Mapping the Digital Study of Religion
Podcast with Christopher Cantwell and Kristian Petersen (11 October 2021).
Interviewed by Daniel Gorman, Jr.
Transcribed by Daniel Gorman, Jr.
Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/mapping-the-digital-study-of-religion/
Digital Humanities, Internet, Religion, Methods, Theory, Case Study, Project Management, Sustainability
Daniel Gorman Jr. (DG) 00:00
This is The Religious Studies Project, Daniel Gorman reporting from Rochester, New York, and today I’m speaking to editors Christopher Cantwell and Kristian Petersen about their new volume Digital Humanities and Research Methods in Religious Studies from DeGruyter. Christopher Cantwell is a professor at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and Kristian Petersen is a professor at Old Dominion University. Gentlemen, thank you for joining me this morning.
Christopher Cantwell (CC) 0:26
Thanks for having us!
Kristian Petersen (KP) 0:27
Thanks for having us!
Tell me first of all, what is the purpose of this book? You say in the introduction that you wanted to get people thinking about questions of ethics and what counts or not in religious studies. What was your intention in producing this project?
I’ll start with that one, if it’s okay, Chris. So, the volume that we produced is part of a larger series with DeGruyter that I’m also on the editorial board for called Introductions to Digital Humanities—Religion, and the series more broadly—and then I think what we tried to do, more specifically—is encourage people to take on digital methods and digital tools to enhance the study of religion. So, think about how these these things that perhaps people are unfamiliar with, or have heard about, but are unsure of their purpose or function, to try to expose them to why these methods, why these tools can help us yield new answers, think about our subjects in interesting ways.
We titled our introduction “Digital Humanities and Religious Studies: A ‘Why’ to Guide” because I think this gets at—really, the core of what we were hoping to do is not necessarily show people how to use this digital tool or go through the ins-and-outs of a particular method, but rather help people think about why digital tools and digital methods might enhance their work.
And we tried to do that in our volume by letting people kind of get into the nitty-gritty of case studies, examples of digital humanists’ work in religion that we thought was really great. So that was how we tackled it in our volume, and some of the other volumes do this differently. Some of them do get into a little bit more of the ins and outs of a “how to,” but we were trying to be more—I mean, it sounds corny, but inspirational or motivational in the sense that, “Perhaps you’ve heard about digital humanities. Maybe you’re a little curious. Here are some ways that people have done this successfully, that you can also perhaps be inspired by.”
Yeah, and if I could build on what Kristian was saying, I think that the title of our introduction is key. And I think another thing that’s helpful to think about the nature of the structure of the book is to put it within sort of a longer history of digital humanities more broadly. Because digital scholarship has been around for, you know, going on 20 years now. But a lot of other fields were sort of quicker to adapt it than, I would say, the study of religion might have been. So, the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association, in particular, were early advocates for the peer review of digital scholarship, counting it in tenure promotion, hosting workshops. And so, Kristian and I, as folks who circle within the study of religion, were wondering why these conversations were happening in our circles as well. And so we saw this as hopefully serving as a catalyst. And thankfully by the time it came out, as the Table of Contents show[s], there is a robust ecology of digital scholarship in the study of religion right now.
One thing I was thinking about, particularly in the discussions of projects that deal with space and mapping religion: That in particular seems to be a growth area, projects like Arch City Religion, Boston’s Hidden Religious [sic; Sacred] Spaces. That one in particular seems particularly salient for people. What are your thoughts on that? Why do you think so many people are interested in the potential of digital mapping technology for religion?
I think, for me—I’ll venture a guess. I mean, I think there are ways in which we are inhabiting a spatial turn right now, right? Like, we all have a global map on our smartphone or tablet that we didn’t have five, ten, fifteen years ago. And so I think we just recognize our relationship to space socially in ways that we perhaps hadn’t before. But I think another thing that’s important to consider is also just the ease and access to that kind of software, right? That there’s a growing suite of tools that allows for folks who didn’t get a—who didn’t major in computer science or know a coding language can now do this kind of work, which is why we think it’s important to, you know, call attention to the availability of these.
I think that the Boston project you mentioned is done in part with undergraduate students, so it becomes a pedagogical tool as much as it’s a research tool. And that’s, I think, one of the real powers of digital scholarship is that it blurs the boundaries, and where scholars in the study of religion used to have these discrete fields of teaching and research and service, you know, digital scholarship allows those things to be all things at once.
Yeah, and I—that last point, I think, is very helpful in thinking about two projects that we highlight in the book. One is led by Caleb Elfenbein, on Mapping Islamophobia. And this project, part of what I think the mapping part of it [is], help[ed] people understand was the real magnitude of this. It helped communicate the data that he was collecting in really powerful ways that perhaps writing would—you know, there’s been oh, you know, hundreds of anti-Muslim sentiment or hate acts or these kinds of things. It just kind of hits in a different way. But this was a project that he worked on with many of his students at Grinnell. And so some of his students, Farah Bukhari, Angela Schafer, they’ve continued with this work in other realms as they’ve gone on to graduate school. The other project that incorporates both this model was the one on China, which was led by Fenggang Yang and at the time Jonathan Pettit, who’s now a professor at the University of Hawai’i, they were collaborating as graduate student and professor to kind of map religious institutions in China.
So I think it’s a good point, because this is one of the things we try to point out in the introduction, is that one of the great things about digital humanities work is this collaborative nature. It really is most successful when you have lots of people involved. And that means lots of researchers, so that could be graduate students, even undergrads, and professors, of course, but then also, people can use the Google map to do a digital project. But you can also then collaborate with people who are experts in the technology themselves. So a lot of projects that we’ve highlighted in the book are working with librarians, archivists, computer scientists, along with humanities scholars, and this is where I think some of the really exciting work is going to happen, is when you get these kind of collectives of folks that are bringing their various expertise into a single project and really making it come together in a unique way.
Yeah, I’ve experienced that in my own work. I mean, here at the University of Rochester, there’s a number of digital humanities projects, and they do tend to be all-hands-on-deck. I know how to bumble around on WordPress, and I made some HTML once, but I can’t do the more heavy lifting of database stuff. But if there’s somebody over in CS [computer science], particularly, you know, an undergrad who needs, like, a co-op credit or something, there’s a way that it can be mutually advantageous. I think that’s—I think that team effort is very interesting.
Which then ties into another point in your introduction, where you mentioned, thinking about the ethics of the project, how to—or, whatever project you’re building, how to structure it. There’s the matter of credit, making sure everyone gets adequate credit. And sometimes you wind up with a humanities project that looks more like a science paper if there’s thirty contributors listed. Can you speak a little bit about this issue of credit and making religious studies digital work count towards your career?
Yeah, sure. I could venture a start to this conversation which should have many voices. Yeah, I mean, I think there’s a—for a long time, I think the humanities has conflated what scholarship looks like with what the printed word looks like. And so, “Knowledge can only look like the printed word.” And what we’ve seen with the rise of new media is, of course, we now have a plethora of genres of knowledge production. And there is—has been; it’s closing, thankfully, but—a disconnect between sort of what counts and what’s produced.
And one of the things I think the project and the volume does is, by laying out the panoply of different kinds of scholarly work that people are doing, and identifying them, and calling them scholarship, is a way of, I think, normalizing recognizing, and accounting these kinds of work in the field. Because oftentimes, they’re celebrated—projects can be award-winning, projects can get grant funding—and then the last hurdle is when, you know, “Where do they fit within individuals’ tenure portfolios?”—do they go in the teaching side? Do they go in the research side? Do they go in the service side?—when in fact, they go in all three. And so how to measure the weight of that has been the challenge, which is why I was incredibly grateful to work with Kristian again, as well as a number of other scholars, with the American Academy of Religion in drafting guidelines for counting digital scholarship in promotion and tenure files, which, you know, I have since heard from multiple people, folks have celebrated as being the most comprehensive and incisive and helpful sort of guides for scholars looking to have that work count.
Yeah, no, I think that’s a good point, especially for grad students, who historically feel like—can feel like… uncredited labor at points. And so, I think the transparency of the Internet, I think it’s cool to actually expose some of the inner workings of a big research project, and [show] that there are multiple cooks in the kitchen.
One of the things that I want to just add is it’s kind of a double-edged sword, in a way, doing this type of work in particular, institutional context[s]. So COVID, I think, has magnified the instability of the academic job market, which was already pretty terrible. So perhaps digital humanities is a way to think about scholarship outside of the traditional ways we thought about what is [sic] a post-graduate career looks like. And Chris is actually a great example of this. He’s done lots of really cool stuff both being a traditional professor, in a sense, but also being a public historian and in many contexts, where his work is getting many more eyes than anything that I’ve done. So there is that, which I think is exciting. It’s an exciting opportunity about digital humanities work.
