Monthly Archives: August 2010

Yes, I Am That Small

IHE reports that Rice University closed up its all-digital university press. That’s sadly noteworthy for its own sake; it exemplifies the institutional short-sightedness that’s been afflicting the academic-research-publishing-teaching nexus for years. What really caught my eye (“bought my eye,” if you remember the Monty Python “Travel Agent” sketch) was the assessment by outside evaluators, from which I will quote in extenso:

[T]he outside reviewers who recently finished a study of the press recommended in their report — a copy of which was obtained by Inside Higher Ed — that the press move further away from a book-oriented model and become a teaching and research center that explored new forms of scholarly communication. Such a broadening of the press role, the committee said, would attract outside financial support and enhance the university’s programs.
 
Turning the press into a scholarship laboratory, the report said, “challenges and transforms the traditional notion of the university press, which now becomes not a ‘press’ in any ordinary sense of the word, but rather a node for experimentation, research, and dissemination, linking together the teaching and research core of Rice University, the Rice University Libraries (in the form of the Center for Digital Scholarship), the university’s main research centers (HRC, etc.), within the framework of an outreach structure (RUP with Connexions serving as only one of a number of supports).
 
“Like a conventional university press, RUP would, through the work of its publisher, continue to seek out and recruit internal and external projects that live up to its mission of modeling the future of scholarship. A traditional peer review process would be applied to the evaluation of these projects, however unconventional their form (a multimedia publication, geo-spatially organized repository, a print/digital hybrid ‘augmented’ book). But RUP would also serve as the completion and publication site for the most innovative locally produced (via Rice’s research centers and institutes) projects, subject to precisely the same peer review controls.”

I wasn’t one of the evaluators, but I couldn’t have said it better myself. Indeed, I may incorporate this passage in my next grant proposal; it’s almost exactly what I’ve been saying for longer than ten years now. (Except that I’m not anti-book — I think there’s a long future for books that the exciting prospects of other and mixed-media communication tends to obscure). Yes, I am that small: I told you so. The burning question remains, Who will pick up this mission and put it into action?
 

Nonfiction

Tuesday, alas, Frank Kermode died. A great many biblical scholars recognise his name for The Genesis of Secrecy, his Norton Lectures at Harvard University; some of them know his critical classic, The Sense of an Ending, or his writing and editing for the Literary Guide to the Bible. I admire his books (Secrecy more, I think, than Ending, and I’m lukewarm about the Literary Guide), but few things I have read delighted, instructed, wooed, and impressed me more than his collection of essays published in the US as The Art of Telling, and over here also by the truth-in-packaging title of Essays on Fiction 1971-1982.
 
In these essays, he walks his readers through the rationale for his approach to criticism (summed up in the Prologue as “finding out what texts seem to be saying as it were voluntarily, and. . . conveying this information to others”), and displaying that approach and its implications. When I return to “Can We Say Absolutely Anything We Like?” or “Institutional Control of Interpretation,” I see a beam of critical light that helped me orient my own sense of what’s what while I was navigating the wilds of postmodern theory (on one hand) and the doldrums of conventional biblical hermeneutics (on the other). Not unsophisticated when it came to theory — and vigorous in support even of theoreticians with whom he disagreed — he was above all an incomparably gentle and subtle reader.
 
I am tempted to quote him at length on any number of topics; he writes lucidly, radiantly, critically, and beautifully about the texts on which he comments. I don’t by any means always agree with him, but I always wish I had his insight, his erudition, his patience, and his capacity to make himself and his topics clearly understood. By all means enjoy The Genesis of Secrecy — I will always cherish my autographed copy, signed when Kermode came to give a lecture at Yale in 1984 or ’85 — but soak up The Art of Telling, too. (If nothing else, you may understand my hermeneutics better, not that that suffices as a motivation).
 

Going Around

I’m walking on air, since I know I’ll see my beloved in just over two weeks, but am thrilled to share the joy with Steve Himmer. Steve and I go way back to the boondocks days of Blogaria, we’ve couch-surfed back and forth, we’ve rejoiced and grieved together [digitally]. And now, we get to raise a glass in celebratory honour of his having found a publisher for his ground-breaking first novel, The Bee-Loud Glade!
 
