Geography Lesson

As someone who eschews easy labels, I’m always conflicted when someone asks what my doctorate is “in.”  Universities have departments, of course, and different academic fields have differing standards of what qualifies you as an expert.  My Ph.D. was mainly in the field of history of religions, but focused (all such project must be narrow) on what is best called ancient West Asian cultures.  Recently someone showed me a website with free geography quizzes on it.  (I post the link here with the caveat that this can be very addictive.)  This friend asked me how good my Asian geography was.  I knew that once I got east of Iran I was going to be in trouble.  Some countries, such as Russia, India, China, and Japan are hard to miss, but the others I was properly humbled over.

I tried the quiz again and again until I could point to any of the official Asian nations with a fair degree of accuracy.  Eurasia is a very large landmass, and when you consider that it is, apart from human-made canals, attached to Africa this is a lot of space to label.  Considering that many isolationist politicians can’t correctly find smaller countries on a map without an app, I started to realize just how lopsided the world is.  Many more people live in Asia than populate the “New World.”  They actually have more space than we do here, but much of it is too cold or too dry for comfortable living.  Still, I considered that if I’d had this quiz as a kid I might’ve known my geography much better than I do.

As I’m preparing to attend the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in a few days, I recall priding myself at knowing all fifty states of my native country.  I’ve been to all but five of the lower 48—Alabama, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Nevada have eluded me (the conference never meets in them and I don’t have friends who’ll put me up for free in them).  But at least I know where I haven’t been.  

After trying my hand at Asia on the app, I attempted Africa.  Let’s just say I still have a lot left to learn.  And unlike when I was a kid, I look forward to taking quizzes.  Work interferes with web time, though, and learning modern countries isn’t the same as knowing where Hatti or Elam used to be.  Religion, after all, forms borders just as impermeable as mountains, oceans, or deserts.

Old Grains

Back when I was somebody—a professor is somebody, even if only a seminary professor—I was invited to meet with a group of Seattle writers and intellectuals.  I was in Seattle already because driving all the way out here was possible when you live in the Midwest and your summers are basically open and free.  (Professor’s privilege.)  One of the group members, the one who invited me, asked me about grain.  When the club met they ate.  With a bent toward history, one of them brought period-appropriate bread.  What kind would be fashionable for a night of ancient Near East talk?  (I was still researching and writing on Ugarit at the time, before Ugaritology passed away.)  Without stopping to think I replied “Einkorn.”  I didn’t know if einkorn was still around or not.  All I knew is that it was the earliest (at least as understood at that time) domesticated grain.  The loaf that arrived that night was a more accessible grain variety.

All of this came back to me as I stood in the local health-food store.  We don’t shop here for regular groceries—it’s expensive to eat healthily—but we’d been invited to someone’s house and said we’d bring appetizers.  The health-food store had vegan cheeses, so we needed crackers to go with.  Then I spied the word “einkorn.”  The Seattle discussion had to be well onto two decades old by now.  I was finally able to answer my question, einkorn was still alive.  The craze for ancient grains did not exist in my professorate days.  Some companies, according to occasional news stories, were trying to brew the beer of ancient Egypt or Sumer, but the health conscious hadn’t gone so far as to trying to replicate the diet of the earliest agriculturalists.

Ancient grains cost more because the yields are smaller.  Although the grain heads look disturbingly like those house centipedes that scamper in the basement when you flip on the light, they aren’t nearly the size of a current wheat head.  It stands to reason that it takes more of them to make up the same amount of flour, and appetites have grown over the millennia.  Like most vegans, I read boxes.  Another ancient grain cracker, apart from brown rice, included amaranth, flaxseed, millet, quinoa, sesame, and sorghum.  Never mixed this way in antiquity (for amaranth and quinoa were part of the “new world” and the others “old”), modern mixologists have devised new ways of using ancient grains.  Einkorn nearly went extinct with the development of wheat, rye, and barley.  But it hung on, and now, as a dozen millennia ago, it has a way of sustaining both dreams and fantasies.

Greatest Weakness

What a privilege it must be to work in a world of ideas!  (And to get paid handsomely to do so.)    My particular (and peculiar) career—if that’s what you call it—is intimately bound up with academics.  Those who know me personally treat me nicely, but the vast majority who haven’t a clue that I’m anything other than a guy who’s helping them get published sometimes forget their privilege is showing.  I’m not busting on my homies; I know what it’s like.  But I’ve noticed some interesting trends (“turns” in academese) that are fascinating from the point of view of an ordinary mortal with a mortgage and a great deal of anxiety about it.  For example, I find catch phrases time and again.  (See what I did there?)  Academic writers learn that if they buck the conventions they’ll be relegated to presses that don’t enhance your career.  All roads lead to Harvard, after all.

