Our Pre- & Inter- Pandemic Teaching was Never “Normal” (p.s. nor our post-pandemic teaching, too!)

Two Perspectives

I wish to talk about specific methods I and my colleagues adopted for pre-, inter and post-pandemic teaching.* I come at this with two perspectives:

  1. Teaching – As a freshly-tenured professor of religious studies at a public, R1 university (University of Alabama). My current research coordinates and publishes research with the Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion project.
  2. Administration – As the faculty technology liaison for UA’s college of arts and sciences. I consult 1:1 with faculty on teaching technologies, supervise quality assurance for online course development of all departments’ online courses, participate on campus tech/computing committees, and organize faculty development events. I also moderate the Teaching Hub, a site for faculty voices on teaching and learning.

Pre-pandemic in Alabama, I helped arrange for Todd Taylor and the Adobe team visit our campus on February 7, 2020. They introduced the potential of Creative Cloud for higher-ed to a group of over 200 faculty, staff, and administrators. On March 13, our university president announced suspended on-campus teaching, and on March 17 2020 announced “limited business operations,” requiring remote work for everyone except mission-critical employees. That’s when the inter-pandemic period began.

To be honest, the changes in course delivery and teaching did not substantively circumstances for everyone at UA. In particular, several of my departmental colleagues didn’t experience a radical shift in what we were already doing. I was teaching REL490 “Artificial Intelligence in Religious Studies” in Spring 2020. My last in-person class session established how we would complete the course while dispersed across the country.

Our department didn’t fully realize just how ‘prepared’ we were for inter-pandemic teaching, which we sorted out through the summer. Most everyone at UA made the shift online quite smoothly compared to news I heard from other campuses. UA had already learned some difficult lessons before “2020.”

Academic Continuity Before “2020”

Why were we prepared? Very tragically, Tuscaloosa experienced a devastating tornado  on April 27, 2011. That day in Alabama saw 62 tornados kill 253 people, injure thousands, and destroy many homes. Among them were UA staff, faculty and students. On-campus activities were suspended. All faculty were tasked with finding ways to close out the semester.

Natural disasters are more visible than pandemics. Just a few years prior, UA established shelters and classes for students from institutions affected by Hurricane Katrina. The trauma of 2011 lead to extensive “academic continuity” preparations. IT offices were tasked to continually find ways to harden physical systems, ensure data storage, and enable distributed work. Each college set up planning groups. Since my hiring in 2015, each semester involved college-wide exercises designed to test our capabilities for “suspended operations” (e.g. staff and/or faculty would be required to work off-campus).

Going Public Online Pre-Pandemic

My department was prepared in another way, too. In 2001 our program was declared “non-viable” by its governing body. Religious studies at UA was in trouble. Russell McCutcheon, my department chair, outlines what happened in his article. The department began a process of continually reinventing itself. McCutcheon calls it ‘staying nimble.’ I joined the department long after these ‘staying nimble’ days began. Looking back, my faculty perspective allows me to see how REL’s pre-pandemic strategies came into play inter-pandemic – which is where we are currently. These strategies will continue to be useful strategies for our post-pandemic futures.

As an academic unit, REL’s made a strategic shift to 1) go public online, and 2) use that online public persona to collect and sustain a local community. The rationale was survival. Building a local community by going public speaks to what our discipline has to offer a flagship university.

Going public online developed distributed expertise about online media across the faculty. We did not necessarily develop expertise in LMS/CMS content delivery. Administrators are mistaken to think ‘going online’ means ‘online teaching.’ The desire for another revenue stream obscures taking a broader, long-term perspective. None of our courses are “flipped” in the trendy sense of the word. We apply social theory concretely to our strategy for online presence.

As I understand it, the department’s strategy is to continually develop online presence with a suite of interconnected online platforms (e.g. WordPress sites, Soundcloud, Vimeo, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and most recently, Minecraft).

Presidents hall in minecraft and real life

The objectives are to:

  • attract new students to our courses
  • recruit majors (p.s. few to no students ever declare “religion” majors when applying for college…)
  • highlight student and faculty achievements
  • have fun and develop camaraderie
  • find new ways to “stay nimble”
  • listen for the voices of current students and alumni

The inter-pandemic outcome of going public online was a faculty already working to sustain community through a variety of online environments. Our recent Honors Day video highlights all of the above.

Inter-Pandemic Teaching

The above applied directly to my Fall 2021 course, REL502 “Public Humanities and Religious Studies.” 502 is a microcosm of REL, where students develop their media skills to convey our department’s motto: studying religion in culture.

“…work in the Department highlights the manner in which those behaviors and institutions named as religion are elements of ordinary cultural practices.”

REL courses teach there is no ‘normal.’ Nothing is ‘natural.’ Our students learn how group and social dynamics structure ‘normal’ and ‘natural.’ As McCutcheon says, We Really Can’t Afford to Go Back to Normal. REL502 teaches students this structurally reflexive approach for going public online.

