I remember talking with Faith last fall about the field of law and religion. Faith, now a senior at Amherst, is a gifted pianist and dedicated member of the Amherst Christian Fellowship double majoring in Music and Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought. She had taken two classes with me, had excelled, and was compiling bibliographic references for a new research project. I knew just the encyclopedia entry I’d suggest she read. Curious and not entirely sure of the answer, I wondered whether the Critical Terms for Religious Studies volume also included an entry on “law.” What were religion scholars writing about law in 1998? The absence of the term in that volume wasn’t entirely surprising. We know now that historically, religious studies and legal studies haven’t had much to say to each other in part because of what it meant to study religion and what it meant to study law at that time—but this is changing.
All encyclopedia and critical terms projects leave something or someone out. There is no way to enumerate or categorize discourse conclusively, whatever the time or mode of accounting, not least because inclusion is a distinction. Comprehensiveness is a failed project from the start. But there is something to be said about what such projects offer a novice, a non-expert, a newcomer wanting to know what all the fuss is about. Authoritative voices. Suggestions for further reading. The painstaking emphasis on when innovations in a field took place, and why, and what changed as a result. Yet, contributors to such projects are often expected to convey a near totality of what is known—burdening language and what it can be used to say. The typical scholar-to-term ratio, whereby each term is usually addressed by one scholar, means each scholar bears that weight alone. Expertise, too, is often equated with seniority.
If encyclopedia and critical terms entries are a measure of scholarly obsession with conceptual provenance, the sheer expanse of free online information challenges the pace and form of academic publishing and, some would say, its relevance. When college students have questions, they’re more likely to ask the internet than their research librarian. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Even as college libraries are circulating fewer academic books, students are still consulting them online. Much of today’s digital landscape has been incentivized by funding agencies that require applicants to demonstrate the significance of their research for broader publics. A lot of what college students might find when they query the internet is public-facing scholarship grounded in sound research methods and excised of academic jargon. But that’s the best-case scenario. Increasingly, professors teach students how to unlearn what they’ve learned from mass media. How to read discriminately, think critically, evaluate rigorously, write persuasively, and argue convincingly. Question, in other words, what they know and how they’ve come to know so they can know differently—or embrace non-knowing.
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What if we thought differently about the one scholar = total knowledge model? How might scholars advance the academic study and public understanding of religion and secularism in a way that meets college students’ demand for visual imagery, pithy prose, and compelling narratives? How would scholars talk about research if the task was to say something meaningful to Generation Z? What would it look like, pedagogically, to take seriously Gen Zers’ reverence for technology? Might it change what we do as scholars, and how we do it?
A Universe of Terms is one answer to these questions. It emerges from recent conversations at the Social Science Research Council about mobilizing The Immanent Frame to serve new publics. For over a decade, TIF has curated scholarly debates about secularism and religion that have shaped research trajectories globally. And yet entry into these original debates and those they have inspired remains inaccessible to many nonspecialists. Understanding them requires prerequisites. One must know the difference between a porous and a buffered self. What the secularization thesis is and why it was wrong. Appreciate how political secularism and secular sensibility differ and yet coemerge. Though graduate students are expected to demonstrate fluency in these languages, college students and others are more likely to admit, honestly, “We just don’t get it.” They search for answers elsewhere—on Wikipedia, usually, or Google. It all depends on the question, what they want to know.
The Universe addresses college students’ often pressing desire for the right answer by showing just how contested scholarly inquiry can be. Straddling the line between a critical terms volume and an essay collection, it begins from the premise that addressing and answering a question effectively requires multiple ways of understanding it in the first place. The Universe treats scholarship as the curatorial project that it is. It makes scholarly conversations more accessible to nonspecialists and encourages them to draw their own conclusions. Users of the project inhabit these conversations discursively, visually, and aurally. The purpose of knowledge, what counts as knowledge, and who participates in its dissemination and consumption remain unresolved questions throughout. The Universe lives on the internet. Its life there—here—stretching possibilities for use and adaptability over time.
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The first iteration of this project was curated with the valuable assistance of Daniel Vaca, TIF editorial board member, and Olivia Whitener, TIF editorial associate. We did not decide the terms or the contributors from the beginning. We had a vision, but not yet a blueprint, and before committing to one, we sought feedback from colleagues. We surveyed contributors to TIF who had written our most read essays and who had not written for the “Is this all there is” project. The idea was to solicit feedback from the site’s loyal base while expanding TIF’s network of contributors. We considered the survey responses, including suggestions they provided for possible terms and contributors. A commitment to diversity underwrote the entire curatorial process. We wanted this project to model a kind of thinking that lives in and through continuously shifting voices, sites of inquiry, and interpretative approaches.
