In Conversation with Dr. Carolyn J. Medine, Part I

Kate Daley-Bailey, Religion Nerd Contributor and visiting instructor at Georgia State University, recently spent an afternoon In Conversation With Dr. Carolyn J. Medine, associate professer at the University of Georgia.  Kate and Dr. Medine’s lively discussion spans many aspects of Religious Studies including the responsibilities of teaching, current projects, the importance of mentoring, and the significance of the discipline of Religious Studies.

Carolyn Medine is an associate professor of Religion and in the Institute of African American Studies; her research interests are in Arts, Literature, and particularly Literature concerning the Southern and African American women’s religious experience.   She has written extensively on the works of Toni Morrison, Harper Lee, and other notables.  Dr. Medine’s research interests also include religion and politics, theory from the classical to the postmodern, and the intersection of classical and modern literature.  She is a graduate of the University of Virginia and teaches courses on Religion and Literature, African American Religions and Literatures, Religious Theory and Thought, and Women’s Spirituality and Writings. (Source: UGA) 

Religion Nerd is delighted to launch our In Conversation With series with this absorbing and insightful discussion.  In Conversation With will be an ongoing series that will periodically feature prominent academics in the field of Religious Studies, as well as Religious Leaders, and Religion Journalists in conversation with Religion Nerd contributors.  Welcome to In Conversation with Dr. Carolyn Medine

Current Projects: 

KDB: What are you working on? 

CJM: In teaching, I am beginning to read some new theory. New for me… it is probably not new for a lot of people. Giorgio AgambenHomo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life… some of the latest Jonathan Z. Smith and a little bit of Said, Reflections on Exile, and that will be part of a graduate seminar. We are going to start with Foucault and Derrida and then move into these. I think it is important to go back to Derrida and Foucault and then forward. 

And in scholarship, my friend, Randy LeBlanc, and I just finished putting some essays together. The essays are on religion, politics, and literature… and so we have those out at a press. 

I am finishing up, actually I am about two-thirds of the way through my project on Southern Women and religion. I am focusing on women who are predominately not Protestant… so a Catholic woman, a Jewish woman, a Buddhist woman. I am looking at how these women in the South, are negotiating these different identities. 

KDB: That sounds exciting! Are you and Randy LeBlanc going to publish your set of essays? 

CJM: Yes- they are out at several presses right now. They are under review so let’s hope somebody wants them. They are odd in that they are so interdisciplinary. They don’t stay within boundaries so I think some presses may not know how to categorize them. 

KDB: Or know where to put them? 

CJM: Yes. We tried to pick presses that were more willing to cross boundaries like Palgrave… It is time… we have been doing this work together for years. 

KDB: Regarding your work on southern women of different religions, will this become a book?  

CJM: I hope so! I have a chapter on Jan Willis, Estella Conwill Majozo, who is a Catholic woman in Kentucky. She is very interesting because she is a poet and her brother makes sculpture, and they have joined together with an architect to create public monuments…including a Martin Luther King monument. They have done a Stations of the Cross kind of monument. With the three of them working together, it is very interdisciplinary. She is a fascinating woman… and a “cradle Catholic,” raised Catholic in Kentucky. She had left the Church and then came back. The chapter is I am struggling with is the Jewish one, and I want to use Alice Walker’s daughter’s work. She is a Jewish Buddhist. I also want to incorporate Stella Suberman’s The Jew Store. 

KDB: Is there anything in compiling this work that surprised you? Anything you didn’t expect? 

CJM:  Hmmm… that is a good question. It is probably that although they are practicing these hybrid religions they are very much embedded in community. So it is not the lonely quest. It is very feminist … womanist… and they are not just embedded in these communities of origin but also developing new communities. I think that has been the most surprising thing. And that it happens in the South…which, for most people, feels so homogenous…I think that has been the most interesting to me. But the South is far from homogenous… and if you look at a place like Atlanta, you see that. I remember growing up in North Carolina, we had restaurant run by a Lebanese family and I never thought about what religion they were, but there they were within the community. And my mother’s best friend was Roman Catholic. I wasn’t a religion scholar then… that may have been what got me being a religion scholar. It is just interesting to think about how that was all around me and yet I didn’t think about it. 

Events in the Discipline of Religious Studies  

KDB: In way do you think religious studies, in general, is going? 

