What to expect at MSU this fall

Masks, social distancing, and a lot of encouragement to keep yourself and others safe are all part of what we can expect as we move back to campus in a little over a month.

MSU has put together a compact that they are asking all those who are part of the MSU community to agree to. It begins with the acknowledgement that, “In return for being part of the MSU community, by this Compact, I am taking personal responsibility in order to protect the health and safety of myself and others.” Furthermore, “I acknowledge the risks of COVID-19 and returning to campus, and I acknowledge that I will do my part to protect myself and others.”

Playing our part means wearing masks, both inside and outside, physical distancing, self-monitoring for symptoms, and practicing extra hygiene and healthy safety measures. Further details on what exactly that all means are found online as part of the MSU Initiative of ‘Together We Will’ and ‘Keeping Spartans safe.’

Please pray for all those affected by the university’s plans for the fall:

  • Students who are making decisions of whether they will be coming back to campus or learning remotely (if that’s even possible – and if not how to do so in a way that’s best);
  • Administrators making decisions about what is good for as many people as possible
  • Professors pondering how best to teach – online, in-person, and everything in between;
  • All of us anxious about the well-being of everyone in the MSU community, whether that be physical or mental health, or even managing the challenges of so much uncertainty.
  • All those of us who minister to and encourage those at the university.

Anticipating a challenging fall

There remains a lot of uncertainty about the coming fall semester: the only certainty seems to be a consensus that it will be challenging. To get a sense of what fall might look like, I encourage you to read the communication(s) from MSU as well as to check out several Inside Higher Education articles that envision what an average day in the life of an undergraduate student might look like as well as for a faculty member.

If you’d like a slightly different experience for envisioning what the fall might look like, a graduate student, Cait S Birby, simulated several scenarios for what the fall might look like for people who are often marginalized: people who have disabilities, live with people with significant health challenges, and/or identify as LGBTQ. There is both a scenario for an undergraduate student, faculty, and graduate student. The scenarios give a sense of how overwhelming being on campus might be this fall.

This past Monday we hosted our first hybrid study – some of us were at the house while others joined the study online. While it was very good to chat with folks outside the house after we finished, the study itself was disappointing. It took us an extra 15 minutes to set up, as the original plan of being outside didn’t work. We then set up a computer attached to the television, which meant that those of us at the house no longer had access to communal chat. Because of social distancing, all (4) of us in the house were seated far from the computer microphone and not all of us could be seen by those online. With the added challenges of wearing masks, it was hard for those online to hear us. The need to speak unnaturally loud, the sense that those online were not hearing us well and that those in the house were not as easily able to participate, plus the seating arrangement that felt less conducive to building community, all of these things contributed to making it disappointing.

Even as I was disappointed in the study, I was very glad to have tried it. Next week, we will try again – and hopefully work out some of the difficulties so that we know how and if hybrid studies can work for us before school starts in the fall. Most importantly, seeing the challenges that we as a small group faced in trying a hybrid study, I became more aware of how hard the fall will be for all those trying to meet in person.

Please pray for all those who are now making plans and working through the challenges to allow people to meet in a way that is most conducive to learning while also taking into account each other’s safety and well-being.

Added August 4, 2020: For another perspective on the challenges in teaching online and in-person, see this article from Inside Higher Ed.

Uncertainty for International students

On Monday, the ICE announced that, despite the current pandemic, international students would not receive a visa if their programs/colleges had primarily online-only instruction. This announcement is causing a lot of stress and uncertainty for international students and the universities themselves.

With this new ruling, students do not know if they can finish their programs or if they can even start a program and enter the country. Students are not sure if staying where they are means they might risk being deported, irrelevant of whether they have a lease for the coming year, whether they can even travel back to their home country, or whether it’s logistically feasible to attend online classes in a significantly different time zone. On top of this, this ruling is one more factor affecting the decision universities need to make regarding opening up their campuses. Universities are now forced to temper their decisions about what might be the safest for all involved with what possibilities might allow international students to remain at their institution. Losing these students would be hard for the individual students themselves but the university would also feel a significant loss, as international students contribute significantly to the university, including financially.

