Russell T. McCutcheon: Digital Pebbles and Institutional Ripples

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Well I started out
down a dirty road
Started out
all alone…
– “Learning to Fly”
(Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne [1991])

1. Knowing Enough to Make You Dangerous[1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Yes, I know enough about Dreamweaver 3, released in 1999, to make me dangerous; for while I didn’t really know how to do all that much with it, even once I attained my own level of mastery (i.e., I just knew what I needed to know), upon first writing this chapter, in the summer of 2017, I saw that version 17 was available—that’s right, 17. So I’m a little behind the curve. But given that I was trying to build a Department website while learning it on my own, back in the very early 2000s—consulting “how to” books and scrounging off of the knowledge that a very few friends had already accumulated for themselves, while also doing the various other things that a new Department chair might do in a struggling Department—I’d like to think that I was actually ahead of the curve. For some of us were doing what we now call digital humanities well before it was considered a distinguishable thing that deserved a name of its own.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 But this story is not simply about a Department website, of course; as I learned from the late Jonathan Z. Smith’s writings, the things that scholars discuss are best understood as an e.g. of some larger topic, and so focusing too closely on any single example may trick us into thinking that it somehow stands on its own, moves of its own steam, and is therefore inherently interesting or obviously valuable. So, while none of us should trust our own memory (let alone those of our research subjects), I do recall that all along the new Department website that I was building on evenings and weekends wasn’t simply about having a decent site; instead, it was but a node in a concerted effort to revive an entire Department—one that, back in 2000, was on the brink of losing its major and either becoming what we call a service Department or, perhaps, closing entirely.[2] So that investment of time and energy (and, yes, some Department resources as well—but far less than you might think, so long as one has the good will and energy of a committed faculty) into building a content-rich website was just the first of many interconnected digital initiatives tackled over the years by the members of our Department; and although each project was motivated by a specific need, they all eventually pulled the same wagon: reinventing a Humanities Department at a time when they were (and continue to be) under considerable attack.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Of course such a reinvention is never complete; as any good social theorist would likely tell you, groups are always on the brink of demise.[3] But despite being ongoing, even to this day, these interconnected digital projects have been quite successful, inasmuch as they have not only played a prominent role in people across the U.S. and around the world taking an interest in this thing called the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama but, more importantly, those same people trying on for size some of the things that we’ve successfully been doing in Tuscaloosa—and then having successes of their own.[4]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 In fact, that I was invited to contribute to this volume strikes me as persuasive evidence that something that we did in Tuscaloosa worked; for while my own research is hardly characterized by the forms that one might reasonably imagine the digital humanities might take in our field today, the collective digital work carried out in our Department, by a variety of actors (from faculty and staff to guests, students, grads, and especially our various undergraduate student workers), strikes me as a fitting example of how assorted digital tools affect more than just an individual faculty member’s research and teaching.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 So the goal of this chapter, much like our reinvention itself, is both modest and ambitious. Initially, it is merely to outline just what we did do over the past twenty years, making evident not only why web-based/digital projects suited what was originally a very small and regionally marginal B.A.-granting unit, but—thinking back to its more ambitious goals—also how they helped us not just to save a Department but helped to position it to triple the size of its tenure-track/tenured faculty and, in the Fall of 2017, launch a new M.A. in which these very digital tools figure prominently. So this chapter’s aim turns out to be rather more aspiring than simply a list of projects; instead, in the midst of doing that, it also makes an argument for why a faculty member who sees their “serious” research and teaching to lie elsewhere might also learn to code, or at least learn enough about Dreamweaver (let alone Fireworks, Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, some FTP programs, Garage Band, WordPress, Python, etc.) to be just a little dangerous. For although we all earned a Ph.D. by focusing on mastering a narrow specialty, and some of us think that being a professor entails each of us diving even deeper into our own particular rabbit hole, many of us have likely found that our professional success—along with the success of the institutions that employ us and in which we teach our students—also hinges on acquiring some rather unexpected and collaborative skills along the way.

