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When do the rules of writing matter?

“All teachers are English teachers.” This phrase was, as I remember it, one of many irritating things said to my father by his managers during his career as a secondary school science teacher. As I understood it as a teenager, it was used to justify asked him to mark not just the scientific content of homework, but also to comment on the spelling and grammar of every answer.

I thought of it today because I was peer-reviewing a journal article, and had just finished reading and annotating a draft PhD thesis, and was thinking about jokes I might make on Twitter about what Quakers might put in our new Book of Discipline. Generally, this is an area in which I am very lucky – the patterns of speech and writing which are characteristic of my background are also regarded as very close to ‘standard English’, at least in Britain. If I just write whatever occurs to me, most people will regard me as ‘correct’ (and my girlfriend will tease me about sending what she regards as overly-correct text messages). I also enjoy writing, and I think about it and practise a lot, all of which helps me to improve. Even so, there are some mistakes I still can’t avoid making, or things I can’t be sure about – practice or practise? I’d have to look it up. Again.

Knowing that, I aim to be open to other people’s writing styles, and to get the right one for the situation. Blogging is not Twitter is not messenger is not a journal article is not a conference paper and so on, and txt spk is just a form of communication, not a harbinger of the death of the English language. I aim not to form excessively negative (or positive!) judgements about people just because of the way they write. I still find that it leaves an impression, though – when I found an apostrophe (confession: I needed spell-check for the word ‘apostrophe’… but) when I found one in a non-standard place in the first line of an article, it did make me wonder about the rest. I don’t think it affected my final opinion on the whole piece – but then I would think that, wouldn’t I? Maybe it did. I’d certainly encourage the author to ‘correct’ it before publication.

Another confession: blog posts are a genre of writing in which I often set out without knowing where I’m going to end up. This post could end with a recommendation – make sure you are communicating in a clear and contextually appropriate way, kids! But it could end with questions – which rules should apply where? is someone about to remind me about their rules against starting sentences with ‘but’ or in favour of capitalisation after a question mark, even mid-sentence? is it time for academia, and perhaps other places, to be less picky about issues (like the grocer’s apostrophe) which don’t affect communication? if groups want to be more inclusive (like the Quakers and the new book), should we accept, or even actively seek out, things which are written in less-traditional styles?

I like questions. Let’s go with that.

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Keeping cradle Quakers by making room to lean in?

Sam Barnett-Cormack blogged recently about the idea of a Quaker Rumspringa. It might work for some people – I don’t want to put anyone off from trying it if it might help!

On the other hand, I tried something like it and only lasted a week or two; for me, it was much more effective to ‘lean in’ to Quakerism. I already had a faith community and I wanted to be a full and active member of it. I didn’t always feel this approach was welcomed, though, by the communities I was trying to join. That might be because I’m a shitty person that nobody wants to have around – and in a way that answer is fine, because it would just be about me and not a structural or widespread problem. Or it might be because people already have a picture that ‘those young things’ (by which they might mean everyone from about fifteen to perhaps forty) shouldn’t really be in a Quaker meeting. I should say here that this does not apply evenly across all Quaker meetings – some have been much better than others about involving me as a young adult and almost all find a way in the end, but not always before my hand hurts from knocking on the door.

A few years ago, when a book about women in the workplace was published under the title “Lean In” (Wikipedia link because this is NOT a book recommendation), I agreed with the many critics who said this didn’t always work and wasn’t good advice, in fact that it encouraged an unjust pattern in which some people have to work harder than others – and I recognised the technique I was using on Quaker meetings. Here are some of the methods I have used to try and gain respect in Quaker meetings:

  • Turning up every week, diligently, with minimal regard for practicality, my health, or the health of other people (e.g. attending while contagious with a cold)
  • Volunteering for anything which can be volunteered for and trying to do it not only well but outstandingly in the hopes of being noticed and trusted in future (including ignoring other people who could do it and irrespective of whether I genuinely felt led to the work)
  • Using educational privilege (which I have in buckets through a combination of brain wiring, class privilege, and luck) to overcome some of the ways I was disparaged as immature (this can be unethical and in any case it only works until it doesn’t: hello anti-intellectualism!)
  • Being stubborn and pushing back (as in: “I’m not a Young Friend, I’m a mung bean” – I grow best under pressure)
  • Shouting into the void and waiting to see if there’s any reply (which is the essence of blogging)
  • A form of respectability politics – trying not to do things ‘young people’ stereotypically do, such as sit on the floor, give computer advice, or be visibly energetic

