I never met Jonathan Z. Smith, although he was hard to miss at conferences. By the time I was a doctoral student his writings were deemed essential reading in several areas of religious studies. Smith, like a few renegade scholars, had doctoral training in one area but went on to teach himself far more diverse subjects, earning him rare accolades as someone who understood a vast amount about religion. That’s something you can do if you have a university willing to back you up. The usual formula for academic success (degrees from Ivy League schools, one of which must be Harvard, dissertation published by Oxford University Press, and letters of recommendation from one or two key players) encourages extreme specialization. Siloed thinking. Only when you’ve found a school that believes in you can you branch out like Smith did. Like most people in my field, I’ve read his stuff.
Scholars can be remarkably naive about how “the system” works. Most, for instance, don’t know that Academia.edu is a for-profit website. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; most of my old papers are available on Academia. The thing is, publishers may not want you to post your research there. You see, academics often believe the results of their research should be free. Thing is, someone has to pay for publishing it. It’s not cheap to publish books or journals. Undercutting a publisher may seem like fun, but then the book prices go up and everybody’s mad. These things are interconnected. Jonathan Z. Smith would’ve understood that.
For reasons poorly comprehended, some academics get publishers’ eyes and they want to build this person up. It may be—more than likely is—that an early book sold well. Nothing says academic veracity like lucre. The more books printed with one’s name on them, the better known said scholar becomes. Some even make it to the level of public intellectuals. It’s not a journey over which an individual has much control. Quite often it’s the support structures offered—steady, tenure-track job, ready acceptance at prestige presses, media exposure. Smith, like my doctoral advisor John C. L. Gibson, never used a computer. Try to get a university post today with that stance. I dare you. He set his own terms. In a world where being an academic means knowing an awful lot about a very little, the shadow of those who’ve earned the right to say a lot about a lot lies long on the ground. But it’s a good idea to ask your publisher before you decide to post things on Academia. Be informed about this little bit.
As a recovering academic, I sometimes am compelled to look when Academia.edu 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.
I recently came across a website with academic papers available on it. Although the internet has yet to achieve its promise as a locus of solid academic material, such sites are becoming more common. I’ve been uploading my own papers onto Academia.edu since they seem to be old enough not to impact anyone’s sales aspirations. In any case, this particular website I found noted that a paper had been updated at such-and-such a time, and that anyone who had downloaded the previous version should delete it and use the new one instead. This is a dilemma. I know of publishers who make corrections without issuing new editions. When I buy a book, what it actually says will depend on the printing rather than on the edition. I wonder if such retractions are really fair. How does one know when she’s reading something outdated?
Picture this: a young kid, perhaps an unknowing fundamentalist, reading his Bible. Then he gets a newer copy of the same translation. But soon he notices that there are differences. Although the example may sound overly Talmudic, it is factual. Bibles, being printed in large quantities, are especially susceptible to error. When did the printed word become something that’s negotiable? I’ve been pondering clay tablets and their apparent immutability. Contrary to popular belief, most clay tablets weren’t fired—it was a lot of effort for something that had limited value. Some tablets show signs of erasure or additional words being added. In the case of clay, this is often very clear. Besides, the readers were few and specialists. They knew what they had. But for a modern person staking the salvation of her soul on a document, is it not problematic to change a jot or tittle (of which not the least shall pass away)? Has technology made us immune to fixed texts?
Back to the website I found. What if I downloaded the faulty paper and wrote my own paper based on it? How would I know to go back and check to see if a new version had been uploaded? Am I to spend all my time revisiting web pages to see what has changed? Knowledge itself seems now to have become whimsical. What is true depends on the date and time you accessed it. Perhaps I’m just a dreamer, but there was a time, it seems to me, before post-modernism, when you might purchase a book and be fairly certain of what you had. Errata sheets (or the more fancy addenda et corrigenda) didn’t intrude into the typeset page. You could still read correctly, assured that someone had spotted and acknowledged the mistake. We have, I fear, outlived the need for sic. And it is only a small step from siclessness to truth that changes second by second. Is this the siclessness unto death?