In Praise of Colleagues, Learning in “War-Time”

Benson Great Hall at Bethel University
Benson Great Hall – Bethel University

Earlier this week my employer announced further results of a prioritization and review process meant to address a serious budgetary shortfall. Previously, this had resulted in the loss of several programs and faculty positions and the closure of Bethel’s arts and media center in New York City. On Monday a number of staff (far more than faculty) learned that their positions had been eliminated or modified, the second such round of layoffs this year to affect our staff.

That day Kyle Roberts, a colleague up the hill at Bethel Seminary, wrote about the effects of such “D-Day”‘s on the climate on campus:

As one can imagine, the cuts of faculty and staff have sliced deeply into the morale of the place. If I may turn trite for a moment by using a sports metaphor, they say that winning covers over a multitude of faults, conflicts, and problems. Losing does the opposite. It raises tensions, exposes weaknesses, and creates further conflicts. Losing is no fun.

In institutions of higher learning, many of which are facing challenges, hard-choices, and layoffs, “losing” is no fun either. It creates a difficult environment for pursuing the very thing we are all supposed to be doing: learning. Professors are professionals; we continue to lecture, grade, research, write and meet with students. And students are paying to learn–and they are remarkably resilient. But in all honesty, it’s not easy.

C.S. Lewis Statue in Belfast
Statue of C.S. Lewis (opening a wardrobe) in his hometown of Belfast, Northern Ireland – Creative Commons (Genvessel)

Without likening what we’re going through to anytime remotely like the experience of war, Kyle did take some guidance from C.S. Lewis’ famous essay on “Learning in War-Time.” (As it happened, that same day my teaching assistant mentioned that he was reading it…) Speaking to Oxford students early in the Second World War, Lewis argued that it is essential that the work of universities continue. Because learning is central to who we are as humans, and to how we understand and glorify God, it was well that humans “propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffold, discuss, the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae.”

So as we close another difficult week at Bethel, I want to celebrate the courage and dedication of just a few of my colleagues who, as Lewis claims for all humanity, “wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never came.”

• The colleagues in disciplines as diverse as sociology and journalism, philosophy and psychology who all week have been working hard to get me rough drafts of their contributions to the book I’m editing on a Pietist approach to Christian higher education. Perhaps the only benefit of our present season of change and crisis is that it forces us to reflect anew on who we are, what we do, and why it’s distinctive.

• One of the contributors to that book is our digital librarian, Kent Gerber. This morning I had a chance to meet with Kent and a student, to begin collaborating on a digital and oral history project documenting a few of the ways that the modern age of warfare has shaped Bethel. On this project and many others, Kent brings expertise, energy, and vision as he helps us think about how we might use new technologies to serve old purposes (the preservation and curation of sources, the educational ambitions of the liberal arts). With my colleague Diana Magnuson (mentioned again below), Kent has helped develop a digital library that not only serves those of us who study the history of Bethel and other Christian colleges, but has become part of the new Digital Public Library of America. In such projects, he serves as a welcome reminder that tenure-track faculty are not the only educators at Bethel: as much as any of us, he is teaching and mentoring students, and modeling for them how Christians nurture a life of the mind and cultivate intellectual rigor and curiosity.

• The same day that Kyle was writing about C.S. Lewis, historian David Hollinger was lamenting how the sciences and the humanities are being driven apart by a “wedge [that] threatens the ability of all modern disciplines to provide—in the institutional context of universities—the services for which they have been designed.” As I’ve noted here before, I’m so happy to be at an institution of higher learning in which the sciences are understood to be part of the liberal arts — science coursework is integral to our curriculum, and professors like chemist Wade Neiwert and physicist Dick Peterson are as staunch in their advocacy of the liberal arts as any art historian or philosopher.

Nathan Lindquist
Nathan Lindquist in Bethel’s NanoLab – Bethel University

• At the same time, those faculty are working with undergraduates to conduct cutting-edge research. Continuing Dick’s legacy, three current members of our physics department (Chad Hoyt, Nathan Lindquist, and Keith Stein) have — in the past year alone — received over $600,000 in grants from the National Science Foundation. Covering fields ranging from optics to nanotechnology, the grants simultaneously help to strengthen teaching in a department that has already had two dozen alumni complete doctorates in physics or engineering in the past decade.

