Our Pre- & Inter- Pandemic Teaching was Never “Normal” (p.s. nor our post-pandemic teaching, too!)

Two Perspectives

I wish to talk about specific methods I and my colleagues adopted for pre-, inter and post-pandemic teaching.* I come at this with two perspectives:

  1. Teaching – As a freshly-tenured professor of religious studies at a public, R1 university (University of Alabama). My current research coordinates and publishes research with the Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion project.
  2. Administration – As the faculty technology liaison for UA’s college of arts and sciences. I consult 1:1 with faculty on teaching technologies, supervise quality assurance for online course development of all departments’ online courses, participate on campus tech/computing committees, and organize faculty development events. I also moderate the Teaching Hub, a site for faculty voices on teaching and learning.

Pre-pandemic in Alabama, I helped arrange for Todd Taylor and the Adobe team visit our campus on February 7, 2020. They introduced the potential of Creative Cloud for higher-ed to a group of over 200 faculty, staff, and administrators. On March 13, our university president announced suspended on-campus teaching, and on March 17 2020 announced “limited business operations,” requiring remote work for everyone except mission-critical employees. That’s when the inter-pandemic period began.

To be honest, the changes in course delivery and teaching did not substantively circumstances for everyone at UA. In particular, several of my departmental colleagues didn’t experience a radical shift in what we were already doing. I was teaching REL490 “Artificial Intelligence in Religious Studies” in Spring 2020. My last in-person class session established how we would complete the course while dispersed across the country.

Our department didn’t fully realize just how ‘prepared’ we were for inter-pandemic teaching, which we sorted out through the summer. Most everyone at UA made the shift online quite smoothly compared to news I heard from other campuses. UA had already learned some difficult lessons before “2020.”

Academic Continuity Before “2020”

Why were we prepared? Very tragically, Tuscaloosa experienced a devastating tornado  on April 27, 2011. That day in Alabama saw 62 tornados kill 253 people, injure thousands, and destroy many homes. Among them were UA staff, faculty and students. On-campus activities were suspended. All faculty were tasked with finding ways to close out the semester.

Natural disasters are more visible than pandemics. Just a few years prior, UA established shelters and classes for students from institutions affected by Hurricane Katrina. The trauma of 2011 lead to extensive “academic continuity” preparations. IT offices were tasked to continually find ways to harden physical systems, ensure data storage, and enable distributed work. Each college set up planning groups. Since my hiring in 2015, each semester involved college-wide exercises designed to test our capabilities for “suspended operations” (e.g. staff and/or faculty would be required to work off-campus).

Going Public Online Pre-Pandemic

My department was prepared in another way, too. In 2001 our program was declared “non-viable” by its governing body. Religious studies at UA was in trouble. Russell McCutcheon, my department chair, outlines what happened in his article. The department began a process of continually reinventing itself. McCutcheon calls it ‘staying nimble.’ I joined the department long after these ‘staying nimble’ days began. Looking back, my faculty perspective allows me to see how REL’s pre-pandemic strategies came into play inter-pandemic – which is where we are currently. These strategies will continue to be useful strategies for our post-pandemic futures.

As an academic unit, REL’s made a strategic shift to 1) go public online, and 2) use that online public persona to collect and sustain a local community. The rationale was survival. Building a local community by going public speaks to what our discipline has to offer a flagship university.

Going public online developed distributed expertise about online media across the faculty. We did not necessarily develop expertise in LMS/CMS content delivery. Administrators are mistaken to think ‘going online’ means ‘online teaching.’ The desire for another revenue stream obscures taking a broader, long-term perspective. None of our courses are “flipped” in the trendy sense of the word. We apply social theory concretely to our strategy for online presence.

As I understand it, the department’s strategy is to continually develop online presence with a suite of interconnected online platforms (e.g. WordPress sites, Soundcloud, Vimeo, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and most recently, Minecraft).

Presidents hall in minecraft and real life

The objectives are to:

  • attract new students to our courses
  • recruit majors (p.s. few to no students ever declare “religion” majors when applying for college…)
  • highlight student and faculty achievements
  • have fun and develop camaraderie
  • find new ways to “stay nimble”
  • listen for the voices of current students and alumni

The inter-pandemic outcome of going public online was a faculty already working to sustain community through a variety of online environments. Our recent Honors Day video highlights all of the above.

