Thursday, September 21, 2017

It’s Not Me, It’s You: How I (Finally) Broke Up With the Professoriate

It was around this time last year that I was told my contract at Oklahoma State University would not be renewed for the upcoming school year (read: this academic year).  This was not a surprise to me.  I had a pretty good idea of what was happening.  Oklahoma’s budget crisis is pretty well-documented, and when you get right down to it, I was a victim of that crisis.  While I was a visiting professor (non-tenure track), I was still salaried with benefits which means I was more expensive to employ than the lecturer who replaced me and is considered contract labor which means he’s paid by the course and OSU doesn’t owe him any benefits.

While I knew I wouldn’t be teaching at OSU this year, I was still *kind of* attached to the idea of being a professor.  I applied to a bunch of jobs, and I got a couple of Skype interviews, but as time passed, I started to doubt whether that was what I really wanted to do.  Part of the reason for this is that, frankly, there are few job markets as terrible these days as the academic job market.  Consider:

  •        According to the American Association ofUniversity Professors, over 75% of all university faculty are adjuncts (paid by the course with no benefits, sometimes teaching at 2-3 different institutions in larger cities)
  •        If you didn’t go to the “right” school, your chances of getting a tenure-track job diminish significantly
  •        There are far more newly-minted PhDs than tenure-track job openings
  •       In religious studies (my field), it’s estimated that there are an average of 150-200 applicants for every tenure-track job available.

The flip side of this, especially for non-tenure track folks of all stripes, is that to be competitive in this horrendous job market, one must have a full CV—journal articles, a book proposal accepted by a major publishing house if not a book, presentations at major academic conferences.  However, when you add the teaching and student interaction piece to the puzzle, there aren’t a lot of extra hours in the day.  Just take my life for the past five years.  During the school year, I spent: 
  •       10-13 hours per week lecturing, depending on whether I had three or four courses to teach
  •       8-12 hours preparing for class (lecture preparation, creating Power Points, finding ice breakers, making sure I had what I needed for students with learning disabilities, tracking attendance in upper-division courses)
  •       6-8 hours in office hours
  •     2-4 additional hours of meetings with students who couldn’t make it to my office hours
  •        5-8 hours trying to wrangle my e-mail inbox—more when I had 400-plus students in a semester

 So, without any craziness or unexpected problems, that’s 31-45 hours per week just dealing with teaching responsibilities.  37-40 hours was pretty standard for me.  That means that any research, publication, writing, etc. I needed to get done would have to be done at night or on the weekends.  AND….we don’t get paid for journal articles; we barely get paid for books; and because most places can’t pay for travel expenses, conference attendance ($2000-3000 per conference for the big ones) has to come out of a professor’s own pocket. 

It was at one of those big conferences that my perspective actually began to change.  I was at the contingent faculty breakfast at the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting in San Antonio last November sharing stories about the crazy things college students do (because war stories are always a thing when you get a bunch of professors in a room together), and Whitney Cox, a delightful religious studies professor from the University of Houston, looked at me and said, “Why aren’t you working with student-athletes?”  While I had privately entertained the notion, I had yet to give voice to such an idea, so I was curious as to why she mentioned it.  She told me that not only had all of my stories been about student-athletes, but I seemed to genuinely enjoy working with them.  She was right.

However, change came slowly.  Spending five years in a PhD program, reading and absorbing and spitting out again all of the knowledge you can about a subject, writing a dissertation in which you take an original stance on a topic, teaching from a position of authority about a particular subject—all of it creates the illusion of “scholar” as self.  Having that taken away from me at OSU created a bit of an identity crisis.  If I’m not a scholar of Middle Eastern political movements, of Islamism, of the world’s religions, then what am I?  I gradually came to see that “what” I am was actually pretty immaterial; the more important question was “Who am I?”  And once I arrived at that conclusion, it unlocked a whole new set of possibilities.  Who I am is someone who enjoys walking beside college students as they try to figure out what they want to be if they grow up.  I am someone who loves to see the light come on for college kids—academically, vocationally, relationally.  And I am someone who has a soft spot especially for student-athletes, an underestimated and underappreciated segment of every college campus. 

I started working with student-athletes as an undergraduate tutor at Academic Services for Student-Athletes at OSU.  This is a group that either grabs you and doesn’t let go, or annoys the living daylights out of you—there isn’t much in between.  They grabbed me.  I tutored student-athletes at Wake Forest and Baylor during graduate school.  I’ve had over 300 of them in class in the five years I taught at OSU.  They are a microcosm of a college campus—some are first generation college students; some have parents with graduate degrees.  Some are lazy; some have great work ethics.  Some know what they want to do if they grow up; some don’t have the slightest clue.  Some come from two-parent households; some grew up with single parents.  But they are all far braver than I could ever hope to be because their every success and failure is splashed on the sports page for everyone to see and critique.  They have big personalities, but also big insecurities, especially about their academic abilities.  They were often allowed to skate by in high school and thus don’t have the tools necessary for success at the college level.  But they are just competitive enough to rise to any challenge placed before them. 

So, I’m sorry, professoriate, but we’re done.  And believe me, it’s not me.  This is all about you…you with your terrible job prospects and soul-sucking free labor; you with your complete absence of a work-life balance; you holding me back from what I really love.  I’ve found a better place, a better fit.  I’ll be over here hanging out with student-athletes, helping them navigate college and adulting.  Don’t get me wrong, it was fun while it lasted, and I learned a lot, but this relationship had grown toxic and it’s time to part ways.  No hard feelings, I hope, and I know I’ll still see you around, but we’re through. 

