Tag: Academia

Religious Studies as Environmental Studies

Todd LeVasseur, “‘The Earth Is sui generis‘: Destabilizing the Climate of Our Field,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 83:2 (2015) 300–319.

Humbly and without any agenda beyond that evident in their tone, in the paragraphs below I present my notes on the above mentioned article. The notes appear here virtually unedited, straight out of my annotated bibliography. I’d be interested in further discussion of LeVasseur’s programmatic call for the transformation of religious studies in the comments, if anyone cares to engage this subject further.

Todd LeVasseur is the convening editor who put together the “Roundtable on Climate Destabilization and the Study of Religion” — a virtual panel consisting of nine papers gathered in Vol 83 issue 2 of the JAAR. LeVasseur teaches both Religious Studies and Environmental studies at the College of Charleston (Charleston, SC). The above cited paper is the first paper in the roundtable.

The first few pages of the article offer a bleak survey of the state of modern climate science and the consensus on global climate change (300-307). For the purpose of moving on to examine his recommendations regarding the future of religious studies, let’s go ahead and stipulate that LeVasseur has presented the science fairly and accurately.

Turning to the situation of Religious Studies in the Anthropocene, LeVasseur writes that the discipline has emerged, as did Darwin, Sociology, etc., within a modern industrialized colonialist civilizational context, mainly as a result of the “slack afforded by cheap carbon” (308). Our work, at present, is also sustained by that “slack.” [Presumably, LeVasseur does not intend to allude to the concept of “slack” as deployed by the Church of the SubGenius.] Critically appraising this legacy, he suggests that “[w]e might want to pause and ask what happens to our field when the slack afforded by cheap carbon is removed” (308).

LeVasseur thinks we need to do more to account for “nature and the natural world” as “variables” (308) impacting “the construction of religions” and “religious production.” For the record, I do not know what Todd LeVasseur means by “religious production” (p. 308, and 309 n. 17). He faults leading theoretical accounts of religion and the critical categories of religious studies for assuming “that the natural world has no agency in our affairs” (308) and “that the natural world has no influence on religions” (309) — though he immediately lists three important titles, two existing journals, and several AAR working groups that would seem to belie his claim (309). Lamenting the general “neglect” of “religion-nature interactions” in the field, and of the very category “nature” as a theoretical tool, he suggests there are but few programs offering doctoral level work in of the kind he is imagining (mentioning, however, programs at University of Florida, University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, and Drew University). Having admitted the existence of these several programs, LeVasseur also observes morosely that job prospects are limited for scholars coming out of them (310). This is due, of course, to the lack of a focus on these areas of inquiry in religious studies. To LeVasseur, that is precisely the problem.

On pp. 310-311 LeVasseur appears to call for scholars of religion to take up a variety of projects that might emphasize either critical appraisals of religion as an enabler of the human destruction of nature, or might show the ways ways that religion fosters human stewardship of nature. This critical constructive project is to be hampered only by his caveats that make it sound like he understands how complex it might be to make such theoretical-ethical appraisals of our subject matter, since it is often very hard to predict future environmental consequences of present practice and ideology, or to trace the line of cause and effect from cultural configurations to the natural environment.

Furthermore, pointing not only to the literal loss of “research sites” due to environmental devastation and its political ramifications (311), he also brings up the potential collapse of the context of the University in general as a site for research and teaching (311-313). Both types of losses will take place through the same dynamic: climate change and its economic and political consequences. [In this section, an offhand and unsourced reference to the Peak Oil concept (see p. 312, and fn. 20) shows that LeVasseur may not always be committed to a historicizing and genealogical scholarly investigation of every idea that informs his understanding of global economics and environmental science.] The collapse of the university context (as presently constituted) will happen due to the changing economic and political climate that attends a changing environmental situation. LeVasseur appears to imagine his own College of Charleston being swallowed up by the sea, as he asks, plaintively, “How much deeper will the water be in another twenty years?” (312).

