Tag Archives: academia

Taking Turns

“Turn! Turn! Turn,” the Byrds sang.  “For everything there is a season,” quoth Solomon.  Perhaps it’s the way we acquire knowledge, but lately many fields in academia are experiencing “turns.”  The idea seems to be that if fields continue to turn, they will eventually all converge on the same intersection and true knowledge will be obtained.  The post-modern turn, however, suggests that there is no objective knowledge.  It kind of makes me dizzy, all this turning.  Although I find the use of this particular noun in such phrases a touch unsophisticated, it’s here to stay.  At least until academia takes another turn.  Public intellectuals, after all, have to have something to say.  And academics are capital imitators.

Ironically, within the same week I read of the “religious turn” in the humanities and a different turn within religious studies.  This “religious turn” is not to suggest the humanities have found that old time religion, but rather that many disciplines are now realizing that religion has played, and continues to play, a very important role in human affairs.  Fields that have traditionally avoided religious topics are now “turning” that way.  At the same time that others are turning toward religion, religious studies is taking a “material turn.”  The public intellectuals smile at the maze they’ve created as the paychecks roll in.  The “material turn,” if I understand correctly, is that the ideas of religion can be explained via the real world needs that various religions meet.  There’s no need for any divine character or intervention.  There is no sacred or profane, but rather kinetic movement of shifting patterns that at any one time or place might be denominated as religions.

I’m all for progress, but I think I might’ve missed the turn.  To my old school way of thinking, sacred and profane, Eliadian though they may be, still have great explanatory value.  I don’t know if there’s objective knowledge to be found by fallen mortals such as we.  The material world we experience through our senses is mediated by those very senses so our understanding is, of necessity, limited.  We can’t touch naked reality even if we try.  Our quest, in circumstances such as these, would seem to be digging deeper until we come to that which resists any tunneling.  It’s like coming to the end of the physical universe and wondering what’s beyond this natural limit.  Then, I suppose, you’d have to turn.  Until such time as that, however, all of this present day turning is for the Byrds.

Unnatural Connections

The last time we moved internet service was just becoming an issue.  When we first came to our Somerville apartment we had dial-up.  Do you believe it?  Shortly after that FIOS came to town and we decided to give it a try, but at a fairly low speed.  We’ve always tried to be responsible with money and I naturally balk at paying for something as intangible and amorphous as “internet connectivity.”  I guess I’m a naive realist after all.  In any case, one of the top priorities in moving to our new place was getting internet set up.  Even before electricity or gas or water.  It has become THE utility.  The place to pay the bills for all the other utilities.  And since I’m now telecommuting, the umbilical cord that connects me to work.

I don’t mean to sound all grandpa-ish on you, but just twelve years ago we struggled for any connection at all.  We had one computer (and one work laptop) and only the desktop had internet access.  Many of the arcane pieces of hardware found in the attic were from attempts to get us onto the net more efficiently.  We even had to draw up a contract for who could use the computer and for how long since all of us wanted that magic window onto the virtual world.  Now, like most households, we have wifi and high speed access.  When we’re not at the computer, we have our smart phones at hand.  The strangest thing about all of this is that now that we’ve got constant connection, our nation has become as polarized as it has ever been.  Perhaps we see a little too much of each other?  Or too little?

The web has connected us to those we like.  Walking down the street it’s rare to find someone not staring at their phone, ignoring all living beings around him or her.  We’ve been able to filter out those we don’t like.  Those who have different points of view.  The net shows us that we aren’t alone, and even those with extreme views can find plenty of compatriots in cyberspace.  There’s a reason we used to be told not to discuss religion or politics.  Now we know everybody else’s business.

There was a time when moving meant going to where the jobs are.  Especially in academia.  Colleges and universities exist in set locations.  In space-time.  Telecommuting isn’t an option (although even that’s happening in some cases now).  Moving these days means weighing your internet access options.  Satellite is just too slow and unreliable.  Who would’ve imagined, for those of us born just after Sputnik went up, that now even space-based connections just aren’t advanced enough?  Cyberspace has become more infinite than outer space.  And I still prefer pencil and paper.

