William & Mary

Tackling contemporary issues in religion

Semiha Topal, a new Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, has always wanted to teach. “That’s one of the rare things that I see constant in my life. I have been through a lot of changes, but the desire to teach has always been there.”

In her first semester at William & Mary, Topal continues to fulfill her lifelong dream of educating others and continuing her own journey of learning. Not only has religion played a big role in her life, but she also emphasizes the importance of religion in society and how learning about religion is critical to a liberal arts education and shaping a well-balanced person.

“A liberal arts education is very much demanding of the study of religion from a perspective that allows fair analysis,” Topal said.

Topal’s first teaching experience came outside the United States while she was in Turkey. A native of Turkey, Topal taught for three years there after coming to the United States to earn her PhD at Arizona State University. While in graduate school, Topal worked closely with her advisor who continued to foster a love for learning and teaching in Topal. The biggest piece of advice that this advisor gave her was to consider teaching as not just a job, but a part of your life that you feel very passionate about. That inspiration has carried over into Topal’s own teaching career.

Her first teaching job in the United States was a job on the opposite side of the country at Colgate University in New York. Topal taught in the Religious Studies department at Colgate for the 2018-19 school year before receiving an offer from the College to be a part of its Religious Studies department. “Everyone to whom I mentioned the name William & Mary definitely knew about the place,” Topal said. “The quality of the people in the department was very attractive to me and I felt like I could work together with the people, as well as the students.”

She was intrigued by how the department seems to have a strong connection to contemporary religious issues and the freedom that the College grants professors in pursuing research that is important to them. This fall, Topal is teaching two different courses and three total sections for the department. She is teaching two sections of Introduction to Islam, along with a class on Women in Islam. Both classes fall within her area of interest in religious studies and she has been delighted to pass along her passion for and knowledge on these subjects. She had a curiosity to learn more about feminist theory that grew from her studies in undergraduate school in Turkey where she studied this subject on her way to earning a degree in English Language and Literature. Topal also pursued an MA degree in Gender Studies and Religion in London before coming to the United States to earn her PhD.

Professor Topal has also been blown away by the level of engagement that her students bring to the classroom each and every day. She has found it extremely rewarding to teach and interact with students of the College who are expanding their knowledge and potentially discovering their own passions for Religious Studies.“I see my students deeply transformed by that learning in class,” Topal said. “I really find the students very engaging and serious about the learning process, so I feel like they are actually challenging me, and I enjoy it.”

Outside of the student body, Topal has been most excited about the opportunity to teach in the Sir Christopher Wren Building on campus. Wren, the oldest active academic building in the country, is home to the Religious Studies Department. “It’s just extraordinary to be in this building for me,” Topal said. “I constantly think about all the people who have studied in this building. It kind of connects me back to a past and I find it really unique.”

While she is kept busy by her three classes and working with her students, Professor Topal has continued to work on her ongoing research project on piety and subjectivity in religion. “Mainly the issues are around the visible aspects of piety and their impact, like veiling... Currently I’m doing research about pious women who decided to deveil in the last couple of years in Turkey and how that is related to the political changes taking place in the country… I’m exploring the relationship between the decision to deveil and the political environment in the country.”

Topal is excited to continue to work on that project, but also already has ideas for future research projects that she could tackle within her field of study. Topal is especially intrigued by the issues of immigration and the experience of building a pious self as an immigrant woman. These issues are topical in the 21st century and Topal is thankful for the College for the opportunity to pursue issues that are relevant today and that she is passionate about. Her research and approach to teaching is proof that Religious Studies is not just about history, but about fostering peace and harmony between people with vast differences in the present.

“I don’t see the study of religion as just limited in this building, just buried in ancient books and texts,” Topal said. “I see it as very contemporary and that’s why I’m also focusing on contemporary religious experiences of actual living people.” Topal is thankful for the opportunity to focus on contemporary issues through the Religious Studies department and to continue to have an impact on students’ lives and the world at large.

“I see this department in that sense as very significant in raising good citizens,” Topal said.

In Spring 2020, Professor Topal will be teaching "Introduction to Islam," and a topics course called "Islam and Secularism."