Category Archives: Higher Education

Posts concerned with the sad state of higher education

How to Talk to an Editor

There are right ways and wrong ways to get your book published. When approaching an editor, there are a few things to keep in mind. For one thing, we’re human. Yes, I know that I have something you want. The usual career track for an academic is Brown, Harvard, dissertation published by a certain academic press with which I’m familiar. I get that. The internet, however, has made publishing into something different than what it used to be. First of all, you can self-publish. Sorting through all the self-proclaimed experts can be a full-time job when you’re trying to find the latest authoritative treatment of a subject. Also, the internet has made research into publishers much easier than it used to be. My first book, back in the day, was simply sent off to a European publisher that specialized in academic monographs in my subject area and then I moved on. Today authors see flashy first books online and want just that. You can have it all, they’re told.

My LinkedIn profile took a definite boost once I became an editor. Now I often think it would be great if someone asking to connect actually knew me. But I digress. One way not to get your book published is to state right on your LinkedIn profile—or other social media—that you have a great book and you’re letting all publishers know. You then invite them to connect on LinkedIn and your book announcement, like a peacock’s tail, is supposed to attract the hungry editor. In reality what attracts an editor is professionalism. Research publishers, find out what they actually publish. That’s pretty easy these days; there’s more than funny videos on the internet. Even browsing titles similar to your own on Amazon can help. Pay attention to the publishers of the books you’re using for your research. If a publisher has done several books in your area they are more likely to be interested in your proposal than a publisher who’s never ventured into those waters.

It may be easy to think of us editors as sitting bored in our lonely cubicles, awaiting the next great thing. The fact is we receive plenty of submissions and we have to sort through them. Treat the subject professionally. Many of us hold doctorates and are keenly aware of hyperbole when we see it. You don’t need to tell the editor your book is ground-breaking. They will make that decision based on the evidence before them. And trust your editor when it comes to things like how a book should be titled or placed or marketed. Publishers—some of which have been around for centuries—daily face the harsh realities of producing books in an era of YouTube and online television. We know it’s difficult out there. Many of us want to help. Some of us write books and have to go through the same travails as other authors in finding publishers of our own. Do your research on publishers. When an editor offers free advice, take it. A little bit of extra work by an author goes a long way in helping a book proposal succeed.

Novelty Religion

Religion is dead. So they say. They have been wrong before. One of the great things the web has given us is book fan sites. There are a number of them, and my wife frequently sends me stories from BookRiot. Often they are lists, and the most recent one is Teresa Preston’s “100 Must-Read Novels about Religion.” As I scanned through the tons of tomes to see which I’d read, it struck me once again just how many novels touch on—at the very least—religion. Many are based on it. That’s because religion is an inherently fascinating phenomenon. We don’t really understand it, and even the staunchest of atheists believe something, no matter how secular. Novelists are those who, successfully finding a publisher, express their views of living on this planet in terms of fiction. It’s often factual fiction.

One of the best bits of advice I can give to academics who want to write for a wider readership is this: read fiction. There’s been a time-honored stigma, of course, outside literary studies, of academics reading fiction. Once, at a conference, I was awaiting an author meeting. It was a small conference so I had taken a book to read between appointments. When my author came up, he asked what I was reading. (I’d cautiously removed the book jacket before taking my novel along, not wanting this topic to come up.) “Just some fiction,” I explained. His eyebrows shot up and he questioned why an academic should be reading fiction at all. I have known academics successful in the fiction market, but they’ve had to use a pseudonym because their real name might discredit their scholarship. We are a divided, perhaps schizophrenic, society.

Not all academic novels, of course, are cases involving religion. Still, it’s often there. I recently finished Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Both involved religious themes at various points. This is so much the case that unless it’s really obvious or unusual I don’t always discuss such tropes on this blog. (Although I do register the books I read on Goodreads, yet another excellent book fan site.) If they want to appeal to the deepest of human needs, novels must address religion from time to time. Paying respect to the dead is, after all, a very human thing to do. And should it prove true that rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated, we shouldn’t be surprised. Like they say, reading is fundamental.

