Tag Archives: Higher Education

The Struggle for Relevance

Futility is a specialization of those of us who consider ourselves fans of Ecclesiastes. Thus it is that the blog of an editor gets so little attention among academics. Since you’ve been kind enough to drop in, I’m going to share some secrets with you. Make sure the door is closed. Ready? I want to talk about academic publishing. If you, like me, have written academic monographs, you’ve probably figured out that we aren’t famous yet. What’s going on here? What happened to the day when “I wrote a book” meant something? Like all organisms, academic publishing evolves. Many academics want to write for a wider audience, but sometimes miss the bigger picture. Here are some tips to help out:

If you want to write for non-academics get to know some. A good first step is ditching the jargon. “Prosopography” wasn’t on many people’s SAT vocabulary flash cards. Even if you know how to use a thesaurus to find an archaic synonym to use, don’t assume your reader will do the same. Try reading a novel once in a while. They can teach academics quite a bit about how to communicate. Learning to speak the vernacular is only part of the battle, though. The larger part is learning what is of interest outside the academy. Some things, such as Ecclesiastes, aren’t. Oh, I know, I know! Five years of your life spent on some obscure topic should be worth publication. It probably is. A handful of people will read it (print run numbers would only make you weep). If you want to reach a wider readership, you have to go where people actually live. What’s of interest to them? Hoi polloi. They won’t bite. To write for a wider readership you need to learn what people find interesting and what they simply don’t.

An editor can be your friend here. You see, editors are measured by how well their books sell. We can usually tell at a glance if a topic is in the “less than 200 copy” camp or not. I know that you were taught in your doctoral program to find some abstruse subject never before addressed and research it from every possible angle. Write up your results and publish. A far better way to write for a wider readership is to begin a conversation with your editor. Are you thinking of a book on a specific topic? An editor can tell you if it’s likely to work or not. The idea of writing the book your colleagues said would be hot and then finding a publisher seldom works to everyone’s satisfaction. It’s all about communication. And you, dear readers, now know something most professors don’t.

Bible Belts

The Bible’s been back in the news. Specifically the Bible and politics. Like twins separated at birth. Jeff Mateer, Trump’s nominee for a federal judgeship, has gone on record saying Satan’s plan is working. Perhaps even more stridently, Roy Moore down in the Sweet Home state has been quite vocal that the Christian God is the one who makes America’s laws. Standing on “biblical principles” that have nothing to do with the actual Bible, politicians have found a biblically illiterate population a field of white-headed grain ready for the reaping. As sure as the sparks fly upward. The response in the educated class is predictable. Cut any funding for departments studying religion. Haven’t you heard? It’s dead!

Having grown up in a conservative, religious family, and working my way through a doctorate in a closely related field, I’ve been watching in dismay as the past quarter-century has been marked by decreasing positions in religious studies. If you can pull your eyes from the headlines surely you’ll agree that religion is something we just can’t afford to study. Wasting resources, it is, since if you teach economics you have an actual shot at the White House. Yee-haw! Pull out your six-shooter and celebrate! And no, “yee-haw” is not etymologically related to the name of the deity of ancient Israel. It’s only a matter of time before discovery of who’s been uncovering whom’s nakedness becomes public. Then you just need to say the Bible says nothing about divorce. It’s okay, nobody will bother to look it up. Intellectuals will scratch their heads—why didn’t somebody tell us religion actually motivated people?

Universities (consider the name!) used to be places where the value of all subjects was acknowledged. Of course, where there’s knowledge there’s money to be made. Once you’ve gone to the dark side, there’s no coming back. Departments that don’t earn mammon must go the way of the mammoth. Times have become so hard it’a almost like schools want to open Religion Departments just so they have something to shut down. We’ve got to keep those fields that are actually important going. Never mind if your funding depends on a government increasingly elected on the basis of perceived religious faith. Since the Prosperity Gospel is now in vogue, economic departments are always a safe investment. Slap a copy of the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn and follow the crowds to DC. Good thing none of this matters, otherwise me might be in real trouble.

