Fresh Faculty: Rebecca Stephens Falcasantos

Rebecca Stephens Falcasantos is an assistant professor of religion. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Creighton University, a master’s from the University of Notre Dame and a Ph.D. from Brown University.

Q: What inspired you to become a scholar of religion?

A: When I started college, I thought I was going to be a math major. And then I took an anthropology course, which got me really interested in the way that different people and different groups act and behave. And, so, I toyed with the idea of [majoring in] anthropology for a while, but then I ended up taking the hardest courses — the ones that I couldn’t figure out — as my major, and that was theology and Greek. But the interest in anthropology and sociology kind of filtered through all of that, and I came more and more to be thinking about religion from a more anthropological and sociological standpoint.

Q: Why did you choose to teach at Amherst?

A: I was incredibly impressed with how insightful the students were here. When I came to visit on my campus interview, they asked such interesting questions, the types of questions that I’m particularly interested in.

Q: What courses are you teaching this semester, and do you have any plans for courses you want to teach in the future?

A: This semester, I’m teaching a course [called] “Becoming Christian in the Ancient World,” which looks at the way that people perform their identity and how the Roman Empire transitioned into a Christian empire. Then the other course I’m teaching is “Religion and Violence in the Roman Empire,” and that looks at different manifestations of religious violence, especially during a transition period from a traditional Roman Empire to a very Christian empire. [As for] courses for next semester, I’m teaching “What is Religion Anyway?” with Professor [of Religion Andrew] Dole, and then I’m also teaching a course on women and religion in the ancient world. So we’ll look at women’s participation in religious practices from classical Athens through [the] 5th century, C.E.

Q: What are some of the key questions that you hope your courses engage with?

A: One of the key questions that I want my students to think about is, why do people behave the way they do? What makes them do some counterintuitive things because of the way they are identifying with a particular group of people? And so, then how do divisions between groups happen when everything looks like there should not be divisions? That’s one of the things that I’m interested in, and that I want the students to really think about, not only in the ancient world but [also] how they can apply that to things around them. Also, I really want them to think about how change happens. There’s a narrative that change is pretty self-evident [that arises] when we’re looking backwards, but I want them to know how messy change is in the process, and how unpredictable it is.

Q: What challenges have come with teaching your first semester here during a pandemic?

A: Not being in the classroom with the students has been really challenging. I like the interaction in the classroom, [and] there’s a lot of things we can do in person that’s really hard to do online. And the isolation has been really hard, and I think it’s been hard for the students too. So, everyone’s feeling it.

Q: Has your work in any way informed how you think about events in current times?

A: Yes. Very simply, yes. One of the things that I think about is the way that discourses about the past are shaping the way people are lining up, and how those narratives are — I’m going to use the word “manipulated.” I don’t mean that in a negative way at all — but the way that different people manipulate the past in order to convince people that they belong to one group or another. So that definitely shapes the way that I’m seeing particular constellations of rhetoric from groups — political parties, ethnic groups, religious groups, things like that. [I’m] also thinking about the way that human bodies in physical spaces do interesting social things, like if you are at a protest, people in the protest get a sense of what a group is, even if individuals within the group might have their own particular ideas about what’s going on. But the perception of what’s going on in that group has a lot of weight, and so that definitely has been [how] the way I’m thinking about ritual of the past makes me think about what’s going on in the space of, say, a protest.

Q: What specifically are you currently doing research on?

A: I’m currently researching the transmission of historical narratives of violence from the ancient world into the present. So I recently finished an article on alt-right uses of one of my historical sources for anti-Jewish purposes. And so I’m looking at different ways in which those narratives of violence from the past are being re-deployed in the current period.

Q: When you’re not teaching or researching, how do you enjoy spending your spare time?

A: I’ve been doing a lot of hiking since I’ve gotten here. I’ve gone up to Mount Holyoke and to Mount Norwottuck a couple of times. And I’ve been enjoying the farmer’s markets. It’s great produce, probably the best produce I’ve had in awhile.

Q: Is there anything in particular that you’ve found comfort in during this time of uncertainty?

A: I think some of the things I’ve found comforting are the questions that the students are asking, and the connections that they are making, and the insights that they are providing. Incredibly insightful students, and I’m greatly heartened to think about the direction that the nation’s going because of students like those at Amherst.