Derek Melleby: Academic Faithfulness

Derek MellebyWhile I was the Coalition for Christian Outreach’s Jubilee conference a couple of weekends ago, I had the chance to sit down with a few very interesting people and interview them for the blog. One of these was Derek Melleby, the Director of the College Transition Initiative for the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding. With Donald Opitz, Derek wrote The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness. Derek and I discussed the impact that his book has had, his work in helping students transition to college, and the important roles of parents and faculty play in the lives of students.

In the coming days, I’ll be posting interviews with Dallas Baptist professor David Naugle, ESN member and Johns Hopkins MD/PhD student Jimmy Lin, and editor/writer/teacher Alissa Wilkinson.

Mike Hickerson: First of all, I want to just thank you for the book that you and Donald Opitz wrote, The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness. We recommend it a lot to the students in ESN. What results have you seen coming out of that book? How have you seen students being affected by it, or other ideas being spun off out of the book?

The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness

The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness

Derek Melleby: That’s a good question. On one level, there were other books like it that say similar things, and we didn’t think that we were writing a new kind of book. I think of Engaging God’s World [by Cornelius Plantinga], or The Fabric of Faithfulness [by Steven Garber]. There are really helpful books that say very similar things, but we thought what was needed was a book for what I call the 85 percent. Some of those books about being faithful in academics, or world view, or integration of faith and learning seem to be written on a level for people who are already in that game, or already engaged in that way. What we hoped to do with the Outrageous Idea was to reach the average reader, the students who maybe hadn’t even thought about it before, to share that God does care about academics, that your learning matters to God.

Being faithful to Christ means little things, like paying attention in class, doing your work with integrity, and caring about the things you’re learning. I had a student who didn’t realize that I was the co-author of the book, but just saw the book on the book table. She picked it up, showed it to a friend of hers, and said, “This book saved my life!” Now, I know that’s a little exaggerated, and she was that kind of person, it seemed. But she said, “You know, I take so many classes, and they just seem boring to me, or I just do the least amount of work to get the best grade that I can get. This book reminded me to take it more seriously. Sometimes, I’ll be sitting in a class, and I’ll think, ‘Why do we have to learn this? How will I ever use this in the real world?’ And the Outrageous Idea made me stop and say, ‘No, I’m here for a reason; God has me here to learn these things for a reason.'” So, it helped her to take learning more seriously.

Mike: In ESN, we’re trying to get students to think about becoming a professor. That’s a great point about the 85 percent. There’s sometimes an assumption that students are going to try their hardest “just because.” I’ve even known a professor who said he was a C student as an undergrad, and then something clicked for him after he graduated. He went back and got a Masters, then got a PhD. Now he’s a professor, and even started a whole department at his new university. Whereas when he was an undergrad, no one would have ever thought he could do that, or even finish college.

Derek: That’s the kind of thing I mean. It’s part of my own story. I was a part of a good college ministry, but I was living this compartmentalized life, and not realizing it. I had a really good campus ministry, where we were asking really good questions about the Bible, about theology, even about the integration of faith and culture to some degree, and then I had my classroom experience, where I was asking separate kinds of questions in there. I studied political science, so I was thinking about politics and government, and the nature of man, and what it all meant for how we go about doing politics. For whatever reason, unless you’re intentional about it, you never bring those two worlds together. I’m doing discipleship and evangelism on Wednesday and Thursday nights, and then I’m going to class. One person said, “Worship and scholarship are like two ships passing in the night.” What we hoped is this little book can just invite students to bring those two worlds together.

Mike: Is there anything that you would add to the book if you were rewriting it today, or if you had a second edition coming out?

Derek: That’s a good question. Each chapter concludes with two or three other suggested books. Like I said a minute ago, there are other books that can take it to the next steps. There are other good resources out there. We really thought the gap in literature was a basic level invitation for students to just think differently and more faithfully about learning. I think it accomplishes that well, and then you can go on to explore those other titles. I’m working on a book right now which is even a step further back. It’s the book you read before The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness, the seven questions to ask before you go to college. Don’s been talking about maybe doing the book that you would read after the Outrageous Idea as you exit college. So, this little book I’m working on will be the book you’d read gearing up for college. The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness would be the book that would kind of shape your college experience. And then, maybe, another little book as you leave college and go out into the world.

Mike: I can really see a need for that. The transition into college is tough, which makes a good segue to what you do with CPYU. Why don’t you tell a little bit about what you do with their College Transition Initiative.

Derek: The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding is a youth ministry organization that studies youth culture. It’s been around for 20 years. Walt Mueller started it, when he was a youth pastor at the time. His church was noticing the cultural generational gap. The parents in his congregation were saying, “We’re having a hard time relating to our kids for whatever reason.” It was the early ’80s. MTV was just coming on the scene. Teenagers as a viable market was really taking the world by storm. So, that was creating all kinds of teenage culture, youth culture, youth worlds, and parents were just not exactly sure how to do it.