This iteration, published during the academic year 2019-2020, consists of fourteen terms and at least three unique 1000-word responses to each term (For a schedule of the staggered launches, click here). The response length would allow contributors to convey something substantive about a particular term, though they wouldn’t have the 10,000 words of a journal article or the 80,000 words of a monograph to do it. I wondered: Would these responses read more like tweets? One invitee called “the brief form tragic.” The contributors, it turns out found the invitation challenging and rewarding, an opportunity to convey the familiar in an unfamiliar form. Brevity proved remarkably productive.
Those numbers—three and 1000—capture a helpful range and limit. Two seemed too few; 2000 too long (although some responses clock in around 1500). Imagined as accessible and compelling entry points into a complex scholarly world, the responses when read individually and together introduce the reader to a range of approaches on a single object of inquiry. Though these objects, these terms, are enumerated discretely, as if unhinged from a broader lexicon, they resonate with other terms in the Universe. What makes “spirit” different from “race”? “Modernity” distinct from “science” or “economy”? Why are “human” and “body” not collapsed into one? Where do these distinctions come from? When do they fail? What purposes do they serve—historically, culturally, and politically? Users are invited to raise these and other questions.
The project additionally consists of more than 150 essays previously published on TIF that are listed on each term page under the “From the Archive” header. Some parameters guided the selection. I primarily searched for essays in which the featured term and/or a close cognate appears (so for “body” I also searched for “bodies,” “embody,” “embodiment,” etc.) and is used in ways that advance the pedagogical and conceptual aims of the project. On occasion, I included essays that do not include the term but that do important work in the spirit of that term (Mark C. Taylor’s 2008 essay, “Play,” is listed under “performance,” for instance, though the term “performance” does not appear in the essay). If authors previously published essays on topics similar to the terms on which they were invited to write, I did not include those among the accompanying essays to avoid duplication of contributors and topics within a single term. And finally, I chose only one essay per previously published forum, with the exception of essays from forums in which more than one book was featured or from the “Is this all there is” project.
In this first iteration, the project includes more than 200 individuals.
Each term is accompanied by a public Spotify playlist. The idea to include playlists emerged in a conversation with my colleague at Amherst, Marisa Parham, one afternoon as we were thinking how to enhance the project’s accessibility, a question that hinges on another: how is language experienced? It turns out that several project contributors—some known for engaging musical genres in their scholarship and others not at all—brought sound into their responses, primarily through the use of YouTube links and the analysis of transcribed lyrics. How intuitive that scholars writing on key terms drew on the stories that songs tell to tell their stories about these terms. And so language becomes further unburdened. The scholar unburdens herself. Language is permitted to do other things. The scholar, unburdened, writes differently. I thought to create a standing archive of sound within the project; one, like the essay component, that could be adapted over time. The selection criteria for the inclusion of songs mirrors that which guided the inclusion of the accompanying essays: the featured term appears in their title, lyrics, the album’s title, or in the name of the artists. Close cognates were also used. The playlist for “performance,” which consists of live musical performances, is the only one that deviates from this convention. For, what I hope, are obvious reasons.
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The Universe has been informed from the start by my experience at Amherst, where I learned that effective teaching is a collaborative process between and among students and faculty—and often many members of broader learning communities. As the text-based component of this project was taking shape, so were ideas about its visual presentation, and I thought immediately of Emilie Flamme. Now a senior majoring in Architectural Studies and Russian, Emilie was among the very first students I met when I arrived at Amherst two years ago. I proposed that we collaborate on creating a visual identity for this project, a proposal she embraced and extended fully. The Gregory S. Call Academic Internship Program at Amherst provided the material support for her work, and I thank the Office of the Provost and Dean of the Faculty for making that possible. I thank Emilie for her exquisite vision and insightful feedback on this essay.
This project has also benefited during its stages of development from conversations with Amherst faculty and staff to whom I extend my gratitude for their time and suggestions. Specifically: Marisa Parham (English Department); Laure Katsaros (French Department); Mohamed Hassan (Five College Arabic Program); Maria Heim (Religion Department); Paul Schroeder Rodriguez and Jeannette Sanchez-Naranjo (Spanish Department); Riley Caldwell-O’Keefe and Asha Kinney (Center for Teaching and Learning); and Dawn Cadogan, Blake Doherty, and Missy Roser (Research and Instruction Department at Frost Library).
To my students in this semester’s Law, Religion, and Politics seminar: Thank you for admitting, honestly, “We just don’t get it.” I hope things make more sense now.