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Religious Studies

Examining Grinnell’s Culture

Grinnell is a secular institution, but does that mean students have to leave their religion at the classroom door?

Olivia Queathem ’17 is part of an unusual group Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) in religious studies that may help answer that question. Queathem and five other student researchers are conducting focus groups this spring to gather data for the Grinnell Religious Diversity Project.

The grant-funded study is exploring issues of religion, religious culture, and religious diversity on campus. The project focuses, in part, on whether classrooms in an intentionally secular environment are affected by, or in some cases impinge upon, students’ closely held religious beliefs and experiences.

Strong Emotions

“There can be some pretty strong emotional attachments to what’s being talked about,” Queathem says, “and it’s a really difficult balance to find a classroom climate that feels open so that people can say what they’re feeling and ask honest questions.

“The professors are always looking for better ways to make sure that students feel safe in the classroom expressing their views through respectful dialogue,” Queathem adds.

Project directors Tim Dobe, associate professor of religious studies, and Caleb Elfenbein, assistant professor of religious studies and history, are helping students establish the parameters for the research. But it’s the students who are driving the process.

Honest Conversations

A key goal for the MAP participants, says Alexandra Odom ’16, is to “create a project that shows people what the realities of religion are on campus.” One of their first tasks was to formulate questions that would foster open and honest conversations in their respective focus groups.

“People are used to not talking about religion and keeping it part of their private lives,” says Odom. “We have to be very intentional about how we create a space where people feel comfortable talking about their religious beliefs and engaging with people who may or may not have similar beliefs.”

Odom says the first round of focus groups indicate that students who feel personally shaped by their religion are willing to share and wish more people on campus would ask questions about their faith.

Opportunity to Speak

“It seems like people have been waiting for this opportunity to speak,” Odom says. “Even people who don’t align themselves with a religion are willing to talk, especially if they grew up in a setting where religion was always present, even if they weren’t directly involved.”

Promoting honest dialogue will not only help define the range and depth of religious experience on campus, Odom says. It will ultimately help researchers understand religious diversity in the context of core Grinnell values like self-governance.

“Grinnell prides itself on students looking out for each other,” Odom says. “We can’t promote the health and wellness of the community if we have no idea what that community is. To identify religious populations that are present is the first step to serving those populations in a way that’s meaningful for them so they can have a great experience here, too.”

Identifying Campus Culture

Since February, the MAP students have been journaling personal impressions of their research experience on a blog. For Jaya Vallis ’16, having a place for personal introspection is helpful.

“We talked a lot about objectivity, self-reflexivity, and trying to remove our own biases when we were designing questions and talking to our interviewees,” Vallis says. “I recognized almost immediately even in just describing this project to people that I had to identify and separate out my own personality.”

Vallis says the research group also discussed techniques for talking to interviewees in order to identify what people think campus culture actually is and how religious diversity plays a part in it.

“‘Campus culture is a very vague term,” Vallis says. “Once we get an idea of what it is, we’ll be better able to identify ways to maybe implement policy changes or the creation of new spaces on campus.”

Valuable Experience

By semester’s end, the MAP students will produce a group paper that will help inform future phases of the three-year study. Among the skills gained in designing and implementing the focus group process is Institutional Review Board training necessary for ethical research involving human subjects.

“Religion touches a lot of aspects of our society, and it’s really interesting to see how it overlaps with other spheres of influence in terms of how people live their daily lives,” Queathem says.

“I know that I want to do something that helps people in a concrete way, whether that ends up being activism or nonprofit work,” Queathem says. “This is valuable experience in terms of giving me an actual research opportunity that I haven’t had before so I’ll get to see if I like it or not.” 

Olivia Queathem ’17 is a religious studies major from Grinnell. Alexandra Odom ’16 is a history major from Baltimore. Jaya Vallis ’16 is a psychology and religious studies double major from Washington, D.C.

Tutorial in Context

The First-Year Tutorial is the only requirement for all majors and a big part of the individually advised curriculum at Grinnell. Why is the tutorial so important? And what can students expect to get out of it?

Below, Jermaine Stewart-Webb ’16 and Tyler Roberts, professor of religious studies, discuss the impact of Roberts’ tutorial, “Do You Wanna Dance? From Rock to Hip-Hop.”

In his tutorial, Roberts asked students to explore the origins of popular musical styles and the influence of music on individuals and society. Stewart-Webb was one of 12 first-year students in the course.

Here’s what they had to say:

A Fresh Perspective

Roberts: How did [the tutorial] change the way you look at the music in terms of history and in terms of its social/political aspects?

Stewart-Webb: The course gave me a perspective that I’d never really had before. In high school I didn’t really have that much of a critical lens with which to write about any kind of subject matter.

