Returning to Graduate School – Thoughts by Michael Stell (2)

Part Two – Being a Graduate Student

Thank-you to Michael for sharing his story/thoughts with us! Note: To explore sharing your story/thoughts as a testimony to God and an encouragement to others, please read Want to write for the ESN blog? and email ESN with a proposal. ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, editor.

When I entered grad school, I entered with a sense of purpose that was in my mind akin to the idea that the Puritans had of vocation or calling. Attending a Catholic university, I realize that many use the word vocation in strictly religious ways, but the Puritans viewed all of life as religious, and so all of life should be understood as vocation. I had been involved in the vocation of teaching, but not at the place where I felt I was fulfilling my true calling. I was going to grad school with the intent in my mind to complete that calling, to fulfill my vocation. But shortly upon arriving at grad school with the above ideas in my mind, I realized I needed to change the way I thought about my own vocation. So, what changed in my own self-understanding about the vocation of academia?

First, I realized I had to become a scholar if I was going to take seriously the vocation of an academic. In the first six months, I shifted my thinking in a variety of ways, not the least of which was changing my vocabulary from studying theology, to being a theologian. While this change might be subtle, it was a reflective way for me to begin to think of myself as a scholar, not just a teacher. I do think there is not enough emphasis placed on the development of the craft of teaching in doctoral programs, but I needed to do a reset of my thinking about my own place in scholarship.

I came into the program with very vague ideas of what I wanted to study, and I had no real settled person who I wanted to study under. My previous work had been very general, and I liked thinking about things in big picture terms. But I soon realized that to become a scholar meant mastery, not just generalized knowledge. I was very fortunate that in spite of my lack of vision, God saw fit to bring both a great mentor to study under and a theologian whom I could study in depth whose papers were close to my current location. My studies have opened doors to present papers and work on writing articles about my research which I never envisioned when I began the program. If we as evangelicals are to fulfill the vision that Mark Noll laid out, it is necessary that we become scholars. I needed to learn that lesson.

While there are many who are in grad school who are not thinking about entering the academy, I think the basic principle remains – enter into the fullness of the vocation of the field you are studying to enter. Everyone at the graduate level is involved in the current scholarship of their field. And everyone’s field has a variety of levels of participation that we can enter into as we think about becoming what we are studying to become. I would encourage every grad student to think about their own vocation in those terms – I am working to become what I will one day be. I am working to become an academic, so I need to do what an academic does.

First, I realized I had to become a scholar if I was going to take seriously the vocation of an academic . . . Second, I learned that I needed to become a student. . . . Finally, I know that it is easy to say this and very hard to live this, but I found that it is important to remain rounded. . . .

Second, I learned that I needed to become a student. When I came to the University, I was definitely of the opinion that I was not entering into the life of the university from the perspective of a student. My thoughts were less on learning and more on obtaining means to an end. I had to re-learn what it is like to learn. I think in that regard it was helpful to attend a university that was outside of my own theological tradition. I was thrust into an environment where the theological conversations were about things that I had no background in. I was very unfamiliar with Catholic theological discussions but I found that there was ground there that actually became helpful for me as I began to focus my own research on the work of a single theologian and a particular theological context. I had to become a student if I wanted to attain my goal.

That also meant that I had to experience student life from the perspective of a student. I had worked as a teacher and an administrator for many years, so I thought about student life less as a student. I had to once again change my focus. One of the advantages of attending a university as opposed to a seminary was the fullness of life that is represented in the student body. At Catholic, there are undergrads, seminarians, grad students, law students, degree completion programs and each of those programs has a life of its own. Additionally, there is the rest of the life of the university with lectures, athletics, etc. There is always something going on and there is a greater picture to the life of the university than the narrowness of my own department and program of study. I decided that I would enter into student leadership, eventually running for and winning the vice-presidency of the Graduate Student Association. While I do think that my previous experience has helped me in my role in student government, it was only by entering into student life as a student that I could really be a student again.

Finally, I know that it is easy to say this and very hard to live this, but I found that it is important to remain rounded. That means reading outside of your area of study. While I will never be an English major, I enjoy reading literature and thinking about incorporating literature into my theological thinking and teaching. I am a commuter so I have had the opportunity to listen to many of the books that have been on my “to read” list for a number of years, especially some of the classics. Not everyone has that opportunity, but commuting also eats up a lot of my time every day, time that could also be used for study and research. So everyone should be able to find some time to the task of becoming well-rounded. It is easy perhaps in the day of academic specialization to think that the “liberal” education is dead. I do not think that is necessarily the case, but that means that we as scholars and students need to be engaged in more than our discipline.

As grad students, we need to manage our time well. It is not an easy task, but it is life as it really is.

Because I have a family, I also made a commitment to my family and my wife that this endeavor of scholarship would not consume all of my time. I am still a husband and a father. If I could not manage these roles now, how would it be any better when I actually got a teaching job? In some regards, I actually am more involved in my kids’ lives because I am not tied to a schedule in the same way I was before. I frequently can pick my kids up from practices, I attend performances and sporting events with greater regularity than I was able to when I was an administrator. But it comes at a cost – that is time that I could spend reading and researching. As grad students, we need to manage our time well. It is not an easy task, but it is life as it really is.

Stay tuned for Part Three – Should I Attend Grad School? Or What was I thinking?

mikstell@gmail.com'

Michael J. Stell, MATS

I am a PhD student in theology at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. I am studying the theology of John Williamson Nevin, who taught in the seminary of the German Reformed Church in America in the mid-nineteenth century. He was also the president of Franklin and Marshall College and a friend to James Buchanan, the 15th president of the United States. I am currently a teaching fellow at CUA, teaching undergraduate theology and Church History classes. My goal is to teach at a college or university after completing my degree program. I am also the current vice-president of the graduate student association at CUA. Before life as a grad student (if that were an acronym it would be BLaaGS) I was a teacher and principal in secondary education at various Christian schools in the Northeast. My family and I currently live in Hagerstown, MD.

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