Why I Do TV

Last week, a few colleagues of mine blogged about why they blogged. The slightly defensive tone to the blogs or even their titles speaks to the fact that in the Academy as a whole, academics who blog don’t get a whole lot of respect. There is a widespread perception that academics who blog are somehow pandering to non-academics, or wasting their time that ought to be spent working on articles that only a handful of other academics will read. But mostly it’s the “pandering to the general public” charge that becomes the whispered accusation, accompanied by much eye-rolling.

I don’t blog much. I don’t hold in contempt my colleagues who do — in fact I’m grateful for their work — but I do try to use my writing time for articles that only a handful of other academics will read. But I do use my “free time” (hah!) doing other sorts of things. For example, Easter/Passover weekend I was on television, I thought, rather a lot. For a few days, I was on US television screens for more collective minutes than, I think, any other scholar of Christianity on this continent, just edging out Candida Moss and Robert Cargill. The large part of this was my involvement in CNN’s 6-part “Finding Jesus” documentary drama, in which I appeared on-screen in five of the six episodes that had been airing since the beginning of March. The sixth episode, the series “finale” aired on Easter Sunday, happened to be the one in which I was featured, speaking about Mary Magdalene. CNN rallied their significant resources such that commercials and clips aired frequently (some featuring bits of me: my finger scrolling across a text, my voice, my image); they played earlier episodes in the lead-up to the new; and they promoted Easter Sunday’s episode by having me appear on live news shows twice — once on the morning of Good Friday on CNN’s morning show New Day with anchors Mikaela Pereira and Chris Cuomo, and once Saturday afternoon in an interview with Fredericka Whitfield. After that glut of CNN appearances, NBC called me the next day and asked me to do a segment on the Nightly News, which was bumped and edited into a sound byte of me on NBC’s Today Show the next day.

Since CNN promoted us and Finding Jesus pretty hard, let’s just say I have heard a fair bit from my colleagues-who-are-not-on-TV, and while they have all been extremely kind and supportive to my face, I’m also aware of my colleagues who are critical or contemptuous of colleagues-who-are-on-TV. One thread on Facebook particularly interested me. One colleague wondered why any academic would do such a thing. Someone responded something to the effect of: “MONEY, first reason. The second reason probably has to do with showing your family that you’ve ‘made it.'”

I found this actually really interesting. Let me quickly say that MONEY is not the first, or last, motivation. I have appeared in shows for the History Channel, National Geographic, Channel 4 (UK), CNN, and NBC. Amount of money I have received for any and all these appearances: ZERO. Documentaries take advantage of the fact that we have paying jobs already, and part of those jobs means at least some public teaching, so they do not pay us; it’s part of an academic’s “public service.” In the case of CNN or NBC, news channels do not pay contributors; there are too many, to begin with, and contributors are not paid employees of a network, for obvious reasons. I’m sure there is TV that pays, and I assume that some of my colleagues-who-do-TV do get paid, but to say that we do this for money is just incorrect.

So what about the second reason: to show our families that we’ve “made it”? I actually thought a lot about this. I think there have been many moments where my family have thought this about me: when I received the Ph.D., for instance. My first teaching position. My first book. Holding a teaching position at Harvard. When my family sees me on TV, they are excited; they also, you know, criticize the way I did my hair, or wander off to do the laundry, or change the channel to watch something more exciting. So I’m not sure that I “do TV” to impress them. I should add as a sort of sidebar that my children are almost entirely uninterested in me being on TV, given that we don’t own one and they were both a) raised in a TV-less environment and b) with the assumption that mom does a lot of talking about boring things for a living. Which brings to mind one occasion years ago when I took my older daughter with me to Harvard to hear me lecture (no babysitter available short-notice). She was, I think, eight. I gave, if I do say so myself, a rather kick-ass lecture on crucifixion. The audience of assembled students listened; they laughed; they wept. At the end there was this silence, broken only by one student uttering “wowwwwww.” And then the applause. Best lecture I have given in my life. My daughter DID NOT LOOK UP FROM HER HARRY POTTER ONCE.

