New Presentation: Augustine of Hippo & William James on the Specious Present

I’m happy to report I’ll be presenting at the 2019 Cheiron Conference on the History of the Behavioural & Social Sciences. This time, my topic will be the debate about the “specious present” in Augustine of Hippo & William James.

While that might sound like an anachronistic comparison, the ancient African Christian and the modern American psychologist actually tend to ask quite similar sorts of questions. In this case, the parallel lies in the present. Both thinkers asked themselves: is there such a thing as a “present moment?”

Augustine answered in the negative. James mostly answered in the positive, though he admitted that ‘in reality’ the present probably did not exist. And yet he cautioned that the psychologist must presume a present, insofar as the scientific psychologist relies upon the notion of a ‘present state of consciousness’ in order to make a judgment, offer a diagnosis, and so on.

The goal of my paper, then, will be both to highlight this distinction between Augustine & James and to explore some consequences of this distinction. We could, for example, ask: might there be any psychological consequences if we presume from the beginning, not that we occupy a specious present, but rather that there is no present at all? And if so, can we continue to speak intelligibly of spontaneity, a moment of decision, an instant of change, or perhaps even a ‘present mental state?’


New Presentation: _The Killing Spirit_ @ Canada’s Humanities Congress

At long last, I’ve just registered to present at the Canadian Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences for the first time. I’ll be presenting my research before the Canadian Society of Patristic Studies.

The title of my paper will be “The Killing Spirit: Augustine’s Anti-Manichaean Reception fo the Apocryphal Act of Peter.” It’ll consist of my reading of Augustine’s strange use of that particular apocryphal text in his Contra Adimantium, a little-studied tome that aims to undermine the claims of the Manichaean polemicist Adimantius.

In this fragmentary apocryphon, Peter adopts a controversial stance regarding the status of his own child, who appears to become a pawn in the game of the divine’s demonstration of its own power. In the polemical context of the Contra Adimantium, however, this Act becomes a point of contention in view of the Manichaeans’ rejection of certain “scriptural” texts in favour of others, despite their liminal status within the canonical debates of late antiquity.


Forthcoming Article: “Nineveh Overturned: Augustine & Chrysostom on the Threat of Jonah”

Cora Timken Burnett Collection of Persian Miniatures and Other Persian Art Objects, Bequest of Cora Timken Burnett, 1956 (Met Museum; Creative Commons)

Sometime in 2019 or (more likely) 2020, the Journal of Early Christian Studies will publish my article “Nineveh Overturned: Augustine & Chrysostom on the threat of Jonah.” This was a tough piece to write, since I had to dig much deeper than I had previously into the Greek exegetical tradition concerning Jonah. This research began as part of an initiative launched by the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, which led to a panel at the Society of Biblical Literature some years back. The final version of my argument, having been tested by some really thoughtful feedback from the journal’s reviewers, should be much stronger than those tentative first steps at SBL.

Here’s the abstract:

Both John Chrysostom and Augustine of Hippo find in the story of Jonah and the Ninevites an invitation to reflect upon the moral and political challenges undergone by cities facing the possibility of disaster. While Nineveh was threatened with destruction at the hands of the divine, cities like Constantinople and Rome were instead threatened with disaster of a natural or military kind, ranging from earthquakes to invasions. Regardless, both Chrysostom and Augustine thought the lessons of Jonah could be applied to contemporary crises. The two pastoral preachers did so in quite different ways, however. For Chrysostom, the repentance of the Ninevites in the face of a divine threat served as a model for his own congregation. For Augustine, however, the divine was incapable of uttering threats, and so Jonah’s prophecy had to come true: Nineveh had to be overturned. In order to make this case, Augustine reconfigured the meaning of the word “overturning” (euersio), so that he could make the case that the repentance of the Ninevites was driven not by their fear, but rather by the combined agency of divine grace and political coercion.

New Article: “Augustine’s Time of Death in _City of God_ 13”

My article on “Augustine’s Time of Death in City of God 13″ has now been printed in the journal Augustinian Studies. Thanks go out to Dr. Jonathan Yates (Villanova) & the rest of the editorial team over there. The argument put forward here was forged in dialogue with scholars at Villanova’s Patristic, Medieval, & Renaissance conference, as well as with my colleagues at MacEwan University and (previously) the University of Chicago.

