Tag Archives: John C. L. Gibson

Setting Terms

I never met Jonathan Z. Smith, although he was hard to miss at conferences. By the time I was a doctoral student his writings were deemed essential reading in several areas of religious studies. Smith, like a few renegade scholars, had doctoral training in one area but went on to teach himself far more diverse subjects, earning him rare accolades as someone who understood a vast amount about religion. That’s something you can do if you have a university willing to back you up. The usual formula for academic success (degrees from Ivy League schools, one of which must be Harvard, dissertation published by Oxford University Press, and letters of recommendation from one or two key players) encourages extreme specialization. Siloed thinking. Only when you’ve found a school that believes in you can you branch out like Smith did. Like most people in my field, I’ve read his stuff.

Scholars can be remarkably naive about how “the system” works. Most, for instance, don’t know that Academia.edu is a for-profit website. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; most of my old papers are available on Academia. The thing is, publishers may not want you to post your research there. You see, academics often believe the results of their research should be free. Thing is, someone has to pay for publishing it. It’s not cheap to publish books or journals. Undercutting a publisher may seem like fun, but then the book prices go up and everybody’s mad. These things are interconnected. Jonathan Z. Smith would’ve understood that.

For reasons poorly comprehended, some academics get publishers’ eyes and they want to build this person up. It may be—more than likely is—that an early book sold well. Nothing says academic veracity like lucre. The more books printed with one’s name on them, the better known said scholar becomes. Some even make it to the level of public intellectuals. It’s not a journey over which an individual has much control. Quite often it’s the support structures offered—steady, tenure-track job, ready acceptance at prestige presses, media exposure. Smith, like my doctoral advisor John C. L. Gibson, never used a computer. Try to get a university post today with that stance. I dare you. He set his own terms. In a world where being an academic means knowing an awful lot about a very little, the shadow of those who’ve earned the right to say a lot about a lot lies long on the ground. But it’s a good idea to ask your publisher before you decide to post things on Academia. Be informed about this little bit.

Auld Reekie


Those of us who once tried to storm the walls of academe from humble beginnings soon learn our lesson. This is a guild meant only for those whose parents knew enough to suggest an Ivy League education. Those whose parents have never heard of Harvard (they exist!) and who don’t know what an Oxford is aren’t really well-placed to give advice on these matters. At a small-town high school you couldn’t count on a guidance counselor noticing your academic prowess as anything more than a statistical blip in a non-challenging career. I learned about the Ivy League too late. It was, therefore, a very pleasant surprise to have an Edinburgh colleague ask me to write a piece for a Cambridge Companion. I don’t have the contract yet, but even the invitation made my day. Maybe my month. Or career.

I spend my days commissioning just such works for a different press. I know hundreds of colleagues. Only one ever said, “would you consider writing…” I’m not being entirely fair here. I’ve been asked to contribute to Festschriften. Such volumes are the highest praise an academic can be given. John C. L. Gibson, of blessed memory, was the first honoree. Nick Wyatt was the second. Simon Parker, also departed, whose Festschrift is currently in the works, was the third. I’ve been asked for others, but regular research is beyond my reach with my current schedule. I can churn out an original article once a decade, it seems. The ideas are still there, alive and popping. The time, alas, is not.

So I’m happily sitting here thinking of how to write a Companion article. The colleague who asked me is someone I recently met. He found out that I had attended his alma mater and wondered why I hadn’t landed a regular teaching post. Edinburgh University, in the larger world, is a recognized name. I can’t see through the ivy to discern it on this side of the Atlantic, but I’m assured it’s still there. Recognizing that those who fall between the cracks can still sink a taproot and make a contribution, he asked me if I might consider it. He had me at Edinburgh. School loyalty still counts for something, I’m glad to learn. For once I feel that I don’t have to apologize for having ventured to Scotland with only my transcripts and high hopes in my pocket (and with an indulgent wife by my side). Now I’ve been asked to write. I’ve gone all red, and I hide my face behind my hand. Of course I’ll do it.