Ultimately LeVasseur suggests that this threat to our constructed slack-enabled context that comes from agent nature requires us to become “engaged voices” shaping University policies, championing “sustainability programs” and “environmental humanities courses” and embedding “courses on religion and nature” into our curricula, listing a variety of course topics that should be offered by religious studies departments (313). Presumably, such courses would facilitate combating climate change by educating publics? He does not elaborate on this evident assumption. He goes on, offering further suggestions for engaged activism by faculty, ranging from encouraging divestment to shaping food service policies (giving a nod to the AAR Task Force for Sustainability).

Finally, he shows that his intent is to impose an ethical duty on the field as a whole. Invoking and paraphrasing environmental philosopher Aldo Leopold, he writes that

“higher education—whether it is content taught, research undertaken, or the structure of our institutions and the daily operations of our campuses—is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. Given the tipping points and earth-system shifts underway, and the guiding auspices of the precautionary principle, then it is wrong when it tends otherwise.” (314)

Right and wrong. Such are the stark ethical choices that face the field.

In the conclusion of the article, which stridently calls on the field to take up these concerns, LeVasseur refers us to a study by David Loy, “Religion and the Market” [JAAR 65:2 (1995) 275–290] which argues that global capitalism is religious in nature, with “extreme social and environmental costs… that are anathema to the religion’s promised eschatology of endless consumption and economic growth… the sole criteria of happiness” (315).

The final paragraph renews the urgency of the call, invoking an apocalyptic counter-eschatology, the spectre of human extinction (315). And of course he urges the reader to go on to read the remaining eight papers in the roundtable.

I looked through the whole article and although the title includes quotation marks around the phrase “The Earth is sui generis” I could not locate a reference to this phrase in the article itself or in a citation to a source of the quote. Apparently, LeVasseur imagines someone else saying this, someone other than himself. Or perhaps he imagines that the quote marks represent some kind of public statement. Perhaps the title is presented ironically, and the quote marks signal his awareness of the irony? It might be intended as irony since the justification of the study of religion was, historically, offered on the basis of a (now discredited) claim that “religion” is a “thing” existing in the world sui generis. Literally the phrase “sui generis” means “of its own kind,” but in theoretical discussions of religion it is sometimes glossed as “existing of itself” or even as self-caused. In the latter sense the phrase is plainly meaningless when applied to the concept of “the Earth,” but in the literal sense, yes, the Earth is functionally, for us human beings, one of a kind. It’s our only accessible environment. Our biosphere. It remains unclear why LeVasseur does not return to or explain his title in the piece; he could at least have brought it in at the end to form an inclusio but I guess his meaning is intended to be self-evident and self-justifying. Like the recommendations he makes in the article.

Bauerlein says, ‘Let them be mentors’

Mark Bauerlein, “What’s the Point of a Professor?” New York Times [Sunday Review] (5/10/2015) [Link]

Tonight I’m adding another name to my “Marie Antoinette list,” a growing catalogue of scholars who teach at elite American institutions, have access to the megaphone of the most powerful media outlets, and imagine that their experiences with service, teaching and research are typical of contemporary academia. From the ivy-clad heights of their virtual Versailleses these dainty opinion-leaders launch their diagnostic manifestos like so many white-paper airplanes, hoping either to solve all the problems with academia at one blow, or if not, then to console us in the midst of the apocalyptic catastrophe that is American Higher Education.

This time the honor falls on Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory whose Sunday Review essay in today’s New York Times manages once again to exemplify the myopia and elitism that characterize these types of flotsam.

Initially, I was definitely drawn to Bauerlein’s piece. The subtitle—or web-card teaser-line—that I saw on Facebook led me immediately to read the article, and subsequently to re-post it myself:

“We used to be mentors and moral authorities. Now we just hand out A’s.”

If ever anything was, that line is click-bait for professors teaching in today’s academy. Isn’t it true that grade-inflation rules the day now? Isn’t it true that this reality reflects a professional and economic landscape that has changed academia for the worse? Professors used to be authorities; now we’re employees, service providers even. Students used to be eager young minds, or disciples; now they are customers. Colleges and universities used to be institutions dedicated to the search for the truth, but now they are corporate-style businesses competitively selling credit hours, preferably with A’s attached to them.

