Ode to Auld Reekie

Edinburgh is a sizable city, although not large like New York, more like Boston, but smaller.  Like Boston, it has had an outsized influence globally, even apart from its world-class research university.  I think of the creatives that are from, or spent considerable time there (J. K. Rowling, take a bow) and the many great thinkers who’ve called it home.  Our three years there went by too quickly, but money being what it was (and is) and laws dictating how long we could linger, we had to leave it in 1992.  If you’d have asked us when we were there we’d have told you we’d’ve stay if we could’ve.  We had no money, no car, no television, but we had Edinburgh.  Somehow that seemed to be enough.

Places have great significance to people, but it’s not reciprocal.  I occasionally find out a famous person was from Edinburgh and say “I didn’t know that.”  Having spent three years and the cost of a doctorate there, I was a mere drop in the Firth of Forth.  I’m frequently in contact with faculty members at the Divinity School for work.  None know that I studied there—I suspect most university folk don’t sit around talking about long-ago post-grads.  Indeed, there may be no faculty left from the time I was there.  New names, new faces, new research agendas appear.  Indeed, you wouldn’t choose Edinburgh as a place to study Ugaritic now, even though there was once an “Edinburgh school” of thought in the discipline (and I can footnote that).

Still, when I hear “Edinburgh” my ears prick up like those of a dog who’s been called.  It is a part of me.  I’ve only been able to return once since our original stint there.  It was a strange sort of homecoming.  Familiar and foreign all at the same time.  Some shops were right where we’d left them, others now merely ghosts in our memories.  Fortunately Edinburgh hasn’t had the building mania that often causes old cities to try to reinvent themselves.  It was already great to begin with.  More and more I hear about the Edinburgh Festival, and the Fringe.  People are starting to notice this jewel in the crown of the United Kingdom.  On a molecular level there may still be a little bit of me there.  We’re constantly shedding, I suppose.  And someday perhaps we’ll be able to return.  It may not remember me, but I can’t forget her.


Express Yourself

Do you ever get excited by an idea only to be let down when it comes to the execution?  I suspect that’s a standard human experience.  For me it often happens with books.  Especially academic books.  I get excited about the ideas that are sure to be lurking between the covers only to discover that the author has unimaginatively fallen into bad academic habits, such as “scholar A says, but scholar B says.”  Just tell me what you say!  Reflecting on this I realize that building a case has become conflated with taking a test.  A doctoral dissertation is a years’ long test.  Your ideas are being compared to those who’ve gone before you—the fact that they’ve published has proven that—and you are expected to show your work.  Did you read Smith?  Have you struggled with Jones?  Is Anderson in more than just your bibliography?

This kind of extended citation leads to turgid writing that slays any interest in the subject by the end of page one.  I’m not alone in this critique.  Some famous academics, such as Steven Pinker, have noted this.  In a not nearly frequently enough cited article, “Why Academics Stink at Writing,” Pinker lays out the bad habits that get perpetuated throughout the modern academy.  It comes down to, in my humble opinion, the fear of the exam.  Test anxiety.  Recently my draft of The Wicker Man came back from peer review.  While the comments of the reviewers were helpful, and quite complimentary, they felt there should be more academic dialogue going on.  I push back at this: if you don’t believe I’ve done the research, why approve the book for publication?  Most academic writing stinks and there’s no reason it should.

I’m a slow reader.  My average rate is about 20 pages per hour.  I know this because my morning routine sets aside about an hour for reading each day, and I note how many pages I consume.  Lately some of the academic books I’ve read have hobbled me down to 10 pages per hour.  I keep waiting for the narrative flow to kick in, something that I can follow and absorb.  Instead I’m learning what everybody else, often except the author, thinks about each minute point of his or her thesis.  Please, just tell me what you think!  I trust that you’ve done the research.  You wouldn’t have been granted a doctorate if you hadn’t.  The last thing I would want from my, admittedly few, readers is for them to close my book and say, “I’d rather be reading something else.”


