On Publishing

I fear I may be transitioning.  I may actually be becoming someone who knows something about publishing.  Reading about the merger between Cengage and McGraw Hill actually seemed interesting.  What’s happening to me?  Actually, the largest impact has been the realization that scholars need to become more aware of the world around them.  As a doctoral student I was taught to find an unexplored subject and write obscurely on it.  Then, when it’s time to publish, to say to the editor that general readers will understand and find it compelling.  It took some time, however, even though I frequented Waterstones and Blackwells, to realize that the books they housed were not the kinds of books I’d been taught to write.  Back in America, where the brands were Borders and Barnes and Nobel, the same thing applied.  People want books they can understand.

Two articles that caught my attention recently addressed the plight of the academic monograph.  One was “Worried About the Future of the Monograph? So Are Publishers” from the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The other was “Making Monographs Open” from Inside Higher Ed.  Both share some common themes: scholars write books so obscure that even academic libraries won’t buy them and since it’s “publish or perish” it becomes the publisher’s problem.  Listen, I understand that mentality.  Isolated in the woods of Wisconsin with the wind howling through the trees, writing about weather in the Psalms seemed perfectly natural.  Forgetting that the average reader doesn’t know Hebrew, I assumed everyone would find my disquisition irresistible.  Even back in the early 2000s publishers disagreed.  Life is so interesting!  There are so many minutiae to explore!  If you haven’t had the pleasure of following in the tracks of a thought that won’t let you go, you’ve never been really seduced.  But then, somebody’s got to pay for all this.

Scholars are reluctant to acknowledge that publishing is a business.  Indeed, higher education is now a business as well.  Everything’s a business.  To stay solvent publishers have to sell enough books to cover the cost of making them.  As these articles point out, that cost isn’t negligible.  The scholar who explores the publishing industry (as rare as that may be) will discover plenty of resources to help rethink academic writing.  Even without reading the industry rags, just paying attention when you’re in your neighborhood bookstore can be an eye-opening experience.  I was looking for a book (hardly even academic) last time I was in Ithaca, New York.  If any town is likely to have such books on the shelf, it’s Ithaca.  I had to ask and leave empty-handed.  There are lots of books out there, colleagues!  And if you want to get yours published, it pays to do a little research.  Your time will not be wasted.  And I fear I’m becoming someone who knows a little about such things.

Qaulity Education

Perhaps it’s from having a stubbornly blue collar, but snobbery has never appealed to me.  While in seminary at Boston University, I applied for a transfer to Harvard Divinity School.  In spite of being accepted, I stayed at my alma mater and paid the consequences.  There’s a strange loyalty among the working class, you see.  And now I’m finally seeing my former mistress, academia, taking a turn toward the lowly but worthy.  The title of a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education says it all: “As Scholars Are Driven to Less Prestigious Journals, New Measures of Quality Emerge.  Hmm, why might that be?  The industry mantra, “publish or perish” has grown more aggressive over the years and the number of publishers has decreased.  Your academic net worth, it seems, can no longer be based on how elite you are.

People are funny that way.  We’re very impressed by those paraded before us as successes—as if some kind of magic clings to those who are where we wish we were.  In academia where you went to school matters more than what you’ve proven yourself capable of.  If you attended the “best” schools your work will be accepted by the “best” journals and publishers.  What rarified company you’ll keep!  For the rest of us, well, we have the numbers.  And blue collars aren’t afraid of hard work.  Let the academic aristocracy enjoy its laurels.  Laurels are poisonous, however, for those with an eye open for parables.