So, then, why do I do TV? Here are five reasons that have come to mind over the past few weeks. They may be surprising.

1. To Be Counter-Phobic

Those who know me well, or for a long time, will know that I’m actually an introvert and quite shy. Talking in front of people was, for many years, one of my biggest phobias. Those who were in graduate school with me can attest that for a full two years of coursework, I curled up in a ball (literally) on my chair in seminars and uttered not a word. It was absolutely amazing that I was not kicked out. The lead-up to any public speaking event was fraught with absolutely nauseating, trembling fits of terror. I’m fully over that now. But I still have problems of confidence in certain areas. You know those people who always have something to say in response to anything? I am absolutely not one of those people. I was raised in a strict children-should-be-seen-and-not-heard environment, and never had the sense that anything that came out of my mouth was worthy, so keeping my mouth shut has always been a default. There is absolutely nothing scarier to me than the question “So what do you think, Nicola?” and everyone looking at me expectantly. Shudder.

I believe in trying to be counter-phobic, which to me means dealing with my fears and not be such a baby. I’ve become much more comfortable answering questions in front of a camera, but those situations are also controlled. I have the questions beforehand; I can rehearse my answers, and if I mess up too badly I can have as many “do overs” as I need. Last weekend, however, was the first time I had to do live TV and that was fairly horrifying. My biggest fear was that I would be like Cindy Brady in an old episode of The Brady Bunch, who brags about her quiz-show abilities in the lead-up to a live TV game show for kids broadcast, but then freezes into a wide-eyed, open-mouthed gape as she’s mesmerized by the red light on top of the television camera. What if I pull a Cindy Brady??? Plus, just to tweak my neuroses, I wasn’t given any information prior to the segments: no questions to prepare; no suggested talking points; no knowledge of how long this live TV hell was likely to go. And I will say, the entire experience was terrifying, exhilarating, and a great learning experience. I am no longer afraid, and it’s worth a lot to me not to be afraid of something.

2. Watching People Do What They’re Good At

We academics lead sheltered lives. We are surrounded by other academics, and students, and administrators, but it’s a pretty narrow slice of expertises. Doing TV is actually kind of fascinating as you watch people doing things that are quite foreign and being very good at it. For example, in Finding Jesus I was really taken by the way the director, Gary Johnstone, saw the world — I mean, visually saw and processed the world (and I consider myself a “visual” person!). The way he set up shots, and the results of those shots, were just far far better than anything I could ever do. Even when we weren’t filming, if I grabbed my camera to take a picture, he would whisk it away and command that I take it from another angle, or a different height or exposure, or whatever. I would compare the two photos — mine and his — and the differences were astonishing. SO GOOD. In the academy, I would never have an opportunity to work with a director, and to learn from that.

Similarly, my experience doing CNN’s New Day was amazing, as I watched the anchors at work. I had always assumed that anchors were just newsreaders who looked attractive or authoritative and read off a teleprompter. To prepare for my interview. Mikaela and Chris had about 90 seconds during the commercial break. They spent it silently reading a bit about me and the show, and list of suggested questions. The power of their concentration was intense. Then they looked up, smiled and introduced themselves, and worked in 10 seconds to put me more at ease by chatting and asking for “off the record” knowledge. The director gave us the 5 second count-down, and they immediately picked up with professionalism and authority. Without looking at their notes or teleprompter, they got my name right after just having met me a minute before, and asked excellent questions which, I will tell you, bore absolutely zero relation to the ones they had had in front of them. In other words, they were thinking on their feet, and they worked to engage me and the audience simultaneously — and to wrap the whole thing up in 4.5 minutes. After it was done and we cut to commercial, they were very kind and gracious, and then they had another 90 seconds to prep for the next segment, which was entirely unrelated to Mary Magdalene. I left the studio deeply impressed and humbled by just how hard their jobs are, and how easy they made things look. To me, that’s very inspiring; I love seeing people do what they love, and doing it very, very well. So part of doing TV is to move me out of my comfort zone but into the comfort zone of other experts, for a little bit of inspiration.

