The Future of ESN

This is my final post on the Emerging Scholars Blog.

Well, my final planned post, anyway. Tom insisted that I leave the door open for guest posts in the future, but I won’t be writing here every Tuesday as I have for the past few years. For my final post, Tom asked me to offer some thoughts about how far ESN has come and where it might be going in the future.

I became involved with the Emerging Scholars Network because I wished it had existed when I was an undergraduate. I’ve told this story many times, but I can’t remember if I’ve ever written about here on the blog. As a senior at the University of Louisville, I was convinced that I was supposed to get a PhD and become an English professor. I had long loved literature, and my conversion drove me to ask the question, “How can I integrate my love for Christ with my love for literature?” Through a couple of InterVarsity staff (Robbie Castleman and Terry Morrison), I was put in touch with three Christian English professors. I emailed them and asked where I could get a PhD that would enable me to pursue this question.

From my current perspective, I now see the question as a bit naïve. If I had read George Marsden’s Soul of the American University or The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, I would have known that US research universities – the kind that grant PhDs that lead to English professorship – had long ago abandoned any pretense to be Christian. Still, I wrote the three professors and eagerly awaited their responses.

The first wrote back, “I don’t know, but don’t do what I did.” (What that was, was never quite clear.) The second wrote back, “I don’t know – maybe Baylor or Notre Dame,” but he admitted this was mostly because of their reputation, not because of any direct knowledge of the faculty there. At this point, I was becoming a bit discouraged, and starting to sense that a literature PhD might be a lonely road. Finally, the third professor wrote me back and said, bluntly, “You can’t do that. But you can follow my path, get an MDiv for a theological foundation, and do the integrative work yourself.”

That’s how I found myself applying to Regent College and entering its Christianity and the Arts program in 2000, rather than any of the PhD programs I had been considered. I gained the theological foundation I need, as well as a cohort of like-minded Christian friends. Along the way I also discovered that I might not have the temperament necessary for the lonely road of a humanities PhD, so I entered the workforce in Cincinnati. A few years later, when I discovered the Emerging Scholars Network on InterVarsity’s website, I immediately recognized that it was the kind of thing that would have been incredibly valuable to me.

Growth of the Emerging Scholars Network

ESN’s mission to equip the next generation of Christian scholars has grown incredibly over the past 6 years.

  • Membership: The number of ESN members has increased from 2,695 in June 2007 to more than 4,000 today. Our Facebook page recently passed 1,000 members, and now has more than 1,300.
  • Reach: The Emerging Scholars Blog, launched in August 2008, has become an invaluable tool in our efforts to reach young Christian scholars. In March 2008, the blog received 1,500 visits; in March 2013, the blog received more than 11,500, an increase of more than 600%.
  • Resources: In addition to a new website, ESN has launched a seminar for prospective graduate students and numerous campus resources for students, faculty, and campus ministers. Earlier this month, I wrote an article for InterVarsity advising students on how to thrive in graduate school.

Since 2007, more than 160 ESN members have obtained faculty positions. Praise God!

There have been major conceptual shifts, as well. When I began working with ESN, a major theme in books at that time was encouraging Christian students simply to use their minds and integrate their thinking with a Christian world view. There is always a need for this, of course, and always a need to train the next generation, but it seems like we have turned a corner, from discipleship of the mind having to be reintroduced as a concept to more substantial conversations about what this discipleship should look like.

Another change has been the renaissance of Christian higher education. When ESN was created, I think it was assumed that, to have real influence in the world and in the academy, working at a secular institution was the only possible route. Christian colleges and universities have stepped up their game significantly, in terms of both scholarship and their missions to influence the world beyond their denominations. Professional and academic societies for Christians, as well as Christian organizations that focus on the life of the mind, have grown and multiplied, so that the landscape is now filled with places for young Christian scholars to receive support and encouragement.

Ongoing Challenges

I see two major challenges facing ESN in the future, both of which can be described as the Post-[blank] Academy.

The Post-Secular Academy: The academy went “post-Christian” a long time ago, and now I think it is becoming post-secular. What do I mean by this? Secularism is a tricky concept to begin with, but for most of the 20th-century, there was a basic assumption of a “public square” within secular institutions, which may or may not be friendly to religious voices, but which still was a shared space for the community to express its values, communal decisions, and disagreements among its members. The post-secular world, meanwhile, is far more tribal, with warring groups seeking not merely to have their views validated, but to silence and exclude their opponents. I think the Martin Gaskell case at the University of Kentucky exemplifies this kind of move: it’s not enough to disagree with our opponent; we have to make sure he doesn’t even have a voice. There can be opportunities for Christians in a post-secular environment, as long as we make it clear that we won’t play along with “might makes right” power politics.

The Post-Tenure Academy: Of more immediate concern to ESN members, thought, might be the post-tenure reality at most US universities. There’s both a personal and missional cost to the post-tenure academy for ESN members.

Personally, it means that it is far harder to make a living as a full-time scholar/teacher, as well as far more difficult to justify the decision to enter a PhD program. I’m not sure how much more I need to say here, except to say that the personal, familial, and vocational stress on graduate students and adjunct faculty makes the need for campus ministers serving them all the more urgent.

Missionally, the post-tenure academy might mean the loss of the next generation of Christian writers and scholars. Historically, an incredible percentage of influential Christian writers have been tenured faculty, as have been faculty advisers to InterVarsity chapters. We still don’t know what effect the loss of tenure will have on Christian voices in the academy or on witnessing communities on campus.

The Future of ESN

How will ESN address these major pastoral, vocational, and missional challenges? I don’t know. I do know, however, that it’s in the very capable head, heart, and hands of Tom Grosh, Craig Gartland, and the Faculty Ministry Leadership Team. I thank God for their work and dedication, as well as the gifts God has given to them.

To help them navigate this future, can I make one, final fundraising plea on their behalf? (That sentence felt very good to write!) If ESN has blessed you, if you want to see Christian voices continue to be developed in the academy, if you want to see young Christian scholars flourish, please consider a gift to support the work of the Emerging Scholars Network.

Thank you, for your support and encouragement over the years. I praise God when I consider your faithfulness and the work that he is doing through you. It has been one of the great blessings of my life to hear stories of success in the lab, classroom, library, and, yes, even in committee meetings, from ESN members. May God continue to bless you in all you do.


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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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    Andy Walsh commented on May 28, 2013 Reply

    Thanks, Mike, for this and for the years of faithfulness! Best wishes for your new opportunities.

    “The post-secular world, meanwhile, is far more tribal, with warring groups seeking not merely to have their views validated, but to silence and exclude their opponents.”

    I had a conversation recently on what, if anything, was “new” about New Atheism. I proposed the idea that New Atheism assumes there is no God, as opposed to trying to establish that point. Further, it assumes one day everyone will (have to?) agree and there will be no dissenting voices; the work is then accelerating the arrival of that day. This seems to me to be consistent with your general post-secular description.

    Another related rhetorical device is the assertion “You are going to wind up on the losing side of history,” which I’ve heard a lot of lately in various contexts, and which is really just a clever way of begging the question.

    Anna Lee-Winans commented on June 2, 2013 Reply

    Thanks for all your thoughtful service, Mike. You are a gift.

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