Monday, November 28, 2011

Running for the President of the American Academy of Religion

“Pui Lan, would you be willing to run for the Vice-President of AAR?” the chair of the Nominations Committee of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) called and asked me back in April 2008.

The AAR, with 10,000 members, is the world’s largest professional organization of scholars in religion. The majority of its members are from the U.S., but approximately 17 percent are international scholars from over 70 countries.

It was a great honor to have been nominated—for the Vice-President would be in line to become the President in 2011. The problem was that there would be an election and I would have to compete with another candidate, who happened to be a professor at Harvard University.

I thought, “If I win, that’s good. But what happens if I lose?”

That spring Hillary Clinton was competing with Barack Obama to be the nominee for the Democratic Party. She lost to Obama in the Iowa caucuses and fought back tears after being asked how she kept going in New Hampshire.

Although I was rooting for Obama, I was deeply impressed by Clinton’s courage to face defeat after defeat so publicly.

I asked myself, “If Clinton can face losses in such a public way, what do I have to lose?”

Yes, what have I got to lose?

I decided to run for the AAR presidency because I wanted to stand up for others. Even when I was a doctoral student, I was frequently invited to speak in meetings in churches and academia. I would be the lone Asian woman speaking on a panel.

I generally preferred to stand up when speaking so that the audience could see me. Very often after my speech, there would be a soft-spoken, timid Asian female student, who would come up to tell me that she was glad to see me standing and speaking. In the 1980s, an Asian feminist theologian was a rare sight.

So when I received the call, I remembered these Asian women students who once told me they were proud to see an Asian woman standing. When I said yes, I was answering to a larger call in life.

In a Wabash workshop for pre-tenured Asian and Asian American faculty, I said that as leaders, we have to bring the tribe along. Those of us who are pioneers have the responsibility of opening the door a little wider for others to come.

After Hillary lost, she told the misty crowd gathered at Washington’s National Building Museum: “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.” She also said, “And the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”

I have received many awards and recognitions in life. The AAR presidency would be like icing on the cake. Like Hillary, I want to make the path a little easier for others next time.

In the 102 years of history of the AAR, only seven or eight racial and ethnic minority scholars have been elected as President. I am the second person of Asian descent to have been elected; the first one was Professor Vasudha Narayanan of the University of Florida, who specializes in Hinduism. She was also the first woman of color to have served in this prestigious position.

Some Asian American scholars and students organized a banquet to honor me on the eve of the AAR annual meeting at San Francisco on November 18. I said to them, “Tomorrow night I will deliver the Presidential Address. I hope that many years later, you will remember that I stood up and spoke from the podium.” I wanted to encourage them to answer the call and accept invitations and challenges that come their way. If I can stand up, they can too. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sugirtharajah's Exploring Postcolonial Biblical Criticism

R. S. Sugirtharajah and Pui Lan, 2010
What is the need for another introduction to postcolonial biblical criticism? Didn’t Sugirtharajah publish the highly acclaimed Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation (Oxford 2002) almost a decade ago? The answers to these questions are simple: postcolonial biblical criticism keeps on developing.

This text begins with an introductory chapter on postcolonial theory and concludes with an afterword that discusses the future of postcolonial biblical criticism. It charts the development of the field, criticizes Orientalist reading practices, and offers helpful reading strategies. It includes a chapter by Ralph Broadbent summarizing the foundational texts in postcolonial biblical criticism.

On the back cover, Stephen D. Moore says the book is accessible to novices, but “old hands will also learn enormously from it.” I couldn’t agree more. 

The first chapter offers an updated development of the postcolonial condition. In the past, postcolonialism was based on what Gayatri Spivak has called a “South Asian model.” But today’s Empire is decentered and deterritorialized (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri) and different from the previous colonial period. I detect urgency in the book to address economic inequity brought by globalization. Sugirtharajah said, in the early stage, postcolonial critics focused on political independence of former colonies. Then attention moved onto the dislocation and displacement of migrants and diasporans. Today, postcolonialism must address global hunger and the plight of the rural poor and peasants (20). In this way, the book wants to respond constructively to the persistent Marxist critiques of postcolonial biblical criticism by David Jobling, Roland Boer, and Gerald West.

I was struck by Sugirtharajah’s suggestion that biblical studies be considered an essential component of Oriental studies. In Orientalism, Edward Said already indicted the philological work of Ernest Renan, a major contributor to the historical quest of Jesus in the nineteenth century (author of Vie de J├ęsus, 1863). Placing biblical studies within the parameters of Oriental Studies allowed us to distinctly see how Orientalist archetypes have been reactivated in social-scientific approaches to biblical studies. Sugirtharajah denounced the Orientalist construction of the “Mediterranean” in the works of John Pilch and Bruce Malina. The use of cultural anthropology in biblical studies has created the binary of “us” versus “them,” and gives further support to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Said’s contrapuntal reading has been well known in postcolonial criticism. In this book, Sugirtharajah insightfully uses Said’s exposition of “late style” to discuss the writings of Paul and John. Said discusses the two contrasting late styles found in artists and thinkers during the twilight of their creative careers. One is wisdom, serenity, and harmony. The other fascinates Said for its display of “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction.” In music (Said was an accomplished pianist and music critic), Beethoven, Richard Strauss, and Mozart’s “Cosi  fan tutte” demonstrated this late style.

