Tag Archives: Higher Education

Academia Dot

The marketplace for ideas is just that. A place of commodity and exchange. We pay our professors good money (and our administrators even better) so that we can be given “goods.” The same is true of the publishing industry. Those of us who write books primarily (I think) think we are expressing ideas we have that we suppose are worthy of discussion. The book comes out. We await reviews. Citations. Exchange of ideas. Oh yes, and royalties. Only the naive think academic publishing will lead to much of the latter in the greater scheme of things. And so many of us turn to for-profit sites like Academia.edu to pedal our wares for free. After all, Academia is offering us a free service, isn’t it? (At least if you can ignore the constant sell-ups to find out who’s been reading your stuff.) But Academia isn’t non-profit. There’s money to be made here among gullible academics.

Oh, I have a page on Academia just like everybody else. Several of my papers, long out of the payout stage for their journals or parent books, are there for free. Academia frequently asks me if I’m sure I don’t want to upgrade—increase my visibility. Make them a bit of lucre on the side. So the other day I was flattered when I received an email about my dissertation from another vendor. I didn’t recognize the sender, but the content of the email made it clear they didn’t recognize me either. It was an offer to publish my original research done at the University of Edinburgh. Problem is, it’s already been published. Twice. Both editions beyond the purchasing power of mere mortals, but still, it’s out there. Academics, I expect, are some of the favorite targets of the entrepreneurial. We, after all, don’t speak that language. We trade in the currency of ideas. We’re easy marks.

I think Academia.edu is a great idea. Often it’s possible for those of us who are unaffiliated to find papers that journals insist on selling for fifteen bucks a pop—considering I can buy an entire book for that much, no thank you—for free. There may be hidden costs involved, but some days I do miss Robin Hood. No matter how many years I’ve been an editor, I can’t stop thinking like an academic. It comes with the territory. You can’t simply forget all that graduate school taught you. One thing most academics haven’t learned, however, is how to interpret the web. Long before our government allowed the freedom of the web to end, not all sites were free.

Knowing It All

Reading about the Trump administration underscores once again the traditional American contradiction of, love of, but mostly hatred toward, experts. When you’re lying on that operating table, you stake your life that an expert is going to perform the surgery. When you buy that airline ticket, you’re banking that the pilot will be an expert. If you’re electing the most powerful individual in the world, you’ll excoriate experts and defer to the guy with the weird hair that says whatever he pleases and has never been a public servant a day in his life. This observation isn’t original with me, of course. I’m only an editor. Nevertheless, the same dilemma comes down to my little world of academic publishing as well. Most academics don’t understand this business—I was an academic at one time and I certainly didn’t—and yet don’t like to bow to the expertise of those who do.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m making no grand claims to understanding this industry into which I unwittingly stumbled. I have been involved in it for over a decade now and I’m still learning. One of the things I’m learning is that many academics don’t trust experts. In part it’s academic culture. A doctoral program, if it’s a good one, will make you question everything. Sometimes even experts forget when to engage the brakes. When dealing with the experts at a publishing company, many academics doubt the expertise of those who do this day in and day out for a living. Books, however, have measurable sales records. There’s hard data for analysis. Not that it’s foolproof (but what is?), such metrics are time-tested and based on reasonable data sets. Often that’s not enough to convince an expert that other experts know more than they’re revealing. A personal philosophy, but one which I pursue with appropriate skepticism, is that other people should be left to do their jobs. As I frequently note, those who talk to the bus driver, freely giving advice, often make the situation worse for everyone.

The case of religion, however, is a special can of worms. There are no experts in this field, even among those of us who are experts. Had I realized this when I was younger, I’m not sure it would’ve made much of a difference in what I ended up doing with my life. You see, religion is all about ultimates. The big questions. The sine qua non of every single thing. When I read about things like politics, or entrepreneurship, I think to myself, “That’s all fine and good, but at the end of the day, is it what really matters?” If life is a search for meaning, why not grab it by both hands and try to become an expert at it? Some would say that’s the job of the philosopher, but let’s face it, religionists and philosophers deal in the same currency. One is more abstract than the other, to be sure. Still, don’t take my word for it. Please consult an expert.

Americanism

I’m a bit too much of a contrarian to be a regular bestseller reader. I do occasionally bow to curiosity though, and I do have a lot of time on the bus. But that wasn’t the reason I turned to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Purchasing this book was a statement. Another in a long line of protests in which I’ve taken part since January of 2017 (and even before). You see, I mourn. I mourn what our country has become. My first indication that I should write (which I of course ignored) was the winning of a statewide essay contest my senior year in high school. The topic of the essay was “Americanism.” My piece was respectfully cynical; I was surprised I won. This was in the days before personal computers and I didn’t think to keep a typed, or even hand-written copy.

The essay was cynical not because I don’t believe in America, but because I do. I’ve been confronted on this issue concerning my blog occasionally. My jeremiads. You see, you only get this fed up with things when you love them deeply. I sometimes rail about higher education, for example, because I care about it. Fire and Fury created in me a—to borrow from the book’s vocabulary—Kafkaesque bewilderment about how a nation based on high principles could possibly sink so low. Politicians are perhaps the most self-serving of human beings, but at least they try to make sure the country doesn’t go off the rails. This train leapt the tracks months ago, and our elected officials refuse to do anything about it, each playing their own angle, hoping personally to come out of it ahead. Worth a jeremiad, I’d say.

I was a Republican in high school. I wasn’t old enough to vote, so that party affliction was never official. When I did register at 18 it was as an independent (remember, contrarian). As a Fundamentalist I was ahead of the Tea Party, at the time. Even with this level of patriotism I wrote an essay taking my country to task. I was raised in a poor family. Told an education would improve my chances, I found myself facing predatory loan officers and others eager to wring my blue collar until it was possible to twist no further. If I had no money, my future money would do. I’d already had a taste of that as a high schooler. That was three-and-a-half decades ago now. I kinda hoped the country might improve in all that time. And I kinda wish I’d kept a copy of that essay as a memento of more optimistic days. Fire and Fury sells so well, I suspect, because I’m not really alone in feeling this way.

Always Have with You

The place wasn’t meant for a family of six. Properly speaking, it was a one-bedroom house, or hovel. The attic, from which we could see the sky through the roof, was divided into two rooms, with no doors. You had to pull down the stairs in order to climb up there and that trapdoor had to be kept closed in the daytime. The house was heated by a single, oversized gas stove that sat in the middle of the living room—no ducts, vents, or radiators here. The bathroom had only a sink and a toilet. No tub. No shower. The only window that opened was the kitchen window, and before we moved in my mother insisted that my step-father pull out the nails that held the vinyl blinds permanently closed over the windows that would never open. The only reason we weren’t called “white trash” is that we lived above the Mason-Dixon line.

Reading Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America was, therefore, a little bit uncomfortable. First of all, bullies who care only for the wealthy are nothing new in American politics. Second of all, it reminded me of how, when I was found without a job, no college or university wanted to hire a guy with no connections, despite the Ph.D. That’s business as usual in these United States. What I have realized is that in this nation of self-made individuals, those allowed to make it often start from a class higher than my own. I was a first generation college student, and once my step-father gave in to the pressure to put a proper bathtub in his house, I’d come home to find carp swimming in it. White trash and ivory towers clash, don’t you know.

The saddest part of this book is that nothing has changed. Four centuries on and we still treat the poor with contempt. We love rags to riches stories because they’re so rare. The vast majority of the poor have a very hard existence. Even though, according to government statistics, we were considered a poverty-level family, we had it better than many. True, there were too many cars in the driveway, all of them used—very used, and the house was bulldozed as unfit for habitation immediately after we moved out, but many have it far worse. This book opens some old wounds, but it should be required reading for all politicians. Not that it would make much of a difference, though. The suffering of the poor is just far too easy to ignore as long as there is money to be made off of anyone less fortunate than yourself. That’s the American way. It always has been.

