Towards a Symbiotic Relationship Between Academic Pundits and Academic Academics; Or, another post about Reza Aslan.

I hope this is my last post about Reza Aslan. We’ll see.

A friend of mine posted to Facebook an excerpted an interview Nathan Schneider did with Aslan in 2010 where he discusses the guff he took for his early work writing for a general non-academic audience. As the questions of Aslan’s credentials, the role of religion scholars in public, and the difference between “academic” and “popular” work have come up this week it seemed to me my friend had a good eye for the timely. Aslan talks about the problem scholars have addressing the general public:

RA: ..That, to me, is an example of the problem academia has, which earns it legitimate criticism for being out of touch with the concerns of people outside of its walls.

NS: How do you think scholars can learn to take part in broader conversations?

RA: It’s often a total waste of time. You can’t be trained to speak to the media in a weekend seminar before going on Anderson Cooper. You have to be immersed in the kind of world in which there is no division between the academic and the popular. I honestly think that the best hope that we have is to foster a new kind of student, one who doesn’t spend eight years in the basement of Widener Library at Harvard poring over a thirteenth-century manuscript and writing a dissertation on the changes in the vowel markings of a sentence. That kind of scholarship has a very small role in the world we live in now. We need scholars who understand that there is no division between the world of academia and the popular world. Trying to take staid academics and teach them to use words with fewer syllables is not the way to break that wall down.

I think Aslan misses something here. Through the wonders of Amazon’s “Look inside!” feature, I took a gander at Aslan’s bibliography for Zealot and No god but God. Guess what? They are both full of academic journal articles and books from academic presses! You know, those things written by folks in musty library basements. That stuff that “has a very small role in the world we live in now.” Aslan’s work does a fine job of offering Barnes and Noble customers and Fresh Air listeners an accessible account of “the historical Jesus” or an introduction to Islam. But his books are built from the work of other academics writing for an academic audience. Aslan is a translator and he needs that initial highfaluting academic work to fashion into his accessible prose and media punditry. And in doing so, he adds value to the original research by disseminating it more widely.

Some people are talented enough to do both sorts of this work. Some can only do one or the other. But accessible Barnes and Noble CNN work and hardcore ancient language dusty archive work need each other. They are so happy together.

Now which one is the rhinoceros…

Why I Embargoed My Dissertation


I did it because I could.


I did it because everyone else who had graduated recently in my program did it.


I did it because every junior faculty member I know said their publisher told them to erase all evidence that there book was ever a dissertation. They said libraries wouldn’t buy the book if the dissertation was available for free. In an era of shrinking budgets, libraries cannot afford to buy the cow if they can get the milk for free in an open access database. But here’s the real problem, my milk isn’t ready yet. It hasn’t been processed and pasteurized. It doesn’t have the shelf life it needs.


Not yet.


Librarians out there: Is this true? Are you not buying books that seem like thinly re-published dissertations?


I have a book project that I’m working on and it is based on my dissertation. The dissertation is a really good dissertation (damn good, in my opinion) but it isn’t as good as the book will be. It doesn’t have the kind of sharp teeth I want the final book to have. It was written for an audience of three, not an entire field. And even though I was told to “write for the book” by my advisor, it is still the rough draft of the book. It is a damn fine dissertation, but it is not my first book.


When I was writing my dissertation I came across Richard Hughes Seager’s dissertation from Harvard as a printed and bound copy in the stacks of the Pitts Library at Emory. That dissertation became this book. I’m actually assigning the book in my seminar on Asian Religions in America this fall. The dissertation, well, it’s still on that shelf in the stuffy basement of a Methodist seminary.


The days of finding dissertations like Seager’s in the stacks are over. We are in the age of digital dissertations, digital research, and digital pedagogy. It strikes me that in the age of the MOOC, when scholarly teaching is imagined by some as something easily replaced, our research matters more than ever. We can write books–machines cannot. Our research, our books, our dissertations, these are not easily replicated massively. They should be open. I firmly believe that. We should be producing public knowledge. Open access journals are important. Public scholarship is vital. This is why I write on this blog. This is why I have written at Religion Dispatches and Religion in American History. But here’s the thing: openness does not mean a complete loss of control. I want to open my research up to the world–but I’ll do it when I know it is ready.


And it’s not just these online institutional repositories. When I finished my dissertation I was required by Emory University to pay ProQuest to take my dissertation for their database that they then sell to other institutions. Fight Club soap, all over again. Sure, I get a take of any sales of my particular dissertation, but if someone wants my dissertation bad enough to pay ProQuest for it I’d be happy to send them a PDF for free.


Right now, my dissertation’s abstract and table of contents are listed here, along with my committee members’ names. If you are working in the field and find this page in the next few years, it would not be hard to find me or one of my committee members. We will give you a copy of the dissertation, happily. I’ve done this already. Furthermore, in my case, I have been actively blogging about this project for two years and giving conference papers at national conferences. My research is not unavailable just because it isn’t in a mandatory open access database.


