Research

I have a variety of interdisciplinary research interests that not only dovetail with each other, but also greatly inform the classes I teach. My research interests and specific theoretical models include the body and embodiment, Buddhism in the West, and digital humanities with a focus on spatial humanities and digital pedagogy & online learning. Below are summaries of some of my research projects in these areas.

Religion, the Body, and Embodiment

All religious experience, practice, and belief begins in the body. While this may seem an obvious statement, the ubiquity of the body often results in its disappearance from analysis. Yet, the human body is the central metaphor for how we make sense of the world, and characterize the things we encounter within it. How does the body, its composition, needs, and presence transform religion? How does religious belief and practice shape our understandings of the body and our embodied experiences?

My current research lies at the intersection of the body and the rhetoric of science at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. In my dissertation “Occult Bodies: The Corporal Construction of the Theosophical Society, 1895-1935,” I argue that Theosophists appropriated the rhetoric of science, including claims of objectivity and demonstrability, while rejecting its epistemology. Employing these scientific discourses, they constructed a habitus in which Theosophists came to understand and experience their bodies as existing on numerous dimensions and capable of miraculous abilities. As the human body is the central metaphor by which humans encounter the world, understanding how religious traditions imagine, construct, care for, discipline, and represent the body in its teachings opens a means to examine how individuals both understand and live their traditions. My research joins lived religion with intellectual history to better examine the ways in which religious discourse creates bodily experience.

In addition to my dissertation and numerous conference presentations about Theosophy and the body, my essay, “Taming the Astral Body: The Theosophical Society’s Ongoing Problem of Emotion and Control.” published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion engages body studies by examining the way the Theosophical Society leaders disciplined members through demands of emotional control. Also, my book chapter, “Accessing the Astral with a Monitor and Mouse: Esoteric Religion and the Astral located in Three Dimensional Virtual Realms” published in Contemporary Esotericism, documents how a small group of pagan and esoteric practitioners perform ritual within three-dimensional virtual worlds, and come to experience the activities by extending their notion of self and body beyond their physical body to also encompass their virtual avatar.

Photo source: Kusala Bhikshu / City of the Dharma Realm. Image from 12th Western Buddhist Monastic Conference, April 2007.

Buddhism in the West

My research on Buddhism in the West relates to how Buddhism was constructed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for western consumption and the particular approaches Europeans, Americans, and Asians engaged while participating in the construction process. The encounter with Buddhism and its construction within western cultures reveal many fault lines that were developing in Victorian Europe and America. Boundaries between religion, science, occultism, and others were still being negotiated. The porosity of these boundaries allowed Buddhist converts and Theosophists, among others, to contest certain aspects of western culture, appealing to the superiority of “The East,” while interpreting the east through a western lens. Buddhism early on was associated with occultism and esotericism.

By the early twentieth century, Buddhists attempted to sanitize its past, denouncing as false earlier interpretations, such as those presented by Theosophy. Despite this attempt to redefine its past, Buddhism remained allied with science and reason, the domains that retained most authority in western cultures. I interested in the ways power was negotiated, resources allocated, and truth claims produced within shifting fields of authority, fact, and interpretation. Why were early converts attracted to Buddhism? How did Buddhism become linked to occultism in the public mind while also being associated with science? Who were the important figures in this ongoing construction and negotiation? What rhetoric was used as these discourses unfolded? How did the representation of Buddhism change overtime, and how did it get to it modern image and form? All these questions and more begin in the mid-nineteenth century and continue up to today. Studying the history and contemporary practice of western Buddhism tracks these shifting boundaries over the last two centuries, uncovering the past that has been constructed, contested, obscured, and disowned.