3. Access

As scholars, we get pretty good access to very cool things, if by “very cool things” you, like me, think of things like ancient manuscripts or archaeological sites sometimes closed to the public. Let me tell you something: television gets better access. For scholars to get access, we need to write letters and applications, find funding from our universities or other places, spend months lining up appointments and paperwork, and so on and so on. Television production companies have “fixers” who do these things for you, so that all you need to do is show up. You don’t even need to show up: you get ferried there. Because I do TV, I’ve wandered around museums and cathedrals before they open, poked around in their storerooms, handled precious relics, touched 1600-year-old books, and got to spend time, alone or almost alone, in places few people get to go. As an ancient historian, this kind of access to the past is a thrilling privilege; it helps me to think differently about the past than I would if my research were confined to reading in libraries.

4. I Collect Moments, Not Things

My family complains about me, because I am the opposite of a hoarder. I’m a compulsive thrower-outer. I’m not especially sentimental, and I don’t organically understand the urge to collect things. But I do like to collect moments. I’m not a thrill-seeker, but I derive a lot of pleasure from great experiences, those moments when you just can’t believe you get to live this life. This reason to do TV relates to the issue of access. I have a lot of precious memories that come from doing TV: lying on a pew in the silent, empty church of San’Agnese in Agone in the heart of Rome, looking at the ceiling frescoes in peace while listening to throngs of tourists in Piazza Navona outside the church’s great doors; running a finger gently along the ancient leather spine of Codex II while listening to a muezzin call the faithful to prayer in dusty hot old Cairo; galloping giddily on an Arabian stallion in the Giza desert in the middle of the night, with no lights except the illuminated pyramids rising in front of me and the twinkle of Orion’s stars. These gifts come courtesy of opportunities that television has provided. I think of Roy’s terrific speech at the end of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner: “I”ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion…” When I die, I imagine I’ll be thinking of those moments in my life where I feel the full force of the incredible privilege of being alive.

5. Because Public Education Matters

I have spent a good part of the last 25 years pretty immersed in the elite world of the Ivy League, and I feel some days like I know every room in those ivory towers. I know that much of what is said about the bubble-world of the Ivies is true. And academia is itself a bubble-world, full of people who talk only to people like them, or like us. The worst of us, to be judgmental here for a moment, are those people who think that this isolation is absolutely fine, that they are perfectly entitled to earn six-figure incomes to teach tiny classes about deeply obscure things, that living the Life of the Mind is a right rather than a privilege. It’s not. And I fear that unless academics find some way of helping non-academics to make meaning in one small part of their lives, we will be perceived as useless old albatrosses. My little piece of the solution is that I happen to think a lot, and know a lot, about something about which a great number of people are curious. Why would I not find a way of engaging them?

So these are my five reasons. Does this strike a chord with anyone?

What DO professors do all day?

Living in the Northeast, we have had a lot of snow days in the last couple of weeks. On a couple of those days, Brown University has canceled classes; on others, classes have been on because, well, the students live on campus so they’re there anyway — might as well teach them, right? Except it’s not that easy for faculty who don’t live on campus to make it to class in the middle of a snowstorm. Go ahead and call me weak, but I remind everyone that I am Canadian,  and thus no stranger to snowstorms, driving in snowstorms, walking in snowstorms, and harsh weather in general. Still, I’ve had more days at home than expected in the last week, thus I’ve worked at home more often than expected.

