Drowning in Words

One of the features of this blog, which as inclined more lately toward books of all sorts rather than simply religion, is that I only write one post per book read.  There’s no law that says this should (or must) be the case, but I’ve held myself to that standard for about a decade now, and if I have trouble recalling a book this blog is generally a kickstarter for my memory before hauling myself off to the attic to find the physical copy—long live print!—to do a bit more detailed work.  This method sometimes leads to crises of my own making.  Long books take some time to get through.  And despite the action-packed picture you get of my life from this web log, many long weeks are spent doing work and I can’t really share the details here.  And so it goes.

Like many people I read multiple books at a time.  Although I have a kind of general plan, the actual books being read at any one time often depend on my ability to lay my hands on a copy.  And since I’m in the final stages of Nightmares with the Bible, I tend to prioritize books I really should read in whole for that tome.  I also read (and write) fiction.  Normally I reserve my fiction for bedtime reading; it’s more pleasant to prepare for sleep with an engaging story that I know isn’t factual enough to haunt me.  Sometimes the fiction is a long book too.  Two lengthy books going simultaneously feels like trying to pass a truck going uphill.  Or swimming underwater.  The insistence of the necessity of taking a breath (writing a blog post on a book) strains against me as I look up and see the surface still some distance away.  Drowning in words, however, isn’t that bad.

As I confessed to a friend the other day, I am a graphomaniac.  I write incessantly.  To do that it helps to read incessantly.  At any one time I’ve got several books going, and I’ll let you know when I reach the end of any of them.  This is, I suppose, the bookish life.  Ironically I read more now than when I was a professor.  Those days were filled with lesson prep, teaching, and reading student papers.  Grading tests.  Fulfilling administrative duties.  On the days when I feel like lamenting my lack of time (and those are most days) I need to remind myself that a great deal more of my effort is now spent with books than it used to be.  You’ll have to trust me on that since I don’t always get to write about reading until the long books are done.  And that’s okay by me.

Self-Convinced

Like many people, I suppose that my own views are right.  All people think this, I suspect, otherwise they’d change their point of view.  Unless they’ve been brainwashed, of course.  Religion has a way of convincing people that they alone are right.  (And perhaps also those who believe just like them.)  I have plenty of experience with this.  Seemingly normal, friendly people suddenly turn on you when you’re not there to defend yourself.  All in the name of religion.  The place, unfortunately, that it’s most found is in “conservative” religions.  With preachers braying about righteousness and being washed in the blood of the lamb the human element is often sacrificed.  Anyone who dares to think differently is going to Hell, and, in most of these traditions, you wish them godspeed.  Then there are those who wish for true dialogue.

Dialogue means, however, that you have to admit you may be wrong.  That’s one of the features the self-convinced fear most.  Ironically, even those who think they’re right can admit that they could be wrong.  Otherwise what’s the point of discussing anything at all?  As Tom Nichols points out in The Death of Expertise, many are offended that someone has greater knowledge of any area than they.  Like it or not, some of us have studied religion, the Bible, and spirituality for our entire lives.  You might not agree with everything such a person says—we often disagree among ourselves—but at least one might admit that a mere Ph.D. counts for something.  Even if on the stock market it simply won’t trade.

Ironically, as a young man I too was self-convinced.  For some reason that I can’t fathom, I decided that if my beliefs were solid they would stand up to the challenge of higher education.  As an undergrad I majored in religion at a conservative college and graduated summa cum laude.  I chose a liberal seminary to challenge further what I believed and came away magna cum laude.  Then the doctorate.  (Edinburgh didn’t offer such trifles as honors; if you made it through the program you should be so thankful.)  Tolerance became a massive part of my outlook, even as I ended up on the faculty of a very conservative seminary.  I was willing to listen, but the same could not be said for those who saw things differently.  Many of whom were far less educated, I say with all due self-abasement, than yours truly, in such things.  As time goes on I can’t help but reflect on this.  Even as I do I know others are completely convinced I’m wrong.

