Distance Education

As an exile from academia, I do feel for my employed colleagues who are having to learn distance education techniques on the fly.  I do also feel compelled *ahem* to note that I was trained in online teaching long ago at Rutgers University.  The school declined to hire me then, and I’ve had no offers since.  Now it’s become fashionable for academics with virtually no online experience to look to the hills—whence is their help to come?  It’s not very often that I can claim to have been ahead of the curve.  In fact, I’m usually so far back that I don’t even know there is a curve.  Mismatches like this (someone who’s always been good at teaching, and trained to do so online, who’s been deemed exile-worthy while the unprepared now brush off their virtual bona fides) occur all the time in history.  It’s one of the things that makes it interesting.

Higher education isn’t a luxury.  I disagree with President Obama that all people should go to college, though.  Not everyone needs to.  Everyone should be able to attend, however, if they feel compelled to do so.  There are a number of myths about it that politicians of all stripes should seek to dispel.  One is that the more education you get the higher salary you’ll be able to demand.  As a Ph.D. holder I know that is decidedly not the case.  There are plenty of manual labor jobs that pay better than the options open for a humanities Ph.D. earner.  I also know that universities don’t tell new doctoral candidates this fact.  The old ways are changing.  I’ve often wondered if the collapse of civilization would be slow or rapid.  Living through it I now can see it looks slow from the inside.  Future historians will need to assess for future readers how it looks from the social distance of chronological clarity.

Historically crises have helped people pull together.  This one seems only to have divided us further.  If our government knew how, it could now model kind and considerate behavior.  It doesn’t know how.  The selfish often don’t comprehend how the wellbeing of others can affect their own.  Some companies are beginning to realize that customer loyalty after the crisis may depend on reasonable treatment at at time like this.  For others it’s more difficult than house-training a new puppy.  Nobody wants to go into exile.  When you do, however, you can’t help but notice how it changes your view of things.  Ironically I was hired away from academia the very year I had completed my training in distance education.  I can image how it might’ve been.  But then, I’m living in a land not my own.

See Index Saw

Too much of my life is taken up with indexes.  If life with technology is a teeter-totter, then my generation stands just above the fulcrum.  There are guys with whom I attended college who maintain no internet presence at all.  I’ve repeatedly searched for college buddies and come up blank.  Those in the decade following mine, if they want to work, have pretty much resigned themselves to tech.  Those in the decade before, not so much.  What does this have to do with indices?  Plenty!  You see, in academic publishing, and its consequent research, you need to look stuff up.  If you read multiple books on the same topic you’re not likely to be able to pinpoint a page number without an index.  You remember you read it here (you think) and so you stick a finger in the back and begin checking out the pages referenced until you (hopefully) find it.  That’s the old school way.

I’ve typed my fingers down to the marrow trying to explain to guys my age and older that the average academic no longer uses a print index.  Just about everything has been digitized.  Although I’m no fan of ebooks (I very seldom read them) looking things up is sure much easier with a searchable PDF.  Type in your search term and voila—an easy list of references appears that can be quickly clicked through and checked.  And yes, my colleagues, that’s what people are doing these days.  I lament the decline in print books.  When I set out to write a book I have a physical object in mind.  It has pages and a cover.  A spine.  I am writing a book, not “content” to be “exploited” in “multiple formats.”  And yet, the index is really no longer necessary.

The typical academic author whose book is at the production stage fusses greatly over the index.  Calmly I explain that indexes are very rarely used.  They must have detailed indices, they insist.  The thing about teeter-totters is that they move.  I have an inner-ear problem.  As a child this prevented me from doing the usual playground things like swinging and seesawing and spinning, to different degrees.  I still can do none of those things well.  My wife and I bought a gliding rocker early in our marriage, that seats two.  We quickly learned that I couldn’t rock with her.  Indexes, you see, are on one side of that long board.  It’s the side on which the heavy weight of time rests.  So ponderous is it that the kids on the other side just can’t get it off the ground.  And I spend my days over the fulcrum trying to get the two sides to play nice together.  Without rocking the thing too much.

Photo credit: Chicago Daily News, via WikiMedia Commons

Without Peer

Peer review makes the world go round.  Well, at least the academic world.  It’s based on a simple enough premise: if your academic work is passable other scholars will be able to tell.  It’s a process fraught with peril, however.  Scholars, being human, are subject to fits of pique or of hypersensitivity, or just having gotten out of the wrong side of bed that morning.  Perfectly good projects can be shot down with a single, well-placed arrow.  Or even dart.  Problem is, there’s no better system for deciding if academic work is adequate, or even good.  There may be some objective measure out there in the universe, but if there is we don’t have access to it.  We have to rely on peer review.