Primates, according to those who know them best, can see through pretense.  I often wonder if our political chaos isn’t based on this simple fact of biology.  As a priest I knew once told me, “We put our pants on one leg at a time too.”  This didn’t prevent many postulants I knew from anticipating the day when they would be ontologically transformed.  Priesting, I was informed, would make them better than the laity.  Closer to God.  Here it was, even among the clergy—the desire for prestige.  Chimpanzees will take down an alpha who abuses his power.  Nature has a set of balances.  Tampering with them leads to, well, scholars being driven to less prestigious journals and the like.  The net result, as the Chronicle suggests (if read one way), is that the last shall be first and the first last.  Probably it’s the result of reading too much Bible in my formative years, but I’ve always appreciated parables.

Dog in a Manger

I’m easily amused. I suppose I never outgrew that sophomoric fascination with the little things that seem like big jokes. The other day, for instance, I was given a copy of the Chronicle of Higher Education to read. The supplement featured Great Colleges to Work For; what are we supposed to do with that? None of them have jobs, so why advertise? It’s so funny when those who have a great thing going advertise it, even though there’s nothing to it beyond bragging rights. Those of us who’ve tried repeatedly to get into higher education (and I even succeeded for nearly two decades, in some measure) would love to take a job at even the worst college to work for, but they’re not hiring either. Nobody is. So why does the Chronicle want to remind us that the fruit will always be just out of reach, and that the water will be just too low to sip—even if we’re bathing in it?

IMG_2417

The frustration that settles in when the laughter dies off is because everyone I know agrees that I should be teaching. Colleagues, tenured and not, former students, friends. “Why aren’t you a professor?” they say. Many of my best friends are. Full professors. Sabbaticals. Grants. Time that’s not spent on the bus or in the office. Perks of every sort. Ask them. Or ask the Chronicle. I can’t reach the grapes, but they’re probably sour anyway. I mean, I can’t help it that I spend hours on faculty webpages and see those who made the cut not writing the books I have like jets in a holding pattern over Newark. How can the get written when time is he one thing I haven’t got? (Oh, and money too, but you don’t need so much of that to write.) Any one of those Great Colleges to Work For appear on the advertisement pages? Anyone hiring a warmed over religion professor who reads a hundred books a year? Nah!

Just joshin’ ya. I poke fun at higher education like you can only tease a lover. I’m into exercises of nihilism as much as the next prof. Didn’t old Ecclesiastes say it centuries ago: learning is a zero-sum game? So the academic vehicle that doesn’t boost the number of jobs offered will continue to tell us where we should work, if there were any jobs. Perhaps professors of privilege demand more than I think. Just give me a classroom and a syllabus to teach her by. I’ve done so in very primitive conditions at a college that make no marks on the “Best of” scale. Real world experience, however, doesn’t count. We’re only telling you what you can’t have anyway. Isn’t that better than where you work now?

Geneva Conventions

As an alumnus of Grove City College, I generally don’t have the chance to consider other colleges as unreasonably conservative. College taught me, after all, that education involves thinking things through, and that, of all things, doctrine is one of the many human constructs that wilts under close examination. Both religious and political doctrine fall under this rubric. So when an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education fingered Grove City’s near neighbor, Geneva College, I was both relieved and not really surprised. Grove City was strict, but Geneva, located down the road in Beaver Falls, was even more Reformed. Tales at the Grove said that even off-campus dancing was an infringement of the student code there, and that even a legal sip of beer with dinner, off campus, could get you expelled. You know how students talk. In any case, both cut from Presbyterian fabric, Grove City and Geneva Colleges hold out against the world and its multiple evils. So why did humble Geneva merit notice in the exalted Chronicle?

Geneva College recently sued for exemption of the contraception-coverage mandate of the Affordable Care Act. You see, in many conservative religious traditions pre-marital sex is not only from the Devil, it practically never happens among true Christians. If it doesn’t happen, why should you be forced to pay for its treatment? Denial runs profoundly through these conservative colleges. While at Grove City, in a first-floor dorm room, my roomie and I were awakened one night by a group of pretty obviously drunken frat boys from the third floor. Cursing loudly, one of them rammed his fist through our window, showering the floor with glass before stomping loudly up the stairs. When I went to the housing office the next morning, they wondered about my story. Students at Grove City, drunk? It simply did not happen. In all likelihood, I’d broken the window and made up the story so I wouldn’t have to pay. I pointed out that campus security had noted the glass was inside the room and my roommate and I were both there at the time. Reluctantly, while still withholding judgment about the drunken part, I was believed.