All of this is preamble to a curious trend that I’ve been seeing claiming that an idea’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.  I read this time and time again, so I began to wonder about the origin of this idea.  Now, not even Google understands “what is the origin of the phrase greatest strength is greatest weakness?” but it does bring up about a thousand-and-one websites about job interviews.  I’ve had many of these throughout this thing I’m calling a career, and just like everyone else I’ve read that when asked what your greatest weakness is reply that your greatest strength (whatever it may be) is it.  The classics such as “I’m a workaholic,” or “I just can’t stop acquiring more x” (and we all need more x), are tired cultural tropes.  How did academics pick up on this?

Does it stretch back to Achilles and his heel, or Goliath and his gigantism?  Or is it that to admit weakness is to disqualify yourself from a job?  A well-meaning friend told me I should go through this entire blog (as if anyone, including me, has time to do that) and expunge all mentions of having lost my job.  They should be replaced with insinuations that I’d chosen to leave.  “Nobody,” he implied, “likes a loser.”  Well, I guess my greatest weakness is that I’m an honest graphomaniac.  I write incessantly.  Novels and nonfiction books, short stories and essays, and even a learned article or two.  I used to be an academic you see.  And I was always honest.  It was my greatest weakness, if you see what I mean.

Time To Meet

I feel compelled to state up front that this wasn’t the mind-blowing book I was writing about in yesterday’s post.  One of the perks of working in publishing is the occasional offer of a free book.  (It’s not as generous as you might think, so when one is offered I always say “thank you.”)  The Surprising Science of Meetings, by Steven G. Regelberg, isn’t exactly “mind-blowing.”  The realization that some people make a living studying meetings was certainly, well, surprising, but the corporate world is all about returns on investments and boring stuff like that.  We all hear of companies that value innovative and exciting ideas, but most of us know the feeling of being desk drones parked behind a soulless monitor all day.  At least I’m no longer confined to a cubicle.

The academic world I once knew was the stimulating environment of learning for its own sake.  The academy has followed the business world to its own form of perdition and as Rogelberg points out, there are millions of meetings any given day.  Many of them are poorly run.  This book is for those who want meetings to flow more effectively, to better the bottom line.  Still, I found the chapter on servant leadership particularly hopeful.  I couldn’t help but wonder if Rogelberg was aware that servant leadership was something that developed in the church, out of the effort to imitate the way Jesus was said to have led his flock of disciples.  The point was not to aggrandize himself (this is a chapter 45 and his ilk should read) but to help others to be their best.  This is the kind of leadership—rare, to be sure—that the church has always, at least vocally, promoted.

It didn’t take long for ecclesiastical organizations to start running like businesses, however.  The bishop became a boss rather than someone who reluctantly had the crozier forced into his (or her) hand.  I’ve always believed you should have to take a pay cut to become a bishop.  That would immediately weed out most of the climbers.  In fact, if servant leadership is really the ideal, and the good of the company is really the goal, pay cuts should be expected as you climb the corporate ladder.  Can you imagine a business world where workers were well compensated, and those who really had vision sought promotion because their motivation wasn’t their own bottom line?  It’s an intriguing idea, to be sure.  I’d like ponder it more, but I’ve got a meeting to get to.

Pay Per View

One of the things editors can teach academics is that the latter should pay more attention.  Especially to the world of publishing.  An erstwhile academic, I learned to go about research and publication in the traditional way: come up with an idea that nobody else has noticed or thought of, and write about it.  It is “publishing for the sake of knowledge.”  (Yes, that is Gorgias Press’s slogan, and yes, it is one of my hooks—marketing, anyone?)  The idea behind this is that knowledge is worth knowing for its own sake.  Researchers of all kinds notice details of immense variety and there’s always room for more books.  Or at least there used to be.  The world of publishing on which academics rely, however, is rapidly transforming.  Money changes everything.

The world has too many problems (many of them generated by our own species) to pay too much attention to academics.  Universities, now following “business models” crank out more doctorates than there are jobs for employing said wannabe profs, and those who get jobs pay scant attention to knock-on changes in the publishing world.  Just the other day I was reading about “pay per use” schemes for academic writing that, unsurprisingly, came up with the fact that most academic books and articles lose money.  If someone has to pay to read your research, will they do it?  Especially if that research is on a topic that has no obvious connection with the mess we’re busy making of this world?  Probably not.  Publishing for the sake of knowledge is fast becoming a dusty artifact in the museum of quaint ideas.

