Mere Humanities

Categories, while necessary, can be troubling things.  One place to see this clearly is in academia, which is itself a category.  In the long history of deciding what counts as a legitimate job (you can make a living now being a YouTuber!) somewhere in the Middle Ages, based on the idea of the monastery, the university arose.  This required some justification—people are to be paid for researching topics and teaching others to do the same?  Not quite back-breaking labor, but it can lead to lumbago nevertheless.  Topics had to be worthy to permit this excused absence.  Law and theology were the earliest majors available.  Hobbes’ two swords.  Church and state.  This makes sense since monasteries were all about obeying rules and obeying God.  Theology was the queen of the sciences.

Perhaps unbelievable in today’s world, it was thought that other topics than theology—called humanities so as to distinguish them from divine discussions—should be added to the curriculum.  These were topics that the educated were expected to have mastered, and they included things like history and, yes, mathematics.  In the early days the building blocks of science (such as math) were considered humanities.  Theology wasn’t.  The Reformation complicated things because now there were lots of theologies.  And this thing called the Enlightenment was suggesting that they were all just a bit naive.  Still, universities grew up around theological training grounds, including places like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.  Slowly, however, theology began losing relevance and became more and more a humanities subject.  Call it a strange form of incarnation.

By the time I became aware of theological study, it was firmly, and deeply a humanities subject.  Often called “religious studies,” other academics often considered it a throw-away major, but if you dug deep enough you found yourself learning dead languages that even a scientist couldn’t comprehend.  When I began attending a Christian liberal arts college, it was clear the engineers and others of what would come to be called STEM topics were given preferences.  Science, Technology, Engineering, and yes, Math.  Some of the subjects that had started out as mere humanities, now received the praise (and cash) while theology—religious studies—had become a purely dispensable humanities topic.  These days humanities majors are dropping like theologians, and going to university means preparing for either business or science-based careers.  Subjects in which you make more mere money.  And one of the founding subjects of this entire enterprise will earn you a starting salary position at Walmart.  And that’s a category worth avoiding at any cost.

Photo credit: Ben Schumin, Wikimedia Commons

Thunder Towers

It sounded like brontide.  The Martin Tower, the tallest in the Lehigh Valley and once corporate center for Bethlehem Steel came down yesterday morning.  Completed only in 1972, the following decade saw the collapse of the steel industry, and the building has sat vacant a dozen years.  Now it’s gone.  The reasons the building could no longer stand are many and I won’t try to explain them as if I understood.  The fall of the tower, however, put me in mind of human folly and the belief that corporate profits will only ever grow.  Capitalism is built on a set of myths that the wealthy truly believe—I suspect many others do too, otherwise the system couldn’t possibly last.  Adam Smith may have been right academically, but in reality humans are greedy, venal, and shortsighted.   At least those who “rise to the top” are.

We didn’t move to the Valley for the steel.  Having settled in New Jersey just about when the Martin Tower was abandoned, like many other displaced academics I was looking for a job.  There were cities in the Midwest—we weren’t far from Milwaukee or Madison—but there was no work.  If you’re “overeducated” your best bet is to settle near a huge metropolitan area, as closely as you can afford to.  Then hang out your shingle.  Capitalism, however, has made New Jersey affordable only for the excessively wealthy.  Besides, I was born within the imaginary lines that we call the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  In fact, when I got my license transferred last year the computer asked me if I still lived in Venango County, where I was born.

I didn’t see the tower come down.  It’s not visible from my house, but it was always right there when I drove to Lowes to pick up some necessary hardware to survive in this area.  (Weed-whacker and lawnmower—reel variety.)  My mythology of towers always takes me back to Babel.  In the biblical worldview towers were a sign of arrogance.  God seemed to think they were trying to invade divine turf, and so he made it so we could no longer understand one another.  There hasn’t been a moment’s peace since.  We build towers tall to show what we can do.  We don’t really need an angry deity to come down and confuse our language any more.  We’ve got capitalists and their excess money to lead the way.  The sound of thunder roared and I divined just where such leadership will guide us.

Bradbury’s Dream

There’s a Ray Bradbury story—I can’t recall the title, but with the Internet that’s just a lame excuse—where explorers on Venus are being driven insane by the constant tapping of rain on their helmets.  They try to concentrate on discovery, but the distraction becomes too much for them.  Living in Pennsylvania has been a bit like that.  I grew up in the state and I knew it rained a lot.  Here in the eastern end we’ve hardly since the sun since March.  And when you’ve got a leak in your roof that only compounds the problem.  If I were weathering the Psalms, mine would be a lament, I’m afraid.  You see, the ground’s squishy around here.  Mud all over the place.  Rivers have been running so high that they’re thinking about changing their courses.  And still it rains.