During my teaching years, which numbered nearly twenty, I was never asked to peer review anything.  My first invitation came while I was working as an editor.  Of course I said “yes.”  A number of scholars, however, don’t share the basic reality that if nobody peer reviewed their work, they’d never get published.  Many scholars decline offers to review their colleagues’ work.  I even had a very senior scholar once blithely tell me that he had his own research to do, so why should he take time to review that of others.  Professional reserve prevented me from pointing out that if his colleagues felt the same way he’d be as unpublished as a fresh doctorate-holder.  Scholarship is a cooperative venture, no matter how many Lone Rangers ride the cuesta.  So why is it so difficult to find peer reviewers?

I’ll read your book if you’ll read mine!

Something I’ve noticed is that many scholars are coddled.  Constantly told that they’re brilliant and gifted, they come to believe it like miniature Trumps.  More to the point, perhaps, is the shrinking number of academic positions.  The few who hold actual jobs are bombarded with other tasks, including committee work, advisory duties, and sometimes even teaching (depending on the adjunct pool).  I know it’s tough.  Been there, done that.  Nevertheless, academia cannot survive without the basic peer reviewer.  Education is a cooperative venture.  We may imagine the academic alone in her or his study, but breakthroughs generally come through when people work together.  Of course, my job is one performed in isolation.  Increasingly, academics can be found not in their offices, but working remotely from home.  Is the sense of “peer” itself breaking down?  My own book, Nightmares with the Bible, was slowed down by peer review.  In a sense I’m glad it was.  Hi ho Silver, away!

Reading Education

Perhaps like me you’re afraid of the news.  Not because it’s fake, but because it’s real.  Then every once in a while curiosity gets the better of me and I uncover my eyes.  Sometimes you can’t help but see.  With the utter mess we’re in over here, it’s difficult to keep up with news from other countries we know.  I’ve lived in the United Kingdom and I’ve worked for British companies.  Needless to say, I wonder what’s going on over there from time to time.  Lately I’ve been getting auto-replies to my emails to British colleagues stating that they’re on strike.  I asked a friend in the UK about this.  It used to be the professorate was treated with some regard in Her Majesty’s domain.  Not being a financially minded person, I haven’t been aware of how deep or devastating our capitalism-induced recessions and depressions are.  Apparently they’ve been bad enough to derail even British higher education.

Compensation for the professorate has been eroded away.  Their pension plans have been depleted.  Knowing the problems we have over here with professors refusing to retire, I was surprised to learn the UK has the opposite problem—professors unable to afford to retire.  Now, lecturing isn’t physical labor, but class preparation (and committee work) take a considerable amount of effort.  I could see not retiring if it meant lecturing only, but with everything else required, not retiring would be, well, exhausting.  As over here the root of the problem is that higher education is the route into which many smart people are steered.  You’d think it’d be a wonderful problem to have too many highly educated people.  It’s not.  With advanced study comes advanced debt.  And limited employment prospects.

There are nations in the world where higher education is deeply valued.  Where educated people are respected.  Ironically, the nations enamored of capitalism aren’t those places.  The only learning that’s required is how to get money from someone else.  Beyond that, the rest is commentary.  British higher education has fallen on hard times since I read for my Edinburgh doctorate.  Schemes have been put in place to ensure faculty are being productive.  Yes, there are some lazy ones.  The majority, however, pull their weight and then some.  And now they’re being told they must do so until the grave.  No retired professor wants to spend her or his old age bagging groceries at Sainsbury’s.  And so they’re going on strike.  If only the world valued knowledge more than money there might be some news worth reading.

Voice of Experience

Trust your publisher.  Well, if you have one, that is.  I’m not the only erstwhile academic to have ended up in publishing, but what constantly surprises me is that academics care little about those who give voice to their ideas.  Now this blog is self-publishing.  It contains my ideas, but they are free for the taking, and here’s a bit of useful advice: trust your publisher.  These days with easy online publication and formatting that makes your posts look like a pro (not here, mind you), it’s sometimes difficult to realize that publishers actually provide more than just an imprint.  They offer services to make your book look serious, scholarly, and also to be useful to others.  Those of us who write books are often far too emotionally involved to see this.

I regularly run across academics who tell publishers how the text should look on the page.  I’m not talking about those weird and wonderful sections of ancient texts with <lacunae>… ellipses… [brackets] and whatnot.  No, there are those who want to control kerning, leading, and all sorts of things.  There are those who want practically every single word indexed, although research shows that most researchers access searchable PDFs rather than wasting their time thumbing through pages to find a reference.  And that traditional chestnut, “written for general readers.”  Publishers have access to book sales figures (at least of their own books).  There’s no need to bluff; if your book is only for scholars (does it have words like “reify” or “heuristic” in it?  Be honest now!), publishers know how to handle that.