It gave me a larger frame of mind with which to critique music and to talk about it on a more interpersonal level. Part of it might have been coming to realize that I was challenged to not just blindly “like” music without explaining the implications of it.

In terms of the origins of music, I learned that everything has a lineage that leads up to its current moment. I think we, as students, have to learn to openly accept that knowledge, because sometimes I feel like we come in with this idea that we already know all of the good music that’s current.

Digging Deep

Roberts: Does [looking at music in this new way] detract from the simple pleasure of enjoying it?

Stewart-Webb: (laughs) A little bit, because I’m constantly thinking, “Where did this song come from?” or “Did it have origins in a social/political movement?” But overall I can still enjoy music without having to critically think about it all the time.

I remember one specific assignment where we had to really dig deep and think about the vocabulary we used to describe a song we really liked. My presentation was on “Take on Me” by A-ha, one of my favorite songs ever … 

Roberts: Something I’d never heard before …

Stewart-Webb: I was talking about how it was ’80s-esque, and I remember you positing the question, “What do you mean by ’80s-esque?” and saying, “You have to unpack this and explain exactly what that word means.” It made me think about the weight behind the words that I use and not to blindly use words without putting them in proper context.

Roberts: I wanted to have students write not just in a critical academic way about music but also in an appreciative way. It’s also really important to be able to express yourself to an audience about what is meaningful for you and why it enriches your life.

Stewart-Webb: Right. My oral presentation was on the anti-folk movement that took place in Greenwich Village [New York]. I remember being struck by how that movement emerged. I realized that music is not produced in a vacuum, but it comes from all of these artists who collaborate with one another and fight for the validity of what their music stands for. It really helped me understand that genre.

A Richer Advising Relationship

Stewart-Webb: The tutorial in general helped me understand how I fit in the grander scheme of academe as it relates to other forms of study. I was straightforward about not being really good at math and science, so it was good to be pushed to take classes outside of the humanities and social sciences. Having a tutorial adviser who understood the discomforts that I had about specific subject matter allowed me to establish a relationship before jumping in to declare a major.

Roberts: I get a much better sense of my advisees from being in class with them twice a week than I would otherwise. I can develop a rapport in the classroom that translates to the advising sessions. It’s a much richer relationship.

Stewart-Webb: I think I move about the world in a very different way now. It’s as if I can’t “unsee” things at this point in my life, and I have to pay close attention to everything I come in contact with. I’m constantly asking myself why I think the way I do about certain things and probing my peers about why they see things the way they do. So, I enjoyed the tutorial experience for that reason … but it also has been, like, a slight curse (laughs). 

Roberts: It’s called critical thinking.

Stewart-Webb: It’s a good frame of mind to have. It definitely prepared me to take on the arduous demands of the courses I’m currently in as a senior.

Jermaine Stewart-Webb ’16 is an English and French double major from Los Angeles, California.

Religious Diversity in the Heart of Iowa

Timothy KnepperTimothy Knepper, professor of philosophy at Drake University, will discuss religious diversity in Iowa at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 23, in Joe Rosenfield '25 Center, Room 101.

The free, public lecture, titled "Religious Diversity in the Heart of Iowa," will explore dialogues between Christianity and other religions practiced in Des Moines.

Knepper is a part of the Religions of Des Moines Initiative, which seeks to develop and practice a philosophy of religion that is diverse. The initiative explores, documents and places Christianity in dialogue with other religions practiced in Des Moines, such as Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, and Sikhism.

Chair of the department of philosophy and religion at Drake, Knepper also directs The Comparison Project, a public program in comparative philosophy of religion. His scholarship centers on the philosophy of religion, comparative religion, late ancient Neoplatonism and mystical discourse.

Knepper has written several books on the future of the philosophy of religion, including The Ends of Philosophy of Religion. He is working on a textbook about the global philosophy of religion and a photo-illustrated book on the religions of Des Moines.

The Center for Prairie Studies and Department of Religious Studies are co-sponsoring Knepper's lecture.

 

Adulterous Woman to Be Eaten by Dogs

Professor Stephanie W. Jamison will present "Adulterous Woman to Be Eaten by Dogs: Women and Law in Ancient India" at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 16, in ARH Room 102.

Jamison will introduce the textual sources for women and law in ancient India and suggest some ways in which they can be used to produce a fuller picture of women’s roles in this period.

In particular, she says "we will examine the apparent paradox: that acknowledging more agency on the part of women is accompanied by a more and more misogynistic attitude towards them. The legal provisions about adultery, with their sometimes-colorful punishments, provide a useful focus for this investigation."

