Thompson Lecture Slates Author, Lecturer as Guest Speaker

Author, podcaster and Bates College Visiting Assistant Professor Megan Goodwin will be the
guest speaker at this year’s Thompson Memorial Lecture at 7 p.m. October 18.

An author, podcaster and Bates College visiting assistant professor of religious studies will be the guest speaker at this year’s Paul Lamont Thompson Memorial Lecture at 7 p.m. October 18 in the Hicks Student Center Banquet Room.

Megan Goodwin’s lecture is titled “Undrinking the Kool-Aid: Mis/remembering Peoples Temple.” The presentation will provide popular incorrect memories of the Jonestown Massacre and invite the audience to consider who benefits from the erasure of many Black women’s deaths at the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana. The material is excerpted from Goodwin’s current book project, which is tentatively titled Cults Incorporated: The Business of Bad Religion.

Goodwin is the author of Abusing Religion: Literary Persecution, Sex Scandals and American Minority Religions (Rutgers University 2020). She earned a Ph.D. and a Master of Arts in religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; a Master of Arts in women’s studies at Drew University and a Bachelor of Science in print journalism at Boston University. Goodwin writes, teaches and produces podcasts about race, gender, sexuality, politics, popular culture and American minority religions. Her podcast, “Keeping it 101: A Killjoy’s Introduction to Religion,” is available on most podcast platforms.

The Thompson Lecture was established by a gift from the sons and daughters-in-law of Paul Lamont and Ruth Peel Thompson. A committee of alumni and friends of the College worked diligently to build the fund with gifts from those many students whose lives were enriched by Thompson’s leadership during his days as the College’s president from 1938 to 1949.

The lecture, hosted by the Department of Religion, brings to K speakers who enrich the community’s ethical understanding of its position in the larger society, beyond the College. Please note that masks are required at this event.

K’s Best Friend: Yorkshire Terrier Leia Makes Friends On Campus and Off

Sohini Pillai holds her Yorkshire terrier for International Dog Day
Photo courtesy of Faris Moghul. Assistant Professor of Religion and Director of Film and Media Studies Sohini Pillai holds her Yorkshire terrier, Leia.
Two students with Yorkshire terrier Leia for International Dog Day
Photo courtesy of Sohini Pillai. Iris Chalk ’24 and Abbey McMillian ’24 enjoy outdoor religion class with a visit from Leia, a Yorkshire terrier belonging to K Assistant Professor of Religion and Director of Film and Media Studies Sohini Pillai.
Photo courtesy of Kathryn Sederberg. Leia, a Yorkshire terrier belonging to Assistant Professor of Religion and Director of Film and Media Studies Sohini Pillai, poses along a mindfulness path in Lillian Anderson Arboretum.

August 26 may be the officially designated day, but every day is International Dog Day for Sohini Pillai and her Yorkshire terrier, Leia.

Pillai, who is the assistant professor of religion and director of film and media studies at Kalamazoo College, adopted Leia two years ago in California. It was early in the COVID-19 pandemic and Pillai was cooped up at home writing her dissertation for her Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley.

Photo courtesy of Kathryn Sederberg. Leia, a Yorkshire terrier belonging to Assistant Professor of Religion
and Director of Film and Media Studies Sohini Pillai, poses along a mindfulness path in Lillian Anderson Arboretum.

“I grew up with a Labrador retriever, and he was wonderful,” Pillai said. “I am an only child and I asked my parents for a brother or sister or a dog, and eventually, they got me a dog.”

Originally, Pillai planned to get a dog when she got a job. Then she realized that adjusting to a new job, a new city and a new dog all at the same time could spell disaster. Maybe, she thought, this was actually the perfect time to get a dog.

Having lived with greyhounds during fieldwork in India, Pillai hoped to adopt a greyhound. However, she found herself sharing space with neighbors with dog allergies, so when she visited the shelter, she applied for hypoallergenic dogs.

“I think I applied for, like, 25 different dogs,” Pillai said. “During the pandemic, everybody wanted to adopt dogs because we were all at home. I’d never had a small dog before. She was the one who was available, and I met her, and even though she’s tiny, she really has a big dog personality.”