All the best,


Sunday, July 2, 2017

Why I Don't Do "Patriotic" Worship Services

I call myself a politically incorrect patriot.  It’s a much easier designator that “someone who has studied the American civil religion and finds it a dangerous thing with which to engage.”  There are a number of reasons why I have taken a stance that is often at odds with the prevailing expectations of patriotism in the United States.  Admittedly, one of those reasons is that I’m a contrarian at heart and coming of age during the “War on Terror” has made me weary of blind patriotism.  However, there are also theological and sociological reasons for my stance.  The theological becomes especially important around this time of year when worship services on the Sunday closest to the July 4 holiday take on a certain patriotic tone.

I want to be clear about something from the outset here: this is not a new thing.  It’s not some grand political statement about our current president.  If I want to make grand political statements about our current president, I do it on Twitter.  You can check; I’m not shy.  I was against patriotic worship last year (and the year before that and the year before that, etc.) when Barack Obama, who I voted for, was president.  I’m anti-patriotic worship this year with Donald Trump, who I definitely DIDN’T vote for, in the White House.  The conflation of the American civil religion with Christian theology is troubling, and I really don’t want anything to do with it.  Let me explain.

Last fall, I taught a seminar course on the American civil religion.  In the description for the course, I invoked Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous statement about pornography: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.  The term “American civil religion” only really finds traction in an academic setting.  Try to explain it to the average American, and you’re likely to get a blank stare until you start describing the sorts of things included in the civil religion:
  • Priests and prophets: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, King, Kennedy—either one
  • Sacred places: Gettysburg, Arlington National Cemetery
  • Hymns: the National Anthem, God Bless America
  • Holidays: July 4, Memorial Day, Flag Day  

At this point, most folks will start nodding along when I describe the civil religion, but it’s not just what the civil religion is, but what it does that can be problematic.

The difficulty with the civil religion is that it often has been and continues to be conflated with actual religion.  This problem started at the very founding of the colonies in the New World.  The Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded in 1630, included, as did the Motherland of Britain, an established church.  What that means is that the state and the civil magistrates were able to enforce church discipline and tax monies collected in the colony went to the support of the church.  Thus, the religion and the civil religion were, for all intents and purposes, one and the same.  The continued into the colonial era when eight of the 13 colonies had established churches.  After independence, the Constitution would include only two references to God: forbidding a religious test for federal office and, more famously, protecting the free exercise of religion and forbidding the establishment of a national religion in the First Amendment.  However, the individual states were allowed to maintain their established churches, and Massachusetts did until 1831 when it formally disestablished the Congregationalist church, making it the last church to disestablish.

We still see vestiges of this historical mixing of religion and civil religion throughout our places of worship, however.  Many churches have an American flag at the front of the sanctuary along with the Christian flag (and woe betide any minister who attempts to remove said American flag).  Churches offer patriotic-themed worship around Memorial Day and the 4th of July.  My theological problems with this are two-fold: first, if Pentecost taught us anything, it’s that the message of Christ is available to everyone, everywhere, of every language, tribe, and nation.  To plant our flag (literally and metaphorically) on the mountain of American Christianity does a disservice to that message.  Second, idolatry becomes a real problem.  Wrapping Jesus in an American flag often bastardizes the message of Christianity and sets up the flag, the country, and the leaders of the country as objects of devotion at best, worship at worst. 

"Anthem" by Five Iron Frenzy, from the album Upbeats and Beatdowns

Don’t believe me?  Allow me to share what Robert Jeffress, one of the “court evangelicals” as John Fea calls them, has been up to lately.  Last Sunday, his church (First Baptist) in Dallas hosted “Freedom Sunday.”  I’m not sure exactly what was being worshipped, but I don’t think it was the risen Christ.  Yesterday, he and his merry band commandeered the Kennedy Center for an uber-patriotic celebration of the July 4 holiday that included—no kidding—the First Baptist Church-Dallas choir singing a song called “Make America Great Again.”  While this is obviously the marriage of God and country taken to an extreme conclusion, it is not abnormal.  In fact, according to a survey done by Lifeway, the Southern Baptist Convention’s research outfit, 53% of Protestant pastors said they think that their congregations sometimes seem to love America more than God.  Love or devotion to something other than the Almighty is the very definition of idolatry.

Is it any wonder, then, that someone who has studied the American civil religion would be squeamish about it?  The sociological implications of the civil religion are equally difficult to stomach.  It is often weaponized against those who don’t follow the party line (like politically incorrect patriots).  This has been seen as recently as last fall when Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem before San Francisco 49er games as a protest against the state of race relations in this country drew outrage from all over.  In fact, it may have killed his football career, proving that violating the civil religion is more injurious to a public figure than domestic violence or other criminal activity.  Furthermore, minorities in general have been left out of the civil religion.  Richard Hughes’ book Myths America Lives By lays out the various myths that have informed the civil religion as well as Black critiques of those myths.1  Such critiques are easy to find because the civil religion is so often blind to its own faults.

So about my own politically incorrect patriotism.  I don’t do patriotic worship services, for one.  I also don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance (or put my hand over my heart while it’s being recited).  For one thing, I don’t pledge allegiance to a symbol, regardless of what that symbol stands for.  My true allegiance is to my faith, though I am eternally grateful to have been born in the United States.  I’m also not wild about the “under God” of it all.  It wasn’t in the original, it only reinforces the “America is a Christian nation” trope, and it was really about the Cold War.  Nor do I put my hand over my heart when I sing the National Anthem.  This is where my contrarian side really comes out.  After 9/11, this became one marker among many of who was a “true” patriot and who wasn’t.  That’s stupid.  First, I don’t really feel the need to prove my patriotism to anyone.  Second, this is a ridiculous standard by which to judge one’s patriotism.  If Muhammad Atta and the other 9/11 hijackers could have done it to blend in and avoid suspicion, it’s not a great measure of patriotism.  Does it have meaning and value to people?  Yes, of course, which is why I don’t lecture others on what they should do.  It just doesn’t seem particularly meaningful to me.