Footnote Lament

I listened to a presentation on a famous novelist the other day.  It was noted that this writer was a master researcher, having read a lot for each book he wrote.  I don’t doubt it.  This novelist didn’t hold a doctorate, however, which makes even his historical novels suspect in the eyes of the academy.  I often think of the humble footnote.  You can’t read everything on a topic, not if it’s broad enough on which to write a book.  As soon as you send the proofs back to the publisher you’ll inevitably discover a source you’d overlooked.  And critics will delight in pointing this out to you.  I sincerely hope that my next book project will be devoid of footnotes.  There are personal as well as professional reasons for this.  One is that I like to believe what I have to say is important.

You see, the footnote is a way of backing up an assertion.  I remember many years ago reading a piece by a journalist who was scandalized that professors are so pressed for time that they rely on reviews rather than reading the actual book.  That journalist may not have been aware of just how much is published.  As an author you have to learn to say “Enough!”  The work is done and I’m not going back to it.  Footnotes will give you respectability.  Show that others agree with you—indeed, said it even before you did.  One of my great struggles with academia, besides the obvious, is that I’m more inclined toward creativity than your garden variety professor.  I like assert things because I know them to be true.  And those people I’m footnoting, they’re doing some of that themselves.

Finding yourself in a footnote

Academic respectability really comes into its own after death.  Even so, looking back at some of the “giants” in the field you can see that their ideas haven’t aged well.  They were important at the time, but now we look and see their western bias, how they didn’t take diversity, equity, and inclusion into consideration.  They simply accepted the dead white man’s version of the way things were.  They live on in footnotes.  You have to earn the privilege to be original.  Otherwise you’re just some patent clerk or editor and why should we take your word for it?  One of my zibaldones has written inside the cover Nullius in Verba—take nobody’s word for it.  I believe that, and yet I find myself having to put my source in a footnote.


Saints and Freedom

There’s a saying that all elections are local.  I suspect that’s true.  Location is important.  There are famous Americans not recognized in other parts of the world.  And there are, of course, local celebrities.  Having settled once again in Pennsylvania, I’ve taken an interest in local religions.  Although not part of the “Burnt-over District” of upstate New York, Pennsylvania, because of its early laws of religious liberty, has produced some noteworthy figures over the centuries.  And institutions.  When someone mentioned St. Vincent Archabbey, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, I was curious.  I’m not Catholic and even though I’d considered a monastic life, I really knew little about it.  St. Vincent is the largest Benedictine monastery in the western hemisphere, as well as the oldest in the United States.  

Image credit: Guerillero, via Wikimedia Commons (Copyleft Free Art License)

Latrobe isn’t far from Pittsburgh.  There is a strong Catholic presence in the area.  Like many Catholic institutions, it has a cluster.  St. Vincent College, also in Latrobe, must’ve sent me—in those days, print—a prospectus back when I was looking at schools.  I’ve known about it for a long time.  There’s also a seminary, also called St. Vincent.  Probably it’s largest claim to fame is that the Pittsburgh Steelers use the College (I suspect the seminary has no athletic program) for their training camp.  Monks and football players—they must have some interesting conversations.  I grew up thinking Catholicism was basically some other religion.  Fundamentalists, misunderstanding the basics of history, tend to claim that Catholics aren’t Christians.  Indeed, until the recent politicization of conservative Christianity, they wouldn’t have had much to say to each other.

Catholicism was frowned upon by the early colonists.  While seeking freedom of religion, what they really wanted was freedom of religion for themselves.  In good, charitable Christian fashion, many colonies tried to exclude those that believed differently.  Especially Papists.   Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, however, notably allowed freedom.  I’ve lived in Pennsylvania long enough to know that even legal freedom isn’t protection from those locals who’d rather not have Muslims or Hindus for neighbors.  And in all likelihood William Penn, a good Quaker, probably couldn’t imagine people of “exotic” religions wanting in.  Indeed, the majority of people in this hemisphere weren’t really even aware of “eastern religions” until the 1890s.  The religions here were forms mostly of Christianity and Judaism.  By 1846 the Benedictines could establish a college, monastery, seminary complex in western Pennsylvania.  And it would become the largest and oldest such establishment in a country that still doesn’t grasp true religious freedom.


