COR 3001: Big Questions: Happiness and Suffering (Core Curriculum, Singapore Management University)

I am very excited to be teaching the Big Questions course that is being rolled out with the newly revised Core Curriculum at Singapore Management University. Each year, the ‘Big Questions’ rotate themes. This year, it’s Happiness and Suffering. I’m told that next year will focus on ‘global and local.’

Some people have asked me how a geographer like me can teach such a philosophical course. I often respond with an answer that I once heard from a prominent feminist geographer as to what geographers do, that our readings are quite ‘intellectually promiscuous.’ Our discipline focuses on the examination of space, what it even is and how that interacts with human agents and non-human actors, so there is an element of theory that is shot through all of our work. I see teaching something like ‘happiness and suffering’ as an opportunity to move from the theoretical to the philosophical, to be invested not only in the applicability of ideas about space but also to test whether how we think about the basic concepts of feelings, affect, interiority, the self, and so on are even sound, even as we are interested in how they come to be deployed in space.

It is in this sense that I’ve articulated my sections of the course to be focused on the philosophical, psychoanalytical, and postsecular dimensions of happiness and suffering. There is a field within academia called happiness studies that I understand to try to measure what happiness is, while alleviating suffering. What I want to do is to locate such discussions in a broader theoretical conversation about the structures of feeling and what Charles Taylor calls a secular age. In some ways, teaching the course in this way is, like all of my other colleagues who are trying out pedagogical pathways into this topic this year, a grand experiment to see whether these ideas will interest students who are faced with a real world in which they’ll have to work and build lives.

Teaching begins soon, so I must sign off on this update and keep up with my preparations. I’m very excited to meet my students.

American Association of Geographers, 2015: Chicago, IL

In April 2015, I attended the American Association of Geographers’ Annual Meeting, held in Chicago, IL. I presented a paper, took part in a panel, and presided over the Business Meeting of the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Specialty Group (GORABS).

The paper I presented was titled ‘Sexualized unions: Cantonese evangelicals, educational politics, and labour politics in Vancouver, BC.’ This was in a session called Education, Faith, and Place 2 (3522) organized by Peter Hemming (Cardiff) and chaired by Betsy Olson (UNC-Chapel Hill). The abstract is as follows:

Since the late 1990s, Cantonese evangelicals in British Columbia have become known for their socially conservative politics against sexual liberalization, especially with regards to schools. Not only did they oppose the federal legalization of same-sex marriage in Canada, but they have organized against school boards introducing anti-homophobia curriculum and transgender policies while standing in solidarity with Trinity Western University in its struggle against the teachers’ union refusing to acknowledge its Teachers’ College because its community covenant proscribes homosexual practices. These socially conservative politics have seldom been interrogated in relation to the geographical literature on the transnational Hong Kong-Vancouver social field, where geographers have observed that Asia-Pacific migrants import a style of neoliberal privatization to Vancouver’s property market and educational institutions (Olds 1996; Mitchell 2004; Waters 2008; Ley 2010). Instead of presuming that religious sensibilities predispose Cantonese evangelicals toward social conservatism, my ethnographic findings reveal that economic subjectivities also shape ‘grounded theologies’ (Tse 2014). I argue that Cantonese evangelicals who oppose sexual liberalization in British Columbian schools do so because their practice of faith is shaped by their neoliberal opposition to labour unions. Cantonese evangelicals suggested that the teachers’ union used sexual liberalization as part of a larger public strategy to undermine their private economic and educational aspirations. This paper advances geographies of religion, education, and migration by examining how secular economic subjectivities can be deeply embedded in the practice of grounded theologies.

The panel in which I took part was: Geography and Asian-American Studies: Past Reflections and Future Collaborations. This was an intimate discussion organized by Sean Wang (Syracuse University), and featured some very good reflections from Wendy Cheng (Arizona State), Yui Hashimoto, Timothy Huynh (Pennsylvania State), Stevie Larson (UNC-Chapel Hill), and Ishan Ashutosh (Indiana University).

I was also privileged to preside as chair over this year’s Annual Lecture for GORABS given by Banu Gökariksel (UNC-Chapel Hill) and Anna Secor (University of Kentucky) on ‘the post-secular problematic.’

Our specialty group also had a field trip organized by Richard Dodge to Sacred Places in Chicago, in which participants visited the Seventeenth Church of Christ Science, the Chicago Temple (Methodist), the Frank Lloyd Wright Unity Temple in Oak Park, and the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette.

