All blog posts: by date RSS feed

What makes for a good academic mentor?

I was asked to write up what I thought made someone a good academic mentor, in less than a page. Since I had to write it up quickly, here it is for further thought. This list is partial and based on my own experience, but here is what I’ve observed from watching the good mentors that I have had.

  1. What got you here is not what will get them there. Too much of mentorship is the mentor describing their own career path. While there is value in hearing other people’s stories as a quick route for understanding how the academy works, the chances that someone else will follow the same career path are nil. A good mentor helps someone else find their own way forward, based on their values, interests, and goals, as well as the changing circumstances in the academy.
  2. Where you wanted to go is not where they want to go. Too much of mentorship is the mentor trying to reproduce him- or herself via the person being mentored. But other people’s career goals—not to mention how their career fits into their personal life—can and should be very different than your own.
  3. People can find their own answers. Generally speaking, almost all of the time people can work out what their own values, interests, priorities, strengths, and so forth are. They seldom need suggestions of what to do or even how to do it. What they need is someone to talk to who genuinely listens and can help them figure those things out for themselves. Occasionally they need someone they trust to give them “permission” to do what they’ve already figured out.
  4. Explain the boring stuff. Many things about an academic career are not hard: they are hard to learn. For instance, the mechanics of grant writing are not so difficult, but they are completely opaque the first time someone does it. One of the few times when a mentor should talk more than listen or ask questions is in explaining the routine, boring things that are hidden knowledge that block people (especially women and minorities) from success.
  5. Share failures as well as successes. When I was in grad school, I got a “revise and resubmit” from a journal then never resubmitted, because I thought that was just a polite way for the editor to say, “Get lost.” I’ve used this example to illustrate how the “pipeline” of academic research works … and to show grad students how much smarter they are than me!
  6. Open doors. Whenever possible, make introductions that benefit the person being mentored.
  7. Informal mentorship trumps formal mentorship. I have had good formal mentors, but their significance was secondary to some truly generous and wise informal mentors. My point is not to critique the idea of formal mentorship. But I do think that formal mentorship is a temporary relationship to help people until they find informal mentors for themselves—which is a great outcome.
  8. Never take credit. The successes of the person being mentored belong only to them, never to the mentor. However, some bragging on their behalf is allowed.

Setting up a new Mac with dotfiles and Homebrew bundle

I recently had to set up a new Mac for work. Generally speaking, this happens so infrequently that it is worth setting up the new machine from scratch, rather than using Migration Assistant. I like to avoid carrying over the cruft that comes from several years of a constantly updated development environment, and all work files are in iCloud Drive or GitHub anyway. But still, that leaves a fair bit of set up to do to get things working correctly.

For a long time I’ve kept my dotfiles in a GitHub repository. This sets up configuration for ZSH, Neovim, Go, R, Homebrew, LaTeX, Git, and the like. While a lot of it is Mac specific, the shell and text editor configuration work fine on Linux machines, so I can easily bring settings to servers. This makes customizing my development environment fairly painless. (And Visual Studio Code now has great settings sync, so that takes care of itself.)

Of course not everything can go in a public GitHub repository. Recently, I’ve taken to having a single file (~/.env.zsh), which contains project and service credentials, as well as machine-specific settings, stored as environment variables. For example, all the projects that I create pull their database connection settings from environment variables. And setting the number of cores available on a particular makes scaling up parallel processing easier. This file, like SSH keys, is easy to move over to a new machine.

Some machine-specific settings from my environment file.

Some machine-specific settings from my environment file.

What was new to me this time was using Homebrew bundles for installing software and dependencies. While I’ve used Homebrew for a long time, I recently learned from a blog post by Casey Liss that Homebrew has for a while now supported creating a list of software to install. In addition to installing CLIs and other packages from Homebrew proper, and GUI applications as Homebrew Casks, it even supports (though not particularly reliably) installing applications from the Mac App Store.

So I set up a Brewfile for my work machine. This worked great for setting up the new machine, and it is nice to have an explicit record of the software that I need to have installed.

Syllabus for Capitalism and American Religion, fall 2020

Here is the syllabus for my class on “Capitalism and American Religion” this fall.

