About Nathan Loewen

My primary areas of research and publication focus on globalizing discourses within the philosophy of religion and analyzing the emerging confluence between Religious Studies and Development Studies. A third area of interest is collaborative online learning–how the emphasis on technology in higher education can be directed towards strategies for networked learning.

Podcast Series: Teaching Philosophy of Religion in the 21st Century

image of computer screen with online workshop participants

Can philosophy of religion enter the globalized, 21st-century world? If so, how might the field be taught? Prof. Loewen interviewed participants from a recently-concluded project funded by the Wabash Center, “Teaching Philosophy of Religion Inclusively to Diverse Students”: Jin Y. Park, Kevin Schilbrack, Eric Dickman, Louis Komjathy, and Gereon Kopf. You can listen to the episodes as a series on REL Podcasts or find them on the media page of the Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion website. Continue reading

All ToC and No Action: Feminism in Philosophy of Religion Textbooks

Feminist theory is all but absent from contemporary research in philosophy of religion. Open a textbook from the field and peruse the table of contents (ToC), and you might see “feminism” listed as a chapter or sub-heading. The contents of that chapter will very likely include references to works published squarely within the 1990s by self-identified “feminist philosophers of religion.” * After reading that section of the textbook, readers will ask: “If even one feminist critique is even partly correct, then why does the book read as though the field’s fundamental problems haven’t changed since the 1960s?” The answer may be that current textbook publications in the field are all ToC and no action. Continue reading

RELdl’s Tools Facilitate Better Conversations Virtual Guests: Perhaps “OWL” Being See You at REL?

What is this?

Have you tried using a basic computer web camera to capture conversations with a classroom? Prof. Loewen has experimented with dozens of ultimately unsatisfactory methods since 2009. With the arrival of the REL digital lab in 2021, things have changed. Continue reading

Should I “Public Humanities”? A Process for Thinking about Whether to Get Involved

 

The Event

I recently hosted a two-day workshop with Richard Newton as part of the American Examples project. Our aim was to think about “public humanities” with the 12 participants in the 2021 cohort. The first day’s over-arching question was, “should I “PH?” I thought it might be useful to share the process that guided our session, since others may be asking that question, too.

We planned this workshop with the assumption that none of the participants have a clear idea of what  is meant by public humanities. They are a group of early career scholars of religion in America. Our workshop was one among several aspects of the project, which engages the study of religion in America across the three areas of research, teaching, and public scholarship. American Examples trains and mentors early career scholars to work beyond the boundaries of American religion. Continue reading

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.

Mining Futures for the Philosophy of Religion: What to Do with 80,000 or so Journal Articles

By Nathan Loewen and Jackson Foster

We have some questions. Given its conventional focus on topics and problems specific to Western Christianity, how might the philosophy of religion enter the 21st century, globalized world? How may researchers build bridges from those conventional approaches towards other topics and problems? Steven Dawson’s essay reviews some conventional approaches to answering these questions.

Were it useful to find complimentary research from other (sub)fields, however, how might this be done across thousands of other, specialized publications? Continue reading

7 Things I Learned at HILT for the Digital Study of Religion

view of table with laptop computers

Prof. Nathan Loewen specializes in the philosophy of religion and digital humanities among other things. This summer his research interests are taking him in a new direction at their intersection.   

Last week, I travelled to the 2019 Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching event to learn about text analysis from Katie Rawson. Here are just a few outcomes from those five days. Continue reading

Reading, Writing and… R: How I Began to Study the Philosophy of Religion with Digital Tools

Professor Loewen Presenting to two women with the help of a large digital screen.

Prof. Nathan Loewen specializes in the philosophy of religion and digital humanities among other things. This summer his research interests are taking him in a new direction at their intersection.   

In Fall 2018, I took my research in a new direction. I began learning how to study the philosophy of religion with digital tools. The objective is to determine how to quantitatively test my qualitative argument that the field is historically structured by commitments to theism in ways that challenge its cross-cultural relevance. In the future, I plan to use these tools to locate underutilized opportunities to alter the scope of the field beyond theism. Continue reading

How One Grad’s Tale Begins: from REL to Myanmar to REL to India and then on to Indiana University…

wooden table with a pocket sized world map with coffee mug

Photo by Keyur Hardas on Unsplash

Shelbie Francescon graduated from UA in the Fall of 2018 with a minor in REL and will begin working on her Master’s of Public Affairs at Indiana University in Fall 2019.

I went to Bloomington, Indiana last weekend. If you asked me last August if I knew where I would be this February, the only answer I could give would be “India.” As a graduating senior at UA in the Fall of 2018, I was stressed. I had applied for a Fulbright. I had thought about maybe being a fellow with VIA (Volunteers in Asia) or an English teacher with the Crane House back in my hometown. I had considered applying to law school or graduate school. I had no real clue where I would end up come August of 2019. Continue reading

Pssst! Check this Out: School’s in for Summer!

a street in Bologna Italy

Parker Evans graduated from REL with a BA, in the Spring of 2018, and is currently working on his MA in Gender and Race Studies, here at UA

Coming up on a year ago, shortly after the Department’s Honors Research Symposium, I applied for a couple of summer programs in Europe at the suggestion of Dr. Loewen. He and I had a short conversation in which I told him I was planning on taking a tour of Europe following my graduation. He told me about his experience at UCSIA to let me in on a secret: programs called “summer school” take place all around the world for a concentrated study of specific topics. Several take place in Europe (Hint: in New Zealand and Australia, they are called winter school; e.g. the Center for Humanities Research). Continue reading