2. The Digital Pebbles

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 As already indicated, the first thing on our list was a new website—one of what I’ll simply characterize as the various pebbles that, over the past two decades, we’ve successively tossed in the water in our effort to get this Department back on its feet. Although 2001 was certainly not the earliest years of the web, it was well before Facebook let alone the very term “social media”—in fact, Facebook’s precursor, Facemash, wasn’t created by then Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg until the Fall of 2003 and it wasn’t until 2006 that Facebook opened its membership ranks to almost anyone (instead of just those with a .edu email address). But even though we were still using hardcopy phonebooks and printed course catalogs, the almost limitless footprint of the online world was already pretty apparent.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 So we reasoned that if we were trying to recruit students (whether as majors or just to enroll them in our lower-level Core courses—enrollments that so dominate most Religious Studies Department’s credit hour production that they can’t be ignored), let alone assure the administration (which included a brand new Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences—a college with many Departments far larger and thus more consequential than our own) that it had made a wise decision hiring an outside Chair instead of just closing the Department, reclaiming its space, and distributing its tenure-track faculty and staff to other units, then, in relatively short order, we needed something that someone in another building, either next door or far across campus, could see and which would help to provide them with evidence that their investment was already paying off. (I have in mind, here, other faculty and Department chairs, the Dean, and the Provost/Vice President for Academic Affairs, not to mention our faculty themselves, since finding a faculty member’s page is more than likely the first place someone will start when looking for information on them or while trying to contact them.) So while assessing the state of our physical facilities, reviewing faculty productivity reports from the year before, becoming familiar with the budget, learning to work with the staff, deciding what Department procedures needed to be invented, meeting and advising students, etc., it was obvious to this incoming Chair that the website needed attention, for the few pages that it then had relied on so many different styles and fonts and image sizes, not to mention resolution, that inconsistency painted an unflattering picture of a unit that was trying to instill a rather different image in people’s minds.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 So step one was a short term fix: reassigning a faculty member—Kurtis Schaeffer, in fact, who was then in just his second year as an Assistant Professor but who went on to become the longtime Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia—from one semester’s regular courses; he was someone who, despite being a specialist in medieval Tibetan Buddhism, was also willing to learn enough about creating a website to take a stab at adapting a basic university template to our needs and then populating it with consistent and thus professional content. Step two was then commissioning people on campus who did this for a living to come up with a design that might set our Department apart, which included a logo (but what our campus’s recently-established branding office now tells us we need to call “a graphic element”). The site they came up with—a stark black and white design that we felt would age well, and which included a stylized version of the late-19th century building in which we were located (an image that intentionally avoided the collection of diverse religious symbols that so many Departments in our field opt for when devising an identifying emblem of some sort)—lasted for many years and was only redesigned in 2017-18; in fact, it was a redesign that prompted us to reconsider the work now done by a website, since our former site, inasmuch as it predated social media, had to serve far more purposes than do sites today. For example, now we just put up a blog post instead of making a new html page filled with photos from the most recent student event or public lecture—but I’m getting ahead of myself.[5]

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Although the website was our only online presence for many years, because it predated the arrival of Learning Management Systems (LMS) on campus we were able to gain some of that eventual functionality by having a password protected folder created on the site, thereby allowing us to move reserved readings online as PDFs. (At that time they were retained as hard copies in the main library, which students would photocopy on their own). Actually, we did this several years prior to the rest of the institution catching up. (Moral of the story: there’s a nimbleness to the digital world, if you’re willing to take advantage of it.) So although our site’s “secure” folder (filled with each class’s photocopied articles/readings) and our “pdf” folder (filled with public-facing syllabi or flyers) have now been replaced by centralized technologies at the university (aside: what we gain from IT centralization comes at the price of what we inevitably lose from that very centralization), back then they introduced an ease into at least one aspect of our jobs and also into the lives of students. For although few were then using laptops in classes and iPads and smartphones had yet to be invented, and thus no one was relying exclusively on digital readings, the Department was able to take a significant step away from expensive textbooks and their continual (and sometimes suspect) replacement by new editions.[6]

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Then, in early 2009, the Department created a page on Facebook; I’d joined back in the summer of 2005, mainly to stay in touch with family back in Canada. In fact, I can still see the August 5, 2005, post from one of our majors at the time:

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 You, Dr. M, are the first of my many professors past and present to venture out into the previously uncharted territory known to modern man as thefacebook.com; I salute your bravery, sir.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 But social media hadn’t taken off all that much until a few years after that and it was only then that we realized that this was also a place for the Department to have a presence, to more effectively communicate with our own students and also with our graduates. (Seeing Facebook as a place to convey an image of the Department to people beyond our campus wasn’t something we initially thought much about, to be honest. But now we do, of course.) Not long after that our undergraduate student association established it’s own Facebook presence. We didn’t start up a Twitter account for the Department (which happened in May 2014) until Michael Altman joined the faculty in 2013-14 and persuaded us that we needed to think of the different audiences that each social media site helped us to reach. (He also organized a contest for students to name my Twitter account, since he also convinced me to join.) What’s interesting to note, however, is that the student association had been tweeting, based on our students’ own initiative, since July 2011—but we obviously hadn’t paid the proper attention to the signals that they had sent us by joining up on their own.[7] So this marked the first time that we started thinking far more intentionally about social media, especially reaching audiences beyond those who already felt some affinity for us (such as current students and our grads).