Yes, students want those easy A’s. We’ve all fielded the emails from students who fumble through most of the semester, skipping classes and assignments, and spacing out when they show up, only to inform us at the 13th hour that they “really need an A in this course.” We’ve also dealt with honors students who can’t abide earning a mere A- in your class, and complain when you are just being honest and holding them to high standards. Having just been through another semester (a particularly rough one indeed, for me), these kinds of concerns were foremost on my mind as I contemplated Bauerlein’s essay.

Within the first two paragraphs, Bauerlein substantiates his claim about giving out A’s with a chilling statistic: “In 1960, only 15 percent of grades were in the ‘A’ range, but now the rate is 43 percent, making ‘A’ the most common grade by far.” A bit later he shares another startling statistic. In the 1960’s, the vast majority of college students said they were there to ‘develop a meaningful philosophy of life,’ whereas today the vast majority are hoping to improve their finances. These statistics support the general perception that what college really is has shifted in our time. It has moved away from where it was formerly, a meritocratic pursuit of wisdom, truth, and excellence, to a new mission of vending credentials and easy-peasy affirmations of participation.

So, with such things in mind, I shared the piece immediately, expressing only one misgiving. “Personally I’m not sure about the value of having ‘developing a meaningful philosophy of life’ as a goal for higher education, though,” I wrote.

Later on, I was helped by others to see what I hadn’t noticed at first.

Bauerlein’s essay is a classic example of an elitist blaming vast systemic trends on the individual moral failings of contemporary professors and students. The basic thrust of Bauerlein’s piece is not at all about the problem of the leveling out of standards, or the structural forces that have put such great pressure on students and teachers to flatten out the grade curves and push them towards the A’s.

No.

It’s an essay that blames the students themselves for not seeking out their professors as moral and philosophical authorities and models. And it portions some of the blame to professors too, since they allegedly no longer make themselves available to students in this role. What we should be doing, Bauerlein argues, is forcibly asserting the right of PhDs to act as arbiters of meaningful philosophies of life.

And you know what, all these ideas are frankly ridiculous.

First, my friend Pat pointed out that Bauerlein is the author of the unpleasantly titled The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don ‘t Trust Anyone Under 30), in which, back in 2009, Bauerlein vented at book-length about the shortcomings of his allegedly dumb students. Ugh.

Next my friend Rob (and later Pat too) passed on a virally transmitted blog-rant by one Kevin Gannon, a professor of History at Grand View University in Iowa, entitled simply: “I will not be lectured to. I’m too busy teaching.” In it, Gannon destroys Bauerlein.

This essay must simply be read. He says everything critical that should be said about this pathetic essay.

READ IT HERE.

Feeling chastened and sheepish, I realized a bit belatedly that in Mark Bauerlein I had yet another Jacques Berlinerblau, a member of the Marie Antoinette set.

“Let them be mentors,” Bauerlein says, supposing that all the thousands of professors he cannot see have lost their way. We are no longer modeling intellectual and academic excellence for our students, he supposes, or forming lasting relationships with them, or sharing with them the struggle to forge something meaningful out of all this chaos. What a load of crap.

In retrospect, I wish I had seen past the compelling statistics about grade inflation, to notice the blatant student- and professor-shaming in this piece. Oh well, lessons learned. This is what friends are for.

When you get right down to it, Gannon is absolutely correct about this and many other points:

This is academic classism, pure and simple. In its shallow portrait of student attitudes and naive calls for professors to be moral authorities and fearsome minds, Bauerlein ignores what is happening outside the walls of his tiny elite cloister, perched amongst the ivy and resting comfortably on scads of tuition dollars and a jumbo-sized endowment.

Later, defending my choice to repost the article, I mentioned I also appreciate that Bauerlein advocates using individual conferences with students to help restablish his lost paradise when faculty mentorship mattered. As a pedagogical tool, that’s something I’ve been coming to as well. But when it comes right down to it, that’s all Bauerlein’s got.

