The REL Journal Group: Durkheim and Data Edition

The following exchange between Prof. Mike Altman and Sarah Griswold, a student in our MA program, reflects on the recent meeting of the journal reading group, part of our Religion in Culture MA.

Mike Altman: Sarah, for our first journal reading group you chose the article “Durkheim with Data: The Databse of Religious History” from a recent issue of JAAR. What’s the gist of the article and why did you think we should read it in our group of MA students and faculty?

Sarah Griswold: The article is basically an introduction (and justification) for the Database of Religious History. This database is meant to serve two purposes: to be a database for “religious groups” in the premodern world and to provide evidence for a theory of religious evolution. In effect, the database tries to play both fields of holding and providing both quantitative and qualitative data. The article mostly reads as an attempt to draw more scholars in in order to add data to the database.

As far as why I thought we should read it, there were a few reasons. First, as someone with a background in both the humanities and math, I think understanding how and why qualitative data is quantified is really important to understanding and critiquing the purpose and use of databases like this one. Second, as the humanities (and particularly religious studies) moves more and more towards digital projects, we need to be aware of what’s out there so we can emulate what is done well and improve on what is lacking. Finally, the article also offers us insight into the theoretical workings of the project itself. Although titled “Durkheim with Data,” it seemed as though the creators of this project have not critically considered or defined the very categories they have opted to work within, making the move from qualitative to quantitative data suspect. That, I think, can be quite telling of the ultimate success or failure of a project of this size.

MA: As a student in this new MA program that has an emphasis on digital and public humanities what can you learn from this article and what can we as a program learn?

SG: Personally, this article reinforced the importance of thinking through the categories you use when quantifying data. It can be easy to point to something you “know” is religion and label it as such without thinking about why you’ve decided on that label in the first place. It’s also interesting to think about the collaboration across disciplines that these projects require. It would be impossible for one or two scholars to gain all the skills needed to make these things even work. It turns out that group projects exist in real life too and not just in school.

As a program, I think the biggest take away is to pay attention to the developments of these projects. Because the DRH has a capacity to refine their methods, I don’t think they should be entirely dismissed as uncritical. There are positive and negative take aways from critically examining any digital project. Learning more about digital projects and examining their goals and functions can and will tell us a lot about how to move forward in our own individual and collaborative projects.

“What Do I Talk About At the Job Interview?”

Photo of a job interview

I’ve written a number of blog posts over the years about the skills that students in the academic study of religion acquire. It’s worth thinking about because too many people seem focused only on the content of an undergrad degree, assuming that the thing that you study is the thing that you’ll do.

It’s an effect of the longstanding professionalization of the university, of course (whereby specialties once reserved for separate, two-year colleges or tech schools moved into the university and became degree programs, thereby lending undergrad the feel of job training), with a big dollop of the 2008 financial/housing/job market collapse thrown in for good measure. Add to this declining state support for public universities (whereby a significant portion of the costs of higher ed have been transferred from state coffers to individuals’/families’ bank accounts) and you understandably arrive at a situation where many have trouble understanding doing an undergrad degree in some wide or general topic that might not have many obvious or direct paths to a steady pay check.

But this isn’t just a problem for Religious Studies, for one would be naive to think that all those English majors become English teachers, right? And it’s not like History majors all become historians — whether that means going on to graduate studies to become history professors or getting jobs with historical preservation societies or wherever else an historian might work.

But it’s still worth being an English or History major, right? Continue reading

Democracy is Risky

Picture 9A couple years ago I gave a talk at Lehigh University (a lecture that became chapter 8 in a book I published not long after). The topic was on my frustration with how scholars of religion — because they define their object of study as a universally present and deeply meaningful human impulse — often assume their research is always relevant. As evidence I drew on a recent national conference where scholars of religion were encouraged to think about how their work on this or that ritual or text could contribute to solving the problem of climate change. I could just as easily have cited the program for that very annual conference (something I wrote on long ago, actually), and how the “religion and…” rubric was infinitely variable (e.g., Religion and Literature, Religion and Film, Religion and Science, Religion and Politics, Religion and Food, etc., etc.); we often presume our object of study always to be relevant because we think that it somehow points outside of, and thus before and beyond, the happenstance of history. So it is assumed to play a role in anything that happens.