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 This had long been apparent at the website, of course, which by then had grown to something like 400 pages (making them became a bit of an after-hours hobby—the sort of work that we never really tend to track as work), many of which provided substantive information on the field and which were aimed at people far from Alabama (as well as providing our faculty with plenty of resources, such as searchable online catalogs for the Department’s library and fairly large video/DVD collection). But we had not yet really thought through social media as a complement (or replacement?) to the Department’s site—a site which, being so large, had by then admittedly become a bit of a task to manage and keep up-to-date. So, we did some thinking about what to name the new Twitter site; we were surprised to learn that @studyreligion (notably in the imperative) had not been taken; it was not only nicely in keeping with a motto we’d come up with over a decade before, Studying Religion in Culture,[8] but it also made a strong statement that the Alabama experiment might to have implications in other Departments. After all, ours was hardly the only one in the country in which major/graduate numbers had been declining. But, as we looked around, it seemed we were among a rather small number that were taking an entrepreneurial, and intentionally Department-wide, approach to social media as a way to do something about it. And so @studyreligion was born and in October 2015 it made its first appearance on Instagram as well.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The story so far: a complete website redesign and revision, accomplished initially by faculty as service to the Department, led to enhanced features that impacted our teaching, and which was later complemented by Facebook (2009), Twitter (2014), and Instagram (2015).[9]

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 At this point we also need to take into account the May 2012 launch of our Department’s blog, during Ted Trost’s tenure as Department chair (2009-2013); set-up and first managed by our colleague Steven Ramey, it’s initial aim was to provide a place for conversation about the theme of that year’s lecture series: the relevance of the Humanities.[10] But it soon grew beyond that as more faculty, and then students, grads, and even invited guests, began posting pieces that they’d written especially for this venue, on a wide variety of topics, either briefly summarizing current faculty research or applying class content to understand day-to-day life, politics, and pop culture.[11] This was how WordPress first came into our orbit—a software used in our College’s technology office (called etech, and distinguished from the university’s central Office for Information Technology); so, with their assistance to customize the theme and provide just a little more functionality, we added an active blog to our social media presence, making even more evident that the days of a website handling all of our online duties had passed; for, as noted above, adding a quick WordPress blog post immediately following an event, containing photos and captions, maybe even an embedded video, and which then automatically hits Facebook and Twitter, was far simpler than html coding in Dreamweaver.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 And then, about the same, three of the faculty members (Steven Ramey, Merinda Simmons, and myself) joined up with colleagues elsewhere (Craig Martin, Monica Miller [who later left the group], Leslie Dorrough Smith, and Vaia Touna) to form a research collaborative that we named Culture on the Edge; with the help of funding from Trost, who was chair at that time, a working meeting at the University of Alabama took place, a common book project was launched, and the group set to work trying to think through the application of Jean-Francois Bayart’s work on identity formation (notably his The Illusion of Cultural Identity [2005]) to the study of religion. The reasoning was that if, as all of us agreed we ought to, we dropped the pretension that religion is an autonomous and privileged domain and, instead, presumed it to be but one more mundane social site, then what might the work of a scholar of religion look like? A year later, in May 2013, the group launched a blog of its own (hosted by the University of Alabama) and, for the next three years, amassed a pretty intensive series of pithy but intellectually thick posts, written for a wide audience, in which the group’s approach was exemplified and explored.[12] Although, strictly speaking, not a Department initiative, Touna eventually joined our faculty (in the Fall of 2015), bringing the UA contingent of the group to four, by which time the move from studying identity as a stable quality to studying (as Bayart phrases it) “acts of identification,” had made headway throughout other parts of the Department—both in our teaching and our writing. “Classification is a political act” some of our undergraduate students then started responding, on social media, to news stories they’d find and post online, tagging the Department, influenced by what they were learning in our classes. And while those classes certainly drew on detailed historical or rich ethnographic information, this material was seen not as self-evidently interesting but, instead, used as a pedagogical means to another end, i.e., as noted in the opening of this chapter, as an e.g. of some wider process in which social actors, embedded in contexts not of their making, made moves and engaged in contests. Coming as it did just over a decade after our reinvention began and resulting from initial conversations between Simmons, Ramey, and myself—three colleagues, all at different career stages—concerning things we had in common despite the different areas in which we did our work, Culture on the Edge nicely exemplifies where I’m going in this chapter, for the form our work takes in the online world has had substantive and long-lasting effect on the content of our research and our teaching.[13] And the fact that a variety of thematically-related posts from the group’s blog turned into a series of small books, aimed at the classroom (each with an original introduction and substantive afterword by the volume editor), makes the benefits of cross-pollinating from the digital world evident once again.[14]

