WoNJAR Introducing: Helen Lee

Hello! I’m Helen, the third co-founder of WoNJAR. Due to my relatively quiet presence on Twitter compared to Joanna and Bex, it is high time I say a little something about myself, and how I reached this point, hoping for an academic career in religious studies.

As a child, I attended church on a weekly basis from the age of four, and it became a huge part of my life. I loved absolutely everything to do with church, except from the lack of a Sunday lie in! Fast-forwarding a few years, I was a very religious teenager. I had been confirmed as a full member of the Church of England, was a ‘worship prefect’ at my Church of England school, and at some points had seriously considered ordination as a career path. I had done really well in GCSE Religious Education (thanks to my teacher), and had been heavily encouraged to do ‘religious studies’ at A Level (whatever that was). I thought that this ‘religious studies’ would be some kind of extension of my GCSE course, and that the Philosophy of Religion component would both deepen my faith, and help me as a church youth group leader. It didn’t do that. It made me an atheist.

So, what did teenage atheist do? Teenage atheist carried on going to church for a while anyway, wondering how people continued to believe, and how this belief could translate into evangelical activity. Every Sunday lunch time consisted of me ranting to my poor mum about church and the (to my teenage mind) increasingly tenuous arguments from that morning’s sermon. I found this ‘insider-but-really-outsider’ state of being incredibly confusing, but I was still hooked. It seemed I loved learning about religion and religious communities, even as a non-believer. I used this as my rationale for applying to do Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds, did my A Levels, and got in.

My undergraduate studies at Leeds were a departure from what had gone before. Out went Philosophy of Religion, and in came the elementary study of various religious traditions, religious environmentalisms, and religious feminisms. In my first year I did fieldwork at a Quaker meeting house in Leeds, and loved it. I remember thinking quite naively, “I’d love to do this as a job”. My personal tutor and dissertation supervisor Dr Rachel Muers, was always excited about and supportive of my research ideas, and was extremely helpful during my planning and writing my dissertation (on Quaker ecospirituality and environmentalism). I did an ERASMUS exchange year at Charles University in Prague, and learned a lot there. I wholeheartedly loved my degree, and wished it could go on forever.

Throughout, though, I remained decidedly not confident, and not proud of many, if any, of my academic achievements. I graduated with a 2:1 and was so disappointed, I saw no point in attending my graduation ceremony. I spent a couple of months post-graduation on unemployment benefits, and eventually found a call centre job with the Government sorting out benefit overpayments. During this time I tried to convince myself I was not good enough for an academic career (both academically and inherently as a person), and tried to squeeze myself into looking for a career in finance or accounting, because I thought at least I would earn a load of money. For some perspective on how twisted this was, I failed my GCSE Maths first time around. However, I missed Leeds and academic life terribly. The things I missed most were my lecturers and the libraries- I missed having academic discussions. It took a lot of courage, but I emailed my former supervisor Rachel for some help. I then applied for the MA course in Theology and Religious Studies and was accepted, with a fees scholarship to boot. I was amazed, both at my luck, and how much I felt ‘wanted’ by my department.

Therefore, that sense of ‘imposter syndrome’ is something I can relate to very well. I am now halfway through my MA as a part time student, and my research interests centre on Islamophobia in the UK, and how this has tied into politics. Recently, I’ve written about the Conservative-majority Coalition of 2010-2015, and looked at the discourse of both David Cameron and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, and their avoidance of the term ‘Islamophobia’ through this time. I’m really interested in Islamophobia because, like most of my generation, I grew up surrounded by media and culture hostile to Muslims and their place in British society. Through my postgraduate studies, I have learned that racist ideas are both rendered invisible by their normativity, and that people therefore try to avoid discussions on racism, and how Islamophobia fits into that discussion. However, I’m a firm believer that what is avoided, and what is not said, should be looked at in great detail, and I especially enjoy grappling with issues that people would rather not look at!

I’ll end, for now, by saying how excited I am to be a part of WoNJAR. My main hope for WoNJAR is that we can help to eradicate the phenomenon of low confidence in female academics, especially those from families like mine, with no prior academic background. I’m really looking forward to working with more people, and watching our network grow.

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WoNJAR Introducing: Joanna Pedder

The WoNJAR co-founders have decided to kick this blog off with a short series of “introducing” posts so that give us the chance to talk about who we are and what we research. Its Joanna’s turn today.

Perhaps I should mention my own background and relationship with religion. For the earliest years of my life, I learned that religion was something to decide for myself. It was then a strange experience, as a 10-year-old in Australia, when I attended a church for the first time, as my dad begin to engage with Christianity (my mum, like her parents, remains very much an atheist). While we lived there, my dad befriended a Baha’i family, who invited us to the Temple in Sydney – my first experience of visiting a non-Christian place of worship. ‘Religion’ took to a background place for me when I was back in the U.K. during my high schooling and I decided that I was an atheist. Yet I became very interested in philosophy and I always enjoyed the ethical debates in my Religious Studies classes, so I continued this class into my A-Levels. I moved to a Catholic Sixth Form college, however, and I found myself in many debates as an atheist (one of the more vocal) with others in the class (not excluding the Priest who was my teacher).

