Towards a Symbiotic Relationship Between Academic Pundits and Academic Academics; Or, another post about Reza Aslan.

I hope this is my last post about Reza Aslan. We’ll see.

A friend of mine posted to Facebook an excerpted an interview Nathan Schneider did with Aslan in 2010 where he discusses the guff he took for his early work writing for a general non-academic audience. As the questions of Aslan’s credentials, the role of religion scholars in public, and the difference between “academic” and “popular” work have come up this week it seemed to me my friend had a good eye for the timely. Aslan talks about the problem scholars have addressing the general public:

RA: ..That, to me, is an example of the problem academia has, which earns it legitimate criticism for being out of touch with the concerns of people outside of its walls.

NS: How do you think scholars can learn to take part in broader conversations?

RA: It’s often a total waste of time. You can’t be trained to speak to the media in a weekend seminar before going on Anderson Cooper. You have to be immersed in the kind of world in which there is no division between the academic and the popular. I honestly think that the best hope that we have is to foster a new kind of student, one who doesn’t spend eight years in the basement of Widener Library at Harvard poring over a thirteenth-century manuscript and writing a dissertation on the changes in the vowel markings of a sentence. That kind of scholarship has a very small role in the world we live in now. We need scholars who understand that there is no division between the world of academia and the popular world. Trying to take staid academics and teach them to use words with fewer syllables is not the way to break that wall down.

I think Aslan misses something here. Through the wonders of Amazon’s “Look inside!” feature, I took a gander at Aslan’s bibliography for Zealot and No god but God. Guess what? They are both full of academic journal articles and books from academic presses! You know, those things written by folks in musty library basements. That stuff that “has a very small role in the world we live in now.” Aslan’s work does a fine job of offering Barnes and Noble customers and Fresh Air listeners an accessible account of “the historical Jesus” or an introduction to Islam. But his books are built from the work of other academics writing for an academic audience. Aslan is a translator and he needs that initial highfaluting academic work to fashion into his accessible prose and media punditry. And in doing so, he adds value to the original research by disseminating it more widely.

Some people are talented enough to do both sorts of this work. Some can only do one or the other. But accessible Barnes and Noble CNN work and hardcore ancient language dusty archive work need each other. They are so happy together.

Now which one is the rhinoceros…

Why I Embargoed My Dissertation

I did it because I could.

I did it because everyone else who had graduated recently in my program did it.

I did it because every junior faculty member I know said their publisher told them to erase all evidence that there book was ever a dissertation. They said libraries wouldn’t buy the book if the dissertation was available for free. In an era of shrinking budgets, libraries cannot afford to buy the cow if they can get the milk for free in an open access database. But here’s the real problem, my milk isn’t ready yet. It hasn’t been processed and pasteurized. It doesn’t have the shelf life it needs.

Not yet.

Librarians out there: Is this true? Are you not buying books that seem like thinly re-published dissertations?

I have a book project that I’m working on and it is based on my dissertation. The dissertation is a really good dissertation (damn good, in my opinion) but it isn’t as good as the book will be. It doesn’t have the kind of sharp teeth I want the final book to have. It was written for an audience of three, not an entire field. And even though I was told to “write for the book” by my advisor, it is still the rough draft of the book. It is a damn fine dissertation, but it is not my first book.

When I was writing my dissertation I came across Richard Hughes Seager’s dissertation from Harvard as a printed and bound copy in the stacks of the Pitts Library at Emory. That dissertation became this book. I’m actually assigning the book in my seminar on Asian Religions in America this fall. The dissertation, well, it’s still on that shelf in the stuffy basement of a Methodist seminary.

The days of finding dissertations like Seager’s in the stacks are over. We are in the age of digital dissertations, digital research, and digital pedagogy. It strikes me that in the age of the MOOC, when scholarly teaching is imagined by some as something easily replaced, our research matters more than ever. We can write books–machines cannot. Our research, our books, our dissertations, these are not easily replicated massively. They should be open. I firmly believe that. We should be producing public knowledge. Open access journals are important. Public scholarship is vital. This is why I write on this blog. This is why I have written at Religion Dispatches and Religion in American History. But here’s the thing: openness does not mean a complete loss of control. I want to open my research up to the world–but I’ll do it when I know it is ready.

And it’s not just these online institutional repositories. When I finished my dissertation I was required by Emory University to pay ProQuest to take my dissertation for their database that they then sell to other institutions. Fight Club soap, all over again. Sure, I get a take of any sales of my particular dissertation, but if someone wants my dissertation bad enough to pay ProQuest for it I’d be happy to send them a PDF for free.

