The secret lives of profs

Kayla Wilson

Religious Studies professor Martyn Smith is firmly insisting on the growing importance of the internet in all aspects of life. From the classroom to his own projects and research, technology is helping him bring his ideas to a wider audience.
The son of an Evangelical pastor, Smith originally planned on following in his father’s footsteps, attending a conservative school as an undergrad. However, he came to realize that he didn’t necessarily agree with or believe in everything he was learning. The religious texts themselves however continued to fascinate him. “I have a love for the text and the bigger questions these traditions bring up,” he said. “Questions of how people find meaning and the structures for understanding the world.”
While working on his master’s degree, he decided he wanted to add in another tradition, one which hadn’t been studied as much at this time. In 1999 he started taking Arabic classes. “Then 9/11 happened and I looked like a genius,” he said.
His work in Arabic and Middle Eastern traditions has allowed him to travel extensively; he has lived a year each in Egypt and Greece and summers or lengthy stays in Damascus, Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, Ethiopia and Turkey. He used to make his world travels every summer while in grad school, but after the birth of his daughter last winter he has had to curtail some of these urges, appeasing himself with local exploring.
Smith, originally from California, enjoys the opportunity that his job at Lawrence affords him. “I love to travel, and the Midwest was somewhere I hadn’t been,” he said. He has since made a series of videos about Wisconsin, which can be found on his website,, where he writes about his travels and posts videos.
Aside from his travel videos, Smith also filmed a documentary over the summer about Islam in America. “I want to move scholarship from just academic journals to a more approachable venue,” he said. Another way he is attempting to do this is his upcoming “Digital Cairo Project.”
Over the summer Smith plans on beginning work on translating the writings of Khitat of al-Maqrizi, a fifteenth century historian whose writings have never been translated into English or any other European language. These writings are “nostalgic and topographically detailed,” so Smith wants to add an extensive web commentary as well as maps and pictures to create an “internet version of Cairo as it existed in the Medieval Period.” This project also fits nicely with his yearly class about Cairo. “It is difficult to imagine the way the past was,” he said, adding that the internet allows the past to “take on an imaginative life in a way books can’t.”
This fall Smith has a book coming out, “Religion, Culture, and Sacred Space,” which grew out of his dissertation and focuses on the question “How did places become meaningful to human beings?” The book will be available on come October.
Other than his work and traveling, Smith enjoys music, citing Bob Dylan as a personal favorite and a singer he and his wife bonded over when they were first dating. He also enjoys reading, claiming to only read “fun stuff,” which doesn’t always mean fiction. His favorite books are Thoreau’s “Walden,” Saul Bellow’s “Adventures of Augie March,” Arabic writer Masudi’s “Fields of Gold” and “The Histories of Herodotus.”
“If you know those four books you probably know everything you need to know about me,” he joked.