Learning to See (Scholar’s Compass)

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When I teach students to look at art, the first question I ask them is “what is it?” By this, I do not mean “what do you think you see?” but “what do you actually see?” – Sarah Awad, “Art Identity: Christian. Artist. Stranger.” In Faithful is Successful.

Sarah Awad is writing about art here, and her words are deeply relevant to Christian artists. But at the risk of wresting her words out of their context, I think there’s something academics outside the arts can learn from her reflections on how professional artists look at a painting or a sculpture. When we look at anything—a literary text, a chemical structure, an animal habitat, an account from history—do we try to see what it is, not just what we expect it to be?


Awad says that when many people view contemporary art, they miss something about it because they start not with the question “what is it doing?” but with the question “is it doing what I think it should be doing?” For instance, viewers may miss the pleasure of a great abstract if their only question is “Why isn’t this a realist portrait or landscape?” Awad leaves plenty of space for critical judgment and for personal taste in art, but she asks us to start first by trying to understand what the artist is doing and see if there is anything to appreciate there, before we ask if it’s what we want art to be doing.

I can think of at least three areas where Christian academics have a similar choice to the one Awad describes:

1. Engaging with colleagues

In academic life, it’s all too easy to make quick judgments about whether what a colleague is doing fits with our ideas of what our field should be doing. Awad’s questions are a great reminder to learn from colleagues who may have a different methodological or theoretical view, or may be working on something that doesn’t initially interest us. Even if we don’t wind up agreeing, we can build relationships by listening well to colleagues, as David Vishanoff and Oli Marjot reminded us earlier in this series.

2. Engaging with students

I taught freshman English composition frequently while in graduate school, and it’s quite easy to approach another research paper on internet gambling or school-related stress with a very clear grading template in mind. I did need to make it a priority in the class that papers fit certain expectations, such as responsible research practices and clear argumentation. But I found that things went better when I could think of the student first as a writer I had the gift of reading, and second as someone to whom I gave feedback. If I first tried to figure out what students were trying to do, and then gave feedback on how to do it more effectively, it was a better experience for everyone.

3. Engaging with the theory of a discipline

The famous theorists in a number of disciplines can seem (or actually be) pretty hostile to faith. There are absolutely times when we need to challenge a viewpoint courteously and courageously from our faith perspective. But seeing what’s actually there when we engage with a prevalent theory lets us learn a lot. Sometimes the theory is more open to faith than expected: after reading popular apologetics critiques of postmodernism in high school, I was surprised in graduate school to find the degree to which some postmodern theorists were making space for scholars to engage with faith. That’s not to say I signed on for everything about postmodernism without critical engagement, but I came to see the aspects of postmodernism that welcome faith as well as the ones that challenge it.

I’ll never forget the evening we discussed Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 in my great books seminar style MA program. Two students I knew to be major fans of capitalism were vocal in the discussion. One of the two wore a parody T-shirt to class with a Coca Cola style red and white design and the slogan “Enjoy Capitalism.” He spent most of the evening attacking Marx. The other student spent most of his time trying to figure out what Marx was actually doing in the text we were reading. His thoughtful questions and fairminded efforts to summarize the difficult text were a great service to the rest of the class. I think the first student was a Christian and the other student was a humanist, but the second student’s approach became a model I tried to live up to in my graduate studies. Because he was willing first to see things as they were and then to figure out how they fit with his own views, he supported the learning of the whole class. May we be willing to serve in this way too.


Where in your academic life could you ask, “What do I actually see?”

Who in your academic life may need your listening and understanding?


Oh Lord, You who served others when You had every right to be served, who listened when You had every right to be heard, make us listeners and learners. Let us have eyes to see the people around us, the things in Your world, and the work of our hands. Through Christ our Lord we come to You. Amen.

Works Cited

Awad, Sarah. “Art Identity: Christian. Artist. Stranger.” Faithful is Successful. Faithful is Successful: Notes to the Driven Pilgrim. Nathan Grills, David E. Lewis, and S. Joshua Swamidass, eds. Denver, Colorado: Outskirts Press, 2014. 244-259.

Image courtesy of geralt at Pixabay.com

Scholars-Compass-image-40x40Note: Part of both the Scholar’s Compass series and the Faithful is Successful series on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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Hannah Eagleson

Hannah Eagleson is Interim Associate Director of InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). She launched and still edits ESN's collaboratively written devotional for academics, Scholar's Compass. Hannah also crafts other community-building events and materials for ESN. She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Delaware, and an MA from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD. she’s working on a novel about a dragon who gave up fending off knights to become a tea importer in eighteenth-century England.

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One Comment

  • Gerald Rau commented on May 19, 2015 Reply

    This is certainly true when people, both Christians and non-Christians, approach evolution/creation issues. Many, perhaps most, label the argument and make a decision on it before they even consider it, rather than listening to what the author is really saying.

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