But if you are [in a] kind of more traditional context, this idea of “Does it count?” can work against you. And I think this can be a, you know—[it] also relates to issues of, like, public scholarship more generally. So, even doing podcasts like this, doing public writing—sometimes peers don’t see this as quote-unquote, “serious work.” So, depending on the context, depending on your colleagues, they might not value this type of work. So, one of the things that might happen is, this almost becomes like an add-on. So you need to do the peer-reviewed articles; you need to do the university press book; and then you can also do this other type of work that, for some people in your institution, if that’s the context you’re in, they might not value it.
They look at it as a hobby, basically.
(laughs) Yeah, they look at it as a hobby. Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. So, it’s a very—depending on the project, it’s a very labor-heavy hobby, and maybe not always the most fun hobby. But I think, in general, it’s really rewarding work.
One of the kind of “my toe in the water” of digital humanities is something that I put together called the Women of Islamic Studies database, which is a crowdsourced resource for trying to dissolve the disproportionate, you know, gender dynamic in things like, you know, conference panels, edited volumes, syllabi, [and] citations by trying to draw attention to scholars in Islamic Studies who are women and often ignored in those contexts.
And, I mean, that might be the thing that people get most excited about, that I hear the most, like, “This is great,” that people actually, like, use it. When people are going on sabbatical, they’ll, like, put it in their email signature and say, “If you’re looking for someone to do something, check this database.” So it can be really, really rewarding work on other levels, even though it might not be rewarded in some sort of institutional way, in terms of tenure promotion or those kind of things, if that’s the context you’re working in.
If I can continue to add to this conversation, because I do think it’s really important, because I think Kristian is absolutely right. And I think part of what he’s saying is an eternal truth that one has to be really thoughtful and strategic about the kind of research they do and what forms that research takes. I don’t think that’s ever changed; that’s been true of scholars and academics for a century. To your point, Dan, I think what’s really true is that, as you said earlier, like, we’re all digital humanists now, right? Like, we are conducting this interview over Zoom. When we start a research project, we usually turn to Google and then our university catalogs, right? Like, there are multiple ways in which our work has become mediated by digital technology.
And even if you don’t see yourself learning text mining, GIS software, natural language processing, those kind of things, like, you are a digital humanists, right? Unless you are writing in pen and pencil and only looking at material artifacts, you are—your work is mediated by digital culture, and being aware of that is vital, no matter where you end up. And so I think some familiarity with—it’s incumbent upon everyone, I think, to be—had to gain some familiarity with the ways in which knowledge about religion is produced and shared and critiqued today, irregardless [sic] of where you find yourself.
And then to one other point, a point, I think—again, another turn to what Kristian said, which again I totally agree with, is, in my experience, you know, you mentioned the the graduate student experience, Dan, and I think what’s really true is that oftentimes there’s a difference between what will help you get a job and what will help you keep a job, right? So, I was in the museum world for a long time. And a lot of the interest I received from academic appointments was based on my museum work. Now that I’ve returned to the academy, I’ve had to greatly scale down the amount of digital work I’ve done in order to produce the kind of scholarly products that look recognizable to my peers. And again, that’s a strategy, that’s a choice, that’s a method that’s going to be true in any environment.
Yeah, it—well, it reminds me also that, with this book, you’re mapping the terrain, as you say on page nine of the introduction—nice shout-out to Jonathan Z. Smith there—but also, you’re making an argument for, “A lot of the work matters.” And I think that has to be inherently political because of the questions it poses about “What counts as traditional work? Who counts whose name is above the by-line?” So, I think, in a way, digital studies has to be political because it involves, you know, changing what the normal scholarly output looks like.
Yeah, and I’ll say this is one of the things I get most excited about in integrating digital methods into the study of religion, is it allows two things that I think really animate my own work. One, it oftentimes allows our scholarship to look like the communities and people that we study, right? So, an example I really think about that’s not in the volume, actually, but it comes to mind is the American Religious Sounds Project, which looks at building an archive of the sonic landscape of American religion, as that’s the way in which people often encounter it, right? Like, we lose the depth of the texture in that—in just, so, you know, in only allowing print.
Secondly, the other thing I really, that I feel really drawn to is the ways in which digital scholarship allows us to make the communities and people we study to be partners in the production of knowledge rather than our objects of study, right? And so this is something that I do here in Milwaukee is, I maintain a project called Gathering Places, where a team of students and I partner with places of worship throughout the city and work with them to write their history—the history of their institution or their community in Milwaukee—and then we map that. So, we’re trying to build a living spatial archive of religious diversity in Milwaukee, and the digital medium has really drawn a lot of communities in, in that it allows them to say, “Oh, hey, we can have our story showcased. We have recordings of activities of significance. We have scans of old photos that can be shared with the world and with future generations of our own community.
