Qaulity Education

Perhaps it’s from having a stubbornly blue collar, but snobbery has never appealed to me.  While in seminary at Boston University, I applied for a transfer to Harvard Divinity School.  In spite of being accepted, I stayed at my alma mater and paid the consequences.  There’s a strange loyalty among the working class, you see.  And now I’m finally seeing my former mistress, academia, taking a turn toward the lowly but worthy.  The title of a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education says it all: “As Scholars Are Driven to Less Prestigious Journals, New Measures of Quality Emerge.  Hmm, why might that be?  The industry mantra, “publish or perish” has grown more aggressive over the years and the number of publishers has decreased.  Your academic net worth, it seems, can no longer be based on how elite you are.

People are funny that way.  We’re very impressed by those paraded before us as successes—as if some kind of magic clings to those who are where we wish we were.  In academia where you went to school matters more than what you’ve proven yourself capable of.  If you attended the “best” schools your work will be accepted by the “best” journals and publishers.  What rarified company you’ll keep!  For the rest of us, well, we have the numbers.  And blue collars aren’t afraid of hard work.  Let the academic aristocracy enjoy its laurels.  Laurels are poisonous, however, for those with an eye open for parables.

Primates, according to those who know them best, can see through pretense.  I often wonder if our political chaos isn’t based on this simple fact of biology.  As a priest I knew once told me, “We put our pants on one leg at a time too.”  This didn’t prevent many postulants I knew from anticipating the day when they would be ontologically transformed.  Priesting, I was informed, would make them better than the laity.  Closer to God.  Here it was, even among the clergy—the desire for prestige.  Chimpanzees will take down an alpha who abuses his power.  Nature has a set of balances.  Tampering with them leads to, well, scholars being driven to less prestigious journals and the like.  The net result, as the Chronicle suggests (if read one way), is that the last shall be first and the first last.  Probably it’s the result of reading too much Bible in my formative years, but I’ve always appreciated parables.

Lore of the Folk

Once in a great while you read a book that has the potential to shift paradigms.  The unusual and provocative Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media, by Bill Ellis, is such a book.  Perhaps the main reason for this is that Ellis is a folklore scholar who takes his subject seriously.  He cites some unusual sources non-judgmentally, but critically.  He suggests that folklore can actually dictate reality for its believers, while not demanding that it defines how everyone else sees the world.  This fine parsing allows him to examine the satanic cult scares of the 1980s and ‘90s with a kind of passionate dispassion.  He traces the historical contexts that made such panics possible, all the while keeping belief structures in place.  In the end, the giving in to this folklore on the part of society can lead to tragic results.  Understanding folklore might well prevent that.

Since our prevailing cultural paradigm is a materialism based on empirical observation, at least among those deemed “educated,” it is easy to lose track of how belief constructs our worlds.  Ellis finds the cradle of satanic panics in the Pentecostal tradition where deliverance ministry—a Protestant form of exorcism—takes seriously the belief in demons of many kinds.  This leads to a study of ouija boards and Spiritualism.  Although neither led to Pentecostal theology, both play into it as doorways for demonic activity, in that worldview.  Add into this dissociative identity disorder (what used to be called, and what Ellis refers to as “multiple personality disorder”) and the recipe for a spiritual mulligatawny is simmering away.  You need not believe what the victim says, but if s/he believes, you must pay attention.

Outside the strict confines of Satanism, other cultural phenomena allowed for panics to grow.  Popular narratives, largely false, of satanists cum evangelists (think Mike Warnke) mingle with cultural fears such as the Highgate Vampire scare and cattle mutilations to make a narrative of satanic ritual abuse believable.  A folklorist sees the connections that a strictly wielded razor by Occam tries to shave away.  All of this fits together.  When we don’t pay attention to how real this is to those involved, a half-baked public panic can erupt.  Ellis suggests such circumstances might well have led individual witch hunts into large-scale witch crazes.  While both are unfortunate, the latter tend to lead to many, many ruined lives.  The subtle awareness that one need not believe in order to understand those who do is something worth pondering.  Reality may be far more complex than the activity of electro-chemical signals in a strictly biological brain after all.

Yes or No

Reading about demonic possession is enough to scare you away from ever using a ouija board.  In fact, I’ve never played with one; growing up my strict religion would’ve prevented it in any case, and already as a child I’d been warned of the dangers.  During my research for Nightmares with the Bible, I’ve been reading quite a bit about ouija.  Originally a species of divination, the ouija, or spirit board, became popular during the growth of Spiritualism.  Spiritualism is a religion based on the idea that the dead still communicate with the living, ensuring believers that life continues beyond death.  It still exists, but not with the numbers that it boasted in the early days.  Among the solemn admonitions of Ed and Lorraine Warren (about whom I’ve posted much in recent months) was that ouija boards opened doorways for demonic entities.  Some of their stories are quite scary.