Some of these come to me naturally – I’d have educational privilege anyway, and I deploy it in other circumstances to try and overcome sexism and (to a lesser extent) biphobia (and, although I try and avoid it, to bolster my white, cis, and other forms of privilege). Some had excellent outcomes – volunteering for whatever was going led me onto a Quaker Quest core team, which supported me in speaking out about my Quakerism, which led to my moment of convincement, or rather realising that I was already convinced enough (that is, it directly addressed the issue Sam is addressing in his blog post). Other things are more difficult – I love the internet and a desire that people stop assuming I use social media all the time is not enough to make me actually decrease my use of social media. More to the point, though, I wish I chose to do these things from love or because I was led or even just wanted to, and not because I felt I had to prove myself because of my age. I was working with a Quaker group recently in which the youngest member chose to sit on the floor. I felt a spike of real anger about that – how dare she let the side down by conforming to stereotype! – before realising how completely that feeling is an artefact of the way I have felt compelled to behave in Quaker groups in order to earn respect. It’s not even that I especially want to sit on the floor. It’s that I know I am more open to being patronised if I do.

I’m not advocating any of these methods. Some of them have appeared to work for me, but people shouldn’t have to ‘lean in’ and make a special effort in order to be counted as a full member of the Quaker community. They require luck as well. (And some of them encourage people to exceptionalise me, focusing on my particular talents or circumstances, rather than seeing the broader problem.) What I would like to see is a shift in the community to make these sorts of things unnecessary.

A while ago I was in a Quaker committee meeting discussing whether changes to some procedures or structures would help young people participate more. Someone pointed out that of twenty-plus people in the room, three or four of us were ‘young adults’, and suggested this meant the current situation was accessible. No, I said, I’ve worked hard and been lucky to get to a place where I can be involved in this way – not everyone can do that and nobody should have to. Now we’re here, let’s make change rather than forcing others through the same maze. So my questions for Quakers are: How do you ensure that adults are trusted to be adults even if they are under 30? How do you make sure that people are given opportunities to take responsibility without feeling that they must perform especially well because they are representing a whole demographic? Generally, how do you make sure you behave in accordance with our principle that everyone is unique, precious, a child of God?

Reading: January

During January, I read 20 books. You can find the details of all of them on my Goodreads account, but I thought it might be interesting to share some general observations about them. Later in the year, as I get further into my research project, I might write more detailed reviews of my reading as a way to share my research, but for January something broader seems in order.

Four books were related to my research work on liberal Quaker theology. Walk Humbly, Serve Boldly and Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order actually have a lot in common – one newer and one older, one more convergent and one firmly in the conservative tradition, but both explorations of Quaker practice and its underlying theology. The Promise of Paradox is more generally Christian, while also having clear Quaker roots, and God the Trickster? is at once both a typical liberal Quaker anthology (the anthology format is characteristic of the need to incorporate a range of views), but at the same time unapologetically only represents one strand of Quaker experience.

I read nine novels and one graphic novel. Some of these had been sitting on my shelf or my reading list for a while – I bought Black Panther #1 and read it almost straight away, but it had been on my ‘to obtain’ list for two years. Others were suggested to me – I owned a copy of Decline and Fall anyway, and re-read it after maybe fifteen years to discuss it with a book club. (Interesting that I’d kept it, actually, since I rarely re-read things and tend to pass novels on after a year or two.) One, All the Conspirators, was a good read but had been sent to me by mistake when I tried to order another book by Isherwood!

I also read six non-fiction books not directly related to my research. Ireland: a Short History is probably heavier than most people require as holiday preparation, but was very readable for a textbook and certainly succeeded in filling me in on the background. Living a Feminist Life had been on my reading list for a while and had lots of helpful insights, while Queer City, which I’d also been thinking of reading for some time, turned out not to be worth it at all. I made up for that disappointment with a different and excellent biography, Scanty Particulars: the Life of Dr James Barry.

There are other ways to divide up books, of course. There’s author identity, for example: of those 20 books, 9 were by women, 10 by men, and one an anthology. As far as I know, none of the authors were trans (although gender complexity is a major feature of the biography of James Barry). I think that all but three of the authors were white. Similarly, to the best of my knowledge all but three of the authors were straight.

Or there’s format: I read five of the books on my Kindle, and the rest on paper (14 paperbacks and one hardback). Two, a graphic novel and a history through old photographs, were heavily illustrated, while the rest were mainly text.

Or method of obtaining them: one through a book club/circulating library, four from Woodbrooke’s library, three from the Library of Birmingham, one from the University of Birmingham library, three picked up in second-hand shops, one ordered second-hand online, and one sent by accident when I ordered something else. Apart from the five Kindle books, only the graphic novel was purchased new, for which I should probably apologise to my author friends. 🙂

“Our Child of the Stars” – Quaker Narnia?

