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Not So Lively?

28 Nov

Promises to get back to blogging are easy to break. I’ve made them before only to find myself staring at months of silence. I’m not about to make another one now. This blog has been a home for many works-in-progress ideas. When I needed an outlet for exploration, this was an ideal forum. I struggled, as we all can, to maintain a steady volume of output. The ebb and flow of posts is essential for long-term readers. As a writer I am learning to be reliable, but it is a long process.

Part of the challenge–which I recently discussed with a colleague or two at the 2014 meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Diego–is the paralysis that can come when writing a certain kind of blog post. I have preferred to write lengthier posts that do a bit of the initial free-writing on a topic I’d like to explore further (Demons in video games, for instance, or the viral qualities of cult formation seen in Twitch Plays Pokemon). This preference makes it much harder to be satisfied with your posts. When have I had my say on a topic that I’m just beginning to write about? Am I using my blog as an “open research notebook” for myself or should I consider my audience as I write?

For me the paralysis of writing often emerges when I fail to find a suitable way to balance the demands of audience and personal research notes. The first requires clarity and a willingness to explain context while avoiding jargon. The second makes more rapid progress while shutting out potential conversations. Rather than walk the line I have often chosen not to take a first step and my writing suffered.

Being out of the classroom (we knew we were moving mid-semester so I lost quite a bit of time when I could have been teaching) also diminished my desire to write. Speaking with folks on sabbatical reminded me how integral the conversations in the classroom have been to my own writing process. This blog has been most active when I have been working intensely with students who challenge me to present my ideas more succinctly and seek out points of reference for their frame of experience. Having begun teaching again this fall I feel my desire to write has been rejuvenated. I am also brimming with ideas, many of which are spurred by the work my students have done.

If this experiment has not been so lively lately, I am certainly to blame. But I have not been idle and I hope to be able to share the fruits of other orchards with visitors when they arrive. I still hope to transfer my digital life over to my self-hosted site; I still work on the details of my Spiritual Warfare Archive; I am moving forward in the development of multiple writing projects; and I have exciting partnerships with folks elsewhere on the web such as SacredAndSequential.org and SacredMatters. Perhaps I should shed more light on the shadowy development process, but, as many of us feel, it is often easier to *do* the things rather than discuss them. Self-reflection is a skill to be mastered just as much as blogging.

Back in the Saddle

5 Mar

A hearty hello to all! Expect regular posts again as I return to blogging form after travel, holidays, family visits, injury, sickness, distraction, non-blog-able work, tutoring, and, yes, a bit of procrastination. Today’s post is a medley of thoughts, mostly inappropriate for a “content” post as I normally offer. Enjoy!