His advice to professors is only this: that since students aren’t battering down our doors to receive our wisdom outside of class, we should make them come talk to us about their papers.

This is the right solution to the wrong problem. (It is a good solution to the problem of how to communicate clearly to students what professional expectations there are for their written work. It will do nothing to foster the creation of disciples who respect professorial moral authority. As if that was really a good thing.)

Hey, professors gripe. We gripe about students, administration, and the world at large. We do make our observations about the so-called “entitlement mentality” of undergraduates (but I think we should stop doing that), and we complain about the corporitization of the universities (maybe we should do more of that), and about the sidelining of the humanities and the liberal arts in the great quest for “relevance.” Please excuse us, forgive us, for these unpleasant habits. Grading papers is hard work.

Be that as it is, no matter what, we should always remember this: we are here for the students, and they are here for us. We work together, and we work from where we are. The vast majority of us are working our tails off. We’re not failing to do our best. We’re not missing out on opportunities to be more. That romantic bullshit? You dreamt that up in your library carrell while I was prepping for my 4-4 load, dude.

Now I probably am not Gannon, knocking on the door of a student who hasn’t been to class in a few days. But that’s only because I’m too busy teaching the ones who bother to show up, and they don’t pay me enough to chase after every lost sheep. But I do spend many hours each term in face to face mentoring with students, in office hours and in the halls, and via new technologies, and of course, in class. This is what we do. This whole thing is a process. It’s something organic and unfolding. And, yes, for the love of Pete, we matter “or whatevs” (to paraphrase Gannon).

Berlinerblau Puts Foot in Mouth

Cover of Berlinerblau, How to Be SecularA few weeks back, Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor at Georgetown and scholar of religion and secularism, tried to write a sweeping diagnostic piece about the problems facing academia today.  His angle? There has been a decline in enthusiasm for teaching among professors.

The article “Teach or Perish,” published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (1/19/2015), caused Berlinerblau to get his name inscribed onto my ever expanding list of highly privileged but myopic academics who woodenly assume that they can criticize the profession based on universalizing their own experience at elite institutions.  I refer to my copy of it as the Marie Antoinette list.  What do you think?

Berlinerblau’s column immediately provoked a strong negative reaction on social media and from bloggers. For example,  Jonathan Rees, in his More or Less Bunk blog, called it “the worst example of academic victim-blaming that I’ve ever seen” (“Teach AND Perish,” 1/19/2015).  In a subsequent issue, the Chronicle published a rather scathing letter to the editor from one Kathryn D. Blanchard of Alma College (“You Publish, We Perish,” 3/2/2015) in which she responded to Berlinerblau’s “basic claim” that professors have been forgetting that our work is all about teaching by asking:

In what universe is a Georgetown professor, currently teaching only one course, capable of speaking for “us,” the vast and diverse collection of people that is the American professoriate, most of whom are swimming in students?

I have written on this general subject before.  Just over a year ago my critical reaction to a similar rant from Wharton School professor Adam Grant (“On the Concept of Research and Teaching as Two Tracks,” 2/08/2015) became, for a short time, one of the most popular posts on this admittedly not very popular blog.

So I admit I’m not surprised to find the same myopia expressed again by Berlinerblau.  In fact, it’s almost delightful and cute, the way these privileged professors mistake their access to the media megaphone for actual or relevant insight.

A few days ago, Blanchard’s rebuke of Berlinerblau went viral, and after nodding my way through her cogent lament, I found myself, of course, going back to read the original piece.  It was both sobering and depressing, on multiple levels.  After investing my precious time in reading over it, I felt compelled to add my own notes on the piece to the record.

Berlinerblau is a charming writer who speaks eloquently to the despair of academics who have noticed (it’s hard not to notice) that we professors are not exactly sitting atop of social, financial or professional pillars anymore.  Rather, it feels like we are toiling in the fields, surrounded by evidence that the humanities and universities are collapsing around us.  Declining funding.  A tight job market.  MOOCs.  For-profit schools.  Online education.  And a lack of disciples who wish to become professors like us.