For those still in the academic sector that means that research projects now have to be selected with an economic element in mind.  “Would anyone pay for this?” has to be one of the questions asked early on.  The question has to be answered honestly, which requires getting out from beyond the blinders of being part of the privileged class of those who are paid to think original thoughts.  Academia has followed the money.  A capitalistic system makes this inevitable.  How can you do business with an institution that doesn’t play by your accounting rules?  And academic publishers, which have difficulty turning a profit due to low sales volume, are bound to play along.  This situation will change how we seek knowledge.  More’s the pity since some of the things most interesting about the world are those that nobody would think to pay to view.

Gods, Monsters, and Publication

One of life’s great ironies is that those of us not born to wealth have to spend the years we’re young enough to enjoy ourselves stabilizing our situation until suddenly we realize we’re too old to do that kind of thing any more.  I know I’m being overly dramatic, but it often does feel like life operates backwards.  My professional career began where I’d hoped it would end, as a professor.  I taught and published for almost twenty years and really nobody paid much attention.  At least I had my teaching.  I also had a family to support, so I had to accept the shift to publishing when that came along with an offer of a full-time job.  Thus it has been for about a decade now.  Within the last decade colleagues have begun to approach me, asking me to contribute to academic volumes, or to be involved in pursuits that are more associated with professors than editors.  I could do with more irony in my diet.

All of this is a long-winded invitation to check out the new Journal of Gods and Monsters.  I probably won’t be writing articles for it; lack of library and research time (both of which I had when invitation-free) assure that my scribbling will be non-technical and hopefully of the more general interest crowd.  Then why am I telling your about this journal, fresh from the box?  I’m on the Executive Advisory Committee and the first Call for Papers has been issued.  Now, this blog really has no way to include attachments that I know of, so if anyone wants in on the ground floor for this journal please contact me (the About page on this website says how).  I contributed to the first number of the first volume of the Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions and look where I am now!  You just never know.

In addition to the books on which I’ve been assiduously working, I’ve got a number of commitments to edited volumes and encyclopedias (these invitations waited until I was safely out of academe before rolling in).  The monster crowd is, I assure you, a welcoming one.  As we seem to have turned the corner into autumn a touch early this year, and I see leaves beginning to change before August is out, my mind turns toward the realm of the uncanny.  It may be less academic than ancient religions, but the world of monsters feels much more relevant these days.  If you’re a researcher in these realms I’ll be glad to send you a call for papers.

 

 

 

 

https://godsandmonsters-ojs-txstate.tdl.org/godsandmonsters/index.php/godsandmonsters

Linking

So I’m active on LinkedIn.  I try to keep social media down to the essentials, but you never know when opportunity might rap its knuckles next to your shingle.  When LinkedIn began they ran the warning that you should only connect with people you actually knew, since people can say bad things about you and hurt your job prospects.  Since that kept me down to about a dozen connections (many academics, being secure with tenure, don’t bother with LinkedIn), I eventually followed the advice of a wise friend and accepted invitations from people I didn’t know because, as he pointed out, they might be the ones with jobs to offer.  That made sense.  There is a flip-side to it, however, and that is people think I have work to offer.  I don’t.  At my job I have no hiring capacity whatsoever.  (I can feel the links being broken even as I write this.)

The vast majority of people who contact me on LinkedIn want something from me.  They obviously don’t read this blog.  (See paragraph above.)  Many people send me messages wanting me to publish their books.  Editors, my dear and gentle readers, work in specific disciplines.  No one contacting me on LinkedIn has written a book about the Bible, although my profile indicates that’s my gig.  And besides, many companies, including mine, have policies against doing business over social media.  I often think of this because the book business is easily researched.  There’s a ton of information both online and on shelf about how to get published.  Messaging someone on LinkedIn is not recommended.

Writing a book takes a lot of effort.  I know, because I’ve done it a number of times.  If you’re going to put years into doing something, it pays to spend at least a few minutes learning about how the publishing industry works.  I made rookie mistakes in my younger days, of course.  But that led me to learn about publishing even before I had a job in the industry.  Quite apart from my job, I freely admit to being a book nerd.  And publishing, despite its many problems, is an inherently fascinating industry.  Although I’ve had academic books accepted for publication, I still struggle getting my fiction to press (I have had short stories published, but my novels remain unread).  I won’t contact other publishers I know through LinkedIn, though.  I’d rather have it be a personal experience whether it’s acceptance or rejection.  And that’s something social media just can’t replicate.