In this episode, I interview Rachel Taylor about her past research studying trance/possession rituals in African Diaspora religions and neo-paganism and Heathenry and her current career as a senior principle organizational change consultant at Collaborative Solutions (which, by the way, is hiring; https://www.collaborativesolutions.com/careers). We talked about loving academia but also knowing its reality, and about the importance of learning how the world works.
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Music credit: Robert John - Changes
Rachel Taylor: [00:00:00] It's easy to say, Oh, a grocery store is for selling people groceries, but I've worked for grocery stores. It's really complicated, actually. Grocery stores are some of the most sophisticated businesses in our world because they have to manage work all the way from the source, all the way to the customer. And that is a ton of logistics. You have to know so many things just to get groceries to shelves. And I didn't know any of that.
Kino: [00:00:28] Rachel Taylor completed a master's degree in religious studies from the University of Missouri. Her research was on gendered magic and trans work in American reconstructed religions, where she uses critical theory, ethnography and ethnographic research to establish a critical framework for looking at trance or possession rituals, and then discuss how different American reconstructed religions such as African diaspora religions and neo paganism and heathen re approach gender and the magic used in trance or possession. Currently, Rachel is the senior principal organisational change consultant at the company Collaborative Solutions. My interview with Rachel unfortunately experienced some technical issues, so I lost a bit of recording in the beginning. We started with her telling me about the kind of research she did as a master's graduate student, which you can still get a pretty good idea from her subsequent answer.
Researching Neo Pagan Religions
Rachel Taylor: [00:01:32] The people that I worked with were mostly scholars who are attracted to the religion because they didn't want to be Christians anymore and also didn't want to appropriate indigenous religions. People who are attracted to the natural felt really connected to the land around them and wanted to honor that. But we're aware of their role as colonizers and their role in white supremacy. So a lot of these people looked to their own indigenous religions, the religions that came from Northern Europe, Europe and all the other places that people in America have come from. But the people that I worked with were mostly white people. And it was fascinating to me to see how people would negotiate their relationship to what they considered their indigenous religion. Because there are a couple of themes that came out of this. People spend a lot of time doing research into the pre-Christian religion of Northern Europe. That's what drew me in at first because I studied the history of Christianity. And you can't study the history of Christianity without studying the later. Of course, powerful European empires. What happened between Christianity and the indigenous religions of pre-Christian Europe was very similar to what happened when the indigenous religions of enslaved Africans encountered Christianity.
Rachel Taylor: [00:03:04] So I found that, and I found these people who are super interested in having an Earth based polytheistic religion that doesn't compromise their ability to have good relationships with other people in America. So out of this, there came two general threads, hopefully you know a little bit. There are people who are universalists, which means that they think... This is the indigenous religion of our ancestors, but anybody can participate, right? And then there are the other people who are called folkish, who are overt white supremacists, really. They use to hide it, but they don't anymore.
Rachel Taylor: [00:03:48] I was also really curious about that kind of intellectual movement. What motivated people to say, I want to have an indigenous religion that in which I can honor my ancestors and also be inclusive of others. And I found it. I found it in the African diaspora religions. And what they did was they they adjusted the ancestor making that they did in their normal religion to fit their new circumstances. Part of the ancestor making was what we call syncretism, which is a word that I always hate because it just means mixing of two religions. But the way that that people with the Yoruba especially tried to retain their connection to their ancestors, even though they were in horrible circumstances in a very far away, and also build something new and liberating that applied to them and their needs at the time. And they did that through ancestor making, through connecting the orishas, the spirits, the lawa to Catholic saints. So you've probably read about that mapping of Catholic saints with the voodoo spirits. That's the most common thing people hear about. And they also did it by creating initiation rituals and religious societies that recreate a family structure. So especially in Santeria, when you join a family, then you are officially adopted into. You ancestral line of that family, but it's not a family that's based on. Biological inheritance. Skin color. Ethnicity. It's all based on people willingly coming together to honor their ancestors together and choosing to be in this familial relationship.
Rachel Taylor: [00:05:51] That was a trend that I saw mirrored as well in neo pagan religions in America, where people were trying to honor their own ancestors and also not appropriate religions of other people. The trends they went for was conscious ancestor making through recreating familial relationships. That's easy for polytheists, right? If your vision of reality is that all of the things that are able to affect the weather, the crops, the rulers, the people who run stuff, and if all of those things are your family, your brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and cousins, then you can have a familial relationship with reality that allows you to feel connected to other people and to your life. So that's basically how indigenous religion in Northern European Europe works. And so it was easy for the people who were investigating and creating these reconstructed American religions to find that same pattern of ancestor making, but they don't do it as consciously as the people in African diaspora religions do. A lot of the people who ended up being in leadership positions in especially the subset of neo paganism called also true is that they study with people who practice Vonda and Santeria. They went out and sought co-religionists who saw the world in a similar way to them. And it turns out that for Banda, which is from Brazil and Santeria, from Cuba, there is explicit discourse about ancestor making, becoming a part of their family, being open to anyone. And I saw that that influenced also the American trend of recreating indigenous religions to meet the needs of Americans.
