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Toronto, Turkey and Beyond?

Conference Considers Forming International Society of Media, Religion and Culture

John P. Ferré, University of Louisville
RMIG member

The Seventh International Conference on Media, Religion, and Culture, meeting from August 9 to13 at Ryerson University in Toronto ended with agreement to vote on the formation of an International Society of Media, Religion, and Culture (ISMRC) by June 2012, when the group will convene again in northwest Turkey on the campus of Anadolu University. ISMRC will be the first worldwide association dedicated to the academic study of media, religion and culture.

In many ways, the conference in Toronto was typical of the six international conferences on media, religion, and culture that preceded it.  The conferees came from several continents – North America and Europe especially, but also Australia, Asia, Africa, and South America. The host country has always been well represented, so Canadians had a strong presence at this year’s meeting.

The conferees also came from several disciplines.  Besides media studies and religious studies, participants in Toronto came from sociology, theology, English, history, and political science.  Most of their papers were qualitative, but some quantitative research was presented as well.

Subjects of the papers were as varied as the disciplines and nationalities represented in Toronto.  Papers dealt with pedagogy, virtual reality, inclusion and exclusion, and representation.  They covered books, newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, film, and the Internet.  Islam was important, but it hardly overshadowed the world’s other major faith traditions.

The conference program – which is available online at www.journalism.ryerson.ca/websites/cmrc2010/program.aspx – had well over 100 presentations.  Because only three or four sessions ran concurrently, sessions were well-attended and they usually generated lively question-and-answer periods.  Captivating presentations includes ones by

    • Jenna Tiitsman, a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of North Carolina, who examined the Oneida community’s fascination with the laying of the Atlantic telegraph cable in 1858;
    • Faiza Hirji, an assistant professor of communication studies at McMaster University, who identified stereotypes that Canadian television programs use in their depiction of Muslim women; and
    • Stephen Garner, a lecturer in theology at the University of Auckland, who explained how he teaches his survey of “The Bible in Popular Culture,” which includes a clip about Jesus’ inability to play rugby from bro’Town, the irreverent animated TV series from New Zealand.

A recurring complaint about the three and half days of the Toronto conference was that participants could not attend two concurrent sessions at once.

In contrast to the city, the Toronto meeting was fairly small – 150 faculty and graduate students attended.  The small size, combined with an opening reception, ample coffee breaks between sessions, and a closing luncheon, facilitated the formation and renewal of friendships.  Sessions were heady but relaxed, making for meaningful conversation.  More casual conversations occurred on Thursday evening, when the conference sponsored four off-campus excursions:  a trip to the Bata Shoe museum, a concert at the Toronto Music Garden on the Lake Ontario waterfront, an excursion to Toronto Island Park, or a guided tour of a private art collection at the University of Toronto, near the building where Marshall McLuhan worked.

The first International Conference on Media, Religion, and Culture met in Uppsala, Sweden in 1993.  Subsequent meetings in Boulder, Colorado and Edinburgh, Scotland finished out the 1990s.

This decade saw four more meetings. The one I hosted in Louisville, Kentucky in 2004 was followed by conferences in Sigtuna, Sweden, São Paulo, Brazil, and Toronto, Canada.

Presentations at these conferences have almost always been in English, although a number in São Paulo were in Portuguese.

Before 2008, the media, culture, and religion conferences were held with no plans for establishing an academic association.  That changed in Sã<o Paulo, where a number of young scholars and participants from the global south said that having a formal organization would help them get funding from their home institutions for conference attendance.  Others said that despite the value of interest groups in established organizations such as AEJMC, ICA, and NCA, a dedicated association would support the interdisciplinary quality of the media, religion, and culture conferences and foster a sense of importance not always experienced in large, discipline-based organizations.

This reasoning led the former media, religion, and culture conference organizers to form a steering committee in order to develop the proposal for a dedicated organization to be discussed in Toronto.  By the end of the Toronto meeting, participants agreed that a vote on forming an International Society of Media, Religion, and Culture – which would embrace interdisciplinary and self-critical examinations of media and religion, including pedagogy, theology, and ethics – would take place by September 2011.   If approved, ISMRC would be incorporated in the United States where it is relatively simple and inexpensive to do so. Every participant in a previous media, religion, and culture conference will be eligible to vote on the establishment of ISMRC.  Leadership will be comprised of an 11-member Board of Directors, including a president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, web master, and student member.  The initial Board of Directors will be elected from a slate of self-nominated candidates.

The principle purpose of the International Society of Media, Religion, and Culture will be to hold regular international conferences, but participants in Toronto agreed that the organization will also be encouraged to promote online networking, publications, student involvement, and conference awards for research and publications.

Any suggestions about the new organization should be sent to Stewart Hoover at hoover@colorado.edu.

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