There’s a lesson to be taken away from all this.  The fact that we use water for our own ends sometimes masks the fact that it’s extremely powerful.  Not tame.  The persistence of water to reach the lowest point contributes to erosion of mountains and valleys.  Its ease of transport which defines fluidity means that slowly, over time, all obstacles can be erased.  It’s a lesson in which we could stand to be schooled from time to time.  Rain is an artist, even if it’s making its way through the poorly done roofing job previous occupants put into place.  Would we want to live in a world without valleys and pleasant streams?  And even raging rivers?

There’s no denying that some of us are impacted by too much cloudiness.  When denied the sun it becomes easy to understand why so many ancient people worshipped it.  Around here the temperatures have plummeted with this current nor-easter and the heat kicked back on.  Still, it’s good to be reminded that mother nature’s in control.  Our high officials have decided global warming’s just alright with them, and we’re warned that things will grow much more erratic than this.  As I hear the rain tapping on my roof all day long, for days at a time, I think of Bradbury’s Venus.  Okay, so the story’s appropriately called “The Long Rain” (I looked it up).  Meanwhile tectonic forces beneath our feet are creating new mountains to add to the scene.  Nature is indeed an artist, whether or not our species is here to appreciate it.  If it is, it might help to bring an umbrella this time around.

Linking In

Like many in the internet age, I have most of my “connections” online.  It’s somewhat of a rarity to be invited, for example, to connect on LinkedIn by someone I actually know.  I remember the early dissemination of information from that network—it was strictly for people you really did know in real life, because they could help or hurt your career.  I took that seriously for a year or two, but it became clear that this was another Facebook with a more professional cast.  I’ve been told of authors who try to build their online platform by adding thousands of connections on LinkedIn.  The website, however, is not intended as an advertising venue.  It has, however, become one.

I’m not denigrating LinkedIn.  I’ve found two jobs through it and I’ve had recruiters reach out to me because they found my profile there.  For a religionist that can be quite flattering.  Academia and society tend to tell you that such a skillset is okay but basically useless.  Having others who know the wide diversity of human employment these days can be a sign of hope.  Nevertheless, advertising has crept into LinkedIn.  I’m not talking about the frequent invitations to go professional on the site, which will only cost a small fee that will suddenly show up on your credit card bill when you least expect it and thought you were in the clear.  No, I’m talking about connections contacting you to do gratis work for them.  Advertising their book, or their services.  Letting others know, they ask, that they can provide this or that service.  (Just to be clear, I’m not referring to people who contact me personally because we have an actual connection!)

For those of us working stiffs not in a position to hire anyone—professionally or personally—this is another symbol of how any form of communication becomes commodified.  Fully over half of my email is soliciting money in one form or another.  Hearing from an actual person with an actual message for me is so rare that I’m stunned to find one in my inbox.  Capitalism just doesn’t know when to let go.  And it doesn’t have a good read on what little I actually do buy.  Underwear (and just using that word will color the tailored ads I receive for weeks) vendors seem to think I’m concerned about the fashion of garments others don’t see.  The books Amazon suggests, based on a solid track record, are generally far off from my interests.  What hope do those who don’t know me have of selling me their wares through LinkedIn?  The dream of connection without cash changing hands nevertheless remains alive.

Old school connectivity

Dandy Lions

O great—just what I need right now.  I knew lawn care would soon become a necessary avocation after buying a house, but this I did not expect.  Over the weekend I found myself pulling up dandelions that were growing out of cracks in the front steps.  Since we compost, I laid them out on a slab, figuring when they dried out I could make them into more soil.  (From which more dandelions will grow, I know, but still it just feels right.)  I came back a day later to find that the dandelions had returned to the vertical position.  Zombie dandelions!  They apparently couldn’t stay dead.  Now, I’ve been writing about demons for the past several months and I’d forgotten about zombies.  Well, I did post about resurrection on Easter, but my short-lived digression left me unprepared for this.

Really, the persistence of life is a sign of hope.  Perhaps dead zones, such as morality in Washington DC, will someday come back to life.  There’s hope for a tree, Job tells us, even if cut down.  These dandelions were a message for me.  Don’t give up.  Prior to religion being hijacked by theology it was a system intended to make life better for people.  Human beings were more important than heretical thoughts.  You help those who need it, regardless of what they believe.  Or don’t believe.  That was the point behind resurrection, I suspect—we can rise above all this dirt in which we find ourselves.  There’s a nobility to it.  Then again, fear trumps hope just about every time.  The dandelions are rising and we have no hope of outnumbering them.  

