The Journal of the American Academy of Religion: An Interview with Amir Hussain (Part One of Three)

Interview by Philip L. Tite

In 2011 the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, the official journal of the American Academy of Religion, gained a new editor. Professor Amir Hussain was kind enough to be interviewed for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, offering us some insights into his background and what he hopes to bring to the journal during his editorship. I’m pleased to share this conversation with readers here on the Bulletin’s blog. Due to the length of the interview, this piece is being posted in three parts.

PHILIP L. TITE: Hi Amir, Thank you so much for your willingness to share with us your experiences and vision for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. It is a pleasure to be able to interview you at this stage in the journal’s history, as you have recently taken on the editorship of JAAR. I’m sure our readers would be fascinated to hear your views about the journal and its future.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself, your research, teaching, etc? How have these experiences shaped your approach as an editor of a scholarly journal?

AMIR HUSSAIN: Thanks for this, Phil. I did a PhD at the University of Toronto under the supervision of Will Oxtoby, Jane McAuliffe and Michael Marmura. I also had the extraordinary privilege of being mentored by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, the greatest Canadian scholar of religion in the 20th century. My dissertation was on Muslim communities in Toronto. I taught from 1997 to 2005 at California State University, Northridge. That’s a large state school (35,000 students), and I taught in a religious studies department, mostly courses on Islam and world religions. In 2005, I moved to Loyola Marymount University, the Jesuit university in Los Angeles. LMU is small (6,000 students), private (tuition is about $45,000 per year), and religious (Catholic). So, I have experience in very different settings (a large state school and a small private school), with conversation partners from both the study of religion and theology. Since I came to LMU, I’ve published a book, edited another book, and written over 30 book chapters or scholarly articles. I’m also on the editorial board of 4 religious studies journals, and one book series. So, I have lots of experience with scholarly publishing. I’ve published in JAAR and I’ve been rejected by JAAR, so I know both sides of that particular coin as well. And I’ve had great teachers, who taught me the value of serious, scholarly work.

I’m at that “mid-career” point in my life, which seems very strange to me, as I can still remember my grad school days. But I’m also a tenured full professor, closer in age to 50 than to 40. “Who knows,” as Sandy Denny sang all those years ago, “where the time goes?” With the exception of Jane, who thankfully is still with us, my other teachers have all passed away. So I am at that transition stage, from being the person mentored by my teachers, to being the person who is doing the mentoring. All of that leads into my work on JAAR.

PT:  I really like that image of a scholar/editor as mentor. We normally limit that image to the classroom, but I think it is equally applicable in other areas of the discipline. As a journal editor, I’ve found that there is great joy in working with younger scholars to bring their work to light, to play a small role in the formation of someone’s career, by offering space for them to share their research and thus enter into broader academic dialogues. I also once wrote that an editor’s task is largely to maintain or nurture a discursive space for multiple, even conflicting, voices in the field. Would you see yourself as a mentoring figure qua editor?

AH: Oh yes, I think mentoring is a key role for an editor. It takes no talent to publish brilliant work. If Peter Brown, for example, were to send us an article, I don’t know that I could change one word. And he’s had an established reputation as a serious scholar for decades, someone that I read (and was inspired by, hence the shout out) as a graduate student. But if we can publish something in the JAAR that people will look back at a decade from now and say, “Oh, that’s where she published her first article,” that would be something to work for. It makes my job much easier if I have a brilliant submission that the external reviewers are crazy for, don’t get me wrong about that. But helping a new author to craft a piece, that isn’t really there on the first submission, and needs to be reworked before it can be sent out for external review, that’s where some of the real joy comes.

And that’s what I can show to my own students. Some of them (MA and undergraduate) work with me on the JAAR. There’s no better way to show them how to do scholarly writing than to give them the examples, the first submission, the reworked version, the external reviews, the revised version, the copy-edited version, and the version that finally appears in print. It helps them to understand the how of scholarly writing, so I am able to mentor them as well. That was one of the main reasons I was interested in the position.

PT: Could you share how you came to your current position as editor of JAAR?

AH: When the call came out for a new editor, I put my name in for consideration. I was one of the candidates short-listed and interviewed at the AAR meeting in Montreal. After that, I was offered the position. I had to make sure I could get the support that I needed from my university, and when that came through, I was able to accept.

PT: As a quick follow up on this point, while moving beyond the logistics or procedures involved in the selection process, could you share with us what prompted you to want to take up the editorship of the journal? What motivations underlie your application? Was there something you hoped to accomplish? I’m also curious about how supportive your university has been and what advice you would give to future would-be editor of an academic journal on applying for such a position and what is needed from one’s institutions etc.

AH: One reason is described above, to be able to work with our MA and undergraduate students on the journal. Between us, David Sánchez (the book review editor) and I have about 10 students who work with us on the journal. That’s invaluable experience for them, and something only usually reserved for PhD students. The other selfish reason was the huge growth in my own learning curve. I know that I will be the only person in the world who will read every single article in every issue during my five-year run as editor. So my understanding of the study of religion will increase dramatically. And part of this was a desire, as hokey as it sounds, to give back. I have been to every AAR meeting for the past twenty years. The AAR has been my academic home, and this is a chance to give something back.

My university, starting from the top with President David Burcham has been incredibly supportive. We teach a 3/3 load, and I was able to get a half-time reduction to a 2/1 load. This was based on conversations with the previous editors who both mentioned that editing the JAAR took up about half of their time. Clearly, they worked much harder than I did, as it takes up about 75% of my time. So that’s the first thing you need, the time to commit to the job. The next thing is adequate support in the form of an assistant who monitors the submissions. That’s also crucial, to have someone do the day-to-day work of keeping in touch with authors. You also need adequate office space, especially in our case since we also do the book reviews out of LMU. David Sánchez and his staff get, I kid you not, about 1,500 books per year. So you need the physical space to be able to store the books, as well as the office space (with phones, computers, copiers, etc.) that you need. And you have to put your own publishing aside. Not entirely, of course, but there is no way I could keep up the level of productivity that I had before I became the editor.

(To be continued in Parts Two and Three)

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