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From the Colloquium

This semester, the Postdoctoral Fellows’ weekly colloquium has been led by Senior Fellows Thomas A. (Tal) Howard and Agnes Howard, while Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass are revising their book Leading Lives That Matter at the Collegeville Institute in Collegeville, MN. The discussion led by Tal and Agnes has been lively, and also challenging. As we reflect on current trends in higher education, and the callings to which we respond, we see a need for disciplined work and the importance of continual re-evaluation of our places in and the purpose of the academy.

How are we called and to what ends? This is the question that led off the semester. Two famous pilgrims spurred our discussion: Jonah and Dante. These two figures are helpful for “compare and contrast”: to whom do we relate? Do we ever feel tempted to ignore or resist the call? What “dark woods” must we pass through in order to achieve what we are called to do? And what counts as a successful response to the call? Some of these questions, illuminated by Jonah and Dante, also were addressed in the Fellows’ ensuing narration of some of the “awakenings” encountered in their own scholarly, teacherly, writerly, and artistic journeys.

Two important, foundational texts for the Lilly Fellows Program then came to the fore: Max Weber’s “Science as a Vocation” (Wissenschaft als Beruf) and Mark Schwehn’s Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America. The latter, of course, provides much of the intellectual capital for the LFP itself. As we read Schwehn’s response to Weber, we consider the nature of our work as Christian scholars—the “Christian-ness” of our scholarship—and its relation to the overall ethos of the modern university. To what extent must we adapt to the institution? What exactly do we seek to achieve through the distinctiveness of our Christian academic work?

The tension between secular and religious academic concerns remained in view through the discussion of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s “Tertullian’s Enduring Question”—What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? Or, put another way, what obligations do Christian academics have to non-Christian scholarship and texts? Which ones should we read, and how should we honor them? The question rises in importance as the disciplines themselves generate ever more scholarly material, not all of which is sympathetic to Christian thought and practice. Wolsterstorff’s pedagogy enjoins care and respect even for authors outside our traditions.

Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture provided further challenges to the Christian academic. Arguing for the importance of festival, even in academia, Pieper stresses that academics should not fall victim to the idea of “total work,” according to which intellectual work becomes subservient to the market. The quest for employment, and tenure, place imperatives on academic work. Pieper’s work reminds us not to leave aside leisurely, contemplative work that takes place outside the economic realm.

After attending the LFP’s National Conference at Hope College, the Fellows engaged with a young writer’s existential angst as described in Flannery O’Connor’s “The Enduring Chill.” Her main character, Asbury, presents as unworthy of our sympathy, in his childishness, snobbishness, and inability to engage in true communion with others. The group wrestled with diagnosing Asbury’s true illness, and whether or not his form of suffering was redemptive, and even, sometimes, characteristic of academic work, with its ups and downs, misunderstandings, and failure of imagination. But the other characters provide examples of pedagogical insight, and we are left, at the end of the story, wondering if this young writer has learned something important about himself, and might even begin to live differently.

Asbury’s existential crisis is personal, but the “crisis of the humanities” is institutional. Articles by Justin Stover, Ross Douthat, and James Turner provided an entry into this broader issue. The group analyzed several controversial claims about the humanities, including whether or not there really is a crisis, such that humanities disciplines may be endangered, or at least diminishing in their cultural impact. Is the argument about instrumentalism, or technology, or class divisions? Is there a purpose to the humanities—and is such a thing necessary? Moreover, if there is a crisis, can we defend the humanities from attack? This session brought us face to face with important institutional questions.

Many important questions in academia also arise from the importance placed on “scholarship.” Susan VanZanten, Dean of Christ College at Valparaiso University, led the group in a discussion of parts of her work Joining the Mission: A Guide for (Mostly) New College Faculty. One main concern of new faculty (including our Fellows) is the way in which scholarship is defined and valued. Among other things, Joining the Mission argues for the validity of Ernest Boyer’s 1997 definition and division of scholarship into four categories: the scholarship of discovery; of integration; of application; and of teaching. VanZanten suggests that new faculty need to understand their institutions’ priorities and work within them, but maintain a sense of calling by reflecting often on what brought them to the academy in the first place. Moreover, VanZanten reminds her readers that Sabbatarian practice is essential for staying healthy in a place where it all-too-often happens that faculty simply work too much. Scholarship has, in different places, several different, valuable varieties, which can help us not feel overly constrained by the scholarly imperatives. However, young faculty need to remember life outside of scholarship, too.

Future sessions this semester will take the group into new territory, with a discussion of the situation of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, led by Orthodox theologian Prof. Nicholas Denysenko and Prof. Tal Howard; a discussion of new academic work on boredom, led by Prof. Kevin Gary, of Valparaiso University; and a screening and discussion of Joseph Ceder’s satiric film Footnote (2011).

Posted by Joseph Goss 

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