Sunday, 23 February 2014

An Interview with Dr. Carole M. Cusack

This week here at Albion Calling I am very fortunate to have an internationally renowned figure in the field of religious studies here with me; Dr. Carole M. Cusack, who currently holds a Professorship at the University of Sydney, Australia. Like myself, much of her background is in the pre-Christian belief systems of North-Western Europe; in this area, she has published on both the motif of the sacred tree as well as the process of Christianisation. However, she has also taken a keen research interest in new religious movements, having published on such subjects as contemporary Paganism(s) and "invented religions" like Jediism, Discordianism, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. We discuss her career, research, and the state of religious studies in today's world.

EDW: You are currently Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Sydney, having first attained your BA Hons in Religious Studies and English Literature from that same institution back in 1986. You began teaching Religious Studies in 1989, at first as a casual lecturer and tutor, while at the same time working on your PhD, completed in 1996. That year you became a full-time staff member, and from there, you went on to attain a Master of Education in Educational Psychology in 2001. Can you tell us a bit more about this academic trajectory, and what sparked your decision to become a professional academic?

Dr Cusack observing a legong dance,
in Sanur, Bali, April 2013.
CMC: My family were working-class Irish Catholics and I was educated at Catholic schools in the Sydney suburbs. It certainly wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I’d become an academic; in fact my late father was not keen on my continuing school to matriculation (I’m the eldest of four). He was persuaded to change his mind, and the rest is history. As a teenager I was passionately interested in music and reading (these are enduring passions, as it happens), and certain books and captured my imagination. A few that were really important are: C. P. Snow’s The Masters (1951), about the election of a new Master in a Cambridge college in 1937; Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), which is tremendously Catholic and romantic, with being a student at Oxford the formative experience for Charles Ryder (and the television series in 1981, my first year at university, was also important); and also John Cowper Powys’ massive A Glastonbury Romance (1932), soaked as it is in the Grail myth, the re-enactment of the passion of Christ, and so much else as well (the entire oeuvre of John Cowper Powys should be of crucial interest to contemporary Pagans, but I suspect that he is almost unread these days, to everyone’s detriment, not just the Pagans).

It would not do if you thought my group of friends were just toadies to upper-class English culture, colonial wannabes, or would-be sophisticates who were terribly pretentious. We were young and romantic and intoxicated by beauty and art (the Pre-Raphaelites, manuscripts from the medieval era, Classical statuary, and really the gamut of the visual and performing arts, theatre, ballet, opera, and so on). The Middle Ages was one of the preferred eras, possibly – though not entirely – fuelled by the excess of gorgeous neo-Gothic architecture that Sydney (and Australia generally) boasts. The two cathedrals, St Mary’s Catholic and St Andrew’s Anglican, are both beautiful, and the Main Quadrangle of the University of Sydney is exceptionally fine. It was easy to imagine our experience was like that of students at Oxford and Cambridge (I later discovered it wasn’t, of course). Among my close undergraduate friends were about half a dozen who did PhDs on medieval topics (beguines in the Low Countries, early medieval Ireland, Old Norse sagas, the Franks, and so on), and several of us became professional scholars. (It may not come as a surprise that there were some interested in Goth subculture and fashion, and that Goth rock bands like The Mission, The Sisters of Mercy, and The Cult are still great favourites of mine). 

Dr. Cusack in Neasden, London
in September 2010.
My undergraduate work was in English and Religious Studies (with medieval history and Biblical Studies thrown into the mix) and I did two Honours years, as in Australia a Bachelor of Arts is three years, and Honours is an extra year (in Religious Studies, with a thesis on ‘An Examination into the Ideologies Underlying Nineteenth Century Researches into the Viking Age’, and in English, with a thesis titled ‘The Political Implications of Medievalism in William Morris’ The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems [1858]’). I’m also attracted by William Morris, and the Arts and Crafts movement in general (I loved A. S. Byatt’s novel The Children’s Book [2009] and Virginia Nicholson’s Among The Bohemians: Experiments In Living, 1900-1939 [2005]), and through friends, partners, and one sister who is an urban planner with a Masters in architectural design, I’ve gained some familiarity with architecture and planning, typography and book production, and other art and craft sub-fields.

