Tuesday, June 30, 2015


I woke up to an email from a student, asking for a list of ten or so books "that you have found essential in the formation of what we know as Donna." Having taken a few minutes to put together a briefly-annotated list, I thought I might as well share it here. Links are to the Goodreads page, so you can add whatever takes your fancy to your "to-read" shelf or click on through to buy from Amazon.

Paula Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ -- a very readable account of the transformation of Jesus' message in the first few centuries of the common era, not just philosophically and religiously but also politically.

Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics -- an entire aesthetic and media theory in the guide of a comic book about how comic books work. Amazing.

Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms -- using records from the Inquisition, historian Ginzburg reconstructs the diversity of the intellectual enterprise from the side of both commoners and elites during the tumult of Reformation. A constant reminder that intellectual history isn't just the record of great thinkers, it's also the story of how ideas were received and transformed by the population, and how that transformation boomeranged back on the elites.

Erasmus, Enchiridion -- Erasmus is my favorite Reformation writer, and this is his great work on the life of faith. He's just such an amazing prose stylist, even in translation.

David Hume, The Natural History of Religion -- Hume demolishes the idea that religion began with pure revelation and has degraded to the conditions we see today, with wit and irony, in this brief little treatise. Essential to my understanding that every reality we encounter has an evolutionary history.

Elizabeth Moon, The Deed of Paksenarrion -- my favorite book, which I reread every couple of years, a fantasy trilogy about a soldier who becomes an instrument of the gods. You may find it very silly if fantasy isn't your thing, but it's undeniably the work of fiction that has most shaped me.

Shusako Endo, Silence -- For years Martin Scorsese has been trying to make a movie of this novel about Jesuit missionaries in 19th c. Japan. The most powerful portrayal I know of the sacrifice of Jesus.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun -- an examination of women's lives in colonial America through the objects they made. Reads like a detective story, uncovering something previously anonymous and subterranean.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead -- A pastor reflects on life and faith and relationships as he nears his own death. Engages with all kinds of great thinkers, but never ceases to be an unfolding revelation of a novel.

Paul Collins, Not Even Wrong -- One of the great non-fiction writers tries to understand his autistic son by digging back into the prehistory of autism.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Every now and then I hear our song

Colleagues on campus who foolishly ask what I'm up to are likely to receive a lengthy explanation of how I've never really had an academic summer. If I recall correctly, I taught a summer course my first or second year at UCA, and then went straight into an administrative position that offered 10.5 month employment for a few years, followed by a long stretch of 12-month administrative contracts. That ended in summer 2013 with a summer sabbatical, the only kind available to administrators. I took two week-long research trips that summer and spent every remaining day researching, conducting phone interviews, traveling within the state, correcting transcripts, and scrambling to be ready to start writing my book. But during this sabbatical, my dean pressed me for a commitment on whether I would continue in administration, and I declined to do so. The summer of 2012, then, would be the last I would spend working full time.

Turns out I would continue to do phone and local interviews into the early months of 2014; the only part of the book with a complete draft by the time classes ended that spring was the introduction. So I spent every day of summer 2014 writing. By the end of August, with classes already underway, I had six chapters done, with four more to go before my Christmas deadline. As I wrote in a January post, that summer I wrote a chapter every 2.4 weeks.

I got a very helpful reader report from my editor on March 2 of this year, and immediately began revisions. Once classes ended in early May, I was in the office full time every day doing additional research, editing, and rewriting. I turned in a revised manuscript on June 10.

And since then, it has been Summer. The kind where I don't have to come to the office, where no one is expecting me. I have work to do -- classes for fall to prepare (including a new one), some assessment (done), some faculty reports (done), and then the research and dreaming and thinking about the next scholarly projects -- but it's completely up to me when I want to make progress on that and when I want to do Summer Things. That's the life a lot of faculty live. Yes, many of them teach summer classes or take other temporary work (scoring standardized tests, teaching at summer programs), but many just have a Summer. Like the one I'm finally having.

I come to the office most days. I have research I want to move forward, and interlibrary loan books that I can only keep for a short time. Reading and thinking is a pleasurable occupation, especially compared to the stress of rewriting and cutting and checking citation formatting on a deadline. I give myself plenty of leeway to follow my train of thought wherever it leads, chasing down information on a stray inquiry if it grabs my interest. 

But I also take a walk every morning before the heat and humidity build to unbearable levels. Today I listened to podcasts, but most days I just think for half an hour. Yesterday I took the kids to a nearby state park and hiked a trail along the river. Now that Summer is here, I am going to do more of that.

Summer seems very short when the first six weeks of it are eaten up by deadline work. In July the kids have camps and Noel has trips; my days will not be my own, like they are now. In August the new semester will be on the doorstep. But Summer seems so long, so luxuriously empty, on a day like today.