_God Hates_ reviewed in _Contemporary Sociology_

On a Facebook group about higher ed that I belong to, a member asked us to share our favorite part of our jobs. There’s a lot to love about this gig, but, for me, one of the best parts is getting to be part of a conversation with scholars whose work you admire. So that’s why it was such a joy for me to read J.E. Sumerau’s review of God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right in Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews recently. Sumerau is a professor of sociology at the University of Tampa whose work on religion and sexuality is incredibly helpful, I think, in understanding power and abuse within religious settings (You can find links to articles here.)

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Here’s an excerpt from the review, and you can find the full text of it here:

The outline and examination of the similarities and differences between conservative Christian movements and groups allows Barrett-Fox to move beyond the spectacle of the Westboro Baptist Church and connect its operations to broader patterns in contemporary society. This is made all the more interesting—and potentially useful in classrooms of varied levels—because the analysis is embedded within intricately constructed thick descriptions of events and political activities, extensive interview quotes from various sources, and multi-faceted historical aspects of the Westboro Baptist Church itself. The use of this data throughout the argument reaches an impressive zenith in Chapter Four—wherein Westboro Baptist Church and the religious right are placed in comparison—and Chapter Five, wherein the author offers an intricate discussion of theological, national, and civil liberty conflicts on a broader scale.

Beyond the broader analytic offerings and possibilities of the work, I was also struck by just how well-written and easy to read this text is. Barrett-Fox undertakes a very complicated project here but does so in an easily accessible writing style that I would feel comfortable assigning in undergraduate courses. The use of examples—from federal laws to local disputes, from sermon topics to private interviews, from broader social movements to specific Westboro Baptist Church campaigns—does a lot of the work by allowing illustrations, rather than overly academic extrapolation, to do most of the talking. As a result, the book reads more like a mainstream non-fiction discussion of the questions many people have asked about Westboro Baptist Church, contemporary America, and the religious right than the average academic text. This readability may be problematic for people less familiar with religious and sexual scholarship, as they may wish for more background, theorizing, or structure in places. At the same time, this approach makes the book much easier for those interested specifically in this topic and for wider audiences coming to the subject from different perspectives and academic levels. I would thus not be surprised to see this book do well beyond specifically academic, political, or religious audiences and contexts.

Overall, Barrett-Fox has constructed an intriguing and well-written text that both sheds light on one of the most controversial conservative Christian groups in recent memory and outlines the ways this group fits into broader American political and religious patterns, histories, and movements. As such, the work may be an entertaining and interesting read for scholars seeking to make sense of the ongoing political battles between religious groups and minority communities throughout our current political structure. At the same time, Barrett-Fox’s efforts here may provide starting points for ongoing and emerging critical approaches to sociologies of religion as well as greater integration of sexual and political concerns into the scientific study of religion and religious movements.

If you haven’t picked up a copy, today would be a good day. University Press of Kansas is having a sale that ends tomorrow; enter HOT30 as a discount code at checkout to get 30% of any book from the press. (While you are there, check out the press’s books on presidential history. You might find something in there to give you hope or comfort yet!)


A little reminder about why I teach

Above, a note from a student in introduction to sociology ends with “It sounds strange but I have enjoyed reviewing/redeciding everything I know/believe. Thank you!” It doesn’t sound strange at all! 

_Martyrs Mirror: A Social History_ reviewed

I recently got the opportunity to review David Weaver-Zercher’s Martyrs Mirror: A Social History, from Johns Hopkins University Press for the journal American Studies. I think the book will interest many of our readers. And if you’ve read it, please let me know what you think!

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You can find my full review here: _Martyrs Mirror_ review


Listening to Those Who Hate: A Central Educational Challenge of Our Time4

A Gathering for Educative Healing

co-sponsored by the Holistic Education Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association and the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning of the National Council of Teachers of EnglishApril 12, 2018, 7-9:30 pm

The Open Center for Holistic Learning

Room 3-C, 22 E. 30th St (between Fifth and Madison), NYC

Donations of $10 (or more) for seats must be reserved in advance, and a small number of free standing room spots may also be reserved

Listening to Those Who Hate:

A Central Educational Challenge of Our Time4

The election of Donald Trump—and the new power and recognition it has given to those consciously and unconsciously practicing hateful ideologies—has raised certain hitherto relatively dormant questions to great educational prominence: How can we recognize, without empowering, the voices of hate in classrooms and elsewhere? How can we have compassion and understanding for those who refuse those very things to others? How can we educatively move those who hate to soften their hearts and open their minds? And, not least important, how can we engage in the excruciating emotional work of attending to the dark and fragmented spots of the human heart while maintaining our own sanity and wholeness?

