Geeking Out Loud

Geeking Out Loud about Apocrypha: or, a new e-Clavis entry up from yours truly and why you should care. Happy Friday to you all! I’m in the middle of a move right now (yes, literally the same weekend I’m flying to Europe– why not kill ‘all the birds’ with a single stone?), so I haven’t gotten around to the next installment of ‘Raiders of the Lost Archive.’ Instead, I’ll just leave you with a minor announcement and a thought or two.

The announcement: I’ve just written an entry on the Vindicta Salvatoris (The Vengeance of the Savior) for NASSCAL’s e-Clavis! What the proverbial devil, you may well ask, does that even mean? NASSCAL stands for the North American Society for the Study of Christian Apocryphal Literature. It’s a group of apocrypha scholars that I’ve recently joined. The Vindicta Salvatoris is an apocryphal text from the early middle ages about… a lot of unpleasant things. More on that in a bit. One thing I love about the NASSCAL organization already is that they are dedicated to making our admittedly esoteric work more available to the public. One way we’re doing this is via the e-Clavis project, an electronic update to Maurice Geerard’s Clavis Apocryphorum Novi Testamenti. The cool part is that it’s completely open to the public, even as we update it in real time. So log on and geek out– apocrypha are a trip and this is a great intro to them!

In case you’re unsure how this free encyclopedia of apocrypha equates to ‘cool’, some thoughts:

First, academic work is ridiculously laborious. Take e-Clavis: so much goes into a single entry– there’s reading the text in whatever dead languages, then there’s tracking down all the editions of it (i.e., how it was edited from a manuscript into a standardized and printable book form), there’s reading scholarship (in English, Spanish, French, Italian, and German in my case), then there’s summarizing and analyzing it all, comparing, etc. In short, it’s not a short process. Savor it.

And now: Enter the Beef.  Because of the above, among other reasons, academic work can be ridiculously expensive. Most academic monographs (books on a single topic) cost somewhere between $30-$250, academic journal subscriptions (where we publish all our articles) cost hundreds per year to individuals (thousands to institutions), and if you don’t have access to a major university library that pays for all this, individual articles can cost you $45 a pop. Sure, publishers need to break even on works that will only sell hundreds of copies, but these high prices also prevent their consumption. Now, in a normal market interaction, an expensive product should mean a well-compensated craftsperson. You would think that since academic work costs so much, that your humble author here would be rolling in the dough. Rest assured, gentle reader, that such is not the case. I have published a couple of things and receive no royalties. None of us does.


[Pictured: literally anyone but academic authors.]

Combine these two forces and what do you get? Scholarship that, while interesting, useful, and innovative, is increasingly walled off from the general public. There have been scores and scores of articles written on why this is bad (here’s just one). I agree. But here’s an angle I seldom see people discussing: separating scholarship from the public means walling off intellectual curiosity and excitement from American life.

Curiosity and excitement– those two emotions are what drive me in my work every single day. I do what I do because I want to know more and I love finding out more– then I can create more new things to know. I’m lucky enough to be in a position (securely funded grad student at stable state school) where, day in and out, I can wake up, pour a cup of coffee or four, play fetch with my cat, and then use a library system containing tens of millions of books and journals and that subscribes to just about any scholarly resource I can imagine. My work is only hindered by my imagination here. But how many other people can do this? Sure, people may have curiosity, but the resources (time, money, energy, expertise)  needed to follow it up well are prohibitively costly. That’s one reason publicly accessible academic work can be so important. But how many people actually go to public lectures even when they’re free? That leads us to a problem behind the problem of paywalls.

Let me tell you something that blows my brain case every time I think of it. Several years ago, I was reading Caught in the Web of Words, the biography of James A.H. Murray [link], one of the main editors of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. He dedicated the last half-century of his long life to that project (for which he has earned my eternal gratitude and admiration). But before the OED, he got his start as a school teacher in the Scottish borders. He was obsessed with language in all the ways you need to be if you’re compiling the first OED, and he also loved teaching. From all accounts, he was quite good at it too. His biography recounts how he would give public lectures in his local small town auditorium with titles like “On the relation of the Persian tongue to the Latin” or “On river names Celtic and Saxon in our region”… and the house would be packed! [full disclosure: I made those examples up… my books are all packed away now!]


[Pictured: J.A.H.M., philological hero and my jam. Also, academic “squad goals”… quad goals?]