Seeing the Future

Nine.  That’s the number of people before me in line.  It’s not yet 4:30 a.m., and our day began at least an hour ago, but work won’t start for another two.  As the bus pulls up to the stop, I think about work.  Well, like most people I think about work a lot.  You see, I’m often asked about how to get into the publishing business.  There’s a cosmic irony to this because I had never planned to be an editor and never undertook any of the usual training.  The anticipated trajectory of a doctorate in the humanities used to be teaching, which is what I did for many years, but when an educational career slips off the rails in a capitalistic society you have to be willing to learn real fast.  (Fortunately the long years of schooling do help with that.)

I’m sure that I’m not the only person whose career plans didn’t pan out as anticipated.  Back in seminary one night long ago, three friends and I had a “future dinner.”  We prepared a supper and each came as who we would be twenty years down the road.  I recall that I was a world-traveling professor and the author of several books.  “Come on,” my friends complained, “be realistic!”  It’s a bit beyond those two decades now, and I was a professor for many of them.  I have written several books, although so far only three have been published.  World-travel?  Well, that’s been a bit modest in recent years, I have to admit.  One of the other friends I’ve lost track of.  Another committed suicide after graduating.  We really can’t see far into the future.

Publishing is a challenging gig.  My rapid career contortions perhaps prepared me better than I think.  I have a kinship with those who ask about how to get started in it.  Generally we’re educated people who like books and wonder what kind of career you can find with that combination these days.  (There are more of us than you’d think!)  Compared to higher education academic publishing is a small world.  I’ve come to know many more academic colleagues since being an editor than I ever did as a professor.  I have something they want—a reputable venue for publishing their latest book.  Often I have to do a lot of educating since publishing doesn’t work the way that most people think it does.  It’s like being a professor without the status.  No, I didn’t see this in my future.  As I look for a seat on the already crowded bus I wonder how many of these other early risers planned their careers just like me.

Difficult to see where this is going.

Science of Compassion

It has been several years now since I’ve been directly (or indirectly) involved in robotics.  During my daughter’s high school years I was active in the FIRST Robotics program, spending some week nights and many weekends supporting the kids—far more clever than me—building and competing with the robot.  It was during this time that I came to know some of the mentors involved.  They knew I was looking for a job in a field not their own.  Instead of wringing their hands like my professorial colleagues did, they made concrete suggestions as to how to go about finding a reasonable position.  Unlike many religion professors, they were willing to go out of their way to help.  It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.  A somewhat well-known religious leader is known for having said “by their fruits you will know them.”  So it is.

One of these friends recently sent me a New York Times story about a disabled toddler.  Because of our government’s very compassion health care system, this boy was denied access to a wheelchair.  When the local high school robotics team learned about it they designed and built a motorized chair for the boy.  Again, my point couldn’t be more obvious.  This team did what was the right thing.  They didn’t stand around saying the family would be in their thoughts and prayers.  No, they did something about it.  While the story made me feel good, it also saddened me.  I’ve been part of the religious studies community for at least three decades now.  When I lift up mine eyes to the hills, however, whence cometh my help?

Please don’t get me wrong—I know probably better than most how difficult life and funding can be as a humanities academic.  I also know, however, that humanities are nothing without humanity.  How easy it is to forget that when a tenure-track position opens up!  There are creative solutions possible.  I have suggested them to those empowered to enact them from time to time.  Their response has generally been to explain why it can’t be done rather than giving it the old college try.  In robotics you try to see if it works before deciding it can’t.  Perhaps there’s a message here for those who hear.  Engineers find solutions while many academics find excuses.  There’s any number of reasons not to help the boy get a wheelchair: somebody’s going to have to pay for this, there are other things that demand the students’ time, there are government agencies who already do the work.  Or.  You can try because it’s the right thing to do.  Whose fruit tastes better, I wonder?

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.

