Rebranding

Established in 1583, Edinburgh University has been a world-class research institution for centuries.  It appears in pop culture as a place of great learning and innovation.  While the newest of Scotland’s four (in contrast to England’s two) ancient universities, it has risen to the point of greatest name recognition.  Even as a kid in rural western Pennsylvania, born into an uneducated family, I’d heard about it.  Little did I dream that I’d actually attend it one day, skulking its time-honored halls and walking the same streets as so many worthies that I couldn’t count them.  It was an inspirational place to live and learn.  While it may not get you a job, a doctorate from it will keep you curious for the rest of your life, and that’s a fantastic gift.

Just as I was preparing to graduate that venerable institution announced it had decided to rebrand.  Wait, what?  A four-centuries’ old university known world-wide felt it had to have a brand?  At great expense, they hired a consulting firm to make them more modern looking while retaining the trusted tradition stretching back to the late middle ages. It wanted to attract “modern” students (since this was in the early nineties those modern students are now adults).  I felt crushed under the commercialism of it all.  Branding?  If a kid from remote foothills of the Appalachians can know and dream of a place, why does it need to get the word out about itself?  Ah well, these wee bairn be wantin’ somethin’ flashy.

I’ve lived through other corporate rebrandings.  They seem to me a waste of good money, especially if you’ve been around for a long time.  Some people, I suppose, look at an old logo and say “looks outdated, not with it.”  Others of us fall down and worship.  You see, staying power is something rare these days.  Corporations come and go.  Even higher education institutions sometimes close down, but the old ones keep on.  You can pick up a book from 1600 and read about Edinburgh University.  It won’t have the new logo—in fact, it may not have a logo at all—but it will still be around four centuries later.  If you get something right at the beginning, why do you need to change it to impress those who think present-day branding (which will only have to be rebranded again at some point in the future) is superior?  Perhaps our ancient institutions need to learn that old lesson—trust yourself.


Classic Plural

You might think that with our modern lifestyles, looking back would become passé.  Recently an article on Hyperallergic discussed “Ancient Greece and Rome Are Hot in Animation Right Now. Here’s Why.”  The article by Chiara Sulprizio notes that themes central to history—namely, sex and violence—animate ancient mythology.  This allows modern interpreters to explore where we are by looking back.  At the same time, in higher education, such topics and departments are being cut.  The humanities in general have come under fire lately.  Where are we going to learn about such things as the classics if we cut off the only people who spend their time studying such things?  This isn’t the only instance where universities seem to misread what hoi polloi find to be of interest.

The classics have been known as such because of their formative role in our culture.  As this Hyperallergic story shows, they can bring in money (for this is the measure by which all things are assessed).  Again it seems that higher education has followed the way of the dollar, so why not invest in the study of what makes us human?  I guess I’m a bit of a curmudgeon here because it was the humanities that came up with the idea of higher education in the first place.  Universities were places to study theology and law, and even the original concept of “humanities” included arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and logic.  Only when these topics started to split off into what we would eventually call “STEM” did the humanities begin to suffer neglect.

Looks like a good story

It was, after all, the Greco-Roman world that gave us what we call the classics.  I fully agree that we can’t constantly look back—we’d never move forward then—but our heads turn for a reason.  Understanding what it is to be human seems to be something we’ve grown less interested in since the sterile clean room has given us gadgets and toys we can’t seem to live without.  Living, however, is such a human aspiration.  We want fulfilled lives.  Mythology gives us meaning.  That’s why we keep coming back to it.  In my own lifetime I’ve seen several resurgences of interest in the classics, and experts always seem surprised.  They needn’t be, however.  People have found these stories powerful well before the Greeks and Romans gave them the shapes we recognize.  Many of them go back even further to the early civilizations of the Levant.  The classics have, in other words, earned that name.


