The Duke Divinity email fracas and the perils of seeing academic work as a vocation (essay)

There is no official tally of how many resignations have ensued from reply-all email battles in the academy, but the count recently went up by one. The Catholic theologian Paul J. Griffiths of Duke Divinity School will reportedly leave his named chair in a year. This news came after a contentious email exchange between Griffiths and his colleagues over an invitation to a workshop on racial equity.

According to the published emails, Anathea Portier-Young, an associate professor of Old Testament, had emailed the school’s faculty members and students, “strongly urg[ing]” them to attend a voluntary two-day training on anti-racism. Later that day, Griffiths replied, claiming that the training would be “intellectually flaccid,” “definitively anti-intellectual,” a “waste” and a “distraction” from the school’s mission. Following this exchange, Griffiths has said that there were disciplinary moves made against him, including his being banned from faculty meetings.

In one of his messages to the faculty, Griffiths says that his case is about intellectual freedom. The conservative commentator Rod Dreher wants to make it about the illiberalism of the academy and its legion of intolerant “social justice warriors.” (Incidentally, Griffiths is on the record as skeptical toward liberal claims of tolerance.)

The case is also about the way academics think about their work. Judging from his emails, Griffiths seems to think of academic work as an exceptionally high calling, a vocation. He is hardly alone in thinking so. As a former theology professor at a Catholic college, I appreciate Griffiths’s sense that he is doing something of metaphysical importance.

But even a theologian has to remember that a professorship is also -- and perhaps mainly -- a job. That means that collegiality matters. It means that efforts to make the school more equitable for its students and faculty members matters. Indeed, by defining what they do in terms of vocation, scholars may do the profession and the people in it much greater harm than the “anti-intellectual” programs that Griffiths condemns.

The concept of vocation has religious roots in the calling of prophets, patriarchs and disciples. Yet even in the Bible, there is a conflict between vocation and ordinary work. In the gospels, Jesus calls his initial followers away from their work as fishermen and then gives them an unusual mission to preach and heal without accepting money. They are supposed to be itinerant, kicking away the dust of inhospitable towns as they leave them. Jesus expects that ultimately, his followers will be imprisoned and put to death for the sake of their call.

Griffiths writes that the work of the Divinity School’s faculty, “to think, read, write and teach about the triune Lord of Christian confession … is a hard thing. Each of us should be tense with the effort of it, thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread with the work of it, consumed by the fire of it, ever eager for more of it.” In a sense, the passion with which Griffiths views his work is admirable. It is no doubt a major reason why he was able to become a leading scholar of Catholicism after already being a leading scholar of Buddhism, his CV stretching to 28 tightly spaced pages.

Vocational language surely has a place in divinity schools. But to ask any worker to be so stretched, to thrum, to burn and to be eager for more -- it can be inhuman. Ideals like this are what lead faculty members to burn out, because not even Duke has the resources to support workers being treated as an infinitely malleable substance. This kind of zeal for work also gives cover for neglect of the humdrum work of managing an institution and getting along with coworkers. Compared to Griffiths’s vision of academic work, any meeting, any report, any regulation meant to make a university an easier place for people to work and learn debases the highest good.

The academic with a sense of calling is tenacious, possessing “the ability to don blinkers for once and to convince himself that the destiny of his soul depends upon whether he is right to make precisely this conjecture and no other,” in the words of Max Weber’s lecture “Science as a Vocation.” Only a zealot who cannot tolerate perceived error sees an easily deleted email invitation as an attack on an ideal, an attack that must be countered. I should know; I’ve succumbed to zeal myself and been too quick to reply all with a sharp refutation of a minor point. Weber called the academic vocation a “strange intoxication.” It keeps the scholar fixated on a problem, even when it’s the wrong problem.

Ideals always come with costs. Stifling the ideal of the academic vocation might mean that some geniuses went unaccommodated while the decency of office life was tended and bureaucrats were appeased. Weber, for his part, thought the vocation was a necessary intoxication. According to him, academics can only bear the indignities of graduate programs, the job market, peer review and promotion and tenure -- indignities academics themselves invented -- if each one “finds and obeys the daemon that holds the threads of his life.”