We can now see more clearly how critically important it is for us to educate ourselves about hate in order be able to educate others out of it. But these questions are too new for anyone to pretend they have the definitive answers to them. The session will begin with a series of short presentations. But most of it will be given over to spontaneous and, we hope, heartfelt dialogue among participants about their encounters with various forms of hatred in their classrooms and elsewhere, and their thoughts as to how we might learn to hear one another anew in these new times. After the initial talks, we will ask the group to share in pairs the experiences and questions that brought them to the session, before joining together again in a large group dialogue for the final portion of the session.

Rhetorical Listening as a Pedagogy for Re-Uniting the Now Disunited States of America

Abigail Michelini, Indiana University of Pennsylvania


Understanding Hate: What the Academic Field of Hate Studies Has Shown that Everyone Now Needs to Know

John Shuart, Portland State University and Hate Studies Policy Research Center


Some Ways to Educate People Out of Hate and to Counteract the Ways They Are Educated Into It

Rebecca Barrett-Fox, Arkansas State University and the Journal of Hate Studies


Empathy for Gender Difference to Circumvent Hatred

Greg Bynum, SUNY, New Paltz

Learning from Hate: The Ethics and Politics of Engagement with Enemies

Rachel Wahl, The University of Virginia


The Crisis in Authority Is Everywhere—As Is the Opportunity for a Renewed Democracy: Confronting the Problems of the Personal and the Political Together, by Listening in Hope for a Newly Personalized and Holistic Democracy to Be Generated through a Politics of Interpersonal Attention and Meaning

Bruce Novak, The Foundation for Ethics and Meaning, the Holistic Education SIG of AERA, and AEPL, The Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning of the National Council of Teachers of English

To reserve your place:

  1. Pay by credit card at aepl.org at $10 or $25, using the appropriate button.
  2. If you wish to reserve seats not in units of $10 or $25, email organizer Bruce Novak at brucejnovak@gmail.com.
  3. To reserve a free standing room spot, email Bruce Novak at brucejnovak@gmail.com. 

Donations over $10 per person are tax deductible gifts to the Holistic Education SIG of AERA.

Spaces will be reserved in the order of receipt of email or credit card payment

We expect to sell out quickly, so please act quickly!

Dear Members of the Committee: Stop Asking for Letters of Recommendations

Dear Members of the Selection Committee,

I write to you to offer my enthusiastic support for you to stop asking for letters of recommendation for jobs; placement into your graduate, medical, and law program or summer camp; and grants, fellowships, scholarships, and internships. I appreciate the hard work that committees such as yours do and am grateful for your thoughtful consideration of this proposal, which I consider in the top 5% of brilliant ideas I’ve had to improve higher education in the seven years I have served as a professor.

I have now written more than one billion such letters, and I know that many of you have written far more.  Across our profession, we are dedicating hours we could be earning tenure or checking Facebook to drafting letters of support which we all know are exaggerations of the excellence of our students, who, despite this, really are more excellent than we could ever describe in words. In this process, we become like a couple with one chronically tardy partner; the punctual person sets all the clocks in the house 10 minutes fast to help get the other person out the door on time, and the late partner quickly assumes that all the clocks are set 15 minutes fast. (In this metaphor, you are the partner who set the clock ten minutes fast, and I am the one who is rounding up all the children, turning off the stove, going back inside for the diaper bag, and packing the snacks while you sit in the car and honk for me to hurry up, you lazy jerk.)  Outstanding, best, excellent, exceptional, and other superlatives quickly lose meaning when we are talking about a pool of candidates who are highly qualified and impressive and when letter writers face immense pressure to help their students and colleagues secure jobs in a market facing artificial scarcity.

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For realsies, let’s stop wasting our time. 

This last fact, unfortunately, pits me against you.  Your job, as the selection committee, is to hire the best candidate you can secure for the job you have. (I am perhaps being generous here. Maybe your job is to hire the Chancellor’s wife or to hire the person who will do the job well enough but be unlikely to do it so well as to get other job offers that would allow him to leave. Or maybe you are planning to hire someone who is qualified but not so good as to increase the pressure that you will have to increase your productivity, make you look bad, or one day compete for the sweet program director gig you’ve been sucking up for far too long. But let’s just go with the idea that you are here to hire the best person for the job.)

I do not care if you hire the best person for the job. Indeed, if we are at competing institutions, I may want you to hire someone who is terrible. Instead, I want you to hire the person I recommend. If that person has earned my support in getting this job (so, no one who is grossly unqualified, has a history of abusing authority, has an open Title IX investigation against them, etc.), I’m going to tell you that they are the best person for the job because my loyalty is with them, not you.

