickr
The people I was around this week are all very strong people, brilliant in ways I cannot properly specify, yet quite human in ways that can be so disarming.  We tease and play, at the same time reveal aspect of each others thoughts and published work not commonly recognized. Most importantly, our interactions reveal sides of each other's scholarship that are both formed and unformed, with "set" ideas alongside ideas that are continuing to be reshaped.  Here is a group in which uncertainty is welcome as each of us find our way through the difficulty of thinking that is still so very fluid.

As scholars, so often we work alone, careful of who we tell about our ideas.  Direction for many of our projects is not quite there.  It can be unsettling to be so unsure of ourselves today when we can look at our cv's and have such solid evidence of quality publications from our past.  Can we complete more good work? Can we get the help we need as we find our way? And will people still respect us when we admit we just might not be so clear on what we're doing?

Yet admitting uncertainty among those who respect both us as a person and the messy process of research is perhaps the most productive activity to be found in scholarship.  I'm glad to have a group that allows this to happen for myself.  And I hope I can be that person for others because the future of good scholarship can only be found if we avoid overconfidence and accept the feedback of others before we become only distantly caring and rigidly brilliant.

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Saturday, June 4, 2011

Second Biennial Conference on Religion and American Culture

Just a brief note that I am now in my second day of an immersive, interdisciplinary conference on religion and American culture sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture and by Religion & American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation. Bringing a striking diversity of voices together, this gathering is a privileged opportunity for a broad ranging discussion at the cutting edges of working through the complexities and continuing richness of religion, drawing out perspectives from the humanities and social sciences.

Thinking RFIDImage by @boetter via Flickr
Yesterday I spoke from one aspect of my research--on approaching the study of racial and ethnic dynamics--while other sessions of the conference bring intense focus on varied and multiform topics I am also deeply invested in working through: overarching paradigms in the study of religion, competing conceptual frameworks, scholarly assumptions on sweeps of history, considerations of personal experience and identity, points of disagreement and correction, amidst a marvelous mix, sometimes clash, of personalities. For those not invested in these issues, it may seem very heady yet what stands out to me so clearly in these two days is the remarkable passion evident with the eager, critical thinkers in the room with me.

Proceedings from the conference will be available online eventually, and others will post more descriptive blog entries soon. Nothing quite substitutes for being in the room right now and seeing the vibrant compression of scholarship that I find so enriching.
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