Sabbatical Publications from Prof. Jacobs’ Desk

“Of the making of many books there is no end, and much study is a wearying of the flesh.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12) So says the unknown author of Sefer Kohelet/the Book of Ecclesiastes, though both the Jewish and Christian religious traditions attribute it to Melekh Shlomo/King Solomon in his old age. (They also attribute, without evidence, Shir Ha-Shirim/Song of Songs to his youthful exuberance, and Sefer Mishlei/the Book of Proverbs, again without evidence, to his middle years.  Further complicating this picture, various translational possibilities has been proffered for the book’s unusual title Kohelet:  Preacher, Convoker, Convener, Assembler [this latter based on the Hebrew word kahal/assembly]; we’re simply not sure.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about this—book writing and book publishing and long hours spent in the solitary confines of one’s “study” as the locale where we “house” our never-ending and always-added to collections of books which we deem relevant, important, need to be read/digested/confronted as we pursue the privileged work of the academy. What triggered these and other thoughts were my three current writing projects all under contract at the same time (!) and reflective of my own somewhat diverse but nonetheless connected ongoing research interests. Continue reading

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

Something New From the “Nones” with the Pew Research Center’s Online Survey Results

The Nones are causing “trouble” again, with sensationalized headlines about the decline of Christianity. These takes can easily reinforce the anxiety among some about changes in society and activate nostalgia for some mythic 1950’s America (which was certainly not experienced as peaceful or comfortable by many marginalized groups in the 1950s, or even today). Based on survey data that the Pew Research Center released this week, those who represent themselves as unaffiliated with religion have grown to almost 30% of the US population. This increase (compared to almost 20% unaffiliated in Pew’s 2012 Nones” on the Rise report) coincides with a significant drop in those who identify as Protestant (which in the survey context includes any Christian not affiliating with Catholic, Orthodox, or Mormon identities). Continue reading

January 6, 2021:  Call it Epiphany

picture of crowd gatheredWhat one calls the events that took place in the capital of the nation on January 6, 2021, is a matter of perspective—a viewpoint acquired primarily, I suspect, through the political persuasion of the one giving name to the phenomenon. 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

Can We Analyze Trumpism as a Millenarian Movement?

Trump giving his speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention

Elizabeth Tagg is a graduating senior in the Department of Religious Studies,
writing a thesis on apocalyptic rhetoric in the age of Trump.

Donald Trump built his reputation as a political outsider who could “drain the swamp,” fix a broken system, and make America great again. Indeed, in his 2016 RNC speech, he declared that “[he] alone could fix it.” Many believed him, and many still do. For example, when the pandemic and instructions to quarantine were in full swing, Trump started to frame the coronavirus pandemic as a “great and powerful plague” which had come to destroy the world, but America would rise from this “death and destruction” to become “greater than ever before.” One particular response on Facebook read “God chose you, Mr. President… you are working unto God, not unto men.” The confluence of spiking death tolls and a plague of biblical proportion created a moment of disillusionment where zealotry, and even millenarian thinking, could thrive. Millenarian movements are based on critiques of power culminating in social protests against oppressive systems. In New Heaven New Earth, Professor Kenelm Burridge analyzes millenarian movements, highlighting the ways in which the millenarian critiques initiate a “redemptive process” in which the old moral order is cast off to make way for a new society. At the heart of the millenarian movement is the prophet, whose divine revelations almost always refer to a prosperity and prestige that define the new conditions of being, the new social order.

Could Trumpism be analyzed as a millenarian movement? Can this help us predict the future of Trump’s base, post-Trump? Burridge simplifies the millenarian pattern into three phases which help us to better understand millenarian movements and their application to Trump: feelings of disenfranchisement, battle with oppressors, and triumph of the new order.

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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.

Announcing the 2021 American Examples Participants

American Examples Logo
The Department of Religious Studies is so happy to announce the participants in the 2021 American Examples program. This will be the third year of the program’s history and the second year the program has been funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. This year’s program will be hosted virtually, due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the virtual format, a record number of applications, and a strong applicant pool, we have expanded the program from 9 to 12 participants. We are so excited to see American Examples continue to mentor early-career scholars in research, teaching, and public humanities. Learn more about each of our 2021 participants below:

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