Voting Belief

No one knows the origins of religion. Before the advent of writing we can only guess, based on artifacts. Even in the era of scriveners, nobody jotted down the origin of belief until modern times, long, long after it began. Once writings about religious practice become reasonably clear, we find temples in the service of palaces, and vice-versa. Monarchs needed the validation of deities and priests required the support of the crown. Together they brought the two swords together and managed to keep the unruly masses in check. This isn’t cynical, not necessarily, since it reflects, the best we can reconstruct, how western organized religions began. Power was always part of the picture.

A recent Washington Post story, “The stark racial and religious divide between Democrats and Republicans, in one chart,” by Christopher Ingraham, shows the diametrically opposed pie-charts of self-identified white Christians (Republicans) versus non-white or non-Christian (Democrats) Americans. Such survey results tell us much about ourselves. We vote with our faith (or lack thereof) and not with our rationality. This has long been the piece of the political puzzle that Democrats have failed to comprehend. Not to take away from Barack Obama’s charisma, but people were afraid of Mormon Mitt Romney in 2012. Although conservative, white, and evangelical, Mormons have long been questioned as to their Christian identity by other evangelicals. It would seem, in the light of present circumstances, that understanding the “white Christian” mindset might be the only way out of the morass.

Typically self-defeating, academic institutions have shown little interest in understanding religion among hoi polloi. Long ago they bought into what Peter Berger admitted was his biggest blunder, the idea that religion was dying out. By the time he made that admission, academics had ceased to pay much attention to religion. It has, of course, come back as the ghost that haunts us. Or is it a zombie, once dead and now back to life? The fact is religion was never dying. It is as much of being a human as is driving a car or owning a cell phone. When times are uncertain, we turn to what is perceived as unchanging—religion. In truth, religion is constantly evolving to fit outlooks influenced by science, technology, and social progress. Worldviews change. Our culture is becoming more diverse. Republicans have a natural voting bloc that identifies itself by race and religion. Information about the former is readily available. You’ll need to look a bit harder to find quality information about the latter, no matter how important it may be.

The Rights and Privileges

Bostonia is but one of several alumni magazines that makes its way to our humble apartment. Between my wife and I we have many colleges and universities begging us for money while offering us no jobs. Despite being a denied professor I have little time for magazines. I’ve always been a book man. If I’m going to put time into something I want an ISBN to claim at the end of the day. Still, the cover of the Bostonia asks a relevant question: “Should Chimps Have Human Rights?” I have long argued, based on books I’ve read and on personal experience, that animals are conscious beings, like we are. If consciousness evolved, it has to have its roots in other animals, otherwise scientists are positing “special creation,” call it what you will. If animals share consciousness, they should share rights.

People have used animals for as long as they could figure out how to do so. It may have been a two-way street at first, since we’re pretty good at protecting critters we find valuable and who doesn’t like a free lunch? They stick around us. The earliest domesticated animal seems to have been the wolf, which we made into a dog. Other common mammals joined the mule train after that. Humans: they treat you rough, but they’ll make getting food a snap. There’s a kind of consciousness involved already, don’t you think? If they can’t figure out that we’re not going to harm them (at least not yet) then they’re smart enough to keep their distance. Not all wolves became dogs.

Primates, however, are a special case. They sort of look like us. Chimpanzees, especially, act like us. They don’t get human rights because those are reserved for others of our own species. I mean, consider those in charge of the free world! They believe in the right to acquire as much of the world’s resources as they can for themselves. They guard the use of those resources so they can live in unutterable luxury and make everyone else pay through the nose for the very necessities of keeping alive. The masses pay taxes while those who have more than enough do not. We are a domesticated species, it seems to me. Don’t get me wrong—I do believe chimps should have human rights. Other animals too. We’re all connected. But the real question I have, looking at the headlines from Washington, DC, is turned the other way around: should humans have the rights of chimps? Don’t ask me; universities won’t hire my likes when others will bring them greater glory. They’ll gladly accept my money, however. It’s their right.