Recently, the Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, has raised the cry that professors are overpaid for their work (see this piece @Politico). This has generated learned and articulate responses (here’s only one) from my fellow academics, who point out that actually, the vast majority of academics in the humanities in this country don’t actually get paid that much (like, on par with bus drivers and school teachers), particularly if they are junior or contingent (adjunct) labor, which increasing numbers are. They also note that there is a lot of work involved that extends beyond the classroom time, which is about 3 hours of active class time a week (that is, you are physically standing in front of a class) per course. A full-time professor might teach anywhere from two to four courses a semester. Then there is the additional time to prepare for each class, which is on the order of about three hours prep for every one classroom hour. There are meetings with students and faculty, advising responsibilities, and administrative tasks. This sort of thing fills our days on campus. This is all part of being a professor, and it’s included in our contracts.

So, it’s great to have a day off, right? A snow day, to curl up by the fire and read a book or, gosh, watch television (except that many academics — including my husband and myself — don’t own a tv…that should tell you something). But, as I sit in my armchair on my snow day, I feel characteristically overwhelmed by all I have to do. No no — I’m not seeking sympathy. It’s a perfectly lovely comfortable armchair, and there is a fire, and a cat (okay, three, but only one fits on my lap at any one time), and hot chocolate, so let’s be serious — I’m not suffering. But my point is that there are so many more things involved with being a professor than prepping for and teaching class. That is already a lot. But there are things that…well….no one told me about. For these things we are paid…exactly nothing.

First, let’s talk about letters of recommendation. We write a lot of them. There are many different variations on the theme. The most intensive are letters for promotion — either for tenure or for promotion to full professor. Those require a deep engagement with everything that a particular scholar has written — maybe a number of books and dozens of articles. The letter has to be specific, and knowledgeable, and place the scholar’s work in relation to the field as a whole. It needs examples and supporting arguments. It runs perhaps 8 or 9 single-spaced pages in length. It’s not unusual, then, for faculty members to turn down writing these letters, because they require so much time that we just can’t find in a day. Luckily, I don’t get asked to do these very often. Next up, though, are letters from junior faculty applying for jobs and fellowships, then letters from graduate students applying for jobs. Those are still a lot of work, if you want to do them right. You can write a generic letter for each job candidate, but that will probably hurt the person for whom you’re writing, so you have to tailor each letter according to the place for which they are applying. That requires some additional research and time. Then there are letters for undergrads applying for graduate schools. These, too, need tailoring, although in general they are only a couple of pages long. Finally there are letters for undergrads looking to apply for internships, internal fellowships, study abroad programs, and so on. These are about a page long.

Each of these letters of recommendation need to be researched, written, edited, proof-read, tweaked, and then uploaded to various sites by specific deadlines. How many do I do in a semester? Probably around sixty. That’s a lot of time. So, today, on my snow day, I do four, including one re-sent to a graduate seminary that lost my last one. Two hours. Important, and unremunerated.

Another task for today: I’m asked by a national funding organization to evaluate a major grant proposal which another academic has submitted. The funding organization is not in the US, and the proposal is not in English. It is also 22 pages long.  I plow through.  Read, evaluated, submitted.  Three hours of work. Also important. Also unremunerated.

I also serve on a couple of national academic committees and advisory boards, which means more proposals for evaluating. I just get through a couple today; more lined up for this week, with a deadline for completion coming soon. Another hour gone. Necessary, important, free labor.

Okay. So several hours have passed and, you might notice, I have not yet done the hours of reading for this week’s classes, nor set up the Powerpoints, nor revised the online syllabi that need revising because of the snow day. So, no class prep as yet, except for answering student emails, which are frankly endless. This will take five or six hours altogether, easily.

Next up I tackle my thesis writers. I have three seniors currently writing senior thesis projects with me, major pieces of work which will qualify them for honors in our department. It’s spring, so they have a busy writing schedule and I meet with each of them an hour a week. To make the meetings productive, I have to read drafts of their thesis chapters. These constitute a teaching overload — I mean, directing even one thesis qualifies as an overload — but I am uncompensated for them; I offer my time and expertise pro bono, as it were. Another ninety minutes to read and comment on three chapter drafts.