Where does this lead? Well, I suppose that despite the fact I wrote a PhD on early medieval missions I always had a foot in the nineteenth century, and in the 1980s and early 1990s when I was studying, both medievalism and the academic study of Paganism were coming into being as real scholarly fields. Supervision and academic mentorship are tremendously important, too, and I was fortunate to study with Eric J. Sharpe (1933-2000), one of the ‘grand old men’ of Religious Studies, Margaret Clunies Ross, still going strong and a formidable presence in Old Norse Studies (though the late Harold Leslie Rogers taught me Old Icelandic and Margaret taught me Anglo-Saxon), and various other staff in English and History were important influences.

After getting an academic position in 1996, the year of my doctoral graduation, the Master of Education degree was really completed to secure me a continuing job (as I held a five-year contract, and had been told there was no chance of permanent employment unless I was ‘credentialled’ in Education). Still, it opened up a whole new world that has become more important since the cognitive sciences approach to Religious Studies (and literature, art, aesthetics, and a multitude of traditional Humanities disciplines) emerged and has gained momentum. I’ve never wanted to be anything other than a scholar working in a university and every day feel grateful that it was possible to realise that ambition. As I was employed in Religious Studies and not Medieval Studies I’ve a very broad range of interests and have taught undergraduates Buddhism, Japanese religions, Hinduism, Islam, even Old and New Testament topics.

EDW: What is it that generated your passion for religion as a subject of enquiry, and in particular what was the origin of your interest in Early Medieval religion and new religious movements? Did you grow up in a religious household, or did you develop such interests independently, in a non-religious background? 

CMC: I touched upon my family background a little in the response to your first question. My parents were both quite devout, but as is so often the case these days their four children have all drifted away from the Catholic Church and I think would all identify as agnostics or atheists now. Yet defining religion as a supernaturalist attitude or belief in God is limiting for me. I’m an atheist, but a religious atheist. Ritual of all kinds fascinates me, and I’ve done walking meditation (kinhin) at Nan Tien Temple in Wollongong, and my partner Don Barrett and I have taken part in a Hindu funeral procession in Sanur, Bali (where we holiday often), and in Pagan rituals with friends (not to mention Greek Orthodox ceremonies at St Sophia’s Orthodox Cathedral in Bayswater, and the occasional synagogue etc).

As a child my interest in both religions and the Middle Ages was fuelled by reading; the complete Oxford Myths and Legends series was held in our local library, as were the two large-format, beautifully-illustrated books by Edgar and Ingri Parin d’Aulaire, The Greek Myths (1962) and Norse Gods and Giants (1967). I read retellings of the Arthurian legends and the Homeric epics, and loved the novels of children’s authors like Rosemary Sutcliff, Henry Treece, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, and Alan Garner. As I grew older I read historical novels, often on Biblical and ancient world topics (by people like Frank G. Slaughter, Lew Wallace, Henryk Sienkiewicz). One of my teenage boyfriends was deeply interested in film and I was exposed to the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, still probably my favourite director, as well as historical silent films (Abel Gance, D. W. Griffith etc.) and everything conspired to make me fascinated by historical eras and geographical regions that were other than that in which I lived. That includes religion, myth, magic and everything that goes with it (art, literature, costume, architecture, furniture …).

EDW: Your first solo book, Conversion Among the Germanic Peoples (Cassell, 1998), came out of your PhD thesis, and examined the processes of conversion that the various linguistically Germanic pre-Christian societies of Northern and Western Europe went through from the third to the eleventh centuries. In my opinion, a large part of its significance was that it offered a study of European paganism and Christianisation from the perspective of a trained scholar of religious studies; this contrasts with the overwhelming majority of studies on the subject, which come from a background in either history or archaeology. Could you tell us more about this particular project and what you see as its repercussions for both medieval religion and our understanding of conversion?

Cusack's Conversion Among
the Germanic Peoples

Copyright Cassell.
CMC: The tale of my PhD and the attitude that I took to the conversion of Germanic Pagans to Christianity is a sort of an accident that turned out well. Initially I wanted to do a PhD on Anglo-Saxon Paganism and Professor Sharpe told me I’d struggle (this was January 1986, he was right, actually, in fact it’s still a pretty under-studied area despite the recent great contribution of Richard North, among others). He passed on a project he was working on about conversion, and I took it from there. Being raised Catholic was one huge advantage at that time; Religious Studies as a discipline was under attack for being some kind of disguised version of liberal Protestantism (and Eric Sharpe was criticised for being part of that, and was in fact an ordained minister, though it should be noted that he was deeply suspect among Sydney Protestants who tend to be hard-line, and never had a parish). I was from a working-class Catholic background, so; a) I didn’t really understand what liberal Protestantism was, and b) I wasn’t (and still am not) convinced it’s that important.

Beyond that, I always felt anxious about Christian triumphalist narratives (so much of the PhD research I did was of that kind). What sort of answer is it to say that the late Roman Empire became Christian because a) Christianity was true and was the God-ordained religion, and b) the Pagans were wrong? As an undergraduate (and chiefly in my Religious Studies Honours year, when I was taught by a visiting scholar, the late Dr Vrijhof from University of Utrecht, who was a sociologist) I got excited by the possibilities of social-scientific analysis of religion, the application of sociological models to ancient and medieval societies, and that’s what I did. Later I was praised for giving the Pagans a fair go (thank you, Michael Strmiska), but I wasn’t convinced I’d done enough, and that inspired me to try to right the historical wrong. The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (2011) is a sort of parallel volume to my PhD, in which I tried to do more for the Pagans, to present their position as being akin to the colonial indigenous cultures that had been destroyed by Christian imperialists in the modern era.

EDW: One of your (fairly) recent projects has seen a return to the realms of Europe in the Middle Ages, this time offering an examination of the role played by the sacred tree in European cosmology. As part of this you looked at the concept of the tree as both axis mundi and imago mundi, examining instances from various different parts of Europe to explore this theme, which is found in many contexts across the continent. This research resulted in the publication of The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2011). Could you tell us a bit about this project: how, for instance, did it come about in the first place?

Cusack's The Sacred Tree
Copyright Cambridge Scholars Pub.
Much of my early academic development was assisted by great teachers; after I got a job and was allowed to teach and supervise, my Honours and postgraduate students have been some of my dearest and best instructors and collaborators. Dan Bray, who is now teaching English as a second language, was one of my earliest postgraduates and a Pagan, and he really made it clear to me that European Pagans were indigenous people whose culture was destroyed by Christian imperialism. In my PhD I analysed the medieval texts that discussed the destruction of sacred trees by missionaries (St Martin of Tours, Boniface of Devon), and as I’d become interested in ecological Paganism I wanted to find a way to investigate the early medieval Pagan experience, and the sacred tree became a symbol that I could use. 

It ultimately extended to pillar monuments and even Christian standing crosses, and had such wonderful side effects as Don and I walking the Hermannsweg in Germany, from Detmold, in order to see the Externsteine, a remarkable natural site that was a particular context for the Pagan-Christian transition in that region. We love long-distance walking and have completed the Hadrian’s Wall walk in 2005, the St Cuthbert’s Way walk in 2006, the Cotswold Way walk in 2007, and various other walks in Britain. The Hermannsweg was our first walk on the Continent, and the Externsteine is hypothesised by some to be a credible site for location of the Irminsul, the ‘universal column upholding the world’ (according to Rudolf of Fulda), that Charlemagne’s army cut down in the early years of his long and bloody war against the Saxons.