Here’s the abstract for the piece:

“Only a living person can be a dying one,” writes Augustine in De ciuitate dei 13.9. For Augustine, this strange fact offers us an occasion for reflection. If we are indeed racing toward the end on a cursus ad mortem, when do we pass the finish line? A living person is “in life”, while a dead one is post mortem. But as ciu. 13.11 asks: is anyone ever in morte, “in death?” This question must be asked alongside an earlier one, which had motivated Augustine’s struggle in Confessiones 11.14.17 to make sense of time from the very beginning: quid est enim tempus? What is at stake here is whether or not there is such a thing as an instant of death: a moment when someone is no longer alive but not yet dead, a moment when they are “dying” in the present tense. If we want to understand Augustine’s question about the time of death in ciu. 13, then we have to frame it in terms of the interrogation of time proper in conf. 11.

Book Proposal: Accepted

A bit earlier in 2019, I was fortunate enough to have my book proposal accepted by Bloomsbury press, making me a quasi-colleague of fellow Bloomsbury author J.K. Rowling. (Kidding! About that last part, anyway…) 

If all goes according to plan, I’ll submit the completed manuscript by the end of this (very busy) summer. The title of the work will be Reading Augustine: On Time, Change, History, and Conversion. As its name implies, it will be part of Bloomsbury’s Reading Augustine series, overseen by the estimable Dr. Miles Hollingworth.

For a blurb hinting at the book’s content, you need look no further than here:

Life in the twenty-first century tends to move at a breakneck pace. As the 24-hour cycle of cable news contracts down to the 24-minute (or 24-second) cycle of social media, most of us are left with the sense that there is never enough time to catch up with our ever-changing world. It would be nice if we could grab hold of time and make it sit still for a while, if only for the chance to catch a better glimpse of our own personal or historical situation. Yet tomorrow’s volatility always arrives to overturn today’s fragile status quo.

These troubles with time are not new, however. Already in late antiquity, as the Western Roman Empire crumbled around him, Augustine of Hippo realized that this disorientation we feel in the face of change is a symptom of a deeper problem: namely, that we don’t really know what time is, even though it conditions every facet of our lives. In On Time, Change, History, and Conversion, the aim is to offer a new interpretation of Augustine’s approach to temporality by contrasting it with contemporary accounts of time drawn from philosophy, political theology, and popular science. Rather than offering us a deceptively simple roadmap forwards, however, Augustine reminds us that, before we try to transform ourselves and our world, we first must face up to the question of time itself.

Wish me luck this summer!

Back to Work

At long last, it’s time to get back to work on this site. After creating it & populating it with some research findings during my first year on the tenure-track here at MacEwan University, I then turned my attention to figuring out how to teach a pretty broad range of courses, from HIST 101 (World History Before 1500) to HIST 476 (Secrets of Early Christianity) and everything in between. In the meantime, I’ve also tried to develop a bit more research on the side, on both the late antiquity & digital humanities fronts. As I enter into my third summer as an Assistant Professor at MacEwan, it seems like the time is ripe for me to take a fresh look at this site & start making the necessary updates. So stay tuned for incoming developments soon…


What Do Students Actually Think About Digital Pedagogy? (Pt. 3)

{This post continues my series of reflections on quantified student feedback regarding the use of digital pedagogy in the classroom. Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2, as well.}

My previous posts on digital pedagogy tended to emphasize the helpfulness of resources drawn from the digital humanities in lower-level undergraduate coursework. And while it might seem more obvious to deploy such resources in a large undergraduate survey, I’m confident that digital tools can still help us get the job done in senior-level courses, as well.

Examples of such resources that reward more sustained engagement would include:

(1) Podcasts: While podcasts might strike some as primarily entertainment media, there are a number of series out there that aim to bridge any supposed gap between the ivory tower and the public square. One of the best, in my view, is Peter Adamson’s History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast, which breaks much of ancient and medieval intellectual history down into bite-size, twenty-minute chunks. Adamson manages to capture the best of both worlds, crafting episodes that are as listenable as they are edifying.

(2) Apps: One of the most labour-intensive yet rewarding applications in the field of the Digital Humanities is the creation of apps tailored to certain historical figures or texts. Villanova University has recently developed (and continues to develop) an app devoted to the Confessions of Augustine of Hippo, which happens to be a text near and dear to my own heart. Having used this app in a classroom setting already, I can attest to its efficacy. It really succeeds in its mission of making Augustine’s masterwork more accessible for students living about sixteen-hundred years after the Saint’s death.