Image credit: Mijail0711, via Wikimedia Commons

Whatever else you can say about America, a fact beyond dispute is that if something can make a buck it will be marketed and sold.  So it was with ouija boards in the 1970s.  I remember seeing them on the shelf with other games at local department stores.  Even then I knew they weren’t a toy and I wondered how anyone could be promoting them for general consumption.  At Grove City College—that bastion of undergraduate conservatism—stories circulated about how students (usually coeds) were attacked in their locked rooms after playing with ouija boards.  This is, I was later to learn, a staple of collegiate urban legends.  At the time, however, I took it very seriously.  

Thus it’s strange when I find out that others my age were more curious about them.  Recently at a party with friends around Valentine’s Day, the question naturally came up of how some of us met our spouses.  One of the women mentioned that before she’d met or even heard of her future husband (who has an unusual surname) a ouija board spelled out his name.  She later met and married him, not on the board’s recommendation, but she remembered that years before she’d been given a hint.  Now these friends are not cheats and liars—they’re not even Republicans.  They’re people we trust.  On our drive home that night my wife mentioned she’d used a ouija board once, with friends, back in her high school years.  She asked the name of her spouse (long before we met) and came up with Sam.  I’m no Sam, but when we first met in grad school I was still going by my stepfather’s surname and my initials were S-A-M.  Coincidence?  Probably.  My future wife did not pursue me; indeed, it was the other way around.  Even so, there in the dark on the nighttime highway I felt a familiar frisson from childhood concerning a form of divination that seems to know more than it should.

Type Right

Image credit: Rama, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’d like to get a typewriter.  An old one, without electric capacity.  Clacking keys flying before the dawn.  At first this might seem impractical—why buy a typewriter when almost all publishing is now electronic, at least in one stage of its life cycle?  You type something out and you’re going to have to “re-key” it for the hegemony of technology.  But wait—there is a method to this madness.  I’ve heard it said that good writing is just clear thinking.  That sounds right to me, but with a proviso: good writing is edited writing.  The editor may be someone else, or it may be the author, but the point is that something written, with rare exceptions, improves upon rewriting.  Like ordinary stones in a rock tumbler that come out glistening.  Type it, then retype it.

Back in college I wrote all my papers out by hand before typing them.  (Sometimes three lines of handwriting on each college-ruled line.)  “Keyboard composition,” as it was called then, was shorthand for quick, sloppy writing.  The uniformity of type hides a host of syntactical sins.  I used to see the same thing with student papers prepared on a computer in my teaching days—colorful images and fancy type utilized to mask a lack of engagement.  The paper written and rewritten shows itself to be of a higher standard.  I (or others) notice more errors on this blog when I run out of time for editing, often because work looms.  If I have the time, I edit.  And I actually miss writing my thoughts out longhand.  What I need is a typewriter.

Reading has always been a large part of my job.  Student papers and book proposals aren’t so very different.  Many of both come in what appears to be first draft form.  It’s understandable—good writing takes time not only to hammer out a draft but to think, mull, change angles, and hammer again—and we’re all so terribly busy.  The end result is often worth it.  At this point in Nightmares with the Bible I’m printing out my draft so that I can see what I’ve written.  The handwritten comments come after the keyboard composition, but they still come.  The important thing is that drafts require re-reading.  Better, re-writing.  The niceties of pleasing writing can be added or enhanced by an editor.  When editors write books, other editors edit them.  And as I sit here typing this silently on my computer, I’m imagining the satisfying sounds of a manic typewriter early in the morning.

Caveat Emptor

When you work in academic publishing, various higher education news sources find you.  Not able to distinguish faculty from industry professionals that rely on them for their by-products, these sites often offer friendly advice on how to succeed in academia.  Having had not a little experience in that venue (if you’ll pardon my litotes), I noted a recent headline before clicking the delete button.  I can’t reconstruct it word-for-word, but the gist of it was that if you wanted to earn more as an academic, you should study overseas.  Your salary, the article implied, would be higher if you did.  Now I recognize that things constantly change, but in my field of study if you want to get any job at all, let alone a good paying one, you study domestically.  Specifically at Harvard.  Academics, just like publishers, rest on their laurels.

The funny thing about this headline is that it contained the same advice that I received all the way back in the 1980s.  I followed up on it, choosing Edinburgh after having been accepted at Oxford, Cambridge, Aberdeen, and St. Andrews.  Only later did I learn that of those schools only Oxford opened the door to positions in my native United States, being, as it is, the Harvard of the United Kingdom.  Defying the odds, I did get a job that, when I became Academic Dean with access to industry stats, I discovered was among the lowest paying of its peers.  Studying overseas, in other words, had the exact opposite effect than the headline promises.  Perhaps things have changed in the intervening years.  Even today I have to remind people that Edinburgh is a world-class research university, one of the four ancient schools in the kingdom of the Scots.  Some of the most famous minds in human history studied there.  Ach, well, a job by any other name would smell of sweat.

