On Publishing

I fear I may be transitioning.  I may actually be becoming someone who knows something about publishing.  Reading about the merger between Cengage and McGraw Hill actually seemed interesting.  What’s happening to me?  Actually, the largest impact has been the realization that scholars need to become more aware of the world around them.  As a doctoral student I was taught to find an unexplored subject and write obscurely on it.  Then, when it’s time to publish, to say to the editor that general readers will understand and find it compelling.  It took some time, however, even though I frequented Waterstones and Blackwells, to realize that the books they housed were not the kinds of books I’d been taught to write.  Back in America, where the brands were Borders and Barnes and Nobel, the same thing applied.  People want books they can understand.

Two articles that caught my attention recently addressed the plight of the academic monograph.  One was “Worried About the Future of the Monograph? So Are Publishers” from the Chronicle of Higher Education.  The other was “Making Monographs Open” from Inside Higher Ed.  Both share some common themes: scholars write books so obscure that even academic libraries won’t buy them and since it’s “publish or perish” it becomes the publisher’s problem.  Listen, I understand that mentality.  Isolated in the woods of Wisconsin with the wind howling through the trees, writing about weather in the Psalms seemed perfectly natural.  Forgetting that the average reader doesn’t know Hebrew, I assumed everyone would find my disquisition irresistible.  Even back in the early 2000s publishers disagreed.  Life is so interesting!  There are so many minutiae to explore!  If you haven’t had the pleasure of following in the tracks of a thought that won’t let you go, you’ve never been really seduced.  But then, somebody’s got to pay for all this.

Scholars are reluctant to acknowledge that publishing is a business.  Indeed, higher education is now a business as well.  Everything’s a business.  To stay solvent publishers have to sell enough books to cover the cost of making them.  As these articles point out, that cost isn’t negligible.  The scholar who explores the publishing industry (as rare as that may be) will discover plenty of resources to help rethink academic writing.  Even without reading the industry rags, just paying attention when you’re in your neighborhood bookstore can be an eye-opening experience.  I was looking for a book (hardly even academic) last time I was in Ithaca, New York.  If any town is likely to have such books on the shelf, it’s Ithaca.  I had to ask and leave empty-handed.  There are lots of books out there, colleagues!  And if you want to get yours published, it pays to do a little research.  Your time will not be wasted.  And I fear I’m becoming someone who knows a little about such things.

You’re History

A story from Inside Higher Ed discusses a study of history majors and their rapid decline.  This occurs during a sudden onset of “job related” majors and the graph accompanying the article shows how STEM has taken over higher education.  These are the fields with actual occupations awaiting them at the end of the degree, while disciplines such as history and religion (also very near the bottom) have less clear career paths.  Indeed, when I’ve been in the job market I find that a religion degree is less than useless, no matter what the department recruiters tell you.  If you’re not bound for the clergy you undertake the study at your own peril.  History, I expect, suffers from a similar dynamic, but the peril in this case is to all of civilization.

We’ve seen over the past two years how a stunning lack of knowledge of history sets a nation on the path to chaos.  Businessmen with no classical education don’t make good national leaders.  Knowing where we’ve been, as Santayana so eloquently stated, is the only thing that keeps us from repeating past failures.  History is our only safeguard in this respect.  Over the Thanksgiving break I spent a little time delving into family history.  Since I don’t come from illustrious lineage, I felt the frustration of finding out what happened to obscure people from the last couple of centuries.  Lack of history on a personal level.  On a professional level, my doctorate is really in the history of religions (ancient religions) and I’ve become keenly aware of just how little history there is to the very popular modern Fundamentalist movement.

Maybe I said that wrong.  They do have a history, but the belief system that is touted as ancient is really quite modern.  Anti-modern, in fact.  When historical knowledge is lacking, however, people can make all kinds of claims based on nothing more than wishful thinking.  History keeps us honest.  Or it used to.  When we’ve outlived the need for history we’ve started down a path unlit by any embers of past human foibles.  We’ve been living in a culture in love with technology but not so much with critical reflection of where such innovations might take us.  Doctors are beginning to complain that they spend more time on their computers than with their patients.  The time freed up by the internet has been taken up by the internet.  And when all of this comes to its natural culmination, we would be well served by historians to make a record of what went wrong.  If we could find any.

 

The Past of Education

Meanwhile on earth, I have been checking up on my colleagues at General Seminary. While I’m limited in what I’m allowed to say, an article last week on Inside Higher Ed indicated that a provisional readmission of seven of eight of General’s faculty is now in place. There will be mediation. People are especially good at recognizing patterns. Some years ago, a naive and overly trusting individual, I also participated in mediation. The faculty at a certain seminary had been turned over to Conflict Management Incorporated to learn that you need to make the pie larger before slicing it up. Everyone can get enough to be satisfied. Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll still have a job after the dessert course. Power structures being what they are, no one willingly lets go. And we’ll do just about anything to get the media off our backs.