Please pray for the students and all of the administrators who have been impacted by this decision.

For more information on this situation, a recent article in Inside Higher Education outlines some of the key concerns of this announcement.

Update: 27 July 2020: While it thankfully looks like things have changed so that this ruling no longer applies to international students who are already in the United States, it does still apply to incoming international students. For more information, see this article from Inside Higher Education.

Coronavirus and Quarantine – Takeaways from Veritas Forum (held on Mar 24)

On March 24, Veritas held a Virtual forum on Coronavirus and Quarantine: What Big Questions Can We Be Asking? featuring David Brooks, Andy Crouch, Lydia Dugdale, and Andrew Schuman.

Mitchell and I both found that the Veritas Forum generated an inspiring discussion about learning from past national tragedies, seeking signs of hope, and developing creative ways to be community. The following are some notes that we (primarily Mitchell) took. We encourage you to listen to it yourself (as well as the following conversations).

The first bit of the conversation focused on gleaning insights from past pandemics. While pandemics can lead to isolation and fear of other people, they can also teach us what it means to be together. The main precedents we have are the plague and the 1918 Spanish flu. In 1918, WWI also ended and, with it, the idea that “life has meaning” passed away. What’s the logic in living if your neighbor dies? Many would argue that the Great War was the time when “Europe stopped believing in God.”

Will we see a cultural transformation as the result of this pandemic? The human vocation is the shared activity of creation and stewarding the earth. Going back to “business as usual” too soon or too late could have consequences.

How do countries hold together in times of crisis? Historically, countries do well when there is high social trust, trust in institutions, integrated population, and a sense of togetherness. Unfortunately, the US has struggled on all of these fronts. To compare, after the bombing of London, social connection increased and Churchill gave moral meaning to the war by fighting fascism. An important part of the situation now is that an overwhelmed healthcare system forces difficult ethical decisions on doctors. The role of the doctor is to alleviate suffering and care for everyone but sometimes doctors are forced to make difficult decisions, which results in suffering for some (e.g., potentially limiting care for pandemic victims or through limiting resources for ongoing medical issues and potentially increasing suicide cases).

One sign of hope in all of this is that people are wrestling with big problems. Times of crises also encourage social innovation (e.g. the Great Depression). In this “great reset” we can now ask “was normal that great?” In particular, Generation Z will likely become more aware of mortality and ask “what matters to me?” When we are confronted with death it can shape us to want to “invest in living.” When we remove certainty from our to-do list we are liberated.

A remarkable claim in Christianity and Judaism is that “God is active in the contingencies of history,” including the worst events. There is nothing worse than “the neighboring empire conquering your small nation, burning your temple, taking away your beautiful things and embarking on cultural genocide.” It is hard to imagine a more dire time than post-exile for Israel: “How can we sing the song of Zion?” (Ps. 137). The amazing witness of the Hebrew Bible is that God was there and there is a way to sing songs of hope. One positive outcome in the case of Israel was a national recognition of sin. Whatever your worst case scenario is, God is present and unlocking possibility.

As people of faith, the exile becomes part of our story. While in captivity Jews are told to “contribute to the health of city.” This is the formation of a creative minority, a call to be separate but not isolated. Another religious idea present in most religions is that suffering is redemptive. It destroys the ego. “Suffering carves through the basement of the soul,” and only “spiritual and relational food will fill this void.” Lament is also “the seed of genuine creative action.” Writing a lament that cries out and reaffirms trust in God unlocks creative power. We can anchor our creative work in the injustice in the world and a trust in God. Creativity is birthed out of the pain and groaning of the world.

In response to questions, it was noted that resilience is not having “good thoughts.” It is about discovering the stress and viewing it as a challenge instead of a threat. Suffering hurts you unless you can attach it to a narrative of redemption. Christ’s example in the garden (“take this cup from me”) suggests that we can mourn and grieve and ask for it go away, but it ought to be coupled with “not my will, but thine.” Rather than a surrender to fate, this is saying, “it’s not my life.”  So when you pray don’t ask for it to go away, ask what is “spiritually most useful to transpire.”

