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.

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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Profs. Simmons and Altman Talk About the New MA Degree

Have you heard about the Religions Studies Project? It’s a great website and podcast based out of the United Kingdom. This week they are featuring a podcast episode with Profs. Mike Altman and Merinda Simmons all about our new Religion in Culture master’s degree program.

Give it a listen and learn about our new program. We’re still accepting applications!