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.

Job’s Jobs

Many years ago, after Nashotah House decided it no longer required my unique outlook, I bought a book.  (That’s my default reaction.)  This book was on how to write killer cover letters.  I don’t remember the title or the author, but I followed the advice, well, religiously.  It got me nowhere.  Business tricks, at least historically, don’t work in academia.  Sitting at home, pondering my sins, I flipped to the chapter on advice to take if none of the rest of this was working for you.  Here’s where the human side began to show through.  Have you been eating onions or garlic before your interviews? it asked.   Do you need to lose weight?  Try dressing nicer.  It occurred to me that the business world lacks the imagination required for denying jobs.  And besides, who was getting any interviews before which I shouldn’t eat garlic?

Business advice is, in a word, shallow.  It assumes that if you’ve got the goods there’s no reason you won’t get hired.  Reality is a bit more complex than that.  I often ponder how people simply go for what they want.  They reach for the biggest piece without pondering the repercussions of their actions.  I see it in my small world of publishing all the time.  Those who are “hungry” (read “greedy”) succeed.  Those who wait behind to help others simply can’t compete.  So the cover letter book did get that part right.  Is it possible, however, to devise a society where everyone fits?  Not all are created equal, perhaps, but do we have to reward those who seem to care only for themselves?  Let them eat garlic.

The cover letter book, in the end, never really did me any good.  I found my way into publishing by being willing to aim low.  I’ve written many cover letters since leaving Nashotah House, and only two ever led to a job.  Those who work in business, what with their concerns about readers’ aromas and weights, seem never to have considered the intricacies of the intellectual job market.  What strikes me as particularly odd is that there are plenty of smart people out there, and yet they haven’t organized to offer alternatives to the greed-based structure on which our work lives are based.  They can’t, it seems, gaze beyond capitalism as a mechanism for helping individuals lead productive lives.  Business operates on the principle of replaceable parts, many of which happen to be human.  And even those who know how to write can’t hope to compete against those who prefer cogs that know to avoid onions.

Post Facto

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” Psalm 23 asserts, “I will fear no evil.”  Nor should one fear evil when flying over Death Valley, as I did coming out of San Diego, but I did.  There are perhaps not too many national monuments that can be appreciated from 30,000 feet, but the only way I’ve seen both the Grand Canyon and Death Valley is by plane.  My flight home from AAR/SBL had me sitting over a wing, so a photograph of the famed graben would simply show mostly wing and a bit of Death beyond.  This valley holds the record for the hottest ambient temperature recorded on the surface of the earth (134 degrees) and is famed as one of the filming locations for Star Wars.  Still, from the air the juxtaposition of mountains and salty, flat dearth was impressive.  I had no one with whom to share my excitement; the kid next to me was watching a movie on his phone and I had no idea who he was or if he’d be interested.

Disneyland, they say, is the “happiest place on earth.”  While I have my doubts about than endorphin-laced claim, I do know one of the opposite locales.  The hotel in which I stayed, the Grand Hyatt, San Diego, hosted the AAR/SBL Employment Center.  The hotel is not to be blamed for holding the most unhappy place on the planet, but as I looked at the booth I wondered if this was truth in advertising.  Should it not read “Unemployment Center”?  That two-letter prefix would make this at least honest, if not cheery.  I have spent some of the most miserable hours of my life in the employee hopefuls’ lounges at past conferences.  Hours and hours wasted, waiting to see if anyone, anyone at all was willing to grant you an interview.  I saw more than a few tears shed in that horrid place.  Some of them mine.

Now I’m high over Death Valley.  It feels far too sanitary to experience it in this way.  The professorate, which seeks to improve the world, is generally a powerless lot.  Signs scattered throughout the Convention Center and hotels asked such things as Does your school have over 50% contingency faculty?  And statements like Tenure track is not the norm.  The psalmist, it seems to me, got it right.  If you want to face the valley of the shadow of death and not fear, you have to walk through it.  The more people who do, the better the hope that we’ll land this plane with some kind of resolve to do be open to visions and to act upon them.

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.