Science vs. Faith?

While most people who are religious would argue that science and faith do not conflict, it can sometimes be challenging to be both a scientist and a person of faith. Faith is not always welcome in scientific fields (or specific departments), and the curious, questioning part of ourselves that makes us good scientists is not always welcome in churches. In order to encourage folks with this challenge, Campus Edge held an evening discussion on faith and science (with special guest, Rachel Barnard from MSU’s Lyman Briggs College).

The following is some of the wisdom that was shared by those present. Hopefully this might encourage you to recognize you are not alone in your struggles. At the same time, even though sometimes the challenge might seem overwhelming, what we’ve learned by becoming good scientists/academics can also contribute to our faith in a positive way.

The following are some of the challenges that we face:

  • Many of have us have lost innocence in approaching the Bible and Christianity, as we no longer approach the Bible and Christian teaching the way we used to. This is generally on account of increased doubt and questioning of our Christian beliefs and how we’ve been taught to interpret the Bible.
  • Science has trained us that everything should be test-able and only things that can be tested are worth studying. The challenge is that some faith questions can never be tested.
  • Science and academia consume a lot of time and energy, and even shape our identity, especially since how productive/effective we are affects our perceived worth as a scientist.
  • One’s spiritual self is often pushed to the side, sometimes because of time, but also because one’s spirituality is often encouraged (or even feels forced) to be separate from one’s academic self. Even one’s personal and emotional self is not always allowed in academia, as often only one’s rationality, work, and/or production is valued.
  • It can be difficult in some fields to identify as a Christian, partly because of how Christians are seen to view evolution. At the same time, many of those who are in humanities found it hard(er) to identify as Christian, as Christians are often seen as not deserving of having a valid voice/opinion to add to discussions, on account of coming from a perspective of intolerance (oppression) and having had excessive privilege in the past.
  • There are times competing narratives in how one understands the world and humanity. For example, science sees people as highly evolved animals where as Christianity believes that humans are the image of God. This affects our understanding of how we ought to treat others, as well as how we approach performance reviews (is this about ‘justifying our existence’ or about indicating how we’ve tried to be faithful in the use of our time and talents?).

The following is the other side of the story – How science can contribute in a positive way to faith:

  • It’s a joy to read the Bible with scientists because they notice small details and ask difficult questions. They’re meticulous and are not satisfied with simplistic answers.
  • Scientists don’t like easy answers; scientists have practice sitting with questions. In doing this, we learn then “to trust and wait and hope and try” (as Rachel described it so well).
  • Science searches for truth. This helps counteract some of the extremes of postmodernism in our culture, where it can feel like all perspectives are seen as equally valid. At the same time, science tends toward the other extreme (modernism) and the belief that reason (science) can redeem the world and solve [all] problems.
  • Many people do a lot of praying in the lab; how can that, irrelevant of the reason for the prayers, not bring us closer to God?
  • It is often the wonder we had in God’s creation that drew us into science. While science has often become more ordinary, more busy, and more difficult since we were first drawn to it, this does not erase the wonder.
  • The challenges found in the scientific field push us towards finding our identity in God. Practicing Sabbath is especially helpful in that, as it forces us to stop all our efforts and instead remember that God is sovereign (and all my efforts cannot save the world). Sabbath also provides us with an opportunity to experience God through wonder and curiosity.

Of note is that the question of science vs. faith has become less a conversation about creation and evolution. Christians are finding it easier to agree that God had a fundamental role in the formation of the world and appear to be less concerned with exactly how that happened. That isn’t to say that people are not struggling with this question, it is simply that the focus on creation vs. evolution has shifted from five years ago. The focus now is more on how people of faith ought to respond to developments in science (e.g., AI, gene editing, climate change, etc.).

