Summer 2019 update

photo by wife

The 2018-2019 school year has wrapped up, and summer is upon us. It’s been quite a year for me. I have a number of things coming through the pipeline, some articles, some book chapters, even a manuscript for a monograph that I’ve been crafting on Cantonese Protestants and postsecular civil societies on the Pacific Rim.

Some stuff has been happening already. A chapter of mine on cultural geography came out in the volume Theorizing ‘Religion’ in Antiquity, edited by Nickolas Roubekas, in which I continue my unlikely defence from my piece on ‘grounded theologies‘ of the legacy of Mircea Eliade as a historian of religion who is a central figure (at least as I argue) in geographies of religion. I gave a colloquium talk at Calvin College’s Department of Geology, Geography, and Environmental Studies on an article I’ve been crafting on Chinese American megachurches in the Silicon Valley. My critical reflective piece on the concepts ‘uniatism’ and the ‘model minority’ that the magazine Patriyarkhat invited me to write has come out, first in Ukrainian translation in the print version in December 2018, then online in English, and now also with footnotes and extended clarifications in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. I’ve attended four conferences — the American Academy of Religion in November 2018, a very interesting conference on Christian social activism and Chinese societies at Purdue’s Center for Religion and Chinese Society, the American Association of Geographers in April 2018 where I organized and presented an exegesis of Paulo Freire in a session on pedagogy and religion in geography, and the Association for Asian American Studies in that same month, during which I had the honour of organizing an all-star, standing-room-only panel on the historian Gary Okihiro’s provocation ‘Asians did not go to America; America went to Asia.’ We are going to continue the intervention with Okihiro’s work at the American Studies Association later this November in Honolulu, with another panel titled Third World Studies, Not Ethnic Studies, as a conversation around Okihiro’s longstanding argument that the internationalist sensibilities that gave rise to anti-colonial critiques of racial formations caved to liberal nationalist frameworks that led to the siloing of identity in the academy.

As I wrapped up my third and final year as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University, I expanded the scope of my teaching. My course offerings this year ranged the full gamut of my repertoire in Asian American studies: Asian American history, Chinese American studies, Asian American religion, Asian American social movements, Global Chinatowns, and Asian American geographies. But this year especially, I have been drawn more directly into the formal individual supervision of students. In the past, I had taught some directed studies courses, as well as supervised research, on topics closer to my own research interests on Asian American Christianities and their relationship to Asian American studies. But this year, there has been a wide much range of independent studies topics, including Korean dance and ‘the invention of tradition,’ sonic orientalism in popular movie soundtracks, Global China and feminism, research methods in Chicago’s Chinese churches and trans-Pacific theologies, indigeneity and orientalism on the Pacific, the postsecular Pacific, and psychoanalysis and the Pacific. I also had the privilege of supervising my first thesis student Irina Huang, an undergraduate senior in American studies, who wrote a theoretically rigorous piece woven in with personal creative nonfiction essays on how obsessive-compulsive disorder functions in the normative public sphere as a ‘model minority’ of mental illness.

I continue to be active in my public engagements as well. The journalist Douglas Quan interviewed me for a very interesting piece last October on Richmond’s ‘cultural diversity policy.’ I have also been invited by Worldview on WBEZ 91.5 FM in Chicago four times over the last school year to offer scholarly analyses of Hong Kong, its tradition and practice of protests, and the recent blow-ups about the incarceration of some figures from the Occupy Central and Umbrella Movement occupations in 2014 as well as the controversial extradition law.

In terms of service, one role that I have taken on over the last year is to be program co-chair of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Reading through the abstracts and thinking about organizing the program has given me new insight into what we do as social scientists of religion. I am glad to be working with our president Elaine Howard Ecklund and my co-chair Ryon Cobb as we expand the diversity of our organization, especially for the conference in St Louis this year in October.

Finally, my biggest and most exciting announcement is that I have just started work as Assistant Professor in Humanities (Education) at Singapore Management University. In addition to teaching courses in the School of Social Sciences, my major role there is to offer the Core Curriculum, a program that seeks to engage students across the school with the big concepts that are fused throughout our contemporary world. This year, the theme will be Happiness and Suffering, which I will teach, along with my colleagues, as a philosophical, psychoanalytical, and postsecular exploration of these affects, emotions, and orientations to the world. As an academic, my work is to write and to probe the complex phenomena common to our shared inhabitation of the earth, so it obviously goes without saying that my published views anywhere are in no way to be associated with my employers, as if academics could fully agree on anything anyway. Indeed, my convictions about all academic work — whether under the pillar of research, teaching, service, or community engagement — is that it should all be a springboard into a larger discussion in which all participants are strengthened through engagement, never the final word on any topic. I am thrilled to ‘let my work grow up,’ as I heard one senior academic once describe to a junior colleague, in this intellectual community, and I look forward to spirited engagements and enthusiastic conversation here.

Guest lecturing in Phil Tite’s UW class

Yesterday, I gave a guest lecture in Dr Phil Tite‘s class at the University of Washington (UW) on Theories in the Study of Religion, a course listed in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies as JSIS C 380. Here’s Phil’s recap from Facebook – I won’t share the actual post because the settings are limited to Phil’s and my friends, but the text is a thank-you note I appreciate very much:

Thank you, Justin Tse, for another excellent guest lecture (via Skype) on geographies of religion. This is the third time Justin has done this for my Theories in the Study of Religion course and each time is excellent (though very unique). And each time I learn a little something more about cultural geography. I’m glad I can incorporate this emerging theoretical approach to my course.

This is indeed the third time that I’ve given a lecture on what cultural geography has to do with religious studies in his class. However, each time has been different. Perhaps this has to do with how I am constantly learning new things about geography myself, and maybe it has to do with how geographers are constantly expanding the boundaries of the discipline more generally. It may also have to do with the kinds of questions that students ask me in each class.

In some ways, I feel like I’ve stumbled onto a new style of guest-lecturing recently. It may have to do with the ways I’m developing as a teacher more generally, but I feel a greater sense of freedom in letting go of my lecture material and engaging the interests of the students in relation to the material. In previous iterations of this lecture in Phil’s class, for example, we tended to stick to the material I prepared, which means that students often contested me, for example, on whether bodies constitute a place (such as whether Muslim women wearing headscarves is an act of placemaking) and how theologies can be grounded in secular sites. It’s all very interesting stuff, but I am starting to see guest-lecturing as an opportunity to parachute into a class that I’m not teaching and to learn something from the encounter. With the two latest guest lectures I’ve given this week (the previous one in Steven Hu’s UCSB class),  what I’m starting to discover is that guest lectures give me the chance to learn about why topics that I find interesting would be of interest to undergraduate students who are not experts in the fields where I work. The result, I am discovering, is that we dig deeper into the discipline itself as student interest guides the way.

After the experience of guest-lecturing in Steve’s class on Monday, I consciously thought about how I would structure this lecture for Phil’s class in order to learn from the students why they might find cultural geography interesting for their study of religion. We got through one section on what geography is (where I explained to them what the ecumene, the inhabited world, was – see here for an explanation I did for another class) and what religion has to do with geography (everything). As I asked for questions, we found ourselves drawn into conversation about how understanding the ecumene at the existential (or ‘ontological’) level often raised theological questions. For some reason, this led into an extended discussion of A Song of Ice and Fire and how geographies of religion could be understood throughout the series, both in the book and on the HBO show. The students emphasized to me that their mouths were all wide open (jaw hit floor, that is) when we started talking about this, and I emphasized to them that this was neither my original idea nor my fully developed research (although, as a point of announcement, Game of Thrones is factoring into my postdoctoral work on politicized civil societies and theological communities more than I have anticipated). For this allusion, I acknowledged the work and teaching of Susan Johnston at the University of Regina for helping me take this series seriously (note to Susan: I’m still reading and catching up, and to be honest, I’m still only at the beginning of the first book! Ned Stark is still alive for me!). I also took similar questions about topics that are more tangential to my area of study (which means that the students took the time to educate me), such as neo-Nordic religiosity (such as belief-but-not-really in Wodin) in Black Nordic Metal, nineteenth- and twentieth-century imperialism in Eastern Europe and the Middle East (maybe hanging out with Eastern Catholics is helping with this one, though – also, I invoked Timothy Snyder‘s work and basically called him a new cultural geographer for his attention to ideology and the making of place in the ‘bloodlands‘ of Eastern Europe), cataclysmic events in the physical environment (we talked about Jared Diamond and his detractors), and the ancient accounts of the Flood.

Photo on 2016-05-12 at 12.19 PM #2

The interesting part is that this led to us talking about key themes in human geography that I often don’t cover in my survey of geographies of religion. For example, Phil pointed out that what I was describing was a ‘relational’ geography of religion, and while Phil came up with this independent of the literature, this is indeed the word that is widely used especially in UK geography, especially by Gill Valentine. We also talked about the ‘activation of landscapes,’ which is a term that is sometimes used by geographers, though I don’t think it’s technical. What is more of a technical term, though, is stuff – geographers do have the debates about the materiality of stuff (and ‘shit,’ for that matter), although I have to thank Sam Rocha for drawing my attention to how important the word stuff is as a serious word.

What I took away from this conversation is that the students in Phil’s class are into the grand epic narratives and operating fictions in our contemporary society. We had some debate in our exchange about whether secularization really could be thought of as a theological process and whether secular social theory really could be understood (pace Milbank) as theology, but there was no question when we got down to the nitty gritty that in the fantasies and fictions that permeate our everyday lives, there is something theological going on, even if few actually believe in them. In some ways, this is a Žižekian insight – reality is ‘less than nothing‘ because ideologies can still operate even if nobody believes in them.

I want to thank Phil for the opportunity once again to work these thoughts out on screen and for his class for being so open to exploring these avenues in geography with me. I think I will stick to this approach to guest lecturing; it seems to bring me through more material than the stuff I prepare in advance, and because of that, we actually get to try to do geography together.