This is but one politically incorrect patriot’s attempt to explain why I don’t do patriotic worship services without getting into the weeds too much.  Far be it for me to tell others what they should do.  My church had a partially patriotic worship service today.  That’s fine.  Plenty of others did too.  I just choose not to participate.  Because I’m a contrarian.  Because the civil religion gives me pause.  Because the slide to idolatry is far too easy.

“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”—Romans 12:2

1 Richard T. Hughes, Myths America Lives By (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2004).

Saturday, June 24, 2017

If It Were Easy, Everyone Would Do It: The Definitive History of My PhD Journey

So, today marks the six-year anniversary of the successful defense of my dissertation.  But the journey to that point was not without its speed bumps, potholes, and curve balls (and those are the NICE things I can say about the process).  This blog post has been brewing for a while now, but I wanted to frame this story in a constructive way—one that doesn’t unnecessarily cast aspersions on the players involved, however much they might deserve it, but instead serves as a lesson to aspiring doctoral students so that they can learn from the infuriating, maddening, insanity-inducing experience.

Let’s start with comprehensive exams.  Ya’ll, I don’t have the personality for comprehensive exams, or at least, not the way they were administered to me.  That might explain why I failed them the first time.  We had three reading lists, 8 hours in a room with a computer and not much else per reading list, then an oral exam combined with a defense of our dissertation prospectus.  Can I just say that I can’t do 8 hours in a room doing something I actually enjoy, let alone having to create word vomit about a given subject?  That is a fate worse than death to me. 

I’m also a believer that brevity is the soul of wit, and it seems rather superfluous to spend 8 hours typing 20 pages using a gazillion sources when 4 hours and 12 pages will do just fine.  So, yeah.  I realized, after the first time, that one cannot simply BS your way through comps.  By the way, hear me when I say this, PhD students—if you have failed your comprehensive exams, you are not alone.  In fact, if your experience is anything like mine, you realize that a bunch of folks you know with PhDs also failed comps and all lived to tell the tale.  I did better, but not great, the second time and passed by the skin of my teeth.  Good thing, too.  If I had failed again, I doubt I would have kept going. 

I realize that this is how comps are done in many departments, but I have a humble suggestion, one that is being used by many other departments: E-mail the question or questions for each reading area to the student at 8:00 AM on the scheduled day.  Give the student 24 hours to complete the exam.  It MUST be e-mailed back by 8:00 AM the next day—no exceptions.  Yes, this would be an open book, open note exam, but to answer the questions completely and with a higher level of rigor would be impossible without advance preparation. 

That would allow students to pick their poison: if someone does better in a quiet room with no distractions, they can do that.  If it’s someone like me who does better with background noise (I made it through the PhD process by watching The West Wing multiple times on DVD), it’s a chance to listen to or watch whatever we want to, take breaks, go for a walk or a bike ride, etc.  The quality of the work would be higher and the sanity of the students would be more intact.

But in the midst of studying for comps the second time, more fun happened.  Three weeks before I took my comps for the second time, my dissertation committee called me in for a meeting.  They liked my dissertation topic (at the time, exploring the relationship between religious literacy and militancy among Islamists), but thought it might be biting off more than I could chew.  So they suggested another topic—whether Islamist groups would moderate if fully incorporated into the political process.  Three. Weeks. Before. Comps. 

So, I don’t have a problem with the new topic—in fact, the new topic became a boon for me (more later).  I have problems with two things here: first, they did this THREE. WEEKS. BEFORE. COMPS.  I had failed comps, had to wait six months to take them again and they waited until three weeks before I tried again?  Really?  The timing was terrible.  Which leads to the second problem: I got no guidance from my committee.  In fairness to them, I should have advocated for myself more strongly, another issue I’ll come back to soon.  However, I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the grad school version of Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn Rule”: You break it, you own it; or in this case: you change the topic, you help start the new lit review.  That didn’t happen. 

So instead, three weeks later, I (barely) passed comps, but got blasted because my prospectus was not what they wanted on the new topic.  I was given an out: a Master’s degree instead of the PhD and we could call it all good.  I was livid—like, had to leave and walk around campus for about 10 minutes so I didn’t say unkind things livid.  It was a Wednesday, and that night, I went to church for dinner and choir practice.  I attended a church with a lot of professors and one of them asked me how things were going.  I asked him if it was weird that I was having recurring dreams about throwing members of my committee out of a plate glass window, the higher up the better.  He laughed and said, “Not at all!  Let me know if you need help hiding the bodies.”  It may have been the kindest thing anyone said to me during the process.  While we’re on the subject of church, let me add here that for about three weeks after this, “It Is Well (With My Soul)” was the song that sustained me, especially the second half of the first verse: “Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.”

My favorite version of "It Is Well (With My Soul)" by Audio Adrenaline with Jennifer Knapp

After the disaster that was the oral defense of my prospectus, one of my professors finally decided that helping me with the lit review would be a good idea, and the finished product was actually pretty damn good.  So, after a couple of attempts at comps, a couple of prospectus drafts, and way more frustration than was strictly necessary, I was finally ABD.  Did I mention that my PhD program was on shaky ground?  Because while all of this was bad, things got worse—for everyone in my cohort.  My program was a political hot potato on campus on a good day.  By the time I got to the ABD portion of the process, there weren’t many good days.  It didn’t help that many on campus perceived our program director to be a raging narcissist, and his sins were often visited upon us.  There were endless personality conflicts between him and even our other major professors, which made putting committees together a fraught process. 