Seminaries are probably more important to higher education than anyone would like to admit or acknowledge. The impetus to gather and educate individuals began as a religious enterprise. The earliest universities were often founded for that very purpose, and even the great intellectual powerhouses of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were originally established to train clergy. Religion and education have been inextricably tied together since the Middle Ages and even before. Ironically, these days clergy are often cast as backward and superstitious. When’s the last time a seminary faculty landed a robot on a comet? If you ever venture to a church door, however, often the denizen of the pulpit is seminary bred. And there is power here. The collective collections can support such splendor as the Vatican. The faithful, we know, are willing to give. With a little pressure.

The Protestant traditions, despite their power structures, never officially developed a doctrine of ex cathedra truth. It is actually a difficult concept to pull off when there are over 40,000 different denominations of Christianity, and many other religions besides. But we can insist that our clergy attend special schooling. We can pay close attention to those we hire to teach them. Not everyone can read a dead language. Anyone, however, can quote scripture (or at least look it up on the internet). Seminary professors must have advanced degrees and faithful hearts. A combination that may be rarer than a comet. And we will put those individuals into a power structure that dates from the Middle Ages and wonder why it no longer works. Somewhere out past Jupiter a human device sits on a comet. Meanwhile in New York City we’re just not sure we can trust these people with our future priests. People are, however, especially good at recognizing patterns.

IMG_1275

What Are They So Afraid of?

I just had an email from a friend whose son is being sued. By the university he attends. The story was covered in Inside Higher Ed, and although I do not know the ins-and-outs of the episode, it reflects poorly on the state of higher education in this country. The student’s stepmother was dismissed from a chair in the Butler University Music Department and he blogged about it, feeling the dismissal was unfair. I am not privy to the details of the dismissal, but I am intimately acquainted with the ensuing scenario. When the student’s identity was learned, his father, my friend, did not have his contract as Dean renewed. The legal suit, claiming defamation, is still pending.

What saddens me perhaps the most, apart from the obvious social justice issues, is the breadth of such retaliation in institutions of higher education. Having once lost a position in higher education “without cause” shortly after making a principled stand against what I understood to be prejudice, I am particularly sensitive to how schools that have money to hire high-powered lawyers seem to have no difficulty in turning on anyone who criticizes or disagrees with official policy. Isn’t that what higher education is all about? I don’t agree with my colleagues on a regular basis, but that doesn’t mean I want them fired! We hand out and we take in.

If it were simply coincidence that I found a single colleague who also faced punitive action from a school for a perceived slight, I might be persuaded that it was an accident of tragedies — two unlikely victims sharing a prison cell. But no, the evidence has been building for some time. During my last years at Nashotah House I taught as an adjunct instructor at Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin. A faculty search had stalled in the Philosophy and Religion Department and I was local and willing. I was present to watch as two colleagues (the remainder of the small department) were dismissed (denied tenure and forced out) after having been critical of some administrative decisions. They were among four faculty so targeted, and I watched them go with worry increasing in my gut. “Gag orders all around!” No one was permitted to discuss what was really happening.

It was the next year that I was terminated. After moving to New Jersey, I attended a professional conference (SBL, for those of you in the loop) in San Diego. It was probably not unlikely that the person next to me on the plane was also headed to the same conference since it was a 6 a.m. economy flight. Sure enough, I saw the woman reading some theological tome and knew we were headed for the same place. As I struck up a conversation with her, I learned that she had also been dismissed from a college in the south for advocating equal racial representation on the student council. This was not in the 1960s, but a couple decades closer to our own time. No reason was given, but her contract was not renewed.

By this point in time a clear image is coming into focus in my mind. It is not a pretty picture. The scene shows a juggernaut called Higher Education, bloated, powerful, wearing a mortar board, with a killer football team yapping at its heels like wolfhounds, but terribly afraid of criticism. Those who lie crushed under its great feet, the general issue instructors, have earned their place in academia by taking the hard knocks and criticism that are anticipated and constantly delivered in higher education, but the juggernaut drowns out any criticism of itself with allegations of being molested by the critical thinkers it hired to give it respectability and who now lie supine in submission beneath it. Something has gone horribly awry. And instead of talking it over, human-to-human, lawyers are hired to frighten off the weak and silence discussion. “Anything you say can and will be used against you,” thank you Sergeant Friday!

Like a co-dependent spouse, I will always love higher education. It has cradled our most influential minds and taken us beyond our earth-bound dreams. The academy has brought us to the place where we stand today. But universities now also parrot the corporate model and intimidate those who do not take their inspiration from free-market economy. If you feel inclined to voice a vote for the rights of students, this link will take you to a petition for the dropping of legal charges against my colleague’s son. (You will be taken to a donation page after signing the petition, but donations are purely voluntary.) I understand it to be a vote for common sense and personal freedom of expression.