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Time and Hospitality: Thoughts from Colloquium

Living Room at Linwood House

One of the staples of the Lilly Fellows Postdoctoral program is the weekly colloquium. Every Monday the fellows, their mentors, and a few others, including Mark Schwehn, Dorothy Bass, and the LFP staff, gather in the living room of Linwood House to discuss for an hour and a half some readings that pertain to some aspect of life as a Christian teacher-scholar.  We each take turns at leading the discussion.  This Monday we read selections from Kathleen Norris’ Cloister Walk and Amazing Grace and it was my turn to lead.

Kathleen Norris has a great deal to say about Benedictine spirituality and monastic life, not to mention how a Baby-boomer-age lapsed Christian writer came back to Church by exploring monastic prayer life.  Norris is a seeker and she writes to others like herself – people searching for salvation (of sorts).  I first encountered Cloister Walk shortly after it was published in 1997 and this seeker element resonated with me then as it does now.  That Norris doubts and struggles with her faith is compelling and it is comforting to know that smart, seemingly regular people have doubts too.  This is a subject she revisits (somewhat) in Amazing Grace as she explores the religious language that was so off-putting as she made her way back to Church.

While all this is interesting and not to mention a delightful little journey that Norris invites her readers to take with her, our conversation Monday afternoon delved into different territory; we focused much of our discussion on time, work-life balance, and hospitality.  I think just about anyone engaged in the business of writing, scholarship, and teaching wonders where the time goes. Each day we promise ourselves to write x number of pages and to grade everything that needs grading.  Then there are the constant struggles to be available to students, our colleagues, and our families.  (At this point in the discussion, I am wont to say something inane like, “That’s why God made coffee.” Helpful.)  We are continually fighting the urge to hide away for one reason or another and with that we fight isolation – whether in our work or in our community.

One thing Norris tells us is that “hospitality has a way of breaking through the defenses of insularity.” (Amazing Grace, 267) Hospitality is one of the fundamental components of Benedictine life (there are always guests at the abbey.) Our reading for Monday showed us that there is a grace to being welcomed, but there is also a grace to being the one who welcomes. Norris talks about how she was refreshed one hurried, distracted day by the chance encounter with an old friend, which forced her to stop and be hospitable to another.  By extending hospitality, she found she benefited.   This inspired my question to my fellow members of the colloquium.  How are we hospitable, inviting, welcoming to those in our everyday life: our families and friends, our students, our colleagues, those we encounter around the copy machine, lunch table, behind the circulation desk, at the store, dry cleaner, etc.? Do we see beyond our books, papers, and ideas to live in the world of where bills need to be paid, laundry needs to be done, dishes need cleaning, and meals need to be cooked? Can we make the time?  (Rest assured, I am no saint.  As I prepared for our discussion, my house was a mess, my laundry piled up, and I ignored my husband and doggies to get my work done.)

Universities and colleges are full of smart and bright people engaged in meaningful projects about all aspects of our lives, whether they are political, social, cultural, or scientific.  I imagine everyone is trying to figure out how they can best use their time.  Norris offers one option, one model for us to consider.

Conference Review: Technology and Human Flourishing

The following post is from Karl Aho, a graduate student  at Baylor University studying ethics and the history of philosophy.  Karl received a B.A. in philosophy from Valparaiso University and an M.A. in philosophy from Boston College.  He is also a member of the Third Cohort of Lilly Graduate Fellows.  Karl reports on the 2012 Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture: Technology and Human Flourishing, held Thursday, October 25-Saturday, October 27.

100 miles north of Austin—the technology center of Texas—scholars gathered at Baylor University in Waco for a conference on Technology and Human Flourishing.

During the conference I was able to speak with its organizers, Darin Davis and Jason Whitt, who emphasized the diversity of conference presentations.  Over 400 undergraduates, graduate students, professors, and professionals attended over 100 presentations, on topics ranging “from astrophysics to theology, and everything in between.  You don’t always get that kind of variety under one roof,” Davis said.  Whitt commented that the breadth of disciplines reflected the unity of truth.  Interdisciplinary work helps get us out of our academic silos and gives us new perspectives on truth.

Here are some specific insights I gleaned from the conference:

Technology discloses our values:

Many presenters argued that we should study technology because technology reflects our values.  Responding to technology requires considering our understanding of human flourishing.

For example, Patrick Deneen compared political theory to a computer’s operating system, and technology to programs that may be run by that operating system.  To change our understanding of technology, we cannot simply run different programs.  We need to change the operating system first.

