Pluralism and Power

An Interview with Lucia Hulsether

Lucia Hulsether is a doctoral student in religious studies at Yale University and a graduate of HDS’s Master of Divinity program. Her current work interrogates the logics of pluralism and interfaith dialogue, and questions how these seemingly benign terms can, at times, act as cover for harsher economic and social realities. But her experience as a student also speaks to the power of reworking interactions in a more concrete sense, whether through feminist mentoring or radical pedagogy. We spoke with Lucia over email about her work, her writing, and her time in the academy.

Can you give an overview of your interests?  How did you come to study religion, and what specifically draws you to your area of focus?

Lucia Hulsether: I try to work at the intersection of critical ethnic studies, history of capitalism in the Americas, and queer and feminist critique. How did I end up in a religious studies department? The simplest answer is that I have often found excellent mentors and intense, interdisciplinary conversation partners in departments organized under the heading of religion. I also think that religion offers a unique angle into and a decent umbrella over the concerns I’ve named. I have come to think of religion as the question of how people dream of alternative worlds, and then strive—tragically, comically, unconsciously, maybe with success, more likely with harrowing consequences—to make those worlds concrete, to suture dreams to bodies, to legislate difference. Those dreams, those worlds, and the blurriness that sabotages my linguistic parsing of the two hinge on—and are unhinged by—regimes of race, gender, and sexuality. 

I have not yet chosen a dissertation topic, but my projects so far have all touched in some way on a specific set of questions: when, and through what means, do aspirations to create a multicultural world enact raced and gendered violence? What is the relationship between liberal discourses of multiculturalism and the expansion of free markets? I’ve tended to explore these questions through projects on the advertising strategies and histories of multinational corporations—Coca-Cola, Google, TOMS Shoes—but this summer I’ve turned my eye to smaller microfinance and fair trade outfits, which often position themselves as the alternative to exploitative capitalism. I just returned from Guatemala, where I combined historical study and ethnography in an attempt to understand how and to what ends a solution to global wealth gaps came to be seen as a problem of integrating more people into free markets—i.e. opening lines of credit for the world’s poorest people and offering individual citizens in the Global North the opportunity to administrate this debt.

What role did HDS play in forming your current academic project?  What were the opportunities and challenges the environment posed during your time here?

LH: Harvard Divinity School is invested in an ideal of multicultural, interreligious community, and it grounds its institutional identity in this ideal. My work is invested in interrogating ideologies of difference, especially ideologies of religious difference. So, we can already see the potential tension between the university I entered three years ago and the critical questions that have animated me. In reality, though, I could not have ended up in a more appropriate or stimulating place. For three years, I was immersed in a community participating in and producing what I took to be the object of my critique (and, of course, I did this too). This in itself was intellectually provocative, but I also think that when institutions lean into a discourse, they tend to also attract many people who want to interrogate that same discourse. If the goal is to think critically about formations of religious difference, it is hard to do much better than the communities of conversation that seem to converge at HDS.

How have you found the shift from your work at HDS to your doctoral studies?  In retrospect, what resources were most valuable in preparing yourself for further academic research?

LH: I did not experience significant difference in intellectual intensity, conversation quality, or output-demand in my first year of doctoral work. The most tangible differences, as I see them, have been the more immediate presence of anxieties about the job market and other more general issues of feeling increased pressure around academic performance. These issues are formative and sometimes devastating ones for many graduate students, especially for those who are already targeted by the racism and sexism that run rampant in our universities. One of my feminist mentors tells all of her students, “People die in graduate school.” She also tells us, “The best work is done by happy, healthy people.” It’s true. Managing wellbeing in the context of what can become all-consuming and draining work is one of the most urgent, and least talked about, issues in graduate school.

Before and after my transition to doctoral work, and I expect for a long time after I’m done, my most valuable resources have been practices that refuse the cycle of highs-and-lows so common in academic life. I’m talking about the despair of days-long writers’ block and self-doubt, followed by spurts of manic breakthrough production until after the point of diminishing returns. I make a point of moderating my work patterns and staying in a place of consistency. This makes for a boring answer to the question, but I tend to think that low-drama living and writing facilitates better work! So here it goes: I rarely spend more than two hours per day writing, and I stop myself at a pre-determined time even if I am on a roll. I always put down my pen in mid-sentence, so that I can easily pick right up the next day. I look forward to my allotted writing time, just as much as I look forward to the other things I do on a daily basis—like cook a nice meal, go to the gym, and spend time with people I love. My academic work is a very important part of a whole, rich life, which includes numerous equally important centers of gravity.