We’re all nervous when our book gets through the acceptance process.  Peer review always breaks me into a cold sweat.  Believe me, we understand!  Take a soothing sip of tea.  Go for a walk.  Better yet, jog.  Scholars tend to be precise thinkers.  We get that.  When, however, is the last time someone used a map from a Bible for navigation?  Most of those cities don’t even exist any more!  This strange mix of online savvy and adherence to the old ways of print (which I love and of which I shall never let go) clash in ways that cause publishers great stress.  You can find a YouTube video on how to make your own book.  Those of us in the biz can tell at a glance if a book’s self-published or not.  And believe me, we’re rooting for you.  We want your book to succeed.  Why not trust those who know what they’re doing?

Amendments

Funny thing about freedom of speech.  It doesn’t really exist in a capitalist system.  Words, I suspect the powers that be know, are extremely potent.  Any system that brooks no rivals will insist on silencing dissidents.  And not just on a national scale.  Several years ago I was interviewed by a Catholic magazine for an editorial position.  I was between jobs and this looked like a good fit; in fact, the woman who arranged the interview told me that if this position didn’t work out they’d likely be able to find a different one for someone with my particular skill set.  When the power that was interviewed me, however, he noted that I had a blog.  “If we hire you, you’ll need to take it down,” he said.  It would confuse readers who might think I was speaking for the Catholic Church.  My candidacy did not proceed.

In a job I would eventually get, in academic publishing, a similar concern was expressed.  Although I hold an earned doctorate from a world-class research university, my opinions might be mistaken for those of some true authority.  Problematic.  This issue keeps coming up.  I write fiction and publish it under a pseudonym.  Sometimes I think about coming out of my literary closet, but the issues pour in hard and fast when the door’s opened.  What would those who read my nonfiction (both of them!) think?  Would I discredit myself because I have too much imagination?  What would an academic employer say?  If I ever went back on the ordination track, would a congregation of any sort understand a clergy person who thinks such things?  I get enough flak from writing about horror films.

The fact is, freedom of expression is very, very limited.  Capitalism measures all things by the bottom line and anything that might cause that trend to waver is forbidden.  Lack of team spirit.  If you want to publish, don’t work in publishing.  It’s like saying (if I might be so bold) that you shouldn’t teach if you earn a doctorate, because you might actually contribute to what we hopefully call knowledge.  This dilemma has become an entrenched part of my psyche.  I grew up innocently writing fiction.  I completed my first stories about the age of 12 or 13.  I was eventually groomed for the ministry and so the fiction had to be set aside as one of those “childish things.”  Was it?  Perhaps.  More likely though, it was simply a lesson that I would find repeated throughout my adult life.  Give lip service to freedom of speech, but don’t ever use it.

Qohelet’s Advice

Academic hypersensitivity.  I fear it’s on the rise.  I know I’ve experienced it myself—that flushing rage and disbelief that someone has written a book on the very topic on which you also published a book, and didn’t cite you.  How could they have overlooked your contribution?  I’ve seen scholars angered to the point of wanting to ruin someone’s career for not citing them.  Now academics can be a sensitive lot.  Remember, some of them specialize to a point of general social incompetence.  Anyone publishing in their specialization is like making a claim to have slept with their spouse.  This subject is theirs!  They’ve spent years reading and researching it.  How dare some new-comer not know this!

One thing many academics don’t realize is just how much material is published.  The flip side of this is just how obscure their work is.  Trade publishing and academic publishing aren’t the same thing, and the former are the books that really get noticed.  When I wrote my dissertation, back in the early 1990s, I had read everthing I possibly could on the goddess Asherah.  When I proposed the dissertation topic there had been a total of about three books written on Asherah that I knew of.  Enough to have a research base, but not enough to suggest it was a crowded field.  While I was whiling away my time in Edinburgh, another American ex-pat was writing on the same topic in Oxford.  The day of my doctoral defense, the outside examiner came in with a book just out on Asherah—in German, no less—and asked how my dissertation related to it.  Even today when I see a book on Israelite religion I flip to the back to see if my book’s listed.  Generally it’s not.  Today it’s impossible to read everything published on Asherah.

In my own case, however, I’m slowly coming to perceive the reality of the situation.  Books continue to be produced.  Articles are published at a blinding rate.  Even Google has to take a little time to find them all.  An overly inflated sense of self-importance can be a painful thing when it meets with the sharp pin of reality.  Your academic book may well go unnoticed.  Even if it’s good.  It may be priced at over a hundred dollars—I still pause and fret and kick the dirt a few times before buying any book that costs more than twenty.  Silently and slowly, I suspect, the frustration builds.  You see a book, then two, then three, that seem to be oblivious to your contribution.  A new book for review lands on your desk and Vesuvius erupts—why am I not cited?!  Has my work been forgotten?  Calm down.  Breathe deeply.  The book of that neophyte before you will also become obscure in due course.