Category Archives: Academia

Great Scholarly Anglo-Saxon Prayer Blog

I’ve mentioned before the work of Dr. Kate Thomas, currently at the University of York. She is a medievalist who works with topics like medicine, lived religion, and Anglo-Saxon lay and monastic devotion.

I just discovered that she has a (relatively) new blog called For the Wynn. If you like the kind of topics I frequently discuss here on early medieval spirituality (or that you find on Eleanor Parker’s A Clerk of Oxford [you are reading that and following her on Twitter, right?], you’ll definitely want to check it out!

Also, if you haven’t seen it yet, Dr. Thomas has a link to her excellent thesis about private prayer in the Anglo-Saxon period on her About page.

On General Seminary

The news out of New York over the last several days has been difficult to hear. M and I love GTS deeply—it’s where she did her Anglican Year and earned an STM in Liturgics. I never went to school there, but I lived in 422—right across from The Close—and participated in community life and worship to the degree that I was able.

It’s always been my dream to teach there someday.

Now, however, the dream may be dying…

After having been in and around several seminaries, General seemed to me to have the proper blend of knowledge, wisdom, and piety needed by the modern Church. Seminarians were formed as people of prayer—and the prayer book—as well as people who knew stuff. I’ve seen some comments on Facebook/social media suggesting that the problems at General are a sign that it’s time to retire an obsolete 19th century way of doing seminary. I wouldn’t agree at all. When M and I were there, the community gathered for Morning Prayer, Daily Mass, and Evensong. Meals and classes were fit in around the chapel schedule. It offered an intentional liturgical community as the bedrock of priestly formation.

One of the points of controversy regards the current Dean’s approach to the liturgy and his alteration of this fundamental schedule. Apparently in the name of relevance he has cut this schedule back: there’s no Morning Prayer on Monday and Thursday, there’s no Eucharist on Wednesday or Friday (or Saturday or Sunday). Medievalists and those with a grounding in classical Anglican liturgy will, no doubt, note the irony of skipping Eucharists on Wednesday and Friday…

What’s the big deal? Well, the big deal is that this pattern teaches our future clergy that their spiritual obligations can be altered and shifted if they conflict with more important things. Of course, as time goes by, life interferes more and more until the very idea of an obligation is dispensed with in the name of efficiency and—I suppose—relevance.

I won’t belabor the point. Suffice it to say, there’s likely a lot going on here that external participants don’t know. It seems that the Dean is being “bold and decisive” but not collegial or collaborative. It seems that the professors are making broad appeals to community support, but the history and timing on some of this seems curious and tactical. It seems that the Board is out of touch, but I wonder what sort of messages they were getting from various sides at various times. Suffice it to say it seems like a mess all around. Sadly, situations like this make me feel better about my decision to stay in the corporate world rather than subjecting my family to the vagaries of the academic sphere.

Two final notes. First, I can’t help but see this crisis in light of the upcoming presentation on Thursday from TREC. Bold and decisive leadership sounds great—until it happens to you, and the bold and decisive decisions aren’t something that you like.  What will the Church and TREC learn from GTS? Second, seminary faculty need and deserve support and a just working environment. Unionization may well be one way to accomplish that. But it would be so much easier to get behind those noble motivations if the whole “adjuncting” situation weren’t a factor. The adjunct trap is a soul-crushing system of servitude. To advocate for justice and equity for the tenured, and silence for the rest strikes me as a bit off.

We’ll continue to follow the news as it comes out, but I pray that all sides will sit down and figure out a solid way to move forward. General as an institution and as a model for clerical formation is too important to lose over personality squabbles.

On the Post-Academic Life

My uncle-in-law sent me a link to this article yesterday: The Repurposed PhD: Finding Life after Academia–and Not Feeling Bad About It. He has a PhD in Ethics from Yale and is working in the Virginia court system. Being PhDs outside of academia is one of the big things that we have in common.

It’s an interesting article, but it misses some important points and fails to connect some dots that it does bring up.

I think its biggest weakness is that it misses the central connection between academic shame and the adjuncting system.