The Struggle for Relevance

Futility is a specialization of those of us who consider ourselves fans of Ecclesiastes. Thus it is that the blog of an editor gets so little attention among academics. Since you’ve been kind enough to drop in, I’m going to share some secrets with you. Make sure the door is closed. Ready? I want to talk about academic publishing. If you, like me, have written academic monographs, you’ve probably figured out that we aren’t famous yet. What’s going on here? What happened to the day when “I wrote a book” meant something? Like all organisms, academic publishing evolves. Many academics want to write for a wider audience, but sometimes miss the bigger picture. Here are some tips to help out:

If you want to write for non-academics get to know some. A good first step is ditching the jargon. “Prosopography” wasn’t on many people’s SAT vocabulary flash cards. Even if you know how to use a thesaurus to find an archaic synonym to use, don’t assume your reader will do the same. Try reading a novel once in a while. They can teach academics quite a bit about how to communicate. Learning to speak the vernacular is only part of the battle, though. The larger part is learning what is of interest outside the academy. Some things, such as Ecclesiastes, aren’t. Oh, I know, I know! Five years of your life spent on some obscure topic should be worth publication. It probably is. A handful of people will read it (print run numbers would only make you weep). If you want to reach a wider readership, you have to go where people actually live. What’s of interest to them? Hoi polloi. They won’t bite. To write for a wider readership you need to learn what people find interesting and what they simply don’t.

An editor can be your friend here. You see, editors are measured by how well their books sell. We can usually tell at a glance if a topic is in the “less than 200 copy” camp or not. I know that you were taught in your doctoral program to find some abstruse subject never before addressed and research it from every possible angle. Write up your results and publish. A far better way to write for a wider readership is to begin a conversation with your editor. Are you thinking of a book on a specific topic? An editor can tell you if it’s likely to work or not. The idea of writing the book your colleagues said would be hot and then finding a publisher seldom works to everyone’s satisfaction. It’s all about communication. And you, dear readers, now know something most professors don’t.

Bible Belts

The Bible’s been back in the news. Specifically the Bible and politics. Like twins separated at birth. Jeff Mateer, Trump’s nominee for a federal judgeship, has gone on record saying Satan’s plan is working. Perhaps even more stridently, Roy Moore down in the Sweet Home state has been quite vocal that the Christian God is the one who makes America’s laws. Standing on “biblical principles” that have nothing to do with the actual Bible, politicians have found a biblically illiterate population a field of white-headed grain ready for the reaping. As sure as the sparks fly upward. The response in the educated class is predictable. Cut any funding for departments studying religion. Haven’t you heard? It’s dead!

Having grown up in a conservative, religious family, and working my way through a doctorate in a closely related field, I’ve been watching in dismay as the past quarter-century has been marked by decreasing positions in religious studies. If you can pull your eyes from the headlines surely you’ll agree that religion is something we just can’t afford to study. Wasting resources, it is, since if you teach economics you have an actual shot at the White House. Yee-haw! Pull out your six-shooter and celebrate! And no, “yee-haw” is not etymologically related to the name of the deity of ancient Israel. It’s only a matter of time before discovery of who’s been uncovering whom’s nakedness becomes public. Then you just need to say the Bible says nothing about divorce. It’s okay, nobody will bother to look it up. Intellectuals will scratch their heads—why didn’t somebody tell us religion actually motivated people?

Universities (consider the name!) used to be places where the value of all subjects was acknowledged. Of course, where there’s knowledge there’s money to be made. Once you’ve gone to the dark side, there’s no coming back. Departments that don’t earn mammon must go the way of the mammoth. Times have become so hard it’a almost like schools want to open Religion Departments just so they have something to shut down. We’ve got to keep those fields that are actually important going. Never mind if your funding depends on a government increasingly elected on the basis of perceived religious faith. Since the Prosperity Gospel is now in vogue, economic departments are always a safe investment. Slap a copy of the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn and follow the crowds to DC. Good thing none of this matters, otherwise me might be in real trouble.

Voting Belief

No one knows the origins of religion. Before the advent of writing we can only guess, based on artifacts. Even in the era of scriveners, nobody jotted down the origin of belief until modern times, long, long after it began. Once writings about religious practice become reasonably clear, we find temples in the service of palaces, and vice-versa. Monarchs needed the validation of deities and priests required the support of the crown. Together they brought the two swords together and managed to keep the unruly masses in check. This isn’t cynical, not necessarily, since it reflects, the best we can reconstruct, how western organized religions began. Power was always part of the picture.

A recent Washington Post story, “The stark racial and religious divide between Democrats and Republicans, in one chart,” by Christopher Ingraham, shows the diametrically opposed pie-charts of self-identified white Christians (Republicans) versus non-white or non-Christian (Democrats) Americans. Such survey results tell us much about ourselves. We vote with our faith (or lack thereof) and not with our rationality. This has long been the piece of the political puzzle that Democrats have failed to comprehend. Not to take away from Barack Obama’s charisma, but people were afraid of Mormon Mitt Romney in 2012. Although conservative, white, and evangelical, Mormons have long been questioned as to their Christian identity by other evangelicals. It would seem, in the light of present circumstances, that understanding the “white Christian” mindset might be the only way out of the morass.

