Humility: Spiritual wisdom for academics

The Emerging Scholars Network has been doing a series on spiritual wisdom for those in academia. A recent article highlighted growing in humility. The author, Johnny Lin, notes how much self-importance and pride can affect those of us in academia:

A major “spiritual occupational hazard” for an academic is thinking too much of yourself. This can show itself as pride and arrogance . . . or finding yourself unable to understand the students in a class you’ve taught one too many times.

He goes on to highlight that

The traditional antidote to pride has been humility. For an academic, C.S. Lewis’s view of humility as a kind of “self-forgetfulness” is particularly helpful: Do I rejoice in another’s accomplishments no more (or less) than if it were my own (or if it were a phenomena of nature)? 

What that looks like in practice is different for everyone, but as Lin notes, it probably involves at least some of the following:

  • Don’t find your sole/primary identity in our job;
  • Take a Sabbath as it reminds us that the world can function without us and that it’s not on the basis of our efforts that we succeed;
  • “Purposely pursue and embrace mystery in some area of life.”
  • Trust God for every aspect of your career.

Time to reflect

In the short break between semesters, and as we enter into a new year, I encourage you to reflect on what it might look like to live more fully trusting in God’s abundance in our lives. This includes wondering what seasons it might be appropriate to work “too much,” while also challenging the length of those seasons and even the unspoken assumption that grad school (or academia) implicitly involves always working too much.

Heather Walker Peterson wrote a helpful reflection questioning what assumptions we make when we work all the time:

I’ve come to believe that when I had lived attempting to do all things well, ironically I was treating God as a God of scarcity instead of a God of abundance. By not following God’s command to rest, I was like the children of Israel trying to collect manna on the Sabbath when I needed to have gathered a little extra the day before. If God is a God of scarcity, I am required to do more and do it well for him (and me) to look good, but if he’s a God of abundance, then I must trust that I can take risks, listen for discernment, and focus on what I discern as the most important.

What might it look like to live into God’s abundance this coming semester/year?

Loving the grad student in your life

Christian Courier recently published an article by Meghan Kort on how to love the grad student in your life. She begins by explaining a bit about the mental health challenges of grad school and then provides wisdom about “how churches, families, and friends can show more love when we encounter stressed-out grad students in our lives. The following are some helpful (and unhelpful) questions that she provides that can help you reach out to, encourage, and love the grad students that you encounter.

  1. Asking what they’re going to do when they graduate is unhelpful because “life rarely moves as planned.” They know that there’s probably not a huge niche for their expertise “but they are working on figuring out how their God-given curiosities fit into the larger questions that run this world.”
  2. Helpful: “Your research sounds really specific/interesting/unique. What led you to this area of study?” You probably have little connection to their specific topic but you might just have connections with the how and why they came to study that topic.
  3. and 4. Not so helpful: “How is your thesis going?” or “When will you be finished?” A variation of these questions are found in PhD comic’s second most popular comic on what accounts for bad manners in grad school.
  4. Better questions might be “How was your week? Have you been reading anything interesting lately? What parts of your research/writing/teaching do you find most energizing?”

We need to lend extra understanding and patience to grad students as they experience the stops and starts of their academic paths. Some months, they may disappear into the lab or library and check out of church life. At other times they are surprisingly available and eager to apply their skills to church ministries. Ask “what works best for you?” when looking for commitments and try to be flexible with last minute changes.

We need to challenge ourselves to look past what we do not understand about grad students’ research or career decisions and engage with them as valuable members of our churches, families and communities. Long-time campus chaplains and professors, Neil and Virginia Lettinga hope that “more churches would bluntly say to grad students that they are a beloved part of the community – even as they flutter in and out.” As we extend our patience, compassion and love, grad students will find that your presence is a welcome embrace next to the sometimes icy and often isolating ivory tower.

Farming metaphors for grad school

Heather Dubrow at Inside Higher Ed recently wrote a poem describing grad school using farming metaphors. The metaphors of diversifying crops, nutritional value, and efforts bearing fruit are helpful for understanding how complicated academia (and grad school) can be. Below are several excerpts from the poem:

Orange Harvest Moon

A field exuberantly growing
careers that will be harvested?
Or does that promised carrot
just glimmer on some hope-filled pond?