First Choice

One of the first things I do when I finish a book, unless I know about the author already, is ecosia (google) her or him.  I want to know who it is that wrote this, and the internet’s right there!  So it came as a surprise to see my first (two-star) review for Nightmares with the Bible on Amazon, where the reviewer did no follow-up.  The reviewer is quite upset that I don’t take the Bible literally, but at least s/he bothered to leave a review.  A more positive rating might bring me up to three stars, but I’ve failed classes before.  I’m a big boy, I can handle it.  In any case, if you ecosia me you’ll quickly come upon this humble website that’ll tell you what you need to know.  No, I am no longer a Fundamentalist.  And the book was about demons in movies.  (I was actually searching for reviews of the series.)

I scrolled down.  The named reviews solicited for the book I knew, so I was surprised, and delighted, that further down the page I had a Choice review.  Even a disgruntled evangelical couldn’t bring me down after that!  In case you’re not a librarian, or an academic publisher, Choice is THE periodical librarians use for deciding on which books to buy.  It is very difficult to get a review in it—I work at a prestige publisher and seldom see our books in there.  If you’re a trade author that’s not so important, but if the only sales, or majority of sales, are for libraries, to get a “recommended” status is a big deal.  That’s worth celebrating.

If you’re wondering, authors do not get notified of reviews.  Some editors will let them know (my editor at McFarland hasn’t been in touch for years).  The journals are too busy doing what journals do to send every author a copy of their review.  So I swung by Amazon’s Holy Horror page.  I’ve got four ratings there now, mostly on the lower end of the scale.  If you’ve read it and liked it (not something I assume, of course) a nice review would go a long way.  Disgruntled evangelicals (aren’t they all, these days?) may make the books look bad, but colleagues who’ve read them seem to think differently.  I hold to the publishing adage that there’s no such thing as a bad review, but good reviews feel so pleasant.  I’ve only written one negative book review in my life, and that was because I felt any other would be utterly dishonest in that particular case.  It’s a choice I make because of the Bible: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”


Not a Scholar

It’s insensitive.  And behind the times.  Google Scholar, I mean.  They send me emails telling me that people can’t read my research because I don’t have a verified email.  When I sign on and enter my email, it tells me to enter an institutional email instead.  I don’t have one.  So it sends an error message implying I’m not really a scholar after all.  Like hundreds, perhaps thousands, of academics, I had to settle for a job in the corporate sector.  Unlike some of my colleagues, I still research and write and try to maintain a web presence so I can be found.  Compared to non-academics those of us who’ve been through the system are few.  Even so, this can be an exclusive lot.

There are quite a few academic websites these days.  I’m not sure which is the biggest or best regarded—I’m not verified, after all.  I have an active account on Academia.edu, and recently, to gain access to an article I needed, I joined Research Gate (dot net).  Academia is after me every day to upgrade—they follow the “free cookie” model.  It’s free but if you really want to be discovered you can pay a modest fee for an upgrade.  I suspect Research Gate is the same.  And Google Scholar.  These websites aren’t out simply to promote you for your own benefit.  Of course, real scholars can be naive.  I’ve been in the business world long enough to be suspicious.  There’s no such thing as a free account.

What such websites don’t take into account is that academia is a harsh and punishing place.  Institutions are almost always run by businessmen these days and professors are deemed too expensive to maintain.  (Nobody’s talking about how university president salaries are too high, I notice, but they’re verified.)  To push knowledge forward we get rid of those who’ve dedicated their lives to study.  Those departments that bring in money—greed is not an academic field—thrive.  The academy was founded to further religious knowledge.  Soon study of the law was added, but law was considered something handed down from on high.  Some of us, and not a few, were naive and unverified enough to believe that fields that had been around for a millennia or so would be around for at least long enough to get us through to retirement.  Instead, learning has shifted online.  And to be part of that club, you must be verified.  At least according to Google Scholar.


Sabbatical Request

I don’t know when I became one of them.  It seems that I was pretty busy in my early teaching days, and starting a family.  I didn’t feel, however, that every single minute was programmed down to the second.  I had time for writing, vacation, and family, as well as work.  The other day when I was sending out those reminders to authors that their books are a bit (years) overdue, I realized just how busy they are.  Then I took a moment and considered that I’m not sure how I became one of them.  The people who are too busy.  Clearly buying a house was a big part of it.  I’d been pretty busy before, but now I need to invent time in order to get everything done.  The staycations I allow myself end up with feelings of guilt for all that’s been left undone.

