CLASS: Geography 420, Cultural Geography (Simon Fraser University)

From January to April 2016, I’m teaching a course at Simon Fraser University (SFU) called Geography 420: Cultural Geography. It’s a four-hour class that happens on Thursdays from 2:30 PM – 6:30 PM at SFU’s downtown campus at Harbour Centre. I have 21 exceptionally smart students who regularly challenge me, which is brilliant as a form of intellectual engagement as they give me many ideas for my own research and thinking about the discipline of cultural geography more generally.

You are free to view the syllabus. Here’s the course description:

In this course, we will attempt to practice cultural geography in a Vancouver setting. To do that, we will first have to figure out what we mean by ‘practice’ and who or what gets to ‘practice’ the making of spaces and places. Though we might end up having a productive disagreement as a class (unless we reach some consensus, which, given the state of human geography as a discipline, is not likely), I will propose in the second half of the class that we channel our possible tension into projects in cultural geography in Vancouver. Students will have an opportunity to choose case studies from Vancouver, including (but not limited to) geographies of affordable housing, the international property market, ethnic and migrant communities, intercultural initiatives, mediated publics, spaces of consumption, gendered spaces, simulacra, etc., and the final assignment will be a project to be submitted in some material form, either as a paper or in a creative medium discussed with the instructor.

Our key texts are Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life and David Ley’s Millionaire Migrants: Trans-Pacific Life Lines,  among other short articles I’ve selected to supplement these readings.

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The way that I’ve imagined the class is as an exercise in actually having students get experience in the practice of cultural geography. Instead of having traditional exams, the course is (like the course on ‘Trans-Pacific Christianities‘ I taught at the University of Washington) oriented toward a final project. The ground rules for the project are that it has to be in Vancouver and the methodology must be ethical. I’ve broken down the project in several stages: a proposal due early in the course, a literature review, a class conference from which students get feedback, and a final material form (usually a paper, but there is some variety, such as GIS mapping, a choose-your-own adventure book, video documentaries, and photo essays). The weekly reading reflections are also geared toward reflecting on the project, which allows me to give students constant feedback about the direction they are taking on this project.

With such a structure, I’m finding that most of my teaching tends to wax on the theoretical side, instructing students in the theories that have been used in the discipline so that they can make use of them in their practice of cultural geography. This is a novel form of teaching for me, and I am having fun with this experimentation and learning a lot. The students seem to be very invested in making their projects theoretically and practically sound, and this makes me a very happy instructor. In this sense, I feel that I am developing as a teacher and crystallizing a philosophy of education for my own purposes as an educator in geography, religious studies, and Asian and Asian American studies, hopefully empowering students to discover their own agency as they engage the world around them as active practitioners of thought and mapping.

NOTE: At present, I am teaching as a Sessional Lecturer at Simon Fraser University, while also simultaneously retaining my affiliation as an Affiliate Faculty Member at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Radio Columnist: Grounded Theologies Segment, Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani on Roundhouse Radio 98.3 FM

As of November 5, 2015, I became a regular columnist on geographies of religion for a local radio station in Vancouver, BC called Roundhouse Radio 98.3 FM. The show on which I make my comments most Thursdays at 10:30 AM is called Sense of Place with Minelle Mahtani.

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What is interesting about this show is that Minelle Mahtani is an accomplished cultural geographer in her own right at the University of Toronto-Scarborough. Working on geographies of mixed-race identities, one of the unique hallmarks of Minelle’s work is her attentiveness to the public sphere, maintaining her interest in journalism in theory and practice from her days with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Her show Sense of Place is a brilliant exploration of the ‘sense of place’ that people in Vancouver have, with interviews with local Vancouverites to tease out their understanding of placemaking, emotions, affect, and identity.

You could say that the ‘Grounded Theologies’ segment is where we get to nerd out as geography colleagues on air about the particular field of geographies of religion. Minelle usually comes at the questions from within the discipline, aiming it for a lay listening audience, and I have to take theory and practice from within the discipline to address current events. I’ve had quite a bit of fun talking about a wide variety of topics, including the #PrayforParis hashtag after the Paris attacks, religion and migration, Christmas Eve and ‘Christian privilege,’ Christmas Eve itself, religion and private property in Vancouver, and Pope Francis and the Year of Mercy.

Minelle and I have heard that there has been interest in using her show for educational purposes. To that end, our last show was on me as a geographer of religion, with the hope of kicking off a new set of topics aimed at experimenting with bringing a high level of theoretical rigour into a show for a lay audience. We’re still tinkering around with this, so updates on how we progress should be expected. As academics, I think we may well write a paper on our experiences on air talking about cultural geographies of religion as well.