Don’t Google Yourself

The internet has made us all less significant, in some ways.  Specifically I’m thinking about names.  “Wiggins,” when I was growing up, was an unusual surname.  In fact, people in Pittsburgh would sometimes send me clippings when a Wiggins appeared in the paper, it was so unusual.  Now with the internet I find plenty of Wigginses out there, and, in my case, several Steve Wigginses.  Not only that, but there are other academic Steve Wigginses, prompting Academia.edu to send me emails asking if I was the Steve Wiggins who wrote this or that article, often about agriculture or some other aspect of anthropology.  Who would’ve guessed?  There’s actually at least a third Steve Wiggins academic out there, an applied mathematician.  Perhaps there’s some mystical draw to higher education with a name like this?

But not so fast!  The most popular Steve Wiggins online seems to be the one who shot and killed a Dickson County, Tennessee deputy.  His act of violence, probably not for a Herostratic motivation, has nevertheless placed him in a pool of internet of fame.  So much so that a supervisor emailed me, jokingly, in June 2018, asking why I’d done it.  It’s difficult to build a good family name when some of us are going around shooting people.  A simple web search reveals that he is currently the best known Steve Wiggins in the country.  It could be because his trial was just last week, but still, but still…

One of my earliest blog posts here on Sects and Violence in the Ancient World was about the gospel singer named Steve Wiggins.  Prior to the murder of a police officer, this Steve Wiggins came to the top in any Google search.  To become well known you must release content.  In my world, which is small, that still means in print form.  Widely distributed.  And reasonably priced.  It’s clear I’ve got my work cut out for me.  The lessons we learn when we’re young have a way of staying with us.  It’s still easy to believe Wiggins is an uncommon surname—people still have no idea how to spell it—but the internet shows that’s just not true.  Even with both names there’s a significant number of both famous and infamous Steve Wigginses out there.  We all like to think we’re unique.  That we all have some kind of contribution to make.  Maybe mine is in the realm of horror movies.  Or Doppelgängers.  Only time will tell.

Who are you?

The Price of Independence

Recently I was updating my Amazon author page.  Since this is purely a self-promotional place (my books aren’t exactly priced to move) I try to approach it with a sense of humor.  I need to be in the mood to write funny, and some followers of this blog often mistake what I’m doing when I try it here.  (Satire and irony, at least to me, have quite a bit of inherent humor.)  In any case, the trick with Amazon author pages—or any internet sites really—is being an “independent scholar.”  To both the academy and to educated laity, that moniker suggests you’ve somehow failed to impress the academic establishment.  No institution wants to claim you, and why should anyone listen to someone who “blows their own horn”?  If you sell enough books you’ll gain some credibility, but at these prices?

Still, I try.  The marketers and publicists I know all talk about building a platform (“shares” and “likes” help).  Platforms require a lot of planks.  One plank I recently learned about was JSTOR (a not-quite acronym for Journal Storage).  Well, I’ve actually known about JSTOR for decades but only recently have been able to use it.  JSTOR scans and indexes academic journals.  While that may not be exciting to the average layperson, for academics (and independent scholars), this is a great tool.  Prior to JSTOR you had to spend hours plowing through various indexes to learn what had been published on a certain topic.  Then you had to go into the stacks and look the material up.  And probably end up photocopying it.  JSTOR makes all of that obsolete with a few keystrokes.  The problem was you could only get in with your university’s subscription.

I stand and applaud JSTOR because they have now made it possible for independent scholars (we are a growing demographic!) to access 100 free articles a month.  Even though “independent scholar” often means you have a nine-to-five with no sabbaticals, that’s quite a lot of articles you can now access.  While I think this is a great move, I do wonder if it’s part of the writing on the wall for higher education.  Around the world universities (except those well endowed, or supported by federal funds) are having trouble staying solvent.  Knowledge is free on the web, until you run into that paywall at internet speed.  Well, at least for now we have JSTOR and access to otherwise inaccessible journal articles.  But that’ll have to wait until after work.  And after I update my Amazon author profile.


Used or New?

A recent post on a used book got me to thinking.  Back when I was acting like a trained researcher my reading was very specialized and focused.  Even so, my personal reading was eclectic.  I think that’s the result of having been raised poor.  With no bookstore in our town, and no Amazon (or Bookshop.org), book purchasing was catch as catch can.  Since my fortunes haven’t dramatically increased in life (long story), my purchasing habits have remained pretty much the same.  I’ll buy used books or movies if I can.  Since these are about the only things I buy, they loom large in my mind.  And the thing about buying used is that it’s often opportunistic.  I can pretend it’s intentional and say I’m trying to be well-rounded, but the fact is I try to save money where I can.