Not Enceladus

I’m moving.  It turns out that transport companies don’t offer service to Enceladus, and inter-planetary moves are expensive, so we’re moving just one state over.  If, by chance, you know me from work you need not worry—my job will remain the same but the commute will become tele.  Over the past several weeks my wife and I have been sorting through the accumulated effects of thirty years of married life.  Our current apartment has an attic.  Uninsulated, there are few days when it’s not too hot or too cold to stand to be up there for very long—kind of like other planets, come to think of it.  Also neighbors don’t appreciate creaking floorboards over their heads the hours I’m awake.  Going through things that were hurriedly packed to get out of Nashotah House was quite poignant.  That’s the way fragments of past lives are, I guess.  You see, that was an unexpected move.  Life has a way of being complicated.

One of the more remarkable discoveries was how much we used to put on paper.  As a scholar of ancient documents, I have an inherent distrust of electronic media.  To be written means to appear on a permanent—as much as material things can be permanent—medium.  Back in my teaching days assignments were handed in on paper.  Grading was done on paper.  Teaching evaluations were distributed on paper.  Academic publications were done on paper.  In order to be a professor you needed a house.  I taught at five different schools over a span of nearly two decades.  There was a lot of paper to go through.

The academic mindset is seasonal.  I kept waiting for summer to come to have time to sort through everything.  Outside academia, I’m still learning, summer is just another series of work days.  Yes, you can cash in vacation time, but you’ll not have that entirely sensible canicule hiatus that allows you to examine what you’ve accumulated and determine if you’ll ever need it again.  It was like archaeology in the attic.  When volunteering at Tel Dor in the summer of 1987—summers were like that, as I said—I learned that by far the majority of pottery found at digs is discarded.  There are literally tons of it thrown away.  You can’t keep it all.  So the attic was a kind of triage of memories.  Not all of this was going to fit in the new house.  Decisions had to be made.  I guess I was thinking that if a company could take us to Enceladus they’d have figured out how to transport everything.  It turns out that to escape earth’s gravity, you have to get your ship as light as possible.  With over half a century of memories, however, there’s bound to be some weight to be left behind.

Setting Terms

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.

Editing Sheep

Many academics I know dismiss editors as just another species of laity put on earth to serve the guild. There’s perhaps some truth to that. Without people to write books—and few beyond the professorate are granted the time and leisure to do so—we’d be without a job. One of the more hidden aspects of being an editor is, however, its prophylactic role. One thing that those of us who’ve written books know is that we get pretty close to our subject. We have to. Writing a book while viewing your topic from a distance is possible, but not desirable. Being too close to your subject, however, often leads to extreme myopia. Many are those who are quick to dismiss editorial suggestions wonder later why their books didn’t do better. Think about it. Editors, by definition, read all the latest stuff.

We’re kind of like shepherds, my fellow editors and me. We try to keep the ideas in order. We’re not the owners—the authors are—but without an able shepherd you soon find yourself lacking the sheep that make you wealthy. The benefit of an editor is having dispassionate eyes—often knowing eyes—viewing a nascent book without the love of a parent. Don’t get me wrong—we often have great fondness for those books we didn’t write. We can tell the author something s/he is too attached to the text to notice. We can help the writer avoid mistakes. Not that we’re perfect, but we are critical because we’re rooting for you. Facilitators.

It used to be common for editors to be authors. With the growing atomization of specialization, however, this is fairly rare these days. As a colleague of mine once put it, editors are more like deans than faculty. We look at book budgets and statistics. We face the harsh realities. And some of us were once faculty. I receive dismissive notes now and again, supposing that I’m an English major who made it good. Unlike many editors, however, I write. I’ve sat on both sides of this desk and when I offer advice it’s for your own good. Academics and publishers need each other. For one, without books there’s no promotion. Without books, for the other, there’s no paycheck. Like any shepherd, however, we know that the sheep are the important assets. We shepherd ideas into books. But you have to trust the shepherd to do the job.

