The New Abnormal

What do we tell our children?

Is this the new normal? It seems that the entire social structure of our modern life is slowly unraveling. The culture of humanity, a culture responsible for some of the most beautiful ideas one could ever imagine, is gradually but with certainty dismantling itself from its very core. Violence, fatal violence, is becoming the new normal in our world, and it does not matter whether “our world” is the Americas, Europe, Asia, or Africa. No continent seems immune. No country is inoculated to resist what is now a global plague—this is the pandemic scientists and sociologists have feared for many years. It is perhaps not surprising that the danger ultimately has not come from a mutating virus or an infestation of vermin or birds with the flu but from human beings themselves.

And this is not even particular to any society or culture but is instead a threat to humanity as a species. White, black, Christian, Moslem, French, American. The violence does not ask for passport credentials. It is heartless. It is often thoughtless. It is both random and selective. It is consuming.

What of the future? When Alvin Toffler, who died last month, wrote Future Shock in 1970, he could not have envisioned “the shock” would be this. What of tomorrow? Next week? How do we plan? How can we? What do we tell our children?

What do we tell our children?

Sure, psychologists can postulate theories and offer some practical advice on how to discuss the violence with children. But what do we tell them about tomorrow? About the future? About their future? What kind of world is developing for them? Carpe diem seems a justifiable life philosophy. But it also sounds trite because it almost admits the lack of control humanity seems to have just now. When attacks on large groups, solitary shootings, police violence, and terror attacks are the new normal, day-to-day functioning becomes more and more difficult. Modern life exists from moment to moment with a giant question mark forever hovering above it. The impulse of many is to, ostrich-like, hide under the covers and not get out of bed.

When I was younger, the great fear was the Soviet Union and nuclear weapons. The threat was clear. The threat was identifiable. The threat was predictable. No more.

The variety of flavors of violence we are now forced to endure is not only too numerous to list, it is obscene. Let me say that again. This violence we are currently enduring is obscene. Justice Potter Stewart said he would know obscenity when he saw it. Well, here it is. Obscenity makes one physically and spiritually ill. The physical illness can heal—at least it has the potential to heal. The spiritual illness is much more difficult to bounce back from. The spiritual illness is a malaise, seeming to have no end and no relief.

Humanity is currently rife with ideological anger. In many ways, the same ideologies human beings have often been pleased to form have turned on humanity and are destroying it from within.

What do we tell our children?

Jane Addams, the American reformist and activist, said “America’s future will be determined by the home and the school. The child becomes largely what he is taught; hence we must watch what we teach, and how we live.”

What do we tell our children?

Perhaps the only answer is the simple one. Hold on to each other. We’re all we’ve got. If we show each other love and compassion, there is no room for us to harm each other. This is not a plea for empty and inane positivity but a serious request that humanity be put in a time out. As is often the case when a child is a given a time out, afterwards we hug the child and reassure her that everything will be ok.



Highway 61 Leads to Nirvana in Upstate New York



It is not always a treat to read a first novel. When the jacket blurb notes this is the author’s “debut,” the results can often be less than fulfilling. Not so here. W.B. (Bill) Belcher’s first book, Lay Down Your Weary Tune, is a success and reads not as a first novel but as a novel crafted by a writer knowledgeable and concerned with the form. What John Gardner once called “the art of fiction” is clearly evident here, but, as is often the fault in first novels, it is never contrived.

The story of Jack Wyeth, a somewhat aimless one-time folk musician wannabe and hopeful writer, is set in the region around Saratoga Springs, home to Wyeth’s shrined Café Lena, which makes notable appearances here. Modern folk music—think Dylan and Seeger—seems to play in the background of each page. Comparisons to Hornby’s About A Boy may come but would not be really appropriate. Belcher brings Jack to Eli Page, an infamous but somewhat forgotten folk singer, in the town of Galesville, near the Vermont border, so that Jack can ghost write Page’s memoirs. The ghost transcends ghost writing as Jack confronts ghosts from Page’s and, ultimately, his own past. The novel’s plot twists continue, like the Battenkill River on which Galesville sits, to the final chapter.

The narrative is intriguing. Belcher takes us down the winding roads of upstate New York, uncovering surprises at almost every turn. Although many first novels lead the reader down dark alleys, only to leave him stumbling in the shadows, Belcher sharply guides the reader, pulling him along as a dog on a leash. Unsure of what lies around the corner, we are confident enough in Belcher that we give ourselves over to him and follow him around those corners.

One thing I particularly noted was Belcher’s beautiful prose. He can craft a sentence as a poet. Two examples: alone with Jenny, the mysterious but faithfully-written resident artist in Galesville, Jack says, “Then, almost by force of habit, I ran my hand through her hair and tucked it behind her ear.” Later, Jack notes the way Jenny held her stance: “her right hip tilted up every so slightly so that her spine curved like a lazy creek; her hand rested on the higher hip in contemplation.” Belcher is a master at simile, and few seem overwrought. The movement of the characters is itself musical.

Lay Down Your Weary Tune will be published by Other Press in early January 2016. Buy a copy for yourself, and buy copies for your friends. With hope, there is much more in Belcher’s arsenal.

Bring Back Finesse

I have been a football fan my entire life. But, NFL, you’re in big trouble. I hope you figure this out or you’re going to quickly start losing fans, including me, not to mention the millions of women who now count themselves as football fans. I still don’t agree that Michael Vick should have been allowed back after he served time for his participation in a dog-fighting ring, and that is making it very difficult to be a Jets fan. Clearly this Ray Rice fiasco has not been handled properly.

What Ray Rice did is despicable, inexcusable, and repulsive. Now his wife is defending her husband’s violence, only magnifying her own battered wife syndrome. Of the myriad types of violence in our contemporary world, domestic violence is particularly disgusting. As President Obama—and just about every boy’s father—said, “A ‘real man’ doesn’t hit a woman.”

Though there is a fundamental problem–the National Football League wants to develop, essentially, trained killers, but they haven’t figured out how to reconcile that they are also human beings who have to be members of society. This is kind of like the paradox of ex-battlefield soldiers–once they’re out of the service and back home, they’re supposed to stop being killers. Not that easy.

Add to this the frightening attitudes towards violence against women in our culture. In interviews with students at Ray Rice’s high school alma mater in New Rochelle, NY, one young female student actually said about Rice’s then-fiancé, “maybe she deserved it.” The ongoing political attacks against women and their rights are matched only by the blasé cultural attitudes regarding physical violence against women. If you need proof, search The New York Times for articles in the last year on colleges and universities which have mishandled sexual assault cases on their campus; or articles detailing weak punishments for men who beat women, often victimizing the victim. The woman is beaten twice—first by her partner and then by a system that refuses to account for the gross escalation in domestic abuse cases in America. The 2009 Chris Brown-Rihanna case only scratched the surface; most disturbing then was Rihanna’s insistence on continuing her relationship with Brown even after photos of her beaten face ran amok on the Internet.

But for every Rihanna, there are thousands of Janes and Sarahs who are in horribly destructive and physically dangerous relationships. The problem is that the Ray Rices, the Chris Browns, the Oscar Pistoriuses grab headlines. The problem is that for every man who defends the rights and safety of women, there are ten men who feel hitting a woman is somehow a man’s right.

Now another player, Adrian Peterson, is implicated in a child abuse case; he reportedly beat his four-year old son with a wooden switch. It is however interesting that Rice’s initial “punishment” by the NFL was a two-game suspension, and Peterson has been placed on what the NFL calls the “Exempt/Commissioner’s Permission list,” essentially deactivating him from contact with his team while the case is pending. It remains unclear whether the Vikings will continue to pay his 12 million dollar salary.

What message does that send to the general populace? Beating a child is worse than beating a woman? Or, even more disturbing, beating a woman is only bad if you get caught? After all, it wasn’t until the full video of Ray Rice punching Janay Palmer surfaced that Rice was expelled from the league.