  1. Why 1,000 words?
    • If you’re a member of the American Academy of Religion, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. 1,000 words is four  beefy page-long paragraphs of 250 words. It’s the length of the requested paper proposal summary for the AAR’s annual meeting. I must confess–and I’m taking risks here by saying taboo things–that it stinks. Other conferences, even those that meet concurrently with the AAR like the SBL or ASCH, do not put this undue burden of bloated pre-thinking upon its proposers. Consider this for a second. In March you write 1,000 words about a presentation you will give in November. And yet that November presentation itself will only be slightly longer, maybe 2,000-2,5000 words. What’s the point of only giving us half the space? If we’re just suggesting the idea, wouldn’t a quarter be more reasonable? After all, the abstract gets a beefy 150 words, which is probably 50 more than anyone should get. We don’t gain anything by being encouraged to artificially inflate our ideas. It’s okay to let less be more now, and demand better presentations later through pressure on organizers to get papers 1 month ahead of time to foster revision. Make it a requirement that papers must be submitted to respondents and presiders at least 30 days ahead of the conference. No more talks written on airplanes on the way to the conference. (And yes we all know folks that have openly confessed this academic sin.)
    • Here’s my thought: Banish the 1,000 word paper proposal. Dial it back to a robust 500 words with a 400 word minimum. This guarantees a consist quality of proposals that must all struggle to say things concisely. Precision is not one of my strengths, but my proposals would be better if I were to be forced to say only the most crucial and significant things. This would a) save the committees work, b) save scholars work (since only 20% or even less of all submitted proposals are accepted), and c) increase the quality of all proposals by evening the playing field. A final bonus? The AAR could increase the number of proposals one can submit. If the proposals themselves are half as long it wouldn’t be any extra work. Then reduce the abstracts by 50 words to match. This is the American Historical Association’s model, and I must say that it produces better panels. (They also exclusively accept pre-arranged panels, something I think the AAR should do more of.)
  2. Is “independent scholar” a taboo designation?
    • I graduated in June. I’m self-employed part-time as a private tutor, but I’m also seeking at least a part-time academic appointment. Since I moved right in the middle of the academic year, it’s been challenging to align my schedule with the hiring schedule of departments and schools nearby. At a recent conference I had to repeatedly explain what I meant by “independent scholar” to individuals I met. This is often an opportunity for interesting discussion, but there is a perception (given during conversations with pointed questions about my employment) that somehow I have failed or am a pariah. I don’t want to sound chuffed, but why is it so hard to imagine someone who still conducts research may not have an academic affiliation? In this day and age of the perennially lousy job market, is it any surprise that some folks have to pay the bills in other ways but may still want to do the business that they were trained to do? If teaching and research is a vocation, as so many of us must think to spend so much money overcoming the barriers to entry, then why is it any surprise when we continue to attempt to research and teach without an alabaster academic appointment? The rise of the alt-academic should have quieted these discussions, but that hasn’t happened yet.
  3. There is little that is more rewarding than visible student progress.
    • One of my pupils is making leaps and bounds in his/her reading. Every session I can tell not just that confidence has been restored in the learning process, but that an enthusiasm and eagerness for progress has also emerged. Success has bred a hunger for more success. In the secondary school classroom–especially when teaching humanities subjects such as religious studies–this progress is often disguised. We plant seeds that may take time to grow. If we’re not explicitly out to change the way our students view religion and religious topics, then we can at least expect their analyses and critical examinations to be much improved. Immediate recognition is less common. I’ve been following with glee the student blog posts from Mike Altman’s “American Religion in America” course at Alabama. If you haven’t had time to read them, you’re missing out. This is the kind of a-ha work that religious studies should evoke in our students. Set that goal for yourself and find ways to make it apparent to both you and your students!
  4. Blogging is a process that I’m still learning
    • The guilt that arose when I didn’t post was almost paralyzing. While I was productive in so many other ways, not posting here regularly in the last month or two made me feel less than up-to-snuff. I’ve tried various methods to ensure regular posting before (daily themes, weekly post quotas, binges of post-construction set to more evenly future auto-post). None of them seem to quite work for me. Part of the challenge is that I try to offer serious work in my content posts. That takes time. It’s easy to get on with the work and not take a moment to share it in progress. It’s also a legitimate concern that blogging detracts rather than adds to scholarly output. This post is nearly as long as an AAR proposal and that’s just 1/10 or even less of the way to an article draft. Other times I find that the work I’m doing is hard to share. As I’ve dived into the back-end of the Omeka Spiritual Warfare Archive I’m creating, my ability to easily share what I’m doing (and have it be interesting) appears pretty limited. I’ll see if I can’t think my way past that and get on with the business of writing about religion!

Disgust — Provocations from Trier’s Antichrist

6 Nov

When I was writing my halloween posts last week I came across a link to a film review blog called A Movie A Week. It’s exactly what it sounds like–a site where critic Shaun Henisey reviews one movie a week. As I read through his reviews, I realized that Henisey had reviewed a challenging film, Antichrist, which I had been failing to talk myself into watching until recently. Henisey’s review is both generous and cautionary. Lars Von Trier‘s film is notorious for its extended meditation on (or embodiment of) misogyny. It’s a sexually graphic and psychologically intense film that divided audiences and critics alike. Detroit News film critic Tom Long’s comments are typical of positive reviews: “Self-loathing, mean, ugly and perfectly made, Antichrist is probably the best film ever that you’d recommend to absolutely no one.” On the other side, Dallas Morning News critic Christopher Kelly wrote, “Antichrist is a unique form of cruel and unusual punishment: an unrelenting orgy of graphic sex, violence and cynicism that also manages to be wildly pretentious.”

You can see the overlap in the critical reviews of this film–it is a disturbing piece of cinema. For some there was meaning in the madness; for others there was only madness.

Antichrist by Lars von Trier

Antichrist by Lars von Trier (Photo credit: ‘Lil)

Rather than write directly about the film–I think Henisey’s review captures many of the essential religious themes–I want to say a few words about disgust. First, a basic definition of disgust is a feeling of revulsion or profound disapproval aroused by something unpleasant or offensive. Disgust is a negative emotional response. It requires us to have moral, aesthetic, or religious boundaries. Disgust crosses the line. To bring Mary Douglas and Emile Durkheim to the discussion, disgust is taboo-breaking that places us in danger of becoming impure. Disgust assumes we are pure. It is a moral high ground. Consider the satellite of synonyms for disgust: revulsion, repugnance, aversion, distaste, nausea, abhorrence, loathing, detestation, odium, horror, contempt, and outrage. Is it possible that these alternatives are varieties of emotional condescension?

