Religious literacy, tolerance, and secondary outreach: an interview with Dr. Gayle Lasater Pagnoni

Dr. Gayle Lasater Pagnoni is the Program Director at the Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance at Rice University. She is also a Gator, with a doctorate from #UFReligion. Her background includes degrees in Anthropology and International Relations, and a Master’s in Latin American and Caribbean Studies with an emphasis in Sociology. Her specialties focus on religion in the western hemisphere and globalization, with a focus on monotheism, Christian diversity, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day-Saints.

As part of our series of interviews with alumni of our department we talked with Dr. Pagnoni to discuss her thoughts on navigating the religious studies world, especially when it comes to job prospects after graduation.

Tell us a little about what you do now and how your degree helped prepare you…

The Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance at Rice University promotes religious tolerance through education, research, and engagement among youth, university, and the public. Having taught in tertiary and secondary education for over a decade, I was fortunately positioned to fill a new opening as Program Director for the religious literacy curricular project.  The religious literacy curricular project promotes diversity and inclusivity education to help meet the demands of a global citizenry in a pluralistic democracy where mutual respect and tolerance are key to civility and participation.  To address these needs, the project seeks to bridge gaps in religious education among tertiary and secondary schools in two primary ways:  first, we provide classroom curricula on religious traditions ready for teachers to utilize in secondary schools, and second, we offer teacher capacity building through sustained professional development, while conducting research on outcomes.  In secondary schools, the best opportunities for fostering religious literacy are within social studies departments where curricular resources weave into world cultures, world geography, and history (world, US, and in this case, Texas), as well as in elective courses.

A Ph.D. in religion provided the content expertise, which along with undergraduate teaching and secondary teaching and curricular work, turned out to be the right (and necessary) fit for this initiative. Specifically, my two tracks of study at UF – religion in the Americas, and religion and nature – provided me with synthesis between theory (globalization of religion) and practice (education as method) that I utilize in my work every day.

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

We all know the challenge facing most of us exiting a Ph.D. program in religion (or humanities and social science, generally) is an unfavorable and tenuous job market, which is probably now normal; I’m not breaking any new ground by identifying that issue here. Religion departments continue to shrink, providing fewer tenure-track positions, which is a pattern of attrition that does not bode well for the academic study of religion.  Meanwhile, Americans are notoriously religiously illiterate and shrinking departments of religion are not well positioned to affect this problem.  We see the results of religious illiteracy all around us, in public discourse that is ignorant and intolerant.  With increasing globalization, identity politics (including religious ones) are ascendant at the same time too many Americans are un-enlightened.  Therefore, there needs to be robust civic commitment to building religious literacy by aligning secondary and higher education in a common cause.  The AAR has written Constitutionally-sound guidelines for K-12 religious literacy education and the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) recently adopted the 2016 “Religion Companion” written by the AAR to their public social studies standards.  These frameworks provide the necessary infrastructure to address religious literacy—there only needs be a collaborative commitment between higher and secondary education to bridge the two spheres.  I say “only” realizing that scarce resources are always part of departmental decisions.

The challenge for religion departments across the country is to increase demand for their services and to stay relevant.  By viewing secondary education as the pipeline to the academic study of religion in higher education instead of as a separate sphere of education, religion departments could play a significant role in building such an ecosystem.  STEM initiatives around the country do this effectively, partnering collegiate departments with secondary math and science.

Religion departments would be well advised to adopt such a model by hiring a scholar to engage in secondary outreach.

Partnering with secondary schools would foster more interest in religious studies among high school teachers and their students, feeding the demand for religion in higher education.  The potential scholar hired to engage in secondary outreach could also connect within the university to teaching colleges where pre- and in-service teachers are trained.  Few teachers have a background in religious studies, so catching them in their nascent careers and expanding their knowledge in religion would unite the spheres of education necessary to build a demand for the study of religion.  This kind of religious literacy ecosystem does not exist and it will need to be constructed if religion departments in higher education are going to thrive.  Further, these collaborations build community engagement and goodwill, which is included in the mission of every collegiate institution.  Finally, a robust approach to the academic study of religion in secondary education serves the civic good, especially for students who end their academic careers at high school.  America continues down the path of religious illiteracy at its own peril; therefore, religion departments have a unique opportunity to build demand for their services and demonstratively uphold the civic ideals of a pluralistic democracy through education praxis.

What my argument might look like at UF is a PhD track in religion and education.  In fact, Dr. Simmons is already doing secondary outreach on African American studies — so that means the seeds for such an endeavor already exist with the department!

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

I returned to the academy as a non-traditional student later in life on what was an unfulfilled quest to finish my bachelor’s degree.  I didn’t set out to go into religious studies; it seems as though the study of religion was revealed to me along the way.  Nor did I set out to get a doctoral degree but I decided if I could qualify for scholarships I would continue to study as long the money held out and I enjoyed the pursuit – it really was an organic approach, one degree at a time.  During my undergraduate years, I had difficulty deciding on a major because I had too many varied interests, so I landed on anthropology, which was the whole of humanity, yet narrowed my options to archaeology, linguistics, physical and cultural anthropology.  But every major paper I wrote had some connection between culture and religion.  Graduating with a BA in anthropology and a minor in international relations, it was too early to decide on a doctoral course of study, so I decided to pursue a master’s in Latin American and Caribbean studies (LACS).

Raised a Catholic, with a penchant for politics, and having traveled the Western Caribbean and Meso-America by sailboat with my family, Latin America and the Caribbean was the most interesting area of study for me.  Miami was the best place for LACS where at FIU I was recruited to the Latin American and Caribbean Center, which was ostensibly a blend of political science, sociology, and international studies.  Again, I had difficulty narrowing my interests until I realized that every paper I wrote contained a connection to religion.  Ultimately, when asked what my thesis topic was to be, my MA supervisor suggested I study the Mormons in lieu of liberation theology!  I became hooked on the Latter-day Saints, writing my thesis on conversions from Catholicism among Latinos in South Florida and Dominicans in Santo Domingo – what sociologists of religion call the demand side.  Meanwhile, my supervisor asked what’s next – to which I replied that I really didn’t know!  He said, “Gayle, you go for a Ph. D. with single-minded determination.”  The University of Florida had just launched a doctoral program in Religion inviting its inaugural cohort in the fall of 2003, which included me.  This program was uniquely suited to my varied interests – religion in the Americas, and religion and nature.

Writing again on the Latter-day Saints in South Florida, my ethnographic research was on the missionary enterprise, or the supply side of religion.  Since leaving UF, I’ve lived in Philly where I taught for eight years at Temple as an adjunct; Miami where I was the department head of religious studies in a private college-prep secondary school for three years; and at Rice in Houston where I focus on secondary religious literacy education.  Each city has a unique story in the Americas that is profoundly connected to religion, culture, and the environment.  I’ve had the good fortune to teach, study, research, and apply this scholarship with students and educators in each locale, and consider myself lucky to be able to use my background and degrees as a scholar, researcher, and teacher.

This wouldn’t have been possible without my Ph.D. from UF, and I’ll always be grateful to the University and my professors — especially Dr. Anna L. Peterson — for providing me the opportunity to find my calling.

Every day, I have the opportunity to put in practice the academic study of religion to help foster a more just, ethical society.  And most gratefully, along the entire journey, I have developed enduring friendships with colleagues and collaborators who advance the cause.