In the end, it’s all about calibration. It’s all about fitting the amount and usage of digital resources to the level of the course, as well as to its theme and desired learning outcomes. If those three factors are kept in mind, digital pedagogy can work at almost any stage of undergraduate education.

To back up my claim that digital pedagogy can work at higher levels of undergraduate learning as well, please see the following data drawn from a fourth-year seminar on theories of time in antiquity. This course included 13 students, all of whom decided to participate in the feedback questionnaire. Again for reference purposes, here are the questions to which the charts supply quantified responses:

  1. Overall, I found completing the digital humanities assignments to be:
    1. Educational: 13/13 = 100%
    2. Confusing: 0/13 = 0%
    3. Pointless: 0/13 = 0%
    4. None of the Above: 0/13 = 0%
  2. Before the digital humanities assignments, my sense of the digital humanities was:
    1. Quite Good, Actually: 1/13 = 8%
    2. Limited & Incomplete: 10/13 = 77%
    3. Non-Existent: 2/13 = 15%
  3. These assignments improved my grasp of what “digital humanities” means:
    1. True: 12/13 = 92%
    2. False: 1/13 = 8%
  4. The difficulty-level of the digital humanities assignments was:
    1. Too Hard: 1/13 = 8%
    2. Too Easy: 1/13 = 8%
    3. Just Right: 11/13 = 84%
  5. If these kinds of assignments required deeper engagement with digital resources, that would:
    1. Be More Fun: 4/13 = 31%
    2. Be Too Burdensome: 4/13 = 31%
    3. Not Change Anything: 5/13 = 38%
  6. What is your attitude about the idea of the “digital humanities” generally?
    1. It Was a Refreshing Change: 8/13 = 62%
    2. It Sounded Easier But I Didn’t Really Get Much Out of It: 2/13 = 15%
    3. I Would Prefer to Just Write a One-Page Reading Response: 3/13 = 23%
  7. Which digital humanities assignment did you find most useful?
    1. Podcast Review: 8.5/13 = 65%
    2. App Reflection: 4.5/13 = 35%
    3. Neither Were Useful: 0/13 = 0%
  8. How did listening to a podcast episode compare to an in-class lecture on the same material?
    1. Listening to a Podcast is Preferable: 1/13 = 8%
    2. Listening to an In-Class Lecture is Preferable: 4.5/13 = 35%
    3. Both Are About Equally Effective: 7.5/13 = 57%
  9. What did access to the Confessions app change about your approach to the text itself?
    1. The App’s Resources Helped Me Understand Augustine Better: 10/13 = 77%
    2. App Was Cool But Didn’t Help Me Understand Augustine Better: 3/13 = 23%
    3. The App In No Way Aided My Understanding of Augustine: 0/13 = 0%

And because, once again, numbers never tell the whole story, here’s a selection of student comments regarding the use of digital resources in History 476:

If you could pass any advice on to Dr. Peter Adamson, proprietor of the History of Philosophy podcast, what would it be?

  • “If possible. I would love to get an outline or actual script of his podcast, since I usually have to listen to the podcast multiple times (which is a good thing). But I still hope there is something I can actually read.”
  • “Make his voice less soothing.”
  • “I enjoyed the emphasis on the history aspect, but there wasn’t quite as much info on the actual philosophy I was trying to focus on.”
  • “Make it more user-friendly to find subjects. Have a stronger search engine.”
  • “I found the podcast to be very enlightening. Having some more in-depth discussions and info would be great!”
  • “Keep doing what you’re doing! I loved it.”
  • “Keep doing what you’re doing. I found the podcast to be both interesting and useful.”
  • “Make them longer, since some sections seem too oriented toward surveying topics that merit more depth.”
  • “Subtitles, please! Sometimes I cannot hear the words clearly, especially during the interview episodes.”

If you could pass any advice on to the team at Villanova University that made the Confessions app, what would it be?

