Artful Academics: A Sermon and Prompt for An End Time

By Brandy McCann

The world is changing. The wheel is turning. The tower is crumbling.

It’s post-pandemic; it’s the dismantling of the old patriarchy; it’s little and big resistances to the-way-things-were everywhere. These are exciting times; these are scary times. We’ve been wandering around in the wilderness for nigh on 40 years now, and sometimes (we hate to admit it) we wonder if we weren’t better off where we were. For all that was problematic or downright awful in the old regime, it was at least familiar. And for some of us who experience privilege of one flavor or another, we knew what to expect, we knew the rules of the game.

Now, no one knows what to expect. We might know what we’re working towards, but nothing is certain about how it will all come together. Audre Lorde told us that we cannot dismantle the master’s house with master’s tools. Some of us looked for a different way. Some of us designed new tools. Some of us are hiding in our bunkers. Some of us are building a different way. Many different ways. There are many different ways, including some regressive folk ways. They are not gone. And they are not going anywhere.

We see signs of our brave new world even in academia—that leviathan of an institution. There’s AI writing student papers and who knows what else. Last week I spent the better part of an hour chatting with “Claude” and caught him making up references—of my own work! When I called him out for his bad behavior, he fessed up right away. He was very, very sorry. And while I should have left the conversation feeling horrified, instead, I closed the tab smiling and feeling a little charmed by Claude, who promised to do better. I’ve always been a sucker for a bad boy, who when confronted with his wrong-doings, sheepishly apologizes and makes many promises he can’t keep.

And that’s the problem. The world around me is changing, but I’m not sure how much I’m changing. “Do androids dream of electric sheep?”: I’m not sure that question matters if I begin to imagine they’re dreaming at all.

I supervise a handful of graduate students as part of my role as a “Research Scientist.” These budding professionals tell me that they don’t often read academic papers; rather they stay in the know with article digests on Twitter. But that was a few months ago, before Twitter imploded—if it imploded? I’m not sure, I can’t keep up.

In trying to understand more about the development of Appalachian folk practices, I’ve been studying medieval world views and, as a result, have been learning a bit about astrology. It would be difficult to overstate the degree to which early modern philosophers, naturalists, midwives/granny women, yarb [herb] doctors, and other medical professionals lived in a world saturated with astrological beliefs. Similar to our current situation, the world was on the cusp of great technological change. Everything was in flux, old systems were challenged, and a lot was up for grabs. The seeds of what was becoming our modern, industrialized, scientific world were germinating along with other potentialities, other far out ideas.

Those far out ideas are our history. These and others will be our future. Maybe we’ll come full circle and discover that the movement of heavenly bodies has more influence on our lives than moderns could believe. But you and I will not see that future. I doubt most of us will set foot on that distant shore. We are like Moses standing at the edge of the promised land— because the arc of time bends towards justice, it will be a better place. We can see the rainbow; we are lost in the refracted light, but we’re not on the other side.

So if you’re wondering why bother writing at all, since AI will soon steal your words, leaving you master of an obsolete artform—an expert in making cane-bottomed chairs, for instance—I encourage you to start with a list. Make a list of the pleasures of the old world. Make a list for your imaginary great-grandchildren, chronicle what life was like for you in this time of upheaval. Did you believe in the doctrine of correspondences, and look to the sky for the best time to plant your green beans? Did you stand arm in arm with the revolutionaries and run for school board in your little town? Did you open your laptop to chat with Claude late one night when you felt lonely and at loose ends? Did you learn to make your granny’s best cornbread and tantalize your family with the aroma of sweet roasted grain rising from your oven? Or did you whisper into a trumpet-shaped datura blossom at dusk and hear her whisper back. 

Read Brandy’s other work here at Reckon.

author Brandy Renee McCann
Brandy Renee McCann

Brandy Renee McCann, PhD is a writer and social scientist whose work is focused on life in Appalachia. Her creative work has been published in Reckon ReviewStill: The Journal, Change Seven, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, The Dead Mule, and other literary venues. Brandy’s scholarly, collaborative work on aging in Appalachia can be found in a variety of peer-reviewed journals including the Journals for Gerontology: Social Sciences, Journal of Rural Mental Health, and Journal of Family Issues among others. Brandy is a research associate and project coordinator at the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech. To learn more about the family caregiving research in which she’s currently involved, visit here: Her social media handle is appalbrandy.