As I’m posting this super-late, I’m just going to end by saying that I’m looking forward to seeing everyone at AAG 2016 this year in San Francisco!

PhD Defence and Program Completion

With the successful completion and defence of my doctoral dissertation, I am pleased to announce that the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies has sent me a note to tell me that I have completed all of the program requirements for the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Geography.  This means that I officially have a PhD in hand.  The degree will in turn be formally conferred at the next Spring Convocation in 2014.

I am happy to share the link for my dissertation, Religious Politics in Pacific Space: Grounding Cantonese Protestant Theologies in Secular Civil Societies, from cIRcle, UBC’s online repository of theses and dissertations. I am in the process of finalizing the details as I start a postdoctoral fellowship externally funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada. This will take place at the University of Washington in Seattle under the direction of Professor James Wellman, Jr. I will be starting on a new postdoctoral project there (details forthcoming), and I will also be trying to turn this dissertation into a book while generating academic journal articles from it.

I defended the dissertation on 3 December 2013. My supervisory committee consisted of Professor David Ley (UBC Geography; my advisor), Professor Henry Yu (UBC History and Principal, St. John’s College), Dr. Claire Dwyer (University College London, Geography), and Professor Rudy Busto (UC Santa Barbara, Religious Studies). Of this committee, David Ley and Henry Yu were present. The departmental examiner was Professor Dan Hiebert (UBC Geography). The university examiner was Professor Don Lewis (Regent College, Church History). The external examiner was Professor Paul Cloke (University of Exeter, Geography). Chairing the proceedings was Professor Leanne Bablitz (UBC, Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies).

The defence took place at 9 AM on 3 December. After the chair read the rules (including the very ironic statement that ‘latecomers will not be admitted’), I gave a 25-minute presentation on my dissertation. This was followed by almost two hours of questions from each of the examiners; David Ley voiced the questions from the external, Paul Cloke. I passed the entire ordeal with minor revisions, which were completed in one day and then submitted to the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies with the approval of the committee. The dissertation was archived today.

The defence covered many of the fundamental points of the thesis’s overall argument. The dissertation set out to answer the question, What are the imaginations and practices that constitute the engagements of Cantonese Protestants with the civil societies of Metro Vancouver, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region? The argument was that most Cantonese Protestants unintentionally but inadvertently reinforced the secularization thesis as a theological practice when they engaged in such public activities because they tended to reinforce the privacy of religion while leveraging an essentialized ethnicity to maximize their impact on secular public spheres. Accordingly, most of the questions addressed this central question. Many asked me to defend my view that secularization and ‘religion’ are not binary opposites but fall under the rubric of ‘grounded theologies.’ Others poked into whether my assertion that transnational linkages between Hong Kong and the North American sites were sparse could be generated from the empirical material (it can, if one takes a grounded public/private split seriously, which forms the basis of my argument about secularization). Still others interrogated my spatial re-orientation of terms like ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ to signify how congregations relate spatially to their civil societies.

I am very grateful to each of the committee members for reading the thesis with such care. I am also extremely thankful for my friends who attended the defence and critically engaged me during the public discussion. I am told that few candidates have so many friends who attend, let alone ask such pointed–yet supportive–questions. These were from members of the community, one of which asked me to point hopeful ways forward for Cantonese Protestant theologies (revealing my very open positionality as a confessing and practicing Christian) and another of which asked me to relate my findings to parallels and contrasts with the black church (speaking into very interesting emerging conversations in theology about race and theology). For more about my personal theological practice, including my strange connection with the black church, see here.

I will emphasize that what it means that I have a PhD in hand is that now I am recognized by the academic community as someone who has demonstrated that I can do research and teach in my field. In other words, I am now officially qualified to learn more. This does not signify the end of things; it means that I’m at the very beginning of a very long journey. I have a lot more to learn, a lot more to think about, and a lot more to stay in conversation about. That I am revising the thesis into publications suggests that I will do much more thinking about the topic in addition and connection to my postdoctoral project, and for that, I will appreciate the chance to remain in conversation with those who are interested. The program is completed, but the conversation is just starting. I am grateful and excited.