Challenges of Graduate Students

This fall the Campus Edge board has been working to understand how we might better respond to the challenges that graduate and professional students experience. Campus Edge students identified the following as the most significant challenges:

  • Stress and/or lack of time;
  • Work/life balance (and “grad student guilt”);
  • Lack of clarity with regard to expectations and progress;
  • Mental health issues;
  • Difficult (or unhealthy) relationship with adviser and/or department/program;
  • Financial (and other socioeconomic) challenges;
  • Spiritual questions/challenges;
  • Loneliness and lack of support;
  • Difficulty in finding a job (after graduating).

A recent article in Inside Higher Education notes that, according to a recent survey of graduate students, “mental health, bullyiing, and career uncertainty” are the top challenges facing graduate students today.

Advice for those striving to be Christian scholars

Nicholas Wolterstorff’s article with advice to those who would be Christian scholars speaks of the inherent challenge of critiquing the university while also loving and embracing it. He starts by speaking of three postures people have in relation to the university:

1. “Some assume that what goes on in the contemporary university is pretty much OK as it is, and they look for ways of supplementing that with some distinctly Christian thought and activity.”

2. “Some believe that what goes on in the contemporary university is pretty much OK. . . they find tension between Christianity as they understand it, and what goes on in the university; so they propose revising Christianity until the tension disappears. Often this takes the form of what I call a “band wagon approach.”

3. Some “Christians, usually outside the university, who are content to lob grenades at the contemporary university. The university, they say, is godless, aggressively secular, reductionist, relativist, liberal, post-modern, captive to political correctness – you name it.”

Wolterstorff recognizes that each of these positions has a part of the truth but is ultimately lacking. He advocates instead for a different way of looking at what it means to be a Christian school, arguing that “the project of being a Christian scholar is the project of thinking with a Christian mind and speaking with a Christian voice within your chosen discipline and within the academy more generally.” I encourage you to read his articulation of what this looks like in practice.

Called to reach out to each other

Matt Reed, in describing his participation in a college phone-a-thon, highlighted how surprised he’d been by how positive the experience he had been – and how often people thanked him for reaching out to them. He noted that

“It reminded me a little of the feeling, at 18 or 19, of not feeling entirely sure that you belong.  An offhand comment, or the tap on the shoulder, can tip the balance in a positive direction. It’s a simple acknowledgement, but some folks don’t get much positive acknowledgement.  It matters.”

His thoughts reminded me a bit of the calling of Campus Edge. While the purpose of the acknowledgement is different, as is the technology (we often use email, after all), there is a similar sentiment. Part of being faithful in following Christ as a ministry means reaching out to people and checking in with them, trying to meet them where they’re at, irrelevant of how involved they might be at Campus Edge.

Timing

Sometimes people discover Campus Edge near the beginning of their program. They’re looking for a community and so they search for and find us online, or they visit our supporting church, or they meet us at the graduate fair. Sometimes they connect with people in their program who’ve been participating in Campus Edge for awhile.

Other times, though, people have found Campus Edge later in their program. I lament a little that these individuals didn’t connect with us sooner – we could have been blessed by their insights and presence, and we might have been able to encourage them through providing a supportive community and a place to ask difficult questions.

Yet, I also believe that God is at work in the timing, and people will come to Campus Edge at the right time. While one might expect that the beginning of one’s program would be the best time, we’ve seen that sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s because life is too full or overwhelming for there to be space for one more thing. For others it’s because their faith journey is going really well – they’ve connected to a church/Christian community and are receiving answers for their faith questions. Still for others, it is even possible that they wouldn’t have found someone at Campus Edge who they would feel a strong connection.

Yet, later a time might come, whether that be a crisis or a gentle nudge, when connecting with and participating in Campus Edge would then be good. Perhaps a person has experienced a deep sense of loneliness or isolation, or church doesn’t seem to fit quite like it used to, or there is a longing to be with people who understand the unique experience that is grad school. And then, whenever people ready – no matter how early or late they are in their program, I hope that they do find Campus Edge and we can be an encouragement and place of hope and grace.