On Fitting in–With the Scholarship

Janine Giordano

Read part 1 of the series, “Where Did You Find Your Megaphone?”

I was surprised, though maybe I shouldn’t be, at the nature of responses to my last post. I expected to hear a variety of answers about where each of us of first found our voice and discovered our efficacy. Was it in your favorite class in college, or in your relationship with a younger sibling? Was it on a Church board, in a Parent-Teacher organization, or on a missions trip? Where did you first feel heard and validated, and see your work invested as time well spent? I was concerned with some kind of defining moment in your path from regular person to learned academic. Ultimately, I wanted to know why you chose the academy—if you chose the academy—as the place for you to pursue your work? I was surprised, though maybe I shouldn’t be, that the piece I shared of my own quest to find my academic voice was taken instead as a complaint about the glass ceilings for women in ministry. It indeed hurts me deeply to see how much women have been hampered from Christian ministry for generations, but I was trying to stress the positive: many of us have found other ways to compensate for this challenge. How did you, male or female, arrive at your perch of authority? What microphone do you use as you make your way to the megaphone?

Our discussions of the integration of faith and learning these days so often assume that we are already creatures of authority in our academic field. We assume that all of us, by virtue of our association with the academy and our dabbling in even a bit of higher education, are already knowledgeable within a particular terrain of thought or culture, and have some degree of authority within a particular body of knowledge. We are encouraged that we need to be careful how we use our perch of authority, for our stewardship of our gifts has more of an impact on the world than what we might expect. I imagine that many of us found the Emerging Scholars Network because we wanted to further discuss this encouraging message. I certainly did.

However, I wanted to complicate the way we frame this calling, especially with regard to graduate students who are still trying to find our voices within a particular field. What can seem like an exciting challenge to academics who already have perches of authority (read- some kind of teaching or research gig where you feel visible), can be equally discouraging to those of us who are still yearning, searching and struggling to find an audience to hear us. So much of graduate school is about building an audience: an advisor you trust; a cohort of other graduate students and faculty you trust, and ultimately an intellectual community who believe that the final results of your research matter to them and the larger community they fit into. Therefore, even if your research challenges particular assumptions within your field, you are not actually supposed to challenge anyone to the point that they wonder if you fit into their intellectual community. At least not that significantly, or anyone you know, personally. Qualifying exams, preliminary exams and oral defenses, the landmarks in time of your graduate school experience, are all moments specially designed to make sure that you fit into the intellectual community that you are already supposed to be participating in. Your life is not about using a perch of authority wisely; it’s about continually defending how and why you belong. It’s about making others comfortable with you. Like any other hazing experience, it’s about doing what it takes, within reason, to prove that you deserve that perch of membership. Otherwise, you know you will never win that perch of authority.

I have wondered frequently why Christians interested in discussing the “integration of faith and learning” have not spent more time discussing what, and who, is lost this hazing process. Sure, have discussed the loss of our humility, the loss of our identity as a regular person, and sometimes even the loss of our childbearing years. However, many do not see enough wrong with the graduate school hazing process–a process that culminates in the roulette of finding a job–to see a need for it to be redeemed. Many see sets of testable knowledge as virtually objective, and see themselves as authority figures in their own areas of expertise simply by virtue of their successful passing through the hazing process. And perhaps sometimes this is true. However, my own experiences in graduate school have made quite obvious the fact that sets of testable knowledge are really just as subjective as any set of book reviews given by two professors. Preliminary exam questions upon this set of testable knowledge again do nothing but express what the examiners find important. And, as I have learned the hard way, if you don’t tell professors what they want to hear the first time they ask, they will ask you again, expecting that next time your answer will be different.

What do you think is gained and lost in this academic hazing process?

Read part 3 of the series, “Dig Where You Stand.”

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janinegiordano@gmail.com'

Janine Giordano Drake

I'm a graduate student in History at the University of Illinois. I'm currently working on a dissertation, _Between Religion and Politics: the Working Class Religious Left, 1886-1936_.

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6 Comments

  • mikehickerson@gmail.com'
    Micheal Hickerson commented on May 13, 2010 Reply

    One thing that has been often lost: surprising conclusions. A friend of mine recently left academia – where he had been a grant-seeking medical researcher – to join the other side as a grant reviewer. He had become frustrated with the grantmaking process, because he feels that it rewards research with predetermined outcomes. If only predetermined outcomes are rewarded, then truly new discoveries are never found.

  • aaron.berkowitz@llcc.edu'
    Aaron Berkowitz commented on May 13, 2010 Reply

    I think one of the most important things that is lost in the academic “hazing process” (a term I like a lot) is that the hazing and questioning is more often than not focused on an aspect of our future careers that is secondary to the function that most academics *actually* play in the world – teachers.

    While excellence in scholarship is obviously very important for all faculty, whether their primary focus will be on teaching (as at a Community or junior college) or on research (as at a University), teaching is also an amazingly important skill, one that is largely ignored by most graduate programs that I am aware of.

    I can safely say that the answers I wrote for my preliminary exams haven’t been much help to me during my last three years of teaching. Even my dissertation has only tangentially led to insights that I’m able to take advantage of in the classroom.

    A frequent running argument among the historians at my Community College has to do with the question of whether a Ph.D. should be a requirement for our faculty. I’m skeptical, largely because the focus of doctoral training really has little or anything to do with teaching. One of my colleagues, however, argues that the “hazing” involved in completing a dissertation demonstrates an intelligence and scholarly ability that is transferable to teaching. As I said, I’m skeptical. It sounds too much to me like the old idea that students should be forced to learn Latin because the mental discipline involved would somehow magically make them smarter. (But, I still think learning Latin is a good idea…)

  • ianjuliane@gmail.com'
    Ian commented on May 13, 2010 Reply

    Speaking as someone who is now the equivalent of a tenured professor*, I quite agree. Most of the best researchers in my experience are not that great at teaching; some are terrible at it, while many the best teachers I know are not that great at research. I *do* know a few who are both, but they are the minority.

    Yet, promotions are based on research, “publish or perish”, etc. So the system perpetuates itself.

    The system was good when the average undergrad student was more like a grad student — the elite, learning in an apprenticeship environment.

    But today, the average undergrad student is the equivalent of yesteryear’s high school student. “Everyone” must go to college to “succeed”.

    On the other hand, maybe I’m biased, since I’m one of those whose passion is for teaching and I struggle to do enough research to maintain my standing in the university.

    * In my country and university, there is no tenure, and only really senior people get called “professor” but “confirmed permanent staff” status is vaguely like tenure and my “senior lecturer” title would, were I in an American university, be called a professor.

  • kricket_04@yahoo.com'
    Kristen commented on May 13, 2010 Reply

    As is to be expected, everyone’s passage through grad school is highly dependent on their advisers. Mine understood my prelims to be about what I was qualified to teach–not what my dissertation research was about. So in preparing for each of my three written preliminary exams, I wrote mock syllabi based on my reading lists; and for each exam I answered a teaching question (ie. how would you teach the Scientific Revolution to undergrads, especially science majors?).

    As to my academic megaphone, I claimed that sometime in my first or second year (I think): about the time I had attended a few conferences and given a couple papers, I began introducing myself as “a historian of medicine.” Because I am pursuing two degrees, this may also be something of a defense mechanism. In history, as a grad student I can already be a historian who is expert at something. In medicine, I still have a long way to go before I get to be an expert in anything…

  • W. Brian Lane commented on May 19, 2010 Reply

    Regarding the unexpected response to your first blog post: I guess Andy Crouch was right–you can’t control what people do with a cultural good you offer. ;-)

    Regarding finding (perhaps assembling?) megaphones: I am finishing my second year in the tenure-track process at a PUI (primarily undergraduate institution). I noticed a definite shift in my students’ & colleagues’ level of attention to me (part of picking up my megaphone, I suppose) when I began to listen carefully to what my students needed and respond accordingly. I’ve made corresponding changes to my classes—some big (like writing a textbook for a class that had no sufficient text) and some small (like limiting the scope of topics the students in my Technical Communcaiton class can write about)—most of which, I’ll admit, were born out of a desire to look better on my teaching evaluations. I’m not entirely sure what my megaphone will look like (or how far it will reach), but I can definitely sense it coming together.

  • timgilmour@psu.edu'
    Tim commented on May 19, 2010 Reply

    More good questions… thanks Janine.

    I think that perhaps the academic hazing can be categorized into two groups: (1) the aspects in which one is challenged to excel in God-glorifying ways, and (2) the aspects in which one is challenged to conform in God-betraying ways.

    Your question about what is gained or lost thus has different answers depending on the particular aspect. In (1), the difficulty of becoming an expert spurs one on to more study, meticulousness, persuasiveness, accuracy, and overall excellence, toward being a good scientist or humanities scholar for the glory of God. This is almost all positive, it seems to me. If I am prevented from acquiring ‘authority’ and ‘influence’ in my field because of my incompetence or inability or laziness, the hazing system is doing its job correctly, and I probably should be in a different line of work more suited to my abilities.

    However, in (2), as we live in a fallen world which “suppresses the truth” (Romans 1), the challenge of whether I will compromise on God’s directions in order to gain authority or prestige or tenure is an opportunity to display the surpassing value of God. Will I choose to surrender my desire to gain the respect of men, in order to demonstrate my faith in God and obey Him instead? God repeatedly praises the ones who choose to endure the disdain of peers in order to obey God (Hebrews 11, John 5:44, Isaiah 66:2, etc).

    For example, Daniel and his three Jewish friends were challenged upon their entrance to the Babylonian ‘academia’ to (1) learn Babylonian wisdom, history, theology, and governance, and (2) eat the food offered to idols which God’s law prohibited them from eating. Hazing (1) would be a helpful gradient in which to seek to excel for God’s glory. Hazing (2) would be a challenge: Which do you want more? To succeed in the system (and even spare one’s life), or to obey God, even if it means giving up everything else?

    From what I have seen, all fields have both types of challenge. Humanities fields these days tend to be quite pluralistic and postmodern, such that one is tempted to softpedal the exclusive claims of Jesus. Science fields have areas of bioethics or evolutionary theories that directly clash with God’s Word. And daily life in any workplace, not just academia, involves questions of ethics.

    Here is a modern day example of the two different aspects of the hazing process ( http://creationsafaris.com/crev200911.htm#20091110a ) (not necessarily a Christian example, but still thought-provoking and relevant in my opinion).

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