Conservative Christian colleges often face the specter of reality. College kids were killed driving drunk. Girls, gasp!, did get pregnant and did not always decide to keep the baby. Real world issues declared anathema by a magisterium with its hands firmly over its eyes. No matter one’s view of morality, singling women out for punishment of sexual sins is just plain unfair. The issue here is health care, not the consequences of a decision made in the heat of passion. How often the anonymous male gets to scamper off, his health fully covered. The co-ed, however, is treated like Eve holding a newly bitten apple. Students attend Christian colleges for a wide variety of reasons, and the education, apart from the theology, can actually be excellent. It is the ethical obligation of the schools to cover all the human needs of emerging adults, not just those based on a morality still mired in the Middle Ages.

Time for a Reformation?  Photo credit: Roland Zumbühl, Wikimedia Commons

Time for a Reformation? Photo credit: Roland Zumbühl, Wikimedia Commons

With My Luck

I wish I didn’t believe in luck. I guess I’m just not lucky that way. And I’m not alone. Of all the “superstitions” that haunt the human psyche, luck is among the most pervasive. We either have windfalls that make our lives easy, or, like many of us, a series of unfortunate events against which we constantly have to struggle. We call it luck. But is it real? William Ian Miller wrote an intriguing piece called “May You Have My Luck” for a recent Chronicle of Higher Education Review. There’s nothing as mysterious to me as the hapless professor. I mean, they have it all, right? Educated at fine schools, cushy jobs that pay reasonably well, interviews on documentaries, jobs that among the rarest on earth? Who wouldn’t want that kind of luck? (I am also a believer in myth, so that also must be taken into account.) The reason I raise luck here, however, is that Miller’s article again and again returns to religion. I don’t think it’s intentional. It’s just unavoidable. Luck, no matter how we define it, goes back in some way to the favor of the gods.

We all know people that we think of as lucky. Success seems to follow on success for them. They are at the right place just at the right moment, and their lives seem to be easy and not so full of stress as those of the rest of us. Most people, as Miller observes, have middling luck. Things go our way sometimes, and then they don’t go our way at others. My fascination, however, lies with those on the other end of the spectrum. There are those who seem to get very few breaks. They may do all the right things, follow all the wisest advice, work harder than anyone else, and still end up on the bad end of luck’s roulette. Ironically, they may be religious people to boot. Their deity, according to their sacred traditions, is the most powerful entity in the universe. And yet things don’t go their way. We call it luck. Is it more powerful than the divine?

This question, or more properly, conundrum, lies behind any concept of luck. Shifting to the paradigm with which I’m most familiar, does God direct luck or does luck exist independently of God? Does luck even exist at all? Is it just the name we give to a series of random happenings in retrospect and which have no inherent meaning? Ah, that seems to be the very point! Meaning. What do these things that happen to us mean? Whether or not we believe that life has any meaning, our minds are biologically programmed to seek it out. Very few of us are content to find only food, shelter, and air to breathe. We want something more out of life. We may not be able to name it, but whatever it is, we could conceivably call it meaning. We are looking for a purpose to our mere existence, even if we don’t believe in it. Gods or no gods, we are left trying to discern what they require of us. And whether we find it or not, it seems, is purely a matter of luck.