Bizarrely, I did not originally apply to do my BA in Theology and Religious Studies, so my route was somewhat accidental onto the course. However, I thoroughly enjoyed my course, where I generally pursued modules with a stronger philosophical bent, so it was the right course for me. While I’d continually flirted with the prospect of doing an MA, I didn’t really have my heart set on any particular field in the study of religion until I studied a module in my final UG year called “Religion, Politics and the Future”, a module which challenged and shifted some of my own political perceptions. Despite writing a dissertation I thoroughly enjoyed on meta-ethics and the Hebrew Bible, I had found a passion for political theology in that module. My interests required a move to the University of Manchester for my MA, so I took a somewhat Kierkegaardian ‘leap of faith’ to give me the best grounding to pursue research in my chosen field.

During my MA ‘Religion and Politics’ module I was introduced to conservative dimensions of political theology: Thomas Hobbes and Carl Schmitt. It was reading Schmitt which led me to my current interest in conservatism and its intersection with Catholicism. Although I am not politically conservative (currently I am a member of the U.K. Labour Party), what intrigues me is the defence of Catholicism as a public entity against liberalism and privatisation of belief i.e. the values which I had been raised in. Hence for me, there is a personal philosophical and political connection in my studies, indeed, my own perception of what ‘atheism’ means has evolved substantially since I was 12 years old. Recently I finished a research essay on Schmitt’s 1923 tract Roman Catholicism and Political Form, with a focus on his engagement with Renouveau Catholique literature, a genre containing mystical dimensions aplenty. Politically I have an admiration of miracles in the leftist and emancipatory sense a la Žižek (who I am politically sympathetic with).  However, after studying the conservative interest in the miraculous, I have seen how they’ve become symbolic of divine authority and demonstrative of the ‘anti-technocratic’, thus forming a theological basis for decisionism, a characteristic of conservative/fascist thought. Studying conservatism has honed my own politics – I now refer to myself as an “auratic leftist” (anti-technocratic leftism). Embarking on my current dissertation research into “Arcane, Esoteric and Mystical Intersections with Conservative Political Theory”, I’m sure the personal politico-philosophical challenges will remain as integral to me as the academic.

Find Joanna on Twitter @JoannaPedder

WoNJAR Introducing: Rebecca Anthoney

The WoNJAR co-founders have decided to kick this blog off with a short series of “introducing” posts that give us the chance to talk about who we are and what we research; I guess I’m up first!

My name is Rebecca Anthoney, but I usually go by Bex. I grew up in a fairly religious environment, with a Methodist mum and an agnostic dad, attending church regularly and being educated in a Catholic school where Religious Studies (or, more correctly, Christian Studies) was given a lot of emphasis. All of this meant that I grew up with a lot of questions about religion and philosophy which led me to take an A Level in Theology and go on to study for a BA in TRS at the University of Leeds. While I was there, my interests in history, mythology and literature naturally led me to biblical studies, and in my final year I wrote a dissertation on the biblical virgin birth prophecy. This gave me the chance to explore ancient languages (Hebrew and Greek), ancient mythologies and concepts of sacred women and goddesses which have been of interest to me ever since.

I always wanted to go on to postgraduate study, but a lack of confidence and some less-than-ideal circumstances got in the way for a while. Luckily I have some fantastic friends and family, and back in July of last year my wonderful partner sat me down and told me to stop putting off pursuing my goals just because I was scared. That week, I sent out a lot of emails, pulled together some last-minute applications and somehow found myself looking at the prospect of starting an MA in Biblical Studies Research at the University of Sheffield. This was the home of the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies (SIIBS for short), and I couldn’t have found a better environment for my studies – even with the 4 hour round trip involved in getting to lectures! The weekly SIIBS Seminars exposed me to an array of research that I might not have never have come across. I was a part of their Dead Languages Society, which gave me the incredible opportunities to improve my Hebrew and even teach some beginner classes, which was a very cool experience. Most importantly, it was such a supportive and friendly environment, filled with staff and students who saw my research as important and interesting even when I had no faith in it myself.

Just last week, I submitted my MA dissertation, which explored the possibility of a “missing goddess” in the creation accounts of Genesis and gave me the opportunity to really sink my teeth into issues of gender studies, near eastern mythology, psycho-analytical approaches and a lot of other really fascinating areas. I was honestly quite hard to say goodbye to it! It’s hard to believe that my time with SIIBS came and went so quickly, but it was invaluable to my growth as an academic and I look forward to seeing more of the research coming from there and I’m sure that I’ll stay in contact.

Right now, it’s hard to say what the future holds for me. The time has finally come to try and find myself some funding to start a PhD in 2018, so my focus over the next year or so will be on that. Funding applications are something of an intimidating journey which I’m sure many of our followers will also be going through, so I’ll try and post the occasional update on that whole process. I’m going to try and improve my Hebrew as well as teach myself the ancient near eastern language Akkadian (gulp) and keep researching and learning. On top of that, WoNJAR is going to be an exciting and demanding project which will keep me more than busy!