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 But again, I’m getting ahead of myself.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Returning to the various digital pebbles that we’ve tossed out there, there’s also Vimeo: in the summer of 2012, to kick off the new semester, we posted our first “welcome back” video to that new account, borrowing the recording equipment from a student media lab on campus. The aim was to surprise returning students, a little, or at least a little more than just putting up different bulletin board content in anticipation of their arrival in August—not realizing that, as with the other digital initiatives, our intended audience would, eventually, reach far beyond our campus. I drove a student worker (Andie Alexander, now working on her own Ph.D. at Emory) around town, with her leaning out the passenger side window, filming local landmarks, and she then learned enough about iMovie to edit it, give it an older sepia look, and pair it with John Sebastian’s old theme from “Welcome Back Kotter” (on TV from 1975 to 1979 and John Travolta’s big break). Faculty names were listed as if we were co-stars and the Dean’s name appeared in the credits as the executive producer. Eventually, the Department purchased its own camera, tripods, and mics (a Zoom mic and a lapel mic), started regularly filming our guests’ public lectures, doing some interviews with them, and creating a variety of short series featuring our students and faculty (looking around almost any prof’s office there’s likely an interesting story associated with each trinket on their book shelves…). Each summer we also make a new welcome back video—usually featuring any new faculty member we’ve hired. And, as with previous social media ventures, we again learned that the success of any one venture is linked to how a coherent, collective wagon can be pulled by them all, e.g., a new video is embedded in a blog post and it then hits Facebook and Twitter.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Now, as I briefly noted earlier, Altman has moved us into the latest social media direction with the Study Religion podcast (hosted at SoundCloud and also available for download on iTunes).[15] With the tenth episode now in production (the seventh, of which we were quite proud, focused on a variety of scholars’ memories of Jonathan Z. Smith [1938-2017]), we have high hopes for the site inasmuch as it makes a statement about the Department but in the context of the field at large (both in the U.S. and beyond); for although the work of students and faculty are certainly featured, guests to campus appear as well, along with conversations on topics that range widely and which take place far from our home in Manly Hall—again, making evident, we hope, that the approach we’ve developed here at the University of Alabama pays off when applied elsewhere, inasmuch as we might learn something new about seemingly mundane, culture-wide processes of social formation if we approach our topic in just this or that manner.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 There’s still many challenges ahead of us, of course, so I don’t want to get lost in the list of digital initiatives that I’ve just put before readers. To name but one such challenge: the faculty involved in these initiatives—more or less involving everyone in the Department, in varying ways, but with Richard Newton (who joined us in August 2018) now taking the lead, especially on producing short, engaging videos for social media that promote our courses and which are aimed at incoming students—have active research and publishing programs of their own, not to mention their teaching and supervision of students. Even recognizing the self-beneficial role played by carrying out Department service one still must take into account that the management of these social media sites takes time and effort (especially throughout the summer when faculty normally are not engaged in performing all that much service). How to ensure that does not get out of hand and that the pay-off is in proportion to the work invested is something of which we’re certainly aware. Another issue (already mentioned) is how each of these complements the others, rather than repeats (or even undermines) them. While some posts and projects are better suited to certain sorts of content, others attract a distinct audience; so, while a shotgun approach to social media seems inevitable (for one never knows which post will stick with which reader), ensuring that one’s efforts are well invested means trying to make sure all facets of this initiative play their own role while also contributing to an overall impression of what we’re up to in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama—an impression no longer simply in the minds of administrators who were once asked to question whether the unit had a future and students unsure whether to do their major with us but now also in the minds of graduate students and faculty around the country and around the world, who have found us only because we’ve taken our presence online seriously. After all, there are many Departments in the country, let alone elsewhere in the world, yet people somehow know that we exist and are interested in what we’re up to in Tuscaloosa. Hopefully, we have the substance in our individual work to back-up the presence that we have online, so that the tweet, the post, the picture, the video, or the audio file are not just digitally accessible but intellectually useful and provocative of thought.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 But enough with the list of what we’ve tackled; what about their effects?

3. Institutional Ripples

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 These various pebbles certainly produced ripples. The challenge was in trying to get them all going in the same direction and reinforcing each other—either that or, as if often the case, figuring out whether (and if so, then how) to follow the direction in which they were moving us. While certainly not wanting to portray our work as omnisciently managing all of the above moving parts, reflecting with the benefit of hindsight on the past couple of decades, it seems possible to discern a variety of beneficial effects that our assorted digital experiments have had—whether alone or, as has increasingly become apparent over time, in concert.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 First off, early on our Department became known on campus (which, given that we were possibly due to be closed just a couple years earlier, is an accomplishment on its own) for web-based projects—to such an extent that, within a couple years of arriving, I was asked to chair a three person committee that made sweeping recommendations for overhauling how technology was managed and utilized throughout the College of Arts and Sciences. By that time I’d also served on an A&S committee working to establish new relationships with the College of Continuing Studies, which built and managed all online courses (though Departments provided the content and the instructors); like many others in higher education, our Department was wary of moving to the online environment (especially because such courses competed with our regular lecture classes, let alone because no matter how well designed, they couldn’t match standing in front of a student and answering their question), but we already had several old and poorly delivered distance learning courses (i.e., the once common model of a textbook and a booklet arriving for the student in the mail) and because distance learning plays an important role in some students’ education, we at least saw this as an opportunity to revamp these courses and turn them into respectable and engaging pedagogical experiences for students far from campus—thus a good that we achieved through this relationship.[16]

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 So, ripple #1: the Department quickly developed an identity with the College, helping the College to achieve some of its aims while also working to benefit the Department and its own goals in the process. (Aside: anyone familiar with working in large institutions will recognize that not every unit’s goals completely overlap or complement the institution’s other units; making this happen, or at least minimizing the effects of goals that run counter to one another, sometimes takes craft and effort.)

