Thursday, September 29, 2011

quick hit: fellow researcher Philip Francis

Earlier this fall, I recieved an email from an author whose book I reviewed over at the feminist librarian. He thanked me kindly for the review and remarked upon the fact that I was involved in research about the Oregon Extension. Was I, by any chance, familiar with the work of his former student Philip Francis, who had recently graduated from Harvard Divinity School with his PhD in Religion and Society? I was not -- but now I am! 

amazingly enough, two people researching the OE --
just one river apart!
 Francis, it transpires, is working on a project looking at the role of aesthetics in facilitating counter-conversions out of fundamentalist evangelical faith. His dissertation, "We Dive and Reappear in New Places: Aesthetic Experience and Fundamentalism Undone" (May 2011), is available through the ProQuest subscription database. The abstract reads: 
This dissertation is an ethnographic study of 100 men and women who grew up in an American fundamentalist Christian community and left it, and for whom the arts played an instrumental role in the process of leaving. The majority of these individuals are alumni of the Bob Jones University School of Fine Art, a fundamentalist Christian college in Greenville, South Carolina, or The Oregon Extension, an aesthetically charged semester study-away program that draws its students from conservative Evangelical Christian colleges. Each individual contributed a memoir to the study and the majority were interviewed as well. Each chapter explores the role of aesthetic experience in the undoing of a different fundamentalist method of belief preservation. Methods of beliefpreservation, or what C.S. Peirce called the ‘fixations of belief,’ are ways of securing beliefs, of rendering them steadfast by cultivating certain mindsets, relationships and practices that play upon what William James referred to as the “inherent conservatism of mind.” My argument should not be read as a general theory of a necessary causal relationship between aesthetic experience and the undoing of fundamentalism. My thesis moves in a different direction. I ask how, in what manner, and under what conditions, does aesthetic experience function in the process of upending fundamentalism, in those circumstances when it does so function.
Needless to say, I obtained a copy of the thesis as quickly as possible and read through it. Since then, Francis and I have been able to meet over lunch and talk about possible future collaboration, bringing together his work on the theological and psychological work of the OE with my historical perspective on these labors. It is exciting for me to connect with another scholar interested in the same topic, but from a slightly different perspective. Francis himself never attended the Oregon Extension (though he had friends in college who did). Unlike me, Francis hails from a more fundamentalist, evangelical background and -- like many Oregon Extension participants -- has come to question that perspective as an adult.

I encourage all of you to check out his dissertation if you have access to ProQuest through your local library, and keep an eye out for his future articles and publications. If any come across my desk, I'll be sure to share them here.