When we watch a film that really gets down in the muck, what is the nature of our disgust? Is it reflective? Are we repelled by seeing any fraction of ourselves? Or is it alienating? Are we repelled by the lack of relation?

Disgust is an emotional that has received considerable study. What’s fascinating, however, is that there are few studies of disgust as a religious faculty in modern experience. (I know of several studies of monastic practices that deal extensively with self-mutilation and other ascetic practices.) Yet religious studies appears to have overlooked this emotion today (whereas our colleagues in the social sciences have not).

When a movie like Trier’s comes along that provokes such intense reactions of revulsion and offense, I wonder whether it has successfully manipulated foundational religious elements to these effects. The wrapper of visceral gore makes it difficult to judge. What disgusts us in the film? Can we segment the stimuli? If so, are there more centrally religious elements? For our students, can these elements be extracted from the film to be discussed with material more appropriate for the classroom. (Despite my firm belief that there are really no limits to the objects we study in the academy, I do believe there are a number of limits to the objects we teach with in the classroom. Antichrist violates so many of these I hardly know where to begin.) In short, can we approach a “disgusting” film didactically and then employ its lessons on less dangerously provocative material?

In the context of a class I am slowly developing on the supernatural, disgust is an emotion that I’m sure will be invoked at least once. After all, can you imagine watching The Exorcist and not being even a little disgusted by the demon’s provocations? So, at the end here, I have a very practical motivation for my inquiries. I expect to need a way to deal with disgust and its satellites of similar emotional responses. We cannot stop feeling when we watch horror films. In truth, and as I said in my post on horror and religion, I think those feelings are central to the genre.

Thus, how would you discuss disgust in a religious studies classroom? Do you see a place for it? How would you deal with it? If you have thoughts, let me know below.

Related articles on my supernatural course

Happy Academic Writing Month!

4 Nov

Since it’s NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month, I figured it would be an apt time to talk about writing. I don’t believe I am an aspiring novelist. Right now I want to be a more widely published academic writer, so for me November is Academic Writing Month (#AcWriMo). Along with moving from Ventura to Orange County and heading to the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting in Baltimore, I’ll be trying to dot some i’s and t’s on projects that have been progressing too slowly.

Below you’ll find 1) Information about the blog and the content of its posts, 2) some thoughts about my book proposal, and 3) comments about an article I’m revising that I haven’t found a good title for.

Continue reading

Packing all the Books

24 Oct
Books

Books (Photo credit: henry…)

I have packed away 80% of my books and my shelves still look full. I’ve given away dozens of titles to charity and friends. I’ll be giving away quite a few more before all the packing is done. I even remembered I had a few boxes of books in our storage unit that I hadn’t opened in nearly 5 years. The big question: If I haven’t needed them in half a decade, why am I still keeping them?

If money and space were no object, obviously I’d keep all my books. I hope to stop moving sooner rather than later and thus be able to give my library the home it deserves. (It really is a library at this point. My holdings in American religious history? Excellent. Science Fiction classics? Quite good. Romance novels? Not a one in sight. I won’t call it is a diverse or well-rounded collection!)

If you moved recently, did you pare down your collection? What method did you use to decide what to keep and what to discard? Did you sell them, give them away to friends, or donate them to charity?

I’ve tried to take the hardest line I can. Is it useful for my teaching? Is it useful for my research? Can I replace it cheaply? Is it easy to get from a library? This means that much of my science fiction mass markets are going to Goodwill. Likewise for any causal or pleasure reading items I may have accumulated. (Thankfully my wife is not a reader and has contributed little to the sagging shelves.) It’s been a ruthless process, but many of the academic texts have been saved because they are not cheap to replace nor necessarily easy to get at your local library.

English: Stack of books in Gould's Book Arcade...

English: Stack of books in Gould’s Book Arcade, Newtown, New South Wales (NSW), Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So here I am, giving away as many books as I can stomach, but still with a dozen banker boxes of items. I think the grand total will be nearly 20. I’m sure if I had kept everything it’d be twice that many. This is what happens when you’re a voracious reader who works with texts. (I have at least 3 boxes of primary sources for my research on spiritual warfare.)

