What is Your Trajectory? (Masterclass in Writing, Part 7)

Photo by Henry M. Diaz

In Masterclass in writing, Dr. Royce Francis not only weaves together theological reflection and practical suggestions on becoming a skilled writer in general and within one’s field, but also offers exercises to put the ideas in practice. If along the way you have missed some of “the classes,” click here. Questions and conversation are welcome—feel free to use the Comments section to express them, or email them to http://www.intervarsity.org/contact/emerging-scholars-network.

Scripture Focus

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil. — Hebrews 5:12-14, NRSV


I remember the first time I attended an NIH proposal writing workshop. As an environmental engineer by training, I had read papers written by NIH-supported researchers but I had never been initiated into that community. I did not do research sponsored by the NIH, nor did I work for any PI’s that were sponsored by NIH. My graduate research was sponsored by the NSF, and my advisors were primarily sponsored by NSF, EPA, and a number of other smaller sources.

When I attended the NIH proposal writing workshop with a colleague, I was struck by the large gap between the way the NIH researchers approached their work compared with the way I and many of my closest colleagues at the time approached our work. We tend to approach our work “one-project-at-a-time” and think of proposals as comprising a complete, standalone project. The project would not necessarily be connected to other work we had planned on doing, even if we had hoped to be known for a specific area of expertise. Our principal funding target, the NSF, did not consider the PI’s proposed project in the overall context of his or her vision of their complete program of research.

On the other hand, the NIH researchers would have an entire program of research in mind. They considered their project as a building block towards an entire artifice. Even the way that NIH researchers have their work reviewed is strikingly different from NSF. NSF panels are, most often, anonymous and ad hoc, and do not meet together for more than one set of proposals. NIH panels are called study sections, whose members are identifiable, and have a known term of service. This means that NIH panels review proposals with a greater degree of continuity, and that a well-prepared NIH PI can have a higher degree of confidence about their proposal’s audience.

As I reflected on all of this, I realized something about myself: although I was now an assistant professor, I still thought like a postdoc! I thought about my work as a set of unconnected projects. I did not pay nearly enough mind to the trajectory of my entire program. I paid no mind towards where I was going.

When we look at our scripture passage today, we see this exact same attitude among the early Christians. Their world had been completely turned upside down. Jews who could no longer center their lives on the temple were being led by someone who literally rose from the dead. How could this be reconciled with the Scriptures? More importantly, how do we build this community of believers around this resurrected rabbi? Could it be possible that we are living a lie and the body will be turned up sometime? Could someone possibly come back from death?

The author of Hebrews tells his or her people to snap out of it and stop thinking like children. Stop focusing on the elementary building blocks—“repentance from dead works and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment”—and start building on that foundation. Build by becoming “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” Don’t expect the worst, but discern where this community is going in Christ since all God’s promises in Him are Yes and Amen.

As we are writing, it is not enough to focus on our community’s framing and rhetorical expectations. We must always look towards how we will become integral members of those who shape the direction of the community. Is your trajectory towards the center of the community of practice? What is your plan for developing a sustained, systematic program of research?


This week, I want you to take some time to pray and meditate on your trajectory. Keep in mind the admonition of the Hebrews author: “by this time you ought to be teachers.” If you are like me, and already in a position of authority, what changes do you need to make to your thinking? What ways must you repent of, and how can you start asserting a more central role in your community of practice? If you are an undergraduate, a new graduate student, or even a postdoc, you may be on various stages of the periphery. However, you must make an effort to have your participation in the community legitimized through recognition of your trajectory towards the center of the community of practice. Here’s what I want you to do this week:

  1. Define what “by this time you ought to be teachers” means for your community of practice and you. If Christ is the one who has called you to this work, your work will transform you. So, when we are thinking about our answer to the question, “What does ‘you ought to be teachers’ mean?,” we should be thinking about the transformation that must take place inside of us. What sin is holding you back from being a teacher? What unbelief? What fears? What sloth? What prideful ambitions? I have realized that our areas of most profound weakness or even most entrenched sin are the areas that God has called us to walk through with Him. This is the place where your new identity will be unlocked, even as an academic. So when thinking about this question, you should be thinking about the future identity you are hoping to possess. What do you intend to be transformed into?
  2. Sketch out your trajectory. How will you become a “teacher”, that is, a core member of your community of practice? This plan should not be limited by fears, laziness, or sin. It should be fearlessly affirmative of what you sense God saying to you. You should not fear disappointment, because disappointment and rejection are probably the two most defining characteristics of academic life. Of course, you want to sketch your plans in pencil, not pen or ink, and be open to changes, but you also want to have a sketch to guide you. Your sketch doesn’t have to be super long-term, either. For some readers, you are only able to write a plan that will take a few months to a year. For other readers, you may not be able to put a timeline on your plan. For others, your plan may stretch out to 5 or even 10 years. For everyone, your sketch should include measurable goals or mile markers. By this, I mean that if you achieve a goal, you should be able to know that you have achieved it.
  3. Identify and connect with those who will legitimize your trajectory. One of the critical features of social learning theory is what is called “legitimate peripheral participation.” This means that although one must start on the periphery, the difference between someone who proceeds to the center versus one who does not continue to the center are the actions of those who are already core members towards the peripheral participant. In other words, core members must acknowledge and affirm the peripheral member’s intentions, and advocate for them as they proceed to the center of the community of practice. Who is doing this for you? If you don’t have a group of people who can do this, start building that group. Identify folks who you’d like to connect with and who would give you good advice on your research plans. It is hard to provide criteria for how to decide who these people should be, but this is a minimum: these should be folks whom you have the capability to read your plan, and have a candid conversation—in love—about its merits. They should also be able to help connect you to opportunities you will need in order to bring your plan to reality. Write to them and try to start at least a collegial relationship.

This was a long, but I hope helpful post. Please let me know your experiences, past and future, with identifying your trajectory.

Peace and Blessings.


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Royce Francis

Royce is an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at the George Washington University. He conducts and teaches under the broad theme “SEED”: Strategic [urban] Ecologies, Engineering, and Decision making. His research and teaching interests include infrastructure sustainability and resilience measurement, risk analysis, and drinking water systems analysis. Royce is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the Society for Risk Analysis (SRA).

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