Typically self-defeating, academic institutions have shown little interest in understanding religion among hoi polloi. Long ago they bought into what Peter Berger admitted was his biggest blunder, the idea that religion was dying out. By the time he made that admission, academics had ceased to pay much attention to religion. It has, of course, come back as the ghost that haunts us. Or is it a zombie, once dead and now back to life? The fact is religion was never dying. It is as much of being a human as is driving a car or owning a cell phone. When times are uncertain, we turn to what is perceived as unchanging—religion. In truth, religion is constantly evolving to fit outlooks influenced by science, technology, and social progress. Worldviews change. Our culture is becoming more diverse. Republicans have a natural voting bloc that identifies itself by race and religion. Information about the former is readily available. You’ll need to look a bit harder to find quality information about the latter, no matter how important it may be.

Power in the Blood

Converts, they say, are often the worst. It matters less what the conversion is to or from, since the zeal of the newly enlightened is impossible to match. The textbook example with religion, especially in America, is Evangelicalism. Those who’ve “found Jesus” are eager and too willing to tell others about it. You don’t often hear, however, of those who grew up Evangelical, but then had second thoughts. Often they disappear quietly. Evangelicalism is a potent force in American life. Intellectuals, embarrassed by it, tend to pretend it doesn’t exist. Or it’s on its way out. No need to approach, with nervous laughter, those who actually believe this stuff. Evangelicals, however, can get presidents elected and their zeal can take away any number of freedoms deemed “godless” by those who may have no more education than the local bartender. Matthew Avery Sutton’s American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism is masterful. Although not comprehensive (the movement is too large for that) this book does not shy from the unifying fact behind radical evangelicalism—the belief that the end is nigh.

Oh, I know. Those of us who are educated have no need to take such nonsense seriously, right? Sutton may change your mind on that. When you realize just how close to disaster after disaster this thinking has led (and continues to lead, under the current administration) us, you might want to take the Fundamentalists a bit more seriously. They constitute the largest religious bloc in the nation. One of the baffling things about them is their protean nature. What’s the difference between an Evangelical and a Fundamentalist? And what’s with the obvious differences between a Timothy LaHaye and a Billy Graham? And where do these people get all their money? (Fundamentalists have always been close to nearly endless, well, funding.) Republican presidents from far before Nixon realized that big business and conservative theology, although strange bedfellows, are remarkably compatible. (Each thinks the other side doesn’t realize it’s being used.)

American Apocalypse is an important book. Written before perhaps the strangest turn in US history last November, it might have helped to show that Trump was a serious threat from the beginning. If only the educated took it seriously. Evangelical antipathy to women’s rights, civil rights for minorities, and socialized medicine run very deep. It’s the Old Boys’ Club with a vengeance. Recent events have shown yet again how important it is to understand these ways of thinking. And those of us with insider knowledge have never been welcome in the academy. That’s okay, though. If I go back to my roots I’ll realize the world’s about to end any day now. Those who’re smart might think about taking equestrian training because I’m sure there will be white horses involved. If only I could get myself converted back.

Citation Anxiety

As a recovering academic, I sometimes am compelled to look when sends me notices. Academia, most of my academic colleagues don’t realize, is a for-profit website that advocates open access. “Open access” (or OA in the biz) is academic trash talk for making the published results of research available for free. It’s a great idea, but it often doesn’t take into account how complex publishing really is. Peer review, printing, and distribution of articles all take money and to make all research free cuts out what those who publish the research can use to fund the venture (with a cut taken out, of course, to make the whole thing worth their while). That’s the way capitalism works. (Look it up under economics.) In any case, not realizing that Academia is also a profit-making venture, lots of us put our published papers on it, making them freely available to anybody who cares.

Once in a while Academia will send its users a flattering notice: “X-hundred people have cited your papers.” Be still, my throbbing heart! Desperate for any attention, most academics (let alone us exes) are thrilled that more than 100 people have read their stuff. So I clicked their link. “309 papers mention the name ‘Steve Wiggins’ or ’S.A. Wiggins’” it cheerfully reads. I know something the robot apparently doesn’t. I’m not the only Steve Wiggins on Academia. There is a slightly older agronomist whose name I share. He’s employed in academia and has more papers than me. And “S. A. Wiggins” could be anybody. My 309 paper mentions shrinks to double digits. Not high double-digits either. Names are hardly unique identifiers. With some seven-and-a-half billion people, there’s bound to be some reduplication. I always tell the few curious to search “Steve A. Wiggins”—with the quotation marks—to find the few, true references.

Taking on the internet is a fool’s errand. This blog gets a few piddly hits a day. I often consider closing it down. Readers don’t share it enough to get any attention. It takes a lot of effort on my part since I write books (both fiction and non) in my hours not at work. So when Academia shows up in my inbox my excitement spikes, just for a moment, and I go on with my other work, which never seems to get done. And then, when I’m sure nobody else is looking, I go ahead and click on the link.