Thursday, September 1, 2016

Old Punks and Safe Spaces

There has been a lot of back-and-forth lately about “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” in academia. One side (typified by the recent acceptance letters sent out by the University of Chicago) views safe spaces and trigger warnings (which are distinct but not unrelated practices) as threats to free speech, academic inquiry, and the development of critical thinking in students. (If this sounds familiar, these are much the same terms by which “political correctness” was being attacked when I entered Sarah Lawrence College 25 years ago…) On the other side are those who argue that this caricature misconstrues practices that actually encourage discourse by making the classroom more accessible to all. I tend to side with the latter position, at least in terms of the intent, although I suspect in practice the truth may lie somewhere in between.

But I want to talk about a different kind of safe space, something that has shaped how I conduct my classroom:

The mosh pit.

For those unfamiliar, a mosh pit is a region near the stage at punk shows (originally, at least), where members of the audience dance by colliding into one another, usually in a generally circular flow. (Nobody actually uses the term “slam dance,” but that’s the basic idea.)

How on earth can a bunch of sweaty punks running into each other be considered a “safe space”? Well, while the pit might look like complete chaos from the outside, it isn’t a fight and it isn’t a free-for-all. There are rules (or, at least, there were supposed to be). You don’t go into the pit looking to hurt other people (or yourself). You go in to be part of the community. It is difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, but mosh pits are places of love. Yes, you can get hurt. It isn’t free from danger, but it is (ideally) free of malice. You know you are surrounded by—literally connected to—people who are your friends. That big dude who knocks you over will pull you back up with a smile and hug you, even if he’s never seen you before. If somebody is hurt, or wants out of the pit, a space opens up and they are swept into safety. Nobody is in the pit against their will, and as long as you’re not being a dick, everyone in the pit is looking out for you.

(It is worth noting that while this account of the pit may be colored by many decades of nostalgia, but I briefly threw my middle-aged carcass into the pit at a show last weekend, and the experience was much the same. I hugged more people during two songs than I have in two months.)

And this is how I think classrooms should operate. Education is not without risk. Your ideas will be challenged, your sense of how things are can get knocked around, you will be confronted with things that make you uncomfortable, or angry, or sad. Which is why it needs to happen in an environment where you have zero doubt that you are surrounded by friends. The person who knocks your ideas over should be the first one to help you back up. No student should ever feel attacked, even if they do get metaphorically bruised or battered. That requires trust and loyalty and love. And occasionally a big scary bouncer to step in and make sure one person isn’t ruining everybody else’s fun by ignoring their commitment to the community. 

(Did I mention I used to be a bouncer? To this day, if I stand outside a bar, people try to show me their ID…)

My point is that being safe isn’t about being free from danger. We’re never free from danger. Being safe is about being surrounded by people who care about you as a human being, who are on your side, and who will face the danger with you. In mosh pits, people voluntarily subject themselves to something scary, because when they come out of it (relatively) unscathed, they feel all the safer for the bonds they have forged with those who shared the risk. We can do that intellectually, too.

Saturday, July 9, 2016


I'm in a ranty mood, but I've promised to give up discussing current politics on the internet until I actually  get off my butt and get involved in positive change.

So instead I'm going to rant about academia.

I have an old friend who recently completed her PhD in archaeology, although I have known her since she was a punk-rock bartender and freelance coder (yes, she's pretty much a William Gibson character). Anyway, she posted on Facebook today that the final version of an article she'd written had been accepted by a journal. I started to congratulate her, but what came out was:

"Congratulations of giving away months of labor to someone who is going to sell it for profit."

Now, this friend knows me well enough to get the dark humor, but also to appreciate the truth. Like so much of academia, the academic publishing system is based around a model that simply doesn't exist anymore. If every scholar had a TT position with a reasonable class load, summers off, and periodic paid research sabbaticals, it would be fair to say that their universities are paying them for their research. Publishing their research is just a job requirement, at least if they expect to get tenure. Academic publishers are just sort of secondary beneficiaries of the process. And, of course, they benefit on both ends, and the universities are also their primary customers. Even a large portion of their editorial process (peer review, etc.) is done on a voluntary basis. All part of our service to the discipline.

But the above scenario does not describe the reality of many scholars, especially in their early careers. Even if they are lucky enough to have full time positions, they may be carrying 4/4 (or higher!) class loads. Between budget cuts and the ultra-competitive market, scholars often have little choice but to accept positions that provide little time for research and writing. And as for adjuncts! There's no need to repeat what has been said too many times, but adjuncts are explicitly paid just for the "contact hours" they spend teaching. Perhaps an extra 10 minutes per hour for prep, but research isn't even on the menu, especially given the number of "contact hours" one has to be working to survive.

