Tag Archives: academia

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.


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.


Revisionist History

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?


Original Research

“But are you able to continue your research?” they ask. Academics can be so hopelessly naive sometimes. I recently had a notice on academia.edu that I was in the 30-day top 5 percent of page views. So I’m feeling like the Bruce Springsteen of academics for a few seconds. Meanwhile institutions who look at my record wonder why I haven’t produced anything lately. It’s really quite simple. Take a 40-hour work week (a foreign environment to most academics), add a daily commute of 3 hours, and subtract access to an academic library. As the old computers in sci-fi movies used to say, “does not compute.” My research these days is limited to material that is actually able to keep me awake on the bus (thus excluding most academic monographs) and those that I can afford to buy on an editor’s salary. My research has slowed considerably, in other words, due to circumstances beyond my control.

thumb_IMG_2163_1024That’s why I’m sitting here perplexed. Despite it all, I have had a paper accepted for presentation at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting this year. My project is on the Bible in Sleepy Hollow (thus the recent spate of books on Washington Irving and his hometown). Still, I had to challenge the budget and purchase a couple of things. The cover of my book has me confused. Son of Man, it says. Inside, however, is the text I need—Small Screen Revelations. (If you wonder why, watch Sleepy Hollow, or, if possible, come hear my paper.) The reason for the mismatch between the cover and content of my book is the price. A tome from the appropriately named Sheffield Phoenix Press, even used the volume costs almost $100. It’s just 200 pages. I managed to find a copy misbound for the bargain price of half that. Only an academic would pay $50 for a defective book just to get at the content. Am I able to continue my research? Reach for your wallets and see.

A large part of my job is spending time on university faculty webpages. Many of those I find haven’t published nearly as much as I have, but have comfy, tenured positions. Often it is because they’re the right brand. Catholics like Catholics, Presbyterians like Presbyterians, Baptists like Baptists. State universities hate them all. And once in a while I pull my doctoral robe out of my closet, press it to my face, and weep. I don’t know what a blue collar kid might have been thinking. Earn a challenging doctorate in an obscure field overseas and hope for a modest teaching position somewhere in the land of the most abundant colleges in the world? My race and gender should’ve come to mind long before I got that far. In some ways, I too am a misbound book. Am I able to continue my research? You be the judge.

The PhD Supply and Demand Crisis

As a special treat, I am presenting a guest blog post by Sofia Rasmussen. This is an issue very relevant to readers of this blog. Enjoy!

The PhD Supply and Demand Crisis
By Sofia Rasmussen

It is traditionally believed that getting a higher education is the key to gaining successful employment. So it is not surprising that the number of students earning a doctorate degree, either through a traditional or online PhD program, is at an all-time high. However, with the economy struggling and job growth crawling, many job seekers with PhDs are having difficulty finding full time employment. The overabundance of doctorate holders has created a supply and demand crisis in the academic job market leaving highly trained PhD graduates looking for employment in other fields and often accepting lower wages. This crisis is effecting the university education system, PhDs and the economy as a whole as the nation’s brightest are unable to reach their fullest potential.

With the economic crash of 2008, the United States government was forced to make severe budget cuts to the university and education system. As a result, universities are unable to offer the same tenure track positions that were previously available to PhD holders. And although many doctorate students are being recruited for their research abilities, those abilities do not translate into full time positions once they earn their degree. Instead, tenure positions are being replaced by underpaid adjunct positions and recent PhD graduates are left struggling to find employment in the academic sector.

The supply and demand crisis for academic positions has had a profound effect on recent PhD graduates entering into the job market – there is a huge deficit in available jobs for PhDs. From 2008-2009, 100,000 new doctorate degrees were awarded while only 16,000 new professorships became available.

PhD graduates are left looking for employment in non-academic sectors. This is creating additional employment challenges for recent doctoral graduates since many non-academic positions do not require a PhD and many hiring managers are reluctant to hire overqualified candidates who would require higher salaries. This leaves many new PhD graduates in jobs unrelated to their academic expertise and making significantly less money than they would in an academic position. So what is being done to combat this employment tragedy?

Sadly, not enough is being done on the part of the American government and universities to quell the PhD job crisis. Free research in the form of graduate students motivates many universities to admit an increasing number of doctorate students every year. However, in response to the growing budget cuts to the university systems, many universities are cutting academic positions, leaving nowhere for PhD graduates to go for relevant employment. Between 2008 and 2011 there were 35% fewer assistant professorships offered in Sociology and 39% fewer assistant professorships offered in Political Science. In addition, for the 2011 fiscal year, funds for higher education where cut by $1.2 billion; and cuts are expected to reach $5 billion this year. With more budget cuts to universities and fewer endowments for students, the government is making little effort to expand academic positions and create more jobs for PhDs.

The PhD supply and demand crisis not only effects those who have earned a PhD, but it effects the university system and economy as a whole. As tenure track positions are being replaced by adjunct assignments, PhD graduates are forced to look elsewhere for employment. This drives the most talented PhDs away from the university system and leaves university instruction lacking.

This is a disservice to college students who are not getting the best education and entering in to the job market without having received the best training in their field. The economy is further affected as highly qualified people are unable to be adequately compensated for the skills, more graduates are unable to pay back student loans and less students are motivated to pursue a graduate education.

As the gap between the number of PhD holders and academic positions for PhD holders widens, more and more talented researches and scientists will continue to leave the academic sector in search of more lucrative careers. This leaves universities in need of talented professors and doctorates in need of relevant work. As the economy slowly recovers, more academic positions will become available but the mass discrepancy between academic positions and qualified candidates will only decrease significantly by increasing university funding and academic endowments for students.