I mean, you’re right; it is intrinsically political, and it allows you to draw those—like Kristian was talking earlier about how some of the projects in the book have used space to make visible what’s invisible, right, by highlighting flash points and key points and things like that. And what I have found really powerful in mapping is the way it creates a kind of visual level playing field, right, that everybody occupies the space, and it makes the religious diversity of Milwaukee—creates a kind of equity and parity that that oftentimes doesn’t get seen in the, in, you know, out in the wider culture.
One other thing that comes to mind is a comment from Marcus Bingenheimer’s chapter on digital tools for Buddhist studies. He writes that there’s a challenge of citing digital editions; [it] is that, if you’re producing new content for the web—and so this, I think, could be true whether it’s, again, the mapping collection you’re [Chris] producing, or a new digital [edition] of a text—is that it only exists in a digital format, typically, and then trying to figure out a systematic way to cite that and make that, again, appear in other people’s scholarship. You also say in your introduction there’s the matter of sustainability, which I think goes right hand in hand with citing something—making sure that it’s going to stick around long enough that it can be cited. What do you think are some of the challenges of citing and preserving digital scholarship to make sure it will be there, you know, as a footnotable resource for people ten years, fifteen years from now?
There’s, I think, a few intersecting things happening in your question here. And yeah, Marcus’s essay shows how these things change or are malleable over time, very clearly. Some of the other essays do this as well. But for us, I think what we’re trying to communicate to people who might think about doing this is, when you’re thinking about a project, you do have to think about it in a different way, in the sense that, [with] traditional scholarship, you think, “Okay, I’m going to work on this. I’m going to do the research, I’m going to write it up, I’m going to get it peer-reviewed, and then it’s published, and then it’s done.” And most DH [digital humanities] projects don’t do that? Or maybe not most of them, but many of them are ongoing. And even if they have kind of an end of life, in terms of when you’re updating and these kinds of things, you do have to think about how is this going to work in a year, in five years, or beyond that. And of course, we all know how things change on the Internet very quickly. But these, I think, go hand in hand: You have to think about your project as ongoing work, and one that you’re returning to in new ways.
And this idea of collaboration also helps that, where you get new energy, perhaps, or new perspectives, and then thinking about how are we going to preserve this. So that might require funding for some projects. So, some of the larger projects that are highlighted in the book have institutional funding from Ivy League universities. Others have large grants from the NEH. But some of them were kind of do-it-yourself–type projects as well, and, when you’re thinking about sustainability, you don’t necessarily need to have the big bank behind it. But you do have to think about ways of keeping that project moving forward. That way, people can access it, and then hopefully people will start to, you know, cite it and acknowledge it in ways that are discussing the way that the project might be challenging or disrupting traditional norms in that subject.
Yeah, I think to that point as well, I think sustainability is absolutely key and there needs to be, at the start of a project, a conversation about how it’s going to be sustainable. But another thing I think it’s important to emphasize is—in conversations I’ve had with folks about the undertaking of digital work is—some folks are hesitant because their understanding of what a digital project is, is just a lifetime of curation, right? Like, “I launched this project, and now I’ve got to maintain that project for the rest of my life.” And that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. In the same way, there are multiple genres of writing from the monograph to the article to the op-ed and the essay and things like that, and these digital projects can take on a lot of different forms. And one of the things we really try to showcase in the book is the different levels of commitment and scale one could take on with digital scholarship, and then the questions of sustainability that go along with that, right?
So I think about something like, you know, Heidi Campbell’s work in building the Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies out at Texas A&M, which is a long-term—basically, building a social network for scholars is what Heidi is trying to do, and that requires ongoing maintenance and planning. But then, by contrast, we have another essay by Abhishek Amar from Hamilton College which taking out to the map, create 3D renderings of Hindu temples in India. And then, once those maps are made, they’re going to be teaching tools and research tools, but you know, he’s not interested in then, you know, continually, iteratively adding to this, building upon it; he has a kind of a more contained project in mind. And they’re both equally valuable, in my opinion.
This hits home for me because I worked on a project called Digitizing Rochester’s Religions, which actually sounds a good bit like your Gathering Spaces project, Christopher, you know, pairing with local institutions, preserving their documents, sharing their story. But when the P.I. [principal investigator] moved to a new university, so [there was] no longer access to the funds, and then I was able to use some professional funds to sort of dump everything we had so far on the Internet. But I’m still thinking about how to preserve it.