Yet at the same time, it is these early-career scholars who are in the most desperate need of being published. They need to be able to demonstrate an active research agenda to compete with the hundreds of other CVs inundating search committees. I have no idea if there are statistics on the career-stage of journal authors, but it seems to me that, much as the glut of scholars enables the adjunct system, it also provides academic publishers with a tremendous amount of free content whose creators' only compensation is the hope that another line on their CV will increase their chances at a job.

I know a few professional artists and musicians, by which I mean people who actually pay their bills with art and music. And they invariably get people who ask them to produce or perform for free, on the grounds that it's "good exposure." And these artists and musicians react with scorn, because they are professionals, and professionals get paid. Their joke is "You can't eat exposure. People die of exposure." Given the realities of the academic job market, academic publishers are asking independent scholars, adjuncts, and those in teaching-heavy positions to give away their labor for free, and pay their rent with hope and a line on their CV.

I am not under the illusion that journal publishers are in it for the fast cash. This isn't the music business or paperback fiction. The academic market is limited, their publishing cycle involves a lot more work than conventional publications, and the internet is disrupting their paradigm all over the place. Some publishers are non-profit or operated by universities, but a quick web search finds Sage Publications reporting roughly £200m in profits after taxes in 2015. I'm sure only a fraction of that comes from the sale of unpaid journal articles (I'll see if the report gives any indication when my kittens stop attacking the screen), but I doubt their losing money on the deal. I know they are one of the publishers who lets authors pay for the "privilege" of allowing open access to their work, which seems an awful lot like having your boss tell you to pay your own wages. Other journals, of course, are truly open access, relying on grants or government funds or profits from elsewhere to cover the costs of publishing research. Which may be grand, to the extent that it means someone else isn't profiting from scholars' unpaid labor. But it don't pay the rental, as the song goes.

I don't think it's realistic to assume we are ever going to return to the days where full-time, tenured or tenure-track professional scholars were the norm. Full-time professional anythings seem to be dwindling away. If anything, we are going to keep moving further into an Uber-ized, employee-free, work-for-hire, freelance economy. (A model which non-academic publishing has survived on for decades.) If the majority of scholars are not going to the salaried employees of universities, paid both for teaching and research, but ad-hoc contractors hired only to teach, then academic publishers are going to either have to find a way to compensate scholars who create the content they sell, or stop publishing journals altogether. In the latter case, open-access electronic publications--with much lower overhead than print--might be able to take up the slack in terms of getting the research out into the world, but the research will never happen if scholars' only income derives from teaching hours.

We have already seen some scholarly societies setting sliding scales for membership and conference costs for contingent faculty and unaffiliated scholars. Perhaps such an arrangement can work for publishers as well. Scholars with full-time posts would continue to work for free, while the unaffiliated, grad students, etc. would be paid at a per-word rate comparable to mainstream publishing. Or pay the authors royalties based on sales/subscriptions/downloads as they already do with books. Self-publishing and self-distribution make less viable an options for academia than they are for other content creation simply because of the need for peer review and oversight, but there are already experiments in open-access peer-review out there that could be adapted, if there was a will to do so within the academy.

My point, I guess, is that it isn't out of line for people with advanced qualifications and expertise to expect to be paid for their labor. Or, at least, to decide if they want to give it away. (At $.05/word, somebody might have paid me $50 for this rant...) Nobody goes into academia for the money, but both universities and publishers have taken advantage of our idealism (and obsessive tendencies) to convince us to work for far less than what our work is actually worth to them. Even in a highly-competitive labor market, we have the power to force more equitable conditions, if we are unified in our goals. (Did I mention my grandfather organized for United Mine Workers?) I want to educate people. I want to contribute to the sum of human knowledge. I want to cultivate the next generation of scholars. But I also want to eat and keep a roof over my head. We create content, whether it is in the classroom or on the pages of a journal, that people are willing to pay for. We have the right to be paid for that.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Oh dear.

So, I have been grossly negligent of this blog, and I'm sorry. Suffice it to say that the past two years have been really brutal, but I am finally getting back to a reasonable level of productivity, and I hope to have some proper content in the near future.

In the mean time, it looks like the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" has officially blown up, which comes a shock to exactly no-one who was following the story closely. What's interesting about the story to me is not that it was a forgery, but that the forgery was detected through various blogs and online discussions long before the slow-turning wheels of academic publication and traditional peer review were able to process it. This is in part the result of the existence of the fragment being announced to the mainstream press years before Karen King's HTL article would see print.

