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Normativity and the American Academy of Religion

Thomas Whitley

aar Two weeks ago I returned from the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego, CA. A few days ago the New York Times ran a piece about the AAR's president, Laurie Zoloth: "Setting Aside a Scholarly Get-Together, for the Planet's Sake." The article outlines Zoloth's desire that the AAR observe a shmita - the Jewish concept of a once-every-seven-years year in which all work ceases, debts released, etc. - and cancel the Annual Meeting so that scholars of religion would "refrain from flying across the country, saving money and carbon." This is ultimately a futile proposal. The next shmita year is 2021, so the then-current AAR president would have to have the same desire to see such a thing take place as Zoloth does. The planes that we would not be taking in this hypothetical would continue to fly and so there would be no, or at the most very little, carbon offset. The proposal is also one that would disproportionately affect graduate students and contingent faculty, who rely on the Annual Meeting for job interviews, networking, etc.

The biggest problem with the proposal, though, is not its logistical difficulty, but rather its desire for normativity. "I decided it was the core moral issue of our time," Zoloth said about climate change. Zoloth's concern is now supposed to be shared by all members of the AAR. Indeed, the theme of this year's AAR Annual Meeting was climate change. It is not difficult to see how this is a rather problematic theme for many scholars of religion to fit their work in to. I, for instance, study heresy and orthodoxy in early Christianity. The result is that most sections at the AAR simply ignore the larger conference theme in favor of the rest of the necessary scholarship going on in other realms. Also problematic is that Zoloth apparently assumes that all AAR members share or should share her view of the Jewish concept of shmita and be swayed as she personally has been.

Zoloth envisions this "Sabbatical Year" as a time during which we as scholars of religion would give talks to “the poor, in local high schools, community colleges, or the prison, the hospital, the military base, the church, mosque, synagogue or temple.” Zoloth is close to pushing that scholars of religion become (if they are not already) practitioners of religion, a suggestion that would seem to fly in the face of the mission and purpose of the AAR.

Zoloth's quest to make scholars of religion more in her image also extended to diet.

Dr. Zoloth didn’t win all the victories she sought. A vegetarian, she was unable to persuade her fellow organizers to keep the conference catering meat-free. When asked why others resisted, she shook her head and said, “I don’t know. They just couldn’t imagine it.”

Requesting multiple options that cater to the various dietary needs/restrictions/wants/whims of the 10,000 conference attendees is appropriate; arguing that everyone should adhere to your personal dietary needs/restrictions/wants/whims is not. This strikes me as simply another example of the desired normativity of the AAR. You may say, "this is simply the desired normativity of one member of AAR," and you are right to a degree, but when this one member happens to be the president of the Academy, the likelihood that this person's normativity is imposed on the rest of the Academy's members increases exponentially.

A professor of mine from a few years back said that most critiques amount to nothing more than "why aren't you interested in what I'm interested in?" and that is not a legitimate critique. Zoloth's tenure as AAR president seems to be centered around just such an idea. To be good scholars - and good humans - we must all be interested in what she is interested in.