How do you explain the academic culture to ‘outsiders?’

Earlier today, I shared from What am I doing? Shouldn’t seven years of graduate school have helped me avoid taking a job just to have a job? when commenting on Are PhDs a Waste Product?  I must confess that I can’t get another section from the Chronicle Careers piece out of my head (Note:  Is this a sign that the author has a potential op-ed writing career?), so here it is:

The academic world is hard to explain to anyone who isn’t living in it with us. And I don’t mean that in any sort of “I’m smarter than you” way. Academic culture is just hard to explain. A friend and fellow doctoral student once said something about the profession that really resonated with me: She said that explaining a Ph.D. to someone with a professional degree is like saying to a parent that you understand what it’s like to raise a child because you have a puppy. Again, not to sound pompous, but the two are apples and oranges. They’re still both fruits, but you don’t want to go biting into the orange like you would the apple.

What are your thoughts?  How do you describe the academic culture to outsiders,’whether family, friends, neighbors, or acquaintances? Digging deeper, how do you give testimony to following Christ in the academic culture with fellow believers who are outsiders to the academic culture?  I’ll share some observations after I return from a family retreat, but I’d love to hear from you first.

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Tom Grosh IV

Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the South Central PA Area Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). The Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine is the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!

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    Daryl Climenhaga commented on October 9, 2008 Reply

    I haven’t often tried, although I teach in a seminary. In our case, the seminary must work constantly to keep in touch with the church. If we don’t keep practice and theory together, we go out of business. That aside, one works as constantly to translate academic “stuff” into popular language, and to make the connections between our theology (or biblical studies, and so on) and life in church and society. C.S. Lewis used to say that if you can’t explain what you are talking about in the English of ordinary people, you don’t understand it yourself.

    Alan Young commented on October 10, 2008 Reply

    I think the Academic Culture is a little like the old monastic scholars in the Middle Ages. We like to pursue ideas because they are interesting (even if outsiders don’t think so!) However, because of the economics of it, we are embedded in institutions that pay the bills by providing product to students and constituencies who are often much more pragmatic (“What kind of job will that get me?”). For faculty, this can be frustrating and discouraging at times, but as teachers we kind of live for the occasional student who “gets it” and wants to join the monastic culture as well. But the tension between Academic Culture and the outsider world is felt every time we face a class full of students! Most students don’t love knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

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