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 This first effect was crucial, since achieving our primary goal—increasing demand for classes and increasing the number of majors and graduates (i.e., recruitment)—was a slow process, sometimes with only incremental gains that took years to accomplish. So, while working diligently to accomplish those necessary goals (or what we’re now told to call outcomes), through a wide variety of strategies, the more instantaneous effect of paying attention to the web helped to secure the confidence of an administration that took a chance protecting what was then our little (and, at least back then, very exposed) Department. It demonstrated ingenuity and actually helped move the College of Arts and Sciences in its own new direction. (While the pay-off of such work is never guaranteed, I have learned over the years that, despite possible disagreements, it is never a bad idea to build up a small store of good karma with others in your institutional setting.)

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 A second effect concerned what we all now refer to as retention, i.e., the small number of majors we already had, plus any newly acquired majors, needed a reason to stay with us. Given our small size then and for many years prior to that (i.e., the Department had been just three faculty for decades, was 4.25 faculty when I arrived in 2001 [we had two cross-appointments], though now we’re eleven with a full-time Instructor as well), we exerted little control over our own subject domain; a variety of courses from across our campus therefore focused on the topic of religion, offered by a variety of Departments (units that, to this day, still exert territorial control over some classes that other Departments of Religious Studies might reasonably see as their own).[17] So students could satisfy an interest in studying such things as the history of Christianity (Department of History), the study of myths and rituals (Department of Anthropology), or religion in ancient Rome (Classics) by taking courses in other Departments, and, perhaps, enrolling in other majors. Again, given that this was long before social networks were something that we talked about, the new Department webpage, with regular and timely updates, candid pictures from student events, temporary (and sometimes fun) fake homepages announcing events or new courses, and substantive pages on just what the study of religion was (and wasn’t) functioned to unify our current students, in an almost Durkheimian fashion, by prominently featuring the logo that we settled on (which was also displayed around the Department as well), making plain who we were, who they were, and where you were when you landed on our page. (Given the standardized web template that units on campus must now use, thanks to those who work to brand the university and not just its various Departments, we have strived to ensure that the newly designed page continue to reflect this hard-won identity.) The engaging nature of our classes and personable style of our faculty played a significant role in this, of course, as did the fact that we quickly established a Department lounge, but I think that it would be shortsighted to downplay the role that the website played in providing these students with a virtual home.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Ripple #2, then? The establishment of an effective virtual totem of considerable reach.[18]