In terms of writing applications and formulating projects, what have you found most useful to you?  And what have you found most challenging?

LH: I approached the doctoral application process as one of investigation into patterns in my own work. What issues were emerging repeatedly? How would I summarize the themes of my work and, most importantly, its stakes? I did not propose a specific project, but instead I wrote my application as a series of image-driven answers to those questions that I had posed to myself. People do not believe me when I say this, but I relished every minute of it. What a luxury to spend a summer becoming more articulate about my own work, and to think of avenues through which to deepen it! Of course this kind of thinking is hard, but the difficulty was part of why I loved it. By the end of the writing and reflecting process, I felt much more clarity about the investments of my work at that moment in time (or at least I felt better about my capacity to express them). That clarity mitigated one of the toughest parts of the application process, which involves the inevitable games of comparison among applicants competing for the same slots, who sometimes also happen to be classmates and friends. I tried to treat the writing and reflection part of the process a gift in and of itself, so that whatever the answers in the crapshoot that is PhD admissions, I could do a better job of detaching them from the substance and potential of the work I aimed to do.

Back to your own work, how do you see your interests as speaking to current scholarly conversations, but also to people outside of academia?

LH: I think that the stakes of my research and writing are fairly similar regardless of audience, so here I’ll address the communities of discourse that have formed me and that are catching my interest right now. On one hand, within religious studies, a broad conversation about the grounds and meanings of the secular (and variously secularization, secularity, secularism . . .) has grabbed me as a potentially fruitful entry point into thinking about histories of capitalism. Quite a bit of the work on secularization/secularism has focused on what Tracy Fessenden calls its presumptive Protestantism. Whether or not we find that thesis compelling, its underlying point is that it unmasks the disciplines and norms undergirding what may otherwise appear as religion-neutral freedom or liberatory pluralism. On the other hand, within fields of ethnic studies and gender and sexuality studies, there has been a turn toward interrogating discourses of race, gender, and sexual difference—especially discourses of multiculturalism and pluralism—as certain technologies of control in the context of late capitalism. Lately, one question on my mind is how to bring these two literatures into conversation with each other. The former tends to be less-than-precise at considering race, gender, and sexuality; the latter has done very little to think theoretically about religion and its histories, and particularly the capacity of religion to function as a technology of racial formation. Both sets of literatures are getting at something important, which relates to a question of how what feels like—and is understood as—liberation ends up functioning as something more akin to control. This issue seems too big to be confined to either “inside” or “outside” of academia, or for that matter inside or outside of certain scholarly conversations. It seems like it can straddle lots of lines and that how I express the problem has more to do with how I want my voice to enter into the exchanges that my colleagues are already having.

This takes a lot of listening. For me, academic work can be like a puzzle where the goal is to connect conversations that have a lot to do with each other but that, for whatever issue of institutional gerrymandering, haven’t always found their chemistry. Now, a benefit of religious studies (and American studies, for that matter) is its tradition of interdisciplinarity. Our projects can employ diverse methods, address multiple audiences, and build from a range of literatures. For me, writing for audiences “outside of academia” amplifies this sense of interdisciplinarity and offers a more blatant opportunity to get creative with form—for no other reason than that “outside of academia” is not structured by departmental headings. I want to stress that the basic intellectual quality can remain pretty consistent. Cultural theorist Fred Moten says that accessibility isn’t a matter of content; it’s about having the patience, creativity, and generosity to actually explain something in a way that gives credence to the people with whom you’re speaking. So much of pedagogy—whether written on the page or spoken in a classroom—is a matter of being curious about what new frames can come from new conversation partners and about learning to frame ideas so that they connect to what expertise is already there.

You’ve also done a fair bit of writing for non-academic publications.  How does this fit into your academic work and goals?

LH: Although in an instrumental sense I recognize the different genres of writing and the variant worth that kinds of publications have on a CV, I struggle to separate substantively what we have called academic work and non-academic writing. Both are work! And my hope is that both can hold comparable weight, even if in different genres or for different audiences. I do not think I am being intellectually or politically responsible unless I can explain what I am doing to somebody who is not an expert in my field—not only because this might mean I’ve been lazy or impatient in my own comprehension of a concept, but also because it refuses risk. Someone once asked me if I wrote for non-academic venues because “the bar is lower for what they will accept, so you don’t have to work as hard.” I almost fell out of my chair. In what world and with what assumptions can someone decide that intellectual and political standards are lower, or learning opportunities less profound, outside of universities?