Look — so many universities
dangle that carrot
to feed their hunger for applicants . . .

how about the programs that attempt
to diversify by rotating crops —
Professor? But maybe arts administrator, technical writer, editor…
Are these new carrots wholesome food?
Can this new menu sustain and be sustained?”

I encourage you to go to the website to read the whole poem, including her praise of those in academia who continue to go above and beyond the call of duty.

Sometimes leaving is the better decision

As a pastor to graduate and professional students, I recognize that I have a vested interested in people staying graduate students. Yet, sometimes staying isn’t what’s best for someone, and I am thankful that I have been invited into conversations with students about that.

To give you an idea of some of the challenges and why people might quit, CBC recently published an article/video about graduate students who have left. The following are a few quotes from the article (and the follow-up article where more people tell their stories).

“When I look back … to me it was just one big, stressful guilt trip,” says Fowlow. “There was always another article I should have read, another book I should have gotten, more notes I should have written.”

Cowie: “I saw so many of my colleagues … go through years of post-docs,” he says, “making very little money, with very few benefits, moving around. “I didn’t really see that as a viable future for me.”

Elsie Thorburn: “As an academic, a lot of your identity is wrapped up in your work and the successes you obtain. Realizing that despite a lengthy CV of academic success there just might not be a place for you, can really shatter your whole sense of who you are and your self-worth. No wonder so many students and graduates have mental health issues.

Andrew Alter: ” Stories of “PhD U-turns” bring so much insight about the meanings of passion, fulfilment and happiness.”

 

 

Mental Health + Graduate Students = Crisis

Colleen Flaherty from Inside Higher Education recently reported on several studies that “suggest that graduate students are at greater risk for mental health issues than those in the general population. This is largely due to social isolation, the often abstract nature of the work and feelings of inadequacy — not to mention the slim tenure-track job market.”

Flaherty notes that Nature Biotechnology speaks of graduate students being “‘more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population.’”

A lack of good work-life balance (a significant difficulty amid the demands of graduate school), alongside of conflict with or lack of support from supervisors, were linked to higher anxiety and depression. The study calls for a change in the culture of academia to address the mental health crisis. Read more about the findings and call for change.

Please pray for all those affected this mental health crisis – both the graduate students who are experiencing mental health challenges and for those who have the ability to make changes for the better.

Evangelicals vs. Academics

I don’t think I can ever say enough about the challenges that Christian academics face, both in allowing their Christianity to affect their academic work as well as bringing their academic selves into the church.

Alan Jacobs points out the tendency of evangelicals and academics to see each other as the enemy (i.e., the repugnant cultural other (RCO)):

Many academics would be surprised, I think, to discover how many evangelical Christians are political moderates or simply apolitical and how much they do to help the poor and needy in their communities with no spiritual strings attached. Similarly, many evangelicals would be surprised to learn how hard many academics work, whatever their political views (and many of them are apolitical also), to be fair to all their students, regardless of the students’ beliefs, and how much they worry about not being as fair as they should be. For many academics, evangelical Christians are the RCO; for many evangelical Christians, academics play that role. And having an RCO is one of the best ways to form and maintain group identity. Recent research by the political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood indicate that, in terms of social belonging, “outgroup animosity is more consequential than favoritism for the ingroup.” That is, it’s more important to hate the RCO than to affirm and support the people who agree with you. How do I know you’re One of Us? Because you hate the right people.

Quoted from Paul Vanderklay.

Integrating one’s faith and one’s discipline

It delights me to hear from the wisdom of those participating in Campus Edge. And last week’s conversation about how to integrate one’s faith and one’s discipline did not disappoint.

Graduate school is about being formed deeper in one’s discipline. The deeper one gets involved in one’s discipline, the more one is shaped by that discipline: you could say that each discipline disciples a person into a certain way of being and thinking. This then affects one’s faith, as these ways of being and thinking affect one’s relationship with others and God. Scientists, who are taught to question everything and accept as true only things that can be proven, often question the validity of their faith and Christian beliefs – because how can one prove that it is true? Musicians (and artists), who are taught the validity of each person’s experience, also question the validity of their faith but for a very different reason: how can we accept that Christian beliefs and my faith is more true than someone else’s faith or beliefs? For professional students, one’s questions about faith and beliefs are less likely to be intellectual and instead are often very practical: what does faith and belief look like in the presence of suffering and death and the ugly side of human beings?