Our Child of the Stars, by Stephen Cox, is a sci-fi story about a couple who find themselves looking after a strange child – when a spaceship crashes in their town. (Disclaimer: I know Stephen personally and was sent a free e-book for review.)

Having read it, I’ve been thinking about it on and off anyway, and yesterday I heard a presentation by Centre for Research Studies researcher Jonathan Doering which brought me back to it. Jonathan’s research into connections between Quakerism and creative writing raises a whole set of questions about what makes a piece of writing Quaker or Quakerly or not. Is it the self-identification of the author? Does the opinion of the Quaker community matter? Does the content of the writing matter? (Did you know that T Edmund Harvey, Quaker politician, had a brother who wrote horror stories?)

The opinion I’m going to put forward in this post (comments are open for everyone who disagrees) is that ‘Quaker literature’ is most interesting when it has Quaker content – but that Quaker content is not necessarily things which name Quakers, but content which is inspired by Quaker approaches to life. My example for this is Our Child of the Stars. In Our Child of the Stars, although there are some minor explicit mentions of Quakerism, and the author is a Quaker, these aren’t the things which, in my opinion, make it interesting reading from a Quaker viewpoint. Instead, the key factor which makes this a Quakerly book is the way in which two people love and adopt Cory, a child whose strange origin and appearance make many others reject him – and do so before his charming personality has a chance to work on them.

In my title to this blog post, I compared the book to C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, by which I probably just mean The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The comparison is not one of style or content (although both a well-written in their own ways, and have some kindred adventure elements) – instead, it’s theological. If Aslan is ‘Jesus for Narnia’, a fantasy embodiment of Lewis’s theology of access to salvation, Cory is the ET-style embodiment of the Quaker principle ‘that of God in everyone’. In loving him and seeing him as special and worth protecting, Molly and Gene Myers provide a model of the ambition to see everyone in this way.

In doing so, they are often able to convince others to join them in this viewpoint. If only it were that easy in real life!

 

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Liberal Quakers and Life after Death

At a conference last week, I got chatting with some colleagues about life after death, and various views on it. (Tasia Scrutton is organising a philosophy of religion conference on death and immortality, hence her interest.) “Quakers don’t have anything to say about that,” I said, and she replied, rightly, that an absence of interest can in itself be interesting.

It also isn’t strictly true that Quakers have never had anything to say. Previous generations of Quakers have often accepted a traditional Christian picture of the world, including life after death. Today, many Quakers outside the liberal tradition would still take that position. Even within Britain Yearly Meeting, the Quaker Fellowship for Afterlife Studies make it clear that they take a realist view of this topic. Most Quakers in Britain, though, do not seem to believe in an afterlife, and it doesn’t come up as a topic for discussion: instead, like Christian Aid, we believe in life before death.

Spending some more time with this idea, including during Meeting for Worship, I realised that I actually have a strong intuition against there being any form of life after death. Not only do I not think that any life which may or may not occur after death should affect my actions now (I don’t do things because I want to get into heaven or generate good karma for my next life, and nor do I accept eschatological verification), I actively think it’s unlikely, even impossible, that such a thing exists. Why is that? Quakers not talking about it, or a brief A-level module on all the options, seem unlikely to be enough to produce such a strong intuition.

Part of it comes from my picture of what people are: physical bodies which manifest consciousness through the interactions of cells, electricity, and chemicals. Part of it comes from my picture of what God/dess is like: loving not judging, engaged in the world’s processes not watching them from outside, expressed in manifold ways rather than pinned down to one creed or moment. And perhaps part of it comes from experience or the lack of it: although I have heard many accounts of the sense of someone ‘reappearing’ or ‘visiting’ after their death, when I have had this feeling I has always been clear that it was a psychological event or an act of my (vivid and well-exercised) imagination. I think people continue to influence us after their deaths, through our memories and through the repercussions of actions they took during their lives – but it’s also true that events influence us after they finish, so even a memory in the mind of God is not a ‘life after death’ but a life before death.

I think this position is consistent with other Quaker views I hold, but so could a lot of other views on life after death. Quakers: Do you agree with me? Do you have some other intuition, and if so can you trace where it comes from? Do you have no intuition, or only a rational answer, or one based on experience?

Review of 2018

2018, overall, has been a good year for me. It started in my new flat, which (although it still needs some work – doesn’t everything?) suits me very well. It included meeting great people (new collaborators, new students, new partner!), and maintaining connections with old friends. I took the Eurostar to Cologne and the ferry to Belfast for the first time. I caught up with, and worked with, people all over the world, without leaving my living room. I think that epitomises my response to the wider political situation: to try, using Skype, Zoom, Twitter, Facebook, and all the other amazing tools the internet affords us, to create stronger international links without adding unnecessarily to my carbon footprint.

