Friday, May 11, 2007

Is Religious Studies sexy?

~Mary Beard, professor of Classics at Cambridge was in Harvard last week:
The first reason for going was to talk at a conference-cum-workshop at Yale (at the Divinity School in the picture) for Religious Studies graduate students from Yale, Harvard and Brown. This proved a bit of an eye-opener.

I might as well admit that I operate with a pretty old-fashioned stereotype of students doing Religious Studies. I know there are bound to be exceptions, but I do tend to assume that, nice and clever as they are, they’ll be pretty straight. And probably religious as well as in Religious Studies (in much the same way as it’s generally gays that do gay history, women that do women’s history, and so on).

These students were a very bright and talkative bunch, and I had a good time banging on about the Roman ritual of Triumph (once my book on the Triumph comes out in October, the subject will be off-limits…so I’m making the most of these final months). And their comments were spot on. But to all outward appearances, they ran to Religious-Studies type. That is to say, they were rather better scrubbed and tweed-jacketed than the average doctoral student.

Or so I thought until the time came, after an excellent dinner, when they went round the table and explained one by one what they worked on.

I had confidently predicted to myself that there would be a string of thesis topics along the lines of “Some theological problems in the Gospel of Mark” or “Christology in John”. I could hardly have been more wrong. One after another, these nice respectable-looking students came out with “Sex in the Acts”, “Gender politics and martyrdom”, “Surveillance in the New Testament”, “Cultural identity in the Talmud”, and so on. Not Religious Studies as I imagine it to be.

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