Prof Anita Cloete from the Department of Practical Theology and Missiology at Stellenbosch University recently delivered her inaugural lecture titled Being human in a technology-driven world: Checkmate or opportunity for social responsibility. Cloete spoke to the Corporate Communication and Marketing Division about how her research helps to promote a better understanding of the reciprocal relationship between religion and the media.
Tell us more about your research and why you became interested in this specific field.
During my undergraduate training in 1999, one of our prescribed books was The New Era in Religious Communication by Pierre Babin and Mercedes Iannone. I found the ideas in the book fascinating although it described a world I did not understand much about at the time. It was only in 2012 that I started reading again about media and religion and published an article titled Youth culture, Media and Sexuality: What could Faith communities contribute? That is when I realise this is a neglected focus in theological reflection.
I am also interested in the complex nature of religion. Like so many other people, I grew up with a very simplistic and one-sided understanding of religion that mostly focuses on the positive elements thereof. I am interested in the dynamic nature of religion. Today you cannot understand religion without some understanding of the media and the reciprocal relationship between the two. Apart from the paradoxical and complex nature of religion, I am also interested in how people on the ground understand and express religiosity. In practical theology, we speak about lived religion that is not necessary practice as part of traditional institutional religion but includes practices that have religious significance for people. This was also the focus of the book I edited in 2019 titled Interdisciplinary Reflections on the Interplay between Religion, Film and Youth.
What aspects of your work do you enjoy the most?
Reading and trying to get an interesting angle to express myself. For example, one of my keynote papers in which I focused on the accelerated speed of technological development, I titled Unstoppable: A critical reflection on the Socio- Economic Embeddedness of Technology and the Implications for the Human Agenda. I related the discussion with the film with the same title Unstoppable which is about a runaway train.
Similarly, I tried to include not only academics in my recent inaugural lecture by building the lecture around the image of a chess game. Hence the title Being human in a technology-driven world: Checkmate or opportunity for social responsibility. I think academics have the responsibility to not only engage with people in the academy, but to educate and engage in dialogue with the public regarding their research and demonstrate how it is of value to them.
The pandemic has changed the way we work and live. What keeps you motivated during these times?
Yes, the pandemic did not only affect the way we are living but also changed us. Being isolated was difficult because I never realised how dependent I was on the presence of colleagues and students. I think we also realised mediated communication is not as effective as we thought before. There are so many things you missed, facial expressions and even the tone of voice are not the same online.
I developed a renewed appreciation for nature and how walking and driving through different landscapes were something extraordinary, something I took for granted in past. The use of technology bloomed during this time and tighten its grip on teaching and communication in general. To facilitate teaching and communication primarily through technology changes people's behaviour, roles, and expectations. In short, it facilitates identity change not only on an individual level but also on an institutional level. I think we are still trying to figure out how did it change our identity as a residential university that values and promises in-person teaching and communication.
You've made your mark in the subject field of Practical Theology and Missiology. What would your message be for the next generation of aspiring female theologians?
Don't be threatened by other's success, but rather be inspired by them. Find your own space (research focus area) and pace/tempo (how you go about doing research and write). I will describe myself as a slow writer because it takes quite a while before I have something on paper but then a lot of thinking and rewriting take place before it is reviewed. I accepted this as my process and don't try to rush the writing process, just to have more publications. Believe in yourselves and cherish your process. Accept there is no substitute for hard work.
Tell us something exciting about yourself that people would not expect.
I am not sure about exciting, but I am a heterosexual woman who don't like washing dishes or cooking but are interested in cars. As I child, I realised these fixed gender roles are outdated and unnecessary. I believe in doing what resonates with you and being the best you. I am more of an introvert and get tired being among people for too long.
How do you spend your free time away from lectures and research?
I have, what I like to think of as rituals, that are meaningful to me: Having a good breakfast on a Saturday while reading a newspaper and a walk at the beach. I believe the sea speaks to me by helping me to stay in touch with nature and stand in awe of life. I also like window shopping. I take leave regularly to make sure I rest, to give my best at work.