Maybe it doesn’t help that I can see the neighbors out my office window.  When I see one of them weed-whacking or mowing during the day, I think I need to do the same.  But I’m also out of string for the whacker.  I really need to get to Lowes so I can stock up—last time they had only one spool left, which is probably why I ran out.  To get to Lowes I need a weekend.  Preferably not one with temperatures in the high nineties.  And without meetings cutting into weekend time.  And when it’s not raining.  Time is slippery.  Even as I work I often have other things—many other things—I have to do running through the back of my mind.  How did I become so busy?

Speaking only for myself, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than reading and writing.  I do these daily only by carving out inviolable time for them.  It is costly time, I know, but to me it’s beyond price.  Thinking of these colleagues too busy to submit their books, I think back to my own professor days.  There’s no doubt that I read and write more now than I did then.  There were times (grading, accrediting body visits, commencement, etc.) when there simply wasn’t time to do anything else.  Many colleagues mention health issues on top of all this.  Academics, as those who supply (partially, but responsible for a goodly number of) books, the number published each year truly boggles the mind.  I would try to figure all this out, but I’m afraid I simply don’t have the time.


Who’s It For?

I suspect editors see this all the time.  I also suspect that I’ve unknowingly participated in it as well.  If you’re a book writer, you have to be clear of your readership.  As an academic editor I receive many proposals for books that either cry for popular treatment, but are too academic, or books that are written for laity on topics of interest only to academics.  A writing life is a struggle to find that correct balance.  Particularly for your typical academic.  You see, doctoral programs don’t generally include instruction on how publishing works.  Or in writing.  It’s assumed that any string of 100,000 words from a credentialed expert is worth publishing.  Worse, as Steven Pinker has pointed out, academics are rewarded for writing poorly.  No wonder people are confused!

Lately I’ve been on a kick about people not paying attention.  It is important to observe.  When writing a book it’s important to gauge who might want to read your potential book.  Indeed, this is something seldom asked early enough in the process.  Who is this book for?  Will they want to read it?  You see, we have this lone ranger attitude to book writing.  In actual fact, most books you see in bookstores are the clear result of teamwork.  Yes, authors do most of the writing.  In many books editors do quite a bit of the fixing of the writing.  Agents, marketers, publicists, sales reps—there are a host of people behind successful books.  It’s easy to think, while writing, that your book will be a bestseller, no matter how academic.  That you will see it in Barnes and Noble and point it out, ever so casually, to your friends.  That it will sell for less than $20.

It’s important to pay attention to what other people think.  We’re all busy, I know.  We have our own lives to live and plans to enact.  Who has time to bother thinking about who might read their book?  Obviously, other specialists such as themselves.  But how many people is that, really?  With the sheer number of books published each year, are there topics that will draw in thousands, instead of hundreds (or less) of buyers?  Writing a book naturally makes you think the topic is important—vital, even.  It’s easy to transfer your personal interest onto the masses.  My advice, for those few who ask or care, is to think carefully about who you wish to reach.  Be honest with yourself.  And try to think from the point of view of somebody else.


Ravens and Teachers

Humans, it is claimed, have a theory of mind.  What this means is that we know what others are thinking, or better, at least we can anticipate what they might be thinking.  This allows us to be self-aware and live in a complex society.  We can see someone else and infer what’s going on in his or her noggin.  This is often considered a uniquely human trait, but I’m not sure how widespread it is.  You see, I frequently run into the situation where someone expects something of me without telling me.  It happened just recently with an organization to which I belong.  I’m a very busy person.  I suspect most of us are—not having time to accomplish everything we need to get done.  If someone wants something from me I have to be told what it is and I have to be told in detail.