But the best part is that the cornerstone of my work, the concept of ‘grounded theologies,’ is now the name of a radio segment on which I’m the commentator. There’s nothing to complain about there.

American Academy of Religion 2015 | Atlanta, GA

I was very happy to be given the opportunity to present two papers at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) from November 21-24, 2015. I also serve as a steering committee member for the Asian North American Religions, Culture, and Society group, so it is always good to see friends there as well. We were particularly proud to host a panel session on the new edited volume Asian American Christian Ethics, which my partner-in-crime in Asian American religious ethics Grace Kao (Claremont) had a hand in co-edited (along with ethicist Ilsup Ahn).

I’m also a steering committee member for the newly formed Chinese Christianities Seminar, and my peers – through no coercion of mine and with my abstained vote – generously allowed me to present some work on Chinese Anglicanism in Vancouver in the new session. Moderated by Jonathan Tan (Case Western Reserve University), my colleagues in the session included Christopher Sneller (King’s College London), Stephanie M. Wong (Georgetown), Mu-tien Chiou (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), and Di Kang. My paper, entitled ‘A Tale of Three Bishops: Chineseness and the Global City in Vancouver’s Anglican Realignment‘ has the following abstract:

This paper theorizes the ‘Chineseness’ of Anglicans in Vancouver engaging with the global Anglican realignment as ideological, especially through their competing visions of Vancouver as a global city, an urban economic center of political and cultural influence. Focusing on the split between Vancouver’s local bishop Michael Ingham and two Cantonese-speaking realignment bishops in Vancouver (Silas Ng and Stephen Leung), my central argument is that Anglicans on all sides of the realignment deployed their self-defined ideological constructs of Chineseness in a contest over how to theologize Vancouver as a global city. The three Vancouver episcopal visions under debate concerned whether Vancouver should be conceptualized as a site for interreligious pluralism, spiritual purification, or civil multicultural discourse. Based on key informant interviews in Vancouver, San Francisco, and Hong Kong, this contention advances the study of Chinese Christianity by suggesting that the cross-regional engagements of Chinese Christians may in fact motivated by civic concerns to globalize their own cities.

We were guided as a seminar by the very able Alexander Chow (Edinburgh), who is establishing himself as quite the authority on Chinese Christianities worldwide. I’m very thankful for his collegial support and am always pleased to hear his feedback on my work. I’m also very thankful to have met Ting Guo, a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue, at this seminar.

In addition, I was part of a quad session entitled ‘Enter the State: Revisiting the Making of Post-1965 Asian American Religion,’ with co-presenters Ren Ito (Emmanuel College, Toronto), Melissa Borja (CUNY Staten Island), Paul Chang (UC Riverside), and Philip Deslippe (UCSB); our respondent was Carolyn Chen (UC Berkeley), and the session was moderated by Isaac Weiner (Ohio State). My paper, entitled ‘Restructuring the Church: Cantonese Protestant organizations and economistic states,’ had the following abstract:

This paper examines the transformation of Chinese American evangelical congregations and faith-based organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area into corporate business models in the 1990s and 2000s. Based on ethnographic interviews with 47 key informants, the central argument is that these business models facilitated Chinese evangelical transactions with both the American and Chinese governments in the hope of shaping public policy on both sides of the Pacific. While these dreams of public engagement date back to the 1970s and 1980s, this paper also shows that the 1989 Tiananmen Beijing Spring’s aftermath intensified these efforts, leading to the restructuring of several key churches and parachurch organizations. These efforts demonstrate that fantasies of state ideologies as well as encounters with governments revamped the landscape of Chinese churches in the Bay Area, advancing the view that states are central to the formation of Asian American religious communities.

I am very excited about the comments that I received on thsi paper, especially the push from Carolyn Chen to think harder about the church in relation to neoliberal states.

I enjoyed my time in Atlanta. This was an AAR where I had some real intellectual engagements and came away feeling like a stronger scholar. I am thankful for those with whom I had conversations and am excited for next year’s iteration of this conference to see them again.

Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 2015: Newport Beach, CA

I was happy to be able to attend the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) in Newport Beach, CA from October 23-25, 2015. Aside from the session at which I presented, there was so much fine work on religion in China and the Chinese diaspora because of Fenggang Yang’s presidential influence over this year’s SSSR, including a special presidential session on the Umbrella Movement where two of the three leaders of Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), Drs Benny Tai (University of Hong Kong) and Chan Kin-man (Chinese University of Hong Kong), attended.