Within the last several years, academia has increasingly moved to a heavy use of poorly paid adjuncts in order to keep the costs lower, and I have friends who graduated with me who try to survive by cobbling together a variety of courses at multiple schools. Some of them are on food stamps because they simply can’t make ends meet. What’s amazing to me is that they’re willing to do it! It’s a fundamentally exploitative system but it can only work because there’s so much pressure and shame around having an academic career. I got that message quite clearly from my department: a PhD without a tenure-track position is a failure.

Period pieces sometimes give a picture of cash-poor aristocrats who, although on the verge of starvation, wouldn’t consider taking employment below their proper station; academics seem to be their modern counterpart… For my part, I remember one point where I was near the end of completing my dissertation. I was adjuncting at my university while also working as an IT consultant. I had just arrived at the office from teaching my 8 AM class and was contemplating my life. It hit me suddenly that what the university was paying me for a full semester of teaching my own class—from writing the syllabus, doing all the research, all the teaching, all the grading, etc.—was equivalent to what I made in IT in two weeks… I am a scholar—but I’m a father and a husband first and when push comes to shove, I’ve got to support M and the girls. Academic dignity is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t keep you fed.

However, the adjuncting system can work because that notion of academic dignity is still firmly entrenched in programs of formation. No one in my department said it; my advisor clearly understood my situation—and yet it was in the water. Nobody said it—but nobody had to, either. If you didn’t follow an academic career then you were wasting all of the time and effort put into it. No one who has gone through that wants to waste it, and adjuncting positions get dangled like bait. The hope is always out there—if you do a good job as an adjunct, of course we’ll notice that and transition you to a tenure-track position. Why, just next year one might open up…!  In the vast majority of cases it’s a false hope.

Hand in hand with the connection between shame and adjuncting is the cost factor of a doctorate. A PhD is costly. And I mean that in a whole host of ways. It requires a huge emotional investment to get through the rigors of the process: at least two grueling years of coursework, then the horror of exams before you get to the proposal and dissertation stage.  In order to get through all of that and to put up with it, you have to form an image of your academic self. You put yourself through this pain and poverty because it’s who you are! To go through that process, to form that mental image of yourself, and then to consider doing something else—anything else—with your career and life is confront the reality of that image and to call into question the worth of the effort and therefore your own identity. And, some—I’m convinced—remain in the vicious circle of adjuncting because they are unwilling or unable to confront or deconstruct their own image of that academic self.

In doing a doctorate, you’re sacrificing quite a lot particularly in terms of time. Academics must delay certain things in order to focus and get their work done and that frequently includes serious relationships and having children (in addition to gainful employment). And that’s one of the places where we come out behind… My girls’ friends parents tend to have at least a good ten years of earnings behind them that we simply don’t have.

They were working while we were schooling.

Given the time-value of money, this is a cost that we will never get back.

Because of the costs—emotional, financial, familial—at what point do you decide that you’ve invested too much to be able to change course? There are some who hang on to the tenure-track dream because it’s the only visible return on investment. PhDs are chiefly valued within academia; outside of it, most folks don’t care. If anything, the credential makes you appear more expensive to a prospective employer with little benefit if it isn’t directly connected to the work at hand.

I sometimes have relatives and friends who ask me if I’m looking for a teaching job or who point out open positions to me. I’ve even had a bishop do it. And while I’m grateful to them, it’s more complicated than that.

At this point in my life, I’m okay with who I am and where I’m at. In the few years that I did send out applications to schools, I intentionally limited my inquiries to a few religious liberal arts schools and seminaries. I have no interest in teaching general religion courses outside of a confessional context.  I’ve always said that my purpose in earning a PhD was to be a doctor for the church. And I’m doing that. With my writing and my work on church bodies, I’m applying my learning in that way that I intended. While I certainly wouldn’t mind teaching in an Episcopal seminary, it’s an open question whether I’d be a viable candidate.

The issue isn’t with the quality of my PhD, it’s the time in between. I didn’t do the rat race. I didn’t cobble together adjuncting assignments. I didn’t maintain the expected commitment to the discipline. I haven’t been reading, writing and publishing in the proper venues. It’s all well and good that I’m okay with all of that—how about the professors on the search committee? Are they okay with that? Or do they want to see someone who traveled their own path as their next colleague?

I haven’t talked to anybody about this, but my own sense of things is that the more time that elapses between my PhD and getting a position, the lower the probability of getting one drops. I’d guess its around .5% right now…

And so I write.