One of the things my students always said was that I was a good teacher.  The reason for this, I think, is that when I explain something I back up a bit before the beginning.  I try to assume no knowledge on the subject before going in a bit more deeply.  This method works because of my personal theory of mind.  These people wouldn’t be taking a class on this subject if they already knew the stuff I could assume.  For understanding something new, things have to be explained thoroughly.  That doesn’t mean taking a lot of extra time, but it does mean not assuming others know what I know.  For many people this is difficult.  We’re all busy.  We tell others “Do this,” without explaining what exactly “this” is.  The results are predictable.  It happens all the time in work emails.

I’ve recently written of teachers and ravens.  The effective among the former understand the value of full explanation.  The latter have a theory of mind that allows them to go as far as to try to fool others by giving not enough information.  We might learn a lesson either by sitting in the classroom of the former or by watching the ravens that skulk on the edge of civilized areas.  What they have in common is the ability to realize that others operate with limited information.  In order to learn, information has to be conveyed and conveyed well.  Even now colleagues at work are surprised at when I explain something that it’s done thoroughly and clearly.  When I receive information it’s often piecemeal and frustrating.  The reason, I infer, is that we don’t spend enough time paying attention to either our teachers or the ravens.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons, public domain

Paperback Nightmares

I’m not assertive.  My voice is not loud and even when I have strong opinions I like to let others have their say.  Those of us who’ve been beaten down too many times can be like that.  So it took a lot of courage to ask.  “Is it possible that Nightmares with the Bible might be issued in paperback?”  You see, I know that “academic” books almost always sell the copies they’re going to sell in the first year.  Some follow-up sales continue into years two and three, but beyond that it’s about done.  And I also know that when authors ask for a paperback it almost never sells as well (or even more poorly) than the hardcover.  I’m hoping the paperback of Nightmares will buck this trend because it published into the pandemic.  That was a game-changer.

When you’re worried about staying alive you might not feel like reading about demons.  Of course, what better time to do so is there?  Paperbacks are often produced, in academic settings, to appease authors.  I have long believed—and this flies counter to the orthodoxy of the publishing world—that if books were initially published in paperback and priced affordably they would sell better.  The fear is that the higher priced hardcovers wouldn’t be purchased by libraries.  Librarians would, oh tremble, purchase the reasonably priced paperbacks and rebind them for less expense than the stratospheric price put on a 208-page monograph.  Publishers are often afraid to try anything different.  Assured sales are a blessing that can be bankrolled.

I’m hoping, once the paperback comes out, to do some more promotional work on it.  This blog was started long before I had books to flog.  It’s free content for those who like the less sweet kinds of treats in the bowl.  I do appreciate the occasional free advertising I can do.  It’s my hope that there’s always something to learn offered with it.  Successful content providers can make a living doing it.  Others pay for the privilege.  I often ponder what will happen to this blog when I run up against the size limits of my WordPress account.  The next level up, commercial, is beyond my price range.  Perhaps, like a phoenix, it will be time to start all over again when that moment comes.  In the meantime I’ll reuse images as often as I can, because each new one takes a byte out of my account.  And when it’s all said and done, Nightmares will still be available in print. Hopefully in paperback next year.


Thanking Teachers

Those who know me personally are often surprised to hear that my high school gym teacher was one of the most influential people in my life.  It is true.  He, and a handful of others I can still remember by name, set me on the path of knowing that I should be a teacher.  It is a very important profession, habitually underpaid.  To hold the future in your hands is a responsibility like no other.  I complained, like all kids do, about having to go to school.  Once there, however, I was fascinated by the learning.  I still am.  I think of those women and men who really wanted to mold young minds.  Who knew they’d never be paid as well as their peers, but who had a message worth preserving.

I suppose I’m thinking about them because I recently watched Dead Poets Society again.  It’s a poignant thing to do since Robin Williams’ death, but the movie makes a powerful statement about teachers.  Knowledge, once planted, grows.  I don’t name people on this blog unless they say I can, and although I’ve connected with a few high school teachers through Facebook, I don’t bother them in retirement.  I can say, though, that one English teacher, my German teacher, a couple history teachers, a math teacher, and my gym teacher made significant impacts.  The math teacher, of course, helped me realize that my thinking process veers in quite a different direction from equations and proofs.  Ironically, now I tend to think that way and often think I could’ve done it, but I needed several years for the ideas to settle into place.