Which, I guess, is how scholarship gets done these days. There is a such a pressure to come up with something sensational enough to grab the general public's attention that even excellent scholars like Dr. King can jump the gun.

I recently had the experience of having an academic publisher tell me that my research was too "arcane" to be "economically viable." I was recounting this experience to some random guy during karaoke at my favorite Doctor Who-themed bar last night, and his response was "Well, why don't you research something more economically viable?" And this case is a good example of why not: when you take your eyes off the goal of honest, critical scholarship and start worrying about selling books or pulling in grants or boosting the prestige of your department, there will always be a temptation to turn a blind eye to anything that might get in the way of the narrative you're trying to sell.

But what do I know? All the self-righteous integrity in the world won't benefit me or the discipline if my stuff is never published.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Supernatural Cinema of Guillermo del Toro: Critical Essays, featuring my chapter, "The Birth of Fantasy: A Nietzschean Reading of Pan's Labyrinth," is now available. Because I do philosophy sometimes.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Search for the Historical MLK

Just like clockwork, conservatives inevitably celebrate Martin Luther King Day by attempting to claim him as one of their own. (The first Google hit this year comes from Sarah Palin, who asks on her Facebook that the President stop "playing the race card" in honor of Dr. King.)

The naive argument, coming from conservatives who have never bothered to read anything Dr. King wrote beyond a few quotes from a single speech, is that since King wanted people to be judged by the "content of their character," he must have been calling for a race-blind society free of government interference based on race or economic status.

This is, of course, complete bullshit. King was a radical. He considered unfettered capitalism to be a great evil, and his primary critique of communism was over its atheism, and its subjection of the individual to the state, not with its goal of redistribution of wealth. The full name of the historic 1963 march was "The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." King supported ideas like universal healthcare, affirmative action, and GI-Bill style federal programs designed specifically to provide jobs and education for black people. Conservatives mistake his pacifism for passivism, but King was not a gradualist. He didn't couch his calls for justice in terms designed to make white people comfortable; he was calling for a complete disruption of the existing, unjust order.

(If I took the time to cite evidence for these claims, I'd never get this posted, but all of these ideas are easily found in his accessible books Strength to Love and Why We Can't Wait.)

I bring this up because it is illustrative to see how, in less than 50 years, the message of an historical figure--even one who wrote lucidly and prolifically--can be distorted by the mechanisms of social memory. By elevating him to the position of a secular saint, we have in many ways defused the very things that made him dangerous. We remember that he was a man of peace, but we forget that he was using peace to fight a war that is still not won. His message was not "Can't we all just get along?" but "We refuse to 'get along' with a system of violent injustice!" I think this is pertinent to biblical studies exactly because the radical message of Jesus--as near as we can reconstruct it--has been re-written time and again by similar processes.

(This isn't just a conservative problem, BTW. Liberals [particularly white ones] are guilty of sanding down the rough edges of King's message as well, perhaps in an attempt to legitimize the middling, snails-pace gradualism that has come to characterize the Democrats' approaches to racial and economic justice. And there is also a tendency on the left to minimize the centrality of Christianity to King's activism. To be sure, there were plenty of people in the Civil Rights Movement who dedicated themselves to fighting for equality for non-religious reasons, but you can't understand Martin Luther King without understanding ideas like agape, redemptive suffering, and the immortality of the soul.)

Friday, November 21, 2014

SBL/AAR Preliminary Report

Notes so far:

The OTHER John J. Collins was on my flight out of Dulles. He seemed rather bemused when I introduced myself.

Larry Hartudo was on my shuttle from the airport, where I also met Frances Flannery from JMU, who has apparently managed to leverage her expertise in apocalyptic into a side-line in counter-terrorism. So much for my insistence that what I do had no practical applications.

The Hard Rock Hotel is just cheesy enough to enjoy ironically. The rest of the Gaslight District is a little TO cheesy. But that would be like judging Baltimore by the Inner Harbor, so I won't hold it against San Diego.

I think part of the reason I have so much trouble socializing at these things it's I can't tell the guys apart. Skinny white dudes with receding hairline, scruffy beards, black-framed glasses and tweed blazers.

Or maybe those were hipsters.

Regardless, would it hurt to get something pieced or tattooed so I can tell you guys apart? (Oh, yeah, I guess it would...) I'm missing my accustomed cultural cues.

Monday, November 17, 2014

SBL Presentations

Here are the papers I will be presenting at the SBL Annual Meeting in San Diego this weekend. Please drop in if you're interested; there's nothing sadder than playing to an empty room. Or feel free to come up and say hi if you see me. I'll be the one in black with bright red hair.