It’s been a good year for writing. I had a book come out (the expensive university library one), a book accepted for publication (Telling the Truth about God will be out next year at a much more reasonable price), and I have almost completed a draft novel manuscript. I haven’t blogged as much in 2018; this is only post number 20, although I’ve had almost the same number of views (almost 4000) as in 2017 and 2016. I set out to see how many poems I could get rejected from magazines, and managed 30 (and got a few published, in A New Ulster and Poethead). I had some academic journal articles appear, including one on afterwords and one on multiple religious belonging.

Other opportunities have opened up. I’ve been enjoying editing a special edition of Religions on interdisciplinary Quaker Studies (5 articles published and some more to come), and in 2019 I’m looking forward to working on The Quaker World with Wess Daniels. (Chapter proposals are open! Tell us what you’d like to write about!)

I read a lot of books (as those who follow me on Goodreads will know). That many books always includes a few duds or things which just weren’t to my taste, but it also includes so many excellent books it’s hard to pick out just a few. Some people I know personally published great books this year, so naturally I’m biased towards those (examples include: Quaker Studies: an Overview, Our Child of the Stars, Sing for the Coming of the Longest Night). Of the other fiction I read this year, I really liked The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (and the other two books in the series), and was passed Hag-Seed by a friend who was right that it’s a fascinating read. I also enjoyed Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, No Man of Woman Born, The Tea Master and the Detective, and Unfit to Print. In non-fiction (well, excluding work stuff… I’ll probably be writing more about that next year), favourites included Balancing on the Mechitza, Doughnut Economics, The Prodigal Tongue, Saving Alex, and So You Want To Talk About Race.

Besides writing and reading – although, frankly, those are my favourite activities – I’ve also done some other things. I co-taught a course on Friends with Dual Religious Identities which led to some really productive conversations, and ran a small course at Swarthmoor Hall on Afterwords which also went well. I enjoyed a family holiday on Orkney (which inspired some aspects of the draft novel…) and a course on Writing Our Roots (which lead to some good poem drafts)… okay, correction, I don’t really do anything which isn’t about reading or writing in some way. 😀 Even Britain Yearly Meeting was this year much concerned with books – deciding whether to revise our book of discipline. It was a big event for me personally, too, because of my service on the Revision Preparation Group, a committee who became real friends during our work.

In 2019 I’m planning new challenges – new courses to teach, conferences to attend, books to write, study leave to take (and use as well as possible!), and of course lots to read. And my first book launch. Watch this space for details!

Paddling hard or going with the flow?

This morning I walked to Meeting for Worship through the park. My route takes me next to a stream for much of the way, and at one place I saw a duck. This is a pretty common occurrence, but I noticed this duck because it was in the stream, well out from the sides, but seemed to be still. At first I thought the stream must be shallower than it looked, and the duck standing on the bottom. Then I realised that the duck was puddling upstream at exactly the same speed as the water was flowing downstream, so that it was working hard to stay in one place.

a tarmac path winds through autumn woodland, with trees on both sides

I didn’t manage to photograph the duck, so this is just a picture of a path in the same general area.

I took that image into meeting, where I was contemplating, as I often do, Advices & Queries 28: “undertake or relinquish responsibilities without undue pride or guilt”. Sometimes it seems like however many things I stop doing, I’m still just as busy! Of course, that’s because new things start, or existing things expand, and I notice the ‘no’s more than the ‘yes’es especially when it’s a struggle or my decision needs a lot of explaining.

As I settle into my new flat – I’ve been in it for a year, but it still seems new! – and my new city – I’ve been here for two and a half years, but it still seems new! – and my new relationship – less than six months, that genuinely is new 🙂 – I’m finding myself needing more space and unscheduled time, or perhaps being more accepting of my need for space and unscheduled time. When you’re hunting for a job, everyone expects to be able to see your feet paddling as hard as possible, even if – like the duck in the park – you’re only going fast enough to stay still. Stopping, turning round and going with the flow, seems inconceivable.

“A simple lifestyle freely chosen is a source of strength,” says another passage in Advices & Queries (41). I find it’s much easier to ‘choose’ a ‘simple’ lifestyle if you already have certain things which are not simple at all, or easy to obtain. I can say no to paid work much more easily when I already have enough paid work to cover my bills, and I can say no to voluntary work much more easily when nobody is demanding to see my CV or asking me what I’m doing to develop my skills or build my professional networks. Is that really a choice, or an expression of the privileges which come with being middle class, white, educated and employed?