Sohini Pillai holds Yorkshire terrier Leia. Leia is wearing a K bandana
Photo courtesy of Sohini Pillai. Assistant Professor
of Religion and Director of Film and Media Studies
Sohini Pillai and her Yorkshire terrier, Leia,
show off Leia’s K bandana.

Named for the Star Wars princess, Leia challenged the stereotypes Pillai held about Yorkies being loud and rude.

“She definitely barks and lets people know she’s there, but she’s so friendly with kids and other people,” Pillai said.

Leia became Pillai’s writing buddy. Weighing in at just 12 pounds and suffering from separation anxiety, Leia would settle on Pillai’s lap and sit with her the whole time she wrote. In addition to keeping her company, Leia forced Pillai to take regular breaks, to get outside and move, and even to realize she needed glasses when she noticed how fuzzy their early morning walks seemed.

“She’s made my life better in multiple ways,” Pillai said. “She’s made me a lot healthier and happier.”

Although she was used to a warm climate, Leia adjusted well to Kalamazoo when Pillai began teaching at K in 2021. Despite never having seen snow before that, she doesn’t mind snow on the ground. Falling snow or rain, however, is another story.

“She hates the rain,” Pillai said. “I have to put a raincoat on her, and she’s held her pee for 17 hours because she hates the rain so much. She doesn’t like things falling on her. She’s a bit of a diva or princess in that way.”

Other than the weather, Leia is thriving in Kalamazoo. She has enjoyed meeting neighbors, loves her local doggie daycare—where her best friend, Flower, is part hound and part boxer—and has made many friends among K faculty, staff and students.

She takes part in the religion department’s Sunday potluck dinners and regularly gets invited to other faculty gatherings and events. She has met several faculty members’ dogs—and even, once, a cat (through a screen door). She served as the model for photos of a forest mindfulness path in the Lillian Anderson Arboretum, created by K German students with Kathryn Sederberg, Lucinda Hinsdale Stone Assistant Professor of German Studies, in October 2021.

Leia has visited Lake Michigan, explored other outdoor activities in the Kalamazoo area, and loves to go for walks on K’s campus. Sometimes people recognize her from her social media presence, including her own Instagram account as @LeiaTheEwokPrincess. At doggie daycare, she has made friends with Tank, professor of chemistry and chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry Jeff Bartz’s dog, although Bartz and Pillai have yet to meet in person.

A huge Star Wars fan, Pillai teaches the saga in her Epic Epics course and mentions Leia fairly often in her classes. Her office is dotted with photos of Leia, including an image of her as Princess Leia and another of her as Brienne of Tarth, a Game of Thrones character.

In May, Leia got to attend two of Pillai’s classes when beautiful weather coincided with doggie daycare closing for a week. Pillai was returning from her Ph.D. graduation ceremony in California, where she received the news that her 100-year-old grandmother had passed away in India.

It was a difficult week for Pillai, who had been very close to her grandmother. Yet that day has been one of her favorite days at K.

“We sat outside and Leia was going around the circle and sitting in everybody’s laps,” Pillai said. “The students were holding her and cuddling her, and some faculty came out and met her, too. My students knew that my grandmother had passed away, and some of them brought condolence gifts, and it was really sweet and just the best day.”

Pillai is grateful for the circumstances that led her to Leia, on International Dog Day and every day.

“She’s living a pretty awesome life here,” Pillai said. “I’m jealous sometimes. She eats, she sleeps, she gets pets and cuddles, and she’s pretty popular. She’s got a lot of friends on campus.

“I can’t imagine life without her.”

Thompson Lecture Spotlights ‘Jesus and John Wayne’ Author

Thompson Lecture Speaker Kristin Kobes Du Mez
Best-selling author and Calvin University Professor
Kristin Kobes Du Mez will speak Tuesday, May 10,
at Kalamazoo College’s Thompson Lecture.

The public is invited to hear from a New York Times best-selling author and professor of history and gender studies at Calvin University at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the religion department’s annual Thompson Lecture at Kalamazoo College. 