There is no better friend among living novelists, and I am sure as can be that this marks the beginning of an exciting shelf of published works. I’ll be hoping we have the opportunity to arrange for Steve to return to old haunts and give a reading at the University of Glasgow.
 

Puzzling Reasoning

Mark C. Taylor has quite a reputation in the arena of postmodern theology. I’ve never been especially enthusiastic about his writings; they struck me as uninteresting, but I have been willing to take my colleagues’ word that he’s brilliant (and his position as chair of the Religion Department at Columbia suggests that his colleagues share that assessment).
 
A while back, he began making splashy media appearances concerning education and technology. He garnered some very generous support for ideas that seem to have fallen by the wayside, but (in the way such matters go) that seems not to have affected his reputation as a pundit, and now he’s pontificating about the future of the university as part of the publicity campaign for a forthcoming book. He’s against academic tenure, against institutional expansion, and is not obviously self-critical about his own position as a celebrity and Ivy League department chair.
 
I have some questions about academic tenure myself. Let me hasten to say I’m a union man from the word “go,” and tenure marks such a remarkable achievement by academic labourers that I don’t blame anyone for clinging to it. I’m not persuaded, though, that it benefits all academic labourers equally well, nor that the unequal benefits actually make so great a positive difference for the profession that it’s worth perpetuating tenure. But hey, I’m willing to listen, and am certainly not argumentative about the topic.
 
But even my predisposition to contemplate alternatives to the present system (and my goggle-eyed amazement that universities think it makes any sense to expand facilities rather than investing in the teaching and learning that constitute the raison d’être of higher education in the first place) doesn’t suffice to make Taylor’s ill-considered vagaries the least bit enticing. Even when I’m inclined to sympathise with arguments that he makes, he makes them so haughtily and imprecisely that I have a difficult time reconciling his academic reputation with the out-of-touch rhetoric of his pedagogical proposals. Candidly, he writes so carelessly about education that I’m inclined to suppose that my assessment of his theology has less to do with simple divergent paths, and perhaps at least a shade more to do with slipshod reasoning.
 
It’s getting toward time for me to dress for my day’s business, but Taylor’s confession that he “honestly [doesn’t] know what a lot of academics do a lot of the time” ought to rule out anyone’s taking him seriously. On what basis does he write about revolutionising the higher-ed industry when he himself admits that he doesn’t know what the labourers do?
 

Where It Went

For some reason, it seemed to me to be a good idea to get up early yesterday morning. I know, I know, I can hear you ask “What were you thinking?” I was thinking — soundly, to a point — that I would go to a car boot sale (a flea market, in US English) and since I wanted to scout for under-priced fountain pens, and when you’re looking for under-priced specialty items you should get there early. Right? Right.
 
Alas, Polmadie has gone the way of US flea markets, and now — rather than comprising all garage-emptying or estate-settling sales of household goods, it’s dominated by people with packaged goods that somehow came into their possession: batteries, hand tools, light bulbs, some health and beauty aids. There were some miscellaneous household items, but it was not the setting for pen-hunting that I had hoped. That’s OK; it was good exploring and learning, and I had a good time.
 
On my way home, I stopped at some charity shops and at the one antique shop in Partick. No one had fountain pens, but the proprietor of the antique shop tipped me off that an antiques and collectibles show comes to the West End once a month, and that it would be in Glasgow today.
 
That mean that I would get up early today (not because I wanted to get to the antiques fair early, but because I had the 8:30 mass at the cathedral). I was needed for the 10:30 service also, so I had my coffee and croissant at the Bay Tree, where I spent a happy hour thinking hard and having delicious ideas. After the second service, I hurried to Kelvin Hall to catch the antiques show, where I spent a few minutes admiring the display of Peter Crook’s pens, and the antiques on offer from many other vendors — altogether a more satisfactory experience.
 
But time was marching on, and I had gratefully accepted an invitation to Sunday dinner at Vicky and Margaret’s, so I hustled home, changed out of clericals, trundled down to Partick Station, took the train to Anniesland, enjoyed a marvellous dinner of stuffed pepper and roasted vegetables, followed by much conviviality. So now that I’m home, I’m footsore, weary, full, sun-warmed, and ready to turn my brain off, watch a diverting movie, and go to bed early — since I have Morning Prayer and a clergy staff meeting, and then lunch with a colleague, already committed for tomorrow.
 

Tick Another Box

As a footnote to yesterday’s post about Margaret’s visa application being in the mail, the other legal matter we needed to take care of before she emigrated was transferring the title of our [former] car to our friends who bought it from us. This was a great nuisance, because Pippa and I bought the car in Durham while Margaret was on a longish stretch in Baltimore — so my name is on the title, so she couldn’t sign the title over by herself. It’s all done, though; we have one fewer asset in this world, and one fewer task to accomplish before Margaret’s departing. Maybe it’ll really happen!

Alienation

In the 1970’s, the University of Glasgow elected as its rector the Communist Party member and Labour candidate for Parliament Jimmy Reid. At the time, he had triumphantly spearheaded the unions’ efforts to keep the shipyards alive by refusing not to work.
 
Jimmy Reid died on Tuesday, and in this morning’s Independent ran the text of his Rectorial Address, which (according to the Guardian) the New York Times compared positively to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. look it over in the Independent, or download a PDF of the University’s original printing of the speech. I am saddened that such a voice be silenced at a time we need it so badly as an audible conscience to the University and to the economy.
 


 

Now I’m pondering the fact that the only two Rectorial Addresses I can recollect are Jimmy Reid’s and Martin Heidegger’s.

 

Oxygen!

The sun is out; the weather is fine. Margaret’s visa application is in, and (although we take nothing for granted) that at least signifies progress toward her joining me here in Glasgow. I’ve had a relaxed morning, but full of thinky thoughts — an exhilarating feeling, one that had been rarer and rarer over the previous five to eight years (to be precise and fair to my hosts in Princeton and at Duke, the past three years have marked a kind of convalescence from the diminished vitality of the years before).
 
I am quite certain that a great portion of my exuberant feelings involves the sunshine, but I’m almost as sure that this past year in Glasgow has genuinely nurtured my capacities for thinking in exploratory, adventuresome ways. The sense that this is coming back to me, when I once felt uncertain that I’d be able to think that way again, fills me with the delight of a deep gasp of fresh air, the satisfying exhaustion of having stretched one’s body to its limits (and then pushed those limits a bit). I hope I’ll be able to wrangle my thinking into some sort of intelligible order for my keynote at the Christian New Media Conference — but with the excitement of thinking has come the assurance that if I allow the individual bits time to gestate, that they will come together in time. Now, off to tackle the world!

Candles Lit

I haven’t talked much about my protracted time without Margaret. I don’t want to seem to be holding a pity party, or to suggest that while Pakistan faces devastating floods, Haiti is still struggling with the aftereffects of the earthquake, the Gulf Coast is trying to figure out how much of the truth they’re being told about the oil-and-dispersant toxictail their fishing and recreation grounds have turned into, my having to spend another year apart from my wife should be a subject for general concern. The problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world; I’ve known that all along.
 
Today, though, Margaret got all the right materials together and sent them to her visa agency to arrange for her safe transit to Scotland. We’re not taking anything for granted. Experience reminds us that something can always go wrong. But so far as we can tell, this is the last step before it’ll be possible for us to live together again as we have always wanted to, as we have always tried to, as we committed ourselves to twenty-eight years ago as a sign of the mystery of the union between Christ and his church, as a witness to something joyous and imperishable over against the bitter sneer of misery and mortality.
 
“It is not good for ha-Adam to be alone,” God said, and well-named I am; although I am temperamentally introverted, I don’t like being isolated. I don’t like having spent five of the last six years away from Margaret more than with her. I am more thankful than I can say that Pippa and Si kept me company back in Evanston, and Pippa by herself during our year in Durham, and Margaret and I have been together on and off during her years of study and work on her own. But it is not good — and that is why God made it possible for people to join their lives in a pledge of constancy and intimacy that mirrors God’s own constancy and intimacy with us. Yes, and love; however much that word is abused in commercialised popular culture, however it has been trotted out as a façade for all manner of false and degraded motives, God’s very identity, offered for us to share in the holy mystery of human marriage, binds hearts and minds and bodies together in a unity that geographical distance and long years of intermittent contact can tax but cannot rend. It is not good for us to be alone, and (the Home Office willing) we have only a shade longer than three weeks left to manage.
 
Thank you, Margaret, for sticking with me through all those long, difficult years — and please, come home to Glasgow, soon.
 

Separated By Admissions Policies

This may need explanation to US readers, but many UK universities’ admissions have closed before A-level results (like senior-year final grades combined with SAT results) have been posted. I have myself been baffled by passing references to admissions at Glasgow until someone sat me down and explained.
 
Back in the States, most institutions of higher education solicit applications for admission, since most are tuition-driven (and many that are not tuition-driven benefit from their selectivity). If you are in the midst of an economic squeeze and you can squeeze a few extra bodies into your classrooms, the additional tuition money is all to the good. Over here, however, the universities are publicly-funded, so that we have a limit on the number of students we can accept. Thus, if a great many students have already been admitted — say, students who have taken a gap year, or older returning students, or students whose qualifications became available earlier than English students (Scotland’s graduates got their “Highers” back a couple of weeks ago) — it’s quite possible, and in this case it actually has happened, that all the admissions slots have been taken before students learn their final marks.
 
As the industrial age begins to recede to the horizon in Europe and North America, one would think that government might realise that education (from primary through universities) provides the launching-pad for economic growth in a service- and information-dominated economy. Labour was talking the talk, at least, with their push to expand university attendance to 50%, but even they didn’t support universities sufficiently to make that goal materially possible. With the ConDems approaching the budget with all the gentleness of Freddy Krueger caressing a babysitter, the universities are in an even more serious bind. And we can’t admit more students to bring in tuition, because that comes from the government.
 
— With the result that we have to close admissions before all students have even found out how they did in their final year of school, lest we be penalised by the government.
 

Sort Of But Not Exactly

Over the past couple of days, I’ve stumbled on several links that approach, but do not coincide with, my hermeneutical interests. First, I heard a story on NPR from their series about evolution, “When Did We Become Mentally Modern?” I’m not an anthropologist or an archaeologist, but the story sounded off-kilter in a number of ways. First, and most prominently, it vests a great deal in the concept of “Symbolic Thought” without articulating just what the portentous phrase might refer to (and the segment oddly devoted a significant portion of its airtime to the topic of how puzzling the idea is, without then explaining its context or referents). As best I understand, the term derives from Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, and has to do with the capacity to form and manipulate abstractions. Second, I’d be interested to hear more detail about how one leaps from the discovery of a shell-made-into-a-bead to the absolute confidence that these beads constitute evidence of “symbolic thought”: “There was no doubt that if we had beads, we had evidence for symbolic thought.” I’ll trust the serious study of archaeology that some important steps got left out.
 
Still, the Piagetian/developmental angle casts an interesting light on my arguments about words exemplifying a atypical instance of communication and meaning; again, I’m persuaded that we do better to theorise about meaning on the broader, more prevalent evidence of non-verbal expression and inference.
 
Then David Akin linked to an essay by the late historian Tony Judt, to the effect that “words” are in danger of “falling into disrepair.” Now, as my students will rapidly assure you, few people care more about precision in composition than do I. But Judt’s column seems to betray some confusion about the way that communication works. In the first place, words simply are not all that we have; we’re immersed in a seething profusion of expressive signs, gestures, marks, indicators, and so on, and as lovely and precious as we may regard words, we have much to fall back on even if words fail us. Second, though, Judt seems to suppose that the precision and elegance in expression that he and I prize itself is a unique, imperishable phenomenon — whereas I would argue (reluctantly) that our beloved kind of limpid rhetoric belongs to a particular cultural setting, a setting that may not extend as far as we would wish it. And outside that context, other rhetorical modes may more effectively and (shudder) more precisely communicate what speakers/writers and their audiences want to learn from one another.
 
The mode of communication for which Judt (and I) labour belongs to academic culture, but even within the academy we should allow for the possibility that particular disciplines, practices, and historical moments place a higher value on different ways of communicating. I share Judt’s disappointment that so few students, and even colleagues, share our understanding of and striving for clarity, and I dread the experience of losing the facility with words that I’ve sought to develop and maintain for as long as I can remember — but his apocalyptic tone relative to our culture at large strikes me as overblown.