Berlinerblau writes:

We humanists are at an inflection point, careering down the steep gradient like terrified campers on a mammoth water slide. We accelerate into the bottomless future, arms flailing, mouths wide open, eyes closed, gowns streaming behind us. Where’d our caps go? How did it come to this? How did such an august body find itself in this undignified position?

Referring thus to the “collapse of… the professoriate” he offers a diagnosis of the “multitude of factors” that brought about this moment.

Besides the political and economic usual suspects, Berlinerblau hits the habits of professors themselves.  It is “bad decisions” on our part; “we erred … in politicizing inquiry;” “it was ill-advised to bring so much theory—and almost always the same dense and ideologically tinctured brand of it” into our studies.  Doesn’t it seem a stretch to blame so much on “politicization” and “theory”?  Seems like blaming the waves on the foam at the edge of the sea to me.

And then, inexplicably, improbably, myopically, hysterically, Berlinerblau claims that a larger issue is visible: “[s]omewhere along the way, we spiritually and emotionally disengaged from teaching and mentoring students.”

He goes on—I think I know what he means though I have no experience with it myself—arguing that what gets called “success” in academia is one’s ability to avoid teaching undergraduates.

So, on these terms, according to Berlinerblau, those of us who do teach, who do live this drudgery—it means that we are not successful.  Think on that! That is, of course, the substance of what galled Blanchard and led to her eloquent rebuttal to Berlinerblau.

Looking at Berlinerblau’s positioning of his own comments, he offers a micro CV, a brief history of his teaching responsibilities. He alleges that he understands the plight of those who are hired just to teach, as he himself went from days of adjuncting a 6-6 load, to later appointments at the university level with a 3-3, and ultimately, to the coveted 2-1; wishing to appear less elitist than he is, he defensively adds, “I have never been so garlanded in my field as to receive the 0-1 or the vaunted ‘double zero’—the mark of exemplary scholarly achievement.” And, one might presume, a disqualifying garland if you wish to speak to the profession of teaching.

We know what he means by “success.”  Yet, most of us American professors in tenured positions or on the tenure track, actually have a 4-4 load, as I do.  Most of us teaching in the hundreds or thousands of small private colleges of this country have basically noticed that we don’t get paid at all or tangibly rewarded much for our research.  And we receive little to no support in terms of time or money for it.  We get paid to teach and grade, and if we’re unlucky, we also face a pressure from administration and colleagues to continue a program of research, in spite of the lack of real support for it.  We, the ordinary professors who make up the vast majority of those engaged in our profession, and who teach between 25–40% of all courses in American colleges (the rest being taught mainly by the even worse off adjuncts and term instructors), we haven’t actually disengaged from teaching at all. Maybe we would if we could.  Who wouldn’t appreciate a slow-down in this hectic pace?  Teaching can be extremely difficult and depressing at times.

J.B. has his eyes on the elites, you could say.  His criticism is for them.  He almost satirizes them.  It’s almost funny. But actually, no.  He doesn’t know his readers. He claims to have been one of us, but he doesn’t know what it’s like to be in your forties, and facing 30 more years of the constant pressure of teaching a full load. He’s got a semester in which he teaches one course, writes myopic editorials for the Chronicle, and churns out liberal books on “secular studies” that specialize in theory-bashing, while we get out our red pens every morning.

Where Berlinerblau really goes wrong, it seems to me, is when he says things like: “we obviously went down that road as a guild—we just can’t remember when or how. Now we’re here. It may be too late to turn back.”

No.  We didn’t go down it as a guild.  What happened was that the guild, like society at large, got noticeably more divided into winners and losers.

