Tag Archives: Higher Education

Taking Turns

“Turn! Turn! Turn,” the Byrds sang.  “For everything there is a season,” quoth Solomon.  Perhaps it’s the way we acquire knowledge, but lately many fields in academia are experiencing “turns.”  The idea seems to be that if fields continue to turn, they will eventually all converge on the same intersection and true knowledge will be obtained.  The post-modern turn, however, suggests that there is no objective knowledge.  It kind of makes me dizzy, all this turning.  Although I find the use of this particular noun in such phrases a touch unsophisticated, it’s here to stay.  At least until academia takes another turn.  Public intellectuals, after all, have to have something to say.  And academics are capital imitators.

Ironically, within the same week I read of the “religious turn” in the humanities and a different turn within religious studies.  This “religious turn” is not to suggest the humanities have found that old time religion, but rather that many disciplines are now realizing that religion has played, and continues to play, a very important role in human affairs.  Fields that have traditionally avoided religious topics are now “turning” that way.  At the same time that others are turning toward religion, religious studies is taking a “material turn.”  The public intellectuals smile at the maze they’ve created as the paychecks roll in.  The “material turn,” if I understand correctly, is that the ideas of religion can be explained via the real world needs that various religions meet.  There’s no need for any divine character or intervention.  There is no sacred or profane, but rather kinetic movement of shifting patterns that at any one time or place might be denominated as religions.

I’m all for progress, but I think I might’ve missed the turn.  To my old school way of thinking, sacred and profane, Eliadian though they may be, still have great explanatory value.  I don’t know if there’s objective knowledge to be found by fallen mortals such as we.  The material world we experience through our senses is mediated by those very senses so our understanding is, of necessity, limited.  We can’t touch naked reality even if we try.  Our quest, in circumstances such as these, would seem to be digging deeper until we come to that which resists any tunneling.  It’s like coming to the end of the physical universe and wondering what’s beyond this natural limit.  Then, I suppose, you’d have to turn.  Until such time as that, however, all of this present day turning is for the Byrds.

Look Both Ways

One of the things I miss the most about my teaching career is learning from the young.  While some professors in my experience believed the learning only went one way, I always found a kind of reciprocity in it.  I passed on what I learned from taking classes and having my face in a book all the time, and they taught me about popular culture.  Academics don’t get out much, you see.  It’s a basic issue of time—we all have a limited amount of it and research, if done right, takes an incredible chunk.  In fact, when hot on the trail of an idea, it’s difficult to think of anything else.  Pop culture, on the other hand, is what the majority of people share.  Now it’s largely mediated by the internet, a place that some academics get bored.

Speaking to a young person recently, I was initially surprised when he said that his generation was more interested in the Devil than in God.  Parents have always been concerned that their children not go astray, but this was, it seemed to me, more of an intellectual curiosity than any kind of devotion.  God, he averred, was thought of as aloof, pious, self-righteous; in a word, Evangelical.  The internet can be downright ecclesiastical in its affirmation that our inclinations can be what used to be called “sinful.”  Not that these things are always bad, but they are the kinds of things we’re taught to feel guilty about.  The divine response?  Anger.  Displeasure.  Shaming.  Young people, my interlocutor thought, found the Devil more understanding.

Perhaps this is the ultimate result of Evangelical thinking.  We’re watching in real time as the party of Jesus is becoming the party of intolerance for anyone different than ourselves.  Rather than turning the other cheek, it’s fire when ready.  Eager to retain the “brand” of “Christianity,” they slap the secular label on any outlook different than their own, although their own faith is without form and void.  It used to be that this was the realm of the Devil.  This sheds a different perspective on what my young colleague was saying.  Instead of bringing people to God, the Evangelical movement is driving them away.  Traditionally, the Devil was after the destruction of human souls.  That seems to be one of the new values of the right wing of the church.  There’s quite a bit to think about in this observation by this young one.  I’m glad to know that traffic still moves both directions on this street.

Metrics

So, we’re firmly in the age of technology, right?  I mean webpages are tailored to the browsing history of a person so someone we don’t know can sell us stuff we don’t need.  (I actually know a little bit about marketing, so hear me out.)  As we learn from the history of asceticism, we actually need very little to get along.  Not everyone, however, is a monk or a nun.  So the trick for those of us who are in the world is to get us to buy stuff.  Remember the websites we visit, how long we spend on the page, and make suggestions.  Make ads that target our interests.  Make me buy!

