Things You Didn’t Think You’d Learn in Grad School: Coding

Students working in REL 503

Erica Bennett, now in her second and final year of the REL MA, is from Louisiana and earned her undergraduate degree from Millsaps College. Working with Prof. Touna as her supervisor, she is also a T.A. this semester for Prof. Simmons’s REL 100 and Prof. Altman’s research assistant on the American Examples grant. She is interested in studying new religious movements.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that our society revolves around, and cannot function without, technology. From Netflix party hangouts and social media to collaborative online work spaces and daily Zoom meetings, technology seems to have become even more integrated into our daily lives. While people use the internet, websites, apps, and other technologies every day, most do not know how the internet works, that it is physical resource, or that anyone can learn to code or program. One reason I decided to enroll in the Religion in Culture MA program at the University of Alabama was the emphasis on helping students grow their digital humanities skills. Before my first class at UA, I expected to learn skills that would be helpful for digital projects like making podcasts, videos, and websites to distribute my research to a wider public. I did learn those skills (thank you REL 502!) and I get to practice them on a regular basis. What I did not expect to learn, and surprisingly really enjoy, was how to code and program to assist in my research efforts and better understand the digital world we live in. Continue reading

Computational Thinking in the Humanities

Woman in 1955 working at an early, large computer

As previously announced, REL has established its own digital lab (RELdl), directed by Prof. Jeri Wieringa. The lab is an outgrowth of REL’s long investment in integrating computing skills into the life of the Department and its degree programs; among our goals is to see the lab inject energy and expertise into a variety of collaborative research projects and curricular initiatives. Continue reading

Welcome to the REL Digital Lab (RELdl)

Annoucement of the REL Digital Lab on new website.

Visit the RELdl Webpage: http://digitallab.religion.ua.edu/

The new school year has started and the REL Digital Lab is open for business, under the leadership of Prof. Jeri Wieringa.

Visit the new RELdl website to learn more about the Lab and how it will specifically support REL teaching and collaborative research.

Note: the RELdl is not an open lab (i.e., for checking email, writing/printing essays, etc.).

Announcing the RELdl

Late 1950s computing lab

There’s some renovations starting to happen in REL this summer — we’re transforming the Department library into an REL digital lab (RELdl) that Prof. Jeri Wieringa (who joined REL a year ago and who works directly in this area) will direct and under whose auspices all digital work in REL can take place. 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.

Have You Read the Latest Bulletin for the Study of Religion?

Bulletin for the Study of Religion

Prof. Richard Newton introduces us to the latest iteration of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, now a joint collaboration between Equinox Publishing and the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.

Continue reading

Should Your Name Be On Our Mail Boxes?

Main Office Mail Boxes

It’s the time of year when students are considering applying to graduate school, and we hope that those thinking about earning an M.A. in the study of religion consider the University of Alabama.

Our graduate program began four years ago and we’ve so far graduated seven students and they’re all putting their degrees to good use — from doing archival and museum work to studying architecture or earning a Ph.D. in the study of religion elsewhere in the U.S. And, with 9 incoming M.A. students who began their degree this past August, we’ve expanded the main office’s mail boxes, so there’s plenty of room for your name to be added. Continue reading

Q&A with Dr. Lauren Horn Griffin

Lauren Griffin

We’re pleased that we’ve been joined by Dr. Lauren Horn Griffin this year; so we asked her a few questions, about her background and her work.

What was your undergraduate major and what were you thinking, as you came to university, that you’d be doing with that degree?

I was an English Education major. I came to college as a first generation student with no idea what to expect, and I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to complete a degree successfully. I came from a rural, under-resourced public high school, and I didn’t really have the guidance I needed when I got to my large state university. (There are now lots of resources directed specifically at first gen students these days, which is lovely to see!) My parents directed me towards healthcare or education. After taking a few classes meant to introduce people to the healthcare professions, I realized that was a terrible fit for me. So I initially became a Math Education major. But then I took a literature class (on literary criticism) and it changed things for me. At first I hated the lit crit class — unlike math, there was no certainty, no “right” answer (even if you were the author of the piece, apparently!), and no clear application that I could see (“I’m never gonna NEED this,” I complained to my roommates). I got a B- on my first essay exam, which led to some tears. But mid-semester something clicked, and I was able to actually sit with some of the complexity and uncertainty. I took more literature courses after that, and eventually majored in English Education (though I taught both Math and English when I taught high school). Continue reading

REL Adds a New Faculty Member

Lauren Horn Griffin

The Department of Religious Studies is very pleased to announce that Dr. Lauren Horn Griffin is joining the faculty, as a full-time renewable Instructor, for the start of the Fall 2020 semester.

Earning her Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2016, Lauren has worked full-time at the University of Oklahoma since 2016, as a digital learning designer in their Office of Digital Learning while also being a regular lecturer in their Department of Religious Studies. Her research interests include the study of saints and other authoritative figures in Roman Catholic communities and the role they play in the creation of national, ethnic, and cultural identity. Combining this with an expertise in digital humanities, her current research focuses on Catholic material culture in digital spaces, specifically how Catholic history is constructed on social media.

In the Fall 2020 semester Lauren will be teaching REL 105 Honors Introduction to the Study of Religion in the Fall as well as REL 310 REL Goes to the Movies, our regular one credit evening course (repeatable up to three times).

We’re very pleased to have Lauren join the faculty and excited by how her expertise enhances REL’s strength in the study of identity as well as its initiative in the digital humanities.

Because REL was authorized to make this hire at a rather late date,
Lauren will begin her appointment working remotely and so we
look forward to when she is able to join us in Tuscaloosa.

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