Dr. Richard Newton is Coming to Tuscaloosa

The Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama is extremely pleased to announce that Dr. Richard Newton will be joining our faculty to begin the 2018-19 academic year.

Richard is currently Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, and received his Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University in 2009.

His research explores how people create “scriptures” and their links to identity formation and the maintenance of cultural boundaries. His current project uses Alex Haley’s Roots as an example of these dynamics — processes that have critical implications for the study of race and religion in the United States.

“A strong commitment to excellent teaching, thought-provoking research, and public-facing scholarship have long made Alabama the program to watch in the field. I’m excited to contribute to the study of religion in culture from Manly Hall,” Newton commented.

Richard will contribute a wide variety of courses to the Department — classes that exemplify the application of social theory to sites from across the study of religion — and his entrepreneurial work using digital/social media, in both his scholarship and teaching, will enhance our own emphasis on these areas, at both the B.A. and M.A. levels.

On the Problem With Reproducing Ourselves

Photo of a man working in a mannequin factory

It’s long past when faculty in doctoral degree-granting schools in our field need to start reconsidering what it is that we’re doing in graduate education.

I’m hardly the first to say that, I know. Continue reading

The New Triple Threat: Programming Omeka

You may have seen this tweet. As part of the Public Humanities and Religious Studies foundations course in our MA program, I collaborated with Sierra Lawson and Emma Gibson and helped to build AARtifacts. The project was built in Omeka and is meant to represent interesting artifacts gathered from people’s experiences of the annual American Academy of Religion (AAR) meeting. So why did we choose to do this project? And how did we make it happen?

We went in knowing two things: the AAR was our case study for the semester and Omeka would be our platform for this particular project. A couple of brainstorming sessions later, we had decided to collect items from the faculty in our own department and create collections based on what we received. Sierra took on the task of trawling YouTube and Vimeo for relevant videos. Emma took the lead on scanning all of the old bulletins of from the academy. I photographed all of the physical items — tote bags and buttons, mainly. Altogether we had more than 100 items to catalogue.

Then came the part that actually involved Omeka. Omeka has a plugin that, ideally, should be able to upload a CSV document and separate your items automatically. This means that instead of entering each of those 100 items by hand, we’d be able to enter them seamlessly from the spreadsheet we had all contributed to. Except it didn’t work.

screen shot of slack conversation

Obviously this was a source of frustration for all of us. We had used the spreadsheet format trusting that it would upload with no or minimal problems. So as Sierra and Emma started entering the items individually (mad props to them for being willing to do that), I went digging. I needed an answer.

The first problem I had to address was that Mike (our professor and the host of the project) would receive a detailed error message and all I got was “Omeka has encountered an error.” After a few clicks and some light googling, I was able to 1) make some files appear in Mike’s file manager that were hidden for the purpose of being more user friendly and 2) fix a line of code that allowed Omeka to read error messages to me. Now I was able to at least find out what the problem was.

After another couple of hours of trying to make the plugin work, failing, digging to find out what the error was, and even more googling — it sounds much more straightforward than it actually was — I found the problem. All I needed to do was enter the right path for the command line in the right line of code of the right file and ta-da it would work. I went back to Mike, let him know, and asked him to find the path I needed to enter. A few days passed (I later found out it was because he was waiting for me to finish my thesis proposal) and he sent me the path. He had already had it for another error he had encountered earlier on in his domain configuration.

I fixed it. I entered the path in the right line of code and it worked! Sierra and Emma had already entered almost 70 of the items and I was able to get the rest in that afternoon. After some tweaking and cleaning up from Mike, we have the project you see now.

So here’s why I bring any of this up in the first place: I had no idea that the one computer science class I took a few years ago as a math major would help me with a project in the humanities in grad school. But it did. I don’t know PHP, but I know the basics of reading code and can identify errors with a little bit of work. Maybe the new triple threat is a student who can not only think critically, but also work collaboratively and fix broken code.

Cross posted on Sarah’s website.

Digital Religious Studies

Photo of old computer punch cards

If you’ve followed our Department then you might know about our new MA, which started this Fall. While it’s focused on helping students develop their social theory skills, it also has a focus on the digital skills that have become increasingly relevant in scholarship — whether to communicate with wider audiences, via a variety of online projects (what might be called the public humanities), or to enhance the traditional research that we do.

That’s why every incoming group of grad students takes two required Fall classes, one on social theory and the other on digital tools. Continue reading

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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