Thinking of them by name may not be a daily occurrence, but in my actions I live out what they taught.  I’m not sure what leads a young person to pursue a teaching career, but clearly some of them have gifts that make them influential in lives long after the classroom relationship ends.  The young mind is receptive in the way that a more experienced one tends not to be.  Even as we reach our teens the natural confidence of youth seems to take over for many.  We might still, however, listen to those with more experience.  Teachers, under-paid and often having to take summer jobs to makes ends meet, are almost as influential as peers.  The twenty years of my life from the age five on were under the sway of teachers.  Time set aside for learning.  It wasn’t nearly long enough.


Old Ghosts

As someone who reads about ghost stories, as well as ghost stories themselves, I’ve long been aware of M. R. James.  His Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is regarded as a classic in the ghost-story genre.  Sometime in the haze, I recollect it was years ago, I found a copy at a used bookstore on the sale rack.  Something I’d been reading about ghost stories lately made me decide to read it through.  Now James was an actual antiquary.  He was also an academic at Cambridge University.  His tales are erudite, generally focusing on some ancient secret that releases ghosts, or sometimes monsters, after the individual who discovers the antiquity.  The stories are varied and inventive, but not really scary to the modern reader.  They assume a different world.  One in which antiquaries were monied individuals—often university men—who have both servants and leisure time, rarities today.

I found myself constantly asking while reading, how could they get so much time off?  How did they access such amenities that they could even get to the places where the ghosts were?  James’ world is both textual and biblical.  It’s assumed the reader knows the western canon as it stood at the turn of the nineteenth century.  The Latin, thankfully, is translated.  James, it is said, was a reluctant ghost-story writer.  A university employed medievalist, he had academic publications to mind as well.  Nevertheless he managed to publish five ghost-story collections.  Clearly the idea seemed to have had at least some appeal to him.

The aspect I find most compelling here is that an academic could admit to such an avocation.  While it’s becoming more common these days among the tenured, I always felt like I was walking the eggshell-laden pathway to academic respectability.  I was, after all, at a small, haunted seminary that few outside the Anglican communion knew about.  It was risky to admit being drawn to anything speculative.  Come to think of it, although I read novels while I was there I don’t recall reading many, if any ghost stories.  It was scary enough to be about on campus at night, particularly if you were going to the shore of the small lake to try to photograph a comet alone.  There were woods punctuated by very little light.  On campus ghost stories were fine—the librarian even showed me a photograph of a ghost in the archives—but off-campus such things could never be discussed.  I was an antiquary without any ghost stories. James showed the way.


Short-Changed

Time often feels short.  When we back it up against the pencil marks on the doorpost we find it seems to shrink with its own passing.  It is nevertheless relentless.  This shows especially with daily tasks, such as the posts on this blog, which leave enormous piles of writing behind.  I used to print every entry I wrote but I had to stop because there were too many.  There are now well over 4,500 of them and yet time keeps going and each day demands its sacrifice.  It’s that way with other daily tasks too.  It’s staggering, for example, to think of just how much food you eat in a lifetime.  It makes sense of why we struggle against that middle-age bulge.  Little bits add up.  I suspect that’s why the news can feel overwhelming at times.  It just keeps piling on.

If I’d chosen to study journalism—I really didn’t know what it was, despite being co-editor of my high school newspaper—I might’ve reached the point of being paid for my writing by now.  Even with my published fiction stories (and two of my nonfiction books) no money has ever changed hands.  I know from editorial board meetings that journalists expect pay for what many of us give away for free.  Writing is funny that way.  The best way to improve is to practice, and so I spend time each day writing blog posts, as well as content for books and articles and fiction stories.  As I said, there’s quite a pile.

Time is relentless.  It’s also in short supply.  The marking of each passing day with writing is a reminder of just how quickly the sand slips through the glass.  Other tasks go neglected for writers, which is, I expect, why we appreciate being paid for our work.  But just imagine if we were paid for reading.  What if every book read brought in say, in today’s economy, $1,000.  Would we be a more literate society then, valuing the work of writing?  For nonfiction editorial boards note the difference between professors, who are paid to do other things (and paid pretty well, considering), and journalists who live by the pen.  I have another job, helping other writers get published.  I suppose that means I have less time to do my own writing.  Time and writing are engaged in a complex dance which, when viewed from a distance, may look beautiful.  And when the dance is done you’ll find another piece of paper to add to the pile, regardless of whether it has monetary value or not.


