By Naomi Beck
Photos by Lloyd DeGrane

When Divinity School PhD student Edward Upton gave an outside group a talk about his dissertation on T. S. Eliot’s Indian and Buddhist influences, one of the people in attendance was a lawyer with a passion for Eliot’s poetry.

Upton has since kept in touch with the acquaintance, Thomas Brous. He regularly sends Brous chapters from his dissertation, and Brous sends him lecture notes from public conferences on the works of Eliot.

The exchange has broadened Upton’s perspective, he says. “You get involved in the minutiae of close reading and forget to step back and think about what drew you to the material in the first place.”

Upton is one of about a dozen Martin Marty fellows, chosen annually among the various students of religion across the University, who present their work to a small number of people from outside their specialty, called public interlocutors. The two-day conference is the highlight of the fellowship, which requires students to present their work to one another in weekly seminars and, at the end of the year, to the interlocutors.

“Presenting my writing to someone who has some sort of background but who doesn’t spend every single moment thinking about this is very helpful,”Upton says. “Talking to a non-expert helps you think of issues that those immersed in theoretical concerns may be blind to. In short, it helps me challenge the way I approach the material and expands my thinking.”

Making Research Widely Accessible

The interlocutors are not paid for their participation in the conference and take time off from their professions to attend. In the past, their ranks have included a brain surgeon, businessmen, lawyers, psychologists, and even a district judge.

The program is a fairly unique initiative at the University. It is a tribute to Marty, the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity in the Divinity School, who was deeply concerned about the relationship of religion to different disciplines and contexts. It helps scholars present their ideas in a way that would lead to an informed public discussion about religion.

“There are no high fences around Hyde Park,” says Alexander van der Haven, a PhD candidate in the Divinity School, “but many people forget the importance of their research to the wider public.”

Its success, as reflected in the feedback of both students and professors, indicates that it may have benefits in other scholarly domains as well.

“Finding out what is humanly relevant and interesting helps the students find their work more interesting themselves,” says Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor in the Divinity School.

William Schweiker, current director of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, believes that the public interlocutors program is instrumental in helping students understand their role as intellectuals, but there is more to it.

“The United States spends a lot of capital to cultivate centers of learning,” says Schweiker, the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor in the Divinity School and the College. “We have a responsibility to spread the knowledge.”

“Think of the politics of religion, or the warfare of religion,” says Doniger, a former director of the Martin Marty Institute. “Religion is now of public concern.”

An ‘Empowering’ Experience

Marsaura Shukla, a fellow whose work focuses on reading and theology in the 20th century, remembers that one of the interlocutors took her aside after her presentation and complimented her analysis—but for unexpected reasons.

“She connected my work with a fundamentalist reading of the Bible in contemporary American politics,” says Shukla. “The theologians I study would never see it this way. Her different perspective called attention to another aspect of the same general cultural trend. It was very exciting for me to see that my project was interesting to her for a whole set of reasons different from my own.”

Students have told Doniger that they would not have been able to finish their dissertations if not for the public interlocutors program. Van der Haven agrees: “It is inspiring to realize that what you are doing is interesting, and when you are in academia, you can become somewhat insulated and disconnected.”

He says that his experience helped shape his research and ideas.

“We had to present our project to a group of intelligent people who are doing something completely different. It made me make my argument more basic and simple. If you are not able to explain the issues in lay terms you might have a problem with your dissertation.”

Shukla describes the experience as “empowering.”

“You are presenting your ideas to others who are not your mentors or fellow students but are simply interested in the study of religion. We get a taste of what it’s like to be an established academic.”

Originally published on June 29, 2009.