But the real chaos started with a meeting in which we were promised “Exciting news!” in January 2011.  The news was neither exciting to many of us, nor particularly good: the university was doing away with our degree programs.  An interdisciplinary program such as ours was believed to be surplus to requirements since all of the disciplines covered by our interdisciplinary program now had graduate programs of their own.  We were, however, promised that no services would be held back and we would have everything we needed to finish in a timely manner.  Heh.

We now interrupt our regularly scheduled tale of the people in the process to insert this bit of unexpected drama: I accidentally wrote a dissertation about the Arab Spring.  As I mentioned earlier, when my dissertation committee changed my topic…Three. Weeks. Before. Comps. (I’m done, I swear), they actually did me a favor.  The topic they suggested, the applicability of moderation theory to Islamist movements, became unexpectedly timely when one of my three case studies, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, suddenly became front page news.  Moderation theory asserts that when extremist parties (defined a number of ways) become fully incorporated into the political process and thus, responsible to the entire electorate, they will lose the more extreme parts of their platforms and moderate.  Very few folks had written about moderation and Islamism for a whole host of reasons, but suddenly it was a little bit important to start thinking about. 

I finished my chapter on the Brotherhood in the fall of 2010.  I started revising in early January 2011; then I had to stop.  It’s hard to revise something when you don’t quite know what the ending is going to be, and once the protests began in Cairo on Jan. 25, 2011, I no longer knew what the ending was.  So I spent the next five months waking up every morning and asking myself, “Oh, God….What do I have to re-write today?”  This part of the craziness was nobody’s fault.  It was an issue that others have had to go through before, though not to this degree since, probably, the fall of the Soviet Union.

Okay, now back to the personal drama.  By January 2011, I had replaced our program director as my dissertation committee chair, in part because he was impossible to get ahold of and in part because I, like many on campus, found him difficult to deal with and had grown tired of the whole mess.  We no longer had new members of the tribe coming in.  I was accidentally writing a dissertation about current events.  It was a fun time, really.  Then, the program director, the one no one could get along with, just disappeared off the face of the earth.  He was never in the office, never responded to e-mails.  And while no longer my chair, he was still on my committee.  In April, we found out that he had left the university under a cloud of personal drama.  He posted about his departure on his university-sponsored blog, which was updated so infrequently that none of us ever checked it.  Luckily, one of my favorite professors was able to jump in to his place, but that wasn’t the end of the committee make-up drama.

A couple of weeks before my dissertation defense, I got a call from our office manager.  It seems what had been conveyed to us regarding how many people were supposed to be on our committees and from where was not in accordance with Graduate School policy.  As the grad student responsible for keeping the website, I knew what we were told, because I was the one who typed it all out.  Turns out, it was one more thing the program director thought he knew better how to do than the administration.  So, while I had five people on my committee, one was an outside reader, and I needed five FROM the university, then an outside reader if I wanted to add to that.  Thankfully, because our office manager was a rock star, she had already reached out to the interim program director who volunteered to be the fifth person from the university and essentially go along with whatever the other five decided. 

There was one part of this whole process that was drama-free, and that was the defense itself.  This is as it ought to be.  Any dissertation committee chair won’t let a student defend an unpassable dissertation.  I figured out about 20 minutes into the process that I was going to pass, and it became a much less stressful situation.  Of course, the fact that I brought homemade snickerdoodles may have helped.  It’s not always this way.  One of my colleagues had a terrible experience with his dissertation defense.  I’ve heard story after story about two professors getting into screaming matches during a defense or one member of a committee hating another so much, they failed the student out of spite.  Please, fellow professors, don’t be THAT guy (or girl, though I’ve never heard of a female professor being so petty).  So after praying the prayer of all PhD students, I was finally Dr. Wheatley. 

Things got worse from there for the rest of my cohort.  Resources were taken away, defenses became mine fields, and people left bitter and hurt.  Furthermore, none of us got any real help in terms of job searches.  Because we were an interdisciplinary program, all of our major classes were cross-listed with other departments, but no one told any of us that to teach in higher ed, for accreditation purposes, you have to have 18 hours in the subject you want to teach.  The only reason I knew is that I got to see what a job search was like when the school I got my M.A. from was looking for a new professor.  We got very little about job talks and how to write an application letter.  Nor did we get any help with non-academic job searches.  While I haven’t asked around much, my guess is that this is not uncommon.

So what lessons are there to be learned here?  First, grad students: your cohort is your tribe.  No one understands your experience like your tribe does.  Nurture your tribe, lift up the members of your tribe.  Do it because one day, your tribe will be the ones lifting you up and helping you through the bad times.  My cohort was awesome and multiple members of it saved my sanity on more than one occasion.  Second, and this one cannot be stressed enough: ALWAYS be nice to the ladies in the office.  They are the ones with the real power—not your graduate program director, not your department head.  They know everyone and everything.  If they don’t like you, they’ll eventually get your request handled.  But they’ll accommodate everyone who treats them better than you do before they get there.

The biggest takeaway as a graduate student was this: YOU have to be your best advocate.  Don’t ever be afraid to ask for help or demand assistance, especially if your committee does something crazy, like change your dissertation topic Three. Weeks. Before. Comps. (Okay, so I wasn’t done.  I’m sorry.)  It’s not that your committee doesn’t care—most of them do.  It’s just that they have a lot of other things to care about, too.  You only have you.  So ask for help and expect it.  Seek guidance on that which you don’t quite understand.  If you don’t advocate for you, why should anyone else?  I learned this lesson the hard way.  But I did learn.