The 502 syllabus is designed to teach attitudes and skills oriented towards public pedagogy. Since 2018, we team-taught 502 using a host of digital mainstays for the course:

  1. A WordPress site hosting the syllabus and course schedule.
  2. Slack channel for inter-session preparation, communications, and debriefing.
  3. Adobe Creative Cloud tools to experiment with a variety of media and platforms (both mobile and desktop apps).

a slack dialogue among students

N.B. Students gave permission for their names and work to be shared from our Slack channel, as well as for the video at the conclusion of this post.

Making the inter-pandemic shift was somewhat simple. Instead of huddling around laptops in a seminar room, I live-streamed, weekly class sessions to demonstrate and workshop through screen-sharing.

Among the mainstays for creating a learning community were the live-streamed sessions and Slack (many of my colleagues had success with Discord, too). I used Slack for:

  • student advice posted on slackPre-class prompts (which ultimately are pre-assignment prompts) to guide the class search for examples to review and thereby assemble our methods for critical evaluation of content, form, and practice.
  • Post-class summaries of what we learned and wish to carry forward.
  • Encouragement, relevant news, and resources for our media experiments.
  • Posting the experiments as links and/or embedded content.
  • Sharing reflections on process and lessons-learned for each experiment.

Our class community is not restricted to “2020.” All four years of class cohorts use the same channel. I encourage each cohort to search back through the channel. I cannot understand the effects of current students seeing previous conversations, experiments, struggles, work-arounds and outcome. And previous students sometimes chime in on the current class to offer encouragement and suggestions.

The Results of “Never Normal” Teaching

Did it work? Yes. From the get-go REL502 – and all my other courses since 2009 – are designed from the principles I once called “effective social learning.” Shifting a course already designed for distributed online collaboration to live-streamed sessions is not logistically difficult (Here’s how a colleague used Github and Discord). The primary liability was the processing power of students’ desktops.

student comment about processing problems

Perhaps the best way to conclude is with a series of snapshots from REL502:

* Parts of this post are adapted from my presentation at the Post-pandemic University conference at the University of Cambridge in October 2020.

Faculty and Staff Honors 2021

Framed buttons from past REL student events

Honors Day, last week, is an annual opportunity not just to celebrate student successes but also to recognize REL faculty and staff accomplishments. But, given our continued concern for hosting in-person events, we again relied on a video, created once again by Prof. Richard Newton (with the help of a variety of faculty), to celebrate another year — one full of challenges, to be sure, but one in which we saw the members of the Department going above and beyond the call of duty.

To begin: little did our new Administrative Secretary, LeCretia Crumpton, know what kind of year was in store for her when, back in mid-March 2020, she arrived from Chemistry and first started working in REL, just as Betty Dickey retired after 32 years in the Department. For within a week Spring break had arrived, but then it was extended and all in-person classes and non-essential university operations were moved to remote status. As organized as the Department tries to be, we certainly didn’t plan on LeCretia working remotely on her own laptop and learning at a distance about everything that it takes to run the Department. (And you’d be surprised by how much that involves.) But, within a week or two, UA’s already busy IT staff got her connected to the main office computer and between behind-the-scenes emails, Zoom meetings, and pretty regular phone calls, the Department’s main office reinvented itself. We’re so pleased with the job she has done, in these very trying circumstances; and so, to mark one year in the position, we thought she now needs to be officially initiated into the group by having her own set of historic buttons (above) from past REL button events, including one of the original “Your Back” buttons and a few, yes, buttons that are buttons. #irony Continue reading

We Really Can’t Afford to Go Back to Normal

Scholars on a panel presenting their work at a conferenceA few weeks ago, after emailing a representative of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), it became apparent to me that the Fall conference-going season in our field will be moving forward as the usual in-person meetings instead of the hybrid format that, in the light of a year living with COVID-19, I had assumed would be offered. It’s now becoming apparent to others as well, with an online petition now circulating, addressed to the leadership of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), framing the lack of a hybrid option as an accessibility issue. While I understand the factors that are cited by these orgs as constraining their ability to be nimble and implement a hybrid option (e.g., from insufficient high speed internet capabilities to conference venue charges for the necessary technology and its support), it seems to me that the issue is far larger than COVID-19 and that we are long overdue for the leadership of these associations to do some creative rethinking about what an academic conference now does and thus how best to offer them in the future.

For, as serious as it is in its own right, the pandemic is really just the most recent reason why this must be done — and done quickly. Continue reading

Careers with Khara — An Annual REL Workshop

Careers workshop in Feb 2018

REL alum, Khara Cole (2013, with a double major in REL and Public Relations), now the Marketing Director at American Exchange (pictured above, left, at our February 2018 workshop) is once again offering a careers workshop for REL students (all majors and minors in the Department as well as grad students) — but it’s virtual this time.

We’ll be talking about preparing a resume and tips on doing a job search & interviewing.

Wednesday, March 24 @ 7:00 p.m.

And we’ll also be talking about the important skills that REL students possess — sure, you know how to study religion but you also know how to work with people who come from different worlds as well as how to describe, compare, explain, and so much more.

All majors, minors, and MA students will
receive the Zoom link via email.

Interested in another REL alum’s take-away when she
participated in one of Khara’s previous workshops?