Church of God

For our work on the American Religious Ecologies project, we have to deal with the way that the federal Census Bureau cataloged religious groups by denomination. At a meeting this week, I conflated the denomination called “The Church of God in Christ Jesus” (an Adventist denomination) with “The Church of God in Christ” (the much larger and predominantly African American Pentecostal-Holiness denomination). Though my sharper colleagues were not confused, perhaps my mistake was understandable. Of the 214 denominations that were enumerated in the 1926 Census of Religious Bodies, here are the ones that have the phrase “Church of God” in their name:

  • Church of God (Adventist)
  • Church of God in Christ Jesus (Adventist)
  • Apostolic Overcoming Holy Church of God
  • Church of God (New Dunkers)
  • Church of God (Headquarters, Anderson, Ind.)
  • Church of God and Saints of Christ
  • Church of God in Christ
  • Church of God as Organized by Christ
  • Church of God (Apostolic)
  • Free Church of God in Christ
  • Church of God in Christ (Mennonite)
  • The (Original) Church of God
  • Church of God [or, Church of God (General Assembly)]

My favorite of these is The Church of God as Organized by Christ, though The (Original) Church of God gives them a run for their money.

I’d be willing to wager that very few historians of American religion could distinguish between each of these groups. And why should they be able to? The minutiae of denominational distinctives is not the stuff of historical understanding. And yet, I find that the Religious Bodies Censuses are a useful tool for focusing my attention on groups that I would otherwise pass by. Of these groups listed above, the only one that I can recall reading about in a work of academic history is Anthea Butler’s Women in the Church of God in Christ, unless you lump all the Adventists together. What are the stories of the others? As I tried to explain in an earlier post about a congregation in the Armenian Apostolic Church, you can learn a great deal from these census schedules about groups you might otherwise never pay attention to.

Course description for Religion and Capitalism

This coming fall I will be teaching a graduate seminar on “Religion and Capitalism in the United States.” I taught the course for the first time in spring 2015. I think eight significant books on the topic were published the same semester I was teaching it, and more since, so it will likely be a completely new syllabus.

My course description was due today. It’s a task that I wasn’t looking forward to, since these descriptions always seem contrived. But this one … this one I’m pretty happy with.

Religion and Capitalism in the United States

The relationship between religion and capitalism has long occupied historians of the United States, and before them it concerned the people whom historians study. In this class, you will meet many people whose religion led them to interact with capitalism in unexpected and unusual ways. You will meet the Puritans whose work ethic supposedly created capitalism, but who insisted on resting on the Sabbath; Moravian missionaries who made converts and money; slaves, slaveowners, and abolitionists who all claimed the Bible when reckoning with the capitalist system of slavery; a Protestant writer who insisted that Jesus was a businessman, and Catholics who believed Jesus called them to a kind of socialism; African American preachers who marketed their recorded sermons; Jews who mass-manufactured matzah and created Yiddish socialism; an industrialist who wrote The Gospel of Wealth, and laborers who created churches for the working class; nineteenth-century consumers who turned gift-giving into a ritual, and a twenty-first-century television personality who turned consumption into therapy; Christians whose faith turned them into environmentalists, and Christians who drilled for crude oil; converts who thought religion required poverty, and Prosperity Gospelers who thought it promised wealth. You will read primary sources from American history, secondary works in both religious history and the new history of capitalism, and excerpts from theorists of religion and capitalism. Through these readings and your own research project, you are invited make sense of this perpetual historical puzzle.

Farewell, faithful friend

When I arrived at GMU in 2014, I was issued a fifteen-inch Macbook Pro. Some people think that model is the best laptop ever made. I don’t know about that, but it was certainly the all-around best computer I’ve ever used. Not to get too sentimental, but a lot of my life happened on that computer. I wrote my first book on it. In creating this computational project, its capabilities were strained much harder than could be reasonably expected of a laptop assigned to a history department. I used it to help raise over 1 million dollars in grants. It took far too many flights to conferences and speaking gigs. And I distinctly remember using it to send out an announcement of the birth of my son from the hospital. After delaying the inevitable, I had to return the computer to the university at the end of last semester.

My 2014 Macbook Pro

A programming language and a sense of self

Recently I’ve been writing a fair bit of code in Go for a project I am working on. There is a lot to like about the language. But the thought occurred to me that maybe I like Go because it fits my (unjustifiably) beleaguered sense of self. If I used to like Ruby because it was fun, then maybe I like Go now for these reasons:

  • Go is a minimalist language. I would prefer that we just get down to work without any fuss.
  • Go is a high performance language for concurrency. There is too much to do and it all has to be done at once, so I guess we better do it quickly.
  • Go is strongly typed. Please tell me what you expect up front, then stick to it.
  • Go makes you check for errors explicitly (if err != nil). Bad things will inevitably happen, so I guess we better plan for them up front and do our best to deal with them.