EDW: Alongside your interest in pre-Christian worldviews and the conversion process to Christianity, you have also devoted much research to the subject of new religious movements (NRMs) that are active in the modern western world. Recently, this has resulted in the publication of Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate, 2010), in which you looked at five NRMs – Discordianism, the Church of All Worlds, the Church of the SubGenius, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and Jediism – which you term “invented religions” due to the unique way in which they were created on the basis of self-professed fiction. Could you tell us more about this research and studies into this fascinating phenomenon?

CMC: This project emerged from two quite different interests. I first heard about Discordianism, for example, through students. Guy McCulloch did a presentation in an undergraduate unit on religious experience on the Principia Discordia, which I immediately purchased a copy of. After my marriage ended in 1992 I was involved for some time with Michael Usher, who had studied Crowleyan occultism for a time and presented me with a House of the Apostles of Eris ‘Pope’ card (that was the first direct contact I had with Australian Discordians).

Cusack's Invented Religions
Copyright Ashgate
The interest I felt would have gone nowhere except for the help and support I received from Alex Norman (then a research assistant and PhD student). He and I have worked together for so long it’s hard to imagine that our two brains weren’t forever conjoined, and he convinced me to keep at it, to make it happen, to find methodological models that would enable sense to be made of such anarchic and irreverent materials, and I did. His impressive collective of Flying Spaghetti Monster t-shirts may have assisted, though that’s not certain! I’m proud and happy that Invented Religions has received eighteen published reviews, all of which are positive. I understand that some people, both ‘insiders’ of certain of the traditions examined (mostly Discordianism and the Church of the SubGenius) but also some esoterically-inclined scholars, have objected to my etic, outsider approach to these groups, but I can only riposte that a scholarly conversation can only occur when the preliminary documentation of the phenomena has been accomplished, and that’s what I was doing. I still love the book; it’s been the easiest thing I’ve ever written. And the funnest (and yes, I know that’s not a word). 

Last year I had the pleasure of co-editing a special issue of Culture and Religion in ‘invented’ or ‘fiction-based’ religions (to use Markus Davidsen’s term) with a friend and colleague, Steven Sutcliffe (University of Edinburgh). The issue has eight pretty good articles that play with the concept and come up – I think – with something new and durable to say about the notion. I’ve written a few shorter pieces on the topic, and later this year I’m co-editing a volume for the INFORM series (published by Ashgate) with Pavol Kosnac. We’ve got a great group of contributors, and I’m quite excited by the possibilities that are emerging for the book.

EDW: Like yourself, I have spent time researching both pre-Christian European religion and modern western NRMs, and that being the case, I'd be really interested in learning how you personally understand the connection between the two? If you see a connection there at all, that is. 

CMC: Unlike some of these answers, which have taken some time to get together, this answer is easy. I can just lift it from my 2012 application for promotion to Professor, in which I had to identify my specialist area in fifty words or less. It was: ‘ “Alternative” religion(s) in the West from the Middle Ages to the present, focusing on: 1) Christian marginalization of alternative religion(s); 2) inverse processes of medieval Christianization and de-Paganization, and contemporary de-Christianization and re-Paganization; and 3) the challenge alternative religion(s) pose to definitions of ‘religion’ and the discipline of “religious studies”.' I hope that helps. 

EDW: Your research has touched on a huge array of different topics – so many in fact that it would be completely impractical to discuss all of them here – but one of your recent research projects that I find particular interesting is that which you have undertaken with Dr Jason Prior of Sydney's University of Technology, examining spirituality among Sydney's gay community, in particular with regards to clubs and bathhouses. How did this particular project come about, and what do you see as the state of research into Queer Spiritualities in Australia? 