The session at which I presented was organized by my postdoctoral supervisor James K. Wellman, Jr., and focused on Megachurch Fantasies, with a special emphasis on affect theory and evangelical studies. Our co-panelists were all from the University of Washington: Jessica Johnson and Elizabeth Chapin. My paper, entitled ‘Global Cities of God: the ideological fantasies of Chinese American megachurches,’ had the following abstract:

In the 1990s and 2000s, Chinese American evangelicals started a series of congregations that aspired to megachurch stature in California’s Silicon Valley. While only one of them has over 2000 congregants (River of Life Christian Center in Santa Clara, CA), this paper examines what Slavoj Žižek calls the ideological “fantasies” – the imagined objects of desire – that underwrite their implementation of church growth theory. Employing a qualitative methodology comprising 47 key informant interviews with Chinese Christian leaders in the San Francisco Bay Area, I argue that these Chinese American churches seek to establish themselves as sites of influence in the global political economy, precisely the same ideology that drives the neoliberal restructuring of global cities in the Asia-Pacific. This paper advances the affective study of congregations by merging the global cities literature with the social science of religion.

My reflection after this session was that, unbeknownst to us at the same institution, each of us had a different take on affect and emotion. To be quite honest, Jessica Johnson’s work on the pornographic affect in Mark Driscoll’s understanding of Christian teaching and his governance of Mars Hill Church probably followed the line of thought on affect more closely as the field intends, pace Deleuze and Guattari as well as Sara Ahmed. My orientation tracks much closer with Slavoj Žižek, whose psychoanalytic tendencies the Deleuze/Guattari crowd would likely find distasteful.

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Tim Buechsel, myself, and Benny Tai

But the most insightful parts of the conference came through interactions with the Chinese scholars as well as with Tai and Chan (OCLP). These engagements also helped me as I prepared to speak that very weekend at San Diego’s Ethnos Community Church on ‘Global Jesus’ in the Umbrella Movement (the ‘Greater China’ moniker can be read almost as a Barthian move, in which ‘Global Jesus’ subverts the ideology of ‘Greater China’ as an integrated economic regional zone), which I took to mean an exposition of the fields of Global Christianity and World Christianity as they applied to the Hong Kong democracy movement – an intellectual opportunity that I had not yet pursued until this point. I am thankful to Tim and Isabel Buechsel, as well as Reyn and Joy Nishii, for their very kind hospitality as I stayed with them, and to congregants at Ethnos for their very warm welcome to me and the traditions of critical theory and ecumenical theology – different from their evangelical practice in many senses, yet genuinely complementary in surprising ways – that I brought with me. Careful listeners to the podcast will note some factual errors in my extemporaneous delivery (at one point I call the third member of OCLP, the Rev. Chu Yiuming, a ‘professor’ by mistake); my hope is that especially those in Hong Kong will both forgive me for these inaccuracies and see my engagement with the democracy movement as a small contribution to a genuinely democratic society, as they are an example of what Pope Francis means to ‘care for our common home.’

Syndicate: Thomas Pfau, Minding the Modern

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In late September and early October 2015, Syndicate: A New Forum for Theology hosted a symposium that I edited on Thomas Pfau’s magisterial tome, Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge. This is a magnificent exegesis of key thinkers from antiquity to the modern period on what it means for a person to think and act; indeed, thinking and reading are acting, according to Pfau, making this ‘phenomenology of reading’ a profoundly empowering book for those of us who read for a living.

My symposium introduction can be read here. We had six panelists:

I’m grateful as this symposium’s editor for Pfau’s close engagement with each of these essays, as well as these authors’ close reading of Pfau’s very deep book. The interaction in this forum speaks to each of these persons’ deep commitment to the real mission of the academy, the rigorous close reading and dialectical engagement for which Pfau calls in Minding the Modern.

I’m also grateful for Christian Amondson and his very able skills as the managing editor, freeing my hands to simply engage as the Theology and Social Theory section editor.

Canadian Association of Geographers 2015 | Vancouver, BC

In June 2015, I attended the Canadian Association of Geographers’ Annual Meeting in Vancouver, BC, held at Simon Fraser University’s (SFU) Harbour Centre and the Wosk Centre for Dialogue.

