Feminist Studies in Religion: Media Opportunities and Challenges
Later this week, the Feminist Studies in Religion, Inc (FSR) boards will be meeting at a preconference in Chicago to discuss the opportunities and challenges that media poses for feminist studies in religion. To help begin this discussion, I want to share some reflections on where FSR has been and to raise some questions on where FSR may want to go.
One year ago on November 11, 2012, FSR re-launched the Feminism in Religion (FiR) blog. Over the last year, Kate Ott, Emilie Townes, Nami Kim, Mary Hunt and a number of other contributors have shared their insights and questions.
Thirty years ago at the 1982 American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL) conference, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Judith Plaskow initiated a conversation with Scholars Press about the possibility of starting an academic feminist journal in religion. Judith Plaskow recounts this conversation as occurring at a cocktail party.
This weekend at the AAR/SBL in Chicago, FSR will be hosting its own cocktail party on Friday evening. This annual reception has become a lively gathering of scholars at all stages of their careers. Whether people study Islam or Paganism, textual analysis or ethnography, the shared concern of promoting feminist scholarship on religion brings people together. Yet, not all of us have access to the AAR/SBL. Attending academic conferences is a costly endeavor inaccessible even to many within academia.
Accessibility to its content has been an issue for JFSR for many years. From the beginning, JFSR has sought to keep the cost of subscription as low as possible and to include lower rates for student subscribers. Then, as electronic access became available, JFSR became an early participant in the American Theological Library Association (ATLA) database as well as other online points of access.
Over the last decade, an early informational website for JFSR was replaced with a redesigned site in 2007. With this site, FSR introduced its expanding role in supporting not only the publication of JFSR but also new projects such as the Feminism in Religion (FiR) forum. Two years later, on September, 29, 2009, FSR joined Facebook. Then, in November of 2011, FSR re-launched their website to its current format.
I recount this brief history to point to how Feminist Studies in Religion, Inc. has consistently struggled with the question of how to make feminist scholarship on religion accessible. With the advent of new media, there have been great new opportunities for reaching out to broader audiences. Electronic subscriptions to JFSR have become an alternative to costly overseas shipping. In teaching, assigning an article from JFSR is cheaper and easier when linking to on online database then securing rights to include an article in a course reader. Most recently, the ability to submit articles electronically to JFSR has eliminated costly shipping of multiple printed copies.
With the introduction of the FiR blog, new media outlets have enabled not only a wider audience beyond JFSR subscribers, but also timely responses. Within a week of the news about Karen King’s discovery of a papyrus discussing the wife of Jesus, Susanne Scholz had responded with a blog on FiR and Bernadette Brooten added another soon after. Both in the days proceeding and just after the recent U.S. elections, Emilie Townes registered her hopes and her concerns. In this way, the FiR blog provides an important forum for immediate responses to current events in ways that contribute to public conversations.
For me, the power and importance of the FSR Facebook page was made evident to me on January 3, 2010. On that day, I had received a message through the WATER network that Mary Daly had died. Knowing how important this news would be to the larger FSR community, I shared this note on the FSR Facebook page. In comments, the FSR page became a site for shared communal remembering. The news and the remembering spread from the FSR page across Facebook and into the mainstream media.
By seeking to engage multiple media outlets from AAR/SBL events, to a twice-yearly scholarly journal, to a blog, a website, and a Facebook page, FSR, Inc. has been seeking to find ways to communicate, promote, and engage feminist scholarship on religion. While FSR has successfully pursued many opportunities that new media has enabled, challenges have also arisen.
For decades, JFSR has relied upon income from subscriptions, volunteer efforts of editors, and the part-time work of graduate students to publish the Journal. With the added projects and costs of developing, moderating, and promoting content on the website, blog, Facebook, and AAR/SBL events, additional resources of time and money have been needed—but not always available. In rereading Judith Plaskow’s sober reflection on starting JFSR, I was struck by her wrestling with the relationship between wanting to promote content and needing to develop infrastructure.
Even as new media raises possibilities—a YouTube channel? on-line publishing? shared syllabi?—we must also ask how do we make it happen and who will do the work? The kinds of work needed to sustain JFSR as an academic, peer-reviewed journal has been recognized by the academy. Authors add their published articles to their CV. Editor’s list their role as service to the academy. Even graduate students benefit from titles and connections made during their tenure as managing or submissions editor. But what about web work? Do blogs “count” for tenure? Does a spot on the web editorial board carry the same weight as the Journal editorial board? Can we change how this work is perceived by the academy? Can we re-think the importance of this work in our own lives—not simply as professional scholars—but as citizens, religious leaders, and/or activists committed to promoting feminist voices and perspectives on religion in a world that so badly needs it?
As someone who currently works both in the academy and as a minister, my own hope is that we are able to use the opportunities of new media to continue expanding access to feminist perspectives on religion beyond the academy. There is still a lot of work to be done and new media presents a number of opportunities for tackling this work—if we can also bring our resources and abilities to tackle the challenges.