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 The third effect was also focused on students, for despite an early course release for a faculty member to create an initial website, and even though I made a number of the pages on the site myself (actually, before publishing an intro book in the field I even created an online version that was on the web for years, for free), it was undergraduate student workers who played a key role in building and maintaining the site. For the ability to engage a work-study student was soon followed by hiring one and sometimes two part-time students in the main office, often doing so with one throughout the summer as well—they tackled a wide variety of projects, of course, as any student working in a Department’s main office will, from running errands on campus to making photocopies, sorting the mail and answering phones. But learning Dreamweaver for web design, using a FTP (file transfer protocol) software and Fireworks for handling images soon became a requirement for students who were working in the Department. Now, Photoshop has replaced Fireworks and WordPress has almost completely replaced Dreamweaver, but since we now make movies that means Final Cut Pro has also become a required software. And Altman’s initial experiments in podcasting has even involved students as well (from reading and recording their own work to doing the intro and credits), meaning that learning to use GarageBand and other audio software will also be required. Inevitably the students we hired would learn far more about each software once we had taught them the basics about html coding and so, in some cases, they’d graduate and put those same skills to work in other degrees, with other Departments, or even in jobs. In fact, I recall one major and former main office student worker whose first job after graduation was working in a real estate office and her ability to make and manage their webpage played a role in her getting that job. While I wouldn’t want to overplay this hand, realizing that students were not just helping us maintain our site but were acquiring and using these digital skills on their own has played an important role in how we most recently charted the future course of the Department.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 So, ripple #3: the digital emphasis provided practical, transferable skills for our students.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Recognizing this third effect—an effect that was not initially apparent of course, since our minds were then just on the task of getting it done and not on the longer term effects of students learning how to get it done (“teach a man to fish…” and all that)—marks a shift in the role that our various digital initiatives have played in the Department; for, at the outset, students were just the target audience for our various initiatives—we wanted them to know what courses were being offered, to see the events taking place, to learn more about each faculty member’s research, so as to consider taking our classes or even entertain becoming a major. But, slowly, we realized that we were transitioning to students, always under the faculty’s direction, becoming not only the readers but also the providers of the content and the producers of the sites—a shift that quickly puts their skills in focus (both for writing online to reach wide audiences and for learning the software necessary to distribute the material online). In part this was out of necessity—after all, we needed assistance to manage these sites—but in part it was also a conscious effort on our part to, for example, refashion campus-wide initiatives (e.g., the now national trend toward emphasizing undergraduate research as a way to retain students and improve graduation rates), to help us to make plain, by making public, what had been going on in our classes all along. (In our experience, this is also the key to the nation-wide assessment initiative: determine how to effectively publicize the work we’re already doing rather than inventing things to satisfy credentialing agencies.) Although we’re known among those in our classes for emphasizing writing, the student blog makes that clear to a far wider audience, helping us to showcase our students’ research and writing and doing so by student workers preparing and posting their peer’s work. And although it has detracted from the site’s “cool factor,” with moms and dads now on Facebook, we regularly reach them as well—and families are not an unimportant audience. (In our case, a few families have so welcomed our work with their children that very kind endowments have resulted.) The video initiative might be an even better example, inasmuch as no faculty member has ever learned the ins and outs of Final Cut Pro but, instead, a student worker, with some assistance from a media lab in our main library, learned it on her own, after transitioning from iMovie; then, because she overlapped with her successor, she passed the skills on to him. And he passed them along to another. And now, we have the fourth and fifth students in this successive tradition of student workers who pass along their video production skills—working under faculty supervisor, to be sure, but more as a producer of a film might work not only with a director but also a cinematographer, sound engineer, and editor (all roles our student workers play). The skills now largely operate well apart from faculty. So while I wouldn’t claim that the Department’s current emphasis on what others might characterize as skills-based education is wholly due to our digital emphases—for, from the start, focusing not simply on mastery of data domains but also on learning how to define, describe, compare, interpret, and explain was something that we emphasized across our classes (e.g., see McCutcheon 2001, chpt. 13 for my early attempt to discuss integrating the skills that, in my reading, Jonathan Z. Smith had long advocated)—seeing the practical effects of undergraduate students having learned these digital skills certainly reinforced our sense that a methodological focus would be beneficial to their education and, hopefully, careers and lives.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Ripple #4? The shift from delivering information to students to being collaborators with them.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 And this brings me to the last, but perhaps the most significant and lasting, effect; for combining much of the above—e.g., grappling with nation-wide criticisms of the Humanities’ relevance, our Department’s emphasis on skills, the role students played in assisting our various digital initiatives, the shift many faculty came to share by studying situated acts of identification rather than identities that are simply expressed, and the practical benefits we witnessed these skills having for our students—we began seriously discussing (back in 2013-14) developing a new M.A. degree program that might explicitly integrate much of what we had learned over the past decade or so. For while it could certainly be questioned whether the world needed another graduate degree in the study of religion (due to declining academic job opportunities and the increased expense of tuition), it has not yet been established whether scholars of religion are incapable of using their skills to train students in social analysis that’s accessible to wide audiences—which implicitly makes the case for what we, in the Humanities, have to contribute. So, after several years of planning, led by Merinda Simmons (who chaired the committee, joined by Ramey and Altman), our new M.A. was approved by the University of Alabama Board of Trustees and also by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education—the latter being the very group that, back in the late 1990s, had come to the conclusion that our Department was “non-viable,” due to a severe shortage of majors and thus graduates, and that we should therefore lose our undergraduate major. The degree that they approved, and which was launched in the Fall of 2017 with an incoming class of three students (two of whom were our own B.A. grads), involves two required foundations courses in the first semester, one focusing on social theory and the other on the digital skills necessary to make a contribution to the public humanities (designed and then taught, in alternating years, by Altman and Nathan Loewen—who, in 2019, began his own “big data” research project, working with one of our B.A. majors—and again we see the effect of working with students).[19] While learning of the scholarly literature and debates around such categories as agency, authorship, intension, race, gender, class, identity, etc., in the social theory class (categories of analysis that we expect our students to use in the eventual thesis they produce in their second year—a course Ramey and Simmons share) the public humanities foundation course ensures that, by the time they complete it, students have not only acquired skills to create and manage a variety of digital projects—from, yes, tackling GIS projects and big data to producing a podcast or obtaining a domain name and making a website of their own—but will also have developed an entrepreneurial attitude toward mastering new technologies and incorporating them in their own research, whether in data gathering, analysis, or presentation. (For the software they’ll work with in the course, all of which are widely available to the students, are hardly the only digital tools they could use to get the job done.) Also, their M.A. thesis can either be a traditional piece of writing (ideally, we’ve decided, a more practical article-length piece of original work that can be submitted to a journal) or an original and substantial digital project (one that, though presenting their findings in a novel manner, still requires the same sort of research that scholars have done for ages). Given that so many of our undergraduate majors have not gone into the study of religion for a career but yet continue to report to us how important the skills were that they learned in our classes, we’ve reasoned that, for it to succeed, this M.A. should be of interest both to students hoping to pursue a Ph.D. in the study of religion immediately after as well as to those who wish to work in any number of other fields where critical thinking and creative but effective communication skills are valued[20]—making clear how, in a way that was surely unplanned, our early and ongoing digital initiatives have fed back into the degree programs of the Department itself, not just helping to rejuvenate it but transforming it in the process, opening a variety of futures we’d not anticipated whatsoever but which we’re now pursuing. Five students enrolled in the Fall of 2018 and four more in Fall 2019 (with all but one of the enrollees in the most recent class coming from outside the Department).

