October News

The QSR blog is back! This month features Dr. James Miller offering a Confucian critique of President Trump, Dr. Ian Alexander Cuthbertson discussing the value of creative projects and Dana Sidebottom considering whether academia is a religion.

As always, we welcome posts from QSR students, faculty, alumni, and guests. To contribute, send your post or questions to qsrblog@gmail.com



Is Academia a Religion?

Dana Sidebottom
Cultural Studies MA Student
Queen’s University

…I find holy redemption
When I put this car in drive
Roll the windows down and turn up the dial

Can I get a hallelujah
Can I get an amen
Feels like the Holy Ghost running through ya
When I play the highway FM
I find my soul revival
Singing every single verse
Yeah I guess that’s my church

Marin Morris, My Church

I have often joked about something that I call “The 4am Miracle”. It is that moment of inspiration that strikes suddenly and unexpectedly after hours of staring at a blank entre. It is the moment that the words flow uninhibited, the ideas focus and align, and the insights are profound. In the morning, I read over the work from the moment of transcendence, and it is always my best writing. Despite the feeling that I am not the one controlling the work, that the work is simply using my body as a vessel, it is always the most elegantly written, the most thought-provoking, the most engaging part of my essay – it is as though, in that moment, the Spirit of the Academy has possessed me for the sole purpose of articulating a point worth making.

This weekend, I attended a lecture given by a neuroscientist who studies the eye/brain connection and the processes used in our perception of the world. He closed his talk saying, “…managing the miracle of human sight”, and I was struck by his use of the word “miracle”. Miriam Webster dictionary defines miracle as “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs”. Divine. A scientist described the phenomenon he has spent his life investigating as a product of divine intervention. And so too have I described my academic moments of inspiration as a miracle, as a divine intervention. And so now I wonder… Is academia a religion?

When I wake up, press the button on my kettle, and sit down in front of my computer every morning – am I going to church? Am I entrenching myself in a unifying worldview shared by millions of others, and trusting an institution and its set of ethics and principles to watch over me and guide my life? Inarguably, the answer is yes. I came to academia a supplicant (they called me an applicant, but the connotation is the same), and upon acceptance was initiated into the academy.

For four years I was a Novice, learning from those who have completed their training and moved up the ranks of the institution. I was made to feel guilty for my sins of not studying, partying too much, and falling behind, and I was judged by the Higher Powers each time I turned in an assignment. If being accepted to university can be compared with being Christened, turning in a paper was like going to Confession. Graduation was my Confirmation – my declaration that I was a member of the institution always, that I would carry the knowledge of my degree with me throughout my life, that I would forever be branded as a “university graduate” and therefore a full member of this community.

I have returned now as an Apprentice to an Adept or a Master, and in returning and ascending the ranks, I have accordingly been given greater responsibility and greater freedom. I guide my own small class of novices now, and I have been entrusted with more of the wisdom that the hallowed halls of the Ivory Tower hold sacred. I am even permitted to add to that knowledge in my own small way, carefully guided by my superiors.

I started thinking about this idea while sitting in my Community Based Research course. The course is looking at emergent research methodologies and is critical of the harm done by academics that have not traditionally been concerned with the communities they have studied. The critiques are valid and the new methodologies are interesting, but I am quick to defend the institution. As with all religion, there are things that change and adapt with time, there are moments when our highest earthly authorities come together and agree to adaptations of earlier doctrines, but there are some things that are dogma. Sources must be cited. Knowledge must be recorded and preserved. And the institution must persevere.

The big question, of course, is one of belief. Do I believe in the Academy? I love the Academy, and I believe in its ability and its desire to do good. I believe that the members of this community seek to expand and share knowledge, and to safeguard that knowledge for future generations. We comment on, critique, analyze, and offer insight into socio-political issues. We hunt for new cures, we research new surgical procedures and new energy sources, we create space to question authority and assess the state of the world. But I also have faith in the 4am miracle. I have experienced transcendence in the carrels of libraries, and I have felt the touch of the Spirit of Knowledge guiding me to answers that I did not have before.