Jamison was trained as a historical and Indo-European linguist, but for many years has concentrated on Indo-Iranian, especially (Vedic) Sanskrit and Middle Indo-Aryan languages and textual materials. She works not only on language and linguistics, but also literature and poetics, religion and law, mythology and ritual, and gender studies in these languages, and she is interested in comparative mythology and poetics, especially with Greek materials.

Grinnell welcomes and encourages the participation of people with disabilities. You can request accommodations from Conference Operations and Events.

 

Translating the Rig Veda

Published set of the Rig VedaThe Rig Veda, the oldest Sanskrit text, remains one of its most challenging and enigmatic. Consisting of over a thousand intricate praise hymns dedicated to a variety of divinities, it showcases the work of its many poets, who proudly display their skill and verbal trickery in service of their gods and mortal patrons.

These poets are inheritors of the Indo-Iranian and Indo-European poetic tradition, but they also are self-conscious innovators and manipulators of that tradition. The boast "I make new the song born of old" (RV III.31.19), one of many such statements in the text, encapsulates this dual focus.

Professor Stephanie W. Jamison will present a “Discussion on Translating the Rig Veda” at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 15, in ARH Room 120.

Jamison was trained as a historical and Indo-European linguist, but for many years has concentrated on Indo-Iranian, especially (Vedic) Sanskrit and Middle Indo-Aryan languages and textual materials.

She works not only on language and linguistics, but also literature and poetics, religion and law, mythology and ritual, and gender studies in these languages, and she is also interested in comparative mythology and poetics, especially with Greek materials.

Grinnell welcomes and encourages the participation of people with disabilities. You can request accommodations from Conference Operations and Events.

Unexpected Opportunities

When Rebecca Dworkin ’06 graduated from Grinnell as a religious studies major, she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do with her life. She was interested in women’s health and reproductive rights, but how did she want to approach the issue? Through law? Advocacy? Social work? With so many options, Dworkin wasn’t sure which path was right for her.

Exploring the Options

To gain some exposure to women’s health in practice, Dworkin took a position with AmeriCorps, where she worked in a busy clinic as a doula, a birth coach. Today, she believes this experience was the single most influential choice she made after graduating.

“It’s very clear looking back that that program was what really got me interested in working in health care,” Dworkin says. “But the program got canceled abruptly 8 months in. It was like getting the rug pulled out from under you!”

After being laid off, Dworkin still wasn’t sure what career path she wanted to take. She decided to hit the road and travel the country doing seasonal work and “visiting other people’s lives.” This experience allowed her to meet many different kinds of people and also gave her the time to clear her head and discover what she really wanted to do.

Choosing a Path

Before long, Dworkin was in an accelerated nursing program at Georgetown University, after which she received her master’s and became a certified nurse-midwife. She got the first job she applied to at the University of Iowa, where she currently works as a clinical assistant professor in obstetrics and gynecology. Dworkin was glad that she attended Grinnell before getting this career-driven education.

“I don’t think that I would have wanted to do that sort of education in my initial college years, because I wouldn’t want that career focus to come at the expense of the intellectual development I got at Grinnell,” she says. “It’s absolutely worthwhile to spend some time engaging in some sort of intellectual passion. It exercises your mind and can add a whole new layer of depth to whatever you decide to do.”

The Value of the Liberal Arts

For Dworkin, her interdisciplinary studies about women in subjects such as religious studies, gender studies, and sociology allow her to connect with her work on a deeper level than clinical practice alone.

“The most rewarding part of this job is that you are in a position to be with people during really critical moments of their lives,” says Dworkin. “I can really empower women through their reproductive choices and help them to take ownership of their bodies and their birth experiences.”

Reflecting on her experiences, Dworkin can see how her liberal arts education, along with her 6 months of “drifting” on the road, prepared her for the path she took.

“I really do feel like the liberal arts can prepare you to do basically whatever you want. If you can read critically, communicate well, and write well, that will serve you well no matter what field you go into,” Dworkin says. “I felt prepared to go down many paths, because the liberal arts opens doors rather than pigeonholing you into one way of thinking.”

Dworkin also stresses that students and recent graduates should be willing to have faith in themselves and not be afraid to do a little “drifting.” Her experience with AmeriCorps sparked her interest in health care, and she met many healthcare professionals during her time on the road who helped her determine the path that was right for her.

“Even if you don’t know what you want to do right away, just go somewhere you want to be! If you’re out in the world, you’re gonna meet people who may turn into an opportunity you never considered,” Dworkin says. “The opportunities will come to you, if you’re open to them. So don’t worry so much! If you graduate from Grinnell, you’re truly prepared for anything.”

