A Conversation with the New Chair, Pamela Klassen

October 27, 2020 by Department for the Study of Religion Staff

“New Chair, Big Goals”

We caught up with Chair Pamela Klassen to talk about taking on this role during a pandemic, and her vision for the department moving forward.

DSR: A new chair often comes in with fresh ideas and big plans. What is your vision for the department moving in to 2021?

PK: It has been interesting to start as chair in the midst of a global pandemic. COVID-19 has changed everything from how we teach and research, to how we communicate with each other, which I think can help shine a light on how we are doing things in the future, once we're past this crisis.

I've been in the department since, well it was my very first academic job! I came here in 1997, and started by teaching the big first-year Religions East and West class, and the History of Christianity class, all 2000 years of it. So that was a baptism by fire, but I quickly realized that undergraduates at the University of Toronto are ready and eager to think critically about how religion is at play in the world, and to bring their own diverse lived experiences to the conversation.

One of my main priorities over the next few years is to work with faculty, staff, and students to revitalize our undergraduate program. You can read the interview with Mukti Patel, our Religion Undergrad Student Association (RUSA) president, to see how life-changing—and life-preparing—the study of religion can be for students.

If we as faculty--researchers and teachers--take the time to listen to students, whether majors, specialists, or those who want to take an elective or two, we’ll have a great foundation for rethinking our courses and how they fit together. Right away, I introduced some new faculty roles that can better support undergraduate and graduate teaching, including an Online Teaching Liaison (Prof. Jennifer Harris), a Graduate Teaching Liaison (Prof. Judith Newman), and a TA Coordinator (John Marshall), who works across St. George and UTM religion courses.

My second priority is to focus on supporting our excellent researchers and helping them to get the resources they need to do their research and to bring their important work to broader audiences. DSR faculty and graduate students research the significance of religion both historically and in the present day, and we share our insights through an increasingly wide array of media, as Arti Dhand’s Mahabharata podcast shows.

And finally, I’m interested in paying attention to how we engage with the city of Toronto and the wider GTA region. We are revitalizing the Religion in the Public Sphere initiative as one way to build city and community engagement and foster intellectual exchange and knowledge sharing. Part of this engagement requires thinking hard about the present context of our research and teaching. DSR grad students have taken the lead in asking how questions of systemic racism need to be addressed both within our departmental community and in the wider discipline of the study of religion. We now have a DSR Action Plan on Anti-Racism, Decolonization, and Equity, which I invite our alumni and friends to read. I’d love to hear what people think about the questions we’re asking and the steps we are taking.

DSR: COVID-19 has introduced obvious struggles for students. How has it impacted your role as chair? How has the department had to pivot to offer support and resources to students?

PK: Nothing can replace face-to-face teaching. Faculty and teaching assistants want to be back in the classroom ASAP; we had a few faculty offering dual delivery courses, but even this was not like a full, elbow-to-elbow classroom. That said, I am so impressed with what faculty have done to retool their teaching so that students feel connected to each other and to their education and are able to move ahead with their degrees. Our Online Teaching Liaison, Prof. Jennifer Harris, together with the team of graduate students she has gathered, have really helped faculty make this transition as seamless as possible. The most important resource we can provide is our presence, even if it is our digital presence.

Our new Associate Chair Undergraduate, Professor Simon Coleman, has been working closely with RUSA, and unsurprisingly we find that the students have the best ideas about how we can help them. For the first time, the DSR is participating in the Arts & Science Humanities First Year Learning Community, or FLC, which brings together small groups of first-year students who are in the same core courses. In addition to our small First-Year Foundations seminars, the FLC is a great way to help new students with the adjustment to university and let them know what the study of religion can be.

For graduate students, a big shout out to Ajay Rao and Fereshteh Hashemi for making sure financial and other resources for students are getting to them. Until recently, Fereshteh was still holding “Tea at 2” check-ins for our department, but Zoom fatigue has us taking a break for now. Online gatherings are not ideal, but we are learning new ways to connect, and perhaps even seeing the benefits of the more internationalized conversations we can have by making use of platforms like Zoom and Teams. I am organizing a workshop called “Making Promises: Treaties, Oaths, and Covenants in Multi-Jurisdictional and Multi-Religious Societies” that was supposed to be held in Germany in July, and is now being held online next week. Our public keynote lecture by legal scholar Jeffery Hewitt will now be viewed by many more people! We can’t replace the in-person connection, but we can complement it.

