William Underwood

William Underwood


Spotlights Excellence in Teaching Award Winner, 2024

William Underwood is our 2024 Excellence in Teaching Award recipient. This award recognizes PhD students that demonstrate excellence in teaching and learning. 


Tell us about your recent teaching—what kinds of courses have you taught? What has been the most interesting or challenging thing for you in teaching?


I’ve been lucky to have the chance to teach two courses over the last couple of years—the first an introductory course in philosophy of religions, the second an upper-level seminar titled “Race, Religion, and Emancipation” here at UChicago. Each one, though dealing with very different sources and historical contexts, shared a common topical interest in the entanglement of religion, philosophy, and politics, as well as a hybrid methodological approach that worked to bridge philosophical and historical modes of inquiry. These two features are characteristic of my teaching in general. In all of my courses, I want to provoke students to ask ruthlessly critical questions about the world they live in and the concepts they use to understand it—how has the modern world come to appear to us in the way it does? What histories or acts of violence do commonsense notions of religion and reason conceal?—and, as these questions become instinctive, to help them develop the tools necessary to answer them convincingly.


As for what’s been most interesting or challenging for me as a teacher, I think the answer is the same in either case. I’m routinely fascinated by the ways in which students defy my expectations for a reading or class assignment. In virtually every class session I’ve taught, students end up doing something that forces me to reconsider my perspective on material I thought I knew from top to bottom. This can be frustrating as often as it is exhilarating; for every brilliant insight there’s an instance of students hating or simply not understanding a reading I was sure they’d love. In either case, though, the exchanges I get to have with students provide a fresh occasion for new thinking, something I’m always grateful for.


What's your own work about?

At its widest my work is interested in the modern discourse on religion. More specifically, I’m concerned with how distinctively modern forms of secular reason have articulated themselves via near-ceaseless commentary on religion, the consequences of that differentiation, and the institutional forms with which such commentary has been entwined. My current project examines one specific pocket of this discourse, critically examining the category of materiality in the study of religion through a new interpretation of the field’s consolidation in the twentieth-century United States. Shifting our attention away from the European Enlightenment and the Victorian science of religion, I seek to understand why we conceptualize materiality in the ways that we do, how our concepts have been shaped by the field’s peculiar American history, and what alternative perspectives that history has obscured. Ultimately I argue two major points: first, that the US study of religion coalesced as an agent of Anglo-Protestant religious nationalism for which the language of anti-materialism provided indispensable discursive glue; second, that the contemporary material turn, rather than constituting a corrective to this history, is in fact its direct intellectual inheritor. In light of this, I take up one major theoretical avenue which the field’s US history has foreclosed, namely, a long-overdue encounter between religious studies and the Marxist theoretical tradition. Through a series of readings within the Marxian corpus itself, I argue that Marx provides us both a more rigorous understanding of materiality and a means of theorizing the field’s struggles to achieve a stable materialist footing.


What’s next for you?

This fall I’ll be starting as an Assistant Professor in the Religion department at Oberlin College, where I’ll be teaching a number of new courses that build on the work I’ve done at Chicago. Anyone stopping through Cleveland reach out!