Maybe it’s time to reassess how and what we view as “sport.” And, with the increased injuries in professional and amateur sports (e.g., the startling rate of concussions), perhaps it is time to reassess the role of “sport” in our culture. Is it a rite of passage for every boy to play Pee-Wee Football, for every girl to play club soccer? Must rites of passage always be physical in nature?

When I played disorganized football and little league as a kid—believe me they were anything but “organized”—we looked up to the professionals. For good or for ill, they were role models. Sure, they did horrible things we that we never, in the pre-24-hour news age, never heard about. But when I watch those “classic” games from the 1970s on cable television, one thing is quite clear. The players did not appear to be trained killers. They were smaller. There was more finesse and less brute force in what they did. We need to bring back finesse.

The nineteenth-century English politician William Cobbett said, “The power which money gives is that of brute force.” And now we want to introduce money to college sports. It will be very interesting in the coming days to watch as corporate America reacts. One sponsor of the NFL is CoverGirl, the “official beauty sponsor of the NFL,” which claims there are 80 million female football fans in this country. It’s going to take a lot more than makeup to fix this problem.

Unless we are willing to take a step back and take a hard look at sports in this country, I fear we are well on our way down the slippery slope to the kind of sanctioned apocalyptic violence in those recent popular young adult novels. Sadly, we may be there already and didn’t even realize it.



Shambhala, Watts, and my study of Buddhism

I became student of Buddhism in my late-teens, though, admittedly, I was only an Eastern pre-schooler at the time. My study involved only extensive, unsupervised, and scattered reading of anything that looked interesting. Much of my early reading was Alan Watts, the great British-born Buddhist teacher responsible for expanding study, practice, and meditation in the United States in the 1970s. Through his voluminous books and lectures, Watts led Americans through a kind of Buddhism that was expressly non-religious and decidedly spiritual and insightful. In fact, one of the most important books in my life continues to be Watts’ Wisdom of Insecurity, a short discourse on the merits of letting go (with apologies to the film).

As time progressed, my study became more serious and more focused. I discovered Watts’ lectures as they were aired in repeats on WFMU, the local radio station of Ithaca College made famous for its free-form programming pioneered by Vin Scelsa. Now, many of those lectures are available as free downloads on iTunes

The close of the twentieth century witnessed a rise in spiritual study. As with the turn of the first millennium in the late-900s, folks flocked towards religious traditions, conventional and otherwise, looking for comfort and enlightenment, all the while, whether knowingly or unknowingly, fearing the impending end of the world that might come with the turn of the calendar at the end of 1999. Bookstores thrived with shelves of books filed in the “New Age” section, a kind of smorgasbord or religious and spiritual practice, what I used to call “Religion for Yuppies who don’t believe in God.”

Well into the 21st century, we can now walk into any bookstore and find sections explicitly devoted to Eastern religion, which encompasses everything from Buddhism to Taoism to Hinduism. The work on Buddhist and Buddhist-like practice includes the traditional (The Words of My Perfect Teacher), the unconventional (Buddha in Blue Jeans), and the simply bizarre (Saltwater Buddha).

Add to this the recent Shambhala Principle by Sakyong Mipham, author of several other books and current head of the Shambhala lineage. This brief book arrives at a time of great cultural, social, economic, and ecological unrest in the world. Mipham asks us to consider the interaction of human beings with our environment and to be more fully mindful of the effect we have on that environment. By environment, I don’t mean to imply only the realm affected by climate change, but the environment of all living things. Unlike what most often think of Buddhist monks, Mipham does not implore us to isolation and solitary reflection (though both continue to be integral aspects of Buddhist practice) but instead to consider our place in the larger Shambhalic principle.

Much of the book is autobiographical in that Sakyong Mipham recounts his relationship with his father, Chögyam Trungpa, the great Tibetan teacher who died in 1987. Mipham recalls asking his father questions and then expands on what were often koan-like responses. Mipham subtitles his book “Discovering Humanity’s Hidden Treasure,” and the treasure is the principle of Shambhala, the kingdom hidden somewhere in inner Asia recalled as Shangri-la in Lost Horizon. This place—where people have found peace both within and with each other—has perhaps never been more attractive to Westerners. Recall that when Hilton wrote Lost Horizon in 1933, the first World War and the Great Depression were fresh memories with the second World War looming on the horizon.