POSTSCRIPT: for those who want to read the periodic updates I had on my program, they can be found here:

Association of American Geographers, 9-13 April 2013: Los Angeles

I am right now at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers. I’m mainly attending religion panels and meeting with lots of geographers, putting what I do in conversation with everyone else. You can find the rundown of geography of religion events here in the AAG’s religion newsletter.

I am presenting as part of a panel on Post-secular Spaces: Explorations Beyond Secular Theory and Research. It’s organized by two geographers at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Banu Gökariksel and Betsy Olson. Here’s the session description:

The aim of this paper session is to explore the parameters of post-secular research and theory in Geography. From Habermas to Asad to Butler, post-secular theories and approaches unsettle previously taken-for-granted relationships between religion, the state, and society.  The challenge posed by post-secular theory is not to study religion more, or to study religion in isolation, but rather to re-view moments, meanings and events without the assumptions of secularization theory – that is, without assuming that religious practices, values and institutions have been historically or contemporarily irrelevant or marginalized in the functioning of ‘modern’ societies. As a critique of secularization theory, post-secular approaches encourage us to uncover and analyze the lingering and overt presence of religion in our social interactions, our economies, and in the everyday and exceptional practice of politics. Less clear in these broader debates (and, arguably, within geographical scholarship on the topic) is the relevance of space and spatial theory in either the theoretical development or empirical analysis of post-secular approaches. This paper session hopes to begin consolidating and synthesizing the spatial concerns of post-secular theory by exploring emerging empirical research on new (and old) interrelationships between religion, society, politics, and economy.

My paper is on Friday, 12 April 2013, at 1 PM at the Pacific Ballroom Salon 3 in the LA Hotel, 3rd floor. It’s titled Cantonese Protestant Activism and Secular Geographies: religion, ethnicity, and the secularization thesis. Here’s the abstract:

Geographers of religion have long assumed that the resurgence of religious practice in contemporary spaces are signs of the vitality of religion, demonstrating the falsity of the secularization thesis.  Fieldwork that I conducted in 2011 and 2012 with 140 Cantonese-speaking Protestant key informants and 115 Cantonese-speaking Protestant focus group participants in Vancouver, San Francisco, and Hong Kong would seem to indicate no different, for they have been active in advocating for traditional family values and offering social services to the poor through religious agencies.  While some might label these signs of post-secular geographies, I follow Wilford’s (2010) argument that geographies of religion need to be conceptualized in the context of secularization in the modern world.  I demonstrate that Cantonese Protestants active in the public sphere imagine their contributions as secular engagements, both espousing individualistic conceptions of the self and policing their activities as universally rational, not theological.  This paper advances the geography of religion by properly understanding such phenomena in the context of secular modernity while speaking to migration, ethnic, and political geographies by showing that new religious resurgences require modern contextual interpretations.

The reference to Justin Wilford in there is part of a broader discussion with his work that is most accessible in his book on Saddleback Church, Sacred Subdivisions: The Postsuburban Transformation of American Evangelicalism. Go read it, if you haven’t.

The Annual Lecturer for the Geography of Religion and Belief Systems (GORABS) Specialty Group this year is Professor Ann Taves (UC Santa Barbara, Religious Studies). It’s unfortunately at the same time as a panel for post-secular spaces organized by Gökariksel and Olson, but I will be at the Taves’s lecture and skip the panel. The lecture will be on Friday, 12 April 2013, from 4:40 – 6:20 PM at the Santa Barbara B, Westin, Lobby Level. It’s titled Mapping Significance: A Building Block Approach. Following the lecture, Adrian Ivakhiv (University of Vermont) will give a response via Skype. Ann Taves’s lecture abstract is here:

Ivakhiv (2006) has argued that religion and sacrality are unstable signifiers that should be studied as ways of distributing significance across geographic spaces and distinguishing between different kinds of significance.  To implement this agenda, we need to attend more carefully to the processes that work together to create a sense of significance.  A building block approach to significance would suggest the importance of at least three factors: setting apart, which marks things as non-ordinary; valuation, which ranks and orders them; and positioning, which situates them in relation to other things.  Examples will be used to illustrate the interplay of these factors, the contestations surrounding them, and thus the way that point of view constitutes such maps and makes them unstable.

Finally, everyone is welcome to the GORABS Business Meeting. This is from 7:30 – 8:30 PM in Santa Monica D at the Westin, Level 3. You can find an agenda on p. 46 in the GORABS newsletter.