Xenophobia isn’t unique to the GOP.  It exists in higher education too.  Academics are extremely tribal, and if you try to break in from the outside—no matter where you study—you’ll learn that your money might be spent more wisely learning a trade.  As a homeowner, I’ve discovered that just about any practical job that doesn’t require college pays better than what you can get with the detritus of a doctorate on your résumé.  In fact, during times when work was scarce I tried to hide it.  One of the skills I picked up in my educational journey was not to believe everything you read.  Problem is, you only pick that up after you’ve already paid that tuition bill.  The delete button is right there; don’t be afraid to use it.

Internet of Happiness

Are we really happier for instantaneous news?  Has the internet brought us paroxysms of ecstasy with the quality of information?  Wouldn’t you just rather wait?  I don’t think we should go to extremes, or go backward.  Samuel Morse, it is said, developed the telegraph in part because he was away from home and only found out about his wife’s death after her burial, for which he could not return in time.  More rapid communication was necessary and the telegraph provided the means.  No, I’m not suggesting that happiness lies in being uninformed, but perhaps I lingered long enough among the Episcopalians so as to believe in the via media, the middle way.  Some of the happiest times of my life have been spent without a screen glowing in my face.  There is, however, good stuff here.

One example is blogging.  I wish I had more time to read blogs.  Verbomania, for example, showcases writing that sparkles.  The weekly posts set me up for a good weekend.  There are many more that I could name as well—and for me blogging has become a way of life.  Marketers call it “platform building” but I think of it as fun.  And the practice I get writing this blog daily has made my books much more user-friendly.  A family friend with no college education tried to read Weathering the Psalms, with “tried” being the operative word.  There’s no comparison with Holy Horror.  (Weathering the Psalms was written to be my “tenure book,” and it may well be my last technical monograph.)  I have this avocation of blogging to thank for that.

But instantaneous news—does it make us happier?  Sometimes perhaps, but often the opposite.  It’s a phenomenon I call the internet of unhappiness.  (There’s a whole field of study emerging called “the internet of things,” which, no matter how much I ponder I just can’t comprehend.)  News, after all, tends to focus on negatives, as if there’s too much happiness in our lives.  Just yesterday there were early morning helicopters hovering not far from where I live.  Within seconds I could learn of some kind of domestic dispute about which I’d otherwise have been none the wiser.  The next few hours I spent occasionally reloading the page for updates.  They didn’t make me happy.  Add to that the three-ring sideshow that the American government has become and you’ll soon be wanting just three channels from which to select before turning off the TV and going outside for a walk.  And when the 1970s start to look like happy times, you go to your closet and start digging for the semaphore flags.

They must be in here somewhere…


When reading C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, a number of things stood out in high relief.  One of them was his statement that the early years of autobiographies are often the most interesting.  Now, many people may have difficulty drawing a straight line between Lewis and William Peter Blatty, but the overlaps are there.  I’ll Tell Them I Remember You is a young man’s autobiography, so mostly it deals with early years.  Even more than that, it deals with Blatty’s mother.  Those of us who write often find a kind of inspiration in the life stories of other writers.  To hear Blatty tell it, or rather, to read him tell it, it was his mother who made him the man he became.  It’s a nice tribute.

Blatty is probably best remembered as the author of The Exorcist, but his background as a comic screenwriter comes through in his account.  (He also wrote, for example, the Pink Panther screenplay A Shot in the Dark.)  But more to the point currently, with a spoiled child wanting to try to force a wall that America doesn’t want on it, Blatty’s parents were immigrants.  From Lebanon.  It may be that since I’m writing a book about demons in movies that The Exorcist seems like an important national achievement to me, but it also seems an apt parable for the situation in which we find ourselves.  It worth thinking about—the invasion of evil and how to expel it.  Metaphorical writing is often the best.

Perhaps writers are naturally obstreperous people.  If my novels ever get published you’ll see that characters don’t do what you want them to.  And yet we like what happens when they don’t.  I would have found a bit more information about Blatty’s life an asset.  His mother certainly makes an impression, even if its third-hand.  Writers, if my own experience is anything to go by, often feel they are conduits.  Receivers.  It’s like listening to the radio when driving a car through the mountains.  Suddenly a station comes in clear, but just for a moment.  Ideas for stories are like that—they often arrive when you can’t do anything about them.  Writers carry notebooks for a reason.  I used to have a waterproof one in our shower.  You never know when the signal’s going to come in loud and clear.  And you never know when the people you’re trying to block out might be adding more value than you’d ever imagined.  You might be surprised.