Mipham’s book is an interesting addition to current writing on Shambhala, though I honestly did not find much depth here. Mipham provides no concrete exercises or counsel on discovering the hidden treasure he espouses.

I continue my personal study of Buddhism, but I’m not convinced Mipham’s work will stand the test of time on my shelves.

I received Mipham’s book from Blogging for Books for this review.


Rabbinical Remarks

This was my introduction of retiring provost, Dr. Terry Weiner, at the Phi Kappa Phil Honor Society Induction ceremony in May 2014. So many people commented on my remarks that I thought I’d post them here.
Students may not know our speaker today because he is one of the myriad people at Sage who work, like the Wizard of Oz, behind the curtain but tirelessly for the college and its students. In point of fact, working from behind the curtain, he has had perhaps the most significant influence on intellectual life at the college in the past five years.

Dr. Terry Weiner came to Sage five years ago as the interim Dean of the Sage College of Albany. After one short year, President Scrimshaw asked him to become Sage’s first provost in 2010.

For those of you not familiar with the term, a college provost is the chief academic officer at the institution, responsible for guiding the academic direction of programs and scholarly activity. In the fifteenth century, the word provost was applied to the archangel Michael, who led the heavenly host of angels. More modern use of the term is found in the religious and academic worlds. A provost can be the head of a church or the head of an academic unit.

I should also note that as early as the twelfth century the provost was the keeper of the prison. Donald Neiman, the provost at SUNY Binghamton, has remarked that he spends 90 percent of his time in meetings. A prison indeed.

During his time at Sage, which is coming to an end in—how many days is it?—Dr. Weiner has had tremendous positive influence on intellectual and academic life at The Sage Colleges.

As we have heard, Phi Kappa Phi recognizes and promotes academic excellence in all fields of higher education, and Dr. Weiner has been integral in promoting excellence at Sage in all disciplines. Just a few of his noteworthy achievements while here at Sage in the last five years:

• We now have an annual day devoted to promoting undergraduate research. Undergraduate Research Day each spring is a full day of activities on both campuses, including the Undergraduate Research Symposium at which select students present their work.

• Sage now regularly sends students to present research at regional and national conferences.

• Dr. Weiner successfully returned a tenure system to the Sage faculty, promoting implementation of the Boyer model and challenging the faculty to increase both the frequency and the quality of their scholarship.

• As a result, with our president, Dr. Susan Scrimshaw, Dr. Weiner has raised the standards for faculty and student scholarship across the campuses and colleges at Sage.

These are just a few of his many achievements just here at Sage. Prior to that, Dr. Weiner was the Chauncey H. Winter Professor of Comparative Social Analysis at Union College. A full career there included more than a dozen publications, several dozen conference presentations, as well as nationally-recognized essays and commentaries. Additionally, he has been involved in a wide array of community-based activities, including serving on the Niskayuna School Board and on the boards of several other schools and organizations committed to children with special needs.

Dr. Weiner likes to give me a hard time about my early aspiration to become a rabbi. I was thinking about this some more yesterday while I wrote this introduction in Starbucks—grande two pump black tea-lemonade, if you’re wondering—and I was thinking that Dr. Weiner himself is really a rabbi.

In its simplest form, the Hebrew word rabbi means teacher. One contemporary explanation outlines the following duties of the modern rabbi: the rabbi serves the community as an educator, social worker, preacher, and occasionally conducts prayer services. Terry Weiner has held all of these roles in his time at Sage, including I would argue conducting prayer services in the guise of moral support and encouragement—sometimes Sage faculty meetings can feel like prayer services.

Traditionally, a person intending to be a rabbi obtains semicha (“rabbinic ordination”) after the completion of an arduous learning program in the codes of Jewish law. Dr. Weiner received his training in sociology at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

We often forget that those who take on difficult tasks deal with the gravity and sleepless nights required to make difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions. There is a Yiddish saying that illustrates this well:

No one knows whose shoe pinches except the person who walks in it. (Keyner veys nit vemen der shukh kvetsht, nor der vos geyt in im.)