*UPDATED* CFP: AAG 2013: Post-secular spaces; ORIGINAL: CFP: AAG 2013: Debating Secularization: Theory and Practice in Geographies of Religion

*UPDATE*
Betsy Olson (UNC Chapel Hill, Geography) and Banu Gokariksel (also UNC) have been in touch with me.  The themes set out in their CFP is so similar to mine that we might as well make it a joint effort.  I am now referring all interested persons in my original CFP to their paper session.  Here it is:

AAG Annual Meeting, Los Angeles, April 9-13, 2013
Post-secular spaces: geographical explorations beyond secular theory and research

The aim of this paper session is to explore the parameters of post-secular research and theory in Geography. From Habermas to Asad to Butler, post-secular theories and approaches unsettle previously taken-for-granted relationships between religion, the state, and society.  The challenge posed by post-secular theory is not to study religion more, or to study religion in isolation, but rather to re-view moments, meanings and events without the assumptions of secularization theory – that is, without assuming that religious practices, values and institutions have been historically or contemporarily irrelevant or marginalized in the functioning of ‘modern’ societies. As a critique of secularization theory, post-secular approaches encourage us to uncover and analyze the lingering and overt presence of religion in our social interactions, our economies, and in the everyday and exceptional practice of politics. Less clear in these broader debates (and, arguably, within geographical scholarship on the topic) is the relevance of space and spatial theory in either the theoretical development or empirical analysis of post-secular approaches.

Our hope with this paper session is to begin consolidating and synthesizing the spatial concerns of post-secular theory by exploring emerging empirical research on new (and old) interrelationships between religion, society, politics, and economy. We would especially encourage contributions from scholars who don’t consider religion to be their central interest, but have perhaps been trying to explain religious influence upon economic, social or political practices. Papers might therefore be either historical or contemporary studies, and could address themes such as:

·      Religion and technologies of communication
·      Geopolitics in the secular age
·      Class and religion
·      Spirituality in social movements
·      Religion, labor and rights
·      Environmental ethics and spirituality
·      Law, secularism, and religion
·      Piety, embodiment, and the body
·      Secularism and public space
·      Religion and the economy
·      Feminism and the secular critique
·      Popular culture and religion

Please send your abstract of no more than 250 words to Betsy Olson (eaolson@email.unc.edu) and Banu Gökarıksel (banug@email.unc.edu )

MY ORIGINAL CFP:
Debating Secularization: Theory and Practice in Geographies of Religion
Sponsored by the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Specialty Group
AAG 2013: Call for Papers

Recent work in geographies of religion has suggested a need for the tenets of the subfield to be debated.  Lily Kong (2010) argues, for example, that not enough work has been done to examine the theological and metaphysical aspects of geographies of religion and to engage the interdisciplinary enterprise of religious studies.  An emerging topic of debate is secularization and whether or not emerging geographies of religion can be seen as post-secular spaces.  While Beaumont and Baker (2010) argue that cities with new configurations of faith-based organizations are developing new post-secular approaches to social activism, Kong (2010) cautions against this idea for its over-emphasis on European phenomena.  On the other hand, Justin Wilford (2011) argues that religious phenomena, while significant, need to be conceptualized as ‘sacred archipelagoes’ in a sea of secularity, for secularization has in fact affected all facets of modern religious practice.  The theoretical underpinnings of geographies of religion and its requisite attachments to the secularization thesis are thus currently under debate.

This session calls for papers that examine the theory and practice in geographies of religion in light of these debates.  Papers that will be submitted do not necessarily need to be completely theory-oriented papers; indeed, empirical studies that contribute to these theoretical debates, as well as papers that deal with theological and metaphysical issues, will both be strongly considered.  Suggested topics include:

  • Geographical studies that either support or refute the secularization thesis
  • Theological and metaphysical treatments of religious themes in geography
  • Post-secular cities
  • Faith-based organizations and their treatment of religion and the secular
  • Geographies of religious migration, with a theoretical treatment of religion and the secular
  • Interfaith geographies as religious, secular, or post-secular phenomena
  • Positionality in the theory and practice of geographies of religion
  • Religious geopolitics as religious, secular, or post-secular phenomena
  • Non-European geographies of religion and their relation to secular geographies
  • Feminist approaches to geographies of religion and the secularization thesis

Papers should be submitted to Justin K.H. Tse at tse.justo@gmail.com no latter than October 20, 2012 for submission to the AAG.