Faculty, you aren’t exempted from some guidance too.  I can sum it up in two words: Be. Better.  That’s it.  Just be better.  Be better than your experience.  Be better than the torture you endured.  Be better with students even if you hate their professors.  A PhD is hard.  And it should be hard.  But rigor and psychological warfare are not the same thing.  One of my colleagues today, who was also one of my professors as an undergrad, has said many times that the most powerless person in academia is a doctoral student on the eve of their dissertation defense.  He’s not wrong.  So be better at guidance, at mentoring, at compassion. 

If getting a PhD were easy, everyone would have one.  There are a million reasons why it shouldn’t be easy.  The proudest moment of my life to this point was the moment my chair came out of the conference room in our offices and extended his hand and said, “Congratulations, Dr. Wheatley.”  That should never be cheapened by making the process less rigorous.  But it shouldn’t be unnecessarily difficult just because that’s how it’s always been.  While my experience was stressful, sadly, I don’t think it was atypical.  We need to work to change that. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Throwing Troops at the Problem is No Solution: Whither Afghanistan?

If news reports are to be believed, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is expected to announce that the Pentagon is planning to send an additional 4000 troops to Afghanistan in an attempt to defeat the Taliban and curtail the threat of ISIS in the eastern border areas.  I have a few problems with this idea, but the biggest one is the report that President Donald Trump has all but ceded his authority on this matter to General Mattis.  On the one hand, I am, frankly, more comfortable with the general’s grasp of the issues at stake in Afghanistan, but on the other hand, I’m not a terribly big fan of the president voluntarily giving up his position as Commander-in-Chief of the United State military.

The biggest problem with an AWOL president on a matter such as this is that there is no strictly military solution to this problem.  Let me say it one more time for the people in the back: The conflict in Afghanistan cannot and will not be solved using only the military.  And yet, by giving virtually all of the decision making power to the secretary of defense, that’s the only option being placed on the table right now.  To be fair to the Trump administration however, the mess they’ve inherited from their predecessors has left them with few good options.

If I had to identify the single biggest obstacle to United States success in dealing with Muslim-majority countries, it would be this: we do not now nor have we ever had a grand strategy for dealing with such countries.  This is not a new problem—it existed during the Cold War when the prevention of Soviet expansionism was a greater strategic goal than worrying about the internal problems of a country.  However, the Global War on Terror has fundamentally changed the way we fight wars, we interpret wars, and we make policy for wars.  Which is precisely why 4000 more troops is likely to do very little to increase the possibilities of success in Afghanistan.  Let me explain.

Political scientists and many military and foreign policy analysts have long since abandoned a dualistic, win-lose paradigm for evaluating military action.  Unfortunately, the public and the vast majority of policy makers have not.  To them, you either win a war or you lose a war.  But that assumes that wars are fought between nation-states and one eventually surrendered.  The war on terror has turned that paradigm upside down.  The war in Afghanistan began as a war to oust al-Qaeda from its hiding places and eventually expanded to include the overthrow of the Taliban.  However, these are two entities that are essentially non-state actors, even if the Taliban was the de facto ruler of Afghanistan.  Neither was truly representative of the will of the people of Afghanistan as a whole, and neither was recognized as the “true” representative of the country and its interests.  When wars are fought against non-state actors, “victory” will likely not equate to an unconditional surrender.

Since Augustine, Christian ethicists have been contemplating what war ought to look like when fought justly.  Aquinas added immensely to our knowledge of Just War Theory, and then the threat of nuclear annihilation brought about a new spate of just war theorists, including the inimitable Paul Ramsey began to talk about the morality of weapons of mass destruction.  However, to this point, the foci of Just War Theory had been jus ad bellum (the conditions for going to war justly) and jus in bello (how to wage war justly).  Over the past decade and a half, a new facet to Just War Theory has emerged: jus post bellum (how to end a war justly).  One of the leaders in formulating jus post bellum has been Brian Orend, a philosophy professor in Canada.  Orend argues that there ought to be a new Geneva Convention centered around the post bellum principles with one principle objective: the creation of a minimally just society, one that is peaceful and non-aggressive, run by a legitimate government (locally and internationally), and vindicates the human rights of its people.1

By that standard, the international community has failed Afghanistan (and Iraq, frankly) terribly and continuously for over 15 years now.  If “victory” is a minimally just regime that is self-sustaining and no longer requires international intervention, we are nowhere near “victory” in Afghanistan, and 4000 extra US troops will do nothing to move us closer to that goal.   This is the central problem with handing over this decision to Gen. Mattis.  This is not a military problem.  Sure, it has a military component, but it also includes important political, economic, educational, and agricultural (hello, poppy fields) issues that must also be dealt with in order to ensure the minimally just regime that Afghanistan so deserves.  This is not simply a Trump administration problem.  After all, whatever the man’s faults, he’s just inherited the mess that his predecessor inherited from his predecessor.  That said, throwing troops at Afghanistan will not make things better.  In fact, it could make them worse.  Occupying troops are often the object of scorn in the countries they occupy.  They enliven opposition, some of it jihadist and nihilistic in the case of Afghanistan.  It’s possible that more troops will only exacerbate existing problems.  

Obviously, 15 years into this mess, it’s difficult to do things “the right way” because we’re 15 years too late.  However, if the international community has the political will to actually work out a solution for Afghanistan, it can be done.  While a just solution is more work a decade and a half into an intervention, it is possible.  The only question is whether there is the will to make things better.  I have my doubts, particularly given the fragmentation of Western leadership and the emergence of a recalcitrant Russia, but if enough of the parties involved (NATO, the United Nations, various international NGOs) can get together and discuss the situation, a resolution or, something closer to resolution than a few thousand extra troops, might be possible.