Kristin Kobes Du Mez will speak about her latest book, Jesus and John Wayne and the White Evangelical Reckoning in the Olmsted Room at Mandelle Hall. The book is an account of the past 75 years of white evangelicalism, which shows how American evangelicals have worked to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism. The talk will further explore the recent history of evangelicalism and politics, and examine divisions within the evangelical movement while reflecting on what it could mean for the future. 

Du Mez earned a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame and her research focuses on the intersection of gender, religion and politics. She has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News, Religion News Service, and Christianity Today. She has been interviewed on NPR, CBS and the BBC among other outlets.  

The Paul Lamont Thompson Memorial Lecture was established by a gift from the sons and daughters-in-law of Paul Lamont and Ruth Peel Thompson. Serving as president from 1938 to 1949, Thompson played a crucial role in K’s development during the Depression and World War II by emphasizing high academic standards and selectivity in the student body, enhancing the reputation of the College as a quality institution of the liberal arts. He also founded the College’s annual fund and pension plan, ensuring K’s financial integrity.  

For more on the lecture and its history, visit the religion department’s website

Lecture to Address Ancient India’s Mahabharata

Assistant Professor of Religion Sohini Pillai to Discuss the Mahabharata
Assistant Professor of Religion Sohini Pillai

Assistant Professor of Religion Sohini Pillai will represent Kalamazoo College at 9 a.m. Eastern time Sunday in a YouTube lecture titled “The Multiplicity of the Mahabharata Tradition” that she will present through Karwaan: The Heritage Exploration Initiative.

The initiative is an independent, student-led initiative based in India, which aims to revive the love for India’s heritage and history and inspire young minds. Throughout the pandemic, it has organized scholarly online lectures on Indian history, culture, art, literature, film and religion. 

The ancient Sanskrit Mahabharata (c. 300 BCE–300 CE) is a massive epic poem 15 times the length of the Bible that focuses on the war over the Bharata kingdom between two sets of paternal cousins in the royal Kuru family, the five Pandavas and the 100 Kauravas. Pillai said the Mahabharata has been presented as poems, dramas, ballads, novels, short stories, comic books, television shows, feature films, children’s fantasy series, podcasts, YouTube videos, social media posts and more.   

Pillai’s talk Sunday will illustrate the rich multiplicity of the Mahabharata tradition through the close examination of 12 renderings of a single Mahabharata episode that was created over a span of at least 2,000 years. She will focus on the most disturbing and popular scenes in the Mahabharata tradition, the attempted disrobing of Draupadi, the shared wife of the Pandavas, and the heroine of the epic.  

In May 2021, Pillai co-edited a volume with Nell Shapiro Hawley of Harvard University titled Many Mahabharatas, which was published by State University of New York Press. Some of the Mahabharatas she will discuss Sunday will be prominently featured in her current book project which is tentatively titled Krishna at Court: Devotion, Patronage and the Mahabharata in Premodern South Asia.

The talk will be available free of charge to the public at the Karwaan initiative’s YouTube channel.  

Kalamazoo College Welcomes New Faculty Members

Kalamazoo College is pleased to welcome the following faculty members to campus this fall:

Assistant Professor of Spanish Tris Faulkner

Assistant Professor of Spanish Tris Faulkner
Assistant Professor of Spanish Tris Faulkner

Tris Faulkner, who is originally from Jamaica, lived in Chile for about two years, working as a translator and interpreter at a prominent law firm before earning a Ph.D. in Spanish linguistics from Georgetown University. She also has professional experience as a translator and interpreter at the Embassy of Venezuela, and in similar roles at a legal firm and a business school in North Carolina.

Faulkner has lived in Spain and visited various Spanish-speaking countries, experiences which have helped her to observe the diversity that characterizes the Spanish language. Her research investigates the semantics and pragmatics of variation in verbal mood, tense, and aspect, as related to the Romance language family, English, and Jamaican Creole.

In addition to her Ph.D., Faulkner has master’s degrees from Georgetown (M.Sc. in Spanish linguistics) and Wake Forest University (M.A. in interpreting and translation studies), and a bachelor’s degree from Louisiana State University (B.A. in Spanish language and literature and international studies). She will teach seminars in Spanish linguistics, as well as various other courses in the upcoming academic year.

