Conference Time

Well, it’s that time of year again — when many of the REL faculty head off to attend annual scholarly meetings, to read papers or respond at panels where new work in the field is being presented or reviewed. They’ll also be meeting with publishers, hatching plans with collaborators and co-editors, getting lost in the surprisingly large book display, and generally trying to figure out a good place to meet someone for dinner, just as several thousand other people also head off to eat.

You can get the mobile app if you want to see the program (and see who, among the REL faculty, are presenting) or follow #aarsbl2017 or #naasr2017 on Twitter. The conference runs from this Friday to Monday.

And it’s is in Boston this year (and then Denver in 2018), so members of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, along with a variety of smaller academic societies (such as the North American Association for the Study of Religion) will soon be boarding jets and heading to Bean Town.

A Student Report from WordCamp Birmingham

WP y'all graphic

This past weekend (October 21-22), I attended the annual WordPress conference in Birmingham, Alabama: WordCamp Birmingham. You may be asking: If she’s in an MA program for Religion in Culture, why does she need to go to a WordPress conference? An important aspect of the program is a focus on digital and public humanities — how we convey our research through digital media and to unconventional audiences. Part of that focus results in developing digital skills like WordPress to present our ideas and ourselves professionally to the general public. In fact, building a WordPress site was the first project we tackled in REL 502: Public Humanities and Religious Studies.

The conference was set up to serve all levels of experience ranging from complete newbies to experienced programmers. It was designed with three types of sessions going on at once all day long: blogger, business, and developer. Within each room, there was a flow to the sessions that would aid people who went for only one of the tracks, but we were encouraged to jump around to whatever felt appropriate for our individual needs. I dabbled around in each of the categories, discovering that most of the newbie stuff I had down (even though I still can’t seem to figure out how to make comments work properly on my own site) and the vast majority of the programer/developer side of things went way over my head. As far as the business sessions? I only went to one because the rest really didn’t seem that applicable to me, at least in this stage of my online presence.

The regular sessions went from 9:00am to 4:30pm on Saturday. On Sunday, two workshop sessions were offered in the afternoon. Again, three choices were given for each and everyone was encourage to attend the one most appropriate for their needs. These workshops were less geared toward the three categories set out on Saturday. Instead, they offered ways to make everything we had learned the day before applicable to our own sites. In addition to the sessions and workshops, WordCamp offered a “Happiness Bar” where you could go at any time and get individual help with anything that you might be struggling with on your site. And of course, no conference would be complete without t-shirts, free stuff (stickers, pens, more t-shirts, etc.), food (lunch from McAllister’s, Frios Gourmet Pops, Margarita Grill), and prizes (I won a year of free hosting from Known Host).

My notes from this conference go on for more than 10 typed pages and I now have an incredibly long list of things to do based on what I learned. Here’s a taste:

  1. Explore ways to fix my comments problem
  2. Make my site accessible to individuals with disabilities
  3. Research things like: Jetpack, See Jane Write, and SEO
  4. Set up Google Analytics and Google Search Console for my site
  5. Consider participating in #bloglikecrazy this November

Of course, this list goes on and I’m sure I’ll be adding more as I become more aware of and acquainted with WordPress. For now, I’ve got plenty to digest. I learned what’s behind the screen of domain registration, what task runners were, methods to connect with an audience, how to rebrand when necessary, why SEO matters, and many more aspects of using WordPress.

WordCamp is definitely the kind of conference you could attend over and over again and always learn new things. And because there are conferences in several major cities throughout the year, there’s almost always one happening soon fairly nearby. I, for one, plan on going to the one in Birmingham again, and maybe even WordCamp Atlanta in April if I need a refresher before then.

Beyond gaining skills for my personal site, this conference helped me to explore questions about the more technical side of what a digital religious studies could look like. There are odd tidbits that will help along the way (like making sure that image has alt-text). But there are also larger themes that are still stewing in my brain. The next project we tackled in 502, Omeka, operates in a similar manner to WordPress and can work alongside it. As it turns out, WordPress can be used for so much more than just blogging.