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 And so we come to ripple #5: The unforeseen feedback loop whereby what started as a variety of discrete digital initiatives coalesced into a refined identity for the Department and a new graduate degree program that further sets us apart in the field today and thereby continues to model for others possible futures for the academic study of religion. In fact, it’s now so central to who we see ourselves to be that contributing to what we’re calling our public/digital humanities initiative is not just shaping a new request for a new tenure-track line in the Department but it has also inspired Altman to propose a new B.A. crash course on digital tools for undergrads (being offered for the first time in Fall 2019—the only such course on campus, as far as we can tell), as well as putting one of our current M.A. students in the position of being an appealing summer hire to work full-time in one of our campus’s tech offices and another interning with Alabama Heritage magazine and working with a local museum in northeast Alabama for the summer. If we add to this that one of three annual early career workshops, to be offered over the coming four years to four different groups of applicants, will be modeled after our M.A. degree’s course on digital tools as part of a $350,000 Luce Foundation grant that Department received in the summer of 2019 (with Altman as the PI but with six or our faculty acting as workshop mentors)[21] then it should be obvious that a set of specific digital tools initially used to help reinvent the Department’s online presence has turned out to be the major theme driving that reinvention’s success all across the unit—a success that includes an enhanced entrepreneurial attitude among the faculty as well, evidenced in the increasingly novel and bold research projects that they’re tackling as well as their pedagogical experiments in the classroom, with or without the use of technology.[22]

4. Still Learning to Fly

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 And so we return to the epigraph, which, by now, hopefully makes a little more sense to readers; for what has become a series of inter-related and collective initiatives that help to keep our Department central to discussions of how to renew the study of religion in the current higher ed environment (i.e., moving away from a descriptive, world religions model and, instead, investigating so-called religion-making, and even identity-making, processes and strategies) first started out as a variety of isolated digital experiments, usually linked to a discrete need and a lone professor with time on his or her hands. Whether the eventual overlaps between these projects were planned or (as was sometimes the case) sheer happenstance, we’ve tried to put our own social theory to good use in understanding the conditions of our own institution—conditions that, as with any social group, change and which sometimes present unanticipated opportunities to the social actor who is paying attention. And these are the skills that we’ve tried to convey to undergraduates for the past 20 years and which we hope to refine with the graduate students who now decide to join us in Manly Hall—with an emphasis on the qualifications implied by “tried to” and “hope to,” since the experiment that we call the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama is ongoing and we’re still learning much.


36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Bayart, Jean-Francois. 2005. The Illusion of Cultural Identity, trans. Steven Rendall, Janet Roitman, Cynthia Schoch, and Jonathan Derrick. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 Lease, Gary. 1994. “The History of ‘Religious’ Consciousness and the Diffusion of Culture: Strategies for Surviving Dissolution.” Historical Reflections/Reflexions Historique 20: 453-79.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 McCutcheon, Russell T. 2001. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 McCutcheon, Russell T. 2015. “Afterword: Reinventing the Study of Religion in Alabama.” In Writing Religion: The Case for the Critical Study of Religion, edited by Steven Ramey, 208-222. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 McCutcheon, Russell T. 2018. “Why I Blog.” In Russell T. McCutcheon,“Religion” in Theory and in Practice: Demystifying the Field for Burgeoning Academics. Sheffield, UK: Equinox Publishing.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Touna, Vaia. 2018. “Preface.” In The Problem of Nostalgia in the Study of Identity: Towards a Dynamic Theory of People and Place, edited by Vaia Touna. Sheffield, UK: Equinox Publishing.

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 [1] I appreciate that the editors not only invited this contribution but also stood by it when the anonymous outside readers reported that it was not scholarly enough. While analysis and conclusions about the field as a whole are certainly included, the starting point of this chapter includes reflections on a time when, and a situation that, long predates the thing today commonly called “the digital humanities,” in hopes of prompting readers to understand the developments undoubtedly chronicled in detail in other chapters as having a beginning and a history, not to mention practical effects that impact the profession and its members’ careers as well as the settings in which they carry out their work.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 [2] This was due to its inadequate number of majors and thus BA graduates—the latter being the coin of our particular corner of the higher ed realm; on our situation, back then, at the University of Alabama, see McCutcheon 2015.

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 [3] Because their ranks are in a constant state of flux, members are always in need of injecting new energy and new resources into them (e.g., to recruit and initiate new members), making what the late Gary Lease (1994) once characterized as a social formation’s emergent phase a constant, inasmuch as any group’s so-called dominant phase is just the result of a continual state of successful reinvention.

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 [4] While I wouldn’t want to over-estimate our effect, a casual look at other Departments’ presence online makes evident, at least to me, that people have been paying attention (such as the time the American Academy of Religion’s head office contacted us for advice on the video equipment it needed to begin a new initiative of their own). My hope is that this chapter provides further incentive for those who understand their own Department’s identity and existence not to be on autopilot—a view held by a surprisingly large number of faculty who seem to take the units in which they do their work for granted.

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 [5] See McCutcheon 2018 for more background on the choice of a scholar to blog—a venue seen by some as either passé or beneath the dignity of a serious scholar.

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 [6] In fact, at the close of the semester when I first drafted this chapter, as I reviewed student evaluations for all of our classes, comments from an undergraduate seminar relying completely on PDF readings posted online stood out, with a student thanking us for not making them pay for “a $200 textbook” (as the student phrased it).

