Monday, November 02, 2015


Gradually, after years of monitoring H-Net mailing lists about various “disciplines” (arbitrarily agreed upon clusters of subject matter) and often benefiting just from reading reviews or descriptions of conferences with their calls for papers, I’ve realized that it is a parallel universe to the system of colleges and universities that control thought around the globe by certifying scholars and providing opportunities for them to meet.  Universities have now maximized their control enough to shut a lot of people out and throw even more into lifelong debt.

From Wikipedia:

H-Net ("Humanities and Social Sciences Online") is an interdisciplinary forum for scholars in the humanities and social sciences. It is best known for hosting electronic mailing lists organized by academic disciplines; according to the organization's website, H-Net lists reach over 100,000 subscribers in more than 90 countries.

The H-Net Network has grown until it is now endorsed by many academic professional organizations. Its over 180 topic- or discipline-specific lists are often the primary internet forum for scholars.

Don’t tell them how useful they are, or they’ll start begging for money the way the schools constantly nag their alumni.  (Oh, too late.  They do.  But at least I don’t have to pay tuition.)  Beyond the list-servs, this symbiotic world is also enormously expensive: the conferences are often in delightful places far enough away to put a burden on energy sources.  (Has anyone figured out the total jet fuel cost of a conference in Hawaii?)  Of course, one will need a place to stay.  One must be quite wealthy to attend or belong to an organization that will pay on your behalf.  If the latter, that organization will expect some say about which ones you can attend and what you can present there.

I’ve only attended two of these H conferences, both of them sponsored by the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, one in Las Vegas and one in Calgary.  It was early in my return to Montana and I was still only in my Sixties, so I threw a mattress in the back of the pickup and drove there.  I didn’t have a network of people I could stay with because I wasn’t coming directly from the academic world.  It was 1980 when Hannah Grey said, "Welcome to the Company of Scholars" and put my MA "hood" over my head.

When I had been in the UU ministry, we had meetings like these all the time, though only a few were places to present papers.  Humptulips UUMA study group was one.  I wrote about the paper I presented at one meeting on this blog:  May 1, 2012:  “Male and Female Created He Them.”  The group assigned the topics, partly playfully, and assigned me to distinguish between the then “new” female-based theologies and traditional paternalistic theology, because I was so un-feminist. The work I did for that (we were expected to meet academic standards) has been a basic part of what I’ve done since.  But UU ministers are no longer “learned.”  Now they're therapeutic.

The other stream of this para-academic thought is journals, which are almost as expensive as travel to conferences, and the gate-keeping for these publications is partly secret.  The editors are announced, but articles are “curated” by secret peers.  That’s the theory.  In the first place the process is extremely slow, expensive in terms of time, but -- worse -- one is judged by rivals and older scholars one might be challenging.  There’s a bit of this is ordinary publishing done through academic publishers and even commercial publishers.  The stories of sabotage, feuds, and person-destroying vendettas abound.  The advancement of learning is not always a priority.

If a discipline is small and perhaps located in a regional or otherwise specialized area, there’s really no way to keep up the pretense that you don’t know who is reviewing your work and what their prejudices are.  Now there is a move towards open-journals which go online, perhaps even uncurated, with the reviewers named and publishing their comments.  This scary experiment is still in progress.  It resembles platforms for public writing like, or with the comment function substituting for formal peer reviews.  They can be confusing, offensive, uninformed, and just add to the enormous amount of print -- which is only marginally improved by not being ink-on-paper.  Friendship networks still count large.  

Most people are still not sophisticated about using Skype or other online conference strategies.  I haven’t used them.  Technical savvy begins to be as much a barrier as lack of money.  Thank God (or whomever) for the used book market, although it means I’m looking at books already consumed and discarded as not that useful.  This means I’m working with . . . um . . . excretion, but we already know that’s fertile.  These days everyone is hurtling forward so quickly that they are skipping over material that would address some of the holes in their present arguments.

A major humanities enterprise in Montana is history and fiction about the people and place.  Yet the graduates of the state universities don’t know foundational publications or basic disciplines.  They rush after the trendy issues and they are fed the favorite hobby horses of their professors who don't even get out of the university town.  “News” paper print and local bookstores are far too influenced by commercial motives and that just emphasizes the trend.  Strangely, professors come in from other parts of the world, hired because they know theory rather than the territory.  Theories tend to be transient.   But locals drop out whole categories of writing because they aren’t socially endorsed:  gays, blacks, Metis, the Goths, Canadian writing about the same shared ecosystem as Montana. 

But I’m wandering.  Statewide teachers’ meetings are coming up.  They are highly political -- labor union attitudes vs. professional associations.  Administrators hate them because they can’t monitor what is said.  Anyway, this is hunting season and cattle shipping season.  Teachers’ meetings make a nice gap in the calendar, but unless the faculty is wearing GPS anklets, there is no way to tell where they really are.  That’s not my topic, though I know a lot of funny stories.

People in a thinly populated place where even the libraries can be a little limited, H-Net is a god-send now that there is Internet access to the major campus conversations.  Much of what is happening is cross-disciplinary under a meta-topic.  Right now everyone is trying to understand neuroresearch, so it’s necessary to chase neurotheology, neuroanthropology, neuroarcheology, neuroliterature, neurosociology, neuropsychoanalysis back to their roots as 19th century categories.  Then we’ve got to reflect on whether boundaries and methods need to be revised.  It’s deeper than the earlier gender-realizations when we moved from binary to fluid, from forcing everything to one end or the other of the spectrum.  We haven’t finished dealing with that yet.  Some of us will die clutching binaries.  (Life/death.)

In fact, the computer has opened the world in another way: daylighting practices that are widespread but cloaked.  Some say the real reason for the raid, which took all the computers and other client registers to secret police locations, was that governmental and corporation names of some prominence were included.  An interesting and powerful threat at the moment is the publication of all the names of members of the Ku Klux Klan.  They may have seen it coming -- they have been trying to redefine themselves.  “Fifty Shades of Gray” was nothing.  “A Billion Wicked Thoughts” was as world-shaking as Kinsey.  No one had known what people were up to.

Can you hear me now?

What will be revealed when the data from African smart-phones are accumulated and interpreted this way?  We already know how deeply we are changed by knowing what our international leaders and their secret squads are saying to each other.  We can only hope it will change them as well.

Society is changing so rapidly now that the academic world can’t keep up.  This parallel stream of thought represented by conferences, journals and papers is helping.  It is a way of joining into the conversation and understanding if one has the chops for it.  Usually that’s indicated by a diploma degree, but not necessarily.  Some people with paper entitlement are sitting it out.

Others blog.  Try this one for some excellent thoughts.

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