CMC: I’ve been fortunate that my friends have created opportunities to work on all sorts of topics. That’s been aided by my ability to be interested in just about anything, and having a low boredom threshold. I freely admit I’d probably never have become involved in GLBTQI studies (despite my ongoing interest in Genesis P-Orridge) save for having known Jason Prior for a LONG time. We initially bonded over breakfasts and dinners with our partners and that morphed into coffees together, and then we started working to put together Jason’s extraordinary sensitivity to and knowledge of, both planning and architecture (which feeds directly into the ‘sexuality and spatiality’ sub-field) and his willingness to step into uncharted territory, and see what we could achieve. We’re currently working on our fifth article together, on love (especially non-normative love) in the Australian urban context, riffing off everything from Augustine of Hippo to raids on gay clubs, and Christian fundamentalist objections to the building of non-Christian places of worship. 

I urge everyone to choose their friends because they are intelligent, gorgeous, awesome, and generally just the best to spend time with, but also because (on the failsafe ‘two brains are better than one’ policy) you can immerse yourselves in each other’s specialities and get a whole lot more research going. Writing together isn’t an easy thing to get right, but I’ve done it with Jason, my former PhD student Justine Digance, Alex Norman, Katherine Buljan (with whom I've written a monograph on religion and anime) and Dani Kirby, and it’s a great experience. I recommend it! With regard to the future of research into Queer Spiritualities in Australia and in many other cultures – I think it’s a growing area that promises to yield much terrific research… Jason and I are also working on a Routledge reprint series, ‘Religion, Sexuality, and Spirituality’ which is proving to be intriguing and educative, as we have to get across a large body of literature, and make a selection of articles and chapters that include classics, new and ground-breaking, obscure and deserving of a larger audience, etc.

EDW: Over the course of your career, you have edited such volumes as: Progress, What Progress? (1992, with Jonathan Wooding); They Came, They Spoke, They Progressed (1993, with Avril Vorsay and Jonathan Wooding); This Immense Panorama (1999, with Peter Oldmeadow); The End of Religions? (2001, with Peter Oldmeadow); The Buddha of Suburbia (2005, with Frances di Lauro and Christopher Hartney); Religion and Retributive Logic (2010, with Christopher Hartney); and Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (2012, with Alex Norman). You currently also co-edit Brill's "Handbooks of Contemporary Religions" series with James R. Lewis, and the recent Routledge reprint series, "Sects, Cults and New Religions", with Danielle Kirby. How do you get involved in so many projects on such a wide variety of topics? I can imagine that, accompanied with your teaching and your own research, it must make for a very demanding schedule! 

CMC: I don’t mind admitting I’m a workaholic who usually does 65-70 hours per week. Those edited volumes I did earlier on were concerned to build a career. I was involved in student politics as an undergraduate, and I was President of the Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association (SUPRA) for three years. All the publications on postgraduate research and policy issues emerged from that period, 1990-1992. The next phase was when I was a very junior scholar and had the chance to organise some conferences, and a range of volumes came from conferences that the department (which in 1991 changed its name to Studies in Religion) had hosted. Later on, I became more selective and did edited volumes for international publishers like Brill (with Australian colleagues like Alex Norman and Chris Hartney) and Ashgate (with Jim Lewis, we have our first such collaboration coming out this year). 

Jim has been a great colleague to me (he is a known powerhouse of research projects and publishing), and I’ve contributed chapters to a large number of his books. When we met in Amsterdam in late 2010 he invited me to become co-editor of the Brill Handbooks of Contemporary Religion series, and it’s been a steep learning curve, but really valuable. Since then I’ve joined the boards of a few book series (Sophia series with Springer, the Sacred and Secular Histories series with Palgrave Macmillan) due to the kind invitations of senior colleagues. (I’ve only been a Professor since January 2013, it’s still hard to think of myself as a ‘senior’ academic …) 

EDW: You have also been involved in running a number of peer-reviewed journals; you were a founding editor of the International Journal for the Study of New Religions (IJSNR) from 2010 to 2013, and currently serve as co-editor of the Journal of Religious History. You also sit on the editorial boards of two other journals, the Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review (ASRR) and Aesthetics. How did the IJSNR come about, and what do you see as the significance of this recent blossoming of various peer-reviewed journals specifically devoted to new religious movements (i.e. the IJSNR, ASRR, and Nova Religio)?