The brutal truth? If I had more disposable income, I’d probably have even more books. I love books! One of my favorite parts of annual conferences is the book expo. Shiny new hardcovers full of amazing new ideas. What’s not to love? (Apart from the prices, right?)

Don’t get me wrong–I’m all for many parts of the digital revolution. But my e-reader will never replace my bookshelves. All the more because according to most legal interpretations, I don’t own my digital copies, I’ve merely licensed permission to view them on an approved device. Packing all the books reminds me not only of the rewards of our academic labor, but also of its materiality, its moderate durability, and its participation in one of the defining features of modern civilization (print culture).

So I say, save the books, or at least as many of the books as I can tolerate. As long as I don’t hurt my back carrying them up the stairs to our new second floor apartment! I may have been ruthless in paring my collection down to a more travel-friendly size, but I will miss them all.

[In the last week I bought 3 books! Two volumes of the excellent Witch Doctor graphic novel series and Marcus Borg’s The Evolution of the Word, which is an interesting chronological presentation of the New Testament.)

Goodbye 93030, hello 92868

21 Oct
View into the Los Padres National Forest; phot...

View into the Los Padres National Forest; photo by Antandrus (April 2002) Jameson Reservoir is center: to the right are the Santa Ynez Mountains, to the left the Los Padres backcountry and Old Man Mountain: in the far distance is 7510-foot Reyes Peak. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My wife got promoted! I’m extremely proud that her hard work over the last few years is being rewarded. We’ve lived in Oxnard for 6 years. In that time she’s commuted all around San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura counties. For anyone unfamiliar with  California geography, this is the the southern portion of the Central Coast. It’s an area the size of New Jersey (or Massachusetts if you count all of the coastal waters) with a population of over 1.5 million. That’s not a lot of people, but a very significant amount of these counties’ territory is made up by the Los Padres National Forest. The forest is 50% larger than the state of Rhode Island and roughly 20% of the total area of these counties.

We’ll be moving from Ventura County to Orange County. That’s a 50% reduction in size, but a four-fold increase in population. In California, only San Francisco County is more densely populated than OC. This will be the bulk of my wife’s new territory. Technically, she’ll also be dealing a bit with Riverside County, but her new responsibilities mean a lot less time away from the office. That means a lot less driving, which she is excited about because she dislikes driving.

For my part, I’m both nervous and excited about the move. First, the timing isn’t great. (As if it ever is, right?) We’re in the middle of application season for me and the year’s biggest job conference is coming up. Since she’s working full-time, I’ve got the lead on packing up the apartment and its 6 years of accumulated stuff. I’m certainly not complaining–I get to be pretty ruthless about taking things over to the local thrift store–but it sure is exhausting work. We should be settled into Orange just in time for me to head out to Baltimore for the AAR. I’m nervous about packing things away and not being able to find them in time to prepare for the meeting. I’ve got two more weeks to pack and then two weeks to unpack before I leave for the meeting. That’s a tight schedule!

The exteriors of Crystal Cathedral. Garden Gro...

The exteriors of Crystal Cathedral. Garden Grove, CA, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Orange itself is a great place for me to be. While Ventura County has a lot going for it, it is rather short on universities who offer courses on religion. CLU was the closest and that was nearly 40 minutes down the 101 with commuters on their way to LA. In OC there’s Cal St. Fullerton, UC Irvine, Chapman, and a host of community and smaller colleges. Cal St Long Beach and UC Riverside are also within commuting distance. In short, it’s a much better location for me to find adjunct or lecturer work. Even if I am successful on this year’s t-t market this fall, I still want something for the spring and even the early portion of the summer. If I am not successful in this year’s market, I’ll be a lot closer to potential teaching opportunities.

Research-wise, OC is a useful place for me to be headed. It’s the beating heart of California’s conservative Christian territory. The Crystal Cathedral (sadly not what is was 20 years ago for my project) is right down the street from our new apartment. Perhaps I can get the inside scoop on how the Catholic Diocese of OC is transforming Schuller’s church into “Christ Cathedral.” The Crystal Cathedral’s former congregation, now Shepard’s Grove, is even closer to us. There’s a lot more to be said here, so I’ll save that for another post once we’ve transitioned and settled.

Other things have a lot of give and take. We’re 5 easy miles from the beach at the moment. This has made swimming and biking by the ocean simple. You drove along the strawberry fields for a couple miles and there you were. Now, though, there’s no direct route to the ocean, and I’d wager there are upwards of half a million people who live between us and the closest beach. This will make a quick ocean swim a lot harder. On the other hand, OC’s masters swim program is a lot more developed than Ventura’s is. I’ll probably end up a better swimmer for it. Likewise, I’ll be leaving my triathlon teammates and coach behind, but OC has a vibrant cycling and triathlon community.

