SXSW 2017


I really can’t believe this is happening. I’ll be down in Austin next month for the annual South by Southwest festival. I watched this festival grow during my graduate school years in Austin, and I’ve been in awe at how it’s taken off since. I never thought I’d get to attend.

It almost didn’t happen, too. The team I work with at wanted to propose a panel, “Gutenberg to Google: How Tech Can Transform Faith.” We brainstormed the concept, thought about the format, asked ourselves to think about the big questions that might appeal to a wider audience of technologists–and then, we wrote the 700 word overview. That’s exactly when I realized I had misread the proposal. The pitch wasn’t limited to 700 words. It was 700 characters.

For me–an academic accustomed to staggering word counts (75,000, 100,000 words)–this summary was one of the most challenging assignments I’ve ever undertaken. It also has made me think twice about the kinds of assignments I give my students. Collaborative writing, shorter exercises: pitching to South By has actually taught me to reflect about how to give my students more of a chance to practice “real-world” skills in my classes. Suffice it to say, though, when our team got word that the panel had been accepted, I for one breathed a sigh of relief.

In the end, organizing this panel was about much more than meeting deadlines and keeping to a shorter format, though. There are really substantial topics to discuss here, and I’m thrilled that we’re going to have a chance to bring them before a wider public–a public who may not necessarily be coming to Austin to think about “religion.” For one, understanding why people believe what they believe isn’t just for the “religious,” the spiritually-curious or even those who work in higher-ed or journalism.

Faith informs so many parts of people’s real life—past and present—and, increasingly today, that means it informs the way we interact with each other online. Obviously, there’s going to lot to cover during this session, including the common bias that religious people should just “evolve” (the equivalent of installing a software “update”!) to meet the standards of the modern world. But I’m really excited to see how people respond, and I’m especially thrilled that as a team we were finally able to figure out how to communicate our big ideas in a way that got people hooked. Attendance should be pretty good, too. This year, for the first time, even the Vatican is sending a papal ambassador to SXSW, Bishop Paul Tighe, to talk about faith and technology. (I tell the backstory to that invitation here).

You can read more about the line-up of other religion panels at this year’s festival here. This post also appears at

Conferences, Teaching