CJM: That is a political and theoretical question; political because we have seen the split of the AAR [American Academy of Religion] and SBL [Society of Biblical Literature]. And that was a decision about where Biblical studies and theology “belong,” in some peoples’ thought, in the study of other religions. This has been a painful break, and I think most people don’t want to see that kind of intense separation–a lot of scholars play across boundaries. The untiring efforts of Emilie Townes, who was AAR president (she’s a dean at Yale), to address this separation and how to mend it must be mentioned, with honor.  The other part of it is that we have to deal with postmodern and postcolonial theory and the fallout after the deaths of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Edward Said. There is a sense that people are kind of taking a deep breath and thinking, “Thank God that is over”… but it is not over. It is just moving to a new stage in the voices of people like Tariq Ramadan, in Islam; Charles Hallisey in Buddhist Studies, and others.  In a way, it is a return to the thought of people like Emmanuel Levinas and Paul Ricoeur—who were already constructivists.                                                                  

All in all, how we figure out that next step is going to be really challenging and exciting. We have to admit what we usually teach is elite religion–if you teach the world religions course you are teaching religion of people who wrote stuff down. This gives you a certain perspective on religion. How you get to the so-called popular religion or what the people were doing–this is what the postcolonial is about—is another, different one. We need both, though. Both tell the story.  There is also resurgence in the importance of narrative and story, and I’m glad… 

KDB: Me too! 

CJM: So I think that is going to be much more important. I wish more people knew how to deal with it, had tools from literary criticism—which includes all that theory!  All in all, however, I’m glad to see that it is part of the conversation again because I think we are really dealing with issues of representation. How we are represented in America in the Muslim mind and how we represent the Muslim, for example. We are in, at the point of, a big crisis of representation. Don’t you think so? 

KDB: Oh definitely, especially for young people. I think the questions they are asking are those that older generations get uncomfortable by. They seem to be dealing in a heightened way with what it means to be a religious person and to be a modern person… or a postmodern person.  

Challenges of Technology   

KDB:  What do you think about media, all the radical changes in media? Do you think this will change how we do what we do as scholars? 

CJM: Yes, because I think we are already dealing with technology. Sometimes, it is just as a tool in the classroom, that most of us my age don’t use very well. We are teaching a generation that is media saturated and that does two things. It makes them savvy in certain ways but, on the other hand, they have a difficult time really thinking about things. One of my students said when we were discussing some older theorists, “Wow! these people really thought about things… my generation, we just go to class and watch TV.”   I said, “Don’t tell me that.” 

KDB: That breaks my heart. 

CJM: It is as if the media takes over people’s minds… they are sort of paralyzed by it. I don’t like that… if you are going to engage in it, at least be able to critique it. 

KDB: Or at least be in conversation with it. That is where I think literature can be helpful. I feel that with literature, my students and I can come together and have something that we are talking about in the text… and I think you can use films in the same way. Actually, you can use any kind of media… as long as you come together to talk about it. The problem I think is that people usually just end up watching…and not being in conversation. 

CJM: It is changing the structure of our society as well. We are suspicious of smartness. We are suspicious of people that speak in long sentences, like academics, and we are suspicious of the intellectual life. We are so used to the sound bite. We succumb to “the loudest person wins” rule… to the lack of decorum.  That is not really conversation, just people screaming at each other. There are a couple of moderates, like Tavis Smiley and Jon Stewart. Jon Stewart is funny but there is seriousness there as well. 

KDB: You have to think… everything he says is to make you go a step further. 

CJM: Bill Moyers is retiring. My husband and I were watching TV the other night, and we saw a commercial for the Saturday night’s programming and it was cage fighting. It was going to be on CBS, and I said to Scott, “This is the network that used to do documentaries. It was a network that entertained but also educated. Now it is cage fighting.”

 KDB: We are back to the Coliseum … back to bread and circus. 

CJM: That is what bothers me, and of course that part of it is exploitative. We watch people beating each other up, accept that physical and psychic violence. And that’s not even to mention the material regarding children and pornography. 

KDB: I am not worried about the material, per say, because that has always existed. I am worried about the accessibility. The internet in general is strange because you gain the illusion of intimacy but you really don’t know who you are interacting with. 

CJM: People have the ability to create any identity–you can be anyone you want to be. You can create a whole persona to perform out of. It is an odd form of schizophrenia that I see people engaging in. Posting all those pictures… this makes me think that no one is actually living life in the present. 

KDB: They are taking pictures TO put them on facebook. 

CJM: The question is not, “Am I enjoying this?” but, rather “How am I going to show other people what I have done?” It is a performance of identity. Someone said on NPR that it is much like the age of Shakespeare. It is like the metaphor of theater like my friends Jim Hardy and Gale Carrithers wrote about:  all of this has to do with simulation and performance. The woman on NPR, I wish I could remember her name, said that the age of Shakespeare was an age when people were very aware that they were performing identity. Maybe we are [in] a neo-Elizabethan age. 

