Back in the Saddle

5 Mar

A hearty hello to all! Expect regular posts again as I return to blogging form after travel, holidays, family visits, injury, sickness, distraction, non-blog-able work, tutoring, and, yes, a bit of procrastination. Today’s post is a medley of thoughts, mostly inappropriate for a “content” post as I normally offer. Enjoy!

  1. Why 1,000 words?
    • If you’re a member of the American Academy of Religion, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. 1,000 words is four  beefy page-long paragraphs of 250 words. It’s the length of the requested paper proposal summary for the AAR’s annual meeting. I must confess–and I’m taking risks here by saying taboo things–that it stinks. Other conferences, even those that meet concurrently with the AAR like the SBL or ASCH, do not put this undue burden of bloated pre-thinking upon its proposers. Consider this for a second. In March you write 1,000 words about a presentation you will give in November. And yet that November presentation itself will only be slightly longer, maybe 2,000-2,5000 words. What’s the point of only giving us half the space? If we’re just suggesting the idea, wouldn’t a quarter be more reasonable? After all, the abstract gets a beefy 150 words, which is probably 50 more than anyone should get. We don’t gain anything by being encouraged to artificially inflate our ideas. It’s okay to let less be more now, and demand better presentations later through pressure on organizers to get papers 1 month ahead of time to foster revision. Make it a requirement that papers must be submitted to respondents and presiders at least 30 days ahead of the conference. No more talks written on airplanes on the way to the conference. (And yes we all know folks that have openly confessed this academic sin.)
    • Here’s my thought: Banish the 1,000 word paper proposal. Dial it back to a robust 500 words with a 400 word minimum. This guarantees a consist quality of proposals that must all struggle to say things concisely. Precision is not one of my strengths, but my proposals would be better if I were to be forced to say only the most crucial and significant things. This would a) save the committees work, b) save scholars work (since only 20% or even less of all submitted proposals are accepted), and c) increase the quality of all proposals by evening the playing field. A final bonus? The AAR could increase the number of proposals one can submit. If the proposals themselves are half as long it wouldn’t be any extra work. Then reduce the abstracts by 50 words to match. This is the American Historical Association’s model, and I must say that it produces better panels. (They also exclusively accept pre-arranged panels, something I think the AAR should do more of.)
  2. Is “independent scholar” a taboo designation?
    • I graduated in June. I’m self-employed part-time as a private tutor, but I’m also seeking at least a part-time academic appointment. Since I moved right in the middle of the academic year, it’s been challenging to align my schedule with the hiring schedule of departments and schools nearby. At a recent conference I had to repeatedly explain what I meant by “independent scholar” to individuals I met. This is often an opportunity for interesting discussion, but there is a perception (given during conversations with pointed questions about my employment) that somehow I have failed or am a pariah. I don’t want to sound chuffed, but why is it so hard to imagine someone who still conducts research may not have an academic affiliation? In this day and age of the perennially lousy job market, is it any surprise that some folks have to pay the bills in other ways but may still want to do the business that they were trained to do? If teaching and research is a vocation, as so many of us must think to spend so much money overcoming the barriers to entry, then why is it any surprise when we continue to attempt to research and teach without an alabaster academic appointment? The rise of the alt-academic should have quieted these discussions, but that hasn’t happened yet.
  3. There is little that is more rewarding than visible student progress.
    • One of my pupils is making leaps and bounds in his/her reading. Every session I can tell not just that confidence has been restored in the learning process, but that an enthusiasm and eagerness for progress has also emerged. Success has bred a hunger for more success. In the secondary school classroom–especially when teaching humanities subjects such as religious studies–this progress is often disguised. We plant seeds that may take time to grow. If we’re not explicitly out to change the way our students view religion and religious topics, then we can at least expect their analyses and critical examinations to be much improved. Immediate recognition is less common. I’ve been following with glee the student blog posts from Mike Altman’s “American Religion in America” course at Alabama. If you haven’t had time to read them, you’re missing out. This is the kind of a-ha work that religious studies should evoke in our students. Set that goal for yourself and find ways to make it apparent to both you and your students!
  4. Blogging is a process that I’m still learning
    • The guilt that arose when I didn’t post was almost paralyzing. While I was productive in so many other ways, not posting here regularly in the last month or two made me feel less than up-to-snuff. I’ve tried various methods to ensure regular posting before (daily themes, weekly post quotas, binges of post-construction set to more evenly future auto-post). None of them seem to quite work for me. Part of the challenge is that I try to offer serious work in my content posts. That takes time. It’s easy to get on with the work and not take a moment to share it in progress. It’s also a legitimate concern that blogging detracts rather than adds to scholarly output. This post is nearly as long as an AAR proposal and that’s just 1/10 or even less of the way to an article draft. Other times I find that the work I’m doing is hard to share. As I’ve dived into the back-end of the Omeka Spiritual Warfare Archive I’m creating, my ability to easily share what I’m doing (and have it be interesting) appears pretty limited. I’ll see if I can’t think my way past that and get on with the business of writing about religion!
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One Response to “Back in the Saddle”

  1. perkinsy July 11, 2014 at 10:18 am #

    Much of this resonates with me. Regarding your discussion about ‘independent scholar’, I have had to address that too. I’ve just attended the annual Australian Historical Association conference under this label. I was more fortunate than you. No-one queried it, but there are more subtle ways of being excluded. Often university campuses restrict WiFi access to those with university affiliation, any Australian university affiliation will do, but if you don’t have affiliation you don’t have WiFi so you cannot tweet a conference or access relevant websites during sessions. Not all universities are like this, but too many are. You are right, no longer is a researcher in the humanities necessarily tied to a university due to the dire state of budgets for humanities departments.

    Regarding your point about maintaining a flow of blog posts – I relate to that! I too put a great deal of effort into the quality of writing, the supporting evidence and presentation. My posts have depth and are usually around 1,000 words. But be kind to yourself. Most people recognise that blogging is a volunteer activity, make sure you recognise that too. Volunteers have to prioritise. Earning your keep and focussing on activities that will strengthen your career prospects should be your priority. So if that means that you have to take a break from blogging to achieve your goals we understand. I have also had to take a small break from blogging while preparing a paper for the conference and addressing a whole heap of other stuff going on in my life.

    One way I have been addressing the issue of focussing on my research but feeding my blog is to do reviews of books I have been reading for my research. I have a general audience so limit myself to reviewing books that a general reader would find readable, but occasionally I have reviewed an academic book. The nature of those reviews are different. I make it clear that it is an academic book and my review gives a synopsis of the argument written in regular English. I explain why the argument of the book is important.

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