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.

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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.

A Student Report from WordCamp Birmingham

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This past weekend (October 21-22), I attended the annual WordPress conference in Birmingham, Alabama: WordCamp Birmingham. You may be asking: If she’s in an MA program for Religion in Culture, why does she need to go to a WordPress conference? An important aspect of the program is a focus on digital and public humanities — how we convey our research through digital media and to unconventional audiences. Part of that focus results in developing digital skills like WordPress to present our ideas and ourselves professionally to the general public. In fact, building a WordPress site was the first project we tackled in REL 502: Public Humanities and Religious Studies.

The conference was set up to serve all levels of experience ranging from complete newbies to experienced programmers. It was designed with three types of sessions going on at once all day long: blogger, business, and developer. Within each room, there was a flow to the sessions that would aid people who went for only one of the tracks, but we were encouraged to jump around to whatever felt appropriate for our individual needs. I dabbled around in each of the categories, discovering that most of the newbie stuff I had down (even though I still can’t seem to figure out how to make comments work properly on my own site) and the vast majority of the programer/developer side of things went way over my head. As far as the business sessions? I only went to one because the rest really didn’t seem that applicable to me, at least in this stage of my online presence.

The regular sessions went from 9:00am to 4:30pm on Saturday. On Sunday, two workshop sessions were offered in the afternoon. Again, three choices were given for each and everyone was encourage to attend the one most appropriate for their needs. These workshops were less geared toward the three categories set out on Saturday. Instead, they offered ways to make everything we had learned the day before applicable to our own sites. In addition to the sessions and workshops, WordCamp offered a “Happiness Bar” where you could go at any time and get individual help with anything that you might be struggling with on your site. And of course, no conference would be complete without t-shirts, free stuff (stickers, pens, more t-shirts, etc.), food (lunch from McAllister’s, Frios Gourmet Pops, Margarita Grill), and prizes (I won a year of free hosting from Known Host).

My notes from this conference go on for more than 10 typed pages and I now have an incredibly long list of things to do based on what I learned. Here’s a taste:

  1. Explore ways to fix my comments problem
  2. Make my site accessible to individuals with disabilities
  3. Research things like: Jetpack, See Jane Write, and SEO
  4. Set up Google Analytics and Google Search Console for my site
  5. Consider participating in #bloglikecrazy this November

Of course, this list goes on and I’m sure I’ll be adding more as I become more aware of and acquainted with WordPress. For now, I’ve got plenty to digest. I learned what’s behind the screen of domain registration, what task runners were, methods to connect with an audience, how to rebrand when necessary, why SEO matters, and many more aspects of using WordPress.

WordCamp is definitely the kind of conference you could attend over and over again and always learn new things. And because there are conferences in several major cities throughout the year, there’s almost always one happening soon fairly nearby. I, for one, plan on going to the one in Birmingham again, and maybe even WordCamp Atlanta in April if I need a refresher before then.

Beyond gaining skills for my personal site, this conference helped me to explore questions about the more technical side of what a digital religious studies could look like. There are odd tidbits that will help along the way (like making sure that image has alt-text). But there are also larger themes that are still stewing in my brain. The next project we tackled in 502, Omeka, operates in a similar manner to WordPress and can work alongside it. As it turns out, WordPress can be used for so much more than just blogging.



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.

Classroom to Conference: REL Majors Presenting Their Research


REL is very happy to announce that two of our students have been accepted to present their research at the Southeastern regional meeting of the American Academy of Religion in March.



Jared Powell will be presenting a paper titled “And the Beat Goes On: Imaginings and Retellings of Han Shan by Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac.” The conference paper began as a project in Dr. Ramey‘s REL 419: Tales From Asia course. In the paper, he analyzes the ways in which Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac–two Beat Generation writers–translate and retell the poetry and life of Tang Dynasty Chinese poet Han Shan. He argues that in their works, Snyder and Kerouac create an imagining of Han Shan as an ascetic Buddhist ideal that champions typical Beat emphases of playfulness, spirituality, and counterculturalism

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Sarah Griswold’s conference paper is also Asia related. Titled, “There is a Well at Cawnpore: The Politics of Commemoration in Colonial India,” her paper analyzes a memorial at a well in the Indian town of Cawnpore. The well stood as a memorial of the Siege of Cawnpore during the 1857 revolt under British colonial rule. The conference paper began as a project in Dr. Altman‘s special topics REL 483: Religion in Colonial India course (that will soon be a regular course offering in the department).