Average Reality

One of the stranger dynamics of higher education is its unquestioning acceptance of a one-size-fits-all methodology. Don’t get me wrong—the empirical method works. The only real problem with it is that not all phenomena in the universe cooperate with human observation. It’s something I call the problem of occasional phenomena. Perhaps because of the rancid taste left in scientific mouths by lingering creationism, anything that isn’t slow and regular enough to be directly or theoretically observed simply can’t fit in this old world. The weird, the anomalous, the strange—these open the door to possible spirits and spirits have no way of being measured. At least not yet. The most convenient way to deal with them is to call them superstition and end the discussion right there.

The larger problem is that people see things. Unless said people are scientists, they are considered amateur observers, liable to mistake what they see. The classic example of this is ghosts. From the beginning of recorded history people have claimed to see them, or hear things go bump in the night. Some of the first modern people to make a profession out of exploring such things were Ed and Lorraine Warren. Unfortunately, they didn’t write books about their experiences. Largely because of movies made about some of their high profile cases, there has been a resurgence of interest in the couple and the books originally published by other presses, such as Prentice Hall and St. Martin’s, have been reissued by Graymalkin Media. These are co-written tomes of uneven quality. They’re also like candy—once you start on them it’s hard to stop. Gerald Brittle’s The Demonologist is one such book. More than others in the collection that I’ve read, it concentrates on a single phenomenon that overlaps with the world of religion—demons. Unlike trained religion scholars, however, the Warrens aren’t shy about declaring what demons are (fallen angels) and how they differ from devils (it’s all about rank).

What makes these books so interesting is the dispassionate description of the cases the Warrens investigated. Unless they are pathological in their connection to telling untruths, there’s some very odd stuff that goes on out there. Although they declare once in a while that other religions and their practitioners can also deal with demons, there’s a simple kind of black-and-white view of morality that fits what you might have learned in Sunday School. One of the reasons for this, I suspect, is that most academics don’t take an academic interest in demons. Once they’re filed in the mythology folder there’s no reason to try to figure out what they might “really be.” The Warrens’ outlook, therefore, has become canonical among ghost hunters. They certainly have more credibility in that crowd than most Harvard Ph.D.s. It’s funny what can happen when you refuse to explore what the average person considers to be just as real as the physical world we all think we know so well.

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.

Viewing Religion

Scholars employed by the academy sometimes fall under its privileged bubble. In that rarified space, the classics, the Bible, and even serious contemporary literature can be parsed and prodded until it’s no longer recognized and everyone thinks it’s normal. Out on the streets (for some of us taste the outer darkness) people have a difficult time with such minute attention to detail. People like movies. They’re visual, colorful, and they meet deep human needs. Scholars were slow to take cinema seriously, though. It was one of those passing things. Ephemeral. Shadows flickering on a screen. Never mind that the budget for a single Hollywood blockbuster could finance an entire humanities department for years. This is a strange dynamic when you stop to think about it.

S. Brent Plate, in his book Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World, addresses in a very intelligent way, how film is like religion. Of course, religion is often on the university chopping block these days, so it is perhaps no surprise that among the first academics to pay serious attention to movies in their discipline were religion scholars. What is truly surprising is the depth of that connection between movies and belief. For such a brief book, Plate dives deep and quickly. In a society that seems to have outlived its need for structured religion, movies have managed to hold on through recessions and depressions and terrorist attacks. Indeed, they often provide meaning during those very times. They have a ritual form that meets the kinds of needs religion has traditionally filled. Movies are well worth the time we spend getting to know them.

Sometimes, under the barrage of rhetoric that says all answers are physical, we forget that humans are meaning-seeking creatures. If there’s no purpose to life, our wellbeing suffers. Nobody looking at modern civilization objectively would say that we’re an overwhelmingly happy bunch. One way to understand the popularity of movies is to see them as venues of finding meaning. For 90 minutes to 2 hours we’re shown some version of modern mythology (at least in some cases) that serves many of the same functions as a sermon or scripture. Although Plate hyphenates the word, it is worth pondering that this is for more than mere recreation. The Sabbath idea always involved more than just a day off work. Movies offer us a way toward meaning. So naturally, the academy tends to ignore them. There are, it seems, more important things to do.