IJSNR; copyright Equinox
CMC: Publication in academic journals is the bread and butter, meat and potatoes (whatever your favourite metaphor is) of being a scholar. It’s vital that journals are run by dedicated editors and editorial boards, and that the peer-review (or refereeing) process is respected. That’s the hardest part, as the work of giving feedback to authors is unpaid, and even editorship roles are generally not part of any academic workloads discussion with colleagues in your department. Yet it’s terrific to have the opportunity to see new writing as it comes in, to see articles improve as the referees’ criticisms are taken on board by authors, to sometimes even to get an idea of how a whole new field emerges. Pioneering journals in new research areas (like Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions and Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism) are hugely influential. Whenever I feel glum about having to proof an issue or write a peer-review, I cheer myself up with these thoughts. 

In the field of new religions I’d like to give huge credit and gratitude to Jim Lewis, who solicited chapters and articles from me years before we met and has since been a tremendously supportive colleague. Two of the journals you mentioned, Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review (ASRR) and International Journal for the Study of New Religions (IJSNR), came into existence through Jim’s sheer force of will and skill in introducing colleagues to each other, people who were just MADE to work together (Liselotte Frisk and I had a tremendous four years with IJSNR, and she’s a friend now, he just knows people who will get on). Another body that merits praise is CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions) led by the Italian lawyer Massimo Introvigne. I first met Liselotte (having previously only e-mailed) at the CESNUR 2011 conference at Aletheia University, Taiwan. CESNUR’s annual conference is one of the key places where scholars of new religions can network, and it’s interesting because (like the INFORM series I mentioned above and Eileen Barker, INFORM’s founder and director) Massimo thinks it’s important that scholars of new religions meet and get to know members of those religions, so the voices of believers and practitioners are part of the conversation. 

EDW: In studying new religious movements, you have often looked at particular traditions that fit within the broader categories of contemporary Paganism and/or Western esotericism. The last ten years of so have seen Pagan studies and the academic study of Western esotericism emerge strongly as fields in their own right, with their own journals, book series, and conferences. As someone who is more closely identified with the study of NRMs, how do you feel about the emergence of these two fields; do you for instance fear that they are leading to an increasing ghettoization of scholars who should otherwise be working together more closely? 

CMC: It feels odd to remember that during my undergraduate studies the fields of Pagan Studies and Western Esotericism did not exist. First Year was Biblical Studies, the next three year were Confucianism, Hinduism, Japanese Buddhism, Methodology, Norse Mythology, Roman and Greek Religion, and so on. New religions were in the mix, though only in a very limited way (Professor Sharpe was interested in neo-Hindu movements like TM and ISKCON, and Garry Trompf worked on cargo cults in Papua New Guinea), and the sociological methodology I studied in Honours was most often applied to new religions. The emergence of Pagan Studies and Western Esotericism as defined fields of study presents both opportunities and threats. 

First, it means that the field of ‘Religion’ is getting bigger, though it raises questions about whether Western Esotericism is religion (the jury are out on that, though Pagan Studies definitely is). Second, the strongly defined boundaries around some of the sub-divisions within Religion make it harder to hold conferences that have broad appeal and unite all constituents. Third, the newer fields often seem to operate outside the constraints of the wider discipline. I get anxious, sometimes, about the whole idea of ‘religion’ falling apart (to quote Yeats, ‘the centre cannot hold’). That’s why I move from one to another, a bit of the Middle Ages, then a bit of new religions, a bit of Japanese and Ancient World religions, a methodological article, a bit of archaeology, a chapter on a Pagan topic, then some Western Esotericism … I, for one, want to be across the whole lot, and to be able to work on any topic that might conceivably fall within the remit of ‘religion’. 