The parents of this congregation saw that Walt was able to connect with the students in a way that they weren’t able to connect. They took it upon themselves to give Walt some time to do a sabbatical and to just study youth culture and then come back to the congregation and help parents think about the world of teenagers. His first Sunday School class called “Understanding Today’s Youth Culture” had maybe 10 people in it. Then, the next week it had 30. By the time it’s over there’s, like, 200 people. And they’re coming from other churches, so he developed some curriculum and writing and resources to help parents connect with their kids. Then, after a few years of being youth pastor and doing these seminars and things on the side, he decided to do it full-time.

CPYU has been going on for 20 years, but a few years ago Walt had been hearing from other people that this issue of college transition or this time just isn’t going well for many students. The statistics were thrown out about students that leave the faith; those that grow up in the church and then go off to college and leave the faith. I wish those statistics were stronger than they could be, but they’re anecdotal and I think we just know that it is a time when students make major decisions about whether or not they’ll take ownership of the things that they believe. So, there’s that element to it, but in general, culturally, fewer and fewer students are really making the most of the college experience. You know, only 52% of students who enter college graduate within six years. It’s not just a faith thing. It’s a cultural thing. Students aren’t transitioning well to college. So, Walt thought, “Could CPYU be in a position to provide resources for students and parents?” He asked me to come on to explore that. I started about four years ago, and the main result is a seminar that I give. I go around to churches and schools and camps and conferences and present on making a successful transition.

Mike: From the seminar, I’m sure there is a lot that you could tell us, but what are two or three things that parents can do?

Derek: What I tried to do [in designing the seminar] is that I didn’t want to repeat what a good guidance counselor would do or even good parenting at this time. I didn’t want to have a seminar that helps students decide what college to go to. The other thing is, as you walk into a room, you don’t know where people are in the process. You don’t know if they’ve already decided on a college, if they’re going to a Christian school or a secular school. I also didn’t want to repeat what a good orientation program will give them — how to relate well with roommates, or how to navigate some of the safety concerns of college.

So, I thought, “What can I do where it would hit the majority of the people that come into a seminar like mine?” The first thing it does is gets the parents and students together. My seminar is successful if I open a door. The best feedback I get in evaluation forms is when the parent says to me, “I knew I needed to have a conversation with my son or daughter about something, and this just provided a third voice to speak into it. You opened the door to have that conversation.”

That’s some of the theory behind it, but, it’s really the four questions to ask before you go to college. If you don’t take a proactive approach and wrestle with these questions now, you run the risk of having these questions answered by other people when you get there. The first question is, “Why are you even going to college?” You know college becomes this assumed next step after high school. It’s funny, when you read the research about why students don’t transition well to college or make the most of the college experience, almost all of it comes back: because they have no idea why they’ve gone in the first place. If you throw thousands of people together in a confined area who have no idea why they’re there, and haven’t really thought through their goals and intent — that’s why we have some of the [problems] that we have. I have them think through, “why are you going?” The world says you go to college to get a degree, to get a job, to make money, that’s where college fits within the world’s story. Then I say there’s another story you can be shaped by, the biblical story. If you’re shaped by the biblical story, college would be about developing your mind, discovering your gifts, and discerning God’s call. One writer says, “College is a calling to prepare for further calling.” So, I talk about college as an opportunity to increase your service ability for God. If you go to college with that kind of 3-D mindset, then you’ll have more to serve God and your neighbors with after school.

The next big question is, “What do you believe?” That just gets at these are the years your central convictions will be shaped. For many of us, our faith is kind of “outside in.” You know we shake our head at the right time and raise our hand when it’s appropriate, and we,get rewarded for those things. Then you go off to college and now is the time where you have to say, “Will I believe this stuff?” I try to have an honest conversation about what doubt and faith look like in the Christian life and how it comes together, and try to leave them with [the idea that] God is not surprised by your doubts or your questions, and to seek truth.

Then I talk about “who are you?” I encourage them to think about identity formation. It’s so easy to find our identity in external things, instead of internal/eternal things that you’re a child of God. So I talk about where some of those temptations will come, during the college years. Finally, very practically, [I end with the question] “With whom will you surround yourself?” Think about the community that you’ll have, the friends that you’ll make; how to make good friend choices, and especially the importance of Christian community, campus ministry groups, and local church.

Mike: In InterVarsity, we often work with Christian faculty who are at secular universities. I think it’s safe to say that all of them have a strong concern for students. We’ve found that’s one of the distinguishing marks between a Christian professors and other professors, especially at research universities. Is there anything that a Christian professor can do, to help students make that transition to the university? Anything practical that they can do that would fit well within what they’re already doing as a faculty member?

Derek: One of the best, most memorable experiences I had as an undergrad, was when faculty would open their homes and invite students over. Now, the ones that I’m thinking about weren’t probably motivated by Christian convictions, but they just cared for students. That made a huge difference. I remember those professors the most, and I had genuine, serious conversations with them about things, more than what we were learning about, but bigger issues about life. Some of the best professors that I can think of, are people who meet with students, especially in the home. I think there is something about providing a place, for students, because they’re around people their own age all the time. They’re away from home: your hospitality can be a wonderful ministry opportunity for people.

Mike: That’s a great word. As soon as you said that, I immediately thought of some faculty I know who have done that, and have really made that an intentional practice, to open their homes and be hospitable. That’s all the questions I have – thank you, Derek.

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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