The ancients feared the dead coming back.  It’s a primal phobia.  All those things we buried with tears we hoped would stay the way we left them.  Life, as Malcolm says, will find a way.  Politicians, it seems, will find a way around it.  Call it executive privilege or whatever you will, the end result is the same.  The yellow-headed fuzzies will threaten you even when uprooted and left to dry in the sun.  Now, our lawn isn’t pretty.  Grasses of different varieties contend with weeds I’ve never seen before for scarce resources.  I’ve never minded dandelions.  They don’t ask much, only they now seem to be demanding the right to come back from the compost.  And if we let that happen, all hope is lost.

On Publishing

I fear I may be transitioning.  I may actually be becoming someone who knows something about publishing.  Reading about the merger between Cengage and McGraw Hill actually seemed interesting.  What’s happening to me?  Actually, the largest impact has been the realization that scholars need to become more aware of the world around them.  As a doctoral student I was taught to find an unexplored subject and write obscurely on it.  Then, when it’s time to publish, to say to the editor that general readers will understand and find it compelling.  It took some time, however, even though I frequented Waterstones and Blackwells, to realize that the books they housed were not the kinds of books I’d been taught to write.  Back in America, where the brands were Borders and Barnes and Nobel, the same thing applied.  People want books they can understand.

Two articles that caught my attention recently addressed the plight of the academic monograph.  One was “Worried About the Future of the Monograph? So Are Publishers” from the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The other was “Making Monographs Open” from Inside Higher Ed.  Both share some common themes: scholars write books so obscure that even academic libraries won’t buy them and since it’s “publish or perish” it becomes the publisher’s problem.  Listen, I understand that mentality.  Isolated in the woods of Wisconsin with the wind howling through the trees, writing about weather in the Psalms seemed perfectly natural.  Forgetting that the average reader doesn’t know Hebrew, I assumed everyone would find my disquisition irresistible.  Even back in the early 2000s publishers disagreed.  Life is so interesting!  There are so many minutiae to explore!  If you haven’t had the pleasure of following in the tracks of a thought that won’t let you go, you’ve never been really seduced.  But then, somebody’s got to pay for all this.

Scholars are reluctant to acknowledge that publishing is a business.  Indeed, higher education is now a business as well.  Everything’s a business.  To stay solvent publishers have to sell enough books to cover the cost of making them.  As these articles point out, that cost isn’t negligible.  The scholar who explores the publishing industry (as rare as that may be) will discover plenty of resources to help rethink academic writing.  Even without reading the industry rags, just paying attention when you’re in your neighborhood bookstore can be an eye-opening experience.  I was looking for a book (hardly even academic) last time I was in Ithaca, New York.  If any town is likely to have such books on the shelf, it’s Ithaca.  I had to ask and leave empty-handed.  There are lots of books out there, colleagues!  And if you want to get yours published, it pays to do a little research.  Your time will not be wasted.  And I fear I’m becoming someone who knows a little about such things.

Suddenly Spring

Maybe it’s just a sign of passing years, but spring seems much more sudden to me now.  One day I’m wearing multiple layers and shivering in the mornings and the next day I need to take a machete to the lawn for its first mowing.  Those weeds along the fence, which weren’t there a day ago—I swear!—are now two feet tall and aching for an appointment with the weed whacker.  I mean, the snow shovel’s still on the porch.  When did this happen?  How did we go from brown grass to sprouting trees of heaven just overnight?  I haven’t had time to build up my calluses yet for pushing the lawn mower (we have the environmentally friendly kind, powered by naught but human effort).  Morpheus was right, I guess.

This past week was so unexpectedly busy that I haven’t had time to stop and muse over some important happenings.  My current project, Nightmares with the Bible, involves trying to sort out The Conjuring universe, and I wanted to reflect on the passing of Lorraine Warren.  Her obituary in the New York Times  by Neil Genzlinger was surprisingly respectful.  Whether or not she was really onto something, people in general seem to believe she and Ed were sincere in their convictions.  There are those who claim they were charlatans, but those who perpetrate hoaxes tend to leave telltale signs.  Those who claim they couldn’t have experienced the paranormal because there’s no supernatural to experience are entitled to their opinions, of course.  Being tolerant of those who see differently, however, has never been more important.

The natural cycles of the earth never fail to surprise me.  Supernatural or not, the explosion of life following one warm, wet week is nothing shy of astounding.  I walked around to the seldom visited north side of the house to find a veritable jungle that wasn’t there just the week before.  Staring at the flowers and weeds, I can’t help but think of the hackneyed phrase “pushing up daisies.”  Much happened this past week.  The mower was oiled up and played the grim reaper to the grasses and other plants of my neglected yard.  Life, as Jurassic Park (which my lawn resembles) teaches, is persistent.  I never met or in any way corresponded with the Warrens, but I feel that in some sense I have gotten to know them.  And just yesterday it still felt like winter.