Inter-Pandemic Teaching

The above applied directly to my Fall 2021 course, REL502 “Public Humanities and Religious Studies.” 502 is a microcosm of REL, where students develop their media skills to convey our department’s motto: studying religion in culture.

“…work in the Department highlights the manner in which those behaviors and institutions named as religion are elements of ordinary cultural practices.”

REL courses teach there is no ‘normal.’ Nothing is ‘natural.’ Our students learn how group and social dynamics structure ‘normal’ and ‘natural.’ As McCutcheon says, We Really Can’t Afford to Go Back to Normal. REL502 teaches students this structurally reflexive approach for going public online.

The 502 syllabus is designed to teach attitudes and skills oriented towards public pedagogy. Since 2018, we team-taught 502 using a host of digital mainstays for the course:

  1. A WordPress site hosting the syllabus and course schedule.
  2. Slack channel for inter-session preparation, communications, and debriefing.
  3. Adobe Creative Cloud tools to experiment with a variety of media and platforms (both mobile and desktop apps).

a slack dialogue among students

N.B. Students gave permission for their names and work to be shared from our Slack channel, as well as for the video at the conclusion of this post.

Making the inter-pandemic shift was somewhat simple. Instead of huddling around laptops in a seminar room, I live-streamed, weekly class sessions to demonstrate and workshop through screen-sharing.

Among the mainstays for creating a learning community were the live-streamed sessions and Slack (many of my colleagues had success with Discord, too). I used Slack for:

  • student advice posted on slackPre-class prompts (which ultimately are pre-assignment prompts) to guide the class search for examples to review and thereby assemble our methods for critical evaluation of content, form, and practice.
  • Post-class summaries of what we learned and wish to carry forward.
  • Encouragement, relevant news, and resources for our media experiments.
  • Posting the experiments as links and/or embedded content.
  • Sharing reflections on process and lessons-learned for each experiment.

Our class community is not restricted to “2020.” All four years of class cohorts use the same channel. I encourage each cohort to search back through the channel. I cannot understand the effects of current students seeing previous conversations, experiments, struggles, work-arounds and outcome. And previous students sometimes chime in on the current class to offer encouragement and suggestions.

The Results of “Never Normal” Teaching

Did it work? Yes. From the get-go REL502 – and all my other courses since 2009 – are designed from the principles I once called “effective social learning.” Shifting a course already designed for distributed online collaboration to live-streamed sessions is not logistically difficult (Here’s how a colleague used Github and Discord). The primary liability was the processing power of students’ desktops.

student comment about processing problems

Perhaps the best way to conclude is with a series of snapshots from REL502:

* Parts of this post are adapted from my presentation at the Post-pandemic University conference at the University of Cambridge in October 2020.

Good Riddance 2020, But Wait . . .

Happy New Year 20212020 has been a strange and rough year in so many ways, but, speaking as REL’s Graduate Director, our Department still has much to celebrate among our M.A. students and the program’s alums. They did not simply survive the shift to online learning and the challenge of moving to a new city in a pandemic; they have thrived in so many ways.

In May, in the middle of the first wave of the pandemic, we graduated 4 M.A. students, our largest graduating class so far. Among those grads, two went on to Ph.D. programs (Ohio State and Florida State, neither school chosen based on their football teams, btw), and one used her publishing experiences, digital skills, and museum internship to work with Landmarks of Dekalb County, Alabama, cataloging material in their collection and promoting their collection (see their Instagram account). She has discovered fascinating pieces about Fort Payne (the “New England City of the South,” see images below) and the region “lost” in the storage rooms.

Advertisement for Fort Payne, AL in 1890s

Advertisement for Fort Payne, AL in 1890s, courtesy of Landmarks of Dekalb County

Our continuing grad students have been busy, too, with some second year students now applying for Ph.D programs while making progress on various research projects of their own. In August, we welcomed our largest incoming class yet, with 8 new M.A. students, all of whom tackled our required foundation courses on social theory and public humanities—courses that intentionally throw a bit of a curve at students, to get them thinking broadly not just about how to study religion but also about the wider relevance of the skills we can gain in a graduate program. Through all of their activities, they have been engaging and applying social theory in ways that they might not have expected, writing about Lovecraft Country (read Allison’s post), the Nones, rhetoric about “godless China,” healthcare, survey instruments, and much more.

