May 7, 1998

Graduate students hold third annual academic conference

Religion students create their own job opportunities

by Michael Dobie

Graduate students in Concordia's Department of Religious Studies aren't waiting for the world to come to them. On April 27, they held a full day of presentations by students from across Montreal under the title Shifting Perspectives: Interdisciplinary Studies in Religion and Culture.

The event, their third annual conference, was a showcase of their research in a highly eclectic field. The papers ranged from a comparison of sado-masochism with Christian asceticism to a discussion of the roles of tradition and feminism among Muslim women.

One of the final sessions was on careers in religion and theology in Montreal. "Students in Religious Studies are not aware of the job opportunities in the field," said Johanne M. Rabbat, a PhD student in Religion (Comparative Ethics) at Concordia, and one of the conference organizers.

Rabbat is also president of the Graduate Religion Students' Association, the assistant to the Chair of Hindu Studies and a representative and founding member of CERT (Coalition pour les études en Religion et en Théologie), a coalition of graduate students from all four Montreal university departments of religion and theology.

People often confuse students of Religious Studies with people entering the clergy, Rabbat said. They don't realize that it's an academic discipline, like history or economics.

Professor Ira Robinson said that 25 years ago, when he was a graduate student, there were no jobs out there, and that the situation hasn't changed. "Graduate students went into law school, business school, the clergy, all sorts of things," Robinson said. "I had dumb luck. Part of it was I believed I could do it."

More than self-confidence is required to land scarce faculty jobs, however. Another conference organizer, PhD student Deirdre Butler, pointed out that job experience is needed while students are still at school. Papers must be presented at conferences, research must be published, and students need to get experience teaching before they graduate and start looking for faculty positions.

There is little or no money for travel to conferences and to pay the dues. Academic conferences can be expensive to attend, and senior participants may be unfriendly to graduate students. Academic journals don't welcome graduate student research, and the first shot at the sessional jobs tends to go to part-time professors with many years' experience.

Butler said that in order to bridge these difficulties, students have to create their own opportunities. They do this by organizing the annual conference, publishing the Journal of Religion and Culture and pursuing opportunities to teach while still in graduate school.

The Journal of Religion and Culture(JRC) is edited by Butler, who is committed to publishing students' research. Selected papers from the conference will be published in an upcoming volume of the JRC.

Due to lack of funding, the future of the conference is in peril. This year, the JRC is subsidizing the conference by cutting its publication from biannually to annually and emptying its treasury. It's a gamble Butler hopes will allow the conference to secure the minimum $1,500 per year required.

Lest anyone doubt the social utility of religious studies, Robinson explained that the slaughter by U.S. government agents of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, might have turned out differently had the FBI listened to experts in the field.

The study of new religions, such as the Branch Davidians and other cults, are one of the strengths of Concordia's Religious Studies Department. Concordia is also strong in Judaic, Hindu and interdisciplinary studies, and recently created a chair in Islamic studies.

Sporty, Posh -- and Holy Spice?

"The virgin martyrs were like the Spice Girls of the medieval world," a graduate student told the interdisciplinary Religious Studies conference.

St. Margaret was a young Christian shepherdess who lived in Antioch in the fourth century AD, when the Roman Empire was still largely pagan and prone to persecuting Christians.

It is said that she caught the fancy of the local prefect, and when she spurned his advances, was tortured and thrown into prison. There she encountered both a dragon and the Devil disguised as a smooth-talking man. She refused to renounce her faith and was finally beheaded.

She is one of the "virgin martyrs," young women executed for their beliefs, whose stories are told in The Golden Legend, a listing of saints written by hagiographer James of Voragine in the 13th century.

The book was immensely popular in the Middle Ages. Printings of it even outnumbered copies of the Bible, according to Terry Nordoff-Perusse, a PhD student in Medieval Studies at McGill, who gave the presentation.

- MD

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