Professor Tuula Sakaranaho: Cultural studies requires a long view

Tuula Sakaranaho stepped down as vice-dean of education at the beginning of the year. This autumn, she will retire as professor of the study of religions.

“The purpose of research is not just to respond to social demands and topical issues, but to also look to history. This will give us the perspective to be able to tell what is new and what is not,” says Professor Tuula Sakaranaho.

Our memory is often quite short, particularly when it comes to researching contemporary issues. According to Sakaranaho, the idea that intercultural interaction or minorities in our societies are new phenomena is an illusion. She is worried about the impact of such short-sightedness around Europe, as it can lead to a narrower field of cultural studies.

“Emphasising benefits and economic aspects alone is not good for cultural studies.”

Focusing on Turkey

As a discipline, the study of religions is part of both the Faculty of Theology and the Faculty of Arts. Sakaranaho believes that she has benefited from studies at both faculties. She completed both her bachelor’s and master’s theses on themes relating to Turkey, and continued on similar topics in her doctoral thesis.

“I worked as a doctoral student at the Department of Asian and African Languages and Cultures in the early 1990s. For my licentiate thesis, I went to Istanbul to interview Turkish Muslims, secularists and feminist women on issues relating to the position of women.”

Istanbul University had established a centre for women’s studies in the early 1990s, and Sakaranaho got to visit the new unit. Social status had a clear impact on the position of women in Turkey: an educated city-dweller was in a different position than a rural woman. The interviewees were pressing for various equality amendments to legislation, such as equal rights for both spouses to own property.

Upcoming review of teaching Islam

After her doctoral thesis, Sakaranaho went on to study Islam in Europe. She focused on Finland and the Republic of Ireland, both of which have historically been countries of emigration and have only relatively recently begun to receive large numbers of immigrants. Both also have small but very heterogenous Muslim populations.

“I’m particularly interested in the freedom of religion in a multicultural society: how far do we extend this freedom and whose rights does it protect? For example, teaching religion in schools seems very different from the perspective of the majority and the minority.”

The question of how Islam in particular is being taught in schools is hotly debated in many parts of Europe, and Finland is no exception. Sakaranaho has studied the issue for many years.

“My latest publication, coauthored with Inkeri Rissanen, is a review of how Islam is taught in Finland. It will be released this year as part of a book discussing the teaching of Islam in European countries.”

Sakaranaho received the medal of Knight, First Class, of the Order of the White Rose of Finland last December as recognition for her long career.

Theological research increases understanding of religions

Religion has always had great significance in society and global politics. Sakaranaho points to two major negative developments: the polarisation of political opinion and the increase in social inequality.

“They lead to marginalisation, impede the integration of immigrants and create a foundation for radicalisation and extremism.”

Theological research can increase understanding of how religion is linked to both the creation of conflicts and their resolution.

“We have research data on how religious organisations support welfare services as well as on the ethical issues in society, interfaith interaction and the diversity of beliefs.”

Sakaranaho heads the Uskontolukutaito (‘religious literacy’) project, funded by the Finnish Cultural Foundation, which aims to increase information, as well as understanding and sensitivity towards different perspectives relating to religions and beliefs. The website is on the same mission, with easy-to-read analyses of topical issues surrounding beliefs. Sakaranaho also emphasises the significance of cooperation with teachers.

Teaching development is interesting

Sakaranaho’s term as vice-dean of teaching expanded her perspective on how the Faculty and University operate.

“Our dean and vice-deans cooperated very well. I also got to cooperate with programme directors and academic administration specialists, which was very rewarding.”

In Sakaranaho’s experience, the amount of administrative work required of teachers has grown exponentially in recent decades. 

“Now teachers have to teach and research while staying abreast of development projects at the University or faculty, which can extend from upper secondary school cooperation to the rapid completion of degrees and career monitoring of graduates.” Measuring and reporting take time away from the actual work of teachers. When the work is fragmented and there is too much of it, teachers lose their work motivation.

Sakaranaho’s coping strategy has been to keep weekends free and to take a long summer vacation. This has not always been possible.

“There’s always a tempting offer in the research community. I should learn to say no.”

More hybrid teaching in the future

The spring term 2020, dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, was difficult. Sakaranaho remembers constant meetings, waiting for guidelines, thinking about what instructions to send out and worrying about whether the IT systems could handle the load.

“Teachers were surprisingly adept at shifting to remote teaching. Entrance examinations were redesigned by an extremely skilled team. Personally, I ran a master’s thesis seminar on Zoom and WhatsApp.”

Sakaranaho believes that the changes are here to stay. For some, remote studies can mean added flexibility, while for others they are a struggle. The situation forces teachers to rethink their teaching methods.

“Starting studies remotely in particular makes it very difficult for students to feel part of a team. But human interaction is crucial for studies.”

Writing and supervision continue

Sakaranaho is delighted that she can keep the best parts of her job even after retirement.

“I will continue to supervise my doctoral students with an emerita contract. I’m also launching a study on Roman Catholicism in Ireland. This topic is near to my heart as my spouse is from Ireland and I have been making yearly trips to Ireland since the 1980s. We speak Irish at home, which means that I can take advantage of both English and Irish materials in my research.”

During retirement, Sakaranaho will also have more time for her hobbies: photography, singing and exercise.

“I’m a member of Ryhmä10, a group of hobbyist photographers. We’ve already had five group exhibitions. And once the pandemic is over, I will be able to return to the chamber choir of the Music Society of the University of Helsinki.”

Sakaranaho has already decided how she would like to celebrate her retirement.

“A summer garden party in the courtyard of Topelia.”