Professor’s Bookshelf: Professor of Religion Peter Gottschalk
Professor of Religion Peter Gottschalk has spent much of his career studying how Muslim and Hindu cultures interact; but most recently; he has delved into an entirely different topic — The Hunger Games. He says, not entirely in jest, that he loves anything with wings and enjoys dropping science fiction and comic book references into his classes. Professor Gottschalk sat down to talk to The Argus about platypuses, Star Trek, and the tchotchkes in his office.
The Argus: What are you reading now?
Peter Gottschalk: One thing I’ve been reading is for a class I’m teaching on Hindu lives, so I’m reading about Ramakrishna, a very important and fascinating Bengali Hindu figure whom I haven’t explored before. For my Islam in the West class, we’re reading about Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt; this was the first major European incursion in the Middle East, and it represents a really interesting point not only in terms of European-Middle Eastern relations, but also historically. In some ways, it’s the end of one type of empire-building and the beginning of another one.
A: Anything you’re reading personally, just for fun?
PG: I’m reading a book that my daughter just finished and insisted that I read, called The Hunger Games, which is also coming out on film. She suddenly got totally enthralled with this book and insisted that I read it, so I guess those will be the next things on my list.
A: And what’s on your bookshelf?
PG: My bookshelves are divided into four different sections, and they overlap with one another, which is in an important part of my scholarship and way of thinking. One set is of various South Asian religious traditions: Christian, Muslim, Sikh, and Buddhist traditions, as well as a variety of materials around that.
The next two sets of shelves are specifically dedicated to Islam and Muslim cultures, and Hindu traditions and Hindu cultures. Those are all on one central bookcase, because a key feature of my research is the way that Hindu and Muslim cultures interact. So visually, it’s helpful for me to have those works in relationship with one another—kind of distinct in some ways, but also overlapping in the middle.
And finally, the last bookshelf has various theoretical materials on the study of religion.
I also have a lot of tchotchkes on my bookshelves as well, which I like a lot.
A: Do you think you could explain one of them to me? How about Morpheus and Dr. Manhattan?
PG: Well, different parts of [my] office have various science fiction references, like Morpheus from The Matrix, Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen, Darth Vader and Obi Wan from Star Wars, and the Enterprise from Star Trek.
I, like a few other colleagues, like to say that I learned everything I knew about ethnography and cultural interaction from Star Trek. Science fiction has been a big avenue for many of us in cultural studies because it offers the opportunity to take what’s unfamiliar and make it familiar, and take the familiar and make it unfamiliar—which to my mind is at the heart of successful cultural studies. Also, while teaching about cultures, it’s essential to get students thinking about their own cultures in unusual ways and about other cultures that they think are unusual in more familiar ways.
A: Do you ever incorporate science fiction in your classes?
PG: Yes—I sometimes make comic references, but often I’ll use some science fiction in order to demonstrate a point.
A: Are those references usually related to Star Wars or Star Trek?
PG: I’m a bit more driven to Star Trek myself, but I know that students have a strong liking for Star Wars. For the more serious references, I use Star Trek more often because Star Trek has an intellectual project (and many people might laugh to imagine that those two words would go together – “Star Trek” and “intellectual”); it had, at its heart, a social critique. When it was first aired in the 1960s, there was at least one episode that was considered to be too much of a social critique and had to be changed to fit the audience’s expectations. So very often, [Star Trek] offers the opportunity to think through various contemporary issues as well as thematic issues of cultural contact and understanding and misunderstanding.
A: So, what drew you to teaching and learning about Islam?
PG: Initially, when I was thinking about a teaching career, I wasn’t interested in religion at all. I was primarily interested in issues of cultural interpretation, cultural interaction, and cultural misinterpretation, because I grew up in the Cold War, when it seemed like differences and misunderstandings between Soviets, Americans, and other Westerners could be quite catastrophic.
But on my way to India to do some volunteer work after graduation, I stopped in Saudi Arabia, where my parents were working at the time. There, I had my first large scale interaction with a Muslim culture, and then after that I went to India. I went to a place that had a Hindu majority, but also had a large Muslim and Christian population, and so I was able to really have a kind of a connection with the religions there in ways that were intellectually very stimulating and raised all sorts of questions for me.
A: Last two questions: I found this interesting line in your faculty page: “Peter has seldom encountered anything with wings that he hasn’t liked.” Could you explain that a bit?
PG: When I first got here, everyone [in the Religion Department] ended their biography with one sentence, a little personal snippet. And I thought, “That was smart, I like that.” I do like almost everything that flies, whether it’s mechanical or organic, so I thought that was something I could put out there that would interest other people.
A: Finally, what’s your favorite object in this office?
PG: I guess it’s probably Gladys the Platypus [referring to a stuffed platypus on top of one of the shelves]—she’s a fairly good rendering of a platypus in size and form. I use Gladys in my classes to talk about classification, because scientific classification has the urge to categorize every living creature in the world in totally discreet and concrete categories. When Europeans first came home with a platypus, people thought it was a joke—they thought that people had sewn a duck bill onto a beaver body; others thought it was some sort of monstrosity. It’s a great demonstration of how categories can get in the way of what we’re trying to learn.