Ian Hutchinson discussed scientism, the view that scientific knowledge is all the real knowledge there is.  He contended that our current uses of technology often reflect scientism, citing the ways we search for technological solutions to social problems as evidence for this claim.

We have resources for questioning technology and values:

Many presenters appealed to authors known for their views on technology, like Neil Postman and Martin Heidegger.  But one of the strengths of the conference was its focus on religious responses to technology.  Religions offer principles with which to answer questions of values, principles that are more substantial than arbitrary choices or accidents of evolution.  For example, many religions remind us that our focus must be on finding the truth, not merely pragmatic solutions.

Several presenters focused on insights from authors writing in the context of religious traditions, e.g. Wendell Berry, Jacques Ellul, and Walker Percy.  Other presenters highlighted that our responses to specific technologies need not always be negative. For example,

  • Peter Kilpatrick surveyed the positive impact of many 20th century technologies.
  • Nancy Murphy, an advocate of “non-reductive physicalism,” discussed how contemporary neuroscience confirms biblical understandings of personhood.
  • Rosalind Picard suggested ways that technology can help those who face challenges processing emotional information.

R.R. Reno closed the conference by arguing that technology cannot replace face to face education: “The main engine of the scholarly life is found in conversations with friends and co-conspirators.”  But—and this goes beyond the scope of Reno’s paper—perhaps technology can supplement such conversations.

Questions Concerning Technology and Human Flourishing:

I’ll close with questions inspired by the conference, that I hope will lead to further discussion:

  • What values inform our uses of technology?
  • How should we respond to values like scientism that can prompt bad uses of technology?
  • What resources could particular religious traditions use to reflect on technology?
  • How should technology supplement face to face education?

Welcome to Exiles from Eden

Posted by Joe Creech

Welcome to our new blog, Exiles from Eden, which is sponsored by the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts (LFP). As we note in our about page, Exiles from Eden takes its name from the book of that same title published in 1993 by Mark Schwehn, founder and current Project Director of the LFP. In that book, Schwehn suggests that church-related colleges and universities offer a unique opportunity to be creative places of interaction among the values and challenges connected to teaching and scholarship in modern colleges and universities. He, and we, suggest that the pursuit of what matters most to undergraduates, graduates, and those who work in higher learning (church-related or not) is enriched by engaging ideas and practices arising from the Christian tradition. We hope that this blog will be a forum for such engagement.

The title of that work, Exiles from Eden, is especially rich. First, it marked an event from Schwehn’s own life–his move from the University of Chicago to Valparaiso University–that captures an often unspoken idea academics use to frame their work and their lives. That idea, which is certainly rooted in reality, is this: the R1 universities like Chicago that most shape the ideals and professional practices of academics in their graduate education occupy the place of “Eden,” while the places most academics actually find themselves working occupy a sort of “exile” from that ideal. Most academics thus exist in a world in which “their work”–meaning research and other tasks that conform to the values instilled by their disciplinary affiliations and graduate education–is thwarted by local demands of service and teaching, tasks generally not high in the hierarchy of values instilled by graduate education but which are frequently valued by faculty members themselves (teaching especially; see a report on the latest HERI faculty survey at The Chronicle). With this idea in mind, we hope part of the conversation on this blog will involve the actual work we do–how we nurture meaningful careers in which we put to great use the disciplinary training we have received as professionals in the academy and at the same time meet our desires and responsibilities to teach and serve at our local institutions.

Another dimension of the title, Exiles from Eden, is that Valparaiso University is also a church-related (Lutheran) institution. Exiles appeared on the heels of Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990), books like James Burtchaell’s ominously titled The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches (1998), and just prior to George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (1994). In other words, it appeared when the ground underneath church-related higher education was shifting, and the consequences of that shift were as yet unclear. Since that time, church-related institutions, religious practice on campuses, and religion as a field of study have, in the words of one set of authors, made a “comeback”. Prompted by funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. and The Pew Charitable Trusts and facilitated by groups like the LFP, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, Collegium, and others, church-related institutions are engaged in a rich conversation about the shape and strength of their individual and, to some extent, collective mission as institutions forwarding certain religious ideas and practices together with the aims of higher learning. Moreover, the conversation fostered by such organizations has much to offer the Post-9/11 religious cultures of our campuses (secular or religious) and can provide interesting resources for answering such vexing questions as the role of values in the classroom (see, for example, Mark W. Roche, “Should Faculty Members Teach Virtues and Values?:  That is the Wrong Question,” in Liberal Education, 95, No. 3: 32-37, Summer 2009). We hope that this blog will extend that conversation by connecting voices and engaging the academy at large, and we hope you will follow us and join in.

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