But the costs are even greater if the ideal of the vocation crowds out academics’ ability to see that they are workers. Belief in vocation keeps grad students and postdocs performing what Miya Tokumitsu calls “hope labor.” They do skilled labor for little pay now in the hope that they will one day get the big reward of a tenure-track job. It goes without saying that their hope is often in vain.

The costs of vocationalism also include the strains that itinerancy places on dual-academic-career relationships, as well as untold amounts of harassment endured and swept under departmental rugs, and labor rights and benefits not argued for or unacknowledged. After all, if you have a calling, why let mundane concerns get in its way?

No doubt, someone could turn my argument around and say that the Divinity School faculty who welcomed the anti-racism workshop are too zealous in their sense of vocation. I don’t know enough to say; only Griffiths has made his case public. But the faculty members whom Griffiths criticizes at least acknowledge that, as a place of learning and work, the school has a racial climate that is worth understanding and improving.

Griffiths closed his initial email by exhorting his colleagues to “Keep your eyes on the prize,” a cynical echo of a civil-rights theme. Depending on the prize, focusing intently on it can take your eyes off your surroundings. It can make you stumble into the people around you, knock them down, flail about to steady yourself and then wonder why they insist on living in the muck.

Jonathan Malesic is a writer living in Dallas and an adjunct faculty member at McCormick Theological Seminary. He is working on a book about the spiritual costs of the American work ethic. (Twitter: @jonmalesic)

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Thursday, May 18, 2017
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Advice to graduate students for dealing with sexual assault and harassment (essay)

Sexual Assault on Campus

Jen Dylan provides advice to graduate students for dealing with sexual harassment.

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Tennessee Free Speech Bill Signed Into Law

A free speech bill backed by state Republican lawmakers in Tennessee became law there this week. It is separate legislation from what was previously dubbed the “Milo bill,” after fallen Breitbart star Milo Yiannopoulos, whose February appearance at the University of California at Berkeley sparked violent protests from non-students. The news law says that it “is not the proper role of an institution to attempt to shield individuals from free speech, including ideas and opinions they find offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical or wrong-headed.”

Tennessee lawmakers regularly oppose the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s annual Sex Week and earlier this academic year opposed a guide from the university's diversity office encouraging the use of gender-neutral pronouns for students who request them. But Anthony Haynes, vice president for government relations and advocacy for the University of Tennessee System, praised the new law and said it had been drafted by with the input and support of colleges and universitites. “The campus free-speech act that just passed in Tennessee clarifies and protects free speech on college campuses as provided by the First Amendment, but it appears to be the first state law in the country to protect academic freedom in the classroom," he said in a statement. "It was a fresh perspective developed independently as a Tennessee solution to a growing national debate and concern."

Similar bills have proved controversial in other states this year over concerns that they go too far in demanding certain administrative responses to free-speech flaps. Tennessee’s new law requires that institutions adopt policies consistent with the University of Chicago’s statement on free expression, prohibit “free speech zones” that confine protests and other forms of expression to certain areas on campus, and define student-on-student harassment by a legal standard described as so “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive” that it limits one party’s access to education. It also bans institutions from revoking invitations to speakers, prohibits the denial of student fees to student organization based on their views, and protects faculty members from being punished for classroom speech that is germane to the subject matter, according to an analysis by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Robert Shibley, FIRE's director, in a statement called it “the most comprehensive state legislation protecting free speech on college campuses that we’ve seen be passed anywhere in the country.” (Note: This story has been updated to correct an earlier error conflating it with the 'Milo bill,' and to include a statement from the university.)

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Colleges aren't coddling students by teaching them how to handle disagreeable situations (essay)

Very few issues in higher education have captured the attention of commentators across the political spectrum over the past few years like the supposed “coddling” of college students. It’s rare that Ruth Marcus and Breitbart agree. But on the need to stop “coddling” students who seemingly cannot handle unexpected outcomes (e.g., the 2016 presidential election) or alternative viewpoints (e.g., pick your favorite “controversial” speaker), they made similar pleas. Calls for students to “grow up” -- or, as Republican Representative Bobby Kaufmann’s bill in the Iowa Legislature said, “Suck it up, buttercup” -- are widespread. From the left to the right, calls for college students to grow up are pointed, and getting louder and sharper.