KDB: That is so interesting. I know NPR definitely helps me… in that it is how so many media outlets used to be… entertaining but also educating. 

Mentors and Mentoring 

KDB:  Who are the scholars, your mentors, who you feel have really shaped who you are as a scholar? 

CJM: Good heavens, yes! I’ve been extremely lucky. I’ve had some fine mentors and the more I work with young teachers, I realize how rare this is. One of my very first teachers was Michael Gaspeny, at Elon College. His specialty was American Literature, and there I was, at 16, a high school kid, taking his class…and he kept pushing me. I took all my survey courses with him. He would hand me back a test and it would have a note on it: “Well this is really good…try writing it in pen next time”– because I would write everything in pencil. So the next time I would write it in pen. And he would write, “This is really good… I think you need to read such and such,” and this was this constant kind of pushing that really challenged me. 

KDB: Like nudging? 

CJM: Yeah… his nudging. He was a great teacher. He still is a great teacher and a fine poet. Once I got to college, I met and studied with Ruel W. Tyson at UNC-Chapel Hill…Intellectually, as a teacher, I’m just mini-Ruel. We don’t think about the same stuff. He is anthropological, and he would read Pilgrim’s Progress every class. But I approach material like he does and present material like he does, I feel imprinted by him. Charles Long, another of my teachers, I feel very much imprinted by him. And in his way, Nathan Scott. I think I am just beginning to realize after twenty years in the profession how much I have internalized of him. I just bought a bunch of his books because I realized I only had two or three of his works. So I started ordering his books, because I want to get them before they are not available anymore. Robert Detweiller is another mentor. He just passed away recently. He set my career on a path that transformed it and me. There are so just many people that helped me. There were people at LSU—namely, Jim Hardy— that took me under their wings and showed me how to get through the tenure process and how to publish, but, more important, how to enjoy the intellectual life. 

Yes–I’ve been really lucky. I feel like I have had a guided career … it is strange to get older and be the guide. I’m still guided by senior scholars that take care of me…it is like my friend Randy says, “sometimes you just want to be taught again.” 

KDB: I think the same way. Sometimes I think how nice it would be to be the student in the classroom… but feel that the responsibility of leading the class is no longer on your shoulders.  

CJM: I got to teach with Charles Long, and it was amazing. He went over some of the things that he taught us in the first year of my MA at Carolina, and I thought, “Oh, that was what you meant.”  Of course, I am realizing this 20 years later. It is just funny to think that I had gotten just a piece of it and now listening to him again I got a bigger piece of it. And if he told me again, I would get an even bigger piece of it. It is odd to be around these great teachers and to realize how much they have instilled in you, knowledge and these patterns. I’m different and yet I am the same. 

KDB: It is very much like a lineage. You acquire your own way and own views, but you have borrowed patterns, reinterpreted patterns, and have morphed their patterns into something you can use.  

CJM: And you pass that on to your students. 

KDB: Well I have to say that you have definitely been my mentor, and I know many other young scholars see you as their mentor. I guess I never really knew how important it was to have a mentor until I met students who didn’t have one. I noticed that these mentor-less students lost their enthusiasm for their work very quickly. Having a mentor is something I am so thankful for. And I think it is true that you are shaped by your teachers.  

CJM: Every student will be different but you have to know that somebody has your back. 

KDB: It is like being a child… that you need to know that there is someone who will not let you walk off the cliff… 

CJM: And to catch you if you do. And there are some people that can’t do that. I know scholars who are terrified to publish anything that might contradict their mentor or something their mentor might get upset about. There should be no bullying in mentorship. A young scholar once told me that he would talk to his thesis director, and they would talk about his work, but after a while he could see that his director was not interested in him or his work anymore. I think I think I got this mentoring nature from the late Robert Detweiler who had the most generous spirit when it came to young scholars. He never felt diminished by helping others develop their careers. That can be a rare thing in the academic world where there is a pressure to publish, and the pressure to be a star. He was a star but he just liked young people. He liked new thought. He would set his students in places, saying “You need to be here” and “you need to be doing this.” This is stuff you don’t know as a young scholar. You need someone to look at the whole picture and send you in the right direction. 

KDB: To see the forest through the trees… 

CJM: Yes–because they have been through that forest and know the good spots and the dangers too.

Part II of In Conversation With Dr. Carolyn J. Medine will be featured on Religion Nerd on July 30th, 2010.

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