My title at Shimer College, by default, was going to be “Assistant Professor of Humanities,” but they offered me the option of tacking on another discipline if desired: religion or theology, for instance. As I normally do, I overthought the decision considerably, but I finally decided to go with the default for simplicity’s sake — as a few people pointed out, it wasn’t like people weren’t going to be able to tell from my CV what my home discipline is.
One side benefit, though, has been getting away from some of the baggage that would inevitably clog up any conversation where I said my job was “professor of religion.” In fact, a recent party provided a kind of natural experiment, as I alternated between saying I taught humanities and saying I taught religion. When I said humanities, people didn’t really have much to say and the conversation moved on naturally to topics other than the standard small-talk of “what’s your name, what do you do,” etc. When I said religion, by contrast, I was suddenly inundated with people’s religious histories, their novel theories about how every religion is at bottom the same, their lack of interest in organized religion and yet their deep concern for spirituality, their interest in Buddhism, etc. (I have trouble deciding whether this is preferable to the time that an evangelical tried to convert me to Christianity upon learning I taught… Christianity.)
So overall, I think I made the right decision on the job title and I need to stick with it in conversation going forward.
Indeed, I encourage others in religious studies to find a more neutral way of describing their work in casual conversation as well, because my experience has led me to believe that religion scholars bear a burden that no other class of expert does. If a doctor is at a party, for instance, people will likely ask them for medical advice. If a religion scholar is at a party, people will tell them all about religion. Obviously both approaches are annoying — I doubt doctors go to parties hoping to give out free medical advice — but at least asking questions shows some modicum of respect, some basic acknowledgment that specialized knowledge in the topic exists and requires work to attain.