Most of my research regarding Buddhism in the West to date centers on Allan Bennett, an Englishman who participated in occult organizations in London, including the Theosophical Society, during the late nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century, Bennett converted to Buddhism, becoming ordained as the Theravada monk Ananda Metteyya, and leading a Buddhist mission from Burma to London in 1908. In addition to numerous conference presentations about Bennett and his activities, I serve on the Buddhism in the West steering committee (2013-2018), for the American Academy of Religion, was invited to present the keynote speech at the U.K. Buddhist Day celebration in 2009, in which I focused on Bennett’s Buddhist activities, contribute a brief biography about Bennett to a collected essays volume published for the centennial of Buddhism in England, and have written other essays for popular publications including the Buddhist journal, The Middle Way, and Insight: The Journal of the Theosophical Society of England. Finally, my master’s thesis was about Bennett and his mission and it is still the primary source of biographical information about Bennett and his life, cited in numerous publications. I will be returning to my research on Bennett once I complete my dissertation.

Digital Humanities

The Internet and numerous technological tools have opened up wide ranging possibilities for researching, teaching, and publishing in the humanities. Having an information technology background from sixteen year of work in the IT field throughout the Southeast United States, I see great opportunities to use technology to advance humanities knowledge and research through using technology in new and exciting ways. The following three examples represent a broad application of some of the digital humanities methodologies assisting in the research and teaching of humanities subjects, particularly religious studies. The three examples are the spatial humanities, online learning, and digital publishing.

Spatial Humanities

Humans occupy space and are emplaced in the world. When they practice their religion, they imprint establish the traditions spatially, through buildings, establishing communities, traveling for missionizing, or to present lectures or sermons, or simply their immigration. All human activity has a geographical component. Using geographically aware technologies not only allows the inclusion of spatial data in humanities research and publishing, but also the opportunity to combine the humanities data with other spatially organized data to create sophisticated and dynamic demographic and networking representations of humanities subjects. One area of research within digital humanities I have been exploring is the use of geographic information systems (GIS) to track and map the places various historical figures have traveled and how various new religious movements have expanded throughout the world. For instance, in this paper, “The American Tours of Annie Besant, 1891-1929,” I trace the many of the places Annie Besant, the second President of the Theosophical Society based in Adyar, India, made during six trips to the United States and Canada from 1891-1929. By using this lecture data I was able to combine it with US census record to construct a general representation of the people she was meeting and giving lectures to for almost four decades.

Digital Pedagogy & Online Learning

The emergence of sophisticated learning management systems has brought immersive learning environments to a broad range of students. The asynchronous delivery of content allows even those with a busy schedules the opportunity to engage in learning and course work. New technologies allow students to engage a variety of media, often bringing the humanities alive for the student, and offering space for students to engage, reflect, and discuss their thoughts and the information they have learned. In addition, new software platforms and mobile devices present ways of interacting that would not be possible for in person classrooms.

One example of how I have explored digital pedagogy probabilities within online learning environments has spanned from using blogs and social media to working with students to create an online repository to store the research they create. In a project, The Religious Institutions of Tallahassee, for two semesters students traced the history of local religious institutions, collecting and documenting various historical aspects of the institution and interviewing institutional representatives. They then created an institutional exhibit showcasing their results. While those who chose a different topic wrote blog posts, essays, or created movies which they collected and submitted to the repository. The repository is now part of Florida State’s special collections showcasing undergraduate scholarship in religious studies. I presented about this project in in the “The Digital Futures of Religious Studies” session at the annual conference of the AAR in 2016.

Another way I promote digital humanities research is that from 2013-2016, I have been a co-organizer of THATCamp AAR & SBL. THATCamp stands for The Humanities and Technology Camp, which is an informal, all-day conference which takes place the day before the American Academy of Religion conference in November. Here scholars of religion come together to learn about digital humanities and from those involved. As an “unconference,” the topics and presenters are not selected until the morning of the conference so that it truly represents those in attendance. Each year the attendance of the conference increases. For 2016, approximately 100 participants attended to learn more about digital humanities. By co-organizing the event, I help introduce digital humanities to more scholars who can, in turn, apply it to their research, expanding the field and opening up more opportunities for collaboration.