At the Anxious Bench, Thomas Kidd lists “Five Compelling Religious Biographies.” Among them is Catherine Brekus’s new book, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America, which Kidd calls “the best biography we have on a female evangelical in colonial America” and also “simply one of the best books I have read on the life of an American evangelical, female or male.”


Today the JSR editors (Mike Pasquier, Luke Harlow, Art Remillard, and Emily Clark) published volume 14 of the Journal of Southern Religion. This issue has a great line up of articles, especially the forum on “Religion in the Early South” guest edited by Rebecca Goetz.

My technical innovation for this issue was generating EPUB and Kindle e-books of the issue. To do so, I used a Ruby program that I coded. The source code is on GitHub, and I released the utility as a RubyGem. I was surprised by how many people downloaded the Gem. Sure, the downloads were not in the tens of thousands, but at least sixty people have downloaded the latest version.


[This post originally appeared at ProfHacker.]

In the past few months there has been a lot of attention paid to a Zotero plugin called Paper Machines. Created by Brown grad student Chris Johnson-Roberson as a Google Summer of Code project, Paper machines was coded by Brown grad student Chris Johnson-Roberson, and Jo Guldi and Matthew Battles directed the project. Paper Machines uses the data in a Zotero collection to generate analyses and visualizations. If you have a sizeable collection of documents with good metadata and full text (for example, PDFs with text layers) then Paper Machines can run its analysis. The most basic output is a word cloud. More advanced analyses provide phrases matching a pattern, maps of place names, annotations of people, places, and organizations. Paper Machines can also perform topic modeling using MALLET.

I ran Paper Machines on the digitized primary sources for a chapter of my dissertation. I didn’t do any work to clean up the data, and this is obviously just a first pass without any analysis. But I was impressed by this map of place names, which generated the kind of American-British-German connection that I thought I saw in the sources. But the plot also contains places that I didn’t expect, which I hope will be a fruitful area to research further.

For a much fuller description of Paper Machines, you can see the documentation, Johnson-Roberson’s [write up][Paper Machines Map] at Harvard’s metaLAB, or a two blog posts by Sarita Alami from the Emory libraries.

Have you tried Paper Machines with your Zotero library?

Update (11/8): In the original post I neglected to give credit to Jo Guldi and Matthew Battles who started and directed the project. You can read a post about Paper Machines by Guldi here.

Update (11/9): Chris Johnson-Roberson sends this update about the contributions of the various collaborators:¬†“Paper Machines was coded by Brown grad student Chris Johnson-Roberson in collaboration with historian Jo Guldi, under the guidance of Matthew Battles at Harvard’s¬†metaLAB.”


This Saturday, October 20, I’ll be giving a workshop at THATCamp New England 2012. Here is the description of the workshop:

An operating system is the most basic software on a computer, which allows the computer run higher order applications. Scholars also need an ‘operating system’—a set of basic tools that work together reliably to handle the low level tasks of scholarship so scholars can concentrate on higher order thinking. We will begin this workshop by drawing some ideas from the philosophy of the Unix operating system, especially the idea that (almost) all scholarly work can be done in plain text. We will then experiment with Unix-style tools that can be used on any computer operating system. We will spend most of the workshop trying out the components of a plain-text scholarly operating system, including text editors (take your pick), plain-text markup (Markdown), document converters (Pandoc with a nod to LaTeX), and version control (Git). Along the way we will also learn the basics of interacting with a computer through a command line.

Participants will get more out of the workshop if they install Pandoc and a good text editor (TextWrangler on Mac, Notepad++ on Windows) before the session. The links above to ProfHacker posts may also be helpful.

Here are some links to resources to help you get started with plain-text scholarship. N.B. I’ll be adding more links soon.

ProfHacker posts

Online Markdown converters

Git


The JSR editors been making a lot of changes at the Journal of Southern Religion in the past year. We’ve rebuilt the site from the ground up, we’ve released our content under an open-access license (written up here), we’ve added a successful podcast with seven episodes already, and we’re getting close to adding DOIs and releasing a new issue. Sometime soon I want to write a full ‘making of’ post about the decisions we made and the tools we used. Today, though, I want to introduce a Ruby script I’ve written for the JSR to make e-books in EPUB format of each issue.

