June 27 2017

The Digital Futures of Religious Studies

by Christopher D. Cantwell, University of Missouri, Kansas City

For twenty-five years now Religious Studies News has provided a crucial service. Its articles, features, interviews, and Spotlights have helped weave together one of the most diverse professional associations in the world into a network of colleagues and friends. I have no doubt that the newsletter’s new, born-digital format will provide even more opportunities to build upon this already stellar record. As a longtime reader of Religious Studies News, I am honored to be able to congratulate the editors and everyone else who had a role in the newsletter’s ambitious redesign.

In launching this online publishing platform, Religious Studies News joins an even broader conversation on how the Internet is transforming the study of religion. At the 2013 Annual Meeting in Baltimore, I had the privilege of working with a number of AAR members to organize the Academy’s first ever THATCamp, or The Humanities and Technology Camp. The gathering brought together nearly a hundred scholars, educators, and writers. Some saw themselves as part of the emerging field of “digital humanities” that seeks to apply new technologies to traditional research questions. Others wanted to discuss what the rise of online courses and social media meant for classroom dynamics. The camp’s program, collaboratively organized by the participants on a blog in the weeks leading up to the event, reflected these various interests and concerns. Sessions discussed how text mining software can allow scholars to study sacred texts in toto alongside other forms of exegesis; how the open-source content management system Omeka can turn students from passive receptors of knowledge about religion into active creators through the curation of digital archives; and how multimodal, digital publishing platforms—like the one Religious Studies News has embraced—can change not only how our scholarship looks, but also what it can say and who it can reach. We even did a THATCamp podcast for the Religious Studies Project, a similarly ambitious digital publication that seeks to expedite the time it takes for knowledge from our field to reach stakeholders outside of it.

From these and other conversations, it has become clear that digital media has not only changed how the study of religion functions, but also what it produces. The book, article, conference paper, and even bluebook exam are now joined by blogs, podcasts, databases, visualizations, and a host of other genres of digital publication that have yet to be named. While these projects may look new, they all make the kinds of contributions the study of religion has long valued. Students of S. Brent Plate’s courses at Hamilton College, for example, not only write papers, but they also produce podcasts on themes in the study of religion that then air on a local radio station as That Religious Show. Lincoln Mullen, an Assistant Professor at George Mason University, and Erin Bartram, a graduate student at the University of Connecticut, have similarly enhanced their research by building the American Converts Database. An open, searchable catalog of primary sources related to religious conversions in the nineteenth-century US, the project boasts a growing collection of testimonies contributed by scholars and other stakeholders from across the globe. And then there is the Network for New Media, Religion, and Digital Culture Studies. Built by Heidi Campbell at Texas A&M University, the Network is an open resource for scholars and journalists who work on the intersection of religion and new media today. Users can create profiles on the site, which then allows them to post recent publications, share sources they’ve found valuable, or even find like-minded colleague for future research projects.

But in joining this already robust conversation, Religious Studies News should become more than just an interlocutor. As the official newsletter of the American Academy of Religion, Religious Studies News should also become a leader in helping forge the digital futures of religious studies. Because while digital projects undoubtedly make important contributions to our field, the standards by which the study of religion continues to evaluate and recognize scholarship has yet to catch up. The AAR’s prizes and peer review guidelines largely privilege printed work, which tends to be single-authored, textual, and completed upon publication. Digital scholarship, by contrast, has a very different set of characteristics. Digital work tends to be collaborative, in that they involve computer programmers, librarians, and even student workers as key contributors. Digital projects also tend to be multimodal, utilizing multiple forms of media simultaneously that may be more important than arguments made through textual discourse. (Not unlike, it is worth noting, many of the religious communities we as scholars study.) Finally, digital scholarship tends to be open-ended in the sense that launching a project is more often the beginning of work rather than its end. Unlike other major scholarly associations, the American Academy of Religion has yet to arrive at a set of standards that evaluates digital scholarship by taking into account its unique characteristics. As such, scholars and educators who engage in digital work are often told such work does not “count”—neither as scholarship nor for tenure.

Establishing such standards are vital if we want to ensure that today’s scholarship is properly evaluated, recognized, and shared. Religious Studies News can play a vital role in this regard. It can serve as a forum where scholars of religion discuss the standards by which digital scholarship should be evaluated. Should the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, for example, review digital projects as it would any other monograph as the Organization of American Historians peer-reviewed Journal of American History does? Should the AAR offer guidelines to departments on evaluating digital work for promotion and tenure as the Modern Language Association has done? And should the Academy seek to encourage more digital work by establishing a prize for digital innovation like the American Historical Association?

My answer to all of these questions is “Yes” and my hope for Religious Studies News is that is becomes a space for other kinds of digital advocacy. Let’s have the newsletter’s new born-digital format serve as a space that recognizes the digital work already underway and encourages other scholars to engage it. From there we can then call for the program units, working groups, and committees that would be necessary to guide the AAR through the digital age. In this way, Religious Studies News can continue to provide the crucial service it has always provided weaving all of our diverse work together into a series of shared inquiries and concerns.


Christopher D. Cantwell is an assistant professor of history and religious studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City where he teaches classes on public history, digital humanities, and religions in America.


Image: ''Musica die ander kunst under den vier weisenden künsten.'', Holzschnit Aus: ''Rodericus Sancius de Arevalo: Speculu[m] humane vite. = Der menschen Spiegel.'' Augspurg, 1488. In the Public Domain (unaltered). Wikimedia Commons.