This post makes a claim about the production of a canon of young scholars of American religions, although I’m using canon somewhat unconventionally here. What I mean to say is that in my field there is a particular path for young scholars to be brought into the pantheon of important persons. It’s a pre-canonization that I’m tempted to describe as a fast-track for promising Americanists. I mean this in all the best ways, of course. They have excelled in attracting and identifying some of the best scholars working in the field of American religion. It’s a gold star group for sure. Do you know what I’m talking about? Have you guessed what it is? Here it is: the Young Scholars in America Program.
Beginning in 1991 cohorts have been selected to participate in seminars to develop their instructional, research, and other professional skills. Since then there have been eight multi-year programs completed by well over 100 scholars. Leaders of the program have included Catherine Albanese, William Hutchinson, Harry Stout, Grant Wacker, Wade Clark Roof, Ann Taves, Peter Williams, John Corrigan, Amanda Porterfield, and Ann Braude. This isn’t all of the leaders, but merely the ones whose seminal texts line the shelves just behind me as I write this. One or two of them are even former Young Scholars themselves, such as Paul Harvey and Stephen Prothero. It’s a veritable who’s who of the field of American religion.
If you were to continue to pursue the rolls of former participants you would find a host of scholars who have emerged as significant figures in our field. I mostly do modern American Christianity, so the names I recognize are somewhat skewed but here’s a quick rundown of folks I instantly recognized: Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Joel Martin, Thomas Tweed, Diana Butler Bass, Yvonne Chireau, Roberto Trevino, Eugene Mcarraher, Elizabeth McAlister, Leonard Primiano, Kathleen Joyce, Julie Byrne, Kathleen Flake, Khyati Joshi, Sarah McFarland Taylor, Courtney Bender, John Lardas Modern, Kathryn Lofton, Randall Stephens, Matthew Sutton, and Tisa Wenger.
I mean, my word! Past participants include Ph.D’s from Yale, UCSB, UCSD, UVA, Harvard, UChicago, Wisconsin, UNC, Duke, Princeton, Notre Dame, Stanford, Michigan, UIowa, Emory, UFlorida, and many other equally esteemed and impressive institutions. And these folks are responsible for some really fantastic recent texts:
Take Randall Stephens’ The Fire Spreads (2008) or Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals (2010) or Kathleen Flake’s The Politics of Religious Identity (2004) or Sarah McFarland Taylor’s Green Sisters (2007). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of valuable contributions to our field. (I’m surprised that their site doesn’t have a better bibliography for its participants’ recent publications, but compiling such a list would be a significant undertaking.)
So the question I have is this: Should we celebrate the discriminating and successful selection committees or should we worry about the way in which this program seems to hand out, please forgive me, golden tickets for access to the factory floor where our field’s elite scholarship is produced? Is there a danger in creating such a dense network of related experts? What’s the story for the rest of us that fail to make the tour?
We all know that scholars from the same program often give each other a leg up. You need a respondent for a panel so you ask a colleague, do you know someone working in X area of specialty? Sure I do, they say, I went to school with Y person who did that! It’s not only inevitable, but it’s a fairly healthy way for us help one another advance our studies. We can’t all be experts in everything, so we must often defer or seek aid on things outside of our own areas.
If the elites are selecting from an elite pool is this process working against our field? I suppose it is of the same substance of arguments about the elite universities. Might it be better to spread the intellectual wealth? To be more democratic and less Skull & Bones? Shouldn’t we work in ever widening circles rather than sustaining a narrow view of those that need advanced professional training (that limits it to an elite few)?
I suppose in some ways this is also a negative appraisal of large conferences such as the AHA or AAR. How can we possibly hope to advance the careers of young scholars amid the sea of heady presentations? Reading or hearing the latest paper isn’t nearly so productive as a bare knuckles dialogue about teaching American religion with competing syllabi in hand. It is also an indictment of the ways in which smaller conferences fail to provide a suitably diverse playing field for intellectual contributions. We can become pigeon-holed by our interests in ways that reduce the interconnections that facilitate new methods and techniques. We need common ground, but also room to be different. That seems to me part of the great strength of the Young Scholars program–it is just large enough to be diverse but also just small enough for everyone to share clear common ground. Shouldn’t we want much more of this and far more often?
Despite these wishes for an expansion of the agenda implicit in the Young Scholars in American Religion program, my impression of its contributions are entirely positive. I think it is perfectly appropriate to gather eager new faculty and work with them to ease their transition into the ranks of senior professors. It is more than admirable, and therefore it is curious that our field doesn’t offer many similar programs for its young scholars (and especially its graduate students). Shouldn’t we all wish to be canonized as part of the emerging cohort of young scholars? For now I can simply be thankful that so much good has come out of this meeting of minds, and wish it many more years of productive seminars and colloquium. One day I may hope for a golden ticket myself, but until then I’ll keep my eyes on those who have the prize and eagerly await their efforts.
[For an administrative perspective on meritocracy and hiring that intersects with my inquiries about the expansion of participation in professional development by way of addressing how hiring works, check out Deandad’s response to a recent IHE article on “Academe as Meritocracy.”]