Kino: [00:07:57] That's fascinating. I really like the framing of it, which is that people look for certain things in their religion because these are the sort of things that religion is supposed to supply, but they couldn't find it in the mainstream religions, which, you know, I imagine is very common, like the specific things they're looking for. But they're still specifically religious things. So it's not like you can look for them elsewhere. And so I guess the only option is to modify existing religions in a specific way to fill those needs. I think it makes a lot of sense.
Rachel Taylor: [00:08:32] Thank you. The research I did was reading ethnography for people who had done research in Brazil and Cuba and Haiti. I also did original research called reciprocal ethnography with the people I met in Missouri. So I worked with people who are part of a Blue Star Wiccan coven and people who are part of a heathen, kindred people I met through my personal life and through scholarship.
Loving Grad School as the Whole Package
Kino: [00:08:57] Cool. So that leads to the next question, which is what was your grad school experience like overall? So the activities you do as part of research, but also outside of research, including things like teaching and taking classes and whether I enjoyed those.
Rachel Taylor: [00:09:13] Oh, I loved grad school. For a person like me, it was about the most perfect thing that could ever have been. Our professors at the University of Missouri, especially during this time, were super highly motivated, right? This brand new program. Everyone was raring to go and all of the professors wanted to teach the five grad students. They actually bought over teaching slots for us. So what we do is we get together for like an hour and a half hours, maybe once a week, and have a seminar class where we just talk about things and then go and do our research and writing and come back and talk. Beautiful. It was wonderful. I got to learn. I learned anything anyone would teach me. We had someone, like I said, teaching African religions. I learned about those. We had someone teaching about Chinese indigenous religions. We did those, and these were always presented with a specific critical analysis. So when I learned about African religion, it was specifically about African diaspora, religion and cargo cults. So we applied the lens of post colonialism and anti colonialism to that. And then when I learned about Chinese indigenous religions, it was all about learning the continuity between the Chinese indigenous religions and practice and the political pressures of anti religion in China and. We learned religions in the United States about the First Nations people here. And that really helped to cement in me this post-colonial perspective as well, and and be able to take away the lens of the stereotypical American history and see the religions of the indigenous people from an open and critical perspective.
Rachel Taylor: [00:11:05] One of my favorite classes was the possession class. One of our professors taught us about possessions from all over the world. We did the Inquisition, so we looked into demon possession from the Middle Ages. We applied a different critical perspective to each one, so we would do literature, studies, feminist critique. On and on and on. And that is what ended up inspiring my own thesis, because what I focused on was trance and possession structures in the reconstructed religions. So talking all the time, reading a lot, writing a lot, hanging out with my fellows because there were so few of us, we were always together pretty much. We would go to religious studies conferences together. That was always really fun. Our professors tried to make sure we were always present and then teaching. I love teaching, I always have. But it was during grad school that I was challenged to take my skills from the casual to the much more professional. So I had professors who wanted to really focus on growing the teaching assistants as teachers. Being a teaching assistant came with a stipend at the time, so it was the only thing that was keeping me going, really. We would meet with the professors once a week to talk about our lessons, make our lessons plans together, and then also go over our grading and grading structures together. Most of the courses I taught were writing intensive because I've always been good at writing and I'm good at teaching writing. So it involved a whole lot of reading and giving feedback for students papers.
Kino: [00:12:42] Sounds interesting. And also it sounds like you really did enjoy the whole taking class, the reading, the conferencing and the teaching, the whole package.
Rachel Taylor: [00:12:51] The whole package, Yeah.
Transitioning into Alt-Ac
Kino: [00:12:53] Let's talk a little bit about your transition outside of the academy. Did you consider continuing in the academy as an option and also what made you eventually decide against it?
Rachel Taylor: [00:13:06] Oh, I did. I very much wanted to go on and get a doctorate, but when I graduated, which was in 2001, the economy was terrible. Then we had just, I think, got done with or were close to a recession, but there were very few jobs for anyone. And my professors had involved me in interviewing for new faculty members. They were really teaching me how to be a good faculty member and run a department, which I appreciate. But I knew from those interviews that there were very, very, very few positions available for religious studies professors. There was a ton of competition for them, and the rewards are very small. The biggest reward I would get would be getting to live the life I lived as a grad student, being able to continue to read, research and teach, which I definitely wanted to do. But even in order to get to that point, I would have to do 5 to 10 years of adjunct work. And at the time adjuncts were getting paid $100 a semester.
