Welcome Professor Hillary Kaell

Professor Hillary Kaell is joining the Faculty of Arts as a joint appointment in the department of Anthropology and the School of Religious Studies on August 1, 2020.

Welcome to McGill! Thank you for agreeing to speak to us. We are excited that you are joining us and are grateful to have this opportunity to be introduced to your research and teaching.

You will be teaching in both the Department of Anthropology and the School of Religious Studies. What will you be teaching at McGill?

I’m really looking forward to the coming year and the roster of classes I’m teaching. In the Fall, I’ll be teaching Death and Dying, which explores some of the cultural, legal, and ethical issues surrounding illness and death in North America. I’ve taught the class a number of times before, but I have updated it substantially so we’ll get a chance to think about the impact of the pandemic we have all been living through. The other SRS course I’m teaching in the fall covers the cultural history of Christianity in the United States, which is my primary field. I always remind students that the U.S., statistically-speaking, is a highly Christian country. Understanding its history can give us a lot of insight into how North Americans think about race, gender, and secularism...Recently, I think students are especially keen to know more about Trump and the politics surrounding his election. In the winter, I’m teaching two courses in Anthropology, but that are also very pertinent for SRS students. One is about global forms of Christianity, which is a religion of more than 2 billion people around the world. We cover a variety of themes through case studies from places such as Brazil, Kenya, India, Russia, and Canada. My other winter course is about capitalism and economics, which speaks to themes that interest me as a scholar of religion: issues about ‘ethical consumption,’ charity and gift-giving, and utopian projects like inventing your own currency or picturing a new kind of economic system.

How did you derive these particular academic interests?

I can trace at least part of it back to my undergraduate degree at McGill, actually! I was in an economics class—one of my majors at the time—and we read a case study about a religious festival in Central America. It was in honour of a particular saint and, at least as I recall it, the purpose of the case was to point out how sometimes people do things that seem completely irrational, economically speaking. Why spend lots of money on a single festival when you could instead put that money in a bank and investment it to make more money? Of course, this idea of ‘rationality’ arises from economists’ own particular definition. I remember realizing, ‘I don’t want to hear more about how economists think; I want to hear more about how the people organizing that festival think!’ It pushed me to take a few elective courses in religion and anthropology at McGill, which I’m sure had an impact on my later doctoral work.

How and where did you pursue these interests, across your studies and your teaching?

I went to the United States to do a PhD in an American Studies program. I was not well acquainted with American Studies as a field, actually, as someone who was educated in Canada until that point. But it was an interdisciplinary program, and I knew that’s how I wanted to work. Plus, I was interested in better understanding aspects of the society in which I lived, especially in terms of themes I mentioned in the previous question. I wanted to know how relationships with other-than-human beings—spirits, God, ancestors, saints—impact the worldview and decision-making of many North Americans. And for scholars and students, how might these patterns push us to think differently about concepts like ‘agency,’ ‘modernity,’ and ‘rationality’? For me, it gets to the heart of better understanding how people live their lives in ways that have not always been apparent, or legible, to scholars. In my own work, I always start by asking people what they think about topic X or Y. That’s often how I start my courses too, by asking students to suspend their judgements and preconceptions in order to better hear what other people have to say.

Can you tell us more about the book that you have just published?

I’m happy to. It’s called Christian Globalism at Home: Child Sponsorship in the United States and it just came out with Princeton University Press. Sponsorship programs are a multibillion-dollar charitable enterprise, connecting millions of North Americans with children overseas. The book is the first comprehensive study of this phenomenon, tracing its origins back more than 200 years to Protestant missions. It was born out of a marriage between a certain way to understand salvation and the charitable ‘share holding’ system adapted from early capitalism. Just as investors could buy a share in an enterprise, so could Christians buy a small share in what they understood to be God’s work in the world. That share was a set amount—at first just a few pennies a month—that donors paid to support a child abroad. At another level, the book uses sponsorship to tell an even larger story. It asks how U.S. Christians make global connections feel compelling and real, without going abroad themselves. That’s the case for most people, of course. We may try to feel connected to “the world”—if one is Christian, perhaps it’s “the Global Church” or one Creator—but those concepts far exceed our everyday experience. I make the case that sponsors put a lot of ‘devotional labour’ into producing and reproducing connection through an array of relatively unstudied embodied and aesthetic techniques, including playacting, hymn singing, eating, and fasting. I also pay a lot of attention to issues related to morality and economics, such as how sponsors think about economic justice or how they come to trust Christian corporations.

What attracted you to McGill? What are you most looking forward to here? (Will you be working closely with specific colleagues, and are you keen to supervise graduate students in particular areas?)

Being cross-appointed with School of Religious Studies and Anthropology is really exciting for me and I hope to create positive links between the departments. SRS is such a dynamic place in general, with speaker series, visiting professors and post-doctorals. I can't wait to think alongside everyone—and that includes getting to know the graduate and undergraduate students. Of course, we're a little hampered in that respect for the next few months. I'm trying to modulate my excitement until we're finally back on campus!

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