I mean, right now, I can keep it up on my University [of Rochester] Digital Scholarship platform account, but when I graduate, that’s going to be sunsetted. And I understand; the University doesn’t want to save 80 gigabytes or whatever of this stuff forever. So when that happens, I’m gonna have to figure out where to stow it. And I have tried saving pages in the Internet Archive, but the Internet Archive doesn’t capture everything. [It] doesn’t capture videos; maps can be very clunky, if they even are captured at all. So yeah, it’s an ongoing issue. I’m just very glad to work on the project, and I learned a lot, but now I kind of feel like—and also, because it was community–embedded—like I owe something to the people who contributed and shared their—literally opened their closets full of old documents, and there is a responsibility that comes with it. You’re like the custodian of these materials.
And sometimes the answer[s] to those questions don’t have to be individual, but they can be institutional and organizational, right? I have found oftentimes the most helpful patrons in the production of scholarship are university libraries. They, in my opinion, are the future of the university, that they are going to serve the role as publisher, as repository, as producer of knowledge in ways they hadn’t before because of the rise of digital media. But also, we can see organizations that have stood up, stepped into the breach to serve as a resource for individuals doing digital work. So the rise of institutional repositories, right? The Modern Language Association maintains an institutional repository [Humanities Commons] where members can store scholarly work if they don’t have the funding at their local smaller institutions. So there are ways in which people [who] are doing this work can envision an ecology and an architecture that works to promote it. And that’s one of the things that we hope comes out of this project, is greater interest in awareness in doing something like that.
Yeah, and just to add on to or kind of give a sneak peek off of Chris’s comment, the—one of the forthcoming volumes we have in the DeGruyter series is Digital Humanities and Libraries and Archives in Religious Studies, which is edited by Clifford Anderson, who is one of the leaders in this field. So that’s going to show the role of archivists [and] librarians, and how they kind of intersect with us as scholars and researchers as well.
So I think one note on which to end this conversation: I noticed, so, one of the contributors to your volume is Heidi Campbell, who in 2013 edited the volume Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds. And it was interesting thinking about that book, Campbell’s book, in comparison to yours because Campbell was talking about religious life on the Internet. This book [Digital Humanities and Research Methods] is about using the Internet to study religious life, whether or not it’s on the Internet or not. Do you think digital humanities—I mean, most of the volumes in this book are talking—or, excuse me, most of the essays in this book are talking about using the Internet to study offline religious activity. Do you think there is a way that we can wind up fully digital here using digital humanities tools to study things that happen just on the Internet, where it’s this closed ecosystem of electronic activity?
Yeah, sure. I mean, I think there’s a lot of great scholarship that’s looking at digital communities, digital religion. For me, one of the things that’s kind of embedded in your question is we don’t try to define very clearly what digital humanities is in the volume. I don’t think either of us would try to do that. Now, either in scholarship on digital humanities more broadly, that’s a contested question. And so, for some people, studying digital religions through a humanities perspective is digital humanities enough. For others, they might say, “Well, you need to use digital tools and digital methods to think about religion, whether it be online or off, to qualify as digital humanities.” So I’m not one to play police. So I think both of those approaches are valid and useful. But there’s certainly lots of great scholarship on things like digital ethnography and Facebook groups or things like that. There’s a lot of great scholarship on online ritual. So there’s lots of ways to kind of have digital humanities and digital religion intersect in really interesting ways, I think.
Yeah, I mean, that’s a—that’s an interesting comparison. I mean, from my perspective, I would see these two volumes as being interlocutors, right, or maybe either sides of a spectrum, where, you know, our focus really was on research methods, right? And by the focus on method, you’re going to be looking at the back end of the production of a product, whereas Heidi’s volume is the scholarly product that’s produced, right? So it is the actual ethnography. But to Kristian’s point as well, I mean, I have a similarly expansive definition of this work whereby, you know, to me, the digital humanities is using digital technology to advance the work of the humanities or the application of humanistic theory to digital technology. And it’s all to me a part of the same engagement with this digital mediated moment we now live in, back to your original point about we’re all digital humanists now. And it’s really just kind of up to everybody to find their place within it.
Well, thank you very much for your time. The book is Digital Humanities and Research Methods in Religious Studies, out now. And, assuming these vaccines hold up, may we all have a little bit more of analog studies in our lives.
Yes, and be able to meet together. Thanks.
Yes. Thanks, everybody.
Cantwell, Christopher, Kristian Petersen, and Daniel Gorman, Jr. 2021. “Mapping the Digital Study of Religion” The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 11 October 2021. Transcribed by Daniel Gorman, Jr. Version 1.0, 11 October 2021. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/mapping-the-digital-study-of-religion/.
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