Jennifer Selby is associate professor of religious studies and affiliate member of the Department of Gender Studies. Her work examines contemporary secularism in France and Canada and how its sensibilities are shaped by concerns with coloniality, whiteness and narrow sexual mores.
Jennifer completed her undergrad honour’s degree at the University of Winnipeg, an MA in religion and modernity at Queen’s University, a PhD in religious studies at McMaster University and was postdoctoral fellow in the Islam in the West program at Harvard University. She spent a sabbatical year as an invited researcher at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.
What first sparked your interest in religion?
I don’t remember ever not being fascinated by religion. My parents hold contrasting views on religion and I have always found both sides compelling. And clearly the old adage to not talk about sex, religion and politics is lost on me.
I’ve always been a nerd. I love reading. I thought I would do an undergrad degree in English literature because it came most easily to me. But I took an Intro to Religious Studies course in my first year. I was challenged and hooked! In the end I did a double degree. A few RS professors changed my thinking and challenged me on my assumptions.
I think this discipline allows a unique lens into thinking about politics. I want students to see how what they learn in religious studies can help them interpret and live in the different worlds they inhabit.
How has your own experience influenced your academic career?
I grew up next to downtown Winnipeg (in St-Boniface). When I was 10 or 11 my dad took me to task for something I had said about an Indigenous man walking down Main Street. I heard and saw a lot of racism as a kid (and still do). But as a white settler, I didn’t see the historical and political machinations that put that middle-aged man into his situation and me in the back seat of a station wagon.
Of course, reading and traveling have also been formative in how I’ve continued to try to look for the “invisible” politics undergirding different situations.
What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever found yourself in the course of your research?
My research is mostly ethnographic, so I’ve spoken with lots of people – from the wonderful to the weird . . .
In general, it’s a privilege to get to know people in their contexts in their daily lives. One “strange” moment that comes to mind is from doctoral research that examined French secular politics in relation to the experiences of first-generation women of Maghrebian origin who live in a suburb of Paris. While recognizing that there are significant power dynamics laden in anthropologically informed work, I spent 22 months engaging in full-time volunteer work in a number of community organizations and conducted fieldwork.
A defining moment in this work (and my life) was when a social worker in a centre where I worked with new migrants invited me to live on her couch in the social housing project apartment where she lived with her two daughters. Given that I am a foreign national and that 90 per cent of the housing in this neighbourhood was government subsidized, I never would have otherwise had a chance to see the suburban experience. Even more superficially, experiencing how folks responded to me in the suburbs was informative, like my white privilege when police boarded a city bus to card all the young racialized men and ignored me completely.
So, the “weird” example: There is informal sexual segregation in the public spaces of this housing project. For instance, young women might play soccer, but otherwise rarely spend time outside. I thought I would write about this, so on a whim one day while I was washing dishes I (discretely, I thought) took a photo of some young men leaning on their mopeds across the square. I knew they were drug dealers, but they were at least 200 meters and below where I was and it was mid-day. One of them saw me and figured out the apartment I was in and came charging up the stairs to the door, pounding on it, demanding I come out. Thankfully my host mom was there for lunch and yelled across the door in response. I deleted the photo, which wasn’t that great anyway. That was not a proud moment in that I put others at risk.
In general, thanks to the fieldwork I’ve done, I’ve been fortunate to have had adventures in France, Algeria and in Canada. It takes a lot of negotiation, of course. Like trying to talk to the ‘Big Boss’ of a Hutterite colony in rural Manitoba (to do some fieldwork for a grad course) when the phone would cut out after 5 minutes. And then sharing my findings with female interlocutors on the colony via fax (I share findings with my interlocutors before publishing them).
Some of these relationships have become central to my life. The (then rambunctious) youngest daughter of the woman with whom I lived with during my doctoral fieldwork (then 8 through 10) worked as a nanny 10 years later, taking care of my (then) delinquent two-year-old over three months in ways similar to how I had cared for her. Thanks to travel and WhatsApp, our daily lives are intertwined in surprising ways.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on my fifth book that examines how secular sensibilities materialize at the time of marriage.
What has been the biggest success to date for you personally?
Oh that’s easy: beginning a tenure-track position here at MUN while I was a PhD student. Looking back to ten years ago when I started here, I see how green I was. I really had no idea what I was doing! So, I’m very grateful to mentors and colleagues who took the risk of hiring someone so junior. Equally important, Memorial administration worked hard to create a position for my partner, who fortunately had a much stronger CV than I. That was a defining moment in my life. Partner hiring is a not-so-secret passion subject for me.
Over my first decade at Memorial, my best professional moments have occurred when I’ve been able to bring someone (whether from far away or from across town) to campus for a conference or talk and the audience gets excited about their ideas. For me, these encounters are what social science is all about. The university can’t only be about producing future workers. We must be creative, interact with one another and imagine ways of seeing and being.