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You can find the full conference program here. You might even notice a few other REL names on the schedule.

Do you have a paper from a course that you’re proud of? Are you interested in sharing your work beyond just your professor? REL offers many opportunities to share your undergraduate research, such as this blog, the REL Honors Research Symposium, the UA Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Conference, and the regional AAR meeting. Talk to your professor about how you can present the great research you are doing in your courses!


Elmer Gantry and A Little About Race


By Sarah Griswold

Sarah Griswold is a senior double majoring in Mathematics and Religious Studies. She spends her “free time” analyzing her favorite shows on Netflix, which of course winds up ruining them.  The following was written for REL 360: Popular Culture/Public Humanities.

“Elmer Gantry was drunk,” begins Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel. That’s how the movie Elmer Gantry begins too. The story is of Elmer Gantry who loves women and whiskey more than just about anything else. A fast-talking salesman, Gantry has an incredibly charismatic personality that convinces people to give him money for anything from helping out a nun to selling vacuum cleaners. After being drawn to Sister Sharon Falconer’s travelling revival tent, he finds himself immediately attracted to her and finds a way to convince her to allow him to join her in the show. The story goes on to follow Gantry and Falconer as the travel around the country selling their religion to any and everyone who will listen.

Watching the film, you are immersed in two and a half hours of 1960s humor and absurdity beyond the absurdity of the story itself. The protagonist Gantry is quite the character. Fast-talking and clearly extroverted, Gantry seems to be able to weasel his way into just about anything he wants. However, one of the many questions we are left with at the end of the film is whether Gantry ever actually knows what he wants. He seems to change throughout the film to become more genuine in his actions. While definitely interesting and meriting further discussion, I’d like to turn my focus to something else entirely. What I truly found fascinating about the film was the race politics. During the 1960s, overt racism was widespread and generally considered to be normal. While the film didn’t contain plot lines that were overtly racist, there were two particular images that stood out to me as indicative of the way the film’s director and producers imagined the world.

The first image that stood out to me was this scene in which Gantry wanders into a black church. During the scene, the congregation sings a gospel hymn when Gantry comes in. As they begin to realize that an outsider – a white man – is among them, they stop singing one by one and turn to stare. As the music dies, Gantry picks up where they left off and continues the hymn. The congregation slowly begins to join back in and Gantry begins to solo with the congregation acting as back up singers. The scene ends with the end of the hymn and a young girl who is still staring at Gantry. The solo serves the purpose of highlighting Gantry’s comprehensive familiarity with various types of hymns and church settings. But I cannot help but to think that the choice to include the solo carries an undertone of stereotypical 1960s racism. The young girl’s continued suspicion of Gantry coupled with the setting reflects an attitude (likely from the director and/or producers) of essential difference between black and white. To reinforce my suspicions, a comparable image appears towards the end of the film.

The other image that stood out to me was during the scene toward the end of the film when Sister Sharon’s church is burning down. Outside of the church is a large cross that is adorned with light bulbs. While brief, there is a shot of that cross going up in flames. In context and like the scene in the black church, it makes perfect sense for this cross to burn with the rest of the church. However, considering the context of the 1960s and the oppressive presence of the Ku Klux Klan at the time, it is near impossible to separate the image from association with the KKK. The image of a burning cross was (and arguably remains) a threat in and of itself. So while the image put into context makes perfect sense and the image carries no further explanation in the film, it is not devoid of the meaning associated in this particular way. Between this shot and the scene from the beginning of the film, Elmer Gantry carries undertones indicative of 1960s racism.

The film lacks any African Americans beyond the scene discussed earlier. This further highlights the racist undertones of the 1960s. Of course, these are only a couple of tiny pieces of the two and a half hour-long film, which as far as I could tell said nothing more about race. Instead, the film in its entirety produces an interesting exploration of revivalism and outrageous personalities, while providing intriguing entertainment. So one could read into these two particular aspects of the film as I have done, or one could choose to ignore them entirely and enjoy the film. Or just dissect a different part entirely.

Out in the Open: What Now?


Sarah Griswold is a junior double majoring in Mathematics and Religious Studies. She spends her “free time” analyzing her favorite shows on Netflix, which of course winds up ruining them. She is currently enrolled in an independent study with Dr. Simmons where she is analyzing the popular HBO series “True Detective.”