Rachel Taylor: [00:14:10] I couldn't live like that, I would have to get a different job anyway just to survive. And the people I knew who were doing it were miserable. They hated their jobs and I didn't want to hate my students. I didn't want to hate my research and my writing. So I said, Well, I can keep doing a lot of the things I love to do without doing it in an academic setting. And so that's why I left.
Kino: [00:14:36] That's a very, I think, realistic and thoroughly thought out reason. And it's amazing that your department allowed you to sit down interviews. Most departments, as far as I know, don't give graduate students that opportunity. And I do think students have the potential to learn a lot from just observing, like they don't even have to be the one asking questions, but just observing, like how scholars market themselves, how scholars describe what they do, which is a skill, but also what is it like for a scholar to be job ready? And then whether that's a path I want to go on. I think in your case you did enjoy the whole package, but I talk to a lot of people who enjoy the specific part of research. They're like, I love research, but I hate teaching or I love teaching, but I don't actually like writing. But maybe I can get by with this doing some things I love, some things I hate. So I think it's important to for students to see exactly how much of your job is going to be the part that you like. Also, remembering that there's always an option to still do a lot of the things you love outside the academy is important. People often forget about it.
Kino: [00:15:48] Can you tell me how did you go about exploring what it is that you want to do or find the sort of things that you can do?
Rachel Taylor: [00:15:58] Well, you make it sound a lot more deliberate than it was, which was just trying to survive. I mean, I was living on $450 a month when I was a grad student. So when I wasn't a grad student anymore, I had to get jobs. And that's what I did. I was I worked in a daycare and then I was a nanny for a while, and then I worked as a temporary administrative assistant back at the university. So I went back to the academy, but as a laborer. Then I was a temp at the School of Medicine and they liked me so much that they hired me to be an administrative assistant for the Center for Health Care Quality. And I pretty much ran the center as the only full time admin staff for about five years. And then I left. I moved to California with my sister and worked at a technology company there, making little heat testers for computer chips. I worked as an administrative assistant there and I was paid more than I ever had been in my life there, but it still wasn't very much and I didn't get along really well with my coworkers. So I was talking to some friends who lived in San Francisco and my friend said, Oh, you know, my company needs someone who has good writing skills. And I said, Okay. He said, You should come interview him. I said, Okay. And then as we were walking into the interview, he said, I think you should ask for 40. And I was like, Whoa, 40,000 a year. That's amazing. He said, No, $40 an hour. And I was like, What? And so I went to this interview and it was all my friend. I'd never had this opportunity if it hadn't been my friend. His name is Mehmet Orun [apologies for the spelling]. Yeah. And he introduced me to his boss's boss, said, Can you document our entire I.T. infrastructure? And I said, Probably.
Kino: [00:17:58] You should've been like, I bet it's easier than a religious organization.
Rachel Taylor: [00:18:01] Right?
Kino: [00:18:03] I bet the structure is simpler than the pagan societies.
Rachel Taylor: [00:18:08] But he appreciated whatever I said, or my friend talked him into it, and he hired me and I became their technical writer. And because my friend did all that for me, of course, I tried to make sure that I made him look good in return, and that's how I got into it.
Kino: [00:18:26] That's fascinating. I also want to say that that has been a theme that is recurring, which is the importance of writing skills and the humanities graduates abilities to to read difficult texts and then write difficult but comprehensible text. Yes. Seems to be a skill that tech companies, especially in business world, especially value, but kind of difficult to find because you can't just put on your job and can write because everybody is like I can write. So it's a skill that's kind of difficult to it's important, but it's difficult to market and then find.
A Typical Work Day
Kino: [00:19:04] Can you describe to me what a typical workday is like for you currently?
Rachel Taylor: [00:19:09] Usually in the beginning of my day I go through and take care of all of my email. Then I have 2 to 6 meetings a day over Zoom, just like this, where I meet with people to help them execute plans for assisting people through a major change in their software. So I might talk to them about a communication email that we want to send and to whom I might talk to them about a piece of training that we're developing together. Some days I just spend the whole day analyzing training needs, using a spreadsheet, instructional documentation, short things like job aides and long things like big giant PowerPoint presentations that are for teaching people. And some days I record instructional videos.
Kino: [00:19:59] It really does sound like the teaching skills that you the teaching that you loved in graduate school, you get to do more of.
