Mary E. Hunt, Monique Moultrie, and I are updating the Guide for Women in Religion. The original version was edited by Mary with an impressive cast of contributors and first published ten years ago. Organized with entries from “A” (AAR) to “Z” (Zeitgeist), it was the successor to the 1992 Guide to the Perplexing, which billed itself as a “survival manual” and was team-written by a group that includes several now-legendary figures in the field, then junior folks trying to find their way in the sometimes hostile, often bewildering landscape of academic religious studies, particularly at the AAR and SBL.
With each iteration of the Guide, some important things have changed. (Others have not, but that’s another blog.)
One thing that has changed for the better: There are now plenty of women in senior positions, women who have attained the rank of full professor (and retired as emerita), or direct major organizations, who are recognized as leaders in their scholarly fields. Women’s studies in religion has gained prominence as a serious subfield, and gender as a crucial category (or factor, or variable, or consideration, or analytic lens) appears in a great deal of scholarship and not a few job ads.
Another significant change is technology. The last edition had an entry on computers. We have decided to trash it. As Mary put it, it would be like having an entry on telephones. We are updating entries to reflect, for instance, that you locate sessions at the AAR by app, that networking may include blogging or an academia.edu page, and so forth. Whether good or bad, these shifts are inevitable; technology brings new possibilities as well as complications, and we’re trying to account for some of them.
Another change is ugly: the continual erosion of “traditional” academic jobs leading to a hauntingly large proportion of the academic workforce in adjunct or otherwise contingent positions. These sub-par jobs are disproportionately filled by women, and although the previous edition acknowledged the existence of part-time and contract teaching faculty, its advice presumed a “regular” faculty job. This is no longer defensible. But it is not clear how to address those who move from religious or theological studies into a range of professional paths. Even the terminology perplexes. What do we use for keywords? Adjunct? Alt-ac? Independent scholar? Non-teaching scholar? What about for those who no longer do scholarship and work instead in activism, the non-profit sector, or religious bureaucracies?
Though we aim to reflect the diverse ways in which professionals and students in religious studies approach their careers, by necessity or by choice, it is difficult to give advice that suits a woman preparing for ministry, and one who is teaching classes at three local colleges for a pittance piece-wage, and one running a local non-profit, and one who works for a newspaper, and one who has gone into administration (at lower or higher ranks), and one who got a doctorate followed by a tenure-track assistant professorship. There are simply too many differences.
It took me a shamefully long time to realize, of course, that this is just another way that women are diverse. The last edition attended to issues of race, disability, and sexual orientation, as well as religious (non)observance (see the entry on “Christian hegemony”). We are trying to do better still this time around on these and other elements that shape women’s lives. Now we must really grapple with professional diversity as one of the myriad ways that women differ from one another.
It is one thing, though, to realize that women differ and another to attempt to offer advice that will be of service to the widest possible audience. We are still feeling our way. Thus far, the best approach seems to be to acknowledge that some entries really do apply primarily to tenure-track jobs (Third year review, anyone?) but others (Benefits, Children, Relationships) need not be mostly geared toward tenure-track faulty with others mentioned as an afterthought. Another key technique has been to give caveats, frequently, alongside suggestions: your mileage may vary. Negotiating (a key entry) is very different as an associate professor than as an adjunct, and different again as an administrator. Our aim, in the end, is not to pronounce from on high – as feminists we at least ought to know better – but to distill the wisdom of a wide group of respected colleagues and make it accessible to others.
Those who have read the Guide, do you have suggestions for additions, deletions, changes? Those who haven’t, what would you like to see? Comment here or email me: email@example.com.
Kecia Ali is an Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University where she writes and teaches about Islam. Her books include Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence (2006), Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (2010), and The Lives of Muhammad (due out this fall). She lives in the Boston area with her family.