On Campus

It’s still the pandemic and I don’t get out much.  It seems prudent and only a little paranoid.  I had the opportunity to meet someone from Lehigh University recently.  The interesting thing is, I’ve become shy about going onto college campuses unless invited.  I can still usually pass for a professor (the beard and glasses help, along with a natural disheveledness) and I behave well in public.  Still, universities are all about belonging.  If you’re an alum you can come in.  You’ve paid a lot of money, and, the thinking goes, hopefully you’ll pay more.  Of course you’re welcome!  The last time I visited Boston University I remember thinking how small it was compared to my younger memories of wider corridors and more welcoming faculty.  Many ways exist for measuring how we grow.

When offered the chance for a quick stroll around Lehigh I had to say yes.  Like Syracuse University, it’s set on a hill.  From downtown south-side Bethlehem you need to walk up.  Even growing up in Pennsylvania I didn’t hear much about Lehigh.  The western part is dominated by the University of Pittsburgh and the eastern by Penn.  In the middle there’s Penn State.  There are actually many colleges in the commonwealth, about 140 if you separate out branch campuses.  Still, I was struck by the classic feel to Lehigh’s campus.  As you come down the hill it grows more modern, but I always like the older buildings.  Something about their solidity is comforting.  How’ve I been here nearly four years and not found it?

My host pointed out one of the libraries and suggested I stop in before leaving campus.  I had a mask and a minute so I did just that.  There’s a danger to stopping into libraries.  It’s too easy to fall in love in them.  I could see myself whiling away the hours there.  I spent plenty of hours in my own undergrad library, even though it wasn’t nearly so nice.  The only bad thing about visiting campuses is that I eventually have to face the exile from them I feel each and every day.  Many people can’t wait to graduate and get away.  Some of the rest of us never want to leave.  I suppose it’s an artificial environment, but if a small segment of the population can make it work, I wonder why we can’t get more of the world to emulate it.  I may not get out much, but I like to make those rare trips worth the effort.


Highest Education

The average church-goer is often impressed with the idea of seminary.  The thought that someone could devote three years of their lives to theological minutiae in order to take a job with long hours and substandard pay, is mind-boggling.  Having been a seminary creature for so many years, however, makes me wonder if many church folk realize that seminaries are businesses.  Non-profits, yes, but businesses nonetheless.  This is a trait that they share with other institutions of higher learning.  Customers pay money for a good or a service (I’m not sure which) in the form of a degree.  If a student can’t cope academically, they’re often “grandfathered”through because, well, it costs a lot of money and you deserve to get what you paid for, right?

This business concept of higher education is dangerous and is primarily prevalent where governments do not support education.  Schools have to raise money and if alumni don’t give, well you have to raise tuition.  And the more somebody pays the better case they have for getting their degree.  Seminaries, however, also suffer from generally low-income alumni and sponsoring churches needing clergy.  (It’s not difficult to get accepted into most seminary programs.)  Only when a candidate is a serious problem will they tend to be weeded out.  And congregations get the results of such a system.  My level of cynicism probably results from having gone through seminary and then having taught at one for many years.  At no point have I been ordained.  In fact, even churches facing clergy shortages have shown no interest.  Call it sour grapes.

To me, however, the crisis in higher education is the result of business practices being applied to education.  The two don’t mix.  In a world where job options are limited for those too weak to dig and too proud to beg, ministry has some appeal.  You can be considered a community leader and an expert in the relatively innocuous arcane area of “theology.” And most of the people you serve will have no idea what seminary delivers, or doesn’t.  I attended events for seminary administrators offered by the Association of Theological Schools—the seminary accrediting body.  I learned that they too are under pressure to approve unless there’s a serious problem.  Even heads of accrediting bodies have to eat.  So we let the system churn on as it has since the earliest universities turned out educated clergy.  And we don’t stop to think what all of this means.

Tradition