Welcome Back 2018, Part 1

The new semester is almost here and you know what that means…

Welcome back videos! (Yes, that’s a plural.)

We had a busy summer, getting ready for a new school year. There’s been a few changes and a few adjustments — our eye’s always on the details.

We hope you too had a great summer and are all set
for another school year to start.

Welcome Back: Tidying Up from UA Religious Studies.

Taco Insights on Faculty Service

With the start of another school year right around the corner I’m thinking about service — one of those three main areas into which scholars usually divide up their work (the others being research and teaching, of course — and the order in which they’re written is not insignificant). It’s not hard to find faculty posting on social media bemoaning committee work, as if it gets in the way of a professor’s real work, but I’m here to say how important it is to the long term well-being of a Department — the primary unit that helps to make possible those individual careers. Continue reading

Voyant Tools on the REL Blog: Isn’t this Ex-Site-ing?

Voyant Tools allows you to read web pages. Voyant helps you do analysis of sites, too. The kind of reading done by Voyant might be called “scraping,” which covers activities such as text analysis, statistical analysis and data mining. In order words, Voyant may help you pull things out from a site more quickly than you would by spending days reading hundreds of web pages associated with a particular URL.

The graduate students who take REL 502 at the Department likely hear about it from Dr. Altman and use Voyant before their semesters end. I was reminded of this powerful tool during a workshop at the 2018 Digital Pedagogy Lab. The facilitator, Lee Skallerup-Bessette, used Voyant to analyse the data provided to her by the participants during registration. All she did was present a word cloud. Continue reading

Publication News

We just got word that a paper co-written by Sierra Lawson (entering the second year of her M.A. in our Department) and Prof. Steven Ramey has been accepted to be published in the coming year in UK peer review journal Culture & Religion.

What’s it on?

Sourcing Stereotypes: Constructing and Challenging Simplified Knowledge

Abstract

The social media uproar in Fall 2017 over a nursing textbook chart that presented generalized characterizations of minority groups generated an assumption that medical training needs more Religious Studies expertise. Analyzing the sources that the chart cited, we trace the authors’ assertions to studies of varying quality and identify several specific processes involved in simplifying knowledge for dissemination, as the authors disregarded the limits of each specific study and ignored counter-evidence or otherwise evaded critical scrutiny. Comparing this example to examples from world religions discourse illustrates both differences and similarities in the process of constructing simplified presentations. While both presumably developed out of good intentions, they generate significant problems in their effort to shape material to support larger arguments. Thus, scholars across disciplines should critique and complicate their own processes for generating simplified knowledge.

 

The World Cup and a Grandmother’s Blessing

Sierra Lawson is an M.A. student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama; you can visit her website here.

The World Cup has been a heavily anticipated sporting event for many countries since the 1930s, representing one of those phenomenon that invite communities to abandon divisive tension in favor of coming together to cheer on the team representing their country. From Mexico to Iran and Morocco, and now even to the United States (whose team failed to qualify for this year’s tournament), families come together, huddled intimately around their television sets while someone else peers up at a large screen in a pub, surrounded only by the dull buzz of strangers also watching, each with a fermented drink of choice.

One sporting fan happened to catch my attention this season, a grandmother in a Mexican household who stood in front of her television before the Germany v. Mexico game kicked off and blessed every member of Mexico’s male soccer team as the camera focused in on each of their faces during the national anthem. She even made sure to bless the goalie twice, you know, just to be absolutely sure! The video, a screenshot of which is featured above, was widely circulated on social media the other day, with many proclaiming that there is nothing more precious or pure than a grandma’s blessing.

I have to wonder, would a scholar of Latin American religion classify this video as an example of “religious devotion” or treat it as a silly anomaly to be excluded from the archive? In my experience, traditionally Catholic devotees often get overrepresented in scholarship while individuals who demonstrate devotion in nontraditional ways, such as this grandmother blessing players on her television, are left out of the record because their actions are not really religious. Yet, I’m not sure where we are demarcating really religious behavior from not really religious behavior, because such scholars hardly ever reveal what they mean by ‘religion’ and, thus, a reader is unable to imagine a spectrum of what qualifies as religious.

It seems that many scholars are quick to ignore devotional behavior that does not fit within their definition of religion, without ever realizing that they do not even have one, which means that examples such as this grandmother become marginalized, inspiring only a chuckle in most viewers, without any explanation as to why.

How to Make More from More? the Large Conference Loner Challenge

“Less is better” is a dictum that doesn’t just haunt Matt Sheedy. I feel as though that spectral proverb from J.Z. Smith may apply as much to conferences as the classroom. The phrase resonates with my cultural heritage, too.  There’s a cookbook title, famous among certain generations of Mennonites, that encapsulates the bent of that culture: “More-with-Less.”

Conferences come in a variety of sizes. Some are attended in the dozens to hundreds whereas others tip past the thousands. Each conference ranges between more and less in a variety of ways, but it seems to me that Smith’s pedagogy and my cultural heritage converge on the direct correlation between attendance and outcomes. The more the people, the less I appreciate the conference.

What follows is not theorizing that supports the claim, but anecdotal evidence accompanied by some ideas for action. Continue reading