Campus Carry, Civic Conversations, and Public Intellectuals

One scholar explores his role as he writes about campus carry laws. Thank-you to Matthew Boedy, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia, for considering the relationship between Christ, scholar(s), and what many have called “public scholarship.” For Matthew’s earlier posts on the blog, all related to the job search and the academic journey, follow this link. For Emerging Scholars Network blog posts exploring Public Intellectuals click here. ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director, Emerging Scholars Network

The Georgia legislature has passed a bill to the governor to make my state the 10th state to allow concealed firearms on college campuses. That is, guns in classrooms, faculty offices, and day care centers on campus, but not student housing or sporting events. I have spent much time in the last few weeks writing op-eds, tweeting, and emailing in order to block this bill. My effort and the efforts of the university system (represented by its chancellor, every university president, and every campus police chief), anti-gun groups, and not a few students had a surprising effect on the governor. Near the end of the legislative session, and after announcing support for the bill a few weeks prior, the governor, Nathan Deal, expressed significant changes needed to be made before he would sign.  If he does not veto, it becomes law.

Clearly, I think the academic and Christian response to this bill is to veto it.

And so here is the rub: there will be some of you who disagree. You all might side with my colleague, a female professor, who said that as an educator she would hate guns in the classroom, but as a mother of a daughter, she might like them on campus. There are many Christians in my state and in others (Texas being the largest) that have urged such legislation. And so it will come to your state soon, if not already (a recent Florida bill died while South Carolina and Tennessee have bills pending). Since the massacre at Virginia Tech and the Supreme Court handed down its 2008 Heller v. Washington, D.C. decision, gun rights groups have made this particular bill – known as “campus carry” – a priority.

The legal, moral, ethical, pedagogical, or constitutional arguments cannot be separated from any “Christian” arguments on either side. And to merely allow the Christian stance to be that we should merely argue in a Christian way (i.e. with a Christ-like tone) refuses the essential questions of the issue.

I won’t use my space here to convince you of my position. You can read that here. I want to consider the relationship between Christ, scholar, and what many have called “public scholarship.”

Much of the discussion in Christian circles is how to be a “Christian scholar” or a scholar who happens to be Christian or to promote a theology of higher education in “secular” universities. And there is the related conversation – much en vogue in this election year – about how Christians generally engage with politics.

These two conversations for the academic intersect at “public scholarship.” This phrase highlights our unique position and responsibility. Some of us demur any connection between Christianity, scholarship, and the public. Some deny the title “public intellectual.” Some just don’t have time with five courses a semester.

But if indeed we claim that Christianity is not a private affair merely shared in public, if we claim that scholarship is not just merely for the “academic community” of professors (and maybe a few students), and if we claim that higher education is one of the most important public goods we have – if we claim all that then “public scholarship” is required.

Let me say that what I wrote for my state’s largest newspaper wasn’t scholarship in the traditional sense – no citations, no footnotes, not even in MLA format.  And it most likely will not help me get tenure at my institution, a school that honors teaching above all else. But I thought it needed to be said, in public, beyond my classroom. [By the way I did spend a class period on the issue in my first-year composition class that is studying issues in higher education. My students were 2-1 against it.]

My opinions were not justified through scripture cites, but commonplace arguments of my field of rhetoric, the humanities generally, and education as a collective enterprise. I did play on the faiths of some of the legislators, but I did not pronounce a dogmatic incompatibility of Christianity and guns. I spoke about what I thought was a common belief shared by me, my audience, and general readers in my state: the ways in which the presence of guns (on the persons of both faculty and students) would change the classroom. My point was that in any pedagogical situation the presence of lethal weapons changes that relationship, a change that can’t be statistically verified, but real nonetheless.

I recount in this way to suggest a method to public scholarship as a Christian. It is my expert opinion as a Christian who has lived through three mostly disastrous decades of Christian engagement with politics that we do not best convert people through political issues when we seek to pronounce the Christian position on it, when we use politics as medium for the gospel. Second, it is my opinion as an emerging scholar in rhetoric that my field speaks to all people and also has deep ties to Christianity. And as a “public scholar” I note those two facts while urging a collective, democratic approach to issues at hand.

You can do the same.

Furthermore, even with a degree in a specific field, I am not limited by that field; I can speak publicly about issues outside it. Media organizations, people who read newspapers, people who blog for big audiences still want to hear the ‘learned’ opinions not merely of the expert, but the general scholar. The latter can, because of their experience teaching generations of students or having read widely, offer important and productive views on issues of the day. I also voice my opinions on “campus carry” because I am a citizen of a state that had a bill on the issue up for debate. I voice such opinions but I also do what Stanley Fish, a professor emeritus of law in Florida, recommends: I ‘academizied’ the issue, putting it into an educational context. But I am also not merely facilitating discussion and student opinion; I am professing one.

And because what I do is intertwined, even unconsciously, with my Christian faith, then I am a Christian public scholar.

You can do the same.

In many ways the intellectual or the professor has replaced the pastor of generations ago who led public discussions. And let us learn from their mistakes – how they lost such a role. We cannot speak for any one institution (that would get us fired, most likely) but we can speak for the larger institution of higher education. We should not speak for any one church or denomination, but we can speak thru the historical tenets of the faith that is as part of the public square as any other ‘ism’ or ‘ology.’

I recall a scholar in my field who described how our field ‘hosts’ issues for a time – giving them new life, perhaps new publics. This is what I see as role for public scholarship, particular by Christians. The public square is now built to be no longer dominated by a wide, encompassing and governing ism or ology. This is not to say that Christianity as a wide and encompassing worldview isn’t needed. It is just that it no longer governs the square. Theology as a blanket for the entire space has been irreparably blocked, both by the diversity we live in but also by those Christian leaders who have mistakenly thought it would work.

But we as academics can re-engage the public by “hosting” issues as they arise, building coalitions and networks toward certain ends. That is, I was not interested in “gun issues” before this moment and probably won’t be afterwards. Though, full disclosure, because of my experience with Everytown, the anti-gun political action group formed after the Newtown shooting, I donated to the group. Perhaps it is about time management. I am a teacher with four classes a semester, with various other things to do. Perhaps also it is an avenue for action that will ebb and flow.

But as long as I am a teacher who can teach in public, I will profess. And as teachers we are always already scholars. And as scholars we are always already Christians. No matter where we are, no matter what we are doing we are all three at the same time, always seen by others, always in public.

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Matthew Boedy

Matthew Boedy is an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia. He has degrees from the University of Florida (BS) and the University of South Carolina (MFA and PhD). He enjoys books by Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Frederick Buechner. His research interests include the rhetoric of evil, ethics, and professional writing.

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