I have no doubt that Dr. Weiner has felt the pinch of his shoes throughout his career as he has been willing to work with uncomfortable circumstances. A rabbi is the person those in the village go to in order to settle disputes. As a result the rabbi is looked to for his fairness, his ethics, his integrity, and his devotion to the principle of doing what is right. Dr. Weiner fits this bill.

There is another saying in Yiddish:

Don’t give me the honey and spare me the sting. (Shenk mir nit keyn honik un gib mir nit keyn bis.)

Dr. Weiner is not above giving the sweetness of the honey, but he is also a realist and lets you know about the pain of the sting. The US Dept of Agriculture recommends the following: “If you are stung by a honey bee, one of the most important things to do is not to panic.” Dr. Terry Wiener operates as a calm but realistic voice. Don’t panic.

In early Judaism, the term rabbi originally appeared as “reb” or master. In Hebrew, the suffix i means “my”. Later, the i was added in Hebrew to form rabbi. So a rabbi is “my master.”

Dr. Weiner has been that to so many throughout his career, and I know that for me personally he has been a teacher, a mentor, and a model. It is my great pleasure to introduce this year’s Phi Kappa Phi speaker, Rabbi Terry Weiner.

Respect and the $1.99 Burger Special

It’s the summer of 1973, the summer before my tenth birthday, and my family, like all good New York Jews in the early 70s, is spending the summer “in the mountains,” at a bungalow colony. The Pine Knoll Country Club isn’t really in the country nor is it really a club. It is a bungalow colony, one of dozens that dotted the Catskills in the 1970s, providing (mostly) Jewish families with the opportunity to escape the heat and humidity of New York City for July and August. I don’t know how they came to be called “colonies,” but the name reflects their tangential location on the outskirts of civilization as I then knew it. They were about an hour’s drive from our home in the Bronx. An hour! It may as well have been a day’s drive. It was another world, for me, at least, the New World.

One of the amenities at Pine Knoll was a kind of diner/eatery, a hamburger and ice cream joint open for lunch and dinner. On the day in question I walked to the place with fresh babysitting money from the previous evening still sizzling in my pocket. It was early afternoon the day after the job, and I had yet to eat lunch. My mother and siblings were otherwise occupied, so the usual tuna fish sandwich (on Wonder Bread with a piece of iceberg lettuce) lunch at the bungalow wasn’t an option.

I walked to the greasy but pleasant spoon, and entered with good food on my mind. No customers, with only the sound of the radio to fill its empty booths. The man behind the counter—I never knew whether he owned the place or merely worked there—was reading the day’s paper, undoubtedly looking at that night’s race card at nearby Monticello Raceway, only about 20 minutes away.  Always jovial, his white apron only mildly stained, he perpetually smoked what seemed to be a perpetual cigarette.
The best thing on the menu was the Burger Special. $1.99 for a hamburger (cheeseburgers were twenty cents more) with lettuce, tomato and pickle chips; a side of the freshest, crispiest crinkle cut fries ever cooked; and a freshly poured fountain Coca-Cola in a classic Coke glass. Oh—and big straws. Not the puny straws we find now, but straws with a larger circumference, allowing for more Coke per slurp, a decidedly more satisfying experience.  I recall a long footnote/tangent in Nicholson Baker’s fine first novel, The Mezzanine, where the narrator considers the aesthetic pleasures of a good straw and its buoyant action in a can or bottle of soda. He was spot on. Why did straws have to change? Seems like one of the only places to still get “classic” straws today is McDonald’s, and who wants to eat at McDonald’s?


I made my way towards the counter, and the man asked, “what would you like, sir?” and there it was.

The first time anyone had ever called me “sir.”

I was about to purchase a lunch that I ordered, with my own money, food that would be specially prepared just for me. And now this man I knew only peripherally addressed me as “sir.”  It was a sign, a sign of respect, a sign of entry. With that address, I felt, I was being welcomed into the land of adulthood, the land of those who order and pay for their own food. He could just has easily have dismissed me as just a kid; he could have been polite but condescending, the way most adults treat most children. At ten, however, I had apparently already acquired an air of sophistication and ennui.