Is academia a religion? I don’t know. But I think it’s my religion.
Bless me professor, for I have sinned. It has been many days since I worked on my thesis…



Creative Projects

Ian Alexander Cuthbertson
Baker Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Religion

22278497_10159335178135587_155972462_nThis post originally appeared on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog.

For the last four years I have taught RELS 161: Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture at Queen’s University. RELS 161 is a large full-year course that usually attracts between 150 and 180 students. I have already written about this course elsewhere but have never described one of the more successful and rewarding components of the course: creative projects.

I first introduced a creative project option, somewhat reluctantly, in 2014. Previously, the final project for the course asked students to observe a ritual and then analyze the ritual using theories and approaches discussed in class. I had considered replacing this project with one that I’ve subsequently used (with mixed results) in a course on religious fundamentalisms that I teach at Dawson College in Montréal. The replacement project I considered asks students to create a single image, infographic, or one minute video that explores and explains a key term or concept from the course to a general audience. But the more I thought about this new project the more worried I became: Could I really require first year students to make images or videos? How would I evaluate these?

I vacillated all summer, writing and re-writing the syllabus as I drew ever closer to September and the start of term. I liked the idea of mobilizing students’ artistic talents but was uncomfortable requiring and potentially evaluating artistic skills that I did not teach in class. I take seriously the dictum that evaluations should only evaluate actual student learning: unless I teach students grammar, grammar should not be something I evaluate in student assignments. A day or two before my syllabus was due I finally decided on a compromise: I kept the ritual analysis project and included an optional creative project.

Basically, the creative project invites students (either individually, or in groups) to demonstrate their mastery of one or more of the course learning objectives however they want to. The format is open. Although I suggest possible project formats (essays, images, videos, short stories, interpretive dance…), students are free to suggest their own. Similarly, there are no set requirements for length or duration. The benefit of this open format is that it allows students complete freedom to imagine new ways of demonstrating learning that match their interests and abilities. The risk is that students will attempt to complete projects that are not feasible, that do not actually demonstrate mastery of course learning objectives, or that I am ill-equipped to evaluate. How, for instance, would I evaluate an interpretive dance? The guidelines for the creative project, which have remained unchanged since I first included it in the course, are structured to address and manage these risks. The creative project option has three components:

1. Proposal

Students who decide to pursue the creative project option are asked to submit a formal proposal in February in which they describe their project’s format and size or duration; provide a detailed timeline to show the project can be completed by the April deadline; imagine potential complications that might arise along with solutions to these; explain exactly how their proposed project will demonstrate mastery of course learning objectives; and finally propose how I will evaluate whether or not the project actually demonstrates this. While the proposal is an essential component of the larger project, its real purpose is to structure the face-to-face meeting I have with students to discuss their proposals. In this meeting, the student(s) and I talk about the format and scope of the project and work together to determine whether the proposed project actually fits their interests and goals, whether it is feasible, and whether I will be able to properly evaluate their mastery of course learning objectives. Often, this meeting necessitates partial or complete revisions of the proposed projects as the student(s) and I work together to imagine a project that fits their interests while providing me with material I can effectively evaluate.

2. Project

The project itself is submitted in April. Given the freedom this option allows, student projects are unique expressions of student engagement with course materials and learning objectives. In the last four years I have received videos, slam poetry presentations, short stories, one act plays, formal research papers, paintings, drawings, poetry, sculptures, musical compositions, and yes… an interpretive dance.

Typically, students submit additional materials that explain their projects and link their work directly to course learning objectives. Sometimes these explanations are brief. But students sometimes surprise me with the attention they pay to these. Grace Hart, for instance, who recorded herself and other dancers interpreting liminality, submitted a recording of the dance piece she choreographed along with a detailed breakdown that tied each movement back to liminality. This breakdown allowed me to evaluate Grace’s understanding and interpretation of liminality rather than the choreography itself. Grace also submitted a hand-written creative journal in which she recorded her artistic choices concerning music, choreography, lighting, and costume along with her rationale for these choices and for the revisions she eventually made.

