Whose Audience? Which Public?

A graduate student’s perspective on the Religion and Its Publics Summer Seminar

Evan Sandsmark, University of Virginia

With so many scholars gathered in a seminar room for a week, united by a common purpose and a shared set of texts, the conversation was bound to be rich – and it was. The discussions were always lively, and the conversation was taken in new and interesting directions by invited guests who work outside the academy. Many themes emerged, and a lot of intellectual terrain was traversed.

Here, I confine myself to one prominent theme of the seminar, which is closely aligned with the mission of Religion and its Publics.

The importance of that last word – publics, with its traditional connotations multiplied by its unusual pluralization – was not apparent to me until the end of the week. Making my way home from the airport for the sixth time in as many days, I realized that one of the unifying themes of this year’s Summer Seminar is an old concern in publishing: audience. And of course a work can have more than one audience, more than one public.

Who are you trying to reach? How does your envisioned audience – the public or publics for whom you write – shape what you produce? Such questions were met head on, as during the manuscript workshops, when each presenter had to reckon with the question of audience. How would your project change, presenters where asked, if you employed a different idiom, framed your project more broadly, or signaled an awareness of questions proximate to your own?

Questions of audience were also addressed indirectly, as when they hovered in the background of conversations on polling and the limits of religious labels like “Muslim” or “Christian.” If these labels do not denote a meaningful or coherent category, how helpful is it to know how, say, Jews in the United States feel about same-sex marriage? But if labels must be eschewed, how can institutions that conduct polls or gather data from the public convey their findings? And can’t polls themselves be instruments for helping us understand categories or, in the case of religion, help us discern the true depth of religious pluralism in the United States?

Even questions seemingly unconnected to audience, like those on work methods and writing habits, the subject of the concluding session of the week, were tinged with the question “for whom do you write?” A book, such as Paul Jones’s Patience: A Theological Exploration, that hopes to intervene in contemporary Protestant theology by introducing “patience” as an essential theological concept, will probably be written differently than say, Vincent Lloyd’s upcoming project that aims to discuss black fatherhood, potentially with reference to one’s own life story.

As fruitful as the discussions were, these questions have not been exhausted. For this reason, and many others, we can be grateful that the Religion and its Publics project, thanks to funding from the Luce Foundation, will continue to 2019.