  • “It helped my understanding of the text, but the app needs a little work.”
  • “Break up the long book audio clip segments.”
  • “Emphasize external sources less.”
  • “Involve more reflections and commentaries (possibly longer ones).”
  • “The commentaries in the app gave me just a taste, but not enough.”
  • “I found the app to be very useful and didn’t have many problems with it.”
  • “As somebody not entirely familiar with sections of the Bible, abbreviated citations were initially confusing.”
  • “I learned to make a pretty good cake from it!”
  • “The app is well made and helped me quite a bit. I would suggest having discussion boards where app users can have discussions with the app creators.”
  • “Work out the small bugs to make the whole process smoother.”
  • “Great job! Thank you for the hard work. My only advice has to do with the audio format. A different interface might be easier. Other than that, it’s fantastic.”
  • “The app was useful, but also expensive. It needs work.”
  • “The difference between our translation [Hammond] and the app’s translation was too big. I understand why, but it made it hard to use in conjunction with our text.”
  • “There should be a better way of finding quotes.”
  • “Keep doing what you’re doing. I found the app to be very helpful.”
  • “Reformatting the footnotes would be appreciated, as would an index, specifically for the interpretive articles.”
  • “Make it easier to search for keywords while reading through the chapters.”Do you have any ideas about other digital resources that you’d like to use when completing assignments in a Humanities context?

Is there anything else you’d like to recommend to further the work that the digital humanities can accomplish in the classroom?

  • “Visual clips.”
  • “No, but I do think it’s a good idea to do assignments like this. It was very interesting to work with podcasts.”
  • “More podcasts would be helpful, not as an assignment but as an ‘extra’ for topics in class.”
  • “I personally use YouTube when I don’t understand a concept (in all of my courses). This may be useful to other students if credible videos are available.”
  • “I would like the addition of more audio books.”
  • “Creating a podcast or other digital project such as a wiki or website would be fun.”
  • “Video resources would be cool.”
  • “Perhaps some form of video content or supplementary lecture material from other speakers or authorities or YouTube or online lectures.”

Looking Ahead to #SBLAAR 17: the Augustinian Refugee

It looks as though finally registering for the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion paid off: my name is now included as part of our panel! No longer shall I be known as “Unregistered Participant.”

My presentation this November will represent a bit of a departure for me. Whereas I usually focus on Augustine’s place in the history of the philosophy of time, this time I’ll be zeroing in on what exactly Augustine means when he writes of peregrinatio or (as it’s usually rendered) “pilgrimage.”

Here’s the short version: the problem with translating this term as “pilgrimage” is that it too readily evokes the image of devotion to the cult of the saints (e.g., a pilgrimage to the relics of St. Stephen, etc.). But the term’s origins go back further than that, more commonly denoting the experience of any migrant, exile, or (at times) even tourist.

My question is: What if we re-translated peregrinatio as “migrancy” in key texts of Augustine’s, such as City of God I? Out of that, further questions grow: Would we get a better sense of what it means to be a (so-called) “pilgrim” in this life? Would we better understand the resonances connecting the migrant experience to the Christian sensibility expressed so memorably in the words of Augustine?

It is my earnest hope that the answer to that last question is: “Yeah, pretty much!”

[H/T to the heroic organizers of the Augustine & Augustinianisms section at AAR, Dr. Matthew Drever and Dr. Paul Kolbet. Great guys, the both of ’em!]

Digital Pedagogy Post #1 Featured by Humanities Commons

In a rather pleasant turn of events, the powers that be at Humanities Commons have seen fit to feature my post on quantified student feedback to digital pedagogy!

You can find it on the Humanities Commons homepage, alongside some really excellent exemplars of what this platform is capable of, not least of which is Dr. Meredith Warren’s site (one of the best I’ve seen on here).

Hopefully we can all keep the momentum up as the summer carries on…

What Do Students Actually Think About Digital Pedagogy? (Pt. 2)

Following up on my earlier post on quantifying student feedback in the digital humanities, here are some rough-and-ready charts that aim to visualize some of the feedback data I’ve collected regarding the efficacy of digital pedagogy in the classroom. In general, it tends to demonstrate that the properly calibrated use of digital resources can see real results in a humanities setting.