Assistant Professor of Religion Sohini Pillai

Assistant Professor of Religion Sohini Pillai
Assistant Professor of Religion Sohini Pillai

Sohini Pillai will teach courses this academic year on religious traditions in South Asia. She is a comparatist of South Asian religious literature and her area of specialization is the Mahabharata and Ramayana epic narrative traditions with a focus on retellings created in Hindi and Tamil.

Pillai is the co-editor of Many Mahabharatas (State University of New York Press, 2021), an introduction to diverse retellings of the Mahabharata tradition in the forms of classical dramas, premodern vernacular poems, regional performance traditions, commentaries, graphic novels, political essays, novels, and contemporary theater productions. She’s also a member of the Steering Committee for the Hinduism Unit at the American Academy of Religion.

Pillai has a Ph.D. in South and Southeast Asian studies from the University of California, Berkeley; a master’s degree in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies from Columbia University; and a bachelor’s degree in South Asia studies and theatre studies from Wellesley College.

Assistant Professor of Theatre Quincy Thomas

Assistant Professor of Theatre Quincy Thomas
Assistant Professor of Theatre Quincy Thomas

Quincy Thomas earned his Ph.D. in theatre and his performance studies certification from Bowling Green State University. His research centers on subjects including counter-storytelling, Black performativity in American culture, representations of the marginalized in popular culture, comedic and solo performance and performative writing. At K, he will teach directing, theatre history and playwriting, with further prior experience teaching theatre, performance studies and film.

His courses are informed on issues of cultural marginalization and misrepresentation in the arts, specifically of racial and ethnic minorities, women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. His work has been published in peer-reviewed academic journals, including the International Review of Qualitative Research and Puppetry International, and presented at national conferences, including the Mid-America Theatre Conference, the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, and the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association (MAPACA). He currently serves as president of MAPACA. His most recent directorial offering was Robert Patrick’s Play-by-Play: A Spectacle of Ourselves: A Verse Farce in Two Acts. Thomas also has a background in acting. Some of his favorite roles played include Christopher in Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange, Albert in Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, and most recently the role of Actor in Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit; Red Rabbit.

Assistant Professor of Economics Darshana Udayanganie

Assistant Professor of Economics Darshana Udayanganie
Assistant Professor of Economics Darshana Udayanganie

Darshana Udayanganie earned her Ph.D., with specializations in environmental economics and college teaching, and a master’s degree in economics from the University of New Hampshire. She also has a master’s degree in resource economics and policy from the University of Maine and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. Before joining K in 2017 as a visiting assistant professor, she taught at Central Michigan University from 2014 to 2017, Merrimack College in 2013 and 2014, and the University of New Hampshire’s global student success program from 2011 to 2014.

Her current research focuses on urban economics and environmental economics. She also has published book chapters on economic growth in relation to military expenditure and international trade.

Assistant Professor of Japanese Brian White

Brian White will teach courses in Japanese language, literature and culture at K.  He specializes in contemporary (post-1945) Japanese popular culture and media studies.

He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, where he wrote a dissertation on 1960s Japanese sci-fi literature and film, asking specifically, “What can a genre do?” He will delve into that history when he teaches a course in the winter term this year on Japanese science fiction and media history.

White earned a bachelor’s degree in East Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Across his undergraduate and graduate careers, he has spent a total of two and a half years living in Japan, primarily in Tokyo, Yokohama and Kyoto. 

Assistant Professor of Chinese Yanshuo Zhang

Yanshuo Zhang’s research addresses multiethnic Chinese identities in literary and visual cultures produced in China and the U.S. Her research on multiethnic Chinese cultural productions helps diversify scholarly understanding of and teaching about modern Chinese national culture.

She was a lecturer in Stanford University’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) from 2018 through 2020, where she designed classes on cross-cultural explorations of diversity, particularly in Asia and the U.S. She also has been a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan.

She earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Catherine University and a Ph.D. from Stanford University.