More stuff: board meeting notes from the weekend’s advisory board. Arranging logistics for a summer course I’m teaching. Reading a paper for a faculty colloquium I’m moderating this year. Setting up accommodations for students with disabilities to be able to succeed. More email.

Tired of these tasks, having browsed around the kitchen for food (grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning all take time away from work time, so I try to set aside hours each day for these things; it’s not like professors can afford household staff) and having sent my younger child out to celebrate the snow day by playing outside in blinding snow and subzero temperatures, I set “stuff” aside to try to get some writing done. I manage to finish drafting a 1000-word “Bible Basics” essay for the Bible Odyssey and submit it. I finish and submit another, longer piece. I work on a third piece — a 6000-word encyclopedia entry — that one’s overdue, sorry. That leaves, still to do:

  • one major book chapter promised and now overdue. Not started. Sorry.
  • revisions on one major book chapter for a conference proceeding. Started but not finished. Now overdue. Sorry.
  • three 6000-word encyclopedia entries, one overdue. Started but not finished. Sorry.
  • one journal article based on a presentation, overdue. Started but not finished. Sorry!

I admit all this overdue-ness here, in this very public forum, to underscore the point that snow days or not, most academics have far more work to do each day than there are hours in a day. Much of it is “invisible” in the sense that it is not directly about teaching, writing books, or reading. Yes, sure, I can spend leisurely time at home in the snow sipping hot chocolate, but, gosh darn it, those pieces are not going to write themselves. I can futz around on Facebook, but, same. And, further, owing pieces to people out there — colleagues, friends, editors, strangers — is actually very stressful. Not stressful like “oh my gosh if I mess up this surgery my patient will die” stressful, but as in “my reputation, job, possibility of future work, etc., is on the line” stressful.

The other thing that bears mentioning, somehow, is that I spend much of my day staring at a computer screen. This is the New Academia. There’s email, of course, which is pretty much the only way that academics communicate when not face-to-face (phone conversations are a thing of the past). But most of the reading I have to do is scanned and digitized, and course management is all online. We use things like Skype and Google Hangouts more and more frequently. Many of us maintain social media pages; library catalogues are online, and most journal articles we need to read are directly linked through library websites. Even letters of recommendation or grant proposals and reviews, graduate admissions, and other things that used to require getting in to the office or actually handling paper and files are now almost entirely online. That means, realistically, that most academics stare at a screen, for work, from the time they begin work in the morning until the time they quit, usually late at night.

I say all this because it’s not the life of a professor that I imagined thirty years ago. It’s not the life of a professor as Gov. Scott Walker and other non-academics imagined. It requires stamina and mastering skill sets that are quite unexpected. It means going to sleep, every single night, knowing that you’re behind, or at least, that you have a ton to do just to stay on top of things. Again, am I asking for pity? In no way. It’s a great life. But it’s not without stress, and it’s not lucrative. It’s a labor of love.

Lived Ancient Religion in Modern-Day Germany

Last summer (2014) I was fortunate enough to become conversation partners with Prof. Jörg Rüpke at the University of Erfurt through our mutual interest in Lived Ancient Religion. Jörg has been working on a multi-year project funded by the European Research Council called the LAR Project (for “Lived Ancient Religion” — but a pun on the Roman household god Lar) which calls together international scholars to share our work on reconstructing lived experience in the religious lives of people in Roman antiquity. I was very pleased to spend a week in Erfurt last June meeting members of the Erfurt-based project as a visiting scholar. It was a terrific week of new connections, thoughtful conversations, and engaging other scholars and scholarship in a beautiful setting.

I was very excited to return to Erfurt last month for the fifth LAR conference, “Beyond Duty: Interacting with Religious Professionals and Appropriating Tradition in the Imperial Era,” organized jointly by Jörg, Georgia Petridou, and Richard Gordon. I couldn’t wait to meet Richard Gordon, whose work I have admired for two decades, but whom I had never had the opportunity to meet. My interactions with him were some of the highlights of the week. Georgia’s work on Aelius Aristides and his coterie of fellow sufferers was also wonderfully sophisticated, and I learned much from Jörg’s work on the change in priesthoods in the Roman Republic.