Knowing the tendencies of one’s discipline helps one to recognize and understand one’s faith questions better. It also helps those of us supporting (other) graduate and professional students, as we recognize the crises of faith that are likely to happen. We can trust that God will be present in the midst of the questions and can thus be hopeful that people will grow in their understanding of God and their own discipline.

We can also rejoice in how growing to love one’s discipline can help one grow to love God more. Many doctors and veterinarians can delight in how the discoveries of medical science allows them to help others. Many scientists appreciate God better on account of the wonders they discover in creation. Many musicians become closer to God through music. Many academics understand their own assumptions about the world, God, and others through being forced to identify the assumptions that those in their own discipline make about the same things.

My Own Ivory Tower: Isolation

By Mike Bennett, 4th year Physics Ph.D. candidate

Isolation is everywhere in academia.  Academics are expected to put in long, lonely hours.  We’re expected to sacrifice friendships, romance, and family life.  We’re expected to produce results and not complain, even at the expense of our own health and sanity.  All for the sake of the next paper or grant or proposal.  Even the most well-adjusted, self-assured, and perfectly relatable human might buckle under the weight of these expectations.

In the midst of all this sacrifice, our relationships begin to fulfill us less than we think they should.  They start to feel clunky or obtuse, like they don’t fit in the new framework that the Academy builds around its inhabitants.  I’ve felt the empty ache of isolation keenly in my three years at Michigan State.  My advisor hates my work. Everyone else in my program is smarter and more capable than I am. My friends back home don’t understand what I do.  My family thinks I’m wasting my life. I can’t take time to date or I’ll lose productivity.  These are just a few of the many, many worries that plague me and grad students like me.

Even in the Church, it’s easy to feel alone and separated.  Well-meaning parishioners begin conversations with “So how long until you graduate? And what kind of research do you do again?” only to interrupt moments later with “Wow, that’s pretty impressive. You must be very smart!” and obvious attempts to exit the conversation.  These pseudo-interactions only fuel the fires of alienation, and even in a body purported to bring healing to the sick, academics can feel miserably quarantined.

Clearly, even being “united” in Christ isn’t enough to quell this spectre of self-doubt.  How can Christians minister to themselves and others who are suffering from the experience of isolation?  What does the Bible itself say about isolation?  Can we gain any insight?

In a recent Campus Edge study, we looked at several passages that dealt with the experience of loneliness.  Among them we read about the prophet Jeremiah, who experiences intense persecution and alienation at the hands of the Israelites.  Jeremiah, though called directly by God to his ministry, is brought by that same God into a deep and anguishing experience of isolation.  We often feel as though being alone or feeling isolated are symptoms of God’s absence or displeasure with us, but it’s darkly encouraging to realize that these can be an important part of God’s call for us, even if doing so doesn’t prevent or even soften the sting.

Further, we do not worship a God who is unable to sympathize with our experience of isolation.  In Gethsemane, Christ himself experiences a complete abandonment; by his disciples, who can not stay awake with him while he prays to the Father for deliverance from his impending crucifixion, and then by the Father himself, whose answer to Jesus’ plea to “take this cup from me,” is a deafening, cavernous “No.” Even as he dies on the cross, in perfect fulfillment of God’s plan of reconciliation, Chris experiences tremendous isolation.

Though we may never be able to completely overcome isolation in academia or in life in general, knowledge that loneliness can be part of God’s plan can help us persevere through our experience of it.  We can additionally take heart knowing that even Christ, through whom “we live and move and have our being,” was not spared the torment of loneliness.  As Henri Nouwen writes, it may be possible with this knowledge to transform our understanding of isolation into something that can point us toward God, who alone can address the underlying problems and bring lasting healing.

The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift. Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness, and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief… The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain.

Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer