Greetings. Sorry it’s been a while, but welcome back to “Working on It.”
While I’ve been working a lot recently, what I have been working on is grants—writing and in a couple of instances receiving. Like any kind of work, grant writing has its pleasures. There’s the pleasure of craft: knowing what to do and doing it well. Even more there is the pleasure of collaboration. For this most recent round of grant writing, I was fortunate to be working with a team of colleagues where there is a lot of trust. Even the financial and administrative wrangling can, on rare days, produce the satisfaction of overcoming obstacles. (Waiting months for results, though, is never fun.) Still, the work of grant writing is decidedly only a means to an end and dull in and of itself, even if it weren’t imprudent to talk about work that might never come into being.
But one of the ends that grants can bring about is enabling other people’s work. We’ve been going through a strategic planning process at RRCHNM, and I’ve come to realize that the word that describes us best is enablers. Which brings me to DataScribe.
For about a year, a team at RRCHNM has been working on an NEH-funded piece of software for transcribing historical sources into datasets. We have launched our public beta, as described here. If you want to be a part, you can find out how to do so on our website.
DataScribe will enable the work of other scholars in two related ways. First, for those who know what they are doing but who could use a tool which offers a better workflow than a mess of spreadsheets, DataScribe will be great for team transcriptions.
Our American Religious Ecologies project is certainly going to benefit. But the other thing DataScribe will do is help scholars who have historical sources that could be datasets, but who don’t know how to go about creating them. Forgive my snobbery, but many more historians want to do this kind of work than actually know how to do it. DataScribe will provide an opinionated way of transcribing datasets alongside educational materials and case studies. We hope that we have figured out to do something well, and that we can enable others to do the same.
While we are on the topic of things RRCHNM has recently released, we’ve also published the third issue of our journal, Current Research in Digital History. There are a number of good journals for digital scholarship out there these days; I often point people to the Journal of Cultural Analytics. But CRDH is filling a useful niche. We encourage and publish scholarship in digital history that offers discipline-specific arguments and interpretations, rather than simply showcasing digital projects. And by featuring short essays that can embed whatever digital content you want, we also seeks to provide an opportunity to make arguments on the basis of ongoing research in larger projects.
We’ve recently changed our publication model (details here), so now we are accepting, peer reviewing, and publishing articles on a rolling basis. If you are an early career scholar or a graduate student, or if you’ve got work in progress and want to get some initial results out into the world, CRDH is a great place to publish. Plus we are fast; publishing with us is measured in months rather than years. All you have to do is offer a meaningful historical interpretation.
Brief book note
I’ve probably recommended Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World to more people than any book I’ve read in a long time. Partly that is because her compelling descriptions of contemporary religious phenomena—living theater, Harry Potter fandom, witchcraft, wellness movements like SoulCycle, sexual utopianism—that are almost entirely off my radar as a scholar. (Some of you might add, rather unkindly, that they are also remote from my own unfashionable experiences.) Unless you are a twenty-something Brooklynite or denizen of San Francisco who regularly attends spin class, writes fan fiction, and has a rewards card to Goop, I am willing to bet you are going to learn a lot from this book.
I’m less certain about her argument that these phenomena are new religions. More precisely, I don’t really care whether they deserve the label religion or not. The “weak” form of her argument—that these practices are replacing the community formation and meaning making typically provided by more conventionally defined religions—is claim enough for me. Scholars have been a bit obsessed about the rise of the “nones” ever sense the Pew report by that name came out. Burton’s book does more to explain and give color to that trend than anything else I’ve read.
But to be honest, what really captivated me about this book was what I took to be the subtext: that all of these spiritual practices and communities are not just about the self; they are outright selfish. Maybe I am wrong that Burton is making that critique; I certainly don’t think that criticism is explicit. But I do think that it is correct. Let me put it a different way. There is an awful lot that is wrong about American Christianity, and some of it is downright despicable. But at least the message that I hear out of American Christianity, however inconsistently, is that you are supposed to be living for God and for others, and not for yourself. These new religious movements … not so much.
Not so random, but here are a few screenshots from DataScribe.
Working: Made some substantial progress on the interactive visualizations for America’s Public Bible. Also, did I mention that I’ve been writing a lot of grants?
Reading: Zev Eleff’s Authentically Orthodox: A Tradition-Bound Faith in American Life. Whether you come to this book because you care about the history of American Judaism or because you want to understand how religious “traditions” works in America, this is a heck of a book.
Listening: All Johnny Cash, all the time.
Playing: I bought a guitar and I’m starting to learn. See previous item.
Watching: I started Ted Lasso grudgingly and then loved it.