I’m a husband and a father. And I’m a scholar too. And in that order. I am an academic—that’s just the way I’m wired. But I don’t need a position in academia to validate that.  It’s enough to just be me.

General Theological + Candler

News came over the wire yesterday that a pact has been struck between two institutions close to my heart, General Theological Seminary and Emory’s Candler School of Theology. Here’s the official news release from ENS. The perspective from Candler is here; GTS doesn’t have a press release on there site at the moment. One piece of data may help connect the dots: Lang Lowery—General’s Interim President—earned his MDiv at Candler the same time that M and I were there.

The key items here seem to be a book exchange. (The electronic and student exchanges don’t seem to be as significant to me.) Pitts Library in Atlanta will receive 80,000 to 90,000 books from GTS which should ease physical space conditions in New York. What Dr. Graham will do with them once they reach the ATL is an open question, though, barring a massive increase to the size of Pitts since last I was there!

What does this mean? The way I read it, Candler is helping out GTS by reducing the storage cost of the library materials. GTS is likely divesting itself of most of its non-Anglican focused materials to save space and reduce costs. I’ve said before (in chorus with others, of course) that seminaries attached to universities will be better equipped to survive in the emerging landscape than standalone institutions. What we see here is a consolidation of physical resources into a university-based seminary away from a standalone.

If this were a computer network, we’d say that there’s a trend moving from a peer-to-peer system where each unit has its own resources to a distributed computing model where a central server holds resources for thin clients. However, the resource under discussion here are books and people—physical things rather than data packets which concentrates control in the “server” institution.


Perspectives on Ælfric

I’m reading through the LME again for a project I’m working on. Once again, I find myself baffled concerning the place of Ælfric in the modern academy.

There’s a folktale with wide circulation—I first encountered it in its Turkish form where the Hojja (a classic wise fool figure) is staring at the ground under a street-lamp. A passer-by asks him what he’s doing and he replies “Looking for a ring I lost.” The passer-by stops to help and they search without result for a while. Finally the passer-by asks, “Where exactly did you lose it?” The Hojja replies, “Inside my house.” “Well—why are we looking for it out here then?” “Because the light is so much better here…”

This, truly, is a core story for anyone who studies medieval materials—especially early medieval liturgical materials. So often we can’t look where we want to, we have to look where the light is good. We are thoroughly restricted by the materials we have.

Ælfric is like a gem sitting under a street-lamp that keeps getting walked over and stepped upon. The LME is such an unusual document: it lays out the monastic cursus of a pre-Conquest English monastery complete with local adaptions and a clear and definite section on the Night Office—one of the thornier items to reconstruct. Put this in relation to both the pastoral letters and Ælfric’s massive homiletical output and you have a wonderful window into Pre-Conquest church life. Yet I can count on the fingers of my hands the Church Historians who know him or do anything with him. Likewise, the number of Old English readers—virtually all in English departments—who appreciate his liturgical materials is likewise minuscule.

One obvious issue is language. The majority of Ælfric’s work is in Old English—a language inaccessible to most Church Historians. By the same token the LME isn’t really in Latin, it’s in liturgicalese which is a foreign tongue to your average medievalist no matter how good their Latin.

Another is publicity. Look in church histories and you’re not likely to find Ælfric. He’s too much of a regular guy. He wasn’t a great pope, prince, or even a ground-breaking interpreter. Indeed, one of the reasons I’m so interested in him is precisely because he offers an example of a what a regular well-schooled pious abbot would write and think. But—I stumbled across him by chance and followed the lead into the English Department. I sure didn’t hear about him in the theology school.

There’s a lot of work that remains to be done on his work and that of others like him. I’m working on it as are others, but we could use some more help!

A New Publishing Model?

I’ve got a couple of writing projects I’ve been working on that may be developing into books. Bits and pieces of these have appeared here on the blog in various forms. One is a practical guide to the liturgical year, the other is a text on liturgical/lectionary spirituality. I pitched the first to Church Publishing a little while back; they said that they were interested but that the timing wasn’t right. Of course, now we hear that there’s been a great deal of change at Church Publishing including a significant reduction of staff and therefore capability.

What does this bode for liturgical works for an Anglican audience? I don’t know for sure.