Function of Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal Writings in Early Judaism and Early Christianity
Saturday, 11/22/2014
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Room: 400 A (Level 4 (Sapphire)) - Hilton Bayfront (HB)
"Degraded from Their Heavenly Vigour": Fallen Angels, the Testament of Solomon, and the Demonology of the Early African Church (5:00-5:30pm)
The works of the third century Latin fathers Tertullian (Apology), Minucius Felix (Octavius), Cyprian (On the Vanity of Idols), and Lactantius (Divine Institutes) contain strikingly similar (often verbatim) accounts of the origin and nature of demons. Direct dependence between some of the sources is possible, but the overall trajectory of any influence is obscure—particularly given the uncertain dates of Felix—and to date, no scholars have undertaken to clarify the relationship. The demonology presented by these African sources draws heavily on Justin Martyr, and upon especially Athenagoras, with whom they agree in distinguishing fallen angels from demons, the latter being the spirits of the children born to fallen angels and human women. 
This paper will trace this concept of demons from its origins in 1 Enoch 15–16 and Jubilees 10, through Justin and Athenagoras, and then compare it to the demonology evident in the Testament of Solomon. This will firmly locate T. Sol. within the context of third-century Christian thought, reflecting a specific sub-stratum of the Enochic fallen-angel complex in which the giants—rather than the angels themselves—were seen as the primary tradents in forbidden heavenly knowledge. Finally, a synopsis of the relevant passages will demonstrate that the commonalities and divergences of the African authors are better explained by a shared, external Latin source than by any direct dependence between them, or by the shared influence of the Greek text of Athenagoras. This study will enrich our understanding of the vital role that demonological concerns played in the worldview of the early fathers, and how these concerns shaped—and were shaped by—pseudepigraphal works.
(NOTE: This paper has evolved significantly since I wrote the proposal.)

Sunday, 11/23/2014
1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Room: 411 A (Level 4 (Sapphire)) - Hilton Bayfront (HB) 
Angels, Giants, and Culture Heroes in the Development and Reception of the Book of the Watchers (1:30-2:00pm)
The `Asa'el or instruction narrative in the Book of the Watchers (roughly, 1 Enoch 7:1; 8:1–3; 9:6, 8; 10:4–8) presents distinct interpretive and historical challenges in its decidedly negative reappropriation of a usually positive ancient literary motif, viz., that of supernatural culture heroes who provide humanity with essential knowledge or technology. This motif of angelic instruction figures prominently in the later reception of the BW narrative, but many of these interpretations seem to retain vestiges of more positive culture-hero traditions associated giants and with the flood. Through a diachronic survey of several key texts, this paper will demonstrate the influence of other, more positive culture-hero traditions, rooted in Gen 6:1–4, which were not derived from the negative portrayal of angelic instruction found in the Book of the Watchers
By proposing set of criteria for determining the presence of these parallel traditions, I will argue that two additional, independent complexes of tradition played a key part in Jewish and Christian interpretations of the fallen-angel myth, and contributed to some of the less negative portrayals of angelic instruction found therein. In the first of these traditions, Noah and members of his family are depicted as giants, or as the offspring of angels, and are said to be responsible for the transmission of secret, antediluvian knowledge. John C. Reeves (1993) already identified traces of these traditions in ancient birth-narratives of Noah and in the pseudo-Eupolemus fragments, but they are also evident in later traditions attributing the origins of alchemy to Ham. The other complex concerns the fallen angels’ failed divine commission as the keepers of the cosmic order. This narrative (attested in Jubilees and the “Animal Apocalypse” [1 En. 85–90]) differs from the Book of the Watchers in depicting a two-stage fall, in which the angels’ presence on earth leads them to sin, thus shifting the vector of corruption. Connected with this strand in particular are traditions associating the fallen angels with the celestial spheres (not simply the interpretation thereof), and those treating the fallen angels or the spirits of the giants as objects of human worship. 
The presence of parallel fallen-angel traditions has several important implications to the study of Enochic literature. First, it would solve the long-standing question of why the culture-hero stratum was inserted into the Book of the Watchers at all, by demonstrating that the motifs of culture heroes, the flood, and giants were readily associated in the contemporary cultural lexicon. Instead of an intrusion, the `Asa'el narrative becomes an organic extension of the themes of the book. Moreover, parallel fallen-angel traditions would also explain why motifs not attested in the Book of the Watchers appear independently in later interpretations of the Watchers myth. As certain themes and motifs became entangled in the traditions derived from 1 Enoch, the interpretive “canon” expanded beyond the text itself to include certain implicit connections drawn from outside traditions.
(NOTE: Redacted text corresponds to a section of the paper cut for time.)