The JSR’s website runs on Jekyll, a ‘simple, blog aware, static site generator’ that converts Markdown files into a website. In other words, JSR articles are stored in plain text files like these from issue 13. Stephen Ramsay explains why this is a good thing. Because the JSR content is portable and parsable, it’s easy to use the content for purposes other than the website itself.

One of the new things I want to do with the JSR is make an e-book of each issue, so that scholars can read the journal on tablets and mobiles more immersively than is possible on a website. Whether there interest among JSR readers in this new format remains to be seen, but other people are writing about EPUB for scholars and other open-access journals, like the Journal of Digital Humanities are releasing their content as EPUB.

I’ve written a Ruby script, epub-jekyll, which parses posts and pages in a Jekyll website and passes them through Pandoc to create an EPUB. Because the script uses a YAML file as a table of contents, it should be useable on other Jekyll (or Octopress) websites. You can get the code from GitHub and learn how to use the script in the README.

This my first project in Ruby, so I’ll be glad for any improvements you’d like to suggest.

Update 2012-11-01: I learned that there is another project called jekyll-epub so I had to change the name of this project to jekyll-ebook. The links above have been corrected. And I’ve also published the project as a gem.


I write all my documents in Markdown and pipe them through Pandoc to make PDFs. Typing pandoc myfile.md -o myfile.md.pdf over and over at the command line gets tedious, especially if the Pandoc command requires options for BibTeX and CSL files.

My solution is to use GNU Make (helpful introduction here). Make lets you define a series of rules to compile files. You define ’targets’ (the files to be made), ‘dependencies’ (the source files), and the commands that express the relation between the two. A typical rule using Pandoc might look like this:

lesson.01.md.pdf : lesson.01.md
    pandoc lesson.01.md -o lesson 01.md.pdf

Read the entire post 


[This post originally appeared at ProfHacker.]

Of the perennial ProfHacker favorites, WordPress is probably neck and neck with Zotero as our most written about topic. From course blogs to department websites to ProfHacker itself, we like WordPress for just about any kind of website that you might run. In fact, other than the barest mention, I don’t think we’ve even acknowledged the existence of WordPress competitors like Blogger, Typepad, and MoveableType. WordPress really is that much better than the competition. (Jason does like About.me for profile pages, and if you’re comfortable on the command line Jekyll or Octopress are great choices.)

But if for academic purposes there isn’t much choice between WordPress and its competitors, you do have a choice between WordPress.org and WordPress.com. With WordPress.org, you host your own installation of WordPress and can install plugins and themes however you wish. With WordPress.com, you use a WordPress as a hosted service, which gives you no control over plugins, but the service comes with some nice features already set up for you, such as stats.

Recently the choice has been made easier with the release of the plugin JetPack. Automattic, the company behind WordPress, has bundled a lot of the extra functionality of WordPress.com into a single plugin for WordPress.org. You install the plugin like any other, then connect your site with your WordPress.com account.

The plugin adds over a dozen features, not all of which are equally useful. Here are the highlights that are relevant for course websites, as mentioned by Brian, Mark, and Jason.

  • Stats. The WordPress stats are clean, simple, and easy to understand. They also don’t require any additional configuration. For almost any purpose these stats should be sufficient. Professional-grade services like Google Analytics are overkill.
  • Shortened URLs. For each page and post Jetpack provides a shortened URL, which can be useful for e-mails and documents. (E.g., from http://lincolnmullen.com/courses/uws/schedule to http://wp.me/P2GPwb-f.)
  • Embed codes. If you need to embed video in posts, Jetpack adds some shortcuts.
  • Math plugin. If you’re in a STEM field, the math plugin will let you create equations with LaTeX.

In short, Jetpack is hardly essential, but if you’ll use some of these features, it’s a nice addition.

What experience do you have with JetPack for course websites? Are there other plugins you find essential?


I’ve been asked to give a workshop at THATCamp New England 2012 on Saturday, October 20. Here is the description of the workshop:

The Humanist’s Operating System; or, Scholarship in Plain Text

An operating system is the most basic software on a computer, which allows the computer run higher order applications. Scholars also need an ‘operating system’—a set of basic tools that work together reliably to handle the low level tasks of scholarship so scholars can concentrate on higher order thinking. We will begin this workshop by drawing some ideas from the philosophy of the Unix operating system, especially the idea that (almost) all scholarly work can be done in plain text. We will then experiment with Unix-style tools that can be used on any computer operating system. We will spend most of the workshop trying out the components of a plain-text scholarly operating system, including text editors (take your pick), plain-text markup (Markdown), document converters (Pandoc with a nod to LaTeX), and version control (Git). Along the way we will also learn the basics of interacting with a computer through a command line.