“Look, as sentient meat, however illusory our identities are, we craft those identities by making value judgments: everybody judges, all the time.” – Rust Cohle

Earlier, in the third blog post of this series, I wrote of a dichotomy between male and female spaces that has been manipulated so that the series can create room to address the philosophical musings Rust Cohle contemplates throughout the show. By containing these issues to an exclusively male space, the writers have limited further complexity to the show that would otherwise need to be addressed should women be included. This complexity will need to be dealt with in the second season of the show (airing in June) in order for it to continue to succeed. This is the teaser for the second season that was recently released.

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Out in the Open: Certainty is Power


Sarah Griswold is a junior double majoring in Mathematics and Religious Studies. She spends her “free time” analyzing her favorite shows on Netflix, which of course winds up ruining them. She is currently enrolled in an independent study with Dr. Simmons where she is analyzing the popular HBO series “True Detective.”

“Transference of fear and self-loathing is an authoritarian vessel. It’s catharsis. He absorbs their dread with his narrative. Because of this, he’s effective at proportion to the amount of certainty he can project.” – Rust Cohle

HBO’s True Detective approaches existential questions of reality through lenses of structures of the human experience. So far in this blog series, perception and classification have been the main focus. Power, however, is a related concept, yet is also a performance of its own accord. Power can be situational or institutional, but it is always relational. In other words, power is exerted in a relationship. Power, certainly, is not static. Particularly in situational power relationships, power is continually bounced back and forth. This is a good thing, but it is something not really shown in True Detective. Take, for instance this encounter between Marty and a secretary in the Louisiana State Police Department.

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Out in the Open: Perception is Everything


Sarah Griswold is a junior double majoring in Mathematics and Religious Studies. She spends her “free time” analyzing her favorite shows on Netflix, which of course winds up ruining them. She is currently enrolled in an independent study with Dr. Simmons where she is analyzing the popular HBO series “True Detective.”

“I have seen the finale of thousands of lives, man. Young, old, each one so sure of their realness. You know that their sensory experience constituted a unique individual with purpose and meaning.” – Rust Cohle

In the previous post to this blog series on HBO’s True Detective, I ended on a cliffhanger of sorts. The majority of the show is presented through Marty Hart and Rust Cohle’s perspectives. Because the audience sees what Marty does, Maggie, Marty’s wife, and Lisa, Marty’s mistress, are both women who are cast aside after attempting to assert themselves as individuals. They are cast aside from the show, because as viewers we only learn things through Marty’s perspective and he has removed them from his life.

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Out in the Open: Everybody’s Nobody


Sarah Griswold is a junior double majoring in Mathematics and Religious Studies. She spends her “free time” analyzing her favorite shows on Netflix, which of course winds up ruining them. She is currently enrolled in an independent study with Dr. Simmons where she is analyzing the popular HBO series “True Detective.”

“[People] are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, that accretion of sensory experience and feelings, programmed with total assurance that we are somebody. When in fact, everybody’s nobody.” – Rust Cohle

In the first blog post of this series, Out In the Open: We All Fit a Certain Category, I discussed classification as a political act in HBO’s popular series True Detective. In the show, Detective Marty Hart, played by Woody Harrelson, exemplifies classification and living stereotypes astoundingly well, while also performing dominance through categorizing and therefore (in this case) dehumanizing the people in his life. I plan to explore this through examples of Marty’s relationships with women, but first some notes about the series:

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Out in the Open: We All Fit a Certain Category


Sarah Griswold is a junior double majoring in Mathematics and Religious Studies. She spends her “free time” analyzing her favorite shows on Netflix, which of course winds up ruining them. She is currently enrolled in an independent study with Dr. Simmons where she is analyzing the popular HBO series “True Detective.”

“You know I’ve seen all the different types. We all fit a certain category.” – Marty Hart

One of the great things about the Religious Studies department here at UA is that you can study pretty much whatever you want and get credit for it. Case in point: this blog series makes up part of the work I’m doing for an independent study I’m doing this semester with Dr. Merinda Simmons about the HBO series True Detective. Yes, you read that correctly, I’m studying a TV show. More particularly, I’m studying classifications of race, religion, and especially gender (amongst other categories that pop up from time to time) in entertainment, with True Detective being my main case study.

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