The problem, though, is that we also claim to be historians, e.g., historians of religion — but, defining religion in this way, makes us historians who study the transcendental. And that’s very unhistorial if you ask me. Continue reading

On the Value of the Humanities and Religious Studies

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Susan Henking is President of Shimer College, an unconventional great books college in Chicago, Illinois. She got there by going to college as a first generation college goer, majoring in Religion and in Sociology at Duke University and then pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in Religion and Psychological Studies. While there, she fell in love with undergraduate liberal education. Her scholarly work includes co-editing two books, Que(e)rying Religion (1997) and Mourning Religion (2008) as well as many articles and chapters in the fields of religion and the social sciences, and LGBTQ matters as they intersect with religious studies.  Susan was founding editor of the Teaching Religious Studies series of the American Academy of Religion and served on the AAR Board for 9 years. She taught religious studies, women’s studies and related matters for several decades and lives in Chicago and Geneva NY with her partner, Betty Bayer.  

Some time ago, I was in a beautiful office high up above the streets of Chicago, looking out over Lake Michigan with a man who once led one of the most powerful energy companies in the world. He was, I discovered, a history major in college – and no, he who was not “born” to the silver spoon.

Clearly, a humanities major could be highly successful.  Indeed, in his view, that humanities major – that history major – was something he used every day and not just since retirement. Continue reading

What Remain Constant

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Whatever job you take, the specific subjects you studied in college will probably prove somewhat irrelevant to the day-to-day work you will do soon after you graduate. And even if they are relevant, that will change. People who learned to write code for computers just ten years ago now confront a new world of apps and mobile devices. What remain constant are the skills you acquire and the methods you learn to approach problems.

– Fareed Zakaria
In Defense of a Liberal Education (2015: 78-9)

All Systems Normal

Picture 9 Yesterday we had our second annual undergraduate research symposium, which featured the work of four current students — many of whom are double majors — and a grad of our Department. We instituted this event last year and held it at the university club at the same time as our senior seminar took place, inviting those students as the audience. But this year we decided to try holding it in a much larger venue and to advertise it among all of our classes, perhaps making it an extra credit opportunity. It worked really well; we had quite good attendance, the papers were all wonderful, and the event nicely modeled (for any student thinking about majoring in the study of religion) what sort of work you can do in the academic study of religion. Continue reading

An Interview with Ann Taves

tavesAn interview with Prof. Ann Taves has just been posted — she is a former President of the American Academy of Religion and is well known for her work on religious experience as well as her interest in applying the finding from cognitive psychology to the study of religion. She’s  now at work on a new book, Revelatory Events: Unusual Experiences and New Spiritual Paths, and supervising the interdisciplinary Religion, Experience, and Mind (REM) Lab Group at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

What Would I Ever Do with a Humanities Degree?

LessFewer

Catie Stewart is a sophomore at the University of Alabama from Madison, Mississippi. She is double majoring in English and Religious Studies.

Entering into my first year at the University of Alabama, I declared a chemical engineering major. I had always excelled in science and math in high school and had seemingly enjoyed the two catch-all chemistry classes I took my sophomore and senior years, so, to me and everyone advising me, it only made sense that I go into the field of chemical engineering. Sure, I had a real love for English and literature, but that simply wasn’t going to be a practical outlet for me in college. Engineering was my only option, even though I had never taken classes in the field.

After all, what would I ever do with a humanities degree?

Continue reading

Outside the Box

spectaclesOn the flight home from a visit to Lehigh University this past week I started reading Steven Johnson’s engaging How We Got to Now (2014) — a popularly-written book on the conditions and unanticipated connections that helped to make possible the innovations that many of us now take for granted (e.g., public sanitation or refrigeration). Continue reading