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“Yes, and I’ve Met His Dog”: A Student Report from the Regional AAR

Parker Evans is junior studying English and Religious Studies. He spends most of his time drinking coffee and making reading lists when he should be reading.

The regional AAR, or SECSOR, was a fantastic chance for a professionalizing experience. Sierra Lawson, another REL major, and I arrived late in the afternoon, and between checking into the hotel and presenting my paper, I had just enough time to change clothes from my flight and eat dinner. I was the first presenter on the first undergraduate panel, but this was actually a relief. Once I gave my paper, I was free to sit back and explore the conference. The presentation itself was painless and even a little gratifying. I don’t consider myself afraid of public speaking, but I was a little anxious about how it would go over. Since there were other panels going on simultaneously, the nine or ten audience members who had chosen to come to the undergraduate panel were almost exclusively undergrads themselves. Our panel was loosely organized around our paper topics covering a range of subjects from my own paper on Heidegger to Orientalist travelogues to the effect of psychedelics on “spiritual” experiences to a close reading of a passage in the New Testament book of Hebrews. The audience members were very receptive to our papers, and we each received a couple of questions.

Just from the range of undergraduate paper topics, it was clear that this conference was not just gathered under the banner of Religious Studies. After my panel, Sierra, Dr. Finnegan and I attended the pre-reception event, which consisted of two short papers, one from a member of the American Academy of Religion and one from a member of the Society of Biblical Literature. For a field built on the colonial Christian enterprise of cataloging “religious” traditions, it was clear that the associations of the AAR still skew towards its roots. Both presenters were engaging, and they had an interesting conversation after their talks, but it was apparent that a Christian hermeneutic tradition still pulls at the academic study of religion. Along with the speaker from the SBL, several papers given at panels I attended were direct hermeneutic approaches to Christian scripture (although I understand that several papers were given on Islamic theology as well). By virtue of sharing a conference with the SBL, the AAR maintains a serious imbalance between its relationship with Christian academics and academic groups representing any other religious tradition, without even getting into the question of whether such a relationship should exist.

With that said, I had many interesting conversations with professors and students. On Sunday I had breakfast (out of coincidence) with a professor whose panel on ethics I attended on Saturday. Her paper focused on a study she did with her students in which she had them practice techniques analogous to Buddhist mindfulness practices. I found it extremely interesting that she had the students define religion before and after engaging in these techniques, and after engaging in them, the percentage of students who included practice (as opposed to, or in conjunction with belief) in their definition of religion doubled. We had an excellent chat about methodology and how to approach teaching the study of religion.

In addition to the ethics panel, I went to a panel on the philosophy of religion as well as another undergraduate panel. The papers on the undergraduate panel ranged from the relationship between “religiosity” and the sex lives of young Latinas in a community outside Raleigh to the long-lasting effects of the British colonial classification of a group of devotees as prostitutes. All the members of the panel did extensive research within the communities they discussed, and the resulting papers were impressive.

I was told before going to SECSOR that, as a student from the University of Alabama, I was marked by my association with Dr. McCutcheon. It was amusing how quickly I found this to be true. Several times, other students would say something along the lines of “Oh, you know Dr. McCutcheon?” to which I usually responded, “Yes, and I’ve met his dog.” Some professors took digs at a McCutcheon-y figure when discussing the direction of the field, while others would name-drop him to represent a vague counterpoint to which they were responding. (I am currently theorizing the phenomenon of the straw-McCutcheon argument.) But on the whole, our department received high praise whenever I mentioned it, and I was able to get a sense of where we reside in the larger field. The conference has given me a much better understanding of where my interests can expand within the field and how I can situate them within existing bodies of research. I’m already looking forward to Atlanta next March.

Welcome to Atlanta…

drivingMany of the faculty in REL are soon hitting the road, heading east to Atlanta, to attend the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) — our main professional association here in the US. While our southeast region also meets in Atlanta (in the Spring), this is the national meeting, which takes place each November, and attracts thousands of scholars from around the world.REL

A lot of things happen at these meetings — some of the faculty are presenting their research while others are running workshops, serving on committees, and meeting with colleagues and publishers concerning projects they’re either working on hatching.

So, come this weekend, look for a few updates on our Twitter and Instagram pages.

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