American Examples: “An intriguing experimental workshop.”

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Travis Cooper holds a double PhD in Religious Studies and Anthropology and lectures at Butler University. His dissertation project, “The Digital Evangelicals: Contesting Authority and Authenticity after the New Media Turn,” examined religious boundary maintenance strategies in the era of social media. His current research focuses on the various social architectures that structure everyday American life-worlds, rituals, and traditions—systems ranging from media ideologies and print culture to the ideologies of urban design and the built environment. An ethnographer of the American Midwest, he studies (sub)urban habitudes, residential and religious architecture, and the anthropology of the modern.

We asked him to explain what he gained from his participation in the first American Examples workshop last year.

 

American Examples was, for me, an intriguing experimental workshop. What can come of bringing religious studies scholars, historians, digital media scholars, anthropologists, and ethnographers together to talk about this nebulous thing we call “American religion”? American Examples, for one, blended the thrill of an academic conference with the intimacy and rigor of a graduate seminar. During our inaugural gathering, the event was set up so that by the time we arrived on campus we had already read and thought about each of the group’s respective research projects. I learned about Nigerian Pentecostal immigrants, American Muslim comedians, Indo-Trinidadian Hinduism, digital atheism, and the long and complex social history of the study of madness.

By the time we convened in person, we were able to jump straight into discussion guided by workshop mentors from among the religious studies department’s stellar faculty. The discussions were not only about giving and receiving critically constructive feedback but also making connections between the various projects as well as theorizing, in a meta-sense, the work that we as Americanists do. Finally, the workshop was very much a collaborative event. Having 10 or so people read and contribute in a significant way to the shape of your work is quite the thrilling experience. Because of American Examples, I have a much stronger research project and richer network of colleagues and conversation partners. I found the entire project to be immensely rewarding and highly recommend participating if you have the opportunity.

American Examples is currently accepting applications for 2020.

APPLY HERE

Reading, Writing and… R: How I Began to Study the Philosophy of Religion with Digital Tools

Professor Loewen Presenting to two women with the help of a large digital screen.

Prof. Nathan Loewen specializes in the philosophy of religion and digital humanities among other things. This summer his research interests are taking him in a new direction at their intersection.   

In Fall 2018, I took my research in a new direction. I began learning how to study the philosophy of religion with digital tools. The objective is to determine how to quantitatively test my qualitative argument that the field is historically structured by commitments to theism in ways that challenge its cross-cultural relevance. In the future, I plan to use these tools to locate underutilized opportunities to alter the scope of the field beyond theism. Continue reading

On the Problem With Reproducing Ourselves

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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 Study Religion Podcast is BACK!

The first episode of our department podcast, Study Religion, for the new school year is all about, well, firsts. I talk to our first cohort of graduate students in the new Religion in Culture MA program about being the first students in a new program and how the first semester is going. Next I sit down with Prof. Vaia Touna to talk about a big first in her career: her first book. We also talk about how societies use the past and history to represent themselves in the present. And I learned something about Greek toast.

Give it a listen!

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P.S. If you listen to us on Apple Podcasts, please leave us a comment and a rating! It really helps other folks find the show!

Digital Religious Studies

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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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“I’m Ready for My Close-Up, Mr. DeMille”

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Yes, our Department is in the movie business.

Maybe you’ve seen one of our films, posted on Facebook or Twitter from our Vimeo account.

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I’ve been approached three or four times, over the past couple of years, for information on how we do this, so I thought I’d write a quick post for those who are game to give it a try in their own Departments. Continue reading

The Teacher Who Went on to Facebook and Came Back with an Insight

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By Kim Davis
Kim earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and French from
the University of Alabama in 2003. She went on to earn her
Masters in French Linguistics and Literature in 2007 and
a Masters in Secondary Language Pedagogy in 2010,
both from UA. Kim now teaches French and Mythology
at Tuscaloosa County High School.

The other morning I logged onto Facebook for some mindless scrolling while I drank my morning coffee. A post by Craig Martin from Culture on the Edge caught my attention.

The following conversation then ensued. Continue reading

REL 360 presents: Lage Raho Munna Bhai (another movie night!)

If you’ve been keeping up with the latest developments in the REL department, you probably know that we have a brand new one-credit course this year: REL 360. REL 360 screens a select group of movies throughout the semester, and the next one is coming up on Tuesday, Oct. 21. Everyone’s invited, not just those enrolled in the course!

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We’ll be watching Lage Raho Munna Bhai. We’re hoping for a good turnout from students involved in Asian Studies, too. Dr. Ramey will be on hand to lead the discussion after the film; he’d probably be happy to chat if you have any questions you about the Asian Studies Minor. Here are all the details about this event:

  • WHAT: REL 360 is a new one-credit course in which students screen a small selection of films and discuss them together with Religious Studies faculty. The best part is: anyone can attend the film screenings, not just those enrolled in the course.
  • WHEN: Tues., Oct. 21 at 6:00 PM
  • WHERE: Manly 207
  • WHY: You want to broaden your horizons! You want to see a movie you’ve never seen before! You want to learn what REL students and faculty are up to! You are curious about a course devoted to Popular Culture/Public Humanities!
  • WHAT ELSE: Anyone can attend! If you attend and like what you see, speak to Prof. Rollens (serollens@ua.edu) about enrolling in REL 360 for next semester!

Hope to see you there!popcorn