Rachel Taylor: [00:20:08] A lot of my job is teaching in one way or another. I love delivering the training, actually talking to people and showing them how to do things. But every time I get more senior they say, Oh, you need to just help us with plan and strategy. And I say, Oh, but I want to teach people too.
Kino: [00:20:26] Yeah. So you're teaching a lot still and you're writing a lot. And I think some of the research, maybe not the specific topic that you were doing, but the ability to draw connections between different material that you have to read, you're using a lot.
Rachel Taylor: [00:20:43] Oh, 100%, yes. Because I do this work for cloud technologies, which change frequently. I used to do this kind of work for Google Workspace. And, you know, they they change, Google, maybe once a month. They don't even have formal releases. So you have to always be on your toes to be ready to adapt to the new change and translate it into something that people can understand. And I definitely gained those skills during graduate school, no question.
What I Wish I'd Learned
Kino: [00:21:12] Can you tell me a little bit about whether there are things that you like, skills that you have to develop as you're working? Because it didn't occur during graduate school, but you think that you should have like they should have prioritized?
Rachel Taylor: [00:21:28] Oh, yeah. Things that I wish I had learned. So, about how business works. It took me an embarrassing long time to realize that people did things because they were going to get paid for it. And I was like, But that's not very interesting. Or Why did they care about that? Oh, because that's their pay. Oh, all right.
Kino: [00:21:47] You know, in defense of your professors, chances are they don't have a clue. I mean, I don't, I certainly don't have a very good idea of how business works.
Rachel Taylor: [00:21:56] Well, of course. I mean, I didn't expect them to teach me that. But that's something that I wish I would have learned more about when I had a chance before I was in the middle of it.
Kino: [00:22:05] So do you mean things like where do customers come from? What things they're delivering? What do you mean by how business works?
Rachel Taylor: [00:22:13] Things as simple as common business functions. The relationship between the sales department, the marketing departments, invoicing payments, all that stuff. I mean, I don't think you have to know it to be successful, but when you're a consultant like me, I need to know who what are the interests of the person I'm talking to? Am I talking to a sales person? I know what they're interested in. They're trying to sell me something or they're communicating something about selling. Am I talking to the guy who does the internet? He doesn't care about selling things. All he cares about is whether or not his Internet infrastructure is working and he's getting content from people. So, you know, I, I wish I had understood a little better how those things interact in a regular business, but also what in some sense is what certain businesses are for. I think that it's easy to say, Oh, a grocery store is for selling people groceries, but I've worked for grocery stores. It's really complicated, actually. Grocery stores are some of the most sophisticated businesses in our in our world because they have to manage work all the way from like the source, all the way to the customer. And that is a ton of logistics. You have to know so many things just to get groceries to shelves. And I didn't know any of that, right? I didn't know about distributing manufacturing and all the things that are important to people who work in those jobs because because my job is saying, okay, you guys are getting this new software, so how is it going to affect your job? And in order for me to understand that, I have to understand what their job is.
Kino: [00:23:57] Now that the way that you put it is making me think that there are opportunities for graduate students to learn in school because the university is incredibly complex in how it works. And and usually we're not encouraged to learn about it. And we're actually very often sheltered from learning about how different administrative departments work. And that's so, for example, in my department we have four administrators and they have different jobs. And I used to just send an email to one of them who's going to forward it to the right person. But then I figure, you know... since they're also very nice in not only do they forward, they also tell me why they're forwarding to this person. So now I'm slowly learning the different jobs that they have, which, you know, makes a lot of sense now that I learned of it. But before I learned it, I was like, why do we need four people and what's the difference?
Rachel Taylor: [00:24:53] Exactly.
Kino: [00:24:53] Job titles all sound the same, right? I also recently talked to our research department who told me that they are a different department from the other research department that I talked to because, you know, here are the differences. They explained that and I was like, okay, I guess it does make sense now why you're separate entities.
Rachel Taylor: [00:25:16] Yep.
Kino: [00:25:16] So there are a lot of opportunities for people to learn that while in school, and that will be valuable for them even if they choose to stay.
Rachel Taylor: [00:25:25] Or you can volunteer for a nonprofit, work with a volunteer organization, and don't just do the kind where you show up and move your back. Volunteer to help do the administrative tasks. You'll learn a ton.
Kino: [00:25:37] And I think also makes me appreciate administrators more and also the people who design these programs more. And when I do run into trouble, I am more likely to, instead of just complain, why do things not work? I'd know why it's not work because this is their logic and this thing has changed that they didn't foresee. So maybe if they make this change that'll help. Or maybe this is just a small thing that I have to get over.