1. Brian Orend, “Justice After War: Toward a New Geneva Convention,” in Ethics Beyond War’s End, ed. Eric Patterson (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2012), 187.

Monday, March 27, 2017

On being a Luddite, or: How to survive writer's cramp and emerge with a decent bit of writing

On occasion, I have been known to my students as the "Footnote Nazi."  I come by such a name honestly and wear it with pride.  I believe it is integral to their college experience to teach them how to properly cite their papers and, as mostly political science majors, that means learning Chicago/Turabian citation.  Another part of writing papers is finding a system that makes sense to them for cataloging and organizing information.  This both enables them to gather a substantial amount of research without having to duplicate their efforts by looking at the same books multiple times.  I encourage them to ask all of their professors how they do it so they can throw several things at the wall and see what sticks.  I also warn them that I'm quite the Luddite when it comes to these things, but unapologetically so as it works for me and that's really the only thing that's important.  So without further adieu, here is one humble technologically averse approach to cataloging, compiling, and organizing research.

Step 1: The research itself

I still mostly use the old school approach many of us of a certain age learned for compiling research in high school.  That is to say, I start with a stack of lined 5x8 index cards.  I begin with a card denoting the source and listing all of the important citation material in both Chicago "Works Cited" format and Chicago "Footnote" format.  This idiot-proofs my footnoting process.  More on that later.  Each source is given a number, whatever the next number in sequence is.  The number is noted in the upper right hand corner of the note card.  The end result is this:

Each note card containing research from this source will likewise carry that number in the upper right hand corner.  I try to group research on note cards by topic.  This makes organization of the information easier later.  Each bit of information or quote has the page number noted.  Thus, note cards with research look like this:

I preserve all of my notes cards in two places: first, the cards themselves are kept in extra-large note card file boxes with third-cut tabs separating each source.  Second, I have an Excel spread sheet listed by source, author, and title.  It is thus searchable when a new project begins.  Once I've determined that I have sufficient research to begin the organization process, the real fun begins.

2. The Lego Method

I often describe my process as the Lego method of writing papers.  This is why.  Once all of the research is finished, I separate all of the bib. cards from the actual research and, keeping the bib. cards in numerical order, set them aside for fun at a later date.  Then I take the notes cards with all of their actual information, find a nice, comfy spot on the floor, and start sorting them into piles by topic (broadly).  The subject of each pile differs depending on the project at  hand, but these can be thematic, chronological, regarding primary sources, or some combination of all of the above.  Each pile is then organized into a seemingly logical stream of consciousness according to my vision for the project.  Each pile is then added to the stack, again in a (hopefully) logical order.  The final stack is often quite large and, at the outset, often intimidating.

3. The Outline

Once the stack is ready, I'm ready to start outlining the project.  I prefer top-bound spiral notebooks with college-ruled pages.  Yes, I'm picky, but there's something to be said for knowing what works. From here, the outline emerges much as you would expect (I., A., 1., a., i.).  The Roman numerals are often few, and the capital letters and Arabic numerals many.  Each bit of information recorded on the outline is accompanied by a number circled (the source number) and a page number.  This is the most time-consuming and tedious part of the whole process.  However, I've tried going from stack straight to computer and it actually took me quite a bit longer than the outline did.  And yes, for the record, I highly recommend caffeine to fuel this process.

Because of the level of detail in my outlines, they are often quite lengthy.  The outline for the first chapter of my dissertation was 19 pages long.  The chapter was 39 pages.  The writer's cramp is real with this step.  The final product makes the actual typing of the thing quite simple, however.

4. Typing (Yea, technology!)

Finally, some technological assistance.  I do love me some Microsoft Word.  Some...not all.  Ever. Now, we bring the bib. cards back to the party.  Remember, they are still in numerical order.  I create a cheat sheet for myself with each source's number and a quick hit for the author or author, short title: Anything so I know what's what.

This enables me to check off sources once I've used them initially since, after all, the initial footnote and subsequent footnotes are cited differently in Chicago style citation.  Once I have used the bib. card for an initial citation, it goes in a new stack, this one organized alphabetically as for a Works Cited section.  While the typing of the thing is (blessedly) done on Word, I do not use any citation software like Zotero or Refworks for my citations.  I insert footnotes in Word and type them myself. It's just not that hard or annoying to do them the old-fashioned way for me to want to bother with learning a new way.

5. Editing

Some things emerge into the world relatively decent and undeserving of the scorn of the person who wrote the thing.  And some things are complete crap and deserving of all of the scorn.  I number and track changes in Word files as you would software versions.  For example, the first draft of anything will be 1.0.  A mild revision will earn a new file name with the path 1.1.  However, in the event of total crap in need of a complete overhaul, the new designator of overhauled thing will be 2.0.  That allows me to track what changes were made and where and, if necessary undo them.