I’m sure we’ll quickly discover the closest, best Pho restaurant. Garden Grove is full of amazing ethnic cuisine, all of which we are sure to sample. We may relent, too, and buy a season pass for Disneyland or a package of tickets for Ducks or Angels games. We’ll miss the friends we’ve both made over the last few years, but luckily for us we get a soft transition–it’s just a quick ride in the car or by train to get back up the coast. Since the new job is M-F and not Tu-Sa, this means plenty of better opportunities for such adventures. We better get them all in now, because so far none of the t-t jobs have been in the West. If we move again next year, then we’ll be packing things up for a much longer drive than the 90 miles down the 101/5. I guess it is time to seize the California sun while we still can!

The Desolation of Data Entry

4 Oct
Desolated

Desolated (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)

I’m still plodding away on my data compilation for spiritual warfare manuals. It’s slow business, partly because there is little way for me to automate or outsource the work. Expertise is required to identify relevant data, and my coding chops aren’t quite up to the task of automating data entry yet.

On Twitter I saw an interesting DH link that led me to UCLA’s Center for Digital Humanities’ excellent online DH 101 course. As I prepare for the American Academy of Religion’s first THATCamp, I was meditating on the disconnect between my interest in digital humanities for religious studies and the expectations of appropriate and career-building CV-level production.

It’s a natural challenge for digital humanists. The academic context remains a print world. Even if I were tempted to say the humanities is well on its way to a text world (both virtual and physical), this isn’t necessarily true for tenure portfolios. Nor is it necessarily true for job applications.

Part of the challenge is that partial data can be not just confusing but misleading. I’ve shared some of the architectural or structural details of my data before. And while I’m committed to conducting as much of my research openly as I can, there are hurdles that I continue to trip over.

As an academic working outside of the academy for the moment, I worry especially about access and copyright. Thankfully I purchased many of my primary sources. This doesn’t mean, however, that I can treat them callously. How much data is too much data to extract from a text? If I collect all the bible verses cited in a spiritual warfare manual, have I exceeded fair use for the material? What about collecting printed transcriptions of ritual actions from these items for my database? (Many of these items contain testimonial examples. I’d like to be able to compare them side-by-side and tag their elements.) There are no hard and fast rules. And outside of the academy, I am personally responsible for any errors I may make.

To make fewer errors, I encourage folks to look at UCLA’s course, which covers many of the essential elements of DH. I encourage enthusiasts of every level to check it out. If you’re already familiar with DH and coding, then you’ll breeze through it in no time at all. If you’re unfamiliar with DH, then this is an excellent resource.

Where the site doesn’t do a great job is explaining the daily tasks of DH production to its audience. In part this is because DH are makers. If you’re a maker you implicitly understand that the daily task is to work on the thing you’re making. It can feel like a very long time until all the brushstrokes finally appear as a portrait though. The only way to really go from data through architecture to visualization or presentation is item by item.

It all reminds me of a Vulcan logic game featured in Star Trek: Voyager called Kal-toh. Players take turn placing pieces into a nest of rods to bring increasing order to the system. One move can win the game, bringing clarity, symmetry, precision, order, and structure to the chaos. Here’s a spoof video showing  what the game looks like:

I fear my DH hopes rest on some magical piece I was play somewhere down the line. I know I shouldn’t lay hope on such a piece. It’s probably a fiction. In fact, it is most assuredly a fiction. The process of compiling and organizing my data is an intellectual venture. It’s just one that is hard to represent or even write about well. And that’s the point, right? If the data made sense in some other way, then you wouldn’t need it to be visualized or placed into a database. The act of categorization is the intellectual heavy-lifting.

Just as I said in my response to Altman on Eliade yesterday, Eliade was brimming with interpretation. Categories are interpretation. Is this religious or not? What kind of ritual is this? It’s not for nothing that creationists bristle against a much wider range of science than simply human evolution. The very categories that evolution erects to describe its data fundamentally structure the interpretation of vast worlds of other information. Eliade may have focused on the thing itself for the value it had for itself, but in practice he selected the terms of valuation.

This may seem like a small distinction, but DH architecture says it is everything. Thus I move slowly and carefully along with my work. I plod because it keeps me honest about my motivations and decisions, which help me justify the way my structures will later produce interpretations worth the effort.