Rachel L. Watson

PhD student in Religion and Literature


Why did you choose to attend the University of Chicago Divinity School?

My decision to apply and then to attend the University of Chicago turned into a no-brainer very early on in the application process. In the fall of my application season, I had an exciting meeting with Dr. Richard Rosengarten, who is now my advisor, at AAR. His passion for the field, his openness to interdisciplinary investigations, and his genuine kindness had me reworking all the stereotypes I had held about PhD work in general and about the University of Chicago in particular. I felt right off that there might be a place at this university for me and all my questions, and that academic freedom and courage were highly valued--two things that I, as a scholar whose interests have thus far taken her into many a heated and/or uncharted space, could not do without.

This meeting was followed by a warm reception for prospective students that spring, and after meeting with other faculty members, learning more about the work that was being done at the divinity school writ large, and discovering that the university as a whole was doing much more than paying lip service to interdisciplinary study, I knew the U of C would be my academic home.

What is your area of study andwhat is the focus of your current research?

I am a 3rd year PhD student in the Religion of Literature department. I am interested in American culture and American mythology as it impacts identity formation and participates in generating (and sometimes rewriting) history. My current investigations are into the gaps between history (this category continues to shift as I begin to include recorded histories as constructed narratives in their own right) and cultural representation. In short, I wish to see what happened, what is said about what happened, and how the latter is made to fit into a grander American narrative (to give an example from current dialogues, the myth of civil rights in America as continuously progressing, with the experience (notably in the singular) of black Americans set as the gauge and the institution of slavery and the election of Obama set as nadir and apex).

The role of literature and popular cultural production in creating, policing, and critiquing these kinds of mythic narratives is at the center of my research, especially since the final aim is to reveal the ways that seemingly secular ideas and ideals are in truth religious commitments. In my experience so far, God language is not needed to evoke human behaviors that might, when linguistic explicitness is removed as a criterion, be referred to as religious--e.g., absolute belief ("the self-evident") that leads to action, efforts at conversion and conformity, the advent of durable systems for evaluating other beings, etc.

What are or have been the highlights of your academic work so far?

I have very much enjoyed discussions with my classmates. It is amazing how much of an asset diversity of inquiry is; I have had many conversations with folks working on completely different questions that ended in each of us having a lightbulb go on that helped focus our own questions. In a similar way, the opportunities I have had to hear from current faculty about their own diverse research and their approaches to teaching and mentoring (part of a recent series dedicated to the subject of teaching) have been invaluable. I have taken away a number of lasting bits of wisdom from these ongoing dialogues.

Do you participate in any of the Council on Advanced Studies workshops (and if so, tell us a bit about that experience)?

In the past two years, I have attended events held by the Race & Religion Workshop, Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, the Theology Workshop, and the Scherer Center. The CAS workshops have been indispensable to my experience at the University of Chicago. It is a great way to hear new work from visiting scholars, to learn about the progress your peers are making in their research, and to get a feel for the common questions scholars from many fields are asking and see what diverse methodological approaches are being applied.

What experience (if any) have you had in teaching?

My University of Chicago teaching experience began this past year; I served as a writing intern in the Humanities Core.

What activities do you participate in outside of the classroom? (community service, work, hobbies, etc.)

I will be on the board of the Divinity Students Association this coming year, and I am also serving as coordinator for Alchemy in Color, which is a new group dedicated to serving underrepresented minority students at the divinity school.

In addition to those activities on campus, I sing in my church's adult choir on Sundays at St. Paul and the Redeemer, and, in the precious moments I can steal away for the purpose, I continue to work on my own creative writing projects.

As far as hobbies go, I am learning to sew my own clothes. Every stitch is an adventure! :]

How do you like living in Chicago?

As a northeastern NJ native, NYC is my city. Has been, and may always be. But one thing's for sure, the Second City is my new boo. I've taken to talking in hushed tones when I talk about Chicago, because I feel like a traitor for loving it so much. There is art, there is music, there is neighborhood love, there is food, there is space to jump in your apartment, there is air without smog, there is drama, there is a lake. Nuff said.

What do you plan to do after you have completed your degree from the Divinity School?

I hope to be able to teach and write full time. I know that whatever the path, my time here is making me stronger in mind and heart.