My goal is to get my students hired because this improves the reputation of my department and university. (It also helps when I am contacting graduates for donations.) I try to get my colleagues and friends hired or help them win grants because it is better for me to have employed, powerful, connected friends and colleagues. It’s even more useful to have those people owe me a major favor, like helping them get employed. Under these circumstances, why would you even ask me for a letter? I do not have your best interests at heart. Ideally, I would like you to overpay my friends to work for you.

You want me to supply a letter (No—hundreds of letters), which means I am doing your work of figuring out who is the best candidate for your job. Unsurprisingly, I prefer not to do this. Given that the academic job market is in a chronic state of crisis and that a dwindling percent of highly qualified applicants will get good jobs (or major grants), you could pick a candidate at random from your hundreds of applicants and probably still get a good hire. Your department and students will likely be fine with whoever you hire, and if you can’t see the red flags for people who are toxic, my letter won’t help. (Plus, I just wouldn’t write a letter for such a person. If I’m writing the letter at all, it means that I don’t think the candidate is going to embezzle, sexually harass anyone, or pass student-athletes through non-existent courses.) Given that your job call is ridiculously narrow and the job duties as described will immediately change upon hiring, your salary is insultingly low, and your interview process is pointless, a lottery system would probably work fine.

You invoke “professional courtesy” as a reason to burden your colleagues with writing countless letters you may never even read. (At a minimum, don’t ask for such letters until a candidate has survived the initial pass.) This is not a “professional courtesy” but an act of sabotage that prevents me from using my time more meaningfully, such as watching those videos of average citizens saving animals who have fallen into icy waters.

I propose that your committee decides which characteristics of a candidate are most important and find ways of discovering if those in your pool possess them without asking someone who has an inherent conflict of interest for help. I don’t know exactly how that might work, but perhaps the overpaid people in HR could read the peer-reviewed research I should be writing right now to make a data-driven decision about how to hire people more efficiently. Some ideas: If you want someone with strong teaching experience, ask the candidate for a teaching portfolio. If you want someone who has won a lot of grants, ask them to list the grants they’ve won. If you want someone with connections to powerful advisors and mentors, ask them to provide contact information for such people, then you make the phone call and ask if the relationship is real.

In this market, you don’t need to hire someone based only on potential, and you can get the evidence you need to see if they are able to do the teaching or research without interrupting the nap I am taking in my office. If you have any concerns about the accuracy of the information presented in other parts of the application, then give me a call or drop me an automated email with a link to a simple form that asks me if I’d support this person in getting this job. Be sure that it includes the questions you actually care about and can’t assess via their writing sample, teaching portfolio, or CV: Will this person leave the copier jammed or the microwave filthy? Steal my GA hours? Invite me to MLM parties? Blow off office hours and leave me to explain to their students how to contact them? Show up late to meetings like they are the only person in the room who had to be pulled away from research to hear about how we’re all failing at whatever new task the assessment office has foisted on us?

And if you just can’t let the letter of recommendation go, I’ll still write one for you. I know someone who is the perfect fit for the position.

Dr. Barrett-Fox

PS. Of course, this is somewhat facetious. I do not nap in my office (though this is mostly because I work from home, so I can pop upstairs to my bedroom for a nap). And, as I make clear here, I only write letters for strong applicants, so if you have received one from me, it’s because I mean it, so you can trust it. And those who need letters of recommendation from me should not be discouraged from asking. This problem isn’t of your making, and I love re-visiting the successes of my friends, colleagues, and students, so please ask! And of course I want every department and program and university to be successful and the work of knowledge production requires cooperation, not competition, really, you get the point, right?

PPS. There are a hundred other reasons to object to letters of recommendation as an early-stage job application requirement, including racism, sexism, and ableism.

The Dissent Mix Tape

I don’t love everything in it, but I love it: The troublemakers at the American Studies Association, which is set to meet in a few weeks in Chicago, has a soundtrack: the Dissent Mixtape.  Check it out online, where you can listen and also read short reflections on what these songs mean to ASA scholars.  A highlight is new Rock N Roll Hall of Fame inductee Nina Simone’s work.


_God Hates_ Q & A with Righting America

It’s a real treat to visit with Susan Trollinger and William Trollinger at Righting America, who have a must-read blog on conservative Chrsitianity in America. Join the conversation about God Hates and, more broadly, why we should continue to study groups that can be hard to be around.


Image result for westboro baptist church buildingAbove, the exterior of Westboro Baptist Church. Vandals have spray painted “God hates the Phelps” on the church’s sign. 

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