Visiting Assistant Professor Vijayan Sundararaj

Vijayan Sundararaj leads a biology course this term in ecology and conservation. He has prior education experience as a lecturer, teaching assistant and topic lecturer between Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Canada, and Texas A&M University-Kingsville. His teaching interests include evolutionary ecology concepts, animal behavior, foraging behavior, predator-prey interactions, conservation biology, wildlife ecology, waterfowl ecology, mammalogy, spatial ecology, and introductory geographic information systems.

Sundararaj received a bachelor’s degree with a specialty in zoology from Gujarat University in India before earning a master’s degree in ecology from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel; a geographic information systems applications specialist graduate certificate from Sir Sandford Fleming College in Canada and a doctorate in forest sciences and wildlife ecology from Lakehead University.

Visiting Assistant Professor Eunice Uhm

Eunice Uhm specializes in modern and contemporary art, with a transnational focus on the United States and East Asia. Her work examines the conditions of migration and the diasporic aesthetic subjectivities in the works of contemporary Japanese and South Korean art from the 1960s to the present. She has previously taught courses on modern and contemporary art, East Asian art, and Asian American studies at Ohio State University. She has organized panels and presented her work on Asian American art at national conferences such as CAA. She is an active member of numerous grassroots community organizations for Asian Americans and immigrant rights, and she is involved in immigrant rights campaigns such as Love has no borders: A call for justice in our immigration system. Her essay, “Constructing Asian American Political and Aesthetic Subjectivities: Contradictions in the Works of Ruth Asawa,” is forthcoming (Verge: Studies in Global Asias, University of Minnesota Press).

Uhm received a master’s degree and a doctorate in the history of art from the Ohio State University. At K, she teaches courses on Asian and Asian American art, art and race, and transnationalism.

Visiting Assistant Professor Fungisai Musoni

Fungisai Musoni has joined the history department where she will teach courses in African civilizations, decolonization in West and Southern Africa, and U.S.-Africa relations since World War II.

Musoni has prior teaching experience in African literature, American politics and global issues, and social studies between the Ohio State University, Georgia State University, Gwinnett County Schools in Atlanta and the Zimbabwe Ministry of Education and Culture.

She fluently reads, writes and speaks the African languages of Shona and Manyika. Her education includes a bachelor’s degree in economic history and Shona from the University of Zimbabwe, Harare; master’s degrees in political science and history from Georgia State University and Mercer University respectively; and a doctorate in African American and African Studies from the Ohio State University.

Visiting Assistant Professor Badru-Deen Barry

Badru-Deen Barry teaches Introductory chemistry and biochemistry at K this fall.

His education includes a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Fourah Bay College in Freetown, Sierra Leone, master’s degrees in chemistry from Northeast Normal University in China and Michigan State University, and a doctorate in chemistry from Michigan State.

He previously served Michigan State and Northeast Normal as a graduate research assistant, Société Générale de Surveillance in Freetown, Sierra Leone, as port supervisor and chemist, and Fourah Bay College as a laboratory and teaching assistant.

Visiting Assistant Professor Mikela Zhezha-Thaumanavar

Mikela Zhezha-Thaumanavar is teaching courses in Spanish this fall as well as a course in foreign language teaching methods. In addition, she serves as the coordinator for the Spanish Teaching Assistants at K. She received her bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate in Spanish linguistics from Western Michigan University.

She has previously taught courses in Spanish at Western Michigan University, Davenport University, and Kalamazoo Community College. She also served WMU as a guest professor, teaching in the institution’s Summer Translation Program. She previously has worked in translation and speaks Albanian and Italian in addition to English and Spanish.

Visiting Assistant Professor Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills is leading courses including seminars in psychology and health psychology this term. Mills holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia, master’s degrees from Georgia College and State University and Western Michigan University, and a doctorate from WMU.

She is working on an executive master’s in public health at Emory University with an emphasis in prevention science. For the past 10 years, Mills has owned and operated MindBodyWell, a private counseling practice that focuses on science-based approaches to stress, depression and anxiety. 

Mills is an active member of the Institute for Public Scholarship, a local, anti-racist organization that works on issues of place and belonging. Her research interests focus on preventing and mitigating the impact of early childhood adversity on health. 

