An experiment

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.

18 thoughts on “An experiment

  1. I’ve never thought about what a professor of religion has to go through listening to everyone’s important opinions about religions. I will say that when I tell people I’m getting my doctorate in clinical psychology it generates all sorts of weird reactions. “Can you read minds?” Yes. “Are you always analyzing people?” Yes. “Doesn’t your job depress you?” No. Occassionally I’ll have the privilege of having someone tell me about his/her previous therapy and how great that experience was.

  2. I do think you’re right that being a professor of religion is probably that much more obnoxious because everyone acts as if they know a whole lot about religion based on personal experience. I think the change in title will probably serve you best. I’ve considered just lying so I could side-step all of the bizarre projections.

  3. I had an editor, when I was working in journalism, who got tired of people telling him what was wrong with “the media,” so he started lying.

    He said he was an undertaker.

    That didn’t work, so he said he was an IRS agent.

    Then he just quit going to parties.

    Religion is worse, though, since people literally think that what they think about religion is more important than life and death.

  4. Ironically, perhaps, I felt the same at cocktail parties when I switched from mathematics to statistics. I quickly learned to describe my new line of work as ‘medical research’ because I work on clinical trials.

  5. Well, I get the same thing in philosophy. “I studied that stuff. Have you read Nietcheeee?” “Everyone knows what Socrates said, why are you teaching that stuff?” “You must be an atheist.” “Who’s your favorite philosopher?”

  6. Larry, but you don’t get, “So what’s your philosophy?” I try to remain as neutral as possible and merely state that I teach at the university. Sometimes they will ask what I teach, in which case I have no option but to answer “sociology and law.” But, at least half the time they won’t bother inquiring as to what I teach and they’ll say something like “Oh, my brother went there” or something similar. If they pick up on sociology, they’ll usually say something like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” And if they pick up on law, they’ll say something about the law, usually a question. To which I’m inclined to cite Donald Rumsfeld: “I’m not in that end of the business.” Alternatively, I tell them that I’m interested in the distinction between human and non-human in seventeenth century thought (which is true) and they’ll shut up and go find someone more agreeable. This is usually the best solution and explains why I don’t have more social invitations.

    Adam: I think you missed a great opportunity for a fantastic job title. You should review the Chair names at the College de France and reconsider your decision! “Assistant Professor of Humanities and Theological Criticism.” “Assistant Professor of Humanities and Satanology.”

  7. Obviously every discipline has its potential for stupid responses. I still maintain that religion is unique in the degree to which everyone forces their idiotic ideas on you.

  8. I agree, but humbly submit it is worse to tell people you are a pastor.
    People either write you off as a nut, or pat you on the back because “we need more people fighting the blasphemy of evolution in our schools today.” In short; all of the religious wackery with no letters to muster.
    Good decision.

  9. It is worse still when you’re employed outside of academia completely and people of your credentials. Then it ceases to be something that makes for weird conversations and more sympathetic condescension.

  10. I’m prette sure that people who study pedophilia or specialize in defending genocidal dictators get weirder looks than ‘professors of religion’.

    I think unless your response is “I am the President of the United States of America” there is always some awkwardness in having to explain what you do, especially since no one really gives a shit in 99.9% of the time.

  11. I think Adam’s experience is right on: the problem with ‘expertise’ in religion or theology is that it’s only relative to that which ‘everyone has’. I just finished teaching Schleiermacher’s On Religion again, and it suddenly dawned on me that, for all theological liberalism’s bemoaning their lack of influence–when considered against Adam’s case here–it’s really won.

  12. I insist on pretentiously identifying myself as a “writer” when asked what I do. If then asked “What kind of things?” I generally like to quote Miguel Ferrer in The Harvest (1992) and say, “Anything. If you’ve got the money I’ll write something for you.”

  13. I sometimes think that my clerical robe and stole gives license for some people to corner me at a wedding or funeral to tell me how much they hate Christianity or how much they disapprove of the UCC.

    Just a couple weeks ago, I officiated a small wedding at my church and a relative of the couple took me aside to tell me how apostate I was, etc., etc., and I asked why she came to the wedding if she disapproved of the church and pastor involved with the wedding. “Because I wanted to meet you.” Then she invited me to her church on Sundays. I said I was kind of busy during the church hour, to which she replied, “Don’t you get some days off?”

    I have a feeling that this encounter got shared at some worship service or bible study shortly thereafter.

  14. I recently got an unusually good response from someone whom I told I was studying philosophy—the other party told me he had taken one philosophy class in college, an ethics course, and that at the end of it the conclusion seemed to be, all ethical theories are wrong. Which is indeed characteristic of the way many ethics courses are taught, especially if they’re being taught to the prospective philosophy majors in the class (because, I suppose, of the sense that one must give such students a feel for the lay of the land and what’s contested by whom and how). So we went on to have a brief but pretty good conversation about the teaching of ethics.

    Mostly, though, it’s pretty dire.

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