If A Tome Falls In The Woods…

I had a bad day yesterday; discretion prevents my being too specific, but it involved a vivid indication that the twenty years of deliberation, research, imagination, and composition that have gone into my scholarly work simply haven’t made much of an impact. And if the work in which I take (perhaps unjustifiable) pride isn’t a blip on the academy’s or the church’s radar, on what basis might I make a pitch for either church or academy to hire me? Please note that I’m not asking for accolades, not a sedan chair, ostrich-feather fans, the applause of adoring throngs — either from you, dear reader, or from some hypothetical employer or colleagues — but simply some recognition that I’ve actually done something. It’s difficult to avoid the sentiment that my work isn’t even worth refutation, even though one implication of my work is, ironically, that it would not readily gain traction in established interpretive circles.
But all that is vanity, especially since merely having a job for next year is an achievement that so far lies beyond my grasp; obviously it’s time for me to humble down. I’m ruminating about whether it makes more sense to try out some vocation where I haven’t already washed out, or to hang onto a line of work that at which I’m already demonstrably better than average, but without sufficient recognition among my peers for the quality of that work to matter.

12 thoughts on “If A Tome Falls In The Woods…

  1. In my linguistics class the other day we were talking about the impact of Saussure and, later on, the Prague School. I was struck by how so many vitally important ideas in modern functionalism are actually quite old, but because of what I can only describe as historical accident (WW2, the rise of the USSR, Czech not being considered a ‘vital’ academic language, etc) they kind of disappeared for 50-60 years. The same with Saussure. Some people argue that many of his most interesting ideas are really concepts that were first noted by other scholars, but nobody knows any of their names. All of that just made me think about what it actually means to impact the academy and what vocational calling is about for academics. But, of course, none of this is helpful when it comes to getting a job in order to keep being an academic and keep, you know, paying bills and such. Still, I don’t think that it is really possible to measure the impact of our work in the same terms as other kinds of vocations.

    And if it’s any consolation, you make the footnotes of pretty much every paper I’ve ever written on hermeneutics and theological interpretation.

  2. That’s very kind of you, Colin. One of the elements of my situation that most pique me involves the extent to which I don’t see myself as having originated anything in particular, but only called attention to the convergent implications of people such as Saussure, Magritte, Wittgenstein, Derrida, Kristeva, Tufte, and so on.
    I had a “shut my mouth” moment in the shower, though; as I was fulminating about people being lauded while I had been laboring all along, I heard the father’s response to the elder son in the Prodigal Son parable. And then, the vineyard owner’s reply to the all-day workers in the vineyard parable: “Is your eye evil because I am good?” So I’m re-humbled, but with the stipulated reservation that both the elder brother and the vineyard workers still had jobs.

  3. Ya, the trouble with being a human heuristic device is that people always seem to think they got there on their own. But the job thing really does stink. Academic theology is such an odd job-market. I’m really not looking forward to that part of finishing my PhD…the job search I mean of course.

  4. Akma, I know that you said no accolades, but I cannot help responding to your saying “recognition that I’ve done something.” As a recent student of yours, I cannot adequately express how much you accomplished in me, and not just in your wonderful NT classes. I learned a great deal about saying what you mean and meaning what you say. You had an impact on my preaching, on my personal theology, and on my views on my ministry and work. I came out of my relationship with you changed for the better, or at least, more aware of aspects of my life, ministry, and theology that had previously been hidden from me.
    Yes, I know, no accolades, but your impact on my life was significant and appreciated. I can’t do anything about your job search except to keep you, and your family, in my thoughts and prayers (though you all already were). God bless you in your search. Peace, Court.

  5. Well, I might not be the best person to respond to such a lamentation, as all I have are but sparrow feathers from the bird that the neighbors cat left in the grass several weeks ago that’s probably been disposed of by now, but, although I haven’t taken any of your classes, read any of your books, and I’ve certainly avoided you at some events, I do know that you are an excellent teacher, a wonderful father, and the reason (love you too, mom, but…) that each of your children, although given alternative educations, have always, always, ALWAYS not only wanted to learn, and been able to, but also wanted to learn it well, to the finest degree possible. And, even if it’s “Child-led”, you (and mom, too) have always been there to help, encourage, and support us, and that’s why we are the kids you are so proud of today, even though the piano and visual arts have obviously nothing to do with you…

  6. I belong to the presbytery that buries a good number of PTS professors, and I am always struck by how rarely their academic work is mentioned. For a number of them, the eulogy mentions that this professor or that professor produced no great work (or no work at all). They are usually remembered for their families, their teaching, the small kindnesses they showed, and their efforts to make the world a little better. While we have been habituated to think that our main work as scholars is to produce scholarship, there really is something to be said for great teaching and the training of great students. You are a great teacher. I have never read any of your other work (at least the stuff you have to pay for), but I am always grateful for the questions you ask and the refelctions you share.

    I think you already know all of the other qualifiers that should go into this post. It is ridiculously hard to get a tenure-track job. This is the worst market in years. The academy itself continues to become more scattered and eclectic and professionalized. The denominations that have created so many great institutions are faltering. We sit in libraries and surround ourselves with academic giants and feel disappointed when we don’t reach their status. All scholarship is derivative. The job market is often capricious and nepotistic. Dislocation harms productivity.

    I don’t blame you for taking this personally, but it really need not be.

  7. Well, I’ve enjoyed your work, AKMA. No one, in my opinion, has explained post-modern biblical criticism as well as you have.

  8. Hello,

    I know where you are coming from having found myself on the street after a long time in a job that I thoroughly enjoyed and was told that I did well. Bruised egos hurt, there’s no getting around it.

    It may be churlish of me to suggest it, but have you got a copy of “What Color is Your Parachute” by Richard Bolles. I’ve used it twice with excellent results. The job you want is out there and this book helps you find it. Bolles and his techniques helped me find an even better job.

    In the meantime, take it easy on yourself. The world is tough enough without you joining the chorus of nay sayers.

    Good luck,
    Ed Morrow

  9. What Pippa said says it all. You’re clearly on the positive side of the ledger. And as Adama says, “so say we all!”

  10. It might come as a surprise to you but you’re having an impact beyond what you can see on the ground in your locality. I’m writing my doctorate in biblical theology and have found your work to be really thought-provoking. I’m also teaching in a Pentecostal theological college in the UK, hardly a bastion of postmodern thought, but your books are on our library shelves and, since they’ve given me a full-time job from this summer onwards, I’ll be recommending your work to students when appropriate. I’ve also sent our faculty the link of your talk on ‘the disseminary’ and look forward to discussing it with them. So, just want to encourage you – you’re having an effect in places you might never have dreamed off!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *