The AAR as a Scholarly Guild
José Ignacio Cabezón, AAR President 2020
As the AAR continues to enhance the public understanding of religion, the mandate of our long-range development plan, I thought that it might be valuable to propose a theme that is more inward-looking and self-reflective: a short pause, if you will, in what, from many years to come, will be an outward and public facing institutional trajectory. A century has passed since the founding of the National Association of Biblical Instructors (NABI), the precursor of the AAR, and more than half a century since NABI transformed into the AAR. Radical changes have occurred in the study of religion and in the guild since those early days: changes in the religions we study; the methods we use to study them; the demographics of our membership; the way we teach; the mediums through which we disseminate our research; and even in the governance of the AAR. I propose to spend a year thinking collectively about those changes: where we have been, where we are today, and where we see ourselves going in the years to come.
Institutional self-reflection can of course take many forms: historical, sociological, feminist critical, and so forth. While big-picture analyses of the AAR as a whole are necessary and welcome, I also see the 2020 theme as an opportunity for members, individual program units, and cohorts of scholars to reflect about how being a part of (or affiliated with) the AAR has made a difference to their own field or community. What difference has the AAR made to the study of Islam, Daoism, or Native American religions? What difference has it made to the study of theology, or to the study of religion and material culture, or the environment? What difference has it made to women, persons of color, or LBGTQ people?
The 2020 theme also suggests comparisons of the AAR to other scholarly societies and their organization of knowledge. And it invites reflection on the intellectual trends in the broader academy have had such an impact on the study of religion. Examples abound—gender, race, and postcolonial studies, to name just a few. Is the academic study of religion only an importer of theory? If not, what theoretical or methodological contributions have we made to other fields?
There is no denying that we have made great strides as a guild, but as the AAR has grown, and as our diversity has increased, we are faced with new challenges: hyper-specialization, for example. As a bottom-up institution whose programming is driven by members' interests and concerns, the AAR has been a space where "a thousand flowers have bloomed." It is less clear whether it has been, to quote the second part of Mao's dictum, a site where "a hundred schools contend." How successful have we been at speaking beyond our narrow specialties and engaging in robust conversations across different fields and communities? Are there commonalities—in method, subject matter, audience—that make the AAR cohere as an institution? Is coherence even necessary? Or is it enough that the AAR simply serve as a forum where the diversity of religious studies can find expression?
Rather than the traditional plenary speeches, I thought it more interesting, given the theme, to invite selected members to present on (or engage in conversations about) their experience in the guild. How has the institution permitted (or thwarted) their intellectual goals and values? How have individual subfields been nurtured (or impeded) by their association with the AAR? What challenges have traditionally marginalized groups faced (and face) in the Academy? These questions are not meant to delimit the conversations, but rather to point to possible directions.
Staff at the AAR central office in Atlanta have been working hard to make PDFs of past programs available to members. These will be an invaluable resource both for the coming year and for years to come. Finally, I am hoping that the 2020 presidential theme will serve as an occasion for gaining greater insight about the demographics of our membership, including the religious affiliation (if any), of members. Expect, therefore, a survey at some point during the year.