Graduate teaching and advising

One of my most important activities at the University of Waterloo is the training of graduate students.  At the PhD level, my teaching focuses on religious phenomena in the history and current situation of Canada and the United States.  For many years I have offered the core course in our PhD program, RS 700 Religious Diversity in North America.  North America is one of the most religiously diverse regions in the history of humanity; it is also one of the most monolithically Christian places on Earth.  Scholars of religious history in North America must deal with this tension between the so-called mainstream and fringes, recognizing how a dominant tradition itself produces plurality while simultaneously exerting pressure on outside groups to lose elements of their distinctiveness.  RS 700 therefore explores diversity within and outside of the Christian traditions, examining forces of change, diversification, and conformity, and considers how immigration, gender, race, class, theology, praxis, and other forces have produced and been shaped by the religious ferment of North American society.

A second course I have taught regularly is RS 705 History of Religion in North America.  This course covers selected topics in the history of religion in North America, from the age of European contact to the end of the 20th century.  It prepares students to conduct historical research as well as to apply a more sophisticated knowledge of historical context to contemporary studies of religion in Canada and the United States.

I also offer occasional special topics courses at the PhD level, under the designations RS 703 or 704.  These have included Recent Scholarship on Buddhism in North America; Religious Intolerance in North American History; and Inter-Religious Encounters in North America.  These courses may be available by student request.

A further area of teaching is providing occasional courses in the history of liberal religion in North America for selected seminaries.  To that end, I have taught as a sessional for Waterloo Lutheran Seminary offering RS 704 Unitarian and Universalist History in North America.  I also offer, approximately every 2-3 years, the online course Universalism: History, Theology, and Practice for Starr King School for the Ministry.  These courses are conducted in addition to my regular duties at Renison University College, as part of my larger purpose of providing access to specialized knowledge to various audiences, in this case the future ministers whose leadership will be the primary source for perspectives about religion to their congregations.

Although we do not offer MA training at the University of Waterloo, I sometimes serve on MA thesis committees for other departments.  MA students in English, History, Sociology, Anthropology, Theological Studies, or other appropriate fields are welcome to inquire about possible participation in their studies.  Those who wish to pursue Masters level study of religion should inquire with my colleagues at Wilfrid Laurier University, or another institution that offers the MA degree.

One of my key responsibilities is serving as an adviser to students in the joint Wilfrid Laurier University-University of Waterloo Ph.D. program in Religious Studies.  As a supervisor I accept prospective students who are interested in historical or ethnographic projects that examine aspects of North American religious diversity, especially studies of the interaction of specific religious groups with other major forces of society and culture.  Profiles of a few such current students should prove helpful in illustrating what we do at UW and my role in their training.

Leah McKeen, based at Wilfrid Laurier, completed her dissertation on the Christian Heritage Party in 2015.  I supervised her fieldwork as she sought to discern how participation in the political process operates as a religious practice for conservative Christians, one that provides important identify-making work.  Brooke Brassard is working on the history of Mormons in Canada, especially on the prairies of southern Alberta, where the first experiment in internationalization was conducted by a church that today has become a global faith of more than ten million adherents.  This project utilizes archival research, textual and visual culture analysis, and oral history in an effort to explain the historical processes that contributed to the Church of Latter-day Saints becoming mainstreamed as a Canadian denomination.  My student Laura Morlock is examining how issues relating to dress and religion have played out in relation to Canadian human rights legislation.  Christopher Emory-Moore is investigating the changing dynamics of the guru-disciple relationship in key transnational Tibetan Buddhist organizations in the United States and Canada, as venerable traditions come under the influence of new ideas around individuality, gender roles, religious authority, and proper pedagogical methods.  I meet with my students regularly, including a monthly reading/writing group that meets at my home to workshop students’ current journal, conference, and dissertation projects.

In addition to supervising, I have also served as a member of many PhD committees.  These include Kathleen Riddell’s multi-site ethnographic investigation of pop music community as religious work, Peter Schuurman’s fieldwork at one of Canada’s biggest megachurches, Ryan Anningson’s historical study of evolving religious notions in mid-20th century American Buddhism, Samisksa Yasaman Munro’s examination of Indian religio-medical practices, and Denis Bekkering’s pioneering work on evangelical fandom and anti-fandom.  Several of these students are supervised by my colleague Douglas Cowan, whom prospective students should contact for further perspectives on the WLU-UW PhD program.

Beyond my role as a supervisor or committee member, I served as the graduate officer for Religious Studies from 2009-2014.  In that capacity I stimulated a large-scale overhaul of the joint PhD program, including reorganization of core courses, the creation of a new comprehensive exam reading list, rewriting the grad student handbook, introduction of new policies and procedures, expanded student recruitment, and development of a new program website.  One important focus for my time as graduate officer was providing academic and professional counseling to many of the students in our program.  One example is the weekly graduate student gatherings that I hosted every Friday during the semester at a local coffee shop, where we discussed matters of professionalism, the state of the field, current issues in religion and society, and students’ work for conferences and journals.  These optional but well-attended meetings also provided an opportunity for graduate student socializing and information sharing, as I am convinced that networking, both within one’s program and with peers in the wider academy, is crucial for the formation and support of successful graduate students.  Following in a somewhat similar vein, I co-founded a task force on graduate training and professionalization at the University of Waterloo; we developed resources for the use of students and supervisors in Arts related to academic, alt-ac, and post-ac careers, including the University of Waterloo Arts Faculty Graduate Careers site.

As a supervisor and participant in the joint PhD program, I am concerned not simply with knowledge acquisition by graduate students, but with comprehensive training in all aspects of the professoriate.  I provide students with training in submitting and writing academic book reviews and journal articles, handling undergraduate classrooms, dealing with media requests, preparing book projects, maximizing the usefulness of academic conferences and societies, dealing with departmental dynamics and politics, and understanding our role as educators at the university and beyond.  I am also engaged in providing information about careers beyond the tenure track, offering resources to students whose career paths take them into journalism, consulting, curatorship, ministry, or other possible professions.


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