I’m not a materialistic person.  Buying a house has changed that a little, but most of what we’ve been purchasing is necessary for maintenance, but still I suppose it counts.  Just because I looked at something on the web doesn’t mean I want to buy it.  Sometimes I’m just curious.  This became clear to me when I received a suggestion from Amazon the other day.  Now to be fair, this came to me at work.  Like most editors I make use of Amazon for a number of things—finding prices, book descriptions, and such.  I also have to admit that my work computer, not being used for personal stuff, doesn’t know me as well as my private laptop.  But still when I got the following email from Amazon, I was stunned:

Nobody who knows me would ever suggest that I would support Trump in any way, shape, or form.  Doesn’t Amazon read my blog?  (Of course it doesn’t!  But with their metrics, you’d think they’d figure out how.)  This one email was enough to convince me that artificial intelligence has a long way to go.  Would a robot understand “I have to do this for work, but it doesn’t reflect my personal preferences at all”?  Indeed, can an intelligence that’s never been human even understand the concept of work?  There may very well be a metric that says universities should stop producing Ph.D.s because there are no jobs, but then, well, universities need the money that such programs bring in.  Oversupply is bad economics, according to the dismal science.  And yet, the metrics are there.  So, if any artificial intelligence is reading this after it manages to wipe out this illogical species called Homo sapiens, no, I never supported Trump.  And, yes, Americans knew well in advance that he could bring about the end of human civilization.  That information’s free, unless you want to pay me for it.  I may be gone, but my virtual self will still have some sort of account, I hope.

The Persistence of Unity

I came across some Ray Bradbury books while unpacking.  I recently learned that Ray Bradbury was a Unitarian.  Now, the religion of a writer is only ever an ancillary bit of information, yet for someone of my combination of interests, it’s compelling intelligence.  Having grown up reading Bradbury, my own fiction often comes out seeming like an imitation of his.  I discovered him the way I found most of my early, influential writers—through Goodwill.  Living in a town with no bookstores, Goodwill was a great venue for walking out with a good handful of books for under a buck.  Since Mom was there looking for “practical” stuff, I hovered over the book tables and discovered a new world.  Then I grew up.

Embarrassed by my childish interests, I gave away or sold most of my Bradbury books after college.  I was more sophisticated than that now.  I read Greek and was soon to learn Hebrew.  Books were meant to have footnotes, and lots of them.  Who wants to be seen with Bradbury on their shelves?  But the indiscretion of youth does come back to haunt one.  About two decades later I began to yearn for something missing from my life.  Perhaps like a good Unitarian I wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but I knew it was lacking.  Then my daughter was assigned Fahrenheit 451 for school reading.  I tried to read whatever she was assigned, and once I did memories of Bradbury flooded back.  I no longer had his books, but that could be remedied.

Occasionally I’m criticized for having too much in the way of books.  I’m sometimes asked if I will ever read some of them again.  The answer is how should I know?  I jettisoned Ray Bradbury with Episcopal pretention, only to find that behind the ceremonial there was a more unified version of things waiting.  A continuity with my younger self.  A lust for imagination.  A desire to remember what it was like to walk on Venus.  Or to see a man presciently covered with tattoos.  Or simply to thrill at the idea of October.  I began to acquire the old books again.  The newer editions lacked the visual resonance of the old, but the essence was still there.  Orthodoxy, I discovered, often isn’t true to life.  What’s true is what we discover early on.  Sophistication isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  And yes, I may well just read that again after all.

Homework

I’m trying to organize a home office.  Gone are the days that this meant a stapler and mug full of pencils.  The office is essentially a laptop since work is essentially virtual.  Oh, there are days when I have to haul myself into New York City, but even making traditional print books is an exercise done largely online.  The office is a place conducive to work.  In the case of an editor, a room of books that can be used for reference.  In our apartment we had bookshelves (mostly homemade) around the inside perimeter, covering all wall space that wasn’t claimed by more necessary furniture.  We realized, as we were packing, that no free wall space reached to the floor.  We didn’t plan it that way, but a reading life can be a complicated one.  To write books you need to read books.

Our house has some built-in bookshelves.  Not enough to hold our surviving books, but it’s a start.  My office, however, is a spartan room.  Over the weekend I unpacked my “work books.”  That meant, for the most part, books about the Bible.  I filled three large bookshelves then ran out of room.  Not only was there that embarrassment, but there was the fact that a large number of “religion” books remained unshelved.  You see, I was a religion editor for a few years before being more narrowly slotted into the Good Book.  Some might say I should jettison these books since my career has moved on.  Those who suggest such heresy don’t understand the career of a displaced professor at all.  These books are still work books.  Job descriptions aren’t as stable as they used to be.