What is your philosophy in regards to research?
Great question! I think my philosophy boils down to this question: how do we know what we know?
I’m fascinated by the political implications of how the methods and theoretical positions implicit/explicit in all production of knowledge impacts what we know. For instance, when I teach intro courses I like to imagine with students what’s NOT in the textbook. How does the absence of a voice/perspective/history shape what we think we know about a subject? What politics does the absence imply?
Along these lines, I recently led a project that brought together 30 scholars across Canada to think about how and what we know about Muslims in Canada. For me, that kind of cross-disciplinary, cross-method discussion of the scholarship was really exciting. Two colleagues (Amélie Barras and Melanie Adrian) and I just finished an edited volume, Producing Islam(s) in Canada: On Knowledge, Positionality and Politics, that brings work together that, I hope, pushes some of these issues forward to provoke new ways of thinking about knowledge.
At the same time, while I love thinking about theory and method, I want to ground what I do in real people’s experiences and narratives. Then, I want to tangibly critique systems of power to think about political action.
What sort of impact do you hope your research will have?
I hope I can help push back on ideas that seem “normal” to consider the impact of their political, racialized, and gendered norms.
How do you feel your work is helping to boost Memorial’s national and international reputation?
Like all of my colleagues in HSS, I publish my work in academic venues (peer-reviewed books, articles, edited volumes), organize and attend conferences, and promote my graduate students to do the same. I also work as editor in a journal, co-chair of the ‘Religion and Anthropology’ section of a large Religion association, and do a lot of anonymous peer-review. I try to publish in French and in English and some of my work is being translated into Arabic and Turkish.
When I’m doing fieldwork, I like to give folks as much opportunity as possible to see me, Memorial, and our ethics board. So I take the Memorial logo far and wide on the 1990s-style recruitment pamphlets I still make and distribute.
Now that I have the privilege of tenure, I’m trying out different kinds of dissemination, like the podcasts I directed about debates on Islam in Canada or, with a research team out of the U of Toronto, we’re exploring creating short films about our findings with a large Canadian production company. How can “dry” academese be translated in different ways that a wider audience might consume?
Because I’m a public servant, I take public talk invitations seriously and try to do as many as I can. Hopefully what I talk about can be useful or at least thought provoking. Last month I spoke to some Girl Guides, who really loved the MUNnel part of the tour; this month I will give a talk about niqab debates in Canada for our province’s Service provincial d’accueil et de soutien en immigration francophone. I’m also a board member of the Anti-Racism Coalition of Newfoundland and Labrador (ARC_NL) e. In this work, I try to mobilize my intellectual work through social activism. Last fall we worked with local and national groups to put together a weekend conference on ‘Addressing Islamophobia in NL,’ that was funded by Memorial’s Office of Public Engagement for service providers and students.
How are you supporting the next generation of researchers and HQP (highly qualified personnel)?
I’ve had undergrad and grad students work with me on all my projects. My colleague in the Faculty of Social Work, Dr. Sobia Shaikh and I led 30 student volunteers for the Addressing Islamophobia conference I just mentioned. We mentored grad students in different related work and had students work with us over the year we spent consulting 27 local community groups and organizing meetings. I endeavour to support them by writing reference letters and serving as a mentor. The same kind of approach applies for my graduate students.
What are you working on now?
My current research interrogates “secular sensibilities” in the lives of self-identified Muslim Algerians in Canada and France, with attention to their experiences of marriage. It draws on extensive ethnography in Montreal, outside of Paris and in Algeria to interrogate how immigration policies and laws governing secularism shape my interlocutors’ experiences of love and marriage.
What is the one thing you would like the general public to know about your research?
Hmmm. Two things: First, that the way we think about categories in the world matters a lot. We are embedded in politics that we might not see, but that profoundly shape our possibilities and our lives.
And second, that being apolitical is a luxury we cannot have. White folks especially have to call out their kids or their neighbour if they’re doing stuff that’s not ok. See the politics around you.
Amélie Barras, Lori G. Beaman, and I recently published a book, Beyond Accommodation, based on six years of work, including 90 interviews we conducted and sociohistorical analysis of Islam in Canada. One of the aims of the project was to theorize mundane “positively experienced” moments of interaction between folks of different religious and/or cultural backgrounds. As scholars, we tend to focus on conflict. We were curious about what takes place when things go right.
One big take-away is that people have to be willing to take a risk, to question their ideas and not impose their positions. So, be willing to feel awkward, to be uncomfortable. If you don’t hold privilege, call out the invisible structures around you. If you enjoy a lot of privilege, be an ally for folks who don’t. Question how we know what we know.