Faculty Profile: Dr. Anna Peterson

Stories from fieldwork in a war zone. Tales of dog rescues (or tails…see what we did there?). European travels. Wisconsin. It’s all part of Dr. Anna Peterson’s life story and we want to share it with you in our featured Faculty Profile series!

*Read a new Faculty Profile on Dr. Jonathan Edelmann

IMG_2249-226x300Anna Peterson is professor in the Department of Religion at the University of Florida. She received her PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School and her AB from the University of California at Berkeley.  Her research interests are in religion and social change, especially in Latin America; environmental and social ethics; and animal studies. She has published a number of articles, chapters, and book in these areas. Her current research explores the politics and ethics of companion animal rescue. She is also involved in collaborative study, with wildlife ecologists and veterinarians, of the social and ecological context of outdoor cats.

To learn more about Dr. Peterson’s research and past work, visit her FACULTY PAGE.

Here’s the interview where you can learn more about her past experiences, present emphases, and future expectations about the field of religious studies and her own work:

Why did you go into religious studies in the first place?

I became interested in religion by accident, when I took Religion 101 in my first semester at Williams College.  It was taught by Mark C. Taylor, and even though it was a “101″ class it was full of seniors.  I later learned that Taylor’s version of the 101 was legendary.  I was intimidated for most of the semester but also fascinated.  I had never thought much about religion previously, but I discovered that the academic study of religion combined many different things I was interested in – philosophy, history, literature, politics, and more. Taylor was probably the single most influential person in my preparation for my career.

Where did you graduate from? What’s one fond memory you have of your graduate student career?

I received my PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School.  It was a wonderful place to be a graduate student and I have many fond memories.

When did you come to UF? What do you like most about it?

I came to UF in 1993, from Green Bay, Wisconsin, where I had a brief stint teaching at St Norbert College, a Catholic liberal arts college.  Among the many things I like about UF, the ability to teach many different classes and topics ranks high.  I love being able to explore new interests along with students.

What challenges have you faced, and what do you consider to be the most significant challenges facing the academic study of religion?

The challenges we face now are well-known – the challenge to the humanities to stay relevant and prove our relevance in this era of increasing emphasis on STEM and professional development.  Everyone is aware of this and talks about it, and I don’t have anything particularly insightful to add, unfortunately.  I think our department is doing as well as we can, trying to be proactive in addressing the challenges and changing in order to have a place in the new shape of university education.  A particular challenge for our department and for me personally is doing right by our graduate students, to make sure they are getting what they want and need out of their graduate educations, enjoying it as much as possible, and being prepared for a range of possible careers and futures.

What are the promises and opportunities in the field?

Religion is such a big tent – that’s what I liked about it from the start and what I still appreciate most about our discipline.  That means that the opportunities are many, given religion’s central role in virtually every aspect of social life, in the US and beyond.  I think we should continue to explore opportunities within and outside academia, for and with our grad students and also as part of rethinking what the humanities mean and can contribute to the public sphere today.

Tell us a story from your fieldwork…

The best part of doing fieldwork in war zones is that you have lots of good stories.  I feel very privileged to have been able to be in places where history was being made.  Some of the most memorable moments had little to do with my actual research topic and were simply a result of my being in a particular place at a particular moment – like being in San Salvador for the signing of the peace accords on New Year’s Eve, 1991, and then the celebrations when they took effect on Jan. 16, 1992.   Being in the downtown plaza with tens of thousands of people celebrating the end of the war was really a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  It was the counterpoint to many scary moments and times when I questioned my sanity in doing fieldwork in the middle of a war, interviewing people who had armed lookouts at the doors, or attending church services that were broken up by aerial bombings.

Of events directly related to my fieldwork, one incident that stands out is a vía crucis procession in San Salvador in the late 1980s.  The vía crucis is a re-enactment of Jesus’ path to the cross, which many Latin American Catholics perform every Friday during Lent.  The readings at each station explain what was happening, along the lines of “Jesus falls for the second time,” and so forth.  This particular one was held in a working-class neighborhood that had a lot of political and religious activism and thus a large military presence.  During this procession heavily armed soldiers were positioned at many of the stations.  It truly felt like sacred history and secular history were merging, and it brought home the power of the religious narrative that guided these people in a way that even the best interview could not do.

What have you enjoyed most about your experience as a researcher and professor in the field of religious studies?

Dr. Peterson has written and edited several books. One of her latest is Being Animal.
Dr. Peterson has written and edited several books. One of her latest is Being Animal.

I think the diversity of topics I’ve been able to address as part of my “subject,” very broadly defined.  As an ethicist, I am interested in what people value, and why, and what they do about it – which gives a huge range of possible topics, including the ways that religious narratives empower people in the face of political violence as well as the moral meanings embedded in everyday activities.  I get to teach a similarly wide range of topics, which is always a pleasure.

The opportunity to work with so many wonderful students has been a true pleasure as well.  They’ve added so much to the ways I think about the materials I teach and about my own research, and it’s especially fun when students become colleagues – I’ve had some great collaborations with past and present students.

What are your present/future research plans?

I’ve recently finished book chapters on a pretty wide array of topics – religion and ecology in Latin America, animals in material religion, and the history of progressive Catholicism in Latin America..  I’ve also just completed a review essay on the “animal turn” in religious studies, for the journal History of Religions.  It was a great chance to think about the state of that emerging field.  As my students know, I’m a big fan of review essays!

I am presently working on three books.  The first is a volume that I am co-editing with Todd LeVasseur, a graduate of our PhD program. The project is really Todd’s brainchild and I’m just along for the ride.  It’s a look at the continuing impact of the most important document in the emergence of religion and nature as a scholarly subfield – Lynn White’s 1967 essay on “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis.”  We have a great lineup of contributors and the book is under contract to Routledge, hopefully to be finished by the end of this summer and out by next year.

I am also starting two single-author books.  The first is tentatively titled “Practice in Ethics,” and it’s a mostly theoretical look at the place of activities, relationships, and structures in ethical theory.  This summer I’m hoping to finish two of the early chapters.  I’ve already written most of another chapter, under the incentive of a conference paper I’m giving in Oxford next month. This is the first time I’ve focused on ethical theory – it’s a subject I’ve addressed indirectly in most of the other things I’ve written, and it seemed like time to confront it head on.

The other book I’m working on is sort of a crossover book, on the ethics and politics of dog rescue.  It’s slowly writing itself.

What is one book you would recommend to anyone interested in religious studies?

There are so many good ones.  I guess I’d recommend one that not too many religion scholars have read – The Making of the English Working Class, by the English historian E. P.  Thompson.  Among its many wonderful qualities, this book does a brilliant job at the biggest challenge for academics in any field: interweaving theory and “data” in a persuasive, elegant, and sustained way.

What in particular do you think the #UFreligion department has to offer?

We aim to be both rigorous and cutting-edge, and I think at our best, we achieve that.  I like that we expect our students (both graduate and undergraduate) to get a firm foundation in the classics in our field (or fields) as the foundation for their exploration of very innovative topics.  I also like that our faculty are so committed to teaching and advising students while also being very good at their own research.  We have some great role models (for me as well as our students).

What is something most people probably would not know about you?

Hmm.  Maybe that I’ve never been to Europe?  All my international travel has been in the Americas.  However, I’m about to remedy that – heading to England next month with my oldest son!