Students as Scholars

I’ll be honest: the primary point of this post is to cover one English major at Bethel with so much praise that she’ll feel compelled to take at least one History course from me before she graduates. But in the process, readers not named Abby Stocker might also find themselves reappraising their assumptions about what kind of student might attend a Christian liberal arts college and/or be (re)inspired by the potential unleashed when undergraduates take seriously the life of the mind.

Abby's blog
Abby’s blog

So… Ms. Stocker has popped up on my radar screen at least four times in the last two weeks. Over our Easter break she was kind enough to write a post on her blog jumping off from one on mine (about embracing Christian tradition and community rather than declaring yourself “spiritual, but not religious”). In a brief essay on the power of liturgy, she also threw in the best plug my blog has ever received:

(It’s great. You could practically get a liberal arts minor just reading it on a regular basis….)

So I’ll reciprocate by encouraging you to read her blog (which promises to touch on many topics, but I’m especially intrigued by her observations about coming from a rural small town to study in a large metropolitan area), and her to write more on it!

Second, a story about Abby is currently the top item on Bethel’s news page: she won the Phillip Christopher Schrun Prize for Literary Analysis for her paper “Text as Shaper of Worship: ‘O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,’” presented at Taylor University’s biennial undergraduate literary conference (Making Literature). I dimly recall telling her a bit about Pietism and hymnody while she was researching the paper last fall — not sure if anything I said made its way into the paper (probably not, given that it won a prize at a conference that seems to have high academic standards) — and thinking that I needed to convince her to add a second major in History, or at least a minor.

Then third, Abby wrote for Bethel’s student newspaper, The Clarion, about the experience of writing the paper and presenting it at the conference:

I consider myself a conscientious student, but I was initially surprised to consider my paper as “scholarship.” This was a paper I wrote during finals week last fall. I didn’t sit around feeling academic and profound while writing it, yet I found that when I was placed into an environment where I was allowed to present and challenge my ideas with others, the paper became something bigger than just the product of yet another frazzled finals week.

Bethel students at the Taylor "Making Literature" conference
Abby (2nd from left) and the other students Bethel sent to the Taylor conference – Bethel.edu

I was surprised to be treated as an academic at the conference, and I think, in part, it’s because the Bethel community carries a stigma against being the “smart kid.” Why do we feel that we must minimize our ability to excel in order to not stand out from the crowd? We live, study and work on a college campus. We trade daily in ideas and specialized knowledge with professors who are experts in their disciplines.

Recognizing that we are blessed to attend an institution of higher education doesn’t make us proud or conceited, it’s the first step toward humility. Until we are willing to be honest about what we know, until we can celebrate that knowledge but also challenge it in an academic setting, we cannot accept the limitations of our knowledge and strive to be more.

Alas, I’m not entirely surprised to find a Bethel student describing an anti-intellectual “stigma” on campus — as I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, that’s a tendency that seems hard to shake at an institution rooted in evangelicalism and Pietism. But I’m grateful to Abby for speaking publicly about it, and affirming the value of undergraduate scholarship.

Please savor the entire piece, but I’m especially taken by her engagement with the biblical idea of the imago Dei, that humans are created in the image of God and so equipped for the God-like act of creating: “It must be glorifying to God to have creation studied with so much curiosity and attention…. In this way, academics – even when primarily research-based – can be a deeply creative endeavor…. We talk so often about being created in the image of Christ. Perhaps we should focus more on reflecting that deeper, more genuine image rather than the surface-level, ‘cool’ look of the crowd around us.”

So it’s even more exciting that, just yesterday, I saw Abby’s name on the list of editors for Colloquy, a new undergraduate academic journal getting off the ground at Bethel. Here’s how she and other founding editors envision the journal:

We value interdisciplinary dialogue, believing that our ideas are enriched by striving for excellence in our own work as well as having our ideas stretched by the varying focuses and perspectives of disciplines other than our own.

Amen, and huzzah!

It’s been a tough year to be a humanities professor at a liberal arts institution, but whatever real or imagined stress we’ve endured is redeemed by the chance to teach students like Abby.

Or the twelve who went on our trip to Europe to study World War I and didn’t complain that they encountered as much art, literature, and religion as strategy, tactics, and weaponry. (One of those twelve, incidentally, just won the Bethel Library Research prize for her History Senior Seminar paper on Frederick Law Olmsted, creator of New York’s Central Park.)

Or the Education, Nursing, Political Science, Social Work, Communications Studies, and other majors who gleefully return semester after semester to serve as teaching assistants in our rigorous, interdisciplinary Christianity and Western Culture (CWC) course.

Or the student-musicians — two of them History majors, two more former CWC students of mine — of Bethel’s Chamber Orchestra (whose concert I was privileged to attend last month), who glorify God with a different, but also idea-stretching, sort of creativity and curiosity.

Or many, many others. I’m grateful for the chance to teach, and learn from, all of them.


2 thoughts on “Students as Scholars

  1. I hope she takes a class with me too! I should also give a shout out to several BTS students, not the least including Sara Misgen, who will be giving not one, but two academic papers over the next two weeks (one of them was also a recipient of a Library Research Prize)! In addition, John Hoyum, Briana Buchanan, and Sydney Quandt. I was also especially excited to get Abby’s call for papers for the new student-journal, the Colloquy. Great stuff!

  2. You’re very kind, Dr. Gehrz. While I do think (as I say in the Clarion article) that there can be a stigma against being the “smart kid” at Bethel, I’ve also been really encouraged by the reception which the article and the Colloquy have received so far. Scholarship is so much more rewarding when done in a community of other scholars and learners–at Bethel, I’ve had fantastic professors from various departments as well as the chance to become friends with excellent students including Matisse Murray (winner of the Library Research Prize) and Sara Misgen (undoubtedly a scholar in her own right!) Just a shout-out to the amazing people in our academic community who make such a discussion of scholarship possible.

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