This really struck me as I was reading something written by a film maker.  Now, I’ve penned two books about horror films, and I tend to watch them quite a lot.  What struck me about what I was reading was just how many films the writer knew.  Academics can be that way—knowing everything about a subject.  When researching my first book, A Reassessment of Asherah, I read everything I could find in pre-internet days about the goddess.  That is a thoroughly researched book.  When you’re a graduate student your job is to become as familiar as possible with your subject, no matter the language of the research (within reason).  As just an editor my movies and my books are a matter of what I find in my eclectic life.

I often imagine what my life would be like if I could’ve remained a professor.  In those days I read fewer full books—research is often a matter of reading only the parts relevant to your project—and certainly less fiction.  I was never a well-paid academic, teaching at a small school that considered on-campus housing a large part of the compensation package.  I didn’t buy many books then, either.  Some of the most important ones were, you guessed it, used.  I wonder if I would’ve ever have shifted my interest back to horror.  During those days I didn’t need horror (it was a gothic campus and I was beginning family life).  Since then I’ve become an even more eclectic person.  My fascination with geology began then and still comes back when the stars are just right.  And even they, I suspect, might be remnants of even older, used stars.

Photo credit: NASA

Online Research

Given my current lack of a university library, and my continued rapaciousness for research I’ve had to sample internet offerings.  There’s a reason academics are skeptical of the internet’s research reliability.  Just about anything you want to verify brings you up against a paywall where you can sometime buy an article you could read for free if you were a professor, for about $15 or $20.  The privileging of academic information.  (Hey folks, I give it away here!)  In any case, I often run into websites on the topic on researching that give “facts” with a breezy assurance that isn’t followed up with footnotes, making me wonder where they got their information.  Who was the publisher?  Who says they know what they’re talking about?  No wonder alternative facts rule the day.

One of the things I learned in the course of my doctoral work is that those three insignificant letters, if applied correctly, indicate that you know how to do research.  Earning a doctorate is often considered (and sometimes is) a matter of becoming a specialist.  Those willing to peel back the top layer realize that underneath what’s going on is a transformation of your way of thinking.  You can find facts, but you can also weigh them in the balances.  You take no one’s word for it.  Unless, of course, they’re published by a prestige press.  And even then, if the lesson really sunk in, you’ll have your doubts.  The internet is a frustrating place to try to find reliable information.  Oh, it’s great for looking up phone numbers, and even for getting directions.  Just don’t trust it with history.

Currently at work on my fifth book, I’m finding research somewhat of a hurdle.  I’ve reached out to local universities and they seem only to want to let you in if you’re an adjunct (which is considered a conflict of interest in my current post).  You’re therefore locked out of knowledge.  I recently learned that JSTOR may be offering a fixed number of free articles to independent scholars.  If so, that is a great and farsighted boon.  You see, the problem is you need to look at the footnotes to know which articles are actually based on solid research.  There’s a move afoot that makes academic presses shudder.  The move for free information.  It’s the business of academic presses to sell it, of course—that’s where the money comes from.  So I sit here facing another paywall and I wonder is wisdom can ever truly be free.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Caring for the Future

Some people have it really bad.  Living in war-torn countries, many former academics find themselves scrounging for a living.  In the United States academics tend to have it good—at least those who get jobs do.  In my line of work it’s not unusual to hear them complaining of overwork, or of various aspects of academic life that are a strain.  I know that can be true—I’ve been there.  However, a recent story about Adnan Al Mohamad on iNews, tells how the Syrian professor had to flee and become a waiter and farm helper in Turkey.  Until CARA found out.  CARA is a British charity—Council for At-Risk Academics.  They were able to secure Al Mohamad a university post so that he could achieve his potential.