Advice on Entering the Consulting and Project Management World
Kino: [00:26:05] So suppose someone, fresh out of graduate school or thinking of leaving their program, wants to do something like what you do now, how do you advise them to go about finding out the opportunities and marketing themselves?
Rachel Taylor: [00:26:21] That's a tough one. I do advise people on this frequently, but for my specific field, consulting or software as a service, it's really hard to get hired unless you know somebody. So if you really, really, really want to be a consultant, that's different than being an I.T. That means that I have to interact with people, build relationships, be accountable for deadlines, delivery budgets, things like that. It's a lot more than just loving teaching people. You really have to know people. So find someone in your life who does it. Follow them on twitter. Not me. I'm not that active on Twitter. Someone who does what you want to do. Follow them on Twitter. Get in a relationship with someone who does what you want to do and ask them about it. And then if you feel like you want to do what they're doing, ask for a recommendation. Just ask. The truth is that in it, there's still a ton of opportunity for people who are motivated and want to learn to get good I.T. jobs, but it's hard to find people who will hire you out of the blue. So that's one thing you can do.
Rachel Taylor: [00:27:29] There's tons of ways that you can learn to administer software as a service and learn more about it that are free or low cost on the Internet. Google does a ton of programs where you can learn about their product, their products. You can take Salesforce classes. Those are a little more expensive. Workday is very expensive, but that's because it's HR software and has a bunch of federally protected information. So that's more of an investment for you, but it's still the opportunities there. If you have money and you want to work for Workday, get Workday training. If you don't have money and you want to do software as a service, find out the free or low cost training that is already available to you. Lynda.com is a good place to start. There are just tons of opportunities if you're not interested in technology in and of itself. I am. I like it. I get into it. I enjoy it. I know how to use it. That's cool. I can do a lot of things that are not just teaching because I learned how to do them in order to teach them.
Rachel Taylor: [00:28:35] But if you're not super into technology, you can go into project management and there are programs like Prosci, where you can go and get Prosci certified that looks amazing on a resume and that one is a little more expensive. I think it's 2000 now. But again, if you can invest in that kind of training that can get you in the door and give you the kind of credentials that people are looking for, for a job like mine. Project management is difficult. If you like it, definitely go in. The world needs more project managers.
Kino: [00:29:09] That's also, I have to say, one of the things that I've heard of, I have no idea what they do because I was like, it's a project. You do it. Why do you have to manage it? And it's not until I get more exposure to larger scale project collaborations where I was like, okay, project management is actually the soul of how things get done.
Rachel Taylor: [00:29:30] It definitely is. Project managers are gold, because they have to be willing to poke people like me and get me to do things on time and not just me, but like a whole team of people like me who have different interests and different specialties and different constraints on their time. They have to build good relationships with customers. They have to manage budgets and schedules and timelines and deliverables, and they have to do it all with a smile.
Kino: [00:29:59] Yes, that's the part that I that makes me go, like, maybe that's not a career for me. I can smile if you do things on time or I can get you to do things downtime without smiling, but I cannot do both.
Rachel Taylor: [00:30:14] Right?
General Advice on Going Alt-Ac
Kino: [00:30:16] Do you have any advice for graduate students who are thinking about leaving academia?
Rachel Taylor: [00:30:21] I think the best advice I can give is don't think of academia as a closed system, but as your skills and as an opportunity. I teach people everywhere I go. I don't restrict it to things that are academic. If someone I know needs to learn how to write a resume or how to cook a dish. I'm always teaching people because I have things that I can give to others and I want them to be available. So don't restrict your imagination to what you can do with your skills to just academia or even just one thing or even just a career. What can you offer to the world that you're really good at? Keep doing that and then don't be afraid of business. It's not as scary as academic politics, I promise you. There's still politics, but you generally get a little more protection because of your infrastructure. They have people who are designated to deal with politics, so you don't have to. It's nice.
Kino: [00:31:22] And if you leave one place, you can find another place. If politics is really bad in one place, you can always find another place.
Rachel Taylor: [00:31:29] Oh, yeah. Don't stick around. If you're miserable, please don't. Do look for other places. I know it can be really scary to leave a job that that is paying the bills. But the important thing in your life, if you're going to be working, is having good relationships with your coworkers. That's it. You can handle almost anything else as long as you're getting along well with them and they are supporting you and you are supporting them.
Kino: [00:31:55] Thank you, Rachel, for sharing your insights.
Rachel Taylor: [00:31:57] Of course. It's lovely to meet you. Best of luck with your brand new professorship. I'm excited for you.
Kino: [00:32:05] Thank you.