Caveat Emptor

When you work in academic publishing, various higher education news sources find you.  Not able to distinguish faculty from industry professionals that rely on them for their by-products, these sites often offer friendly advice on how to succeed in academia.  Having had not a little experience in that venue (if you’ll pardon my litotes), I noted a recent headline before clicking the delete button.  I can’t reconstruct it word-for-word, but the gist of it was that if you wanted to earn more as an academic, you should study overseas.  Your salary, the article implied, would be higher if you did.  Now I recognize that things constantly change, but in my field of study if you want to get any job at all, let alone a good paying one, you study domestically.  Specifically at Harvard.  Academics, just like publishers, rest on their laurels.

The funny thing about this headline is that it contained the same advice that I received all the way back in the 1980s.  I followed up on it, choosing Edinburgh after having been accepted at Oxford, Cambridge, Aberdeen, and St. Andrews.  Only later did I learn that of those schools only Oxford opened the door to positions in my native United States, being, as it is, the Harvard of the United Kingdom.  Defying the odds, I did get a job that, when I became Academic Dean with access to industry stats, I discovered was among the lowest paying of its peers.  Studying overseas, in other words, had the exact opposite effect than the headline promises.  Perhaps things have changed in the intervening years.  Even today I have to remind people that Edinburgh is a world-class research university, one of the four ancient schools in the kingdom of the Scots.  Some of the most famous minds in human history studied there.  Ach, well, a job by any other name would smell of sweat.

Xenophobia isn’t unique to the GOP.  It exists in higher education too.  Academics are extremely tribal, and if you try to break in from the outside—no matter where you study—you’ll learn that your money might be spent more wisely learning a trade.  As a homeowner, I’ve discovered that just about any practical job that doesn’t require college pays better than what you can get with the detritus of a doctorate on your résumé.  In fact, during times when work was scarce I tried to hide it.  One of the skills I picked up in my educational journey was not to believe everything you read.  Problem is, you only pick that up after you’ve already paid that tuition bill.  The delete button is right there; don’t be afraid to use it.

Book Life

Like a book, life can be divided into chapters.  This is perhaps an instance of art following reality, or perhaps it’s the other way around.  The episodic nature of life suggests the chapter structure of books.  As I was waking up this morning (disappointingly before 4:00 a.m.) I was reflecting on the chapters of my life.  As with a book, the most recently read decade is perhaps freshest in one’s mind, but the decades do seem to fall roughly into format.  We tend to think of that first decade—childhood—fondly, even if in reality it wasn’t all games and candy.  It’s biology’s way of encouraging us toward that weird teen chapter of puberty with its intense emotions and maturing bodies.  That chapter is recalled, at least in my experience, as a turmoil involving both good and bad.

The twenties, in my book, were spent in higher education.  It was a cerebral chapter.  Finishing college and starting grad school.  Finishing a masters and discovering employment difficult to find with a master’s degree.  In my book marriage was in the twenties chapter, along with a doctorate.  The next chapter, the thirties, was spent entirely at Nashotah House.  That involved becoming a father as well as a professor.  The other faculty were fathers of a different sort.  I always thought chapters should show some continuity but the forties chapter was that part of the book known as the crisis.  The upending of convention.  The self-reinvention.  The move.  I suppose in terms of a novel that was when it started to get really interesting, but from my perspective life had been plenty interesting enough by that point.

The fifties have been a bit more settled.  The publishing chapter.  The house-buying move added drama, of course, but otherwise the nine-to-five is like a mind-numbing drug.  Mine involved a commute that lead to its own unpublished book, as well as two somewhat academic  tomes.  All of this was going through my head the way thoughts do when you can’t force yourself back to sleep.  The paradigm suggests itself to someone who has, in one form or another, been writing for his entire life.  Or writing his life.  My first attempts at being a novelist began in chapter two.  On yellowed paper somewhere in the attic I still have that first handwritten attempt at literary expression.  The current chapter has me becoming a gruncle (with a nod to Gravity Falls fans) and wondering how a great niece might read a book written like this.  If she will even have an interest.  That’s the way of books, as any librarian knows.  Maybe some warm milk and a cookie are indicated.

Life is a book.