Religious Studies Professor Michael Altman will be teaching with the Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project (APAEP) once a week this spring semester. He will be leading a course titled Religion in America to incarcerated students at the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, AL. Continue reading
Last semester Prof. Merinda Simmons mentored graduate student Alex Ates in an independent study — a program designed to help students earn credit while researching specific material that typically manifests into a conclusive project.
Alex, an MFA student in the Department of Theatre and Dance, compiled data on the Free Southern Theater before writing a compelling essay on the groups’ confrontation of “American moral contradictoriness”. The community theater group was founded in Mississippi in 1963 with the goal of combining art and politics on stage to promote social justice across the American South.
At the end of the semester, Alex compiled his research in a paper titled, “Powerful Contradictions on Charged Stages: Theater Revolutions in the Jim Crow South”. The project recently led to his selection as the 2019 Graduate Student Winner of the Southeastern Theatre Conference Young Scholar Award. He will present his paper at the 2019 SETC Young Scholars Panel Presentation in Nashville, TN.
Alex’s Independent Study with Prof. Simmons was not his first time working with the Religious Studies Department. Last year, he consulted with another faculty member, Prof. Altman, before successfully directing The Christians in the fall semester. His career as a graduate student at the University of Alabama and his recent nomination as the SETC Young Scholar Award Winner demonstrates his skill for researching, writing, directing, and acting.
Here’s the final installment in our four part welcome back series.
If you’re new to the Department, be sure to swing by our office (MA 212) to get some cool swag to start the year off right. And introduce yourself to Prof. Altman, our new Undergrad Director.
We asked the faculty what they were up to this summer; after all, just because the Spring semester is done doesn’t mean they’re all off gardening. And so this is what we learned…
Prof. Altman will be spending the summer doing a lot of reading in primary and secondary sources for two projects. Indeed he has stacks of books piled high in his office. First, he is working on a journal article tentatively titled “Evangelical, Evangelicals, Evangelicalism” that re-describes what so many American religious historians have categorized as “evangelicalism” in America. Second, he is in the very early stages of a large research project that seeks to understand religion in America by putting it into the broader context of European political philosophy after the Reformation. He is wondering if both of these projects might end up being the same project in the end. Prof. Altman is also teaching REL 100 during the summer term and revising his REL 502: Religious Studies and Public Humanities Foundations course and REL 241: American Religious History courses for the coming fall.
— UA Dept. of REL (@StudyReligion) October 23, 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
Professors around the department often talk about their “research.” But what exactly is that? It’s something to do with books and articles, right? In hopes of showing how some of us work–or at least how I work–below is a day by day running journal of a five day research trip I took to the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.