Of course, academia isn’t perfect, as my many colleagues who’ve succeeded in it can tell you.  But it is good for the world.  Those of us taught to think deeply about a subject often feel what might be called a moral obligation to pass it on.  Interestingly, in the “developed world” academic positions are on the decline and education is seen as an expensive option instead of the way forward.  I may have been sidelined, but I’ve been watching this happen for decades now.  Instead of organizations like CARA (many academics are at risk) those encouraged to go on by their teachers and colleagues end up disappearing in obscurity with crippling bills to pay for many years down the road.  There are no safety nets and western society has decided education is a luxury rather than the path to a better future.

Somewhere along the line, as progress became equated with electronic gadgetry, we lost the desire to think deeply.  Books are “products” that can be thrown onto a plastic screen and soon forgotten after read.  We can gossip 24/7 through social media and never spend hours delving deep into a subject.  We can move the economy ahead without stopping to think about the consequences.  The world needs organizations like CARA.  Better yet, governments should take on that role.  Politics for some (most, of a particular party) is a means of enriching oneself rather than bettering the society that allows them to do so.  Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if education were the number one priority?  Isn’t that what a rational society would do?  Creating a world in which those who’ve personally invested in continuous learning could share it?  Instead, we live in a world where academics increasingly require rescue.


Ever-Changing Skies

The weather is something we like to think is trivial.  We’ve got more important things to do than worry about it.  Yet even our most important ways of dealing with life’s issues have to take the humble weather into account.  The fact that I was awoken by a thunderstorm at around 1:30, and, given my schedule, thus began my day, perhaps has something to do with it.  And perhaps so does a conversation I overheard on a trip to Ithaca.  Now, upstate New York isn’t known for its cooperative weather.  In fact, the alma mater of Binghamton University includes the phrase “ever-changing skies.”  I was in a public place and a conversation was being had between two men who were strangers to me.  My ears perked up when I realized they were discussing higher education.

This should surprise none of my regular readers.  Higher education has been the stand-offish lover in my life.  In any case, as one guy was explaining to the other, he worked at Cornell University—one of the Ivy League schools—and he opined that the reason it had trouble recruiting faculty was, well, the weather.  Now, I’m one to sometimes take weather personally.  (I’m still wondering what the point of last night’s thunderstorm was.  Anything that wakes me after midnight essentially personally ends my night’s sleep.)  In any case, being one of those under-employed academics I had to think about this.  I’d be glad for a university post—would I turn one down because of the weather?  Is meteorological preference really that strong?  Especially since in polite conversation the weather is considered the shallowest of topics.

Weather is vitally important.  Perhaps because of its ubiquity we tend to overlook it.  Think about rain on a wedding day.  Or a moving day.  In the latter case it can be more than inconvenient.  Sports events can be cancelled due to weather (baseball is especially prone to this).  Extreme weather (which is becoming more common) can shut everything down.  Is is just me, or does every thunderstorm now come with a “severe” warning attached?  Weather is more than just inconvenient; our lives depend upon it.  Thoughts not unrelated to these were in my mind as I wrote Weathering the Psalms.  I’ve only ever lived in rainy climates.  I realize many others aren’t nearly so lucky.  The drought in our western states is troubling.  Perhaps higher education might be able to rise above it?  Or will the most educated turn down jobs because of the inconvenience of ever-changing skies?


Last Baptist?

The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.  It’s the core of a powerful voting bloc that gave electoral (but not popular) victory to Donald Trump.  It’s also the location of an attempted takeover by a fascist faction that wants to make Christianity the most oppressive religion in the history of the world (moreso than it has already been).  This past week the Convention narrowly avoided this by electing a moderate president for the year.  The struggle was real and the consequences very deep.  The true cost of Trump’s presidency will continue to emerge for years to come.  Permission was given for extremists to be vocal and validated and bad behavior was relabeled as “Christian.”

Roger Williams’ first Baptist church (in the country)

We, as a society, have a bad habit of ignoring things we don’t believe in.  Just because many educated people have come to see the lie behind much of what “Christians” say, they assume they don’t need to pay attention to them.  Years of ignoring the insidious actions of many conservative Christian groups has led us to a political precipice where many months after the fact some people who can’t count still believe 232 is greater than 306.  While some may wonder how we’ve come to this point the answer is obvious—there are groups of “Christians,” organized and well funded, who’ve been active in politics for many decades.  The Southern Baptist Convention wanted, in some sectors, to make that official.  They wished to be Trump’s own party.  They wanted white supremacy to be the norm, women to be chattels of men, and those whose sexuality differs to be criminals.  And they nearly won.