And what about that time Khara visited the Department back in 2015…?

Announcing the 2021 Day Virtual Lecture: Sporting the Sacred

We invite you to join us on March 10th at 7pm (central) for our annual Day Lecture — which will be a virtual event this year, hosted by Prof. Richard Newton.

Dr. Zachary T. Smith will discuss the academic study of religion and sports, beginning with the question: how can we think beyond the common scholarly (and popular) characterization of sport as some kind of new quasi-religious phenomena of secularized society?

Zach is an Assistant Teaching Professor in Kinesiology, in the School of Behavioral​ Sciences & Education at Penn State University (Harrisburg). He earned his M.A. in Comparative Religion from Western Michigan State University and his Ph.D. in Kinesiology and Sport Studies from the University of Tennessee, writing a dissertation entitled, “For God’s Sake, FIGHT!”: Carnal Ethnography, Christian Mixed Martial Arts, and a Military Definition of Reality. Zach was also a member of the 2020 cohort of REL’s American Examples initiative and, most recently, is the author of the article, “Can Sport be Regarded as ‘Cultural Liturgy’?” in the special issue of Sport in Society (2019) on social scientific perspectives on sports.

Current REL students (minors, majors, and graduate students), alums, and faculty will all receive the Zoom link in your inbox prior to the event.

For off-campus guests who wish to join us, please register at:
https://bit.ly/DayLecture
You will receive the Zoom link via email the day before the event.

Learn more about the annual Day Lecture

 

 

New Titles in REL: Second Virtual Book Event (Zoom)

Join us for another evening of conversation, this time hosted by REL’s own Dr. K. Merinda Simmons and celebrating the recent publication of another new title in REL, Identifying Roots: Alex Haley and the Anthropology of Scriptures, by Dr. Richard Newton.

Due to pandemic protocols, our book events for Spring 2021 are virtual and open to guests both on and off campus.

We invite you to join us virtually, via Zoom, on
February 23, 2021, at 7 p.m. (US central time).

Current REL students (minors, majors, and graduate students), alums, and faculty will all receive the Zoom link in your inbox prior to the event.

For off-campus guests who wish to join us, please register at:
https://bit.ly/IdentifyingRoots
You will receive the Zoom link via email
the day before the event.

Civil Religion or Christian Nationalism?

Image from Jeep commercial, of cross and map of America on the wall of a small chapel

How scholars use categories to name things, and thereby identify those things that deserve our critical attention, has long interested me. And among the things that have caught my attention over the years is the once prominent category “civil religion” — one made famous by the late U.S. sociologist Robert Bellah, drawing on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s much earlier use of the term in his 1762 book, The Social Contract (for e.g., see book 4, chpt. 8; read Bellah’s influential 1967 essay.) I first came to the term in the light of my studies of commentaries on Mircea Eliade’s early political activities in Romania, as a young man between the world wars. I was curious about the lengths to which his contemporary defenders went to protect him from any criticism — such as claiming that Eliade had exhibited what one scholar characterized as mere “patriotic fervor” or even “non-political nationalism” (see Carol Olson’s The Theology and Philosophy of Mircea Eliade [1992], 44-45 — something I discussed in Manufacturing Religion [1997], 90).

Now, those familiar with how “we” are patriots while “they” are nationalists shouldn’t be surprised by any of this, of course, knowing that national alignments and actions with which “we” agree are easily represented as positive and desirable. This suggests that the distinction between patriotism and nationalism is all in the eye of the self-interested beholder.

None of this is new, of course. Continue reading

New Titles in REL: Upcoming Zoom Event

Book cover of Race and New Modernisms

Join us for an evening of conversation hosted by REL’s own Dr. Richard Newton to celebrate the publication of a new title in REL, Race and New Modernisms, co-authored by Dr. K. Merinda Simmons and Dr. James A. Crank (Department of English, University of Alabama) — a book that was a finalist for a 2020 PROSE book award (in the category of Literature).

In past semesters we would have gathered in person at the local bookstore, Ernest & Hadley Booksellers, but pandemic protocols now require a different approach. As a result, our book events for Spring 2021 will be held virtually and are open to guests both on and off campus.

So join us virtually, via Zoom, on January 26, 2021, at 7 p.m. (US central time).

Current REL students (minors, majors, and graduate students), alums, and faculty will all receive the Zoom link in your inbox prior to the event.

For off-campus guests who wish to join us, please register at:
http://bit.ly/RaceAndNewModernisms
You will receive the Zoom link via email
the day before the event.

Your Sun Bread, Yourself

baked sun bread beside the book Sun Bread, by Elisa Klaven

Every year my kids and I make Sun Bread to commemorate the winter solstice. I got this idea from the place where modern momming dwells: Instagram. My kids (by chance) went to a Waldorf preschool which focuses, among other things, on reinforcing the children’s identification with nature and spending the majority of time outside regardless of weather (born in Germany, Waldorf schools take seriously the German saying “there is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing”). The year is built around seasonal festivals that draw from a variety of traditions (including Anthroposophy, the esoteric philosophy of the founder, Rudolph Steiner, but that’s a whole other can of worms). Continue reading