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September 07, 2005

The Big Fantasy

Wheels Within Wheels

Since we first found receptive ears for our Disseminary project, we’ve had various tiers of aspiration for the project. Tier One, “The Little Dream,” was realized in last year’s Teaching and Technology Conference at the Wabash Center, to be renewed September 2003. Tier Two is the Disseminary — you can see the prospects and results of this all around the site.

Tier Three is “The Big Dream,” and this would entail offering an open-enrollment conference for seminaries, religious studies departments, and theological other educators. The premise of The Big Dream would be to round up travellers for the technological clue train, to bring educators who don’t have the time to explore new aspects of technology into contact with some practitioners who live at the frontier of innovation in digital media.

Tier Four is “The Big Fantasy,” the dream-come-true funding opportunity for a visionary philanthropist. The Big Fantasy would be a theo-technology center for the practice and enrichment of the use of technology in teaching religious studies and theology.

The Center

The ideal Disseminary Center (or “The Wozniak (or whoever) Center for Technology and Theology”) comprises office and presentation space, and ideally housing for resident and visiting faculty. The Center should be in an area with at least one teaching institution with a theological library, with convenient air and auto (and rail?) access. One alternative would be floors in an office building, as a studio or loft space; that would probably entail limiting the amount of faculty living space. Another alternative would be a building or complex of buildings, but that would tend to exclude metropolitan areas. A rehabbed warehouse would be great; so would a complex of buildings in a campus setting.

The importance of offering living space involves both visiting and residential faculty. One of the cardinal characteristics of the work cycle of a research and teaching center is fluidity — but if faculty must dwell miles away from the Center, the effects of working odd hours on their family and social lives would begin to erode the flexibility of the Center (“flexibility” being especially important for a technologically-oriented research and teaching facility).

Were the timing (and realities!) different, it would have been a spectacular opportunity to work out an arrangement with Union Seminary in New York City. Office space and housing may be at a premium in Durham, as they surely are in New Haven (though YDS has unused bulding space), Cambridge, DC/Northern Virginia, Atlanta, the Bay area, and Los Angeles. Rochester NY might make a powerful combination of possible facilities, cost, and cultural setting.

Residential faculty

The ideal Center will have a core residential faculty of from two to four theologians and one technologist. These would provide the continuity, the human repository of experience, discernment, and transmission for the Center's functions, ensuring that the Center (part of whose work it would be to not know exactly what it’s doing) would not be assembling every year, every semester, as a team of possibly-mismatched or oddly-matched blind dates, but would form a smoothly-cooperating core to buffer differences among visiting faculty and facilitate (and pass along the benefits of) effective research when visiting faculty pursue divergent research agendas, or encounter discordant personalities.

The residential faculty would draw from distinct theological domains, to the extent possible, although they would need to work comfortably with one another. They would, in other words, share a sense of mission relative to engaging the intersection of emergent technologies with the study and practice of religious traditions, while engaging that mission from various disciplines in their studies.

The residential technologist would concentrate on overseeing the Center’s relationship with technologies it has already adopted, and also keeping an eye on the technological horizon for further possibilities. Her job would not involve introductory hand-holding, for the most part (that would more cost-effectively fall to work-study students), but would probably involve mediating the Center’s experimentation with and adoption of new technologies. This would be a great job for a classic geek, provided that he understood the cooperative dimension of the position (and did not exploit it as a venue for self-interested gadget-chasing).


The Center would need staffing including a Director (which position might fall to one of the residential faculty), office manager, and a variety of assistants (some of whom might be drawn from local seminaries, colleges, and universities). The staff would exercise the leadership in bringing order to the research plans of residential and visiting faculty, their schedules, travel plans, the presentations and teaching work of the Center’s site, budget, supplies, and so on. The staff are the sensible people who sustain the diesseitigkeit of the Center’s visionary work. While the faculty’s feet may not always stay on the ground, the staff keep the faculty’s ankles within reach.

Visiting Faculty

The Center would invite a cadre of visiting faculty for each semester or for one-year terms, providing a locus for research and development. This opportunity would benefit faculty, whose ordinary work schedule permits no opportunity for such development and would disseminate the understanding of technological possibilities for faculty to take back with them to their various home institutions. One would not want too great a disparity between the number of visiting faculty and the residential faculty, lest the two bodies develop distinct, disintegrated senses of their identity and work. With a residential faculty of four, the Center might effectively house a visiting faculty of seven or eight, but a ratio closer to one-to-one would be more desirable.

Ad Hoc Faculty/Staff

The Center might decide to take on specific projects of limited duration, for which faculty and staff would be recruited. These faculty and staff would remain with the Center not on a term-by-term basis nor on long-term contracts, but as their specific project’s need dictates. The Center might, for instance, commission several teachers and programmers to develop a walk-through animation of particular religious sites or events: the Temple in Jerusalem, a hajj to the Kaaba, a visit to the Temple of the Tooth, a circumambulation of the monumental stupa at Borobudur, a Capacocha sacrifice.

The Center’s Mission

The Center would take on the mission of conducting fundamental experimentation and exploration of the relation of technology to teaching in the area of religious studies and theology.

One element of this mission involves end-less fiddling with technology to see what happens. The faculty would be expected to work at a level of technological sophistication that would permit them to converse with technologists, but without necessarily sustaining programming or soldering skills. They would be, in the words of one IT department, “expert users.” In order to sustain and cultivate their expertise, the Center would expect them to devote some of their time simply to playing with technology.

Another element to this mission involves teaching. Since the Center exists to serve the end of enhancing teaching through technology, its faculty should be dedicated teachers. The Center should offer classes, presentations, lectures, and other educational activities on a regular basis, affording its faculty the occasion to demonstrate and sustain their teaching abilities. The Center may, on occasion, assign faculty to the work of institutional classroom instruction (making the proximity of an educational institution all the more desirable) — though it is not by any means assumed that this constitutes the norm for education, especially for technologically-mediated and -enhanced education.

Another element of the Center’s mission involves demonstrating the possibilities for technologically-enhanced education. In certain respects, this would follow the Disseminary agenda; in other respects, it would involve workshops with visiting faculty and others (whose home institutions might pay for the opportunity for them to come learn what’s going on at the Center).

Another element involves the faculty’s own ongoing research (not necessarily “technological” research). Faculty would be expected to maintain their participation in the scholarly discourses of their fields, and the Center would respect the need for time dedicated to research and writing in these fields.

Yet another element of the Center’s mission could include consulting to educational institutions with regard to institutional deployment of technological resources. The Center could offer disinterested consulting grounded in its own experience and experimentation. Such consulting conducted by salaried members of the Center team could raise funds for the Center.


The Center’s facilities would of necessity be shaped by its technological focus. Residential faculty would work with CPUs replaced on a regular cycle; visiting faculty would be encouraged to bring up-to-date equipment from their home institutions. The budget for hardware acquisition would be higher than might be the case were the Center not committed to an exploratory mission; the Center should be in a position to showcase best practices in technology acquisition and deployment.


Well, none in particular at this point — but contact one of the Disseminary directors, if you know someone who might be interested in funding such a center.

Posted by AKMA at September 7, 2005 02:10 AM


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