We ignore religion at our peril.  A recent study by the British Academy has shown that in the United Kingdom the study of religion is in decline.  I know of no similar study this side of the Atlantic, but anecdotal evidence suggests the same, if not worse here.  Those who study religion from within other disciplines such as sociology, history, or psychology, don’t really address the question of what religion truly is.  People experience religion as extremely urgent.  Misguided leaders instruct them that their version of God has endorsed the very tactics the Bible itself excoriates.  When the largest Protestant denomination is nearly taken over by political extremists, we should be paying attention.  A troubling template was, despite the majority vote, forced upon us in 2016.  So much so that it feels like it was a decade ago and we suffered from it for longer than we have.  And the kettle is still boiling, only this time those dancing about it claim to be Christian.


Hybrids

Photo by Maria Lupan on Unsplash

Hybrids.  They’re everywhere these days.  From hybrid cars to the modified foods we eat, mixed forms seem to be in style.  I can’t think of myself as anything other than a hybrid.  A person not welcome in academia isn’t expected to research and write books, but I just can’t seem to help myself.  There a rare excitement in finding, and loving, a new idea.  Academic writing I can do without, but the writing up of ideas, that is intoxicating.  I’m afraid I can’t always share such things here since I don’t have release time for research and publication and it can take me considerable time to gather all my sources and write up the results.  Meanwhile I’m just a working stiff like anybody else.  A hybrid working stiff.

Describing the elation of a new idea is difficult.  Knowing that something nobody else has noticed before is coming into focus, and that someone might want to publish it is thrilling.  Okay, so many people find other things like sports or dangerous activities exciting.  That’s fine.  For me an afternoon in a museum or library can do it.  You see, after finishing a big project like a book, it’s normal for me to go through a slump.  People ask “what are you working on next?” and although I have many ideas racing along it can sometimes take up to a year before a front-runner emerges.  When it does, however, all bets are off.  Ideas like this can buoy my mood for days at a time.  Now if only I had a classroom to test them out.

I mentioned The Glass Menagerie the other day.  Plays can be, and often are, mirrors of reality.  In high school we had to read Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.  Although that was approaching forty years ago I still remember our teaching pointing out the real tragedy was that Willy Loman had real skills that were evident to those who knew him.  Circumstances, however, had compelled him to become a salesman.  There is a difference between a job and a calling.  Callings, however, are no protection against an economy based on greed.  Perhaps we’re all being channeled into salesmen positions.  Even if that’s the case, however, we know what brings us our sense of meaning in life.  Although there’s no inherent reason that a person can’t research and write on their own, it can be a costly and time-consuming venture without institutional support.  But a hybrid does things a little bit differently.  And hybrids are everywhere these days.


Looking In

There’s a real danger to the lifelong study of religion.  Learning to look at any tradition from the point of view of an observer will create a sense of being on the outside looking in.  I’m a member of a religious organization.  I occasionally consider pursuing ordination within it—this was my original sense of my calling in life—but I’m compelled to consider the phenomenon of being outside looking in.  When I was an Episcopalian (before the church showed its true colors in my particular case), I wrote a letter to my rector asking how I could get off of the church steps and be invited inside.  My rector wrote back with some insipid advice and was among those who voted, as a trustee, to oust me from my fourteen-year career at Nashotah House.  Outside again.

Studying the history of religions provides dangerous levels of insight.  Simple, mindless acceptance of teachings becomes impossible.  This isn’t arrogance, as any who know me can attest, but rather a form of hyper-awareness.  You can’t emerge from forty-plus years of reading about, and deeply pondering, religion unscathed.  Many, of course, dismiss any observations by those lacking the denominational seal of approval.  “If you knew what you were talking about,” so the reasoning goes, “you’d be a minister or a professor.”  So you speak from the sidelines at best.  Outside.  Even within my own group I have merely the role of “member,” lacking the official piece of paper from the seminary or other accrediting body that states I might know some things.