 

Scholars' Convo: Contesting Muhammad

Kecia AliKecia Ali, a renowned scholar on Islamic law, gender and religion, will deliver a Scholar's Convocation at 11 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 29, in Joe Rosenfield '25 Center, Room 101.

Her talk, titled "Contesting Muhammad: Contemporary Controversies in Historical Perspective," will focus on modern debates about the Prophet Muhammad and his legacy.

Ali, the College's 2015-16 Gates Lecturer in Religious Studies, will give her Gates lecture the night before. She will present "Tradition, Traditions, Traditioning: Writing on Women and Islam," at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 28, in Faulconer Galler, Bucksbaum Center for the Arts. Ali will be speaking about the challenges of writing on gender, women, and Islam in a way that does justice to the diversity of perspectives in and cultural settings of Muslim communities.

Both events are free and open to the public.

"Professor Ali will provide the kind of background we need to analyze and understand some of the recent controversies surrounding the Prophet Muhammad," said Caleb Elfenbein, assistant professor in the departments of history and religious studies.

"She will discuss the history of representations of Muhammad in the West as well as in Muslim communities and how those histories, especially the way they interact, affects contemporary events," Elfenbein added. "Her talk will be especially informative regarding Muhammad's relationship with his wives."

Ali's research focuses on Islamic law, women and gender, ethics, and biography. She is the author of six books including her most recent publication, The Lives of Muhammad, about modern Muslim and non-Muslim biographies of Islam’s prophet, which will inform her lecture. She is also the author of Sexual Ethics in Islam, which provides a feminist reading of Islamic scriptural, legal, and ethical traditions as they relate to human gender and sexuality.

A professor of Islam at Boston University, Ali has held research and teaching fellowships at Brandeis University and Harvard Divinity School. She is an active member of the American Academy of Religion and currently serves as president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics.

The Scholars' Convocation series was established in the late 1970s in response to Grinnell College's move to an individually advised curriculum. The College, aiming to create a common educational experience shared by the entire Grinnell College community, started the Scholars' Convocation series to offer an accessible intellectual encounter that transcends disciplinary boundaries.

Grinnell welcomes and encourages the participation of people with disabilities. Rosenfield Center has accessible parking in the lot to the east. Room 101 is equipped with an induction hearing loop system. Faulconer Gallery is wheelchair accessible, with accessible parking available at the south entrance to the Bucksbaum Center. You can request accommodations from Conference Operations and Events.

Kasimow Offers Holocaust Memorial Day Lecture


Harold KasimowProfessor Emeritus of Religious Studies Harold Kasimow, a holocaust survivor, will present a lecture as part of Holocaust Memorial Day activities in Des Moines.

This Sunday, April 27, there will be a service at 1 p.m. at the Iowa Holocaust Memorial.

Kasimow will present "Jewish Theological Responses to the Holocaust," at 2 p.m. in The Capitol Room at 315 East 5th Street, Des Moines.

The events are sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines and the Iowa Council for Holocaust Education.

Contact: jcrc[at]dmjfed[dot]org

Gaza Rockets Inspire Thesis

Jon Cohen ’14 describes the path he took to his independent major in Middle Eastern studies as a happy accident.

When he arrived at Grinnell, Cohen knew he wanted to do something related to the social sciences and learn a new language. He took Arabic and tried out political science, history, economics, and religious studies courses, but didn’t feel satisfied with any of the subjects on their own. He wanted to do all of them, but in one region, so it made sense to do Middle Eastern studies.

One of the major components of an independent major is the senior thesis, which Cohen had been thinking about since he declared. Cohen was studying abroad in Egypt in fall 2012 when Israelis and Palestinians fired dozens of rockets between southern Israel and the Gaza Strip. He was surprised by both the amount of discussion among Egyptians about the attacks and the degree to which the Egyptian military mobilized, when the attack had nothing to do with Egypt. That observation led him to the topic of his thesis.

Cohen’s senior thesis examines how Egypt President Gamal Abdel Nasser used Palestine as a symbol to bridge the gap between Egyptian territorial nationalism and Arab nationalism. With the help of professors Mervat Youssef and Caleb Elfenbein, and Arabic language assistant Azza Chemkhi, Cohen translated portions of Nasser’s 1962 national charter. The charter, which had never before been translated into English, outlined the foundation of Arab nationalism and is a call for Arab unity.

Cohen is grateful to have the opportunity to devote eight credits to individual research. “You get to go and open up a new door” to encourage discussion, Cohen says.

After he graduates, Cohen plans to apply the knowledge he gained in his independent major and through his senior thesis at a think tank in Washington, D.C. Cohen has been interested in policy for some time, which would allow him to do private scholarship outside a university, bypassing grad school for now.