Hey Jude

Reading Jude the Obscure was, at times, like reading my own biography. Authors strive for that effect, to be sure, but Thomas Hardy hits close to home on this one. I don’t mean in the aspect of marrying the wrong woman and losing his true love, but rather in the sense of what Jude was meant to and couldn’t be. For any readers behind on their Hardy, Jude Fawley was an orphan who grew up with scholarly abilities but no connections to university folk. Teaching himself Greek and buying what books he can afford, he eventually moves to Christminster (Hardy’s version of Oxford) in order to begin his studies at the university there. His application is summarily rejected because he is a working-class nobody who would be happier not overreaching himself. He then decides to try to become a parson only to find that path blocked to him as well.

Okay, so that’s a bit brief for a 400-page novel, but you get the gist of it. Hardy, according to the introduction, added the university theme later since the novel’s main focus is on the hypocrisy of the church regarding marriage. Both Jude and his true love (and cousin) Sue end up marrying other people who make them miserable. They each separate and then live together and raise children until tragedy causes Sue to have a religious conversion and return to her first husband. Jude dies in obscurity, as the title warns. Hardy was famous for his anti-church sentiments and Jude the Obscure was one of his most criticized works. The university theme, however, was the part I just couldn’t let go.

Being from the working class you may not have any idea how higher education functions. Even with raw talent and ambition, there are so few places available that you can easily find yourself in the rejected pile. Jude fatefully moves back to Christminster, hoping on some deep level that he’ll be accepted. That never happens although his fellow stone-cutters know that he is just as learned as the professors who regularly parade through town. The author didn’t intend to write cheerful stories. The friend who first suggested I read Hardy’s work knew about that tendency. The world is a place of comfort for some and struggle for others. Like Jude, those on the outside just can’t see what’s wrong with their own earnest application to be counted among the educated. Like any country club, however, the real point of it all is to learn how to game the system. Like taking a sad song and making it, well, better.

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.

Who Can You Call?

They’re scratching their heads. The media, I mean. In this distorted world of Trumpism, newspapers have rediscovered religion. Some say Trump is the altar boy of the evangelical right with people like Franklin Graham wetting himself over the president. Others say evangelicals want to change their name to distance themselves from Trump. Everybody seems to want to know who evangelicals are, but they’re afraid to ask. The weird, or perhaps expected, thing is universities decline to help. For years now they’ve been cutting positions in religion, a topic no longer relevant or of any interest. Academics aren’t always good at seeing what’s right in front of them, of course. So it is that the media’s scratching its collective head. Is he or isn’t he? What can you say about a man who’s so clearly heathen and yet a sparkling example of Christ-like compassion and values?

It’s doubtful whether any university administrator or televangelist could finger Jesus of Nazareth in a police line-up. They have no idea of who he was or what he taught. All that matters is he was God and he protects unborn babies so that he can arm them with automatic rifles when they’re of age. Oh, and he’s definitely not a woman. Or gay. Is that about it? Just in the past week major media outlets have run stories about the evangelical relationship to the commander-in-thief who’s told more lies in his first year than all other presidents combined. Who said Jesus of Nazareth was honest? He just stood for the right causes.

Having grown up evangelical, studied religion with evangelicals, and having been fired by evangelicals, I know them well. They have a mental capacity for biblicism that’s nearly incomprehensible. The Bible is so sacred that no other book should be placed atop it. It should never be set on the floor. Memorizing chapter and verse is more important than knowing what they might mean or how to live by them. This is old-school blind faith. And proudly so. Trump doesn’t know the Bible but he says he does. His actions resemble the carpenter from Nazareth’s about as much as Joseph Stalin’s. He was a good Christian, too, wasn’t he? After all, the Bible says Russia is our ally. Reagan—another evangelical—may’ve said they were our worst enemy, but one thing we know for sure about the Good Book: it never lies. For that it takes evangelicals and politicians.