EDW: What research projects have you got going on at the moment, and are there any big publications coming out that we should keep our eyes peeled for? 

CMC: This is a big year for research projects that I’m involved with, and it’s a bit of a risk to say that any of it is actually going to happen. But I can nail some colours to the mast. Following on from the reprint series I did with Dani Kirby on ‘Sects, Cults and New Religions’ for Routledge, in January Alex Norman and I completed one on Religion, Pilgrimage, and Tourism’, and Helen Farley and I are in the middle of a series on ‘Religion, the Occult, and the Paranormal’. The series Jason Prior and I are planning has already been mentioned. I’m also editing the INFORM series volume with Pavol Kosnac on Invented Religions (to which I’ll contribute a chapter and a co-written introduction). 

There is also a special issue of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion on G. I. Gurdjieff that I’m editing (six articles, due early April). My friends David Robertson and Christopher Cotter are editing a book on the World Religions paradigm and I’m writing a chapter on Neolithic archaeology and religion (another passion of mine), and I’ve an entry on ‘Sport and Religion’ for an edited volume due in September. The big-ticket items are two monograph contracts (on the Church of All Worlds and G. I. Gurdjieff, the second co-written with Steven Sutcliffe). I’ve got six months’ research leave in Edinburgh from 1 July 2014, so I should be able to get a fair bit done. I like work, especially writing, especially when there’s time to really concentrate. 

EDW: Where do you think that the field of religious studies stands at the moment, and where do you think that it is heading, particularly when faced with the current neo-liberal reforms affecting the humanities and social sciences? In particular, I wondered what you thought of the present state – and the future prospects – of scholarship on the subjects of Early Medieval religion and new religious movements? 

The situation of the Humanities in universities the world over is not that great at the moment. It was noted several years ago that the appeal of a traditional Arts degree was declining, and the growth of professional-sounding degrees is because they are attractive to young people who are anxious about getting a job at the end of their studies. I have talented postgraduates and I always tell them NOT to expect that there will be an academic job at the end of the PhD. Many of them would make excellent teachers and researchers, but the opportunities aren’t there. I believe that critical thinking and academic writing skills are transferable and worthwhile just about any job that you might end up in, but that can sound like cold comfort. If you have a great desire to do research in the fields of Medieval Studies, Religious Studies, Western Esotericism, New Religious Movements, or any other obscure area, I would say that it’s worth it if you enjoy the research, get the PhD and have what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a ‘flow’ experience through the writing and producing of a masterwork (to think about it in the context of medieval guilds, or even Bob Dylan’s ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’). Then you publish the masterpiece and accept ‘post-academia’: http://howtoleaveacademia.com/tag/post-academic/. A few will make it through the hellish process and get jobs (three friends in their early thirties all got jobs in the last three years, a GOOD THING). Others will find another career in which they can shine, and which will be pleasurable and rewarding. 

Thanks for the opportunity to discuss my research and career on ‘Albion Calling’. There are a few things people might like to know: I have three lovely cats (Gracie, Ka, and Sam); live in a somewhat rundown Victorian house in Sydney’s inner west (red walls, Persian rugs, lots of art, books everywhere, and a battered Chesterfield scratched to bits by aforementioned cats feature); I have a large collection of teddy bears; I like ironing (it’s meditational), and am very interested in fashion and own hundreds of clothes (though I mostly wear about ten per cent of my wardrobe, a fair number of which pieces are jeans). Don and I wander the world attending performances of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Cycle (we’ll attend our ninth in November 2014), and we are strict recyclers and greenies (no car, rainwater tanks, etc) to overcome the guilt of all those plane flights. 

EDW: Dr. Cusack, thank you so much for talking with me here at Albion Calling today; I've really enjoyed reading your answers, and think that many other people out there will too. I wish you all the best! 

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