Also like society, and apparently difficult for J.B. to grasp, it seems that this division isn’t a 50-50 split.  Rather, it mirrors the famous 1% / 99% split of our economy.  While those who have come to have more and more, those who have not are having even that taken from them… day after day.  Harvard’s endowment, ranked at #1 in 2014, exceeds 35 billion.  Georgetown’s endowment, ranked at 66, exceeds 1.4 billion.  Little Mars Hill University where I teach has about a 40 million dollar endowment; Sweet Briar College, with over $90 million in endowment, announced this week that it is closing its doors for good at the end of the semester.  How d’ya like them apples?  According to statistics calculated based on 2014 endowments of the top 853 institutions in the US and Canada, the average endowment was about 450 million, with the median at $90 million—over half the schools in America have endowments less than 0.25% the size of Harvard’s, or about 6% the size of Georgetown’s (source: nacubo.org).  We’ve replicated America’s “winner take all” economy in our system of higher education.

Having thus articulated these tone-deaf and myopic thoughts on the state of our commitment to teaching, Berlinerblau gets back on track, I think, when he analyzes the (largely ‘conservative’) attack on the funding of public higher education, with McCrory’s awful defunding of UNC system schools at the heart of his critique. He correctly notices the looming threat of a corporatized tech-driven employment-outcomes focused takeover of higher education.  He strikes the target here, making his earlier missteps regrettable. This is a time of crisis and change in higher education; we all feel it. But the Titanic won’t stop sinking just because the first class passengers claim to be willing to change out of their spats and white ties.

One commentator on Berlinerblau’s piece (there were over 120 comments at the time of my reading) one self-styled “tsylvain,” mades some striking remarks about the shortcomings of this piece, and I will share them here by way of a finale.

  I guess I should feel flattered by this piece, which seems to value what I’m doing so much of the day. But I have to admit that Berlinerblau’s argument reminds me of a glowing tribute to rural life written by a city dweller. I realize that he once taught many classes per semester to undergrads, but he’s escaped all that now. He can teach one course on Philip Roth and forget the aspects of teaching required courses that drag one down and make one consider changing careers entirely (anything that doesn’t involve all those papers to grade, emails to answer, disinterested students to face for yet another class that they haven’t prepared for). For me, research in my area and the occasional rewards that come from that are aspects of my job that make the teaching grind (and it IS often a grind) worthwhile. He also forgets to mention how crucial staying engaged in research is to teaching at the college level. What kinds of courses does he envision a teaching-focused professoriate delivering?

Well said and asked.  I certainly find myself asking the same questions.  If my teaching load was lessened, I would certainly have more time for research, but also, for richer, fuller, more substantive teaching. Maybe the solution to the problems of higher education lies in a kind of more equitable distribution of the most precious resources available to professors: time for research, and time for instruction.  But, I fear, maybe not.

The Tyranny of –isms

I dislike many things, among them, the tendency of some academics (particularly philosophers) to dismiss certain arguments or statements as examples of some “–ism” or other.

In this game, one “thinker” dismisses the statement of another with a phrase that includes an “–ism” word (or an “–ist” word), together with an explicit or implicit claim that this particular “-ism” (or “–ist” claim) has already been well described, and is today totally refuted. The critical refutation of said “–ism” is an already settled matter among those cool kids who are in the know. Don’t you know?

Not being in the know myself, and being the sort of person who in any case tends to see academic “knowledge of things” as a kind of rhetorically constructed set of power-relations among privileged disciplinarians, this kind of thing just really hacks me off.

In other words, people, when you quickly dismiss anyone’s arguments (but especially mine) because they depend on “naturalism,” “positivism,” “constructivism,” “reductionism,” “foundationalism,” “scientism,” “rationalism,” “materialism,” “psychologism,” “historicism,” “idealism,” “realism,” etc., then you get to go on my naughty list. Even if I like you well as a person. Even if I ultimately will agree with you.

I understand that what I am reacting against is a useful shorthand for philosophers. It must get so tiring to have to repeat the same old arguments against particular patterns of bad ideas, over and over again.

Too bad philosophers. You don’t get to mask or fold-away your arguments by special appeals to authority, tradition, and inside knowledge. Because the problem is, believe it or not, that “philosophy” has yet to unveil any system (or –ism) that can claim the status of “consensus view.”

Or is my claim there too rooted in positivist assumptions for you?

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