Now I’m not one to pine for long lost golden ages, but… what happened??? Was Victorian England just a good time for English speaking philologists to be alive? (short answer: yes) Why was the public so invested in public lectures on obscure topics? Were they all brilliant? Were they all nerds? Was it just because Netflix hadn’t arrived yet? There are Victorianists right now who are fleshing out great answers to questions like those– but my beef is that you, dear reader, probably don’t know who they are or where to even start looking for their work! And that is far from your fault. Academic publishing may have seemed a trackless jungle for non-specialists in years past, but in today’s world of instant electronic access to so much information, we’ve rendered the impassable jungle invisible behind mile-high pay walls and a dense electron cloud of unknowing. (Please don’t take this as a rant contra jargon or theory– it’s not.)

So why isn’t there more open access work? I’ll be honest: one reason is that open-access work isn’t highly valued in the academy. Even though it was reviewed and approved by a world-renowned expert (Tony Burke), that entry up there is not going to count as a “real publication” when I hit the job market. For a host of reasons, collaborative, public work like that is undervalued in the academy. And this seems fatally wrongheaded to me. The more isolated scholars are from the public, the more the two must drift apart. On a practical level, that means gloomy things for academic funding. But I’ve never been accused of being a practical person.

Expenses aside, academic work can be extremely important in indirect ways. I’m more worried about the long-term danger to curiosity and to knowledge— to minds to come. I’m concerned at the climate of anti-intellectualism that hangs in the air like a Dickensian fog (and that threatens the very relevancy of that reference). I’m concerned that children of my generation grew up being bullied for knowing stuff and watching Wishbone and shamed for wanting to know more. I’m worried about future generations, wherein affordable technology connects us all to more and more… but more of what? I like binge-watching cat videos and epic fails as much as the next person, but those are junk food for the mind. What about real nutrition, real substance, real content? Kids grow up knowing how to google and that’s great power. But without publicly accessible scholarship, will they even know what to begin looking for? Or will ‘seeking’ wither on Vines?

I don’t mean to get all post-apocalyptic, Jeremiadical, and old man crotchety on you (I’m typing this on my smart phone, for goodness sake), but two shifts need to happen. First, the scholarly community is going to have to start diversifying the work it values. The contemporary world needs good information to combat fake news and fake histories that fuel real hatred and real murders. That’s going to mean valuing public work and work that’s interesting to the public (so ‘medium’ and ‘style’ may need to be widened, respectively). Thankfully, many are striving toward that end (In the Middle, Public Medievalist, Apocryphicity, et. al.), and e-Clavis, obscure as it may seem, is another front in that fight.

Remember: academic work can accomplish a LOT more than it might appear at first glance. How could an 8th century apocryphon possibly speak to today’s world? By reading about the Vindicta Salvatoris, for example, you can get a feel for how religious tradition can be framed toxically, feeding the flames of racist, violent rhetoric. It’s a blatantly anti-Semitic text that uses the crucifixion and the siege of Jerusalem (70 CE) to justify retributive violence against Jewish groups in general. That’s awful and disturbing… and it’s exactly the kind of road our world currently insists on treading again. I’m not saying a single encyclopedia entry can end religious violence… but knowing how and why the failures and catastrophes of the past came about can equip us, expert and amateur alike, to stop them from happening again. Making work accessible means making it visible. Read the thing– it’s probably not a coincidence that this text “went viral” (in couple of senses) in the centuries when Crusader rhetoric got epidemic. In a world where headlines about mass shootings and religious extremism blur together because they happen daily, we all need to be thinking more carefully about how we articulate our beliefs and why.

But the other major thing that needs to happen is in the public’s court– if you’re not a Ph.D. reading this, begin thinking through the ways intellectualism is treated in your world. Try to encourage your friends’/colleagues’/neighbors’ curiosity rather than laughingly dismissing it with Nelson-like shouts of “NERD”. Do research on the things you love. Write stuff down and share it with your friends. Own your intellect– don’t hide the gift. We may currently live in a world where curiosity is the province of nerd/gamer/academic culture, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. We can model for others ways in which intellect is not impractical, not absurd, not out of touch, not something to be ashamed of. Be brave enough to imagine how expertise can bring just a little more light into your neighbors’ lives– and cultivate communities in which curiosity can be shared and we can all learn from each other and grow together.


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