To this day, “sir” is for me a sign of respect, and it is a word I often use to address those who, particularly, might not receive the respect every individual deserves. Whether that is the janitor who cleans my office, the driver of the airport shuttle taking me to a conference, or the teenager delivering a pizza to my door. I have always had a soft spot for someone who is passionate about his or her job, concerned about doing it well, and enthusiastic about what might otherwise seem trivial or banal.

On this summer day, I placed my order—the burger special—and knew that it would take at least 15 minutes. No “fast food” here. This food was cooked-to-order, and this particular food was to be cooked just for me. And I could sit at the counter and watch the entire ritual if I chose to. Instead, I walked over to the ice cream freezer case, as the radio blared the first notes of Paul Simon singing about “those nice bright colors” in “Kodachrome.” And this indeed was a Kodachrome moment in my childhood development. It was filled with the nice bright colors of youth. Life for me at ten was dynamic and the color had just been introduced. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was the year we got our first color television set. The Kodachrome colors of youth, of a world unfolding for the first time, of the beauty and the horror, of the tyranny and the triumphs of growing up.

Paul Simon was right—everything does look worse in black and white.

Flash forward.

Today, forty years later, I’m standing on the front porch of my house—my wife and daughter still asleep inside—in the cool of an August morning. A black car comes down the street, stopping along the way. It finally arrives in front of my house, and a six or seven year old boy hops out of the driver’s side back seat, runs up to the porch, and hands me the day’s New York Times.

“Helping dad out today, eh?” I asked.

He nodded silently.

“Thank you, sir,” I say to him.

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known

I was recently asked, by administration, to write a “research agenda.” The following, with some extraneous detail omitted, is what I came up with.

My research philosophy (indeed, my life) embraces the concept of the public intellectual. I have always described my work as being in the history of ideas,  as having one foot in the past and one foot in the future; thus, my recent book on the Glossa Ordinaria examines a vital medieval text in the light of contemporary hypertext theory and cognition research. In fact, most of my work is an attempt to negotiate the present with the past.

In the 1940s, the French thinker André Gide said, “Croyez ceux qui cherchent la vérité, doutez de ceux qui la trouvent; doutez de tout, mais ne doutez pas de vous-même” (“Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it”). I have cherished this phrase (in fact, it has been posted on my office door). I do believe that our careers as academics, as intellectuals, involve a constant search for the truth. However, I do not believe that we can ever completely and finally discover that truth (or all truths) and that those who claim to have done so appear to have given up on the quest.

In “The American Scholar” Ralph Waldo Emerson argued for an intellectual who, while enriched by the past, is not bound by books. His most important activity is action. My scholarship moves from speaking and writing exclusively about my discipline to relating that work to the social, cultural and political worlds around it. This has been accomplished well in the last hundred years by Rachel Carson, Lewis Thomas, Stephen Jay Gould, Freeman Dyson, Susan Sontag, and Steven Pinker. Currently, in the humanities, one thinks of Stephen Greenblatt as the model par excellence. Greenblatt, a Yale-trained Renaissance scholar, has not only garnered widespread praise for his scholarship within the discipline of Renaissance culture (he almost single-handedly founded the school of New Historicism), but he has written two Pulitzer-prize winning books for W.W. Norton, one on Shakespeare and the most recent, on Lucretius. He has held high positions on boards of many of the field’s professional organizations. More importantly, I believe, he is a sought-after commentator and speaker, from the Modern Language Association to National Public Radio to CNN. If there is a twenty-first century model of the public intellectual, we need look no further than Stephen Greenblatt, and it is Greenblatt on whom, in many ways, I have modeled my own professional career. My project is to bring the insights of the Middle Ages and Renaissance to both the scholarly world and the general public.

Certainly, Emerson encouraged the type of intellectual curiosity I have embraced my entire adult life. Ergo, my reading is wide and varied, beyond the disciplinary boundaries of literature, evoking and provoking. Emerson called that spirit “boundless.” That type of training was instilled in me in graduate school by Angus Fletcher, a brilliant mind, as comfortable discussing seventeenth-century English poetry as he is with classical philosophy.