This dataset communicates feedback findings drawn from a roughly 40-student session of History 101 (“Foundations of the Modern World up to 1500 CE:” a modest topic!).  22 of the 40 students responded to the questionnaire. For reference, here are the seven questions to which the charts supply quantified responses:

  1. Overall, I found completing the digital assignments to be:
    1. Educational: 22/22 = 100%
    2. Confusing: 0/0 = 0%
    3. Pointless: 0/0 = 0%
    4. None of the Above: 0/0 = 0%
  2. Before the digital assignments, my sense of the digital humanities was:
    1. Quite Good, Actually: 5/22 = 23%
    2. Limited & Incomplete: 8/22 = 36%
    3. Non-Existent: 9/22 = 41%
  3. These assignments improved my grasp of what “digital humanities” means:
    1. True: 22/22 = 100%
    2. False: 0/22 = 0%
  4. The difficulty-level of the digital humanities assignments was:
    1. Too Hard: 0/22 = 0%
    2. Too Easy: 8/22 = 36%
    3. Just Right: 14/22 = 64%
  5. If these kinds of assignments required deeper engagement with digital resources, that would:
    1. Be More Fun: 12/22 = 54%
    2. Be Too Burdensome: 5/22 = 23%
    3. Not Change Anything: 5/22 = 23%
  6. What is your attitude about the idea of “digital assignments” generally?
    1. It Was a Refreshing Change: 19.5/22 = 88%
    2. It Sounded Easier But I Didn’t Really Get Much Out of It: 5/22 = 7%
    3. I Would Prefer to Just Write a One-Page Reading Response: 1/22 = 5%
  7. Which digital assignment did you find most useful?
    1. Digital Mapping (DA #1): 4.5/22 = 20%
    2. Timeline Creation (DA #2): 5/22 = 71%
    3. Textual Analysis (DA #3): 2/22= 9%
    4. None Were Useful: 0/0 = 0%

Because numbers never tell the whole story, here’s a selection of student comments regarding the use of digital resources in History 101:

  • “No a million times over to short written assignments!”
  • “Timeline creation was most useful, followed by digital mapping and then textual analysis.”
  • “DH does make history a little more engaging.”
  • “It would be interesting to see other types of digital assignments, as well.”
  • “Some assignments were a bit confusing, but after a bit of time it was fine.”
  • “I think DH helps us to understand history much more easily.”
  • “I think it would be helpful to have a little more direction in where to find historical sources.”
  • “I enjoyed the assignments. However, it would be nice to have one written assignment. It would help with greater understanding.”
  • “I just really enjoyed the textual analysis! It was interesting. J”
  • “It was interesting in the sense that it enlightened me to a subsection of history I have not heard about before. However, the assignments were very easy, specifically the textual analysis. The map and timeline were good.”
  • “The digital assignments were educational to a certain extent.”
  • “I do like reading responses as a way to explore the material. However, the digital assignments were very beneficial and enjoyable. I use mapping and timelines a lot for studying, so this really helps me expand my toolbox.”
  • “The mapping and timeline assignments were helpful for understanding how the things we were studying related to each other. The textual analysis assignment seemed less helpful for that purpose, and it didn’t seem to relate.”
  • “The timeline and mapping assignments helped cement my knowledge of the material. However, the textual analysis really didn’t help with my understanding even though it was interesting.”
  • “I felt that if the assignments were a little more comprehensive I would’ve enjoyed them more. Since I thought they were super-easy, I sort of blew them off and then did the bare minimum at the end. I would’ve liked it to be harder. I loved them though!”
  • “I loved the mixture of assignments in this class. They did seem a bit easy or a lot of it was plug and play. But it was nice not having to write sixteen billion papers for this class.”
  • “Thanks for teaching this class! You made it fun and enjoyable. Keep up the good work.”
  • “I think you should drop Voyant [textual analysis tool], because it is not educational and doesn’t improve understanding of the course material.”
  • “I thought the digital assignments were interesting. I enjoyed them and I did learn some things. They helped me remember things about historical events and places.”
  • “The mapping and timeline assignments were useful. They put things into perspective. I didn’t get much out of the textual analysis assignment.”
  • “I think the mapping and timeline assignments were very helpful for the course. They helped me study and visualize. The textual analysis assignment, meanwhile, didn’t do much to increase knowledge of the course. It was interesting to do, just did not have the educational aspect that the mapping and timeline assignments did.”
  • “I would have liked to do maybe one or two more different ones for a little more engagement.”

For now, this remains mostly a snapshot of raw data, with a few bare-bones visualizations thrown in. But, when these numbers are combined with comparable datasets from other courses, I’m cautiously optimistic that more sophisticated and usable conclusions will result. Stay tuned for Part 3!