Of course, I have much yet to learn.  This religion thing is a tough nut to crack.  Were I younger and better paid I might consider undergoing college again to take a different path.  As it is, I’ve invested more than a half-century trying to get where I am, wherever that is.  I sit outside watching the birds.  They’re back pretty much in full force now.  They seem so certain about where they’re going.  How can you fly without a full level of commitment?  Earthbound, I muddle about with my head somewhere above the clouds I cannot reach.  I read about religious traditions unknown to me.  Often I find nuggets of great value in them.  Of course, I’m not clergy so you need not take my word for it.  I, after all, draw inspiration simply by sitting outside, always outside, and watching the birds. 


Literary Life

Trying to live a literary life is, I suppose, irresponsible.  Especially if your efforts and writing bring basically no money.  It takes considerable effort to make daily time to read and write, and so much else remains to be done.  At times I feel guilty for trying.  My books have all been published, for various reasons, with academic publishers.  Academic publishers don’t try to sell many copies of an individual book, relying as they do on the long tail philosophy.  Most academics have good paying jobs that expect research and writing in return.  For the outsider, however, there are other pressing matters.  The nine-to-five being the largest among them.  And any social organizations you join to keep you sane and connected.  Then there’s social media to take your time.  And the lawn’s ready for mowing.

I’ve always believed lack of time was (is) a theological problem.  I came up with that when I was an academic and had time to ponder such things.  Unlike many of my colleagues, I did research and write.  Now I want to move into that world where you might earn a little from all the effort.  And yet, that old Protestant guilt has a way of getting its talons around you.  You’re reading?  Shouldn’t you be doing those minor repairs you can handle without a contractor?  (Or at least think you can handle?)  Or maybe shouldn’t you be looking for a job that pays enough to hire someone to do such things?  And don’t you dare let that word “retirement” anywhere near your head.  What are you, irresponsible?

Reading takes commitment.  I try to read, on average, at least a book a week.  It requires a lot of time.  And a literary life includes giving back.  You want to share your writing with the world.  Hoping that either your fiction or nonfiction might eventually bring you some notice.  That’s the plan anyway.  The starving artist paradigm doesn’t feel so comfortable when you’ve got a mortgage.  Still, the imagination refuses to be tamed.  I’ve often said I could be content on a desert island as long as I had a huge stack of paper and never-ending supply of pens.  But that’s not the reality I inhabit.  That mortgage pays for a roof over my books and writing computer, always complaining it’s full.  It may not be glamorous.  In fact, it’s about the exact opposite of that.  But it is, after all, a literary life.


Learned Ghosts

For one memorable year of what I call a career, I taught at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.  One in a series of near misses, this came close to becoming a full-time job.  Apart from a couple of rather humorless colleagues, the department was welcoming and an enjoyable place to be.  I even got to know the dean, now elsewhere, and planned on working on a project with him.  It was a memorable year in many respects.  One was its inherent strangeness.  I was living away from home while teaching there, and saw some odd things on my drives through the Wisconsin countryside.  It also happened to be at Oshkosh that I first discovered H. P. Lovecraft, so the weirdness was, in a word, enhanced.

Students like to tell ghost stories.  A recent article by Jocelyne LeBlanc on Mysterious Universe caught my eye because it tells of students in Oshkosh that live in a haunted dorm.  These kinds of stories are ubiquitous and Oshkosh is in no way singular here.  Students, whose brains haven’t yet ossified, are often open to new experiences.  Most of them, however, don’t possess the research skills to get behind the origins of some such tales.  Sometimes there’s an explanation.  Other times there’s not.  At Grove City College, when I was there, students told of a haunted playing field.  It was the site, it was said, of a former gymnasium.  What made it haunted was the death of a basketball player who’d smashed through a glass gymnasium door during a game and bled out before help could arrive.  It sounds improbable and I never had time to research it.

