Amanda Gvozden (she/her)
JD-PhD Candidate in Religious Studies
Amanda Gvozden is a JD-PhD candidate in Religious Studies in a dual degree program within the Pritzker School of Law and the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Her research lies at the intersection of religious ethics, law, and gender. Amanda’s current project focuses on an exploration of the American death penalty through the lens of gender studies, ritual studies, and literary studies. She was awarded a Northwestern Legal Studies Graduate Teaching Fellowship.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
By applying a ritual studies perspective developed through and in conversation with seminal religious studies scholars and texts, my research attempts to understand the death penalty as a symbolic system of social management. I study patterns in the application, motivation, and meaning of the death penalty that illuminate what it does in and to our society beyond executions. The death penalty is not simply a neutral, natural mechanism for managing laws and bodies, but instead a “death ritual” that signifies and structures our society. The death penalty does not merely exist sui generis in the American legal system. It was developed, deployed, and redeveloped over time in response to socio-cultural changes and socio-political objectives. My contention is that we can only understand the deeper meaning and function of the death penalty if we approach it as a ritual and view it through a functionalist lens.
Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
My interest in the death penalty is certainly not novel. Indeed, no one is neutral about the death penalty. When asked in a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center, only 1% of those surveyed responded with a neutral, middle position regarding the death penalty, so it is no surprise that much has been written on this polarizing and provocative subject. Yet despite the diverse set of strongly held perspectives on the death penalty, the literature exploring this provocative subject has been methodologically limited.
To this point, much of the literature examining state executions comes from legal scholars, which seems intuitive and reasonable. Considering the death penalty is a distinctive feature of the American criminal legal system—and that it is the law that authorizes such state-sanctioned killing—analyzing this legal institution through a legal lens makes sense. However, it is often a set of outside eyes that can stir up stale conversations and see what has otherwise remained hidden or taken for granted.
In recent years, the field of interlocutors has expanded, and new perspectives are emerging from the minds and methodologies of sociologists, historians, philosophers, religious ethicists, ethnic and racial studies scholars, and experts in other related fields. Nonetheless, few religious studies scholars have entered the conversation. This is striking considering that the subject and administration of death has long been associated with religious reasoning and rites. My research attempts to change that.
Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?
I am more naturally a reader and writer of prose. Academia and law are fields highly indebted to the work of creative writers, and I have profound respect for writers, inside and outside of my field, who have integrated prose into their work, created opportunities for others to do so, and advanced the work of creatives inside and outside of the academy. I respect writers whose work makes us not only think but feel deeply and who present novel ideas in such a way that we find ourselves nodding along in agreement as though the concept were born from inside our own brains. Rather than serve as the originator of a concept, the author serves as excavator of an idea that we had buried inside us all along.
I knew after a brief experience taking some law courses during my MA studies that I wanted to go to law school. I loved the way that students learning to become lawyers thought and spoke, navigated ideas, and engaged in intellectual empathy to strengthen their own arguments and understand those of their interlocutors. It's a skill academics across fields share, but I was amazed and inspired by the oral tradition and the performative aspects of the legal profession that are rare to find in other fields.
So for the sake of personal curiosity—as well as for the integrity of my project, which, then as now, relied heavily on access to legal research and legal logics—I knew that I wanted to supplement my PhD training with legal training that only a JD/PhD could offer. And while there are other JD/PhD programs offered at other universities across the country, none are as flexible and integrated as the JD/PhD at Northwestern.
My access to excellent training, exceptional educators, and engaging material would be unchanged no matter what program I attended. But at Northwestern, I had the opportunity to carve my own research path, explore my own interests, practice the skills required of both professions, and learn to read, write, and think both as a scholar and a lawyer, all on a timeline that provided enough structure and flexibility that I felt at once secure in the knowledge that I would be gently pushed and guided to finish while also being left to explore and meander my way down the path to completion. Those offerings and experiences were unique to Northwestern, and that's why I came here.
What books are on your bedside table?
Because the texts for my research tend to be quite heavy, I try to keep a mix of lighter fare at my bedside table so that—regardless of what I am drawn to, depending on my mood, curiosity, or level of exhaustion that night—whatever I choose will somehow serve me well. So right now, I am in the middle of reading several different things: The Overstory by Richard Powers, Investigations of a Dog by Franz Kafka, Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, All Fires the Fire by Julio Cortázar, and The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow. I've found that it's a great strategy to avoid boredom but not so great for keeping plot lines straight!
What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
You have written a paper before. You have good ideas. Writing your dissertation, doing your research, presenting at conferences, publishing in journals—none of it at heart is about proving that you are capable. You are capable. You are here. You are doing it. That is enough. Do what you are drawn to. Do it in a way that makes sense to you, and do it on your timeline.
The currency of this enterprise is expressing interesting ideas in interesting ways. Trying to fit into a predefined pattern of working, thinking, and speaking defeats the purpose. Trust the process and trust yourself. The people who brought you and got you to this place trusted that you could pull this off and contribute something unique and original based on everything you've done up to this point—just the way that you've done it. Keep doing it! Stay true to yourself and your process. The way your colleagues think, work, speak, read, and write is right for them. It might not be for you. Take inspiration from the places you can. Let it motivate you. What you bring to the table is enough. Trust that.
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
That I'm still at it! Despite all of the twists and turns, all of the challenges, changes, and uncertainty, I have stuck it out and am still here. Doing a dual degree demands that you split your brain. You are one person in one program and another in the other. From the way you read, write, and research to the way you speak and socialize, you are now a person of at least two minds. It is difficult and disorienting. It makes for what can, at times, be both an overwhelming and isolating experience. You are now at least two people and both of you are eminently alone.
But that solitude provides an opportunity for silent self-reflection and growth. And with the right support, either inside or outside of the program, it provides an opportunity to learn about who you are at your core, what binds this bifurcated self together, and what your values are, no matter what physical or intellectual space you find yourself in.
My education during the JD/PhD has been as much about my dissertation and discipline as it has been about myself, and many times the latter has been more challenging. But while I am proud of how much I have learned about religious studies, law, and my specific areas of interest in the field, I am even more proud of what I have learned about myself as a student, scholar, and person. Those lessons will last me a lifetime and help me stay centered, no matter where I find myself.
Published: March 21, 2023
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