Right now, my dissertation’s abstract and table of contents are listed here, along with my committee members’ names. If you are working in the field and find this page in the next few years, it would not be hard to find me or one of my committee members. We will give you a copy of the dissertation, happily. I’ve done this already. Furthermore, in my case, I have been actively blogging about this project for two years and giving conference papers at national conferences. My research is not unavailable just because it isn’t in a mandatory open access database.

I have seen a lot of associate and full professors bemoaning the AHA’s recommendations. I think The Atlantic wrote something too. I cannot understand why scholars with the privileges of tenure fail to acknowledge the inequality and heavy handedness of forcing graduates to give away their research for free and outside of their control. Compensation and responsibilities for Ph.D. students vary from institution to institution. Support structures, research funding, and advising similarly range from wonderful to terrible. So, why not allow students to decide for themselves what to do with their dissertation work based on their particular circumstances?

For untenured or contingent faculty and recent Ph.D.s our research is all we really have left. They are MOOCing our teaching. But they can’t MOOC our books. There are three parties involved in this situation: junior faculty, libraries, and publishers. To all the senior faculty complaining about embargoing as a step backwards, I ask you to please talk to your librarians, talk to your editors at the presses your work with, use your role as series editors, to change the system. Get your library to stop settling for the free raw milk and make them buy it from the store. Get your publishers to think creatively about how to leverage the dissertation instead of treating it like an ugly step-child.

Because the junior faculty have little power in this.

All we can do is embargo.

Tuscaloosa Bound: My New Job at the University of Alabama

I’ve already posted about it on Facebook and I think someone sent out a tweet about it but I’ll post it here and make it official. I’m happy to announce I’ve accepted a one year faculty appointment in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama for 2013-1014. I’m really excited to join such a great group of faculty members for what should be a great year. I’m even more excited because I’ll get to teach a seminar on Asian Religions in American Culture that I’ve wanted a chance to teach for some time now. I’ll also be teaching the honors introduction to religion course, which should be a blast.

So, I guess all that’s left to say is….Roll Tide!


Tomorrow: Get Free Lunch and Hear Me Talk About Teaching With Twitter

I should have posted this earlier, but I’ll be speaking as part of the great Eat Talk Teach Run series at Emory. ETTR combines four short (4 minute limit) talks on teaching with free lunch and frozen yogurt. It’s awesome. Come check it out. Details:

Eat. Talk. Teach. Run!
An event to energize grad student teaching at Emory.
Wednesday, October 31. 12 PM – 1 PM.

Eat. Yogurt Tap frozen yogurt and bánh mì sandwiches from Buford Highway!
Talk. Meet grad students from across campus.
Teach. Hear short 4-minute flashtalks from other grad students.
Run. Get back to the lab or library on time!

Few Hall G27, convenient for scientists, humanities, and everything in between!
Find Few Hall G27 here:

Grad Student Speakers:
Michael Altman (Religion)
Kate Doubler (English)
Laura Mariani (Neuroscience)
Cassy Quave (Ethnobotany, Post-doc)

RSVPs Appreciated at:

“Like” Us at:

Shut Up and Start Writing: Week 2- The Starting Pistol

BANG! And we’re off.  Alright folks, time to check in with what you did this week and what your goal is for next week.

I actually got the chapter I’ve been working on revised and emailed to my adviser. So, if Dennis got his done too, that adviser should have a nice batch of summer reading. For next week, I’m starting a new chapter and I’d like to have a list of sources I need to go through put together by the end of the week. I’ll give myself bonus points if I can actually get through some of those sources. So, did I earn a sticker?

And what about yall? How was the first week? Did you start strong? Stumble out of the blocks? What can we do to help you? And what’s your goal for next week?

Your Taste is Killer: Ira Glass Provides Much Needed Dissertation Motivation

Ira Glass in a heart

I’ve been slogging through the dissertation work lately. I’m getting stuff done. But the joy is fading. Then I found this:


Oh, Ira. Thanks. I needed this.

I consider our work as academics creative. The very best academic writing has a creative flair to it, whether in the prose or the theory or the narrative or the use of sources. Those of us who choose, for better or worse, a career in the academic wing of the creative classes  are drawn here because of our “taste,” as Glass puts it. We read a book, take a class, research a project, or do something that ignites that taste and motivates us. Then we go to grad school and we start to produce seminar papers, conference papers, and eventually a dissertation, all the while reading works by brilliant academics. We start to notice the gap between what we’re doing and what these writers are doing. We want to do what they are doing, we always have, but we are afraid we can’t. We are afraid that our work will never live up to our taste.

Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems that we all feel this gap at some point in our training. For some it may come during course work or exams, but for me it has come at the dissertation phase–and not the beginning of the dissertation, about a third of the way through it. That’s why these words from Ira Glass were so motivational for me. My taste is killer. If you’re reading this, your taste is killer. Now comes the work. It’s time to fight your way through.