3. Reflection

One week after the projects are submitted, I ask students to submit a short reflection in which they consider whether or not their submitted project met their expectations. Sometimes, when the projects are successful, reflections are cursory. When projects do not turn out as originally planned, reflections provide students with an opportunity to explain how the material they submitted still demonstrates their engagement with and mastery of course learning objectives and allows them to revisit evaluation criteria to ensure I am still able to evaluate the project they actually submit to me.

The creative projects I have received have nearly always been brilliant expressions of student learning. Sometimes, these projects are later presented outside of the classroom. Grace Hart, for instance, submitted her choreography to a peer reviewed blog hosted by the University of Toronto and Kaitlyn Hollander submitted her drawings to a larger exhibition of creative expressions of teaching and learning at Queen’s University. Receiving these projects has been a highlight in my career as an educator. I am routinely amazed by the talent and deep understanding these projects exhibit. Although I was hesitant, at first, to include this option in my syllabus, it has proven to be the most effective and rewarding evaluation situation I have ever used in the classroom. Typically, somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of students choose to submit creative projects. But I suspect that even if the entire class chose the creative project option, I would be eager to meet individually with all 180 students to determine how they might best mobilize their talents and interests to creatively demonstrate their grasp of the key terms, core concepts, and central ideas we explore together in RELS 161. Below are three examples of creative projects I’ve received along with comments from the students who submitted these.

Defining Religion by Kaitlyn Hollander


Kaitlyn’s project consists of three large images, each of which depicts two contrasting definitions of religion. In the image above, Kaitlyn contrasts Freud’s view that religion is the product of psychological needs with the sui generis view that religion involves some special contact with ‘the sacred.’ Her piece is interactive: each separate image is only visible when viewers put on coloured lenses.











I asked Kaitlyn to reflect on her experience completing the creative project in RELS 161:

“Making a creative project for my religion class was exciting, though at times challenging. To start, I thought about what had the most impact on me during the course; how religion cannot be monolithically defined. To my first-year brain, the idea was revolutionary because I learned more broadly that definitions are fluid rather fixed concepts. I spent a great deal of time researching and understanding each scholar’s definition to make sure I could make a piece where both the viewer and myself could clearly understand these definitions. It was wonderful having the opportunity to expand my range of conceptual topics in my fine art work as well as create a piece to display outside the walls of the studio.

Visual Notes for RELS 161 by Rhiannon Allen-Roberts


Rhiannon’s project consists of a very large banner on which she drew interpretations of multiple course topics. The project is a visual map of the entire course. Rhiannon also submitted a detailed explanation of her project that connected the concepts she explored to one another. Below are a few photos of specific segments of the larger whole.











I asked Rhiannon to reflect on her experience as well:

“My experience with the creative project was probably the best academic experience I had in my first year. It really allowed me to engage with the material and that made it personal to me, ensuring that I didn’t just memorize the material but actually learned it. I still find myself referencing topics and readings from that class. It really helped me to understand and engage with the learning material. I’m still really proud of the project and believe it was the most rewarding academic achievement I had in my first year.”

Becoming by Grace Hart


I described Grace’s project above. The video she submitted can be viewed here. I also asked Grace to reflect on her experiences:

I loved doing the creative project. It helped me to engage with the material more that I would have in written format. And I wanted to. To this day, it has been the project that I have been the most passionate and involved in throughout my four years at university. And doing it in first year made all the difference. I thought of university to be this scary, academic institution, but in doing the creative project I was able to put myself into my education and really run with – and looking back now that’s what I would consider what university is supposed to be at every moment but unfortunately under all the readings and essays it doesn’t always get to be. 

It was such an effective way to engage with the material. I could still tell you what Liminality Theory means, but still have trouble explaining the neoliberalism, realism and constructivism – and I’m a politics major! It gave me a way to contextualize – and through dance, visualize – the theory in the broader scope of the course. I still struggle to read academic articles and I get nervous speaking up in my fourth-year seminars and but had I been given more opportunities to do creative projects that allowed me to engage with course material in a way that appealed to the way I learn, I think I would have retained much more information from my courses and felt more confident in my understanding of course materials. 

I was so proud handing in this project. I worked so hard on it and dedicated so much time and energy to speaking with my professor, doing the research and putting the project together that I felt like I really accomplished something – more than just the A grade that I got. It really motivated me to want to engage with course material in this course and others, and to really take every learning opportunity – academic and otherwise – that university had to offer. I will always remember this course and Professor Cuthbertson for giving me the opportunity to do my creative project, but even more so the drive, commitment and hard work that I put in to this project and how rewarding, both academically and personally, it was to complete.



Democracy Without Dignity: A Confucian Critique of President Trump

Dr. James Miller
 Director, School of Religion

img_0122This post originally appeared on the Spirituality, Nature and Culture Laboratory blog.

The events of the past week have marked the point of absolute contrast between the world’s two most important countries and their leaders. In China, President Xi Jinping has consolidated his power throughout the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), beginning with the bravura performance of a three and a half hour opening speech, during which he touched not a drop of water. By the end of the congress, he was confirmed in his position for another five years, his supporters were elected to key government positions, and his thinking established as part of the CPC’s ruling doctrine for decades to come. 

On the other side of the Pacific, witness the continuing omnishambles of the Trump administration, which seemingly stumbles from scandal to scandal, one tweet at a time. Trump’s standing surely reached a nadir this week with Senator Flake’s excoriating indictment of the president’s character. “Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior,” he declaimed, “has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.”

The contrast between the two countries could not be clearer: China enjoys dignity without democracy; the United States has democracy without dignity.

But this apparent contrast masks many areas in which the political machinery of Beijing and Washington enjoys many similarities. Both systems rely on a network of relationships and the trading of favours among the political class to get things done. The Chinese term guanxi, which denotes the culture of relationships and favours that is central to the Confucian ethos, is no less applicable in the corridors of power in Washington than in the government compound of Zhongnanhai in Beijing.

Secondly, factions in both systems resort to politically-charged investigations into corruption and lawbreaking for political gain. President Xi consolidated power through a ruthless anti-corruption drive aimed at the highest levels of government, as well as the petty officials whose venality threatened to undermine the CPC’s popular legitimacy. At the same time, the use of special prosecutors and FBI investigations is no less a hallmark of contemporary US politics. Both can have a chilling effect on the machinery of government, where government officials fear the slightest misstep could result in investigation, summons, or even jail time.

Thirdly, both systems work hard to control media narratives through techniques of propaganda, ranging from the active suppression of sensitive issues in China, to the wholesale denigration of mainstream media in America. Both administrations worry about the spread of “fake news,” or narratives that challenge the ruling orthodoxy, and both are equally adept in their employment of social media for political gain.

At many levels, the day-to-day business of Chinese and US politics is a lot more similar than one might think, given the radical difference in the two political philosophies. But there is one thread that runs through the Confucian approach to ethical government, which emphasizes a key difference between Trump and Xi: the virtue of self-control, precisely and carefully displayed by President Xi during his marathon speech at the start of CPC congress.

In Analects 16.7 Confucius says,

“The gentleman has three things to be cautious about: In his youth, when his blood and energy are not yet settled, he must be cautious about sex. In his middle years, when his blood and energy are just strong, he must be cautious about fighting. In his old age, when his blood and energy are already weak, he must be cautious about greed.”

Trump seems to embody all three types of recklessness identified by Confucius. His behaviour towards women has been roundly condemned; his warmongering words regarding North Korea provoked fear and consternation across the world; he unashamedly made his lust for wealth and power into the basis of his media personality.

Why do these moral failings matter? Because democracy needs dignity if it is not to descend into disorder. This does not mean that our leaders have to abide by some impossible standard of personal moral purity; after all, they are only human. But it does mean that in a republican system, without the benefit of monarchs to take on the symbolism of the state, it is incumbent upon the president to act presidentially.

President Trump understands one aspect of this. When people disrespect the flag or fail to stand for the national anthem, he takes it personally. But Confucius long ago understood that the authority vested in symbols of power, such as the flag, has to be properly earned. President Trump has so far failed to demonstrate that he has the dignity and the self-restraint to command the worthiness of the flag, and the sacrifices of soldiers in its name.

Dignity without democracy runs the risk of being a clanging gong that signifies nothing. But democracy without dignity is an equally dangerous formula that threatens to undermine the very legitimacy of democracy as a political system.