DSR: Like many departments within humanities, the DSR grapples with the challenge of recruiting new undergraduate students. What do you say to folks who might think an academic focus on religion can only lead to an academic career?

PK: We need to do more work as a faculty, to look at our curriculum, and ask where we are leading our students. Students who do religion majors and specialists aren't all going onto academia – some of them might, and that’s great if they are. The world needs their research! But there are lots of other ways one can use critical thinking and writing skills and savviness about how religion plays into situations of conflict and community around the world.

One thing I’m interested in is experiential learning. We have a community-engaged learning class, which places students with community organizations, and it would be great to make that a more regular offering. If any alumni would like to know more about how they can help with placements or mentoring support, I’d be happy to hear from them. Studying religion generates a lot of applicable skills, whether through the lens of digital humanities, religion and law, or material religion. Students learn to think critically about how religion cuts across different fields, including government, museums and cultural institutions, not-for-profits, the health care sector, and more!

DSR: Why is it important to you that this department welcomes a new generation of students who study religion?

PK: In my Religion East and West class you could count students from every religion, and no religion. Students asked me hard questions about why I presented the material in a certain way. I have learned a lot from my undergraduates when I'm teaching. They come with fresh ideas and make brilliant connections across texts and traditions. It’s clear that the DSR prepares students to engage with the world. We need young people to be thinking critically about how religion intersects with issues of race, gender, sexism, class and inequality. Questions of social justice are not going away, and we need historical understanding to better address them.

More specifically, in the context of Canada, we can't understand Canada's relationship to Indigenous Nations without understanding the role of religion in that relationship, especially in terms of Christianity and Indigenous spiritual traditions. One of the calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is that any educational institution that receives public funding to teach religious studies must think comparatively about religions and include instruction about Indigenous spiritual traditions through an Indigenous lens.

I'm particularly excited that we have a faculty member, Kevin White, who is cross appointed between Indigenous Studies and the Department for the Study of Religion, and who is helping to support a growing number of students who are interested in Indigenous studies and related questions from the perspective of the study of religion.

DSR: Tell me about the department’s research profile in the coming years. What direction are you moving towards?

PK: The DSR is a research powerhouse. We have excellent researchers who are active across an amazing range of expertise: ancient papyrus fragments, medieval manuscripts, Indigenous creation narratives; the lives and works of philosophers of religion; and present-day ethnographic and oral history research in Egypt, Guatemala, Nigeria, and Brooklyn. I want all of our researchers to feel well supported, especially in the wake of COVID-19 related research disruptions. As one step, we initiated a new peer review session for SSHRC grants, so that faculty can share tips and best practices, and give each other critical feedback. I am also working on hosting virtual manuscript workshops for faculty with books in gestation, to help them get the critical feedback they need especially at a time when conferences are cancelled. We have great researchers, both faculty and grad students, and my goal is that everyone feels supported to try out new things.

We also depend on important collaborations with other centres, such as the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Centre for Buddhist Studies, which has had an active schedule of visitors coming to present their research. We also have a lot of faculty connected with the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies and the Institute for Islamic studies. A great example of the collaborative spirit of religion researchers is a new SSHRC-funded project led by Walid Saleh and Amanda Goodman. It’s called the “Practices of Commentary” project, and draws together faculty and grad students from across U of T and around the world.

DSR faculty and student research cuts across themes such as religion and material culture, or religion and critical text studies, and religion and gender. I’m interested in how some of the thematic research interest can be harnessed in a more collaborative way. Individual scholars need to have the time to read books, access archives, do their field work, and think their thoughts and write about it all. It’s important in the DSR to preserve space for people to do their individual work, but also to support collaboration when it works for them. I’m keen to have grad students, whenever possible, connect to faculty research projects and for undergrads to connect with faculty research as well.

DSR: Community outreach and involvement is essential to the vitality of a department. How do you plan on engaging the larger U of T community, alumni and the public in the coming years?

PK: We have just introduced an alumni relations committee, chaired by Prof. Srilata Raman, and we are very excited to engage more actively with our undergraduate and graduate alumni. Community engagement is at the heart of the Religion in the Public Sphere initiative. It’s a time intensive endeavor and that is best undertaken through understanding the different ways that faculty and students already engage with community through their research and teaching. We’re looking forward to connecting with our alumni to learn more from them about how their religion degrees helped shape them, and the ideas they might have for how to best engage with the diverse communities of the GTA and beyond.