Chronicling America OCR debatcher

This probably useful only for me, but I’ve made a small utility to help get the Chronicling America OCR files. The batch files from the Chronicling America bulk data downloads are .tar.bz2 files with both plain text and XML versions of the OCR text of the newspaper pages. The files are slow to unzip and dump tens of thousands of files, at least half of which you don’t need, onto your disk. So the utility process the batches without unzipping them and creates a CSV file with the text and the IDs used elsewhere in Chronicling America. You can get the utility at GitHub.

Goodman on the meaning of “tradition”

Martin Goodman in his History of Judaism:

The past 2,000 years have witnessed a great variety of expressions of Judaism. It would be straightforward to define the essence of Judaism in light of the characteristics valued by one or another of its branches in the present day, and to trade the development of those characteristics over the centuries, and such histories have indeed been written in past centuries. But it is evidently unsatisfactory to assume that what now seems essential was always seen as such. In any case it cannot be taken for granted that there was always a mainstream within Judaism and that the other varieties of the religion were, and should be, seen as tributaries. The metaphors of a great river of tradition, or of a tree with numerous branches, are seductive but dangerous, for the most important aspects of Judaism now may have little connection with antiquity. It is self-evident, for instance, that the central liturgical concern of 2,000 years ago—the performance of sacrificial worship in the Jerusalem Temple—has little to do with most forms of Judaism today.

Goodman’s questioning of the metaphors for tradition is helpful. While there is a place for finding the origins of traditions, as Goodman goes on to explain, the discontinuities in the history of Judaism in Goodman’s case or the history of Christianity in mine are almost more striking, and harder to craft into a historical narrative.

The most interesting tech company of 2018

After thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that the most interesting tech company of 2018 was … Microsoft? My formative experiences with computers came in the 1990s, and even though the first computer my family had was a Windows PC, I imbibed anti-Microsoft sentiment in my youth. That attitude only hardened once I came to do much of my work in a way that requires a *nix system. My new-found appreciation for the company comes as a surprise, but let me make my case.

  • Xbox. I went about fifteen years without playing video games, skipping every console from the Super NES to Xbox One, only recently returning to playing on the Xbox platform. Whatever problems Microsoft may have had with this generation of consoles, they obviously righted the ship in 2018. From the Xbox One X, which is a phenomenal piece of hardware, to the studio acquisitions, to the backwards compatibility program which shows an appreciation for their history and which allows latecomers like me to catch up, Microsoft has been more interesting than any other gaming company, though the Nintendo Switch follows close behind. Since my employer provides me with one of Apple’s frightfully expensive computers, I likely spend more of my own money on Microsoft than on any other tech company.
  • Visual Studio Code. In 2018, Visual Studio Code became my primary text editor instead of Vim. Vim will always have a place in my heart and my work, and I can’t imagine using any text editor that doesn’t have Vim keybindings. But Code’s IDE-like features work much better than even a highly customized Vim. I have flirted with other modern text editors like Sublime Text and Atom, but Visual Studio Code’s performance and features are much better.
  • Windows Subsystem for Linux. Maybe Windows 10 is good; maybe it’s a mess. I don’t know and I don’t care. But the Windows Subsystem for Linux has made my life better even though I don’t use it. Almost all of my digital history work requires a *nix system. But students show up in class with Windows machines and it is hard to support them. Windows Subsystem for Linux has helped a great deal by giving them a bona fide Linux terminal that they can use with only some fuss.
  • GitHub. Microsoft bought GitHub in 2018 and they haven’t screwed it up. As far as I can tell, the only substantial change is that GitHub users now get free private repositories. That was probably a bad move since people will be more likely to keep their software private instead of making it public. But honestly, I intend to make a lot of my half-baked repositories private when I get a chance, so it’s hard to find fault.
  • Programming languages. Microsoft has been doing interesting things with R for a while now. I don’t use most of it, except for a few packages here and there, but they do make the ecosystem stronger. If I had to do anything with R in the cloud, I would probably try Azure. It also helps with teaching that R’s support for Windows is strong, though that is more a virtue of the R core team than of Windows. Recently I have been getting back into JavaScript, but via TypeScript, a Microsoft-created superset of JavaScript. I like it so far, since it addresses much of what is ugly about JavaScript. Microsoft also seems to be a strong supporter of Go, a Google-created language that I have been dabbling with.
  • Microsoft Word. After years of avoiding all things Word (including a few tense moments with the publisher of my book), I finally broke down and installed it on my work computer. You know what? As long as you aren’t writing in Word and are just commenting on other people’s documents, it’s not that bad.

That’s an entirely personal case, of course. But in terms of where I spend my money and what I use to do my work, Microsoft made more of a play in 2018 than any of the other tech giants.

All blog posts: by date RSS feed