We all, I suspect, have a longing for the supernatural.  We want to believe that there’s more to this world than physics and earning money.  And strange things do happen.  I never saw any ghosts in Oshkosh, but the things I did see helped to make up for that particular lack.  Edinburgh, where I studied for my doctorate, is widely rumored to be among the most haunted cities in the world.  Although I saw no ghosts there, people flock to the ghost tours.  In fact, one stopped right below our first apartment’s window every night during the tourist season.  By the time we moved out we had every word memorized.  The haunted dorm story is a revered tradition.  Thinking about it makes me wish I could afford to be a student again.


Street Teaching

When I’m out on the street—not so often these days—I’m sometimes accosted with strange questions.  This has happened to me quite a few times over the years.  Recently, when I was taking the recycling out for my daughter on a weekend visit, I saw a couple guys in a car right by the receptacle.  I was wearing a mask, due to, you know,  Covid, so I wanted to keep social distance.  The one in the driver’s seat asked if I was going to dump the recycling and when I said I was his partner said “I’ll take care of that for you.”  They had a plastic bag full of cans and were loading glass bottles in their trunk.  I thanked them for their help and turned to go.  As I was walking away one of them called out.

“Hey!  Are you a teacher?”  I get asked that a lot.  Only the academy refuses to recognize it.  I acknowledged that I used to be.  “What level?” they asked.  I allowed as I used to be a college professor.  “Where?” I told them most recently at Rutgers.  “What’d you teach?”  This is where it always gets interesting and I start to sweat a little.  I told them religious studies.  I also said that’s why I couldn’t find a teaching job.  “The best information we ever had on religion came from a six-year old.  You know what the F in faith stands for?”  I shook my head.  “Forgiveness.  Without that the rest of religion means nothing.”  I told them I could accept that.

Then as I was turning to go they called out, “You know the acronym for Love?  Living our values every day.”  I told them they were now the teachers and I was the student.  They responded by telling me that they’d just sold a song they co-wrote for a million and a half dollars.  I expressed surprise at that.  They told me the title and said it was recording in Nashville this week.  I congratulated them and finally was able to be on my way.  This made me reflect on the several such strange conversations I’ve had on the street.  They often begin with “Are you” and not infrequently end with “a professor.”  This is usually followed up with some kind of intelligent question.  People, it seems to me, are eager to learn.  Maybe not in the classroom, but in what is referred to as the “university of life.”  Perhaps that’s all the schooling we ever really need.


Free Knowledge

I was struck with an idea.  Not just any idea—an academic one.  I find myself out of practice, and wondering where to find sources when I have no access to an academic library.  I’ve spent my precious writing time for the past several days trying to bang out a respectable academic article.  It represents an area that my personal library does not cover adequately.  The fully employed academic has a library and interlibrary loan to support ideas that won’t let go.  It’s a bit more tricky for the independent scholar.  I’ve contacted local schools but during these pandemic times there is no public access.  Nor electronic access—thanks to all the fancy deals publishers make to try to keep the industry profitable.

The past few academic publications I’ve had were difficult to write, particularly the footnotes. Something the garden-variety academic doesn’t understand is that the university library is a privilege.  I read a lot.  Probably more now than when I was a professor.  Still, research leads you in directions you’d never anticipate.  It’s quite a wild ride, actually.  So with my current project (I can’t tell you what it is because someone with library access would easily be able to scoop it) I’ve had to buckle up.  As I was reading an obvious connection became clear.  It reminded me of the thrill of discovery.  The researcher has a drive for new knowledge—a treasure-hunter of the mind.  It is wonderful to be reminded that there’s more out there still to be discovered.

I’d almost forgotten how an insistent idea can push other projects out of its way.  I have any number of projects going simultaneously.  They get a few minutes’ attention before the work day starts and some of them mature enough to be sent for publication.  At any given time there’s a lot more standing behind those ideas that actually show up on this blog, or in a journal, or even in the fiction venues in which I publish.  But that idea just won’t let me go.  Even while I’m at work it lurks in the back of my mind.  The professorate, for all its limitations, doesn’t pin you down to a nine-to-five schedule even when the time would be better used otherwise.  The thing is, you can’t tame ideas.  Who would want to live in a world where you could?  So I keep working away, hoping to find a library or at least electronic access.  It’s just an idea I have.