Participants will get more out of the workshop if they install Pandoc and a good text editor (TextWrangler on Mac, Notepad++ on Windows) before the session. The links above to ProfHacker posts may also be helpful.

As a bonus, here is a video from AT&T about Unix posted by Caleb McDaniel.

[http://www.youtube.com/embed/tc4ROCJYbm0]


[This post originally appeared at ProfHacker.]

A lot of productivity advice, especially about technology, is about making things easier to do. For example, in the last few days at ProfHacker, George has asked about paperless promotion portfolios, Mark has shown us an easier Zotero workflow with Zotpad, Adeline has reviewed a geo-tagging journal, and I have written about hacking URLs for faster searches.

But recently I’m finding that I need to make some things harder on myself. It’s easy to fall into habits or routines, whether technological or otherwise, that keep you doing things that you wouldn’t choose to do if you thought about it rationally. But to get to the place where you’re making better decisions, you have to break the habit by making things harder on yourself. There is no point in having a shortcut to something that isn’t worth doing.

Here’s an example: Amazon has a patent on “1-Click” shopping. If you turn on the service, you can buy any of their products with one click of the mouse. Want to buy a book? One click and it shows up at your doorstep. That’s very convenient, and it can become very expensive. I’ve turned off 1-Click shopping.

Here are three things I’ve done to make it harder for me to do things I don’t really want to do:

  • I’ve deleted a lot of bookmarks and apps. The bookmarks or shortcuts to my e-mail program, to Twitter, to Google Reader, to any other site or app that I might check reflexively rather than intentionally are gone. I still use those services, but now I have to make an effort to get to them.
  • I’ve decided to wait 24 hours before agreeing to do anything that is more than routine. Usually, if you ask me to do something, and I’ll say yes right away and regret it later. So now I wait a day before thinking about it, so that I actually¬†can think about it.
  • If I know that a task is likely to take more time than I want to allot to it, I wait to do it until some time when a hard constraint will make me stop at a fixed time. For example, I usually plan to spend two hours prepping for a class, but that can easily become four hours. The extra two hours doesn’t substantially improve the class for my students, but it does take away from my other work. So, I do begin course prep two hours before I have to go to home for the day, because I know my time is limited.

What things do you do reflexively? What can you change to make them harder to do?


This fall I’ll be teaching a university writing seminar titled ‘Religious Pluralism and the American State’. I’ve made the syllabus available online and I’ve put up a basic course website.

Here is the course description:

Two of the most pressing questions about American religion and its public role are intertwined: how should religions relate to one another, and how should religions relate to the state? In this class you will take up these two questions through the historical analysis of texts about the interactions of Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, and Native American religions with one another and with the federal and state governments. You will investigate how law has regulated the public sphere and the civil square in which religious interactions take place, but also how religious actors have driven those interactions. We will trace the history of American pluralism, from the fact of diversity in eighteenth century to the idea of pluralism in the twenty-first century. Because this is a writing seminar, you will write three essays: one expositing a document about a religious conflict, a second interacting with other historians’ interpretations, and a third based on original research into religious conflict.

I’m looking forward to the reading list for the course. We’ll be reading most of three great books: Steven K. Green’s The Second Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America, David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom, and William Hutchison’s Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal.

But I’m mostly looking forward to teaching the primary sources, which range from eighteenth-century texts such as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and John Leland’s The Rights of Conscience Inalienable, to nineteenth-century texts such as essays by Isaac Mayer Wise in the Occident and court cases about blasphemy, polygamy, and Bible reading, to twentieth-century texts about Jehovah’s Witnesses, drugs, and the ministerial exception. (I try to bring the course right up to the present by using Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC.) There are a lot of ’echoes’ in the texts: for example, James Madison’s ‘Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments’ is quoted in several of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century texts, and the question of school prayer and Bible reading comes up again and again.

I think the problem of how an open society can both permit wild religious diversity and full religious expression is one of the most crucial questions facing our democracy. I hope this course will be a small contribution to helping the students and myself think through the question.