Visiting Assistant Professor Robert Mowry

Robert Mowry is teaching two sections of Introduction to Society and Culture offered by the Department of Anthropology and Sociology. His additional teaching interests include quantitative methods, disaster, the intersection of politics and the environment, and ways of seeing and knowing.

Mowry comes to Kalamazoo College from the University of Notre Dame, where he recently earned his Ph.D. in sociology. Previously, he earned master’s degrees from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Sheffield, and a B.A. from Earlham College.

As a teacher-scholar of disaster and politics, Mowry employs multiple methods to study the processes and outcomes of globally diverse, high-stakes political arenas—from post-disaster contentious politics in the U.S. and Japan to the gendered dynamics of protest participation in Europe. A related stream of research looks at how cultural processes of learning, memory, and thinking spur spontaneous laughter outbursts during Supreme Court oral arguments. His work has been published in Sociological Theory.

Visiting Assistant Professor Jennifer Perry

Jennifer Perry leads courses at K including General Psychology, Sensation and Perception, and Psychopharmacology in the Department of Psychology. Her credentials include a Bachelor of Arts from St. Olaf College and a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. Perry’s research includes studies on the ethics of laboratory animal research and the role of impulsive behavior in drug abuse.

Professor Joins Other Religion Scholars to Extol Research

Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada religion scholars Sacred Writes
Sacred Writes, a network of religion scholars committed to helping a broad global audience understand the significance of their work, has selected Kalamazoo College Assistant Professor of Religion Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada to be one of 24 scholars from around the world receiving a Public Scholarship on Religion for 2021.

When religion scholars share information about their research outside their academies, they help the general public understand matters of the sacred and the importance of religion and religious diversity in contemporary life.

Enter Kalamazoo College Assistant Professor Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada. Sacred Writes, a network of religion scholars committed to helping a broad global audience understand the significance of their work, has selected Maldonado-Estrada to be one of 24 scholars from around the world receiving a Public Scholarship on Religion for 2021.

With the scholarship, Maldonado-Estrada will receive a $1,000 stipend to participate in real-time collaborative sessions and multimedia training with other scholars from May 1 to August 31. Since 2018, similar cooperative work has helped 41 scholars of religion place 140 print, audio and video pieces with 52 media outlets including the Washington Post, PRI’s The World and CBS Religion since 2018.

“I am deeply committed to making my scholarship accessible and interesting to a broad array of readers,” Maldonado-Estrada said. “From writing about religion and tattoos to gender and gentrification, it excites me to tell stories about the ways religion is embedded in the everyday lives of individuals, communities, and cities. I am excited to be a part of a vibrant group of scholars, where we can hype each other up, learn new genres of writing, and craft and celebrate good work about religion.”

Sacred Writes also has chosen Maldonado-Estrada to write articles about architecture and sacred space, subjects important in her classes at K. The articles will appear in DigBoston, an alternative weekly newspaper.

“At K, I teach a class called Urban Religion where we learn how to be ethnographers and observers of space and social life,” she said. “Together we explore how religious communities shape the urban environment and how the city shapes the feel, look and experience of religion right back. I am so excited to write about architecture, development, and sacred space in this collaboration with DigBoston. These are the topics that really brought me to the study of religion back when I was an undergrad at a liberal arts college.”

In addition to Urban Religion, Maldonado-Estrada teaches classes at K on religion and masculinity, Catholics in the Americas and the religions of Latin America. She is an ethnographer, and her research focuses on material culture, contemporary Catholicism, and gender and embodiment.

Elsewhere, Maldonado-Estrada is a co-chair of the Men and Masculinities Unit at the American Academy of Religion and is an editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Art, Objects, and Belief. She was chosen for the 2020-2022 cohort of Young Scholars in American Religion at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis’ Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture. She received her doctorate in religion from Princeton University and her bachelor’s degree in sociology and religion from Vassar College.

“I look forward to finding exciting ways to meld my teaching and research and to bringing what I learn from this partnership back to the classroom at K,” she said.

