Ian Alexander Cuthbertson
Ph.D candidate, Cultural Studies
Photo: Ian Alexander Cuthbertson
"If you give researchers a venue, they'll impress you."
By Sharday Mosurinjohn
This year, Queen’s School of Religion hosted its first interdisciplinary graduate student conference with graduate scholars from three countries, a keynote at the top of his field, and, to make it official, even some logo-emblazoned tote bags—all thanks, in large part, to a Cultural Studies PhD Candidate with a passion for religious studies.
When Ian Alexander Cuthbertson was a student in Queen’s Religion and Modernity MA, he loved the pace of his one-year program, but he was disappointed that a mere three semesters didn’t provide enough time for him and his cohort to host their own in-house conference. “It takes the first semester to get oriented to Queen’s, the second one to finish up course work, and the third to write the major research paper,” remembers Cuthbertson, “so there was no time to organize a graduate conference. But it’s an incredibly beneficial experience for Master’s students to have.” Among the reasons, Cuthbertson cites the opportunity for professionalization in a less intimidating environment than those convened by major academic associations such as the American Academy of Religion. Now in his third year of study under the School of Religion’s Dr. James Miller, Cuthbertson remains heavily involved with religious studies. He teaches one of the undergraduate program’s introductory courses (RELS 161), has been a TA and an RA, and even recently acted in a play with senior faculty member Dr. Bill Morrow. With an understanding of the School and its resources, this year seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally mount the grad conference he never had. The result, Unravelling Religion: An Interdisciplinary Graduate Student Conference, took place at Queen’s Theological Hall over the weekend of February 28–March 1.
Why did Cuthbertson set the task of unravelling religion? “This word ‘religion’ is messy,” explains Cuthbertson, “because it’s tangled up. You always hear ‘religion and’—religion and gender, religion and politics, religion and violence, religion and ecology, and so on. The title Unravelling Religion takes out the ‘and.’” The theme is informed by a growing approach to the critical study of religion and also enables a broader perspective on issues in theory and methodology—one that Cuthbertson himself had found lacking in a number of graduate conferences where he was seeking to share his work (he’s presenting at five, this year alone). Evidently this breadth appealed, because graduate scholars applied from as far as Berkeley in California, the coincidentally named Kingston University in London, England, and with the generous support of the School of Religion and Queen’s Student Initiative Fund, drew the keynote, the eminent religious studies scholar Dr. Russell T. McCutcheon, from the University of Alabama.
Cuthbertson had identified McCutcheon as his ideal keynote because, in his words, “he opened my eyes to a whole way of doing religious studies that informs all my work now.” As an MA student, recalls Cuthbertson with the wisdom of hindsight, there was a time when he thought he had uncovered deep theoretical issues in the academic study of religion that no one else had ever noticed before. Then he came across McCutcheon’s book Manufacturing Religion (1997), which simultaneously laid out everything Cuthbertson had been thinking and introduced him to a growing subfield of critical religion. With a self-effacing smile, he adds: “Basically, Russell McCutcheon was important to me because he taught me how unaware I was.”
Cuthbertson’s own research now investigates how Montrealers conceptualize religion, secularism, and para-religious objects, like good luck charms. Montréal is Cuthbertson’s hometown, and he still lives there part time with his fiancée, dividing his time between Montréal and Kingston. Through interviews and a web-based survey which operates under the name Everyday Enchantments, Cuthbertson aims to explore how the continued presence of religious, spiritual, or ‘magical’ objects in Montréal fits into contemporary discussions of religion, secularism, and disenchantment.
Once a high school teacher at a Mohawk high school in Quebec, Cuthbertson would like to move on to teach at CEGEP (Quebec’s General and Vocational College system) after he is finished his current research project. “They’re incredible institutions,” he reflects. “They offer first year university level intro courses, taught by PhDs, and for free.” And high school, CEGEP, and undergraduate teaching aren’t Cuthbertson’s only pedagogical interests. For the last six years, he has also led theatre classes and wrote and directed plays for children with autism spectrum disorder at Montréal Children’s Theatre.
When asked what he takes away from this recent conference organizing experience, Cuthbertson first offers a deadpan answer—“don’t take the sandwich covers off all the sandwich plates right away; they get stale”—before invoking the familiar phrase “if you build it, they will come.” “No, seriously,” he insists thoughtfully, “if you give researchers a venue, they’ll impress you.”