Thursday, February 22, 2024

Rising from the Grave (briefly)

 I am reminded that this blog still exists every year when my domain registration comes up for renewal. I always renew it because every once in a while a friend will ask me about the historicity of Jesus or the origin of Easter, and it's handy to be able to give them a link instead of repeating myself. (This is the same rationale that has resulted in my keeping a plastic tub of outdated cables, chargers, and extraneous computer giblets, since there was one time I actually needed one of them...) So after nearly a decade of silence, it is past time that I provide an update, explain my absence, and close up shop.

Suffice it to say that I am no longer actively engaged in my former academic pursuits, and that is unlikely to change. But I will leave this site intact as a monument to my past efforts (and perhaps my hubris). Look upon my works ye mighty, and all that.

To the 5-6 people who actually read this thing, thank you for your support. 

Be kind, my friends, for we are fleeting.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Back in front of the classroom

For almost five years, economic necessity and family responsibilities made it impossible for me to teach, even part time. Long enough that I almost forgot why I wanted to do it. But this semester I got the chance to teach two sections at Mercy College's Bronx campus, and despite typical adjunct pay, a two-hour commute, and a class at 8:30 on Friday morning, I am loving it.

First of all, I quite like Mercy as an organization. They make a real effort to make adjuncts feel like members of the faculty. I mean, we don't get offices or anything, but we were part of the new faculty orientation, we are invited to all faculty events, etc. But more important, Mercy's mission is to provide higher education to underserved groups, particularly women of color, and while its marketing makes the school out to be very practical and career-focused, the truth is they work hard to sneak in a taste of a liberal arts education while preparing students for the job market. Mercy's students are 70% women (mine are more like 85%), and anecdotally, having fewer men seems to dramatically improve to quality and diversity of discourse. I had one section while a TA that was all women, and I think it was the only one I've ever had where everyone participated in discussion. I'm seeing much the same thing at Mercy, where classes are mercifully (heh) small enough to allow for group discussion. (The classes are also 1 day/week for 3 hours, so if I had to lecture the whole time I would pull something.) I don't want to come off like some white savior trope from a bad '80s movie (where I sit backwards on my chair, "get real," and teach them to believe in themselves through study montages and hip-hop dance numbers), but I do feel like I can make more of a difference at Mercy than I could at a school with a more privileged student population.

Anyway, it's also academic job-hunting season, and I've been spending a lot of time writing cover letters and teaching statements, in which I go on about how much I get from my students and what they mean to me, and I realized it was stupid to be saying this to strangers who probably aren't going to hire me anyway, and not directly to my students. So I did just that ("I swear, I'm not drunk...") They were amused, although I don't think it inspired anybody to study any harder for the midterm.

Although truth be told, I do feel a little drunk after teaching. It leaves me with a euphoria that I only otherwise encounter when singing. Maybe I just like an audience, but it genuinely changes how I feel about everything when I have a student tell me how much they love the class, or when I see the lights go on and they make a connection that goes beyond what they've been taught. I can't imagine doing anything else, which means I am kind of doomed. I love teaching too much to hold out for what my intellectual labor is worth, which means I am the perfect prey for the contingent-faculty monster.

My work is done here

The top search term leading to this blog is "drunken Noah." *micdrop*

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.