One Year of Religion in Public – What have we learned?

By Daniel Bennett, Ryan P. Burge, Andrew R. Lewis, Melissa Deckman, Paul A. Djupe, Elizabeth Oldmixon, Amy Erica Smith (we’re in alphabetical order!)

On January 19, 2017, Djupe plunked down $32 for a year of WordPress, gchatted with Burge until we came up with “religion in public”, played with photoshop to generate a header image, wrote a post around a recent pub, and then invited people who would be fun to work with and had things to say.

One impetus for getting the blog up was that Tobin Grant was shuttering his successful and interesting “Corner of Church and State” blog. Of course there are many other religion and politics voices on the interwebs, but he generously shared his Facebook presence with RiP (thanks Tobin!). We also thought that RiP could serve as an outlet for the R&P section, partnering with Politics & Religion to help boost the great work that is being done there. If we could solve our collective action problem, we would have a self-reinforcing outlet that is worth paying attention to. There’s still quite a bit of work to do, but we’ve made a lot of progress in a year.

To wit, we’ve had 79 posts in 2017 that garnered 23.5k views from over 15k visitors from 128 countries (see the map below). We don’t have comparative stats, but this feels pretty good. This work is getting covered at a variety of news outlets, especially but not solely those covering religion. We’re making good progress.

world_of_rip

Here are some lessons we’ve learned in 2017.

  1. Roughly speaking, we have come to realize that there are two ways academics are engaging in public debates via social media and blogging. Some academic bloggers focus on reporting empirical findings and research results that have relevance for current debates. Others seek primarily to provide commentary and explanation of events in the news, by synthesizing existing research. Though lines are sometimes blurry, we have primarily sought to be the former. (Academics also engage in self-reflective debates with other academics about issues within this profession. This is yet a third kind of academic blogging.)
  2. Academia works much slower in reporting and disseminating new results than the news cycle does (for good and for ill). Fivethirtyeight ran a piece on this phenomenon in December entitled, “Politics Moves Fast. Peer Review Moves Slow. What’s A Political Scientist To Do?” We don’t want to wade too far into the debate about the inefficiencies and true efficacy of the peer-reviewed model, but we will say this: timely content gets a lot more clicks than posts that deal with issues that are not on the minds of the (even our) average reader.
  3. The ability to publish new, real-time, not-yet-peer-reviewed work is both exciting and risky. On the exciting side, not only can we get our work out there quickly, but we get to “test drive” new ideas and research topics. For instance, an April post by Smith and Djupe on Christianity and environmental protection around the world led to a new research agenda for Smith–one that has now resulted in new grant funding. Yet on the risky side, there is increased danger of publishing analytical results that turn out to have errors. Thus, academic blogging requires increased self-monitoring, since time and peer reviewers are not providing as much of a check on one’s own claims.
  4. There is real academic value in writing these posts for a number of reasons. There are a lot of things we “know” about religion and politics because they have been passed down in conversations from prior generations of social scientists, yet very few were actually written down and published in an academic venue. Many of us have noted that we have had to cite some posts on RiP because there is no other source. There’s real value in that, both for the scholarly community and the average reader.
  5. People really like reading about evangelicals, and they don’t like reading about many other religious groups. We have published A LOT about evangelical Christians. Sometimes we debate whether that’s too much. Then we try to balance that out and write a post about Muslims, or Jews, or Buddhists. The clicks on the latter are basically non-existent. We will strive to continue to do both well, but it’s hard to stay motivated when no one is viewing the content. Likewise, posts about religious groups outside the U.S. may often – though not always – be of less intrinsic interest to the majority of our readers than posts about religious groups inside the United States.
  6. We are quickly becoming a resource for those interested in religion and politics. Our search engine traffic has steadily increased since our inception and we regularly receive 12-15 search hits a day. That means we are helping students write research papers, providing valuable non-partisan analysis to interested observers, and helping media outlets write more informed stories – we all are noticing increases in outreach from journalists.

7. We would like to expand the blog’s contributors, but scholars are reticent to contribute. We get it. It’s not clear whether or how research blog contributions “count” for tenure, and translating our insights to a broader audience can be intimidating. Some institutions have faculty that are quite supportive of just these activities (see, e.g., a study from Djupe and colleagues about liberal arts colleges).

8. Public scholarship needs to be a part of every academic’s career. Publishing journal articles and books is an essential component to an academic’s duties, but the sad reality is that very few people actually read the things we write. It’s a blow to our egos, but it also makes the general public less informed. If you publish a journal article, write up a 500 word summary and post it on (y)our blog. Or better yet, submit to the Monkey Cage, the Duck of Minerva, Religion in Public, or some other political science website (and re-post it on (y)our blog). People will read it. Reporters may ask you about it; we’ve all experienced an uptick in media inquiries. You can help shape the conversation about politics and religion. We need to be a less insular field. Please contact any of the contributors if you’d like to make a contribution.

Here’s to another year! Thanks for being here.

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