Let me be clear that I do not find this kind of attitude in the interview question! I just want to emphasize that I have learned things in the process of writing popular articles that have turned out to be underpinnings of my work and papers in more formally academic settings, and vice versa. Whether I’m writing for a popular audience or a seminar, I try to root my essay in solving a problem I haven’t gotten a handle on at the outset. I lead with questions. One of my favorite pieces I ever wrote (in any genre) started as a challenge/irritation: I kept reading, and deploying, the term neoliberalism without actually getting the sense that anyone (including me) could state its contours in an accessible way. I set the following goal for myself: to write a piece that would offer a definition, both to make a resource available to a wider audience awash in economy-speak and, closer to home, to force myself out of an intellectual elitism in which I plastered zombie nouns over the poetry, precision, and patience that an explanation requires. That particular effort, and especially the conversations that grew around the eventual piece, continues to boomerang back as a resource in all of my writing.

Thinking of writing more broadly—how has your academic writing evolved, and what do you think have been the most useful or influential factors in developing your voice as a student and aspiring scholar?

LH: Feminist mentoring—both mentors I have had and mentoring I have done—has been the single most important part of my development as a scholar. I attended a women’s liberal arts college in which our religious studies department was run on a Freirian model of democratic education. Now, a lot of people throw around Freire as a pedagogical token, without ever changing the distribution of power in their classrooms and departments, but this was an absolute institutional overhaul happening in our little corner of the humanities building. Students outnumbered faculty on most committees, we rotated chairship in department meetings (there were no faculty-only meetings), we instituted collaborative processes for reviewing department policy and syllabi, and all members of the department were encouraged to present our work locally and nationally. (“You don’t have to apologize for being in the room,” a feminist mentor told me when as a college senior I was worried about being the youngest person on my panel at AAR.) It was a collective process of unlearning and then staking ourselves against a consumer-student, faculty-expert model of education. We took for granted that teaching and learning were overlaid processes, and everyone was responsible for contributing to the work and knowledge. The department also provided a kind of informal overhead for the staff-led campus Living Wage Campaign, a fact that made scholar-activism the rule rather than the exception. 

It was a lively, exciting place to begin my formation in the academy and in adult life. I am especially grateful because, since then, other models of education—models where students wait to present work, where they don’t participate in curriculum development, where there is some magical shift after the PhD, and where there is a strong status distinction between faculty, students, and staff—have struck me as a intuitively bizarre, even as my experiences at Harvard and Yale remind me that my background is the weird one. I say all of this by way of an answer in part to explain some of my responses above. When I resist the distinctions between academic/popular forms of writing and audience, it is in part because of remembering how rich and transformative this work was in a place where such binaries cut against not just our critical theories, but also all common sense. Even as I navigate very different institutions now, I still think back to my time at Agnes Scott as a kind of plumb line for what sort of feminist teacher and learner I would like to become, whether in a university setting or not.

Advice for future students?

LH: I have a rejoinder to common advice that I’ve heard given to students considering doctoral work. This advice is that if you can think of doing ANYTHING else—literally, anything—you should leave the doctoral pipeline and do the other thing instead. This advice is normally given because there are no jobs (true) or because somebody is trying to emphasize that being a professor is not as glamorous as their starry-eyed students think (likely true as well).

Not really having the retrospect that would qualify me to give stone-set advice, I will give my best intuition, which is the following: we should go onto and continue in doctoral work ONLY if we can imagine ourselves in many, many other lives than the life of a professor. If right now we can’t enthusiastically imagine ourselves doing anything else—and for many of us this makes sense, since school is what we know—we need an opportunity to grow our imaginations. This is partly an issue of job security (we know the refrain: most don’t get jobs). But I think the stakes are higher if we do get jobs. In doctoral study we are preparing to teach students, who are chasing and falling into a range of careers. My best teachers, within the university and not, have been the ones who esteemed, empathized with, and stood in awe of a range of paths—even if it was not their own trajectory.

Although I love teaching and research and want to dedicate my life to it, there are infinite ways to teach and write and research. There is nothing intrinsically superior about doing this work in the context of a university. I can learn and think just as much in talking to people, in an elementary school, in a nonprofit, in a worship service, in a political protest, in an interfaith meeting.