Sugirtharajah says that Paul’s Romans represents the first late style. According to Acts, he was a troublemaker and arrested for resisting Roman authorities numerous times. But in Romans, he became mellow and told his followers to submit to the authorities (Rom. 13). John’s Book of Revelation represents the other late style, if John is taken to be the same author of the Fourth Gospel. The Book of Revelation is uncompromising in its anti-imperial stance, in sharp contrast to the apolitical nature of the Gospel of John.

The volume addresses the issue that male postcolonial biblical critics have not paid attention to feminist issues. Broadbent’s chapter includes a section on “postcolonialism and feminism” (83-86). Sugirtharajah points his readers to resources on mutual criticism between feminists and postcolonial critics (19-20), criticizes the misogyny in the Book of Revelation (161), and challenges the use of gender stereotypes in the construction of the Mediterranean (107-108). These are good attempts – but much more can be said.

The contribution of queer studies to postcolonial criticism is glaringly missing in the book. The leading queer theorist Judith Butler has written on war, Zionism, and American imperialism. Marcella Althaus-Reid’s work and some of the chapters in The Queer Bible Commentary include analyses of imperial power. Contrary to Sugirtharajah’s comment that the Song of Songs falls outside the concerns of postcolonalism (53), Christopher King’s reading of the Song in The Queer Bible Commentary shows that transgressive love prefers the outsider. This has implications for the construction of the “other,” an issue discussed throughout Sugirtharajah’s book. The intersection between postcolonialism and queer studies has been broached in other fields and ought to be included in discussing the future of postcolonial biblical criticism.

*This review first appeared in the Journal of Postcolonial Networks, November 2011.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Getting Published

In the past two years, two very talented racial and ethnic minority colleagues were denied tenure by their universities. Among the reasons given was that they did not have enough publications.

I want to share my experience as a writer and editor for more than 25 years. I especially want to speak to those of you who find yourself in the situation that you have little time to write.

To get published, you need to do 5 things:

1. You must have something to say. Many dissertations have been written, but only a very tiny number get published. Why? Because the dissertations have too many footnotes. When I published my first book, one reviewer said that the book had all the features of a dissertation, namely, lots of notes and short summaries. As all doctoral students want to do, I tried to document everything to impress my professors and to avoid plagiarism. I felt comfortable hiding behind what other scholars had said.


After listening to Pamela Johnson, an editor at Fortress Press, speaking to a group of young scholars and students, I knew why so many dissertations cannot get published. Many dissertations use many chapters to rehearse or explain what other scholars have said about the subject. This is called literature review. It is only in the final chapter that the author brings out his or her own viewpoints. Editors are not interested in a book full of citations of what others have said. They are interested in what you, as the author, have to say on the subject. Pam asked the audience to imagine what their book would look like if they start from the final chapter.

2. Learn the craft of publishing. Two university presses turned down my dissertation before it got published. I wish William P. Germano’s From Dissertation to Book had been available at that time. Unfortunately the book came out much later. In that book, Bill Germano guides the reader through the process of publishing your first book: from revising your dissertation, reading with an editor’s eyes, to making your prose speak.

Many of us think that if we have some good ideas, we will be able to get them published. Not so. We spent many years honing the skills of writing academic papers. Turning a paper into a published article for a journal is a learning process. Learning to publish a book is a learning process. Over the years, I have read many books on writing. I enjoyed Stephen King’s book On Writing and Bonnie Friedman’s Writing Past Dark. After I asked a professional editor to edit my work, I was surprised that she could spot so many mistakes, while I couldn’t. So I read the book How to Edit Your Own Writing. After the page proofs came back, I needed to know how to mark the corrections. I found out The Chicago Manual has a few chapters in the beginning that I had overlooked. They talk about manuscript editing and proofs. As you can see, I needed to learn each step along the way. When I became an editor, I had to learn many new things. After I submitted the manuscript for my most recent edited volume, Hope Abundant, the editor at Orbis Books was very pleased that the manuscript was in such great shape. I had published with the same editor 16 years ago. I told her that I have learned much about publishing in the intervening years.

3. Make your proposal stand out. Many trade presses have changed their editors in the last couple of years and publishing houses have slashed their programs. I spoke to one publisher recently. His press used to publish 75 books a year, but the number was cut to half last year. When I asked why, he said people are not buying books in this economy. Even university presses, which are non-profits, are watching closely the bottom line.


A book sells because of the author and the contents. If you are not yet a well-known author, your book must have a great title and attractive contents. Your proposal must convince the editor that the book will have a market. The marketing people will sit down with the editors in the editorial committee to decide whether to accept or reject your proposal. If your book can be adopted as a textbook, you will have a better chance of getting it published. If you wonder how to write a good proposal, I recommend the book Thinking Like Your Editor by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato. The book even contains a sample proposal and a sample chapter. Don’t get discouraged when your proposal is rejected. Trinh T. Minh-ha’s book Women, Native, Other got rejected numerous times. She went on to become an internationally acclaimed cultural critic and filmmaker.

