For the last reflection before our final research assignment, my Digital Humanities in REL course was asked to re-evaluate what we’ve learned throughout the semester. We focused especially on what it means to ‘do data’ and what that might result in for scholars and students and research participants and everything and everyone in between. Because the concept was a bit broad, we tried to narrow our focus with a working definition of Digital Humanities and together came up with this definition:
Digital humanities combine technology with theory. Working in digital humanities requires the recognition of human error and contribution to what seems “given” when using technological interfaces present everywhere. We must critically examine the digital world, just as we analyze literature, by leaving room for humanistic contribution and not completely trusting what appears at face value. We complicate the “givens” of computational methods because knowledge production is a political act.
Dr. Wieringa’s DH in REL Class, Fall 2020.
While far from perfect, you can get the gist of what we think it means to do data in the digital humanities and in religious studies more specifically. For me and my classmates, it was important to point out that knowledge does not exist on its own, but in a context that is situated and dependent on the knowledge producer.
In my first semester of graduate school, I took Debates in Method and Theory with Dr. Russell McCutcheon. In the second half of the course, we read Constructing “Data” in Religious Studies, which was (at the time) the most recent addition to the NAASR Working Papers series. If you have time to deep dive into what it means to ‘do data’ in Religious Studies, then this collection of papers is a must-read. Data is broken into the subcategories: Subjects, Objects, Scholars, and Institutions. Each scholar takes a step back to reconsider the ways that data is constructed and not discovered.
In Digital Humanities in REL, which I am currently taking, we were asked to reflect on what counts as data for the study of religion. It kind of feels like cheating to bring in a powerhouse source like Constructing “Data” in Religious Studies, but then again, it would be just plain wrong to neglect it. Data — as I have repeated endlessly in other blog posts and in almost every class discussion — does not speak for itself, and beyond that, data does not exist by itself. This is why these subcategories of Data can exist. Social actors employ tools (like subjects, objects, scholars, and institutions) to construct data.
As I have repeated many times to my classmates in Digital Humanities: the data doesn’t speak for itself. Part of understanding that comes from an insight provided by the Philosopher Karl Popper, who reminded a group of physics students that the first step in observation is choosing what to observe in the first place.
This is exactly what we were asked to do for our lab this week – choose what to observe and thus, create data. Every student evaluated the same data source, The Seventh Day Adventist Yearbook, but we each chose different information to make into our own datasets.
The final project for my Digital Humanities course asks students to create a data review exploring a research question of interest. Part of the source data must come from the Longitudinal Religious Congregations and Membership File, but other data sources can be drawn on for support as well. The problem for me, as it often is, is narrowing my research interests. At first, the plan was to evaluate what scholars and digital humanists even mean by ‘data’ and what counts as ‘data’, but this seemed to close to my comfort zone — more humanities than digital — and I wanted to challenge myself a bit. In the long-run, I have decided that I will tie in some commentary on data, but more to provide some ethos for myself than to be the main example of my data review.
This semester I am taking a Digital Humanities course designed and taught by Dr. Jeri Wieringa. Part of this class includes writing blog posts about various topics discussed in class. I have already crafted a few posts (one on accessibility in DH and another assessing and critiquing a DH project) and there will be several more to follow.
Last class, we read and discussed Hadley Wickham‘s “Tidy Data” as a way to re-evaluate the options for organizing and presenting data. For homework, we were tasked with tidying a table from the PEW Research Center on the frequency of prayer. Below is the original table:
According to Wickham’s argument, a table should be made of columns and rows. The columns should consist of a single variable while the rows should be filled with a single observation of what is described. The rest of the table is filled with values that represent the recorded data. Based on Hadley Wickham’s criteria, this Pew research presentation is a bit untidy. What is being described is the percentage of various religious traditions that pray. The frequency of prayer is divided into categories (‘At least daily’, ‘weekly’, ‘monthly’, ‘seldom/never’ ‘don’t know’). These categories represent various observations and as such, should exist in rows, not columns. The column headers should represent the variables being measured.
It is easy to forget the things we take for granted. That’s sort of why we take them for granted in the first place. When tasks don’t require much planning or strain, our brains don’t seem to work as hard, and so those little things slip through the cracks as our synapses prune and make more room for other ‘more relevant’ information. But what seems to be easiest to forget is that we still get a say in what counts as relevant. Ask any tutor the best way to study material and they’ll tell you to involve multiple senses, to try different techniques; basically to make your brain do new kinds of work. Reading the textbook isn’t enough. You have to quiz yourself, make flashcards, study while you exercise, pace yourself . . . there is a lot of thought that goes into making those tidbits of information memorable, of making them more relevant.
One area where this effort to make overlooked information relevant is accessibility. Too frequently we design buildings, create technological devices, or program software, to enhance the quality of life for able-bodied individuals. There is such focus on traditional, idealized progress that other individuals get left behind. In the clamber to make life easy, we sometimes make tasks more difficult for those with cognitive, motor, visual, or auditory disabilities.
As part of the MA in Religion in Culture at UA, students attend a monthly colloquium designed to introduce them to community members seeking graduates with strong critical thinking skills. During these meetings, the Department of Religious Studies brings in individuals from within and outside of the University to share their experiences in the job market. Their presentations often focus on the ways that the tools each MA student is cultivating in their humanities courses can be useful outside of traditional academia.
Last Friday, the Department of Religious Studies hosted its annual Honor’s Day reception on the second-floor balcony of Manly Hall. Friends and family traveled in from around the state (and nation) to celebrate award recipients. The agreeable weather, tasty food, and great company made for an ideal day to celebrate the hard work of faculty and students over the last year.
As part of UA’s Alabama/Greece Initiative, Prof. Ioannis Xydopoulos visited the Department of Religious Studies just before Spring Break, hosted by REL’s Prof. Vaia Touna. After meeting with students, exploring Tuscaloosa, and guest teaching in one of Prof. Touna’s classes, our visitor from Aristotle University (AUTh) in Thessaloniki, presented his research on issues of ancient Greek identity.
Prof. Nathan Loewen received funding from the University of Alabama, a while back, to conduct archival research on the Derrida Papers in Irvine, California. So REL MA student, Morgan Frick, posed a few questions about what all that archival work entails.
Morgan: What was the project and how did you hope to improve your research with this archival work?