Identity Crisis

It’s starting to feel like Groundhog Day. The movie, I mean. As a child I was taught never to talk to strangers, but that’s a little hard to maintain in New York City. You’re never really alone there. Standing in line for the bus, I read. The Port Authority Bus Terminal is a crowded place around rush hour and I try to spin my literary cocoon so that I can get some reading done and so that I can have a little alone time. Introverts are like that. When the guy standing in front of me is confused, however, I like to help. There are three different bus lines that get mixed at my gate, and since I do this nearly every day I usually have a pretty good idea where to stand. I pointed this young fellow in the right direction. “Thanks,” he said. After a pause he asked, “are you a teacher?” I get this a lot, actually. By everyone but deans and search committees.

The writing on the wall.

The writing on the wall.

I was out for a walk in a city I’d only been to once before. Some guys were setting up for an outdoor function (the city was in the south). I was actually using my phone for geocaching, so I wasn’t paying too much attention to what was going on around me. One of the guys stopped me and said, “Excuse me—are you a professor?” Some might accuse me of cultivating the look—glasses, beard, slightly puzzled expression most of the time—but the reality is the look is simply who I am. There are those who are professors because they want to be. There are those of us who should be because we can’t help it. I read as if books were food. When somebody asks what the weather’s like, I’m wondering if this world is reality at all. Thing is, academics too are busy finding jobs for their friends to care.

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” he went on. “I mean, I’m a complete stranger.” Actually he’s not. He’s a student. I don’t know him. I’ve never had him in class, but he needed some information I had readily available. I shared it with him. No, the fact is I’m not a professor. Professors are paid (much better than editors) for dispensing what I’m glad to give away for free. A teacher, you see, teaches. The best teachers I ever had were those who continued the lifestyle outside the classroom. They were never arrogant or privileged. They simply shared. Every day, in this situation, begins to look like the one before.

Yopp

My fellow academics, lend me your ear. Two or three friends have sent me articles this past week, featuring academics speaking out against the businessification of academia. I’ve been railing about this for years, and I am encouraged by my fellow academics who are looking up from their research long enough to realize they live in a crumbling, if ivory, tower. Too long and too often academics have taken the road of least resistance. Jobs may be rare, but hey, I’ve got one, so who’s to complain? It is tres chic not to believe in anything these days, but I am now, and have always been, a believer in education. And education is not something that can be bought or sold. Higher education is not a business, and if society insists on replacing university presidents with CEOs, then it is time for those of us who believe in education to unite and form our own forums to educate. It won’t pay as well. You might have to skip an academic conference or two, but if we really believe, we can make a difference.

I’m not finger-pointing here. I know that when I had an academic post, such as it was, I wasn’t particularly motivated to suggest that a new model was needed. But now that adjuncts and those of us who are underemployed Ph.D.s outnumber our tenured brethren and sistren, it is time for us to begin talking about alternatives. Once a university becomes a money-making machine there’s no turning back. Too many people love money too much for there to be enough integrity for a president to say, “No, I don’t need a raise. Hire more faculty instead.” Those academics who believe it will happen need to get out more. Although the most educated people in a given society, academics can also be among its most naive. If you can’t join them, beat them. (Metaphorically, of course.)

My education, in many ways, began with Dr. Seuss. We couldn’t afford the books, growing up, but we had television—especially the poor have television. I remember watching, anxious with encouragement, as JoJo sets aside his yo-yo to lend his voice to a cause. His lone “Yopp” saves an entire world. My fellow academics, those with ears like Horton are rare. His species of elephant (let those with ears to hear, hear) may be extinct. I am suggesting right here, right now, that we get together and start working on a solution. This is my Yopp. I shall not, however, be surprised if my inbox fails to light up. The temperature, I know, is already rising. And Whoville, as always, will make itself available for purchase to the highest bidder. I believe it can be different.

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