Ok, back to the fight.

Good advice for those of us writing dissertations…

Over the long arc of your career, you will complete many research projects, one often leading to the next. Research is an archipelago, not a single island. Your goal should be to build a career piece by piece doing good research. A professor once shocked me when I was a graduate student by saying, “Hopefully, your dissertation will be the worst thing you ever write.” Now I give the same advice: Our goal as scholars is continual improvement. Do the best job you can on your dissertation, defend it, publish it in some form, then move on.

Yep. That’s the goal.

More good advice here for those of you who’ve crossed over the river and are on the tenure track.

REL100 Syllabus: Blogging, Tweeting, and Deconstructing Religion

I finally finished the syllabus for REL100. Good thing, too. The first day of class is tomorrow morning. It’s all filled up–40 students. Here goes nothin’!

REL 100: Introduction to Religion

Christian and Hindu Traditions

Michael J. Altman


Office Hours: Thursday 9am-noon, Callaway S220 (or by appt.)

I. Course Description

This course introduces the academic study of religion through a comparative approach to Hindu and Christian religious cultures. The central question of our course is “What is religion?” We will attempt to answer this question by drawing on a range of examples from Hindu and Christian religious cultures. These case studies will come from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in both India and America and range from Hindu pilgrimage to Catholic devotionalism to yoga to evangelicalism. These case studies will be organized around three themes: the body, ritual and devotion, and space and motion. In each case and through each theme we will pay special attention to the ways “religion” is constructed, authorized, and maintained. Turning to the ways religion was constructed in the past will shed light on the ways it is understood today. By the end of the course we will have an understanding of the rich variety of religious cultures found within Christianity and Hinduism while also gaining theoretical tools for analyzing various constructions of “religion” in public discourse and culture.

II. Course Outcomes

We will develop expertise in interpreting the plurality of religions (especially Christianity and Hinduism) in their historical settings.

We will critically assess the influence religions (again, especially Christianity and Hinduism) exert in shaping experience and society.

We will investigate the diverse of ways of “being in the world” in Christian and Hindu traditions.



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Help Me Write Better: How Much Signposting is Too Much Signposting in Academic Writing?

via Flickr user Kapungo, Creative Commons License

As I’ve been writing I’ve been thinking about the use of signposting in my writing. I have always thought the strength of my academic writing was my organization. I spend a lot of energy making sure a chapter/essay is built well and one way I do that is through very blatant signpost of what the essay/chapter is going to do (as you’ll see below.) I’ve been debating if I should go back and as part of the revision process, smooth over this blatant signposting. So, my question for folks out there on the internets is whether this is a good idea or not. Is signposting helpful? Is it distracting? Is it poor style? Will I lose clarity by taking it out? I’ve already tweeted and posted a Facebook status asking these questions but I thought an example might make it easier to get people’s ideas.  I know these questions might be hard to answer without reading the whole essay but I’ve put a chunk from the introduction of an essay I’m currently revising for submission below to give an example of what I’m doing. These are the last paragraphs of the introduction. Thoughts? Comments?


It is arguable whether the haystack meeting was the birth of American missions or not, but it still serves as an exemplary American missionary story. The young men of Williams College in 1806 took part in a revival experience of the community around them. They read transatlantic letters and sermons describing the movement of the Holy Spirit at home and in Great Britain and studied the work of great British missionary leaders such as Wilberforce, Carey, and Ward. Then, after they had gone to the field themselves, they sent back letters, journals and accounts of the mission field to an Evangelical audience in America that consumed their stories along with stories of domestic revival.

This essay examines this process of traveling narratives. Specifically, I argue that the travel of revival narratives constituted the transatlantic revival at the turn of the 19th century. This revival and its narratives engendered the missionary movement in America which then in turn bred new narratives that traveled across oceans from the mission field to America, creating the sense of a global awakening.

To analyze this process of traveling transatlantic and transoceanic revival, I begin with a broad definition of revival that draws on examples from across American history. I provide a six point definition of revival that foregrounds the relationship between experience, narrative, and communication in the production and spread of revivals. I then closely track two of these six points: narrative and communication. To that end, I move from the broad view of revival throughout history to a view of the revivals from 1790 to 1820 in order to establish the transatlantic travel of texts—that is, the communication of narratives. I then hone in more narrowly again and focus on the narratives of British missionaries that found their way into American culture. Finally, in concluding the essay, the fourth, and narrowest section, reveals how narratives from the mission field were part of a growing American Evangelical print culture that joined foreign intelligence with domestic and British revival narratives to create a sense of global awakening.

But to begin, what is revival?

The Dissertation Proposal: Hinduism and the Boundaries of Nineteenth Century American Culture

Two weeks ago I successfully defended my dissertation proposal. I thought it might be worthwhile to share an abridged version so anyone interested might get a sense of what this project is shaping up to be. I’d love to hear feedback and suggestions. In this abridged version I’ve cut out the literature review.

“This extensive and populous country…retains its peculiar manners which have stamped the people as a peculiar race from the earliest periods of history.”1 So writes Samuel Goodrich in 1845, using the pseudonym Peter Parley, under the heading “Hindostan” in his schoolbook Manners and Customs of the Principal Nations of The Globe. For, Goodrich, and for the children reading his grade school book, India was quite different from America. As common schools began to grow in the middle third of the nineteenth century, writers like Goodrich believed that children in America needed to have a global view. A view that included Asia and India. In his The Tales of Peter Parley About Asia (1845) Goodrich describes the people of India for his readers: “I shall now tell you of a people, who may be regarded as the most interesting of all the inhabitants of Asia, I mean the Hindoos…the Hindoos, in personal appearance, in disposition, in character, and in religion, are a distinct and peculiar nation.”2 Children would find the Hindus interesting because they were so different from Americans—so “peculiar.” As Goodrich pointed out, they looked different, lived differently, and believed in a different religion.

About a decade later, Henry David Thoreau bathed his mind in “the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy” of the Bhagavad Gita during his mornings at Walden Pond. For Thoreau, the sacred book of India made the modern world “and its literature seem puny and trivial.” Laying the book aside, Thoreau made his way down to his well to draw water. The Gita still in his thoughts, at the well he met “the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahama and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Veda, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug.” Thoreau’s meditation on the Gita brought him to a place where “the pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”3 For Thoreau, the Brahman at the foot of the tree reading the Veda represented everything missing from his industrial American society. Through his romantic vision, Hindu religious culture represented an ancient spiritual wisdom that Thoreau believed American industrial society had lost.

In 1884 the Methodist run Christian Advocate offered a very different image of India’s religions. The magazine published a report from the Rev. Samuel Knowles on “The Devi Patan Mela,” a religious festival in India. Knowles narrates the scene his group of missionaries arrived to find: “Thirsty tired, and full of dust, we entered under the grand grove of tamarind trees that surrounds the gloomy temple of the blood-deluged idol goddess…it was calculated that one animal a minute was sacrificed sunrise to sunset of every day for a week.” Like Thoreau, Knowles also sees Brahmins. “A number of blood-stained priests stand behind a stone in front of the temple,” waiting to help devotees offer sacrifices to “the dishonored shrine.”4

These three examples illustrate the variety of ways Americans imagined and represented Hindu religions in the nineteenth century. For the schoolbook writers, India was a land of barbarous, dark skinned, heathens that stood in contrast to the virtues of white, enlightened, Christian America. For Thoreau and his ilk, Indian religions held a spiritual truth that was missing in American Protestant culture. Americans needed to “bathe their minds” in India’s spiritual waters as an antidote to rising materialism and industrialism. Missionaries, like the Methodists in the Advocate, viewed Hindu religions as dark heathenism in need of the conquering light of the Gospel. As these examples indicate, Americans held a variety of reactions and ideas about India and its religious culture, but all of these reactions shared a common understanding of religious difference. Whether viewed positively or negatively, all Americans believed that Hindu religions were altogether different from America’s.

Furthermore, these visions of Hindu religions preceded the arrival of Hindus themselves. Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the World’s Parliament of religion is often cited as the beginning for Hinduism’s history in America. On the one hand, this is true insofar as Vivekananda’s Vedanta Society became the first Hindu religious institution to attract a following among Americans. But on the other hand, such a history fails to outline the events and ideas that made Vivekananda’s movement possible. The history of Hinduism in America begins a century before Vivekananda when Americans first encountered Hindu religions through missions work, trade, travel narratives, and the popular press. By examining the representations of Hinduism that preceded Vivekananda, this dissertation traces out the ideas and images in American culture that made Vivekananda’s work possible, thinkable even. In short, I point out the ground rules Vivekananda, and Hindus that would follow him, had to play by.


In this dissertation, I situate my investigation on the boundary of American culture. In the nineteenth century, Americans from a variety of backgrounds produced and consumed representations of Hindu religions. I argue that these representations took a myriad of forms and emphasized various themes about India but they were all predicated on a notion of religious difference—whatever Hindu religions were, they were not American. Thus, Hindu religions marked the edge of American culture. They were always already outside America, though they were then represented by Americans for Americans in American cultural forms. By sketching the borders of American culture in the period and by paying particular attention to the role of religion in maintaining this boundary, this dissertation will explore the different ways Americans used religion as a category for defining America. In a sense, this dissertation gets at “American religion” through the back door, by examining examples of what did not count as American religion during the century.

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