Armstrong Lecture Spotlights Pakistani Entertainer

Armstrong Lecture Poster of Speaker and Entertainer
Amanullah De Sondy, a senior lecturer at University College Cork in Ireland, will provide the 2021 Armstrong Lecture.

A global expert in contemporary Islam will speak at a Kalamazoo College Religion Department virtual event about a prolific figure in Pakistani music whose voice empowered queer identities.

Amanullah De Sondy, a senior lecturer at University College Cork in Ireland and an affiliate of the University of Glasgow’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies, will provide the 2021 Armstrong Lecture at 5 p.m. Tuesday, February 23. His talk, titled “Music, Empowerment and Queer Pakistani Identities: The Case of Madam Noor Jehan 1926-2000,” will discuss the flamboyant Noor Jehan, an entertainer known lovingly to many as Madam ji.

Noor Jehan’s success came from her entertaining acts of disruption which spoke to parts of society that were suffering at the margins. From difficult marriages to challenging the Pakistani army, Noor Jehan was known for her wit and strength. De Sondy will explore her anarchistic style and show how she disrupted neat structures in society as she remained rooted in Islamic traditions.

The Armstrong Lectures are made possible by the Homer J. Armstrong Endowment in Religion, established in 1969 in honor of the Rev. Homer J. Armstrong, a longtime trustee of Kalamazoo College. To attend the free event Tuesday, register through the Religion Department website.

Religion Chair’s Book Offers ‘Glimmers of Hope’ for LGBTQ Mormons

Religion Department Chairman's Book Tabernacles of Clay
Kalamazoo College Religion Department Chair Taylor Petrey wrote Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism as a history of gender identity in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Religion Department Chair Taylor Petrey
Religion Department Chair Taylor Petrey has authored his second book, Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism.

An often-forgotten member of the religious right and its views on gender identity are the subjects of a historical book released this month by Kalamazoo College Religion Department Chair Taylor Petrey.

Petrey said the post-World War II views of Evangelicals and conservative Catholics are well-documented, as they traditionally reflect political opposition to feminism, same-sex relationships and trans identities. But what about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as Mormons? That record has been incomplete if not completely non-existent until the release of Petrey’s book Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism, published by the University of North Carolina Press.

“I’m trying to situate Latter-day Saints in a broader conversation about the nature of gender and sexuality,” Petrey said. “I’m showing what’s most surprising is that even conservative religious groups think not that gender and sexuality are fixed and predetermined or divinely ordained categories, but rather they rely on social constructions of gender to make sense of conservative teachings.”

The LDS Church’s leadership and older generations of church members have steadfastly maintained conservative views related to gender identity despite experiencing some discrimination themselves from other denominations.

“Latter-day Saints have often felt that sting of being excluded from the broader culture of Christianity,” Petrey said. “But one of the strategies they’ve used to integrate themselves into the broader culture of Christianity has been to adopt these conservative values and create social and political alliances with the religious right. That made a lot of sense after World War II. It created a kind of alliance or shared identity to say, ‘We’re Christians just like you.’”

However, younger generations of Latter-day Saints in congregations nationwide have commonly aligned themselves with more progressive views.

“At a local level, you might find a diverse range of views on these topics with a generational divide,” Petrey said. “Younger members tend to be much more liberal. They might not be as liberal as generational peers, but much more than their own older generations.”

The book doesn’t push for change toward more progressive views as a result of this trend. Yet the historical record shows how the church’s teachings have shifted somewhat, prompting some optimistic outlooks for Mormons in the LGBTQ community, for example.

“The popular story that most people know or believe is that the church has never changed its teachings,” Petrey said. “It’s a common way that many churches express themselves. ‘We’ve always taught this.’ What the book shows, actually, is the church has changed its teachings quite a bit in the last 70 years. And for many people, that gives some glimmers of hope that it may continue to change.”

