R&AC Proceedings, Experiences as a Grad Student

Today, the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture made its Proceedings available. This publication allows those who were not able to make it to Indianapolis in June to access the ideas shared at the conference. Or, for those like me, it helps attendees view those ideas with fresh eyes. 

In conjunction with the the publication of the Proceedings, today's guest post reviews R&AC's 5th Biennial Conference from the perspective of a first-year PhD student. Our guest author is  Melanie Monteclaro Pace, a Ph.D. student in American Religions at the University of Virginia. Readers can follow her on Twitter: @monteclaro_pace

Melanie Monteclaro Pace

In June, I drove from Charlottesville to Indianapolis to attend the 5th Biennial Conference on Religion & American Culture. As a first-time conference attendee, I wasn’t sure what to expect—especially at an event that typically draws only a handful of graduate students, and even fewer first-year Ph.D. students like myself.

And, you might well ask: Why would a graduate student want to attend a conference like R&AC?

However, I’m happy to report that being a graduate student at R&AC 2017 was such a cool experience. And by that, I mean it was a professional development opportunity that I would recommend to any graduate student in the field of American religion. Here are some reasons I found attending this conference so valuable:

Connection. At R&AC, I got to meet the scholars whose work I’d been getting to know over the course of the past year—an opportunity unique to a small gathering that is difficult to come by at larger conferences. Nothing beats getting to chat with the folks who are writing the books you’re reading as a way to feel more connected to the field. And connecting to the field in meaningful ways is one of the primary tasks of an early-career graduate student.

Many early-career graduate students struggle with knowing how to position our own scholarship in the field. Attending conferences like R&AC can help with this. At R&AC, I was able to watch scholars engaging with one another in real time, giving me a panoramic view of the state of the field. This year’s sessions included a range of papers addressing cutting-edge topics in the study of American religion, such as the category of religious “nones,” the use of digital methods, and the question of how we might situate American religion in a global context.

R&AC is all about conversation. It’s a conversation that begins with the first panel on Day 1, as presenters and audience members settle into the format in the round at 8:30am with their first, second, and possibly third cups of coffee. This conversation not only carries through to the final panel on Day 2, but at lunch, in the hallways, and over snacks at the catered “Nourishment Hub”—which, I’ll pause to observe, included gummy bears and Reese’s Pieces. (I helped myself liberally to both.) 

At R&AC, I got to take part in these conversations about critical issues in religious studies with some of the leading scholars in the field. As an early career graduate student trying to carve out a space of inquiry for myself within scholarship on American religion, it was particularly helpful to witness these conversations between scholars. I was also privy to real talk about the academic job market, teaching in diverse contexts, and the challenges that face early-career faculty. This alone was worth the nine-hour drive.

Community. Networking is important for all early-career graduate students. Even the most well intentioned and generous of the leading scholars in our field don’t have time to review the writing of every aspiring student. So, when we as graduate students are trying to get feedback on a manuscript or, eventually, navigate the job market with the support of influential faculty, it helps if those faculty are able to put a face to a name and a piece of work. R&AC, an unusually intimate conference, can help this happen.

Furthermore, as is the case in much of the academy, religious studies as a discipline is slowly diversifying but remains predominately white and male. This can make it challenging for minority students and women to find peers and faculty who share their experiences. As a first-generation graduate student and woman of color, one of the best parts of R&AC for me was getting to talk with early-career scholars who could share their experiences as women and minorities in the academy. Not only did I benefit from their insights, but I look forward to staying in touch as I continue my studies.

In closing, I’m really glad that I attended R&AC this year. I’d like to offer an additional thank-you to the folks who helped make R&AC a positive experience for me as a graduate student (I’ll do my best to pay it forward!).

And to my fellow graduate students in American religion: I know how challenging it can be to work out the logistics of conference travel and funding. But, if you can, I’d encourage you to attend the 6th Biennial Conference in Religion and American Culture, which takes place in June 2019.

In the meantime, don’t miss the informative—and occasionally entertaining!—Twitter conversation on this year’s conference at #RAAC2017.


esclark said…
Thanks for your reflection Melanie. I was also a graduate student when I first attended the biennial conference and had a similar experience. I've gone each time since then. It's a great conference.

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