4. Find time to write. I was very impressed by how many books that Miguel De La Torre, Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan, Mark Jordan, and Daniel Harrington have produced. So I asked them what are their secrets. I found out that they write almost all the time and everyday, except for the weekends. De La Torre wakes up at 5 a.m. and reads and writes for 6 hours 3 to 4 days a week, with the goal of writing 10 pages per week. I must confess that I do not have that discipline.

For racial and ethnic minority scholars, finding time to write is such a luxury. Many of us do not teach in research universities and have a heavy teaching load. We are put on all the committees and we have communities of accountability outside the school.

But I have become convinced that only those of us who can wean ourselves from the electronic gadgets that constantly connect us with the outside world can write and get published. This may sound old-fashioned. But writing is a very lonely business and takes a lot of concentration. We need a stretch of time so that our ideas can simmer and our thoughts can develop.

We have to learn to protect our brain. In his book Crazy Busy, Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist who specializes in treating ADD and has ADD himself, says that our culture is producing people with ADT (attention deficit trait). We can’t focus because there are so many attractions. Our attention span becomes short and we are so overwhelmed that we are about to snap. He said, “Being busy may very well keep you from doing what matters most, or it may lead you to do things you deem unwise.” In a very humorous way, he tells us how to address the problems from brain science and psychiatry and encourage us to find our solutions. He even includes a chapter on “Why women have it harder than men.”

5. Nurture Relationships. Here I mean both professional and personal relationships. If the editor has met you and talked with you, she or he will have a face to associate with when she or he is reading the book proposal. I encourage you to introduce yourself to the editors at the book exhibit and tell them the exciting projects you are working on. Get to know the senior scholars in the field so that when they are editing an anthology, they will think of including your work.

Many books begin with an acknowledgment thanking the spouses, partners, and children for their support. Writing may take you away from attending ball games, watching videos, or doing other fun things with family. But sometimes, these distractions keep you sane. Balancing all the demands is a fine art.

I am the advisor with Joerg Rieger to the Religion in Modern World Series of Rowman and Littlefield and co-editor with Ivan Petrella of the Reclaiming Liberation Theology Series of SCM. Religion in Modern World aims at the general audience and focuses on how modernity is reconciled within each religious tradition. Liberation Theology has been considered dead in some circles. SCM publishes works of liberation theology by a new generation of scholars who expand the problematique of liberation theology. I hope to hear from you.

*Presented at a panel on "Getting Published" at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, San Francisco, November 20, 2011.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Tips for Presentation

Next weekend, I am going to present the Presidential Address at the American Academy of Religion, since I serve as the president of the organization for 2011. The title of my address will be “Empire and the Study of Religion.” I have already finished writing the paper, so I have time to think about how to present it.

Some time ago when I passed through a bookstore at an airport, I saw a book that analyzes why Steve Jobs’ keynotes to launch new Apple products were so great. I went to look for the book at a local bookstore. The title is The Presentation Secret of Steve Jobs.

I learned a lot from the book and from observing others making great speeches.

  • Look at the audience. Jobs seldom stood behind a lectern reading a text. He moved on the stage and established rapport with his audience. He used a lectern for his Stanford commencement address in 2005, but he looked at the crowd frequently. Body language matters and your face conveys as much as 20 percent of your message. Babies learn much by looking at your face.

  • Provide a road map. In his commencement address, he said, “Today, I want to tell you three stories from my life.” And he proceeded to tell them.

  • Tell the audience why they should care. Your audience has one question in mind, “Why should I care?” You have to answer this at the beginning of your talk to pique people’s interest.

  • Use a conversational tone. We know the ways that techies speak or write. Full of gibberish. We understand little and remember none. Use plain English and a conversational tune. Avoid unnecessary jargons.


  • Speak with passion. If you speak with confidence and passion, people will respond more to what you have to say. If you really don’t care what you are saying, why should other people care?

  • Use visuals wisely. Jobs used very simple slides. No bullet points and not more than a few words on each slide. People come to listen to you. They have not come to read texts on the slides.

  • Create an unexpected moment. Jobs’ presentations always had a WOW moment. In the launch of Macintosh, the computer spoke. To stress the thinness of Macbook Air, he casually pulled one out from within a manila envelope.

  • Obey the ten-minute rule. This is really hard for academics. According to numerous researches, people’s brains wonder and their attention span lasts for only 10-15 minutes. Jobs rarely made long speeches. His Stanford address was 14.11 minutes long. He would do a demo or invite others to share the stage. If you need to make a lecture of 40 minutes, good luck! You have to find ways to capture people’s attention.

  • Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Jobs made it look so easy, but he rehearsed the presentation for days. His attention to details was legendary. He asked the technician to change the lighting so that the iMac’s translucent color could be shown perfectly.

  • One more thing. Jobs often concluded his keynotes by saying “one more thing.” How do you want to conclude your talk? What do you want to leave on people’s mind?