Is this an incredibly time-consuming method for cataloging information, organizing research, and writing papers?  Yes.  Absolutely.  I'll be the first person to admit it.  However, I do it this way for several reasons:
  1. Given how my outlines are marked, I do not worry about plagiarism--ever.  It's simply too hard to inadvertently plagiarize when one is THIS obsessive-compulsive about citation.
  2. I need the tactile, Lego-style sorting method to organize my thoughts.
  3. I've simply never found a more technologically advanced method for doing all of this that makes sense to me or, more importantly, that I'm comfortable with.
  4. For all of the front-end time required for this method, the back end of the process moves quickly.  When I'm in a groove, I can type up to 5 pages an hour.  The front-end organization makes that possible.
This method is, perhaps, not for the faint of heart.  If you love technology, you will likely not love this method of writing papers.  Most of my students, however appreciative of the process, find another way.  I understand, and I am never offended.  As I tell them, how you research, how you write has to make sense to you and no one else.  However, I have a system and many of them don't, so, if nothing else, I encourage them to start here and innovate from this point.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Inconcievable! Thoughts on Pseudo-Scholarship on Islam and Political Opportunism

I’m a child of the 80s.  I grew up watching and re-watching The Princess Bride.  I have two copies of it on DVD (the special features on each new anniversary edition are always different).  I was thrilled to learn that it was headed to Netflix.  As a world religions professor, I enjoy The Princess Bride because it makes a rather excellent teaching tool.  For example, when discussing the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism: “Life is pain, Highness.  Anyone who says differently is selling something.”  Or, when discussing the seven sacraments of Catholicism: “Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togever tooday.”  But my favorite use of The Princess Bride as teaching tool comes when we discuss Islam and, specifically, Sharia.  It typically involves this video clip:

Since 9/11, pseudo-scholarship on Islam has skyrocketed.  As someone who has dedicated years of my life to the study of Islam and the Middle East, I cringe every time someone starts a diatribe on Islam with something like “Well, I’ve never read the Qur’an, but….”  The problem only multiplies after a terrorist attack like the one in Nice last night.  We still don’t know much about the attacker, except that his name was Mohammed which is enough to get the Islamophobic rhetoric cranked up to an insanely high level. 

Newt Gingrich, who was on the short list of potential vice presidential candidates for the Trump campaign, said in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News last night, “We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background and if they believe in sharia they should be deported.”  I was on Twitter last night after the interview and the collective response from Islamic Studies Twitter was a gigantic face palm.  My first thought was, “Oh, Newt….Bless your heart (said in the most Southern way possible, by the way).  You keep on using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Allow me to describe for you a religious law: this law, written centuries ago, contains 613 commandments that some practitioners of the religion believe must be followed explicitly.  These commandments include sections on agriculture, ritual purity, marriage and divorce, sacrifices, rituals and worship, and criminal and civil offenses.  Those who do not follow all of the commandments are seen by those who do as of lesser faith because they have deviated from the true law.  For those who are confused, the religious law I’ve just described is the Halakha or Jewish law and those who follow it explicitly are the Orthodox.  In many ways, Sharia is analogous to Halakha except that Sharia is much less explicitly stated in the Qur’an than Jewish law is in the Torah.

The problem with pseudo-scholarship on Islam as it relates to Sharia is that it all revolves around what we see as representative of Sharia on television: stoning adulterers, cutting off the hands of thieves, hanging apostates, etc.  However, these represent a very narrow interpretation of a very narrow portion of the Sharia that, frankly, most Muslims are not terribly concerned about these days.  Sharia means “the way” or “the path” in Arabic.  It is a mostly amorphous collection of wisdom, teachings, rituals, customs, and rules that govern all aspects of a Muslim’s life. 

The rules that govern prayer times, when to start fasting and to stop fasting during Ramadan, the correct order of events for the pilgrimage to Mecca, and a whole host of rather mundane day-to-day events in a Muslim’s life are covered by the Sharia.  Funeral rites, as well as wedding rituals, are governed by Sharia.  Marriage, divorce, custody arrangements, and inheritance are explored in the Sharia.  Sharia also discusses commerce and economic transactions, appropriate slaughter of animals, modest dress, and yes, criminal offenses.  The Sharia was given by God, but is interpreted by men as fiqh or jurisprudence.  In modern times, Sharia is a source of legislation in most Muslim countries, but exists alongside elements of French or English law (a remnant of colonial times) and other legal codes.  Muslims are expected to obey the laws of whatever country they reside in as long as such laws do not interfere with their duties as a Muslim.

Having explained Sharia thusly, the problem with Gingrich’s statement about Muslims and Sharia should be quite clear.  To be Muslim is to believe in Sharia.  To threaten deportation of Muslims who believe in the Sharia then is Trump’s Muslim ban on steroids.  Furthermore, the idea of deportation of Sharia-believing Muslims is particularly problematic for the estimated 37% of the American Muslim population that is native-born.  My friend Adam Soltani, the executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations was born in Kansas.  Where should he go to be deported?  Back to Kansas?  [Insert obligatory Kansas joke here if so inclined.] 

Of course, here is the larger issue with what Newt had to say last night: It’s crap and he knows it’s crap.  Newt Gingrich is many things, but stupid is not one of them.  He’s a smart guy.  He’s also an insatiable political opportunist.  That, perhaps, explains why today, he’s walking back his statement, having seen the backlash against it.  However, despite his protestations to the contrary, Islamic Studies Twitter (also First Amendment Twitter) did not take his statement out of context.  We are rightfully calling Newt out on his nativist, xenophobic political opportunism.  Newt is attempting to toe the Donald Trump Republican party line. 

Sharia is wielded as a weapon by politicians like Newt to scare Americans who don’t know any better about a non-existent threat from Muslim-Americans.  And it works.  In Wichita, a man posted on Facebook that he would no longer eat at Le Monde CafĂ©, a Mediterranean restaurant, after learning that the owner and manager were both Muslim.  Luckily, the good and decent majority in Wichita has banded together to support the restaurant, including a day during which people are planning to inundate the restaurant with business as a show of unity. 

Closer to home, everyone’s favorite Islamophobic Oklahoma state representative John Bennett proposed a study by the Oklahoma State House of Representatives into the “current threat posed by radical Islam and the effect that Shariah Law, the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist indoctrination have in the radicalization process in Oklahoma and America.”  This is the same John Bennett who, in the fall of 2014, said of Islam, “This is a cancer in our nation that needs to be cut out.”  

