I have tried to use this blog series to draw attention to the long train of pivotal, often harrowing decisions that wannabe-scholars must make on their way from interested college student to professor. In every choice we make along the rocky road of graduate education—not just in our choice of advisor, dissertation topic and research community, but in the all communities and cultural movements we join outside of our workspace—we are ultimately making decisions that construct the design, reach and pitch of our megaphone. Long before we ever become professors, we have already made quite a few decisions about whom we want to identify with, whom we want to hear us, and where we are going to plant ourselves for ongoing dialogue.
Some of us will build an academic megaphone that can be tuned to engage with local church communities. Others will be content to be heard by a small community of colleagues at their speaking voice, but build a megaphone outside of their research fields that speaks to other concerns they find important. I have tried to argue that as much as the shape of our megaphone depends on the communities that allow us entry (be those Church Sunday School classes or academic research groups), they are also dependent on the communities we choose to dig in and ultimately plant ourselves. At various points in graduate school we might be given “the microphone” to speak and be heard, but it is the megaphone we build that earns us the name of scholar.
As I have said before, a lot of the material on spiritual and intellectual formation as a “Christian Scholar” that I have encountered in graduate school is really tailored to people who already have pretty well-defined research interests, posts of academic authority, and long term job contracts with some degree of academic freedom. Our examples in the “Integration of Faith and Learning” are so often either well-regarded scholars who are using their megaphones prudently, or professors at sectarian universities whose job description already encourages, if not requires, such work. Rarely, I find, do we make room for discussion among graduate students in big, secular universities about the many, cost-laden choices that go into how we build our communities.
We must admit that there are costs to spending so much time in fellowship with other Christians during graduate school. In choosing to mold ourselves around the personalities and dynamics of one group of people, we are choosing to not to do the same with another group of people. We need to be praying throughout this process that God would give us the boldness and courage to take on the voice that He is calling us to take. For some of us, this voice is provocative and controversial; for others it is understated and humble. The megaphone that some of us build will be specially tuned for the community of “Christian Scholars,” but the megaphone that others build will be specially tuned for communities that only enhance our anonymity in the social networks of Christian believers.
And that, I want to encourage other Christian graduate students, is okay. You are not more of a Christian if the megaphone that God helps you build is specially tuned to audiences that identify as “believers.” Some of us, like me, have spent years banging our heads against the wall to little avail, trying to get communities of self-identifying Christians to listen to us. I hardly thought then about the possibility that the megaphone God was building for me was not calibrated to that audience, but now it seems so clear. God plants us in all kinds of communities for all kinds of purposes. Our job is to dig, plant and bear fruit, right there where He planted us. When we wonder whom our megaphone is calibrated for and where we stand, we ought to pray that God would give us eyes to see ourselves as He sees us. None of us ought to bury our talents because we fear the risks involved in using them.
When Mike first offered me the opportunity to post here, about a month ago, I was thrilled that I would finally have “an audience.” I imagined that I might finally take the opportunity to vent through my myriad frustrations with graduate education and Christian community, but God led me differently. As soon as I realized that I already had an audience assembled before me, I not only stopped feeling suffocated, but I realized that it was I who had allowed myself, because of my expectations about my megaphone, to ever be placed in such a suffocating bubble! In some ways we find our voice, and in other ways we build our megaphone, but all of this needs to be done with a great deal of prayer and discernment.
My encouragement to Christian graduate students and scholars is twofold: a) Praise God for the voice that He has given you, and get to know the communities to which you are called, for which your voice is calibrated. Beware that the communities God calls you to may not be communities you would have chosen for yourself. And b) You are finite and your community will be finite. Embrace this as a blessing that encourages humility and reminds you of your humanity, not a thorn in your side.
On that note, I ought to close this as I began and practice what I preach. If you agree, disagree, or want to talk more about these things, then in addition to commenting below, feel free to friend me on facebook or send me an email (my full name at gmail.com). Virtual communities are a wonderful way to build real communities. And last, thanks so much to Mike and Tom for inviting me to write here this month. I really appreciate this blog, and it’s been quite an honor to take part in it. Stay cool this Memorial Day Weekendl!
About the author:
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_.