In some way, my life’s goal as a scholar is to take the raw data of information, which we have so much of today, and filter and mold it into the stuff of knowledge and understanding. Emerson again: “The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again.” Is this not what we continue to do as scholars almost two centuries after Emerson? My research, in all aspects, is a filter for the world’s noise, an attempt to push information through the sieve of understanding. My research instincts are spurred on by a healthy sense of doubt, of the kind practiced by René Descartes in the Meditations, and of the kind practiced by Albert Einstein in his search for meaning in the universe. A problem is posed; a question arises; the search for an answer involves a scavenger hunt. Convinced the answer is to be uncovered, I cast the net of my research wide, continually drawing it back to discover the prizes captured.

Reading inspires me. Book learning is not a stand-in for action. Thus, my research brings me to conferences to deliver papers and to local community groups to speak or serve on boards. I have presented at the American Academy of Religion and have served as a judge for a local Shakespeare recitation competition in Albany, NY. I am an editor of The Shakespeare Standard, and I have served on the board of the Capital Library District Council and am working with the Troy YWCA in an effort to get men on their board. I was also recently invited to serve on the editorial board of the International Journal for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities. The public intellectual involves himself both inside and outside of the academy, and I view this work as a way of expanding my scholarship to the greater community—academic and non-academic.

I have also begun to work in the extensive scholarship of teaching and learning. After Dr. Deb Lawrence and I developed a course in the Literature of Mathematics/the Mathematics of Literature, we presented on it at the Teaching Professor Conference 2012; we are currently working on an article on the course, and we will present again on collaborative teaching in the humanities and sciences at a conference in Plattsburgh this Spring. I will present alone this May at the Teaching Professor Conference 2013 on my course “Hamlet in Hyperspace: Writing, Technology, and the Future of Ideas.” Additionally, I am working with Dr. Nina Marinello to develop an interdisciplinary course in science and humanities on the literature and culture of immigration, in which students will examine the food, the literature, and the culture of those migrating to the United States between 1890 and 1950. Collaborative and interdisciplinary teaching are important components of my career; the “Hamlet in Hyperspace” course, for example, touches on literature, writing, philosophy, and technology.

My research plan for the next five years involves continued study of the ways in which the Middle Ages and Renaissance have influenced and, in a sense, invented our contemporary world. As noted earlier, I am planning a book-length project on Augustine examining the ways in which Augustine created the modern concept of self; the essay currently in-progress is the first piece of that project. In some ways, it continues the incredible work done by Brian Stock, a University of Toronto medieval comparative literature scholar, who is now retired, and James J. O’Donnell, the preeminent editor of Augustine (currently Provost at Georgetown), both of whom I correspond with. I also expect to continue contributing to the scholarship of teaching, either through articles on pedagogical approaches to teaching interdisciplinary courses or through continued editing of medieval and Renaissance texts for the classroom. Another future goal, to be begun in the next few years, is a compilation of essays that look at each of the five senses, first in the context of their classical and medieval discussion and then as our understanding of them has shifted in the twenty-first century. I have begun the first section—on hearing—and the work so-far has been posted to my blog. This work of public scholarship will form a bridge between the academy and the community in much the same way as a Greenblatt or a Sacks.

In my role of public intellectual, I see as integral the exchange of ideas, whether between academics or with students. My teaching has and will continue to inform my scholarship and vice versa. While some of the activities of the public intellectual are to be noted as service to the institution and the community, I believe that such service is informed by scholarship and activity in the academy. In the prologue to his book Hamlet in Purgatory, Stephen Greenblatt explains the personal connection he has with the material, noting his father’s “obsession” throughout his life with death. In my first course in Christian Theology (at Fordham University), Father Baldwin explained the Trinity to a room of twenty-nine Catholics and one Jew. The Jew was terribly confused by what he heard, but a spark was ignited. My academic life continues to re-ignite that spark each day, both in my study, in the classroom and in the community.