• Nor are sciences faculty alone in receiving such federal funding. English professor Dan Ritchie, having already hosted an National Endowment of Humanities (NEH) institute on Alexis de Tocqueville in 2007, Dan recently received an NEH Enduring Questions Grant to support him in developing a new gen ed capstone course on the oft-neglected subject of leisure. This on top of continuing to direct and teach in Bethel’s remarkable Humanities program, a four-term sequence in which students read deeply and widely in literature, philosophy, theology, and history to learn “how Western civilization has tried to answer life’s deepest questions concerning God, the self, and society.”

• Other faculty are finding new ways to help students ask questions that evangelical Protestants have often treat warily. For example, our department and our upstairs neighbors in Philosophy are co-sponsoring a new minor on Gender Studies, directed by Diana Magnuson (History) and Sara Shady (Philosophy). Its two required courses are an introductory course taught by Sara that enrolled its capacity of students the first time it was offered, and a new course on the History of Sexuality in the United States, taught by my other Americanist colleague, AnneMarie Kooistra.

AnneMarie (whose own research is on the history of prostitution in Los Angeles) wrote about the new history of sexuality course in a recent preview at our department blog. I’m so proud to have a colleague who is fearless, faithful, rigorous, and empathetic — the hallmarks of a Christian historian:

AnneMarie Kooistra…this class might not always provide all the answers, but we’re going to look at issues related to sexuality about which students are curious but about which they might feel reluctant to inquire. So, when we talk about the history of sexual categories, how the concept of “homosexuality” or “heterosexuality” came to be defined and understood popularly, that might be extremely fascinating and yet troubling at the same time. We’ll get into some fairly nitty gritty material, and as historians our first quest is to understand rather than to condemn, and that might be challenging….

I hope students will leave this class with more empathy for people who have made different sexual choices from themselves, that they are more thoughtful about why they possess the sexual paradigm they do, and that they have an appreciation for the challenges and blessings of being embodied members of a complex community of believers.

• One of the courses students can select to help complete their Gender Studies minor is another new offering from our department, Muslim Women in History, taught by my colleague Amy Poppinga. As difficult as it can be to ask questions about gender and sexuality on an evangelical campus, it’s hardly any easier to talk about other religions. But Amy is a campus leader (with Sara Shady and English professor Marion Larson, among others — learn here about their contribution to our book on Pietism and education) in helping us understand the value of interfaith dialogue. And her course on Muslim women (like AnneMarie’s on sexuality) convicted me again of the importance of historical inquiry for thoughtful Christians. From her course preview at our blog:

Ad for Amy's Muslim Women in History courseOne of the things I love about women’s history is that it requires the teacher and the students to think outside the box in order to get to heart of the Muslim woman’s story. We have to rely on certain methods, like oral history, song, poetry, photos, and artifacts in order to piece together the roles women have played in shaping their societies because they often do not have a voice in written history. We will also be inviting Muslim women to have tea with us in our classroom, and we will share our own stories with one another. This is an important form of “cementing” history that women of all cultures have participated in throughout time.

I think the challenge comes in confronting our own stereotypes and prejudice. We have to be willing to be honest about how the Christian community, at times, feeds the negativity that exists regarding Muslims and Islam. Interacting with stories and making personal connections breaks down that negativity. To be honest, sometimes we’re not quite ready to do it; it requires bravery and faith.

That they — and too many more to name — do this all in a place that too often this year has felt like one of Lewis’ “beleaguered cities” strikes me as courageous and remarkable. But Lewis would say that it’s just the human condition: “This is not panache,” he wrote, “it is our nature.”


3 thoughts on “In Praise of Colleagues, Learning in “War-Time”

  1. It has been bitter/sweet reading through the last weeks. Thank you Chris for your writing and what you included from others this Friday. As a mother of two Bethel graduates who would have been deeply affected by the radical changes; as a graduate myself and last but not least the wife of former Bethel Business Professor, Bob Weaver, (deceased) my heart aches!
    I wish that Bob was here to talk!

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