If I had to guess, however, it would indicate that the chance of being published through Church Publishing is shrinking. Furthermore, I’d imagine that they’re more likely to pick up works that are in line with the national church’s liturgical direction as exemplified by Enriching Our Worship. Material like mine with plenteous references to earlier times and other church traditions (e.g. the Missals…) may not be what they’ll be interested in publishing.

Where, then, to go? Will LTP start picking up the slack? Or is it time to look for a new model?

I’ve been following with interest the Simple English Propers Project as reported by Chant Cafe, NLM, and the CMAA. They just completed a fund-raising campaign which raised money for the completion of the project; the resulting work will, if I understand it rightly, be distributed freely on-line and for the cost of printing at Lulu. This was acheived through the use of digital micro-patronage–collections of $5, $10, $20 and, I’d assume, some larger donations that when pooled made it a viable project.

Now, there’s a certain cachet lacking in that it’s not produced by an official press. For the purpose of, say, a typical academic resume, a self-published work of this sort would have the credibility of—well—a blog posting. And the resulting work may lack something in not having the eye of an experienced editor looking it over. On the other hand…it works. It’s a means for circulating ideas, and particularly ideas that lack the financial viability need in the modern publishing market.

I’ve been thinking a bit about the patronage idea recently. I’d actually been considering making a standing announcement that I’d be willing to code a traditional calendar version of the breviary that would accept the use of pre/non-Vatican II lectionaries like the American or English ’28 versions or even the classical prayer book forms that don’t work with the current post-Vatican II scheme if I could get a patron, parish, or group of parishes to underwrite it. But that hadn’t bubbled to the putting-it-into-practice phase.

So here’s the thing: traditional print publishers are having a hard time. This is bad for niche writing and publishing. Nevertheless, there’s still interest in niche materials. Patronage, particularly in the form of digital micro-patronage, may represent a way forward for the production of work for which an author/editor deserves compensation but which can then be freely/cheaply circulated.



AKMA on the Open Source Textbook

AKMA writes today on the Open Source Textbook. This is an idea whose time has definitely come.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find myself wondering strange thoughts like, “Hmm. You know, one of these days I should buy a Qur’an and maybe a decent scholarly introduction to it just to read through it for myself… I wonder what version and introduction scholars of religion use?” Occasionally these thoughts makes it all the way into a Google box which then tends to devolve in aimless search and eventual wish-list maintenance at Amazon.

I don’t believe in any of my wild-hare moments that I’ve seen a basic wiki from the American Academy of Religion that covers that topic—but wouldn’t that make sense?

Closer to home, I’ve written the occasional piece here, often in response to requests from folks like Tony or Brandon on a basic plan of study for the Apocrypha & Pseudepigrapha or Basic Homiletics for Medievalists. And those things are fine for the readership here, but if somebody googles in, they have no idea if I know what I’m talking about or if I’m just spouting off.

AKMA is absolutely right about the textbook, but here’s my suggestion. It takes a hell of a lot of work to get a textbook up and going as he notes (and I concur having survived a couple from the research assistant side!), so why not utilize a practical intermediary step? Begin with a wiki. Have a general plan for what kinds of things you’d like to see, then start gathering bits—pieces like mine above. Or a quickie intro to who Gregory the Great was, what he wrote and why he matters. Or an overview on arguments over Gospel Chronology. Host the site at an identifiable location with its own built-in credentials. Like the Disseminary. Gather together people to contribute material. Encourage Graduate faculty to have their students send in some of their seminar prep assignments which, if they’re like mine, often consisted of an overview of a classic work or studied a particular angle of a classic problem. Once the very specific articles come in, more general pieces can be written that link to them and give an order, framework, and context to these snapshots. From those contributors, start gathering an informal editorial board. Then, as the project (hopefully) picks up steam, look at what’s there, what’s getting accessed, what works and start constructing the textbook from these pieces.

A place positioned like the Disseminary has the advantage of being able to go in two key directions: it can speak to academics and the university/seminary setting but also can occupy an identifiably confessional theological position (confessional in the broad sense…). It can provide a trustworthy resource for clergy and interested laypeople who want an informed opinion coming from a known theological position. (Would this represent two different resources or two portals that draw from roughly the same material but with different points of entry? Who knows…)

So that’s my proposal. Definitely open source textbooks. But let’s start with wiki that can be used as a stepping stone.