Emilie M. Townes at the helm of AAR: Combining scholarship with activism
Editor’s Note: Emilie M. Townes, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of African-American Religion and Theology at Yale Divinity School, began a one-year term as president of the American Academy of Religion during the 11,200-member organization's 2007 annual meeting, held Nov. 17-20 in San Diego. Here, Townes answers questions posed to her recently by Jason Peno ’10 on assignment for the YDS Office of Communications and Publications.
As president, what are your priorities in AAR and for AAR this next year?
The chief priority I have as president and that of AAR mesh this year—to settle how we will handle the 2003 decision of the board of directors to hold independent meetings from the Society of Biblical Literature. There were numerous logistical issues that were not taken into adequate account, and there has been a strong negative reaction to this decision, particularly among theological schools, small religion and religious studies departments, and members of the Society of Biblical Literature. Since 2003, AAR has been in somewhat of a holding pattern as the former executive director had to respond to the decision. With the arrival of a new executive director, Jack Fitzmier, in July 2006, we are now working diligently to move forward in an equitable way after having surveyed the membership this past fall and received their considerable input.
How time consuming is the position?
The time commitment of the presidency is episodic. I am beginning to head into a busy period that runs from February (with the first executive committee meeting) to April (when the board of directors meets). In between are such things as the governance task force and regional meetings of the AAR. Things will quiet down in May and remain so until late August when I gear up for the program committee and executive committee meetings in September—both of which will be held in New Haven. Then there is the preparation for the annual meeting in Chicago from November 1-4.
I have a weekly phone conference with the executive director as well as respond to email from the members as it comes in. This July, I will represent AAR at an international conference hosted by Shanghai University, "Globalization, Values, and Pluralism." I've been asked to present a paper for the conference and give one or two lectures at a seminar after the conference that will focus on religion and society.
What do you believe the significance of your election, as the first African-American woman president, is for AAR?
I see my election as a marker—of how far the AAR has come in expanding its diversity, from the four founders who were men in 1909. They founded the Association of Biblical Instructors in American Colleges and Secondary Schools that changed its name to the National Association of Biblical Instructors (NABI) in 1922. In 1964, after a self study, NABI became the American Academy of Religion.
Former president Judith Plaskow, a Yale alumna, gives a good baseline for how much AAR has changed. She began attending the AAR annual meeting in 1970. The program was 18 printed pages. The membership was overwhelmingly white, male, and Protestant. Of the 226 participants on the program, three had identifiable female names and there were no women serving as a national or regional officer or chairing a section. While there are other ways to talk about the lack of diversity in the AAR of old, I give these few markers to note that this is far from the case now as the program is printed in a book that runs well over 100 pages and the leadership is much more representative in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and race.
In terms of the presidential line, Charles Long was the first African American president in 1973, and the first woman president followed a year later, Christine Downing. Of the 44 presidents, there have been four African American men and 14 women (one of whom is East Indian, and I am the only African American). My election signals that we have come far from our beginnings. But there is still so much farther to go in recognizing the varieties of peoples and scholarship that make up the membership of AAR.
Folks have heard me say that in many ways, though I am honored by this vote of recognition of my work. But I think it unfortunate that it has taken this long to elect an African American woman as president. I hope that this presidential year will not be an exception, but become a rule as we keep expanding our recognition of the wide variety of members we have in the AAR and honor their scholarship and teaching by electing them president of AAR.
What unique qualities do you bring to the position?
I believe that we must combine scholarship with activism. Activism is more than what takes place in local communities to effect social change. Activism is also how we carry out the task of teaching, research, and writing. I don't believe that scholarship is or should be an objective enterprise. I am not equating objective with rigorous—they aren't the same thing at all, and I will always argue for deep-walking rigorous scholarship. What I am arguing against is the kind of disinterested research and writing that doesn't figure in that our work is going to have a profound impact on someone's life in some way. I worry when we think that we are only dealing with ideas and concepts as if they have no heart and soul behind them. If they matter to us, they will matter to others, and we should do our work with passion and precision and realize that we should not aspire to be the dipsticks for intellectual hubris.
I am passionate about this because we live in times where our country needs those of us trained in the theological disciplines to speak up and into and with the public realm. We can do so, in part, through and with our schools and the scholarship we do and share directly with the public with our students, with trustees or boards, or boards of advisors. As members of AAR, we have amassed an incredible amount of information—yes some of it is arcane—but much more of it is about some things that can actually help folk come to know other peoples and cultures, other forms of the religious, other ways to make meaning out of faith stances, other understandings of the social and moral order of life, other ways to understand sacred texts, and the list goes on.
In other words, I believe that it is increasingly imperative that we engage religious discourses in the public realm—both in the United States and in international contexts because we live in an increasingly polarized world and larger academic environment that can often be hostile to things religious. We cannot, as scholars and teachers of religion, absent ourselves from the public conversations we now have about religion. It enriches us as scholars, and it strengthens the ability of our various schools to provide pertinent, informed, accessible, and (when appropriate) faithful information and resources to our students, the communities in which we sit, and the various religious institutions our schools may be representative of and responsible to.
This is why I helped found the Initiative on Religion and Politics at Yale in 2006. The Initiative seeks to provide a progressive religious voice to the sociopolitical issues of our day. We work with students to develop their sense of, and abilities in, social justice ministry, we want to develop a progressive religious think tank, and we also want to develop ways to provide a significant voice to the issues of our day on the local, national, and international level. One of the ways we want to get at the latter is developing partnerships with like-minded centers and initiatives in other colleges and universities.
In your own words, what do you see as the mission of AAR?
The mission is to promote critical engagement and reflection on the role of religion in sociopolitical, economic, and cultural life. We do so through our scholarship and teaching as you can see from my answer above, by also actively sharing our knowledge and skills in the communities in which we live and teach.
What are your responsibilities as president?
I chair the executive committee meetings and the board of directors meeting. I also appoint chairs and members to the standing committees of AAR when vacancies arise during my term. I also consult on a regular basis with the executive director and on an as-needed basis with the members of the executive committee. I sit on the program committee and am co-chair, with immediate past president Jeffrey Stout, of the newly convened governance task force. I also work with the staff as appropriate on initiatives that the executive office engages and can be the public face of AAR when it is better for the president to do so instead of the executive director. One of the most important things I do is to try to be an attentive listener to the staff and to the membership and bring what I learn into the various meetings I am involved with.