Critical Representations

Miller, Richard. “Critical Representations,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65, no.4 (Winter 1997): 727-743.

Richard Miller considers his role as a religious studies professor in a liberal arts environment. The essay consists of six parts. In the First Section, "Life and Vocation," Miller discusses the pursuit of knowledge and what attracted him to the liberal arts environment. He notes how important it is that a liberal arts culture support ideas that have a “noninstrumental status.” He regards the university as a place where ideas are questioned and explored in depth through open and critical inquiry. He also stresses the democratic nature of American higher education. The Second Section of the article covers the various roles that faculty play. Miller identifies seven types of roles: informational, facilitating, motivational, advisory, curricular, evaluative, and performative. These responsibilities are time-consuming and often energy-draining but are productive in promoting students’ learning. In a Third Section, Miller discusses how the nature of religious studies makes it a “diffuse discipline.” Consequently, its goals are not based on simply covering a certain amount of material. Religious studies courses allow students multiple exposures to the content in order to introduce them to various methodologies, orientations, and relations helpful in critical analyses. In a Fourth Section, Miller considers specialization and interconnections. He notes that “religion requires scholars to find a balance between depth and breadth.” In his Fifth Section on "Advocacy and Objectivity," Miller poses the question: To what extent may a teacher advocate a particular viewpoint? This is of particular importance to this field given the subjective nature of religion. After exploring different types of advocacy, Miller endorses advocacy-in-complexity where a professor argues a specific claim, points out the merits and problems with that claim, and then opens up the issue in order to place that claim in a larger context. Miller’s last two sections focus on the social and political aspects of religious studies. Specifically he focuses on the issues of ethnocentrism and self-reflection. He claims that in such a diffuse discipline, students need to be able to acquire “multiple literacies” so that they can carry on conversations about religion across the humanities. (KH)