How to Be Curious

Among my courses this Fall semester — starting in a little over a week — is one on theories of religion; in one way or another I’ve taught elements of a course like this many times (in fact, my intro course even touches on some of these topics), but rarely in a seminar devoted to nothing other than attempts to account for why people are religious.

So deciding what to do in the course is always something worth thinking about.
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A Modest Proposal for the AAR’s Guidelines for Evaluating Digital Scholarship

The Sneetches. Do you know the story? Dr. Seuss’ story has stuck with me. Somehow, this is what came to mind when I read through the AAR’s draft guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship. After reading through the draft, I began to wonder whether appending “digital” to the work of a scholar is akin to the differentiation made between Sneetches with or without stars.

In brief: whose scholarship is, today, not imbricated with digital technologies?

The number of scholars who care to remember how scholarship worked whilst writing on a typewriter is fading fast. I would fathom that the vast majority of scholars working on topics relevant to the study of religion are doing so with tools that function via digital information processing. Such doings as noted by the draft guidelines are “to discover, interpret and disseminate information.” I wonder, then, does the term “digital” make a useful distinction for scholars of today and the future? I also wonder what purpose the term serves in the draft AAR guidelines.

The guidelines seek to set about defining digital scholarship in the midst of a broader conversation about scholarly merit. As I read it, “digital” serves to function as a placeholder for “non-traditional” or “unconventional” in the draft guidelines. The terms that are used in the guidelines serve to construct a binary between scholarship that is “collaborative”, “multimodal” and “open-ended” versus scholarship that is “single-author”, “print” and “finished”. I am reading these as background assumptions which make authenticity claims that, I think, add unnecessary noise to discussions about the attributes of scholarship.

The draft guidelines do deploy these triads of terms to offset digital versus non-digital scholarship. I am unsure that scholars of religion would always be pleased to characterize even their single-author work as lacking collaboration and open-endedness. As the acknowledgements in many monographs will show, scholarship typically results from ongoing conversations across a variety of modalities. The guidelines therefore seem to either open with a non sequitur or set up a straw figure to be distanced from the single-author, printed and finished baseline.

The suggestions for the evaluation of so-called digital scholarship likewise seem to me as ones that should be among those applied to all other forms of scholarship. Every scholar should consider what “the medium enables that would not be possible in other formats.” I converted the criteria from the section on design (II.a.3) into point-form in order to consider whether they should be applied to every scholarly production:

  • Clarity and effectiveness of interface design.
  • Ease of identifying and accessing information.
  • Ease of navigating the resources.
  • Adherence to established standards of accessibility.
  • Ease of use for all users.
  • Coherence between the design and the argument of the project.

Any scholarly work that lacks these attributes is probably flawed. Every scholar should be able to articulate why one means of demonstrating scholarship was chosen over and against the other options now available. There must be a thousand ways to explain why someone chose to write a single-author work in print whose argument is considered finished. Why was that mode of dissemination chosen rather than others?

And so I would suggest that these guidelines be pitched as a statement of general expectations rather than simply directing them to those who do “digital” scholarship. Fulfilling these attributes-cum-criteria thereby helps any scholarly production succeed in the parameters of evaluation set forth by the proposed guidelines. In such a case, then, I would suggest that these guidelines be revised to clearly state that the document sets the bar for what is expected of contemporary scholars of religion. Whomever expects to be counted within today’s academia needs to establish capabilities to be conversant in the variety of environments for the production and presentation of their colleague’s scholarship.

My suggestion is to revise these guidelines as a statement on the general professional development of scholars who live in a world where being “computer-savvy” is a basic requirement. I have already suggested something along these lines. So, to turn the guidelines around, let’s ask a different question: who may be excused for limiting their academic literacy to single-author, finished works in print? For that, I think, no academic should be getting a proverbial “star on thars.”

N.B. The entire constituency of the AAR should pay close attention to the sections on “additional evaluative sources” and “promotion and tenure” (e.g. II.c.1 and the fifth and sixth bulleted points of III.b.).

Inventing Something New: A Public Digital Religious Studies

It’s getting closer and closer to a new academic year. This year we’re starting something new in the Department, our MA in Religion in Culture. That means new(ish) students. That means new classes too. I’m excited for the new semester because I get to teach the first version of our MA course REL 502: Public Humanities and Religious Studies. It’s all so new!

But seriously, it’s all so new! It’s not just a new class in a new degree program. The very idea of public humanities or digital humanities or digital public humanities and religious studies is a new one. As Christopher Cantwell and Hussein Rashid observed in their 2015 report Religion, Media, and the Digital Turn, “At the same time that digital scholarship became ascendant within the academy, it also became surprisingly absent from the study of religion.” While other fields, most notably history and literary studies, have developed sophisticated methods and theories surrounding the use of digital technology in research and teaching, religious studies has lagged behind. Likewise, there is a long tradition of “public history” in history departments that train students for work in public institutions like museums or non-profits. It is true that the flagship North American academic society for the study of religion, the American Academy of Religion, has taken an increasing interest in promoting “the public understanding of religion.” But that interest has focused mainly on K-12 education and journalism. No one is taking religious studies straight to the public.

So, out of the swirl of digital humanities, public humanities, and our own department’s interest in social theory, I am trying to spin a new class that will begin to train MA students to do public digital religious studies. Not only that, but in the class itself we’ll be working together to invent “public digital religious studies.” We can look to historians and literary scholars for ideas and examples, we can engage the literature on public humanities, we can look at digital humanities projects, but in the end we are setting off on a brand new path in the study of religion. We’ll also be learning a lot of new practical digital tools and skills with which to build this public digital religious studies. It’s a brand new invention and this new class will be our laboratory. I’m excited to get started.

 

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It’s been a busy summer here…

Summers around Manly Hall are a lot busier than you may think, (and no, we’re not just referring to the heightened squirrel activity). In fact, there’s a lot of hard work that goes into preparing for each Fall semester. So to give you an idea of what our summers are like, we’ve created a short video to sum it up.

Busy Summer… from UA Religious Studies.

(Thanks to our crack movie-making team of Andie and Caity)

Research Suggestions, #48: To Cover or Not to Cover?

Have you been following the new U.S. President’s first overseas trip–including stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Italy…?

Many news sources have commented on the fact that (as evidenced in the above photo), while in Saudi Arabia, Melania Trump, the First Lady, and her step-daughter, Ivanka, did not cover their heads (as is customary for women there) while in Vatican City, when visiting with the Pope, they did. Continue reading