Our M.A. students have been creative and productive, despite the challenging circumstances and everyone’s need for flexibility. In addition to traditional academic labor, writing (read Jacob’s recent post defending Religious Studies), TAing, teaching online courses, and preparing lectures of their own, they have built websites and made podcasts and videos (see a compilation of their work in the Public Humanities course), helped produce the newest issues of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, created animations (currently in production) for our Luce-funded American Examples initiative, and arranged Spring semester internships in publishing, digital technology, and international education. Our students’ work has even moved beyond Tuscaloosa virtually, with one editing videos for the Religion for Breakfast video series, another presenting a paper at the virtual American Academy of Religions, and another moderating a panel at the virtual North American Association for the Study of Religion conference (both virtual conferences in November and December). And look for one of our MA students to present a virtual paper in the Spring, as part of the southeast region’s AAR meeting.

Despite all the challenges of 2020, our students generate enthusiasm and hope, things that we want to tell the world about as we move towards the new year.

Switchboard operators in 1950 Dekalb County Alabama

Switchboard operators in 1950 Dekalb County, Alabama, from the collection of Landmarks of Dekalb County

Images credits

“Happy 2021 new year on blue bokeh background” by wuestenigel is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Fort Payne ad from archives of Landmarks of Dekalb County, AL. Photo courtesy of Caitlyn Bell.

Switchboard operators photo from archives of Landmarks of Dekalb County, AL. Photo courtesy of Caitlyn Bell.

Have You Read the Latest Bulletin for the Study of Religion?

Bulletin for the Study of Religion

Prof. Richard Newton introduces us to the latest iteration of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, now a joint collaboration between Equinox Publishing and the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.

Continue reading

American Examples: Adapting to a Fall 2020 and Beyond

American Examples Logo

When we announced the American Examples program, funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, we were super excited about the three workshops we would be offering in 2020. We were able to hold one of them in person in early March. Then the world changed, and, with it, our plans.

Many of the REL faculty pitched in late in the spring and into the early summer to adapt to our new COVID reality by hosting a series of informal Zoom discussions about teaching with our 2020 AE participants (and even a couple 2019 AE folks). The discussions offered everyone a chance to share how they were experimenting with remote teaching and how to better prepare for their fall courses. I think everyone involved found the discussions fruitful.

screenshot of AE zoom conversation

This fall we are adapting again, though with greater preparation. Rather than the planned face to face workshop on public humanities, we have shifted to a new model. Beginning last week, the #AE2020 cohort has been joining myself and another REL faculty for informal conversations about the public humanities and how we think about them here in our department. Last week Prof. Jeri Wieringa joined us to talk about the role of digital platforms and tools in public humanities and the relationship between public humanities and digital humanities. This week, Prof. Richard Newton spent time talking about how scholars can craft a public persona and how to manage things as an online public scholar of religion. Next week, Prof. Nathan Loewen will join us for our final conversation to discuss the REL 502 Public Humanities Foundations course he is teaching and how public humanities relates to both the graduate and undergraduate classroom. The first two conversations have proven useful and fun and we look forward to another great one next week.

screenshot of another AE zoom conversation

Along with these conversations, the 2020 AE participants will be working on producing a series of short accessible videos on key terms in the study of religion. In these videos the participants will take a term that is useful to them in their research (text, canon, law, ritual, etc.) and use an example from their research to explain the term. The idea being that scholars who study things in times and places outside the United States might also use that term and that teachers or interested members of the public might find their explanations useful. We hope these videos will reach a public audience, via a new AE YouTube channel, but we also think they will be useful in introductory religious studies courses. After all, the classroom is probably the public space scholars of religion have the most frequent access too. Our students are the public too.

And on top of all of this, the 2021 AE cohort is just around the corner. Keep your eyes peeled for a 2021 call for participants for a newly designed remote version of AE. That should be out very soon.

American Examples: “An intriguing experimental workshop.”

"AE" American Examples logo

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

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 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!

""

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

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.).