HPI welcome: James Lancaster

2 November 2020

James Lancaster, Lecturer in Studies in Western Religious Traditions

A newly appointed lecturer who wants students to recognize the joys of learning.

I grew up in Toronto and I have never been to a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game. The tickets were always sold out in advance, and I preferred the Blue Jays anyway. I would go to baseball games as an undergraduate and buy cheap tickets and expensive but terrible beer. As a kid I remember finding big hills to go tobogganing during Toronto’s snowy winters, and I remember getting the first Playstation and spending hours playing it. I have the Playstation 5 pre-ordered.

I play games and read to unwind. I have a kindle that allows me to separate my academic reading from my personal reading. I like thrillers and science fiction, including Stephen King, who some overlook but who often raises deep issues about the problem of evil. I enjoy classic 20th century Science Fiction like John Wyndham and H. G. Wells, who brought aliens to the English countryside side – the bucolic Cotswolds of all places – doing the kind of stuff that no one had written on yet.  

I really enjoy reading with my kids. I’m enjoying reading the classics to them – Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows – those that I missed reading when I was a kid. With my wife who’s a teacher and enjoys books we’re able to enjoy the experience of reading together with our kids.

I was in a death metal band call “Priestcraft”. I was going to be a musician. I was a terrible student. I did not do well until I was in grade 12, when I took a Classics course and totally fell in love with it. I was fascinated by the ancient world and I decided to work hard, got straight A’s, and got into the University of Toronto to study a double major in Medieval Studies and Religion, with a minor in Philosophy. I have had a somewhat unusual academic path that has eventually led me study intellectual history. I am fascinated by bringing together the histories of religion and science, though I don’t feel like I fit into the field well as my eclectic background doesn’t fit the mould.

My first academic article started from a course that allowed me to choose my own topic and develop something that I found fascinating. The paper did well, I passed the course, and I took it to Oxford and delivered the paper to a small group of encouraging peers who gave me helpful feedback. I submitted it to a journal and they published it.

I wasn’t a model PhD student. I left much of my thesis to the last year and wrote articles instead, cramming in the thesis at the end. It worked well for me though, as it got me my first teaching job at Royal Holloway in London. I would give students the same unorthodox advice, publish early and think outside the box. The academic job market demands a different approach these days.

What do I want my students to get from my teaching? I feel like I’ve succeeded if they get excited about the topic, if they arrive uninterested in religion for whatever reason and they fall in love with what we’re studying. I want them to recognize the joys of learning. Learning to be a critical and reflective thinker also includes being excited about the process and finding joy in encountering new ideas.

Narrative and photo by Ryan Williams