The (ex-) sabbatical diary

Proving that I'm actually working …

Hitting the books

Well, not much to report. I have a few points to clear up, and instead of going straight into cyberspace, as I usually do these days, I went into the library and took out some old-fashioned books. You may remember them, they are made from paper.

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We are not quite at the point where an academic can do everything by grabbing pieces of text from online sources and rearranging them. A lot of older stuff has not been digitized yet. And in the humanities, showing that your work has continuity with older streams of thought remains important.

That’s an interesting point, actually. My wife is in Education, and it is fascinating to see how those guys insist that only the latest literature is of any worth. Don’t even bother to quote anything more than three years old. When I handed in my Ph.D. in Religious Studies back in 1999, one of my most central sources dated back to 1960, and not a single examiner ever raised the issue.

Getting there …

12573766_593358184146338_4486433864854759706_nOK, the first part of my article is done. It will be fiddled with more, but I now have a fairly consistent story about where online ordination came from, how big it is, and what kinds there are. I have created the first-ever typology of online ordination! <dislocates arm while patting self on shoulder>

Now comes the difficult bit. I need to make sense of this somehow, explain why there is a need for it. It must be problematized. We’ll see what we can do about that. In the meantime, here’s an offer you can’t refuse.




Oddly enough …

This article is developing weirdly.

Normally, what I do is write a 2-3 page mini-article containing my argument in its most bare-bones form. When that is done, I go back and add the introduction, the caveats, the ultimately irrelevant but fascinating little sidetracks and so on. Not to mention pumping it full of extraneous citations for that learned look. Yes, all that fluff boosts a two-page argument to a 15-page article. This is how the game is played.

But this time I can’t do that. I am introducing  something completely new. There is absolutely nothing in the academic literature about the religious aspects of online ordination. Zilch. Nada. Nichts.Lots on the legal aspects, but that does not interest me. So I can’t just refer to Pompies, P (2007) and expect my reader to get the background material there. I have to lay it all out myself. And my understanding of the topic changes as I find new (non-academic) sources. “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that, let me go back to the last page and change that before I forget.”

And so I am all over the place, working on 3 or 4 aspects simultaneously, and moving paragraphs around as I write them. Let me say a little prayer of thanks to the unknown programmer who invented the word processor. How did people work in the typewriter era when the only way to get your thoughts down was in a strictly linear way?

I wrote my first article by hand and had it typed out by a typist, so I had a foot in that era. No, not a foot, a toenail. My second article was written on a computer. Couldn’t imagine working without one now.

On our way …

Leroy is back at school, the temperature has returned to reasonable levels and I am up and running. Today I wrote about three pages of my Online Ordination article. Constant to-and-froing between Word, Mendeley and OneNote, checking if the websites I reference are still around. Ugh, my head is buzzing but the article is slowly taking shape. If I can keep this up, it should be in publishable form by the end of the month.

The problem I have is that this is something that has never been done before, so there is precious little from respectable academic sources to quote. It’s all coming from websites and magazines.

Haven’t heard from the Oxford Symposium yet. They are supposed to organise the publication of the symposium papers, but so far I don’t even know if this will be for a Proceedings or for a special edition of a journal. Or the reference method required, or the due date for all this. Oh well, I can always send it elsewhere.

And then … the first guy to write about something is usually wrong, wrong, wrong.I can look forward to ten years of PhD students telling me how wrong I was. But that boosts my citation rate too …

The big meltdown

Didn’t get very much done today. With the temperature in Pretoria touching 40° Celsius we are all in survival mode. Got some work done on my Mendeley database. Will try to do some actual writing tonight.

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Rrrrrating time


Today I finalised and submitted my NRF rating application. For those outside the loop, the National Research Foundation is a creation of the South African Government that classifies researchers between A1 (International household name) to C3 (Nice try).

I detest the system. It attempts to quantify something that does not need quantifying. It was set up for the Natural Sciences, where they are always needing more money for their test tubes and their linear accelerators, and is a bad fit for the humanities, where  we need a well-stocked library and time to think.

I’ve avoided it as long as I could. But “as long as I could” has arrived. South African universities are one by one caving in to the NRF. I know at least two where you don’t get promoted beyond Senior Lecturer without a rating. Unisa has not joined their ranks yet, but the writing is on the wall. Increasingly the forms that are the bane of every professor’s life ask if you have been rated.

So, getting rated will get Unisa off my back. Even if my application is turned down, I will have three years before I can apply again, during which I can tell Unisa “Yes, I applied, didn’t I?” And if I do get rated (Yes, I’ll settle for a C3) that gives me a five-year break.

There’s a bit of money involved too, which does not hurt.


Lots of preparation before I get into the serious business of writing. My Mendeley database is in a sad state of disrepair, so first thing on the schedule is to start going through my “fix these” folder and adding proper metadata to the the 300-plus books and articles in there that need them. 20 a day should see me through.

I adhere to the pack rat school of thought. There are nearly 10 000 PDFs in my Mendeley database right now. Then there are another 17 000 e-books in Calibre. Most of those are novels, but some will have to be moved to Mendeley. There are links in Evernote that would be better served if they were accessible from mendeley, too.

And then there are the old-fashioned printed books and the printed journals that precede the digital age. My research process these days is pretty much digital-first, and increasingly, that’s where it ends. So those books and journals are doing me no good at all standing on the shelves, even if they make the lounge look donders geleerd. I need to take them out and start putting at least the titles and publication details into Mendeley, with hopefully a few tags and an abstract. Behold a major part of my 2016 …

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I’ve told Mary that it will all be back on the bookshelves. I may have forgotten to add “by December”.

“Is that all the books you have, Michel?” Not even close. I have books in languages I can’t even read … yet. I have books dating back to the 19th century and books printed last month. I have books by geniuses, and books by charlatans. These are just the books I am most likely to want to quote from.

I’m not likely to get much actual writing done until Leroy is back at school, anyway, so this is a good way to get started.

It will be worth while, though. Once you go reference manager, you don’t go back. Change your mind about where to submit your article? Press a button and your references are now in AMA rather than Harvard style. Need to find everything you have on the Dalai Lama? Enter a search term and the list pops up. Using this year to get my database in order will boost my productivity for years to come.

What else? Well, regular life does not end just because I’m on sabbatical, so I will be maintaining my Flipboard magazines (If you are not following my mag Religion Newsflips, you should be, by the way).

Bt there is more to life than work, work, work. I have a series of flash fiction stories to complete. I write software for an obscure hobbyist operating system. That’s right, my idea of relaxing at night is to get back in front of the same computer and push out more words and code. Sad, I know.

I need to join a gym this year. Now that I am no longer walking a kilometer to the office car park, and climbing stairs to that meeting on the eighth floor, I can’t end up sitting on my arse eighteen hours a day.