Let’s be clear. Much of the commentary has been aimed at free speech issues -- many of which had roots in the 2016 presidential election -- and at microaggressions, trigger warnings and other aspects of language flowing from social structures and concerns that cause people pain. For our purposes here, the specific content or precipitating event is not the point. We are concerned with the diagnosis that the fault, the reason “coddling” is needed, is a character defect in students and, to a slightly lesser extent, in higher education institutions.

Considered together, the collected commentary framing the coddling issue appears grounded on a set of core assumptions: 1) that students simply need to show more fortitude, 2) that colleges are refusing to live up to their claim that they are the marketplaces for open discussion and debate of issues and ideas across the full spectrum of thought, 3) that we are reaping the fruits of the “everyone wins a trophy” philosophy, and 4) that we are experiencing the result of a failure to eradicate bigotry of all sorts from society.

Perhaps those assumptions are correct.

We argue they are not.

We propose that, when looked at from a different perspective, students’ behavior becomes more easily understood and, essentially, expected. A bit of history will set the stage.

A Matter of Knowledge, Skills and Abilities

There was a time not long ago when a common experience on a campus was the statement “Look to your right. Look to your left. Two of you won’t be here at graduation.” At the time, those and similar statements and actions -- faculty members never providing lecture notes to students who missed class, math classes having grade distributions of majority D’s and F’s, students being told that if they needed additional tutoring they did not belong there -- reflected a certain understanding of rigor and were touted with pride.

No more. We have come to understand that the students who used to be among the two not there at graduation didn’t discontinue because they didn’t belong there. We figured out that the problem had to do with knowledge, learning, skills, experiences and support. Institutions responded to that discovery by creating and providing a wide array of supports: on-demand tutoring, intrusive advising systems, high-impact teaching practices, sophisticated data analytics that inform faculty members where students are having difficulty. The result? More students learning more and achieving credentials at a higher rate. By most people’s estimation, we are more successful now, with many more students, that we ever were with a misguided understanding of rigor. Institutions no longer assume that students come fully prepared.

We argue that the lessons learned through this change in attitude and understanding regarding academic success would greatly benefit us in rethinking the coddling accusation. Consider this: just as students come to college with the knowledge, skills and abilities they have honed in and outside class in their educational experiences up to that point, along with the social skills learned along the way, so too do they come with the ability to handle disagreeable situations and ideas different from their own. Simply put, we do not expect students to show up at college possessing all the requisite skills to be successful in life; otherwise, we would have no expected learning outcomes and college would be unnecessary. On the contrary, we expect that students will grow in knowledge, skills and abilities across the arc of their college experience, exiting with demonstrably higher competence levels than those they possessed upon arrival. That is true for not only academic skills but also for handling disagreeable and challenging situations.

The trouble is, that’s not the way most people see it. Why? Why don’t we view the issues swirling around the coddling debate as a matter of knowledge, skills and abilities? Why do so many commentators insist that it’s a character defect in students, or yet another example of liberal institutions run amok, overly concerned with fragile egos?

It troubles us that such observers also fail to see the inherent contradictions in their own arguments. Consider: Why are we more understanding that a veteran who has post-traumatic stress disorder might occasionally need a “safe place” than we are that a person who has survived a serious physical assault might need one? For that matter, why do people of every background create “strategic retreats,” closed off-the-record briefings, secret societies, clubs with exclusionary and/or affinity-based membership rules, and so on if not to provide a “safe space” to go and share mutually supportive thoughts and feelings? Why are they taken for granted as acceptable and expected while safe spaces for LGBT students are somehow coddling?

Similarly, why would we expect students who have come of age in neighborhoods and schools surrounded by people who largely look and think as they do to be highly skilled at handling personal insults hurled by those with different, yet similarly narrowly shaped, experiences and beliefs? Why should we expect that people who have experienced different outcomes of a society still struggling with racial and class issues will magically know how to get along? Why would we expect students to arrive a college skilled at civil discourse when their only understanding of political debate consists of well-compensated people on opposing sides shouting to drown one another out?

Viewed through such contexts, coddling is not the issue. Rather, the issue becomes how we can best provide the experiences that result in the acquisition of the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to handle challenging and complex situations effectively. It becomes recognizing that the outcomes on which we stake our institutional reputations, especially critical thinking and communication skills, must also include effectively dealing with people, ideas and behaviors that live