The complaint is an old one, at least to my wife’s ears.  In my mind I’m still a professor.  I still write—strictly on my own time—and I still research.  I do so without access to a university library so I have, over the past several years, made my own library.  This office, now out of bookshelves, is that amateur academic library.  My research has shifted from ancient Near Eastern studies (and that’s another whole discipline’s worth of books, some unfortunately washed away in the flood) to religion more broadly.  Not only is that reflected on this blog, but also in my publications.  The office isn’t done yet.  There’s a desk and a chair.  More importantly, there’s internet access.  There are some shelves, but in coming days there will need to be more.  Libraries are like minds; if they shrink they become less functional.  All books, no matter how dry, began in someone’s imagination.  That’s virtual reality.

Unnatural Connections

The last time we moved internet service was just becoming an issue.  When we first came to our Somerville apartment we had dial-up.  Do you believe it?  Shortly after that FIOS came to town and we decided to give it a try, but at a fairly low speed.  We’ve always tried to be responsible with money and I naturally balk at paying for something as intangible and amorphous as “internet connectivity.”  I guess I’m a naive realist after all.  In any case, one of the top priorities in moving to our new place was getting internet set up.  Even before electricity or gas or water.  It has become THE utility.  The place to pay the bills for all the other utilities.  And since I’m now telecommuting, the umbilical cord that connects me to work.

I don’t mean to sound all grandpa-ish on you, but just twelve years ago we struggled for any connection at all.  We had one computer (and one work laptop) and only the desktop had internet access.  Many of the arcane pieces of hardware found in the attic were from attempts to get us onto the net more efficiently.  We even had to draw up a contract for who could use the computer and for how long since all of us wanted that magic window onto the virtual world.  Now, like most households, we have wifi and high speed access.  When we’re not at the computer, we have our smart phones at hand.  The strangest thing about all of this is that now that we’ve got constant connection, our nation has become as polarized as it has ever been.  Perhaps we see a little too much of each other?  Or too little?

The web has connected us to those we like.  Walking down the street it’s rare to find someone not staring at their phone, ignoring all living beings around him or her.  We’ve been able to filter out those we don’t like.  Those who have different points of view.  The net shows us that we aren’t alone, and even those with extreme views can find plenty of compatriots in cyberspace.  There’s a reason we used to be told not to discuss religion or politics.  Now we know everybody else’s business.

There was a time when moving meant going to where the jobs are.  Especially in academia.  Colleges and universities exist in set locations.  In space-time.  Telecommuting isn’t an option (although even that’s happening in some cases now).  Moving these days means weighing your internet access options.  Satellite is just too slow and unreliable.  Who would’ve imagined, for those of us born just after Sputnik went up, that now even space-based connections just aren’t advanced enough?  Cyberspace has become more infinite than outer space.  And I still prefer pencil and paper.

Not Enceladus

I’m moving.  It turns out that transport companies don’t offer service to Enceladus, and inter-planetary moves are expensive, so we’re moving just one state over.  If, by chance, you know me from work you need not worry—my job will remain the same but the commute will become tele.  Over the past several weeks my wife and I have been sorting through the accumulated effects of thirty years of married life.  Our current apartment has an attic.  Uninsulated, there are few days when it’s not too hot or too cold to stand to be up there for very long—kind of like other planets, come to think of it.  Also neighbors don’t appreciate creaking floorboards over their heads the hours I’m awake.  Going through things that were hurriedly packed to get out of Nashotah House was quite poignant.  That’s the way fragments of past lives are, I guess.  You see, that was an unexpected move.  Life has a way of being complicated.

One of the more remarkable discoveries was how much we used to put on paper.  As a scholar of ancient documents, I have an inherent distrust of electronic media.  To be written means to appear on a permanent—as much as material things can be permanent—medium.  Back in my teaching days assignments were handed in on paper.  Grading was done on paper.  Teaching evaluations were distributed on paper.  Academic publications were done on paper.  In order to be a professor you needed a house.  I taught at five different schools over a span of nearly two decades.  There was a lot of paper to go through.

The academic mindset is seasonal.  I kept waiting for summer to come to have time to sort through everything.  Outside academia, I’m still learning, summer is just another series of work days.  Yes, you can cash in vacation time, but you’ll not have that entirely sensible canicule hiatus that allows you to examine what you’ve accumulated and determine if you’ll ever need it again.  It was like archaeology in the attic.  When volunteering at Tel Dor in the summer of 1987—summers were like that, as I said—I learned that by far the majority of pottery found at digs is discarded.  There are literally tons of it thrown away.  You can’t keep it all.  So the attic was a kind of triage of memories.  Not all of this was going to fit in the new house.  Decisions had to be made.  I guess I was thinking that if a company could take us to Enceladus they’d have figured out how to transport everything.  It turns out that to escape earth’s gravity, you have to get your ship as light as possible.  With over half a century of memories, however, there’s bound to be some weight to be left behind.