Petrey’s first book, Resurrecting Parts: Early Christians on Desire, Reproduction and Sexual Difference, was released in 2015. He also edited Re-Making the World Christianity and Categories: Essays in Honor of Karen L. King in 2019 and the just-published co-edited volume The Routledge Handbook on Mormonism and Gender in 2020. In 2018, Petrey was prominently interviewed in Church and State, a documentary about the toppling of Utah’s gay marriage ban, and he currently is the editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Plus, his latest work, available online and at bookstores, has generated public enthusiasm since the first advance copies were distributed about six weeks ago and Petrey is looking forward to receiving more feedback.

“I have been overwhelmed by the positive response,” Petrey said. “Immediately, the most eager readers were other Latter-day Saints, especially gay Latter-day Saints, and I’ve been incredibly happy with the first reviews that have come out online and the buzz about the book so far.”

“Silent Sky” Features Women Reaching for the Stars

Silent Sky at Festival Playhouse
Milan Levy ’23 (from left), Sophie Hill ’20 and Aly Homminga ’20 portray astronomers Williamina Fleming, Annie Cannon and Henrietta Leavitt in the Festival Playhouse production of Silent Sky.

Watch a trailer of Silent Sky on YouTube

Much like an astronomer who draws constellation patterns, Aly Homminga ’20 is connecting the dots.

Homminga serves as both the dramaturg and lead actor for the Kalamazoo College Festival Playhouse production of Silent Sky. As the dramaturg, Homminga researches topics and time periods addressed in the play to assist Director Ren Berthel in teaching the actors about their characters and the play’s settings. As the lead actor, she connects those ideas to her portrayal of real-life astronomer Henrietta Leavitt.

“Dramaturgy is important, especially for Silent Sky as a period piece,” said Homminga, a theatre arts and religion double major from East Lansing. “If a director’s job is about artistic vision, dramaturgy is about facts and the time period of the play. This play goes on an arc of about 15 years, so I have to make sure Henrietta is different at the beginning than at the end. Playing Henrietta has given me a chance to test my skills and create a character who’s real yet flawed and different from me.”

The production is set in the early 1900s, as Leavitt begins working at the Harvard College Observatory, part of Dr. Edward Pickering’s “harem,” as they were known. Leavitt and her female colleagues mapped stars by taking pictures of glass plates and analyzing them, receiving no scientific credit for the discoveries they made along the way. Leavitt’s discoveries related to cepheids, which are stars that brighten and dim, and how they can be used to measure astronomical distances.  Edwin Hubble, the namesake of the Hubble Telescope, confirmed the validity of Leavitt’s discoveries about 20 years later, and her work has been credited with transforming the field of astronomy.

Leavitt’s work with fellow scientists Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming, portrayed in Silent Sky by Sophie Hill ’20 and Milan Levy ’23 respectively, builds a theme of feminism in the play. It’s the second of three plays in the Festival Playhouse’s 56th season following forgotten female figures. Other actors include Rose Hannan ’23, who plays Leavitt’s fictional yet inspirational sister Margaret; and Rigo Quintero ’22 as Peter Shaw, the head astronomer’s apprentice.

“I think this play is unique in the season because much of it is historical,” Homminga said. “It also marks an intersection between theatre, women’s studies and science, when science isn’t talked about or explored a lot in theatre. We want to reach out to science professors and classes, and let them see this as an opportunity to see their history, especially that of women in science.”

Scientific minds are bound to appreciate a set design developed by Wynd Raven, a local artist who was commissioned to paint the Festival Playhouse stage as a nebula, which is a cloud of gas and dust in space sometimes visible in the night sky. In addition, Homminga is creating a lobby display in her dramaturgical role. The display will focus on life at the Harvard observatory and the roles of women at the turn of the century to create an atmosphere in the context of the play that will appeal to scientists and general audiences alike.

Silent Sky will run from Thursday, Feb. 27-Sunday, March 1. Thursday, Friday and Saturday shows begin at 7:30 p.m. The Sunday show will start at 2 p.m. All shows are at the Nelda K. Balch Playhouse Theatre, 129 Thompson St.

Tickets are available through the Playhouse’s online box office. They cost $15 for adults, $10 for seniors 65 and older, and $5 for students. Tickets for Kalamazoo College students are free when they present K-IDs at the door. Faculty and staff may receive up to two tickets free with their IDs. For more information on the play, visit the Playhouse’s website.