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 [7] Students continue to send signals, such as the current generation’s migration away from Facebook, which challenges us to continue to be relevant on social media platforms while recognizing that older alums are still on such sites as Facebook.

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 [8] The italics were meant to convey the distinctive approach we were then hoping to develop at Alabama, in contrast to the, in my view, problematic Tillichian model associated with the more common nomenclature of religion and culture.

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 [9] Side note: the University of Alabama’s Twitter account is eager for content that promotes the campus, so not long after our Twitter account was launched it became clear that they’d happily retweet posts, especially interesting photos of campus. Given that the Department had long ago gotten into the habit of regularly changing the cover pictures on our Facebook accounts—after all, not just content posts and links communicate activity on a page—it wasn’t much effort to start tweeting pictures periodically at the university and appending the #TodayatUA hashtag. The result? While it’s unclear exactly what it is worth to a unit, the university and its followers certainly know that this one Department exists.

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 [10] The first post on the site, from May 7, 2012, was by Ramey and entitled “What is the Purpose of Education?”; see: https://religion.ua.edu/blog/2012/05/07/what-is-the-purpose-of-education/ (accessed June 14, 2019).

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 [11] The blog (https://religion.ua.edu/blog/) has had well over 150,000 hits since then, with over 1,000 posts on the site, one garnering 2,000 hits in a single day, and another over 3,000 visits in total. We find that it has been an excellent vehicle for continuing to engage students after they’ve graduated, either by how faculty and current student posts solicit their comments on social media or their willingness to write guests posts.

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 [12] The blog (https://edge.ua.edu/), which all along had a pedagogical tone (hoping to reach newcomers at whatever level), is still active but, as the group expanded, has been reinvented as a peer review blog working with early career scholars who find the group’s approach useful.

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 [13] The Culture on the Edge site, now with 1,000 posts, has had 277,000 hits since going online in May of 2013, with the single most visited post receiving 1,900 hits in one day and the all-time most popular one chalking up a total of 10,500 visits; see the preface to Touna 2018 for more on that site.

55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 [14] Two of the volumes were edited by myself and one by Steven Ramey; the books appear in Vaia Touna’s book series, “Working with Culture on the Edge” (published by Equinox of the UK) and are entitled: Fabricating Origins, Fabricating Identity, and Fabricating Difference.

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 [15] Although also available on other platforms, you can find the podcast at https://soundcloud.com/studyreligion; the seven extended, unedited interviews for the J. Z. Smith episode were then used in a book I am co-editing with Emily Crews, an Instructor on our faculty, entitled Remembering J. Z. Smith: A Career and its Consequence (forthcoming in 2020 from Equinox).

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 [16] For a while, Departments on our campus lost the right to limit these courses to Distance Learning (DL) students, thereby allowing all students to enroll and, possibly, bypass a lecture course; that right, however, was eventually reinstated and so our small number of online courses (with limited seating) continue to play an important role in our teaching mission while serving as an opportunity for a small set of off-campus instructors to earn some extra money and continue to be involved in university instruction.

58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 [17] We see here a common (and for me problematic) model of religion, inasmuch as it is presumed to be an inner, pan-human experience, only secondarily expressed, and thereby something that virtually anyone—inasmuch as they are human themselves—can talk about authoritatively.

59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 [18] In fact, it was so effective that, upon learning a couple years ago that our longtime site was being replaced, a group of alums (some of whom graduated over a decade ago and many of whom had worked on our site under my direction) quickly started an initiative to petition the Dean to let us keep the site. The result was that the new site tipped its hat enough to the look of the old site that everyone ended up being happy with the change.

60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 [19] After learning of the JSTOR Data for Research (DfR) site (https://www.jstor.org/dfr/), Loewen (half of whose teaching time is loaned to the College for technology projects) developed a project using this tool to analyze the contents of entire journals in the Philosophy of Religion (his specialty area); see the June 4, 2019, post on our Department blog for a description of his project and a narrative of how it developed/how he acquired the skills necessary to carry it out (https://religion.ua.edu/blog/2019/06/04/reading-writing-and-r-how-i-began-to-study-the-philosophy-of-religion-with-digital-tools/; accessed July 2, 2019).

61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 [20] At present, we have graduated three M.A. students, with one enrolling in a Ph.D. in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, one working full-time in a museum, and the last entering architecture school.

62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 [21] The workshop, initially piloted with a small group of participants in the Spring of 2019 (with matching funding from the College and the Department) is entitled American Examples. Learn more at: https://blogs.religion.ua.edu/ae/; see the June 2019 Luce announcement here: https://www.hluce.org/news/articles/luce-foundation-awards-14-million-new-grants/.

63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 [22] My thanks to Mike Altman for this final observation, as part of his comments after reading an earlier draft of this chapter.

Source: https://opr.degruyter.com/digital-humanities-and-research-methods-in-religious-studies/russell-t-mccutcheon-digital-pebbles-and-institutional-ripples/