Alumni Update: M. Cooper Harriss


Ben Tucker, Secretary

  1.   Tell us a little about what you do and how you got there?


I am a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. My job consists of a number of different parts. Primarily I do research and write books and articles. I am also a teacher, working with undergraduate students and training graduate students in the study of religion. A new aspect of my work is that I’ve founded a journal, American Religion, which also makes me an editor—helping to decide on content, offering suggestions to authors, and curating new ideas.


I’m interested in the religious dimensions of American culture. I write and teach about how religious forms, words, ideas, and practices contribute to the creation and understanding of literature, music, and other art forms—not in “religious art” but in secular works and even popular culture. What are the social and political implications of these influences? I’m particularly interested in how racial identities—whiteness and blackness, for instance—are inherently religious and contribute to how we understand “America” in the US, the Americas, and globally. I teach a number of courses, including Religion and Sports and Disaster in American Religion and Culture. The disaster class looks at four disasters and the way that cultural expression helps to make meaning out of suffering: Titanic movies, the 1927 Mississippi Delta flood and the blues, the US genocide against Native Americans and the Ghost Dance, and 9/11 through graphic novels.


How did I get here? I graduated from RMA in 1993 and majored in English at Washington & Lee. From there I completed a master’s degree at the University of Chicago and taught High School English at Stratford Academy in Macon, Georgia. I loved high school teaching but wanted to try making it in academia. I went back to school—to Yale Divinity School in 2000 (where I met my wife, Sarah, and earned a second master’s), and back to the University of Chicago where I received my PhD in 2011. The academic job market is tricky, so I bounced around for a few years with temporary appointments—at Virginia Tech and the University of Pittsburgh—before landing my dream job at IU in 2014. Now Sarah and I live in Bloomington with our daughters Eva (almost 13) and Vivian (almost 9) and our dogs Lazarus and Auggie.


  1.   How do you feel RMA prepared you for college and success?  


I’m so incredibly grateful for the English faculty’s tough treatment of my writing (the red ink was like a bloodletting), and especially for their perseverance in having us complete a major term paper in each year of high school. I learned to do research, to work with and organize sources, and to find a thread—a story—within massive amounts of information. I use these skills daily and would never be able to do what I do without it.



  1.   Was it difficult adjusting to a new environment far away from home? What made it easy or what made it challenging? 


New places and situations are difficult, but they’re worth pursuing. Life since RMA has taken me to a number of places—Chicago and Pittsburgh, in addition to smaller cities and towns in Connecticut, Georgia, and Virginia—that are all “far away” (in different ways) from Rocky Mount. Everyone who can should move somewhere new at least once, if only for a little while. Go to a place where you are a complete unknown and know no one else. You see things in new ways, to be sure, but you also learn that others see you in different ways than you’re accustom to being seen. You don’t have to be who you have been in the past. It’s a liberating opportunity to make yourself a new, and eventually, you may discover that you’re not “away from home” so much as you have made your own “home” on your own terms.


  1.   What is your favorite topic to teach, discuss or learn more about?


I’m currently writing a book about the boxer Muhammad Ali, so I’m pretty invested in him at the moment. It’s an interest that occupies many aspects of my life and work—I’m constantly reading and writing about him, watching films of his fights and his public appearances. He makes his way into my courses—especially my Religion and Sports class. I think that if you want to understand “American religion” after World War II, Ali is the perfect example. He’s a globally engaged Muslim celebrity whose career touches on virtually every important cultural aspect of the past seventy-five years: race, gender, disability, law, religious freedom, and so much more. We don’t think often enough about how complicated and contradictory so much about US life and culture is, but Ali is someone who truly contains all of these multitudes, these contradictions.


  1.   Any advice to the RMA students who want to pursue teaching?


The first thing is that teaching Is incredibly hard emotional labor. There’s no such thing as a “so-so” day in the classroom. I’ve never, in more than 20 years, dismissed a class and said, “Well, that was pretty good.” Every class is either the best or worst I’ve ever taught. I’m always hesitant to give advice about teaching, but I will offer something that not many people will say: Teaching is a form of performance. You’re on stage like an actor, a dancer, a singer, and you’re trying to compel a group of people, many of whom are indifferent, to care about what you’re doing, what you have to say, what you have to offer. I don’t mean that teaching is not “real” or “true,” or that it’s “insincere” (though I definitely pretend to like some things that I must teach far more than I actually do). I also don’t mean that teaching is all “winging it”—there’s a great deal to be learned from theories of teaching and practical tools you can take into the classroom. It can help, however, to think of these theories and tricks of the trade as stage directions and props to aid in the performance.


  1.   What was your favorite class at RMA?


I’m going to cheat and answer this in two ways:


My favorite class in terms of enjoyment and life-long learning was Carolyn Patton’s art class (which I took at least twice, and maybe three times). The discipline of close observation and working on a project over the course of days and weeks has served me well. Moreover, her art history assignments have both enriched my life as someone who enjoys museums and galleries. I have a solid grasp of what I’m looking at and why it matters. These assignments were also one of the first times I thought about culture as something that changes. I realized that new generations see things differently than those who came before, and while they use the same tools—paint, clay, words, sounds, even religious ideas—humans need to create new ways and forms of expressing things for their own context. The other benefit of Art class was the ability to listen to music. Some of the older kids had exquisite taste and would bring in cassette tapes of what seemed like obscure indie and college rock to play on the classroom boombox. Listening in made me musically adventurous.


My favorite class in terms of a single class I took was AP US History with Jane May in 11th grade. My good friend Josh Weaver and I were the only two students in the class, so our daily ritual was to pull our desks together and have a conversation. I loved it then, and now—for a variety of reasons—recognize what a gift that time was.


  1.   What do you remember most from RMA?


In My Junior and Senior years, I was in a rock band (Shakin’ Not Stirred) that started as a school club and was made up of all RMA students. (Bradley Adkins, Chris Ethridge, Josh Weaver and I were the core group, with others along the way). We practiced daily after school, played a number of gigs around the area, including our standing show at the RMA Fall Festival (we were cool!). We wrote about a dozen original songs and even cut an album at a studio in Greenville. Many (but not all) bands wish they could be as good as we were.


  1.   What does North Carolina have that you wished Indiana had?

That’s easy: Barbecue. Indiana’s basic down-home culinary palate is similar to NC’s in that it consists largely of pork and corn, but there’s no vinegar—nothing as good or satisfying as an eastern NC barbecue dinner with slaw, stew, and corn sticks. I miss it terribly. Calabash-style fried shrimp and oysters are a close second.