My own paper for the conference was a reinvestigation of Irenaeus of Lyons’ account of a number of what we called at this conference “freelancers” or “Gnostic hieratic specialists,” particularly Marcus “the Magician,” a second-century Valentinian Christian, and a woman named Marcellina, whom Irenaeus identifies as a Carpocratian, that is, a follower of an earlier “Gnostic” teacher named Carpocrates. I wanted to draw little character sketches of these freelancers, both to see what they were doing, and, on another level, to figure out how Irenaeus “drew” these sketches to serve a variety of ends. What emerged from my research surprised me, and I’ll save the big “reveal” for the article I’m working on, but for now I’ll say only that it was very refreshing to pay attention to what these second-century freelancers were doing (or, better, what Irenaeus says they were doing) rather than what Irenaeus says they believed. My conclusions also matched the direction and thrust of the papers presented by Prof. Jan Bremmer (Gröningen) and Prof. Richard Gordon (Erfurt), thus leading to some wonderful conversations and musings.

Part of the delightful aspect of being an academic is getting to travel a little, and Erfurt turned out to be just as charming in January as it was in June (and, truth be told, not that much colder…it was unusually cold when we were there in June and unseasonably warm when I was there in January, which evened out to more or less the same temperature!). This time, all conference-goers stayed at the historic Augustinerkloster, the monastery where Martin Luther spent six years as a Catholic monk before “going rogue” and nailing his Ninety-Five Thesis to the door of the Wittemburg Cathedral. It’s now a retreat and study center open to visitors, with a refectory, library, lecture halls, and (best of all!) a new dormitory. Some particularly lucky visitors can stay in the Renaissance dormitory where Luther himself had his cell, but we were all in a brand new building. My cell (I refused to call it a room) was sparsely furnished, with a bare desk and chair and a single cot. The room was equipped with a Bible, a small cross affixed to the wall, and not much else. I quite liked the austere style, which I dubbed “German Zen.” Since it was intended to provide a monastic-like retreat, there was no television, phone, or even internet. Four nights of digital detox, courtesy of Martin Luther!

There was something lovely about spending four days within the thick stone walls of the cloister, in Erfurt’s gentle January weather. The rain came down as a mist over the still-green grass; many hours required silence as we walked through the buildings. I made a new friend — a scholar at Oxford — and we explored the cathedral where Luther had sat for Mass every day, the cloister, and monastery proper. We found locked doors and got kicked out of areas we weren’t supposed to be in. We got hot chocolate and cake from the nice ladies at the café at the front of the compound.

Most of the time, we all talked and listened to one another. The conference required pre-circulated papers (lots of time to read them in our cells, with no other distractions from the internet) and brief summaries. Here’s a link to the abstracts and another to the program.

The other “bonus” to an international conference (well, maybe any conference) is the opportunity to engage in some serious shop-talk with like-minded scholars over food and drinks. This kind of convivium refuels me intellectually, such that I can’t wait to get back to my writing and thinking. I’ve posted here a couple of pictures of dinners with Richard Gordon, Michael Swartz (OSU), Jan and Christine Bremmer, and Georgia Petridou. I don’t have a picture of my favorite dining experience, since my phone died at that moment: an incredible mug of hot chocolate and cake from Erfurt’s best chocolatiers, Goldhelm. If you are ever in Erfurt, you must, must go. Sitting in a cafe by candlelight, sipping insanely rich hot chocolate, and listening to AnneMarie Luijendijk and Michael Swartz talk about divination and AnneMarie’s new book on the Gospel of the Lots of Mary (read the press coverage here) reminded me of what I love about what I do.


Dinner with Georgia Petridou, and Christine and Jan Bremmer.


Strudel with Richard Gordon and Michael Swartz.


The Augustinerkloster.