I was surprised, though maybe I shouldn’t be, at the nature of responses to my last post. I expected to hear a variety of answers about where each of us of first found our voice and discovered our efficacy. Was it in your favorite class in college, or in your relationship with a younger sibling? Was it on a Church board, in a Parent-Teacher organization, or on a missions trip? Where did you first feel heard and validated, and see your work invested as time well spent? I was concerned with some kind of defining moment in your path from regular person to learned academic. Ultimately, I wanted to know why you chose the academy—if you chose the academy—as the place for you to pursue your work? I was surprised, though maybe I shouldn’t be, that the piece I shared of my own quest to find my academic voice was taken instead as a complaint about the glass ceilings for women in ministry. It indeed hurts me deeply to see how much women have been hampered from Christian ministry for generations, but I was trying to stress the positive: many of us have found other ways to compensate for this challenge. How did you, male or female, arrive at your perch of authority? What microphone do you use as you make your way to the megaphone?
Our discussions of the integration of faith and learning these days so often assume that we are already creatures of authority in our academic field. We assume that all of us, by virtue of our association with the academy and our dabbling in even a bit of higher education, are already knowledgeable within a particular terrain of thought or culture, and have some degree of authority within a particular body of knowledge. We are encouraged that we need to be careful how we use our perch of authority, for our stewardship of our gifts has more of an impact on the world than what we might expect. I imagine that many of us found the Emerging Scholars Network because we wanted to further discuss this encouraging message. I certainly did.
However, I wanted to complicate the way we frame this calling, especially with regard to graduate students who are still trying to find our voices within a particular field. What can seem like an exciting challenge to academics who already have perches of authority (read- some kind of teaching or research gig where you feel visible), can be equally discouraging to those of us who are still yearning, searching and struggling to find an audience to hear us. So much of graduate school is about building an audience: an advisor you trust; a cohort of other graduate students and faculty you trust, and ultimately an intellectual community who believe that the final results of your research matter to them and the larger community they fit into. Therefore, even if your research challenges particular assumptions within your field, you are not actually supposed to challenge anyone to the point that they wonder if you fit into their intellectual community. At least not that significantly, or anyone you know, personally. Qualifying exams, preliminary exams and oral defenses, the landmarks in time of your graduate school experience, are all moments specially designed to make sure that you fit into the intellectual community that you are already supposed to be participating in. Your life is not about using a perch of authority wisely; it’s about continually defending how and why you belong. It’s about making others comfortable with you. Like any other hazing experience, it’s about doing what it takes, within reason, to prove that you deserve that perch of membership. Otherwise, you know you will never win that perch of authority.
I have wondered frequently why Christians interested in discussing the “integration of faith and learning” have not spent more time discussing what, and who, is lost this hazing process. Sure, have discussed the loss of our humility, the loss of our identity as a regular person, and sometimes even the loss of our childbearing years. However, many do not see enough wrong with the graduate school hazing process–a process that culminates in the roulette of finding a job–to see a need for it to be redeemed. Many see sets of testable knowledge as virtually objective, and see themselves as authority figures in their own areas of expertise simply by virtue of their successful passing through the hazing process. And perhaps sometimes this is true. However, my own experiences in graduate school have made quite obvious the fact that sets of testable knowledge are really just as subjective as any set of book reviews given by two professors. Preliminary exam questions upon this set of testable knowledge again do nothing but express what the examiners find important. And, as I have learned the hard way, if you don’t tell professors what they want to hear the first time they ask, they will ask you again, expecting that next time your answer will be different.
What do you think is gained and lost in this academic hazing process?
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_.