I have seen a lot of associate and full professors bemoaning the AHA’s recommendations. I think The Atlantic wrote something too. I cannot understand why scholars with the privileges of tenure fail to acknowledge the inequality and heavy handedness of forcing graduates to give away their research for free and outside of their control. Compensation and responsibilities for Ph.D. students vary from institution to institution. Support structures, research funding, and advising similarly range from wonderful to terrible. So, why not allow students to decide for themselves what to do with their dissertation work based on their particular circumstances?


For untenured or contingent faculty and recent Ph.D.s our research is all we really have left. They are MOOCing our teaching. But they can’t MOOC our books. There are three parties involved in this situation: junior faculty, libraries, and publishers. To all the senior faculty complaining about embargoing as a step backwards, I ask you to please talk to your librarians, talk to your editors at the presses your work with, use your role as series editors, to change the system. Get your library to stop settling for the free raw milk and make them buy it from the store. Get your publishers to think creatively about how to leverage the dissertation instead of treating it like an ugly step-child.


Because the junior faculty have little power in this.


All we can do is embargo.

Tuscaloosa Bound: My New Job at the University of Alabama

I’ve already posted about it on Facebook and I think someone sent out a tweet about it but I’ll post it here and make it official. I’m happy to announce I’ve accepted a one year faculty appointment in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama for 2013-1014. I’m really excited to join such a great group of faculty members for what should be a great year. I’m even more excited because I’ll get to teach a seminar on Asian Religions in American Culture that I’ve wanted a chance to teach for some time now. I’ll also be teaching the honors introduction to religion course, which should be a blast.

So, I guess all that’s left to say is….Roll Tide!

 

Tomorrow: Get Free Lunch and Hear Me Talk About Teaching With Twitter

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I should have posted this earlier, but I’ll be speaking as part of the great Eat Talk Teach Run series at Emory. ETTR combines four short (4 minute limit) talks on teaching with free lunch and frozen yogurt. It’s awesome. Come check it out. Details:

Eat. Talk. Teach. Run!
An event to energize grad student teaching at Emory.
Wednesday, October 31. 12 PM – 1 PM.

Eat. Yogurt Tap frozen yogurt and bánh mì sandwiches from Buford Highway!
Talk. Meet grad students from across campus.
Teach. Hear short 4-minute flashtalks from other grad students.
Run. Get back to the lab or library on time!

Location:
Few Hall G27, convenient for scientists, humanities, and everything in between!
Find Few Hall G27 here:
http://g.co/maps/f22gr

Grad Student Speakers:
Michael Altman (Religion)
Kate Doubler (English)
Laura Mariani (Neuroscience)
Cassy Quave (Ethnobotany, Post-doc)

RSVPs Appreciated at:
http://goo.gl/jJu1s

“Like” Us at:
http://facebook.com/EatTalkTeachRun

Shut Up and Start Writing: Week 2- The Starting Pistol

BANG! And we’re off.  Alright folks, time to check in with what you did this week and what your goal is for next week.

I actually got the chapter I’ve been working on revised and emailed to my adviser. So, if Dennis got his done too, that adviser should have a nice batch of summer reading. For next week, I’m starting a new chapter and I’d like to have a list of sources I need to go through put together by the end of the week. I’ll give myself bonus points if I can actually get through some of those sources. So, did I earn a sticker?

And what about yall? How was the first week? Did you start strong? Stumble out of the blocks? What can we do to help you? And what’s your goal for next week?

Your Taste is Killer: Ira Glass Provides Much Needed Dissertation Motivation

Ira Glass in a heart

I’ve been slogging through the dissertation work lately. I’m getting stuff done. But the joy is fading. Then I found this:

 

Oh, Ira. Thanks. I needed this.

I consider our work as academics creative. The very best academic writing has a creative flair to it, whether in the prose or the theory or the narrative or the use of sources. Those of us who choose, for better or worse, a career in the academic wing of the creative classes  are drawn here because of our “taste,” as Glass puts it. We read a book, take a class, research a project, or do something that ignites that taste and motivates us. Then we go to grad school and we start to produce seminar papers, conference papers, and eventually a dissertation, all the while reading works by brilliant academics. We start to notice the gap between what we’re doing and what these writers are doing. We want to do what they are doing, we always have, but we are afraid we can’t. We are afraid that our work will never live up to our taste.

Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems that we all feel this gap at some point in our training. For some it may come during course work or exams, but for me it has come at the dissertation phase–and not the beginning of the dissertation, about a third of the way through it. That’s why these words from Ira Glass were so motivational for me. My taste is killer. If you’re reading this, your taste is killer. Now comes the work. It’s time to fight your way through.

Ok, back to the fight.

Good advice for those of us writing dissertations…

Over the long arc of your career, you will complete many research projects, one often leading to the next. Research is an archipelago, not a single island. Your goal should be to build a career piece by piece doing good research. A professor once shocked me when I was a graduate student by saying, “Hopefully, your dissertation will be the worst thing you ever write.” Now I give the same advice: Our goal as scholars is continual improvement. Do the best job you can on your dissertation, defend it, publish it in some form, then move on.

Yep. That’s the goal.

More good advice here for those of you who’ve crossed over the river and are on the tenure track.