A Modest Proposal: Assessing Digital Biblical Studies

The following Is my presentation for today’s Blogging and Online Publishing session of SBL. I hope that my proposal will be taken seriously since I believe it offers the greatest promise for securing a credible future for digital biblical studies.

Online Biblical Studies: Past, Present, Promise, and Peril

I must begin by thanking James Davila for brilliantly and succinctly setting the stage for this session and obviating the need for me to offer anything by way of a history of biblioblogging. His predictions are prescient as well but while he says (and on the whole I agree) that blogging amongst biblical scholars is likely to be with us for a long time yet, it is worth noting that just in the last six months a number of tech pundits have argued that blogs are dead. This, I believe, is a gross overstatement, but I do believe that we have seen a significant maturation of this space (as tech wags like to call it) with the casual commentator and naval gazing narcissist largely falling by the wayside (yours truly excepted).

Don’t get me wrong, there are still thousands upon thousands of self-serving blogs out there, and many are in our general fields, but those that maintain a significant readership have found a rhythm and niche. In order to survive a blog must have an audience and provide value to that audience. Jim has told us there are now hundreds of biblioblogs and predicts that number will grow. I am not so sure. I believe we will see a stabilization and a maturation with some, like PaleoJudaica and NT Gateway, continuing to maintain a strong readership. They do so, however, often because they are something other than simple blogs or online journals and ramblings. (Mark Goodacre of NT Gateway has, in fact, separated out his various “identities” into at least three blogs.)

Now I readily admit that my blog is, in fact, not one the stellar examples of focus and specialization. My blog is much more of a personal journal. When I started it in 2004 I made a conscious decision not to define its scope and content and instead said that I would simply post and then upon looking back we could all decide what kind of blog it was and if it was worth following. For those who know Targuman you can attest that it is a mélange of biblical studies musings, photography, technology, and comics. If you want a focused biblioblog that will always and only have discipline related content then Targuman.org is not for you. Others have stuck with Targuman (surprisingly!) but the numbers are not significant compared with sites like NT Gateway or Jim’s blog.

The anomaly of Jim West
Speaking of Jim I should note the significant variant of Jim West’s blog. The latest iteration is called “Zwingli Redivivus” and while Jim West regularly posts on issues related to biblical studies, he also has various humor posts, rants against the “depraved,” and wikipedia. The volume he produces is considerable and the number of hits his site receives has kept his blog #1 on the Biblioblogs monthly Top 50 since its inception. It is, however, quite the exception.

So blogs are not dead but I do believe they, or the foundation they have created, have become for focused disciplines like ours part of the landscape and a valuable contribution to building our community and adding to our knowledge. They are limited, however, in their scope and as I have suggested the sites that are becoming institutionalized are those that offer greater value to the reader. I refer to such sites as “Online Biblical Studies” rather than biblioblogs.

Online Biblical Studies
I have already mentioned NT Gateway by Mark Goodacre and iTanakh by Christopher Heard. There are many others that have a particular niche and focus and I will leave that to others to link to and cite in the comments. Oh wait, this is a live talk and not a blog post (yet). I would like to include our Newsletter for Targum and Cognate Studies site in this group but I will be the first to tell you that it is not up to scratch (although I am eager to use the new Grammatous (sp?) engine created by Ian Scott for putting Targumic texts online). Sites such as the Online Critical Pseudepigrapha are valuable resources to scholars as well as those who simply want to “dabble.” These sorts of focused sites, whether we call them blogs or critical tools, I believe, are where we will find the real value proposition for the dissemination of biblical scholarship online in the future.

Finally, as we look to the future I think we also need to consider mobile technology and apps. Those who know me know that I use Apple products, but it could be on one of the new Android tablets, HP’s new slate, HTML5, flash or whatever new platform comes along next year. Apps on portable devices have opened up new possibilities for us. There is always the possibility of eBooks, but these are merely substitutionary, they simply replace one flat book with another. What apps bring is the possibility to incorporate all sorts of media, interaction, and educational tools (quizzes, feedback, etc.). Anyone who has ever played with Elements on the iPad will know immediately what I am talking about. Imagine and intro to Hebrew Bible “textbook” that includes audio files of Bereshit being chanted, a fly through of a reconstructed Temple such as Bob’s work on Qumran or the ability to look at a scroll of a text that allows students to move letters around in a game-like environment to give them a sense of text critical problems scholars face. And of course to this we could add full desktop apps like Accordance and Logos. Traditional textbooks will always have their place, but I believe that such apps, whether on an iPad or embedded in a website, hold tremendous promise for the future of ancient studies, digital humanities.

A Modest Proposal
I spoke yesterday in the “ePublish or Perish” session sponsored by SBL Publishing that one of the challenges of such sites is that our institutions will not always recognize that these are indeed scholarly endeavors. Should a young pre-tenured scholar put time and energy into developing such site, along with podcasts, videos, and interviews when there is no gaurantee that their P&T committee will not recognize this as valid contributions to the discipline? And do we consider them as valid contributions to the field? Isn’t a bit like writing a textbook? We all know that writing a textbook will bring you greater royalties than the $160 volume published by Brill that will only every sell 1200 copies (all to libraries), but such a project is not “adding to the field.” In the same way it is impressive the increased profile that a good site can bring to its author, but without excellent scholarship as well the author will not really have the respect of the community (will they?) or their local peers who make promotion and tenure decisions.

With apologies to those who attended yesterday’s discussion and heard the preview, I would like to propose the formation of an SBL sanctioned review committee. This committee would be formed of a number of scholars, say 18 or more, who are not only recognized in their own field but also have experience in and recognize the value of educational technology and new media. When a scholar is ready for review she would ask the chair of her department to contact SBL who would assign the relevant committee members to review the site, App, or whatever new technological medium has developed by that time and submit their report and assessment back to the scholar’s home institution. I believe that such an assessment body is needed now for three primary reasons.

  1. It is a viable business model. The “coin of the realm” in academia is not directly monetizing our endeavors in terms of royalties (although it is nice work if you can get it), but rather it is promotion and tenure. Even if you are already a tenured, full professor your annual review and subsequent raises are all tied to our academic performance. (And if the contract is right on, for example, an app, you could still make some decent coin.)
  2. Such an assessment would provide the necessary recognition required of P&T committees and department heads. SBL is the biggest name in biblical studies and while I am one to push against “accreditation” is certain contexts, I believe that an SBL review committee would bring tremendous credibility that would have to be recognized by our home institutions. (Thus OCP asked for SBL’s endorsement of their project.)
  3. Knowing that such a review and subsequent recognition is possibility we would all step up our game. Right now most of us maintain our sites, blogs, and online presence out of love and spare time. If such work became valued as part of the scholarly endeavor I believe the quality would go up across the board. The incentive would now be present to take such efforts seriously from inception to review.

So I will not make any future predictions as Jim has done, instead I would like to leave you with this proposal as the necessary future of online and electronic biblical studies.

Location:Peachtree Center Ave NE,Atlanta,United States

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