Photo credit: Joe Papp, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Joe Papp, Wikipedia Commons

Catholic Nones

In a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, an article pondered the future of Catholic universites in an age of nones—those who don’t affiliate with any religious tradition. As with so much in life, the evidence countermands expectations. Enrollment is stable and even non-Catholics are attending. Part of this, no doubt, is because a greater number of high school students are being channeled into college, but there seems to be more to it than that. Those interviewed suggest that it is often that students, nones included, favor an education with a moral grounding. Materialism doesn’t give one much to go on besides human convention. Even if students don’t accept Catholicism, there’s no doubt that the Catholic Church presents itself in a way that admits little doubt over what’s right or wrong. Even if you choose not to observe the strictures, there’s a comfort in know they’re there.

One of the schools foregrounded in the article is Marquette University in Milwaukee. While at Nashotah House I came to know some members of the Theology Department there, and I visited the campus numerous times. One of the interlocutors in the article is a physics professor who, admitting concerns at first, has found Marquette—a Jesuit university—remarkably open to science. The days of Galileo are over. Even Catholics know science is science. Indeed, the Vatican itself employs scientists and a Catholic priest was the first person to formally postulate the Big Bang. As someone who has applied to many Catholic universities over the years, and who has had a fair number of interviews, my sense is that the close-mindedness comes with theology, not science.

IMG_0990

Especially in the days of retrenchment under John Paul II, control over hiring for religion (“theology”) faculty at Catholic schools underwent renewed scrutiny. I was informed that I was not selected for positions because I was not Catholic. You could, however, be a none physicist and land a job. This discrepancy of knowledge has led me to fine tune the Chronicle’s question a bit. The Catholic Church is well funded. Its universities would only be in danger from radical drops in student numbers. This favors the hiring of mainstream professors in every discipline. Except religion. It is as if this small presence on a large campus, such as Notre Dame, could hold out against the humanist knowledge emanating from every other department. A candle, as it were, in the hurricane. And that candle, amid all the nones, must accept official doctrine. At least on paper. And all will be well.

Campus Crusade

The Chronicle of Higher Education also chronicles the trials and travails of religion in academia. A recent edition of CHE reported on how California State University withdrew official recognition of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship because its leadership is, by definition and constitution, Christian. The organization contested the decision, and, in this thorny situation, I think, rightly. The disestablishment clause cuts both ways. Government can’t establish a religion, but it can’t prevent one either. InterVarsity, although not exactly to my taste, has been a fixture on campuses for decades. It offers alternatives to pong and related forms of diversion without being pushy about faith. Indeed, it does not insist that participants be Christian, and, in my experience, doesn’t try to convert them. It offers a service that is useful for undergrads and has every right to be on campus, as much as the young republicans do. Can an organization be banned for having Christian leadership? How much can we disestablish before we become oppressors?

I recently had a conversation with a college humanist chaplain. There aren’t many of these, but they are beginning to appear on campuses, offering the services traditionally given by religious organizations. Many people don’t know what to make of this. Not all rationalists, humanists, agnostics, and atheists are enemies of spirituality. We can be both spiritual and human. Some would argue that we have no choice in the matter but to be. Some express it as Christianity. Others as a non-doctrinal recognition that being human means wanting to affirm unions and weep at funerals. Maybe it is more than just chemico-electrical signals across gray matter after all. Colleges and universities should be places to explore. Like it or not, without the influence of the church, and before that the synagogue, the concept of higher education likely would never have developed at all.

How much of the baby do we throw out with the bathwater? Evangelicals cost me my first real job. I had, however, grown up among them. Although not in InterVarsity, I did participate in Christian groups in college. I don’t think it damaged my education. How can a person learn to compare when one of the options is displaced? Will Newman House be permitted to stay? Even government officials can’t agree on exactly what it means to have a religion-free government in a religious, if post-Christian, nation. Why antagonize an organization that is only trying to offer a service? Every time I pull up to a gas pump chances are pretty good that I disagree at a pretty visceral level with the ideology behind the company supplying me my fuel. And yet, here I am, running on empty. Ideologies and services, it seems to me, are very different things. Those that don’t cause harm should be the least of our concerns.

IMG_0066