My paper was in a session entitled The Politics of Urban Social Policy 3, organized by Tom Baker (SFU), Cristina Temenos (Northeastern), and Joshua Evans (Athabasca), with Nick Blomley (SFU) as our respondent. The other presenters were Natalie Oswin (McGill) and Eugene McCann (SFU). Here was my abstract:

In this paper, I intervene in conversations about ‘postsecularism,’ the possibility of civic discussions between religious and secular citizens, in global cities, urban financial hubs attracting investment, skilled migration, and tourism that geographers have noted for their economic polarization and social exclusions. I do this through a case study of an interfaith coalition, Faith Communities Called to Solidarity with the Poor (FCCSP), in Vancouver, BC, in the mid-2000s. Ostensibly, FCCSP lobbied for the religious freedom of one evangelical Protestant congregation, Tenth Avenue Alliance Church, to conduct its homeless shelter and meal program without acquiring a social services permit. While the opposition called for secularization, this religious activism needs to be understood as contesting discourses that sought to render invisible the “poor,” the “socially excluded and economically marginalized” in material need of food and shelter (FCCSP 2007). FCCSP countered the aspirations of Tenth’s neighbourhood and Vancouver’s City Hall to become a global city, especially in the municipal policy Project Civil City attempting to produce a marketable urban landscape by reducing the rate of homelessness ahead of the 2010 Olympics. Not only do I demonstrate that these gentrifying processes developed into secularizing geographical visions, but I argue that the presence of the poor in religious communities means that the urban postsecular is not so much situated in dialogues between religious and secular citizens, but in material encounters in religious communities across class divisions exacerbated by global city aspirations. I substantiate this argument with key informant interviews with FCCSP and Vancouver’s City Hall. Combining work on global cities and gentrification with geographical debates about the postsecular, I advance conversations in human geography about religion in urban spaces by exploring the material work of religious actors in demystifying secular capitalist ideologies used to construct social exclusions in global cities.

I enjoyed the robust conversation that we had about urban social policy, and I especially enjoyed Blomley’s comments on my paper and the relationship between Project Civil City and religion. These comments are very helpful as I am taking this paper back to the drawing board and revising it for publication, from which I hope to generate more dialogue.

Review of Religion in Chinese Society 2(2): ‘Under the Umbrella: Grounded Christian Theologies and Democratic Working Alliances in Hong Kong’

In 2015, the Review of Religion in Chinese Society published a peer-reviewed paper that I wrote trying to unpack the Umbrella Movement’s cultural geographical background. In this paper, I especially advance the approach of the new cultural geography in understanding the many layers of history behind democratic movements in Hong Kong and their engagement with Christian theological sources. Here’s the abstract in both English and Chinese:

Taking the geographies of the 2014 Umbrella Movement as the point of departure, this paper provides a geographical reading of democratic landscapes in Hong Kong. Using a new cultural geography approach, this study unpacks the grounded theologies that undergird the participation of Christians in democratic movements in Hong Kong. The central argument is that two Christian grounded theologies in Hong Kong – collaborative and critical – have been generated by how Christians acting within two different working alliances have positioned themselves vis-à-vis the Hong Kong government. Drawing from both ethnographic and public archival research, I trace the origins of a democratic working alliance to the 1978 Golden Jubilee Incident, after which a democratic consensus was developed in Hong Kong. Following this thread through the 1997 handover, I demonstrate that this consensus bifurcated among Christians who disagreed theologically as to whether collaborating or critiquing the government was the ideal way to implement democratic reform. This paper contributes to the study of religion in Chinese societies by providing a geographical approach that can be used for comparative work in the social scientific study of religion and democracy.

本文是以二零一四雨傘運動的地理為起點, 用地理學的角度去看香港的民主景觀。此硏究乃以一個新文化地理途徑去分析多種的接地神學如何從下鞏固了香港的基督徒參與民主運動。其論點中心是兩個不同的香港基督教多種的接地神學 —— 合作性及評論性 —— 已經從基督徒如何在兩個不同的合作聯盟之內把自己與香港政府的關係定位而產生。由於一九七八年金禧事件之後香港發展了民主共識,本人便從人種學及公共檔案硏究去追溯金禧事件為民主合作聯盟之起源。隨著這線索一直至一九九七回歸,本人演示了此共識使在神學上意見分歧的基督徒分义成兩派,一派認為與政府合作乃執行民主改革的理想途徑,另一派則認為評論政府才是執行民主改革的理想途徑。本文提供了用地理途徑去作宗教和民主的社會科學硏究比較,因此對華人社會的宗教硏究頗有助益。

I’m deeply thankful to the editor, Fenggang Yang (Purdue), for graciously accepting this manuscript and seeing to its speedy publication. I hope this paper is useful for understanding democracy movements in Hong Kong,their many complex histories, and their relation to theory in social science.