The drivel being peddled by Newt Gingrich, Donald Trump, and others will not make us safer.  It will not reduce our risk of terrorism.  It certainly will not make our Muslim friends and neighbors safer.  But it will win votes.  The consequences to America’s long-term security are immaterial to the Republican presidential nominee and his supporters, despite warning after warning from people who know better than these canards only reinforce the narrative of ISIS and others.  As long as it gets the necessary number of votes, the details aren’t important.  Except that they are.  I can only hope that Americans are smarter than Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich give them credit for.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

On Muslims, America, and the Value of the First Amendment

I’ll give The Donald this much: he sure does offer a scholar of Islam a variety of options to rebut his xenophobic nonsense.  I could talk about Islam and how ISIS is not “real” Islam.  But “real” is a social construction, and it sure seems like the Islam of ISIS is real to them.  I could talk about American Muslims and how cool they are as a group, but experience is better, so by all means, find an interfaith iftar (the meal at the end of the day to break the fast during Ramadan) and go meet some for yourself.  What I want to talk about instead is why I’m not afraid of American Muslims, of shari‘a, of ISIS, of anything BUT Donald Trump and his hateful and incendiary rhetoric.  And, good Baptist that I am, I will do so, in part, by extolling the virtues of the First Amendment.

Yesterday, President Obama responded to Trump’s allegations that he was afraid to use the term “radical Islam” and that as such, he was either hurting our counter-terrorism efforts or worse, aiding our enemies.  You can listen to the president’s remarks here.  I affirm what the president says here—“radical Islam” is not the “open, sesame!” of counter-terrorism.  Calling ISIS “radical Islam” will not make our efforts to contain it easier.  In fact, it will likely make it harder to shut down ISIS.  Perhaps now is a good time to discuss how college students of the early-2000s wrote a lot of papers without a lot of effort.

"Work smarter, not harder:"  Wise advice, given by many college professors, including me.  In the late-1990s and early-2000s, many political science, sociology, and religion majors at colleges around the United States did so by writing paper after paper rebutting Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” hypothesis.  Trust me on this: I was one of those undergraduates.  Huntington argued, first in a 1993 Foreign Affairs article then in a 1996 book, that the next world war, if there was to be one would be between civilizations rather than nation-states.  Specifically, he predicted a clash of civilizations between “the West” and “Islam.”  Here’s where undergrads like me started to have a field day.  You see, there is no “the West” and there’s no “Islam.”  Every country contained in both of those supposed civilizations has its own issues, history, culture, and political obstacles.  When posed this way, however, any conflict between any part of “the West” and “Islam” plays into the narrative, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The problem today is that ISIS has latched on to the “clash of civilizations” hypothesis with a vengeance.  ISIS wants Muslims in the West to become disenfranchised, to feel bullied, ostracized, and ganged-up on.  Because then it can step in and be the savior: "Those people hate you.  Come hang out with us.  We LOVE you!"  Thus, everything Donald Trump opens his mouth to say something bad about Muslims, he’s helping ISIS.  In short, Donald Trump’s openly bigoted and Islamophobic rhetoric is treasonous.

Last night, appearing with Sean Hannity on Faux…I mean, Fox News, Trump said that even American Muslims were dangerous because they haven’t assimilated into American society well.  As usual, The Donald is full of it.  Study after study suggests that not only have Muslims in America assimilated, they are, in fact, the gold star immigrants—successful by every metric, prosperous, educated, and engaged in their communities.  The same can be said with even greater confidence of Americans who converted to Islam.  Law enforcement agencies from local police forces to the FBI will tell you that the American Muslim community is the best source of intelligence on radicalization in the U.S.  American Muslims DON’T want terrorist attacks, because such attacks threaten their lives and livelihoods.  Inevitably, The Donald and his surrogates will point to the problems Muslim immigrants have assimilating in Europe and say, "See?  They don’t like us!"

Again, not the let the facts get in the way of a good story, but what’s happening in Europe and what’s happening in the United States are night-and-day different.  For one thing, all kinds of immigrants in Europe face barriers to assimilation, especially if they are of a different faith than the established religion.  In Europe, indeed in much of the rest of the world, there is an established faith, supported either tacitly or legally by the state.  That support could mean leaning on religious leaders of that faith for legitimacy, tax-payer funding of churches/mosques/synagogues/temples, and/or the conferring of privileges to members of the established faith.  Because Islam is not the privileged religion of any of the major European countries, Muslims find it quite difficult to fit in.  Occasionally, such disaffection leads to protests and riots as Paris saw in 2005.  Other times, disenfranchised young Muslim men turn to violence, as happened in Paris last fall and Brussels this spring.  That violence is often given rhetorical significance and currency by ISIS. 

Contrast that with the United States.  Here, we have a legal separation of church and state.  There is no church establishment nor are there barriers to being able to freely practice one’s religion.  Muslims can immigrate to the United States, find educational and employment opportunities, and maintain their religious faith without fear of persecution or loss of opportunity.  In the United States, it is and rightly should be, okay to be Muslim.  THIS is the heart of the religious liberty that my Baptist forefathers fought so hard for.  Unfortunately, even some Baptists have forgotten this.  Our First Amendment protects Muslims from xenophobia and Islamophobic nonsense.  It also protects the rest of us from the (as yet unrealized) threat of “creeping shari‘a.”  If no religion can be the established faith of the United States, than means that shari‘a (which is, by the way, not as scary as everyone thinks it is) can never become the law of the land.  See how fun the First Amendment can be?