Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou

Published on: 3 February 2015

Professor Stavrakopoulou

The University of Exeter’s Theology and Religion department was ranked second in the country in the recent Research Excellence Framework (REF).

We spoke to head of department Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou about the result and her research more generally.

How do you feel about Theology and Religion’s REF results?

I was really, really pleased. We’re a small department compared to our main competitors, so the great result we achieved shows we punch above our weight.

I was particularly happy we did so well on impact – 100 per cent was rated as four-star [world leading] or three-star [internationally excellent].

Why do you think the department got such a good result?

Firstly, we have a brilliant reputation as group of colleagues. This makes us an attractive place to work. When we’ve interviewed we’ve always had a really strong field. The best academics want to come and work with us.

Second, we take the relationship between teaching and research very seriously, not just in the sense of research-inspired teaching, but also teaching-inspired research. So even if as academics we don’t have the time to write as much as we’d like during term, we’re still exploring those issues in our teaching.

As a department we strongly believe both staff and students should be led by what we find intellectually stimulating.

I think that general context gives us a buzz. We share it with each other and students. That means you’re always thinking about these things, even at the busiest times – which is every day!

Your REF submission in particular involved a lot of media work. How did that tie in with your research?

It’s great for bringing my research and the subjects I teach to a much a wider audience. It helps to engage people on subjects they otherwise wouldn’t be engaged with.

When my BBC TV series [Bible’s Buried Secrets] was first broadcast, I was told by one disgruntled academic - not from Exeter! - that it was “irresponsible” of me to discuss these scholarly issues in public. I think that’s abhorrent – we have a duty to share our learning with everybody and anybody who’s interested. Not everyone can do a Theology and Religion degree, so my media work can help those reach a broader range of interested people.

Media work, public lectures and social media can really help to raise the profile of research. Particularly in my discipline, biblical studies, which is often misunderstood by those outside academia, or misrepresented by others in the public arena.

It can be frustrating not having as much time to write as I would otherwise. However it can only be a good thing to bring the work to a wider audience. I need to use all the tools I can to make sure our work is visible and to show how it remains relevant in the world today.

How did you get involved in media work?

I appeared as a talking head in a Channel 4 documentary series, and advised for another programme. The response was great, and the BBC approached me about a series soon after.

I do think you need to be a good teacher to do this kind of work. You need to be able to communicate things in an accessible and exciting way.

You feature in a new BBC interactive documentary, the Story of Now. You talk about why we started believing in God and whose god we should believe in now? Can you say a little about the documentary?

It was a real honour to be asked to contribute to the Story of Now. It was a challenge to distil my thoughts about why and how the notion of a monotheistic god emerged - and why it’s so problematic for the contemporary world - into a short film. But I’m delighted with the results.

The film encourages viewers to follow their own particular interests by exploring a range of online material embedded within the site – it’s a great educational tool, encouraging further engagement, tailored to the interests of the individual. And as an academic, I love the fact it combines research, teaching and learning in a new way.

What are you researching at the moment?

As well as my editorial work, I’ve got two projects on the go.

The first – which is nearly finished – is my book, The Social Life of the Corpse, which if it weren’t for my media work, I would have finished sometime ago! It looks at the portrayal of the corpse in biblical texts, and I argue that these portrayals challenge conventional academic thinking about how corpses were viewed at the time. In the book I’m also trying to challenge our own Western cultural preferences about corpses and the dead, showing that our preferences are more ambivalent and contradictory than we’d like to think. That was backed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The second project – which follows on from the first in some ways – is about body modification in religious and secular contexts, past and present. So I’m focusing not only on circumcision and ritual cutting and shaving, but tattoos, piercings, objects we adopt and wear. I’m really interested in how we change our bodies and how the body is socially and culturally constructed.

What else is going on in the Theology and Religion department?

There’s all sorts of things going on!

We’ve just appointed a new colleague, Dr Brandon Gallaher. He’s an expert in Christian theologies, but he’s also done a lot of work on comparative religions, including Buddhism and Shinto.

Dr Louise Lawrence has worked on bodily disability and ableism in biblical texts and their reception. She’s now looking at mental health and wellbeing, and is working on a book called The Bible and Bedlam which will cover the topic.

As a department we’ve also started a new blog for our staff and research students. This helps communicate our work to undergraduates and people outside the University, and we’re continuing to develop research projects more generally on the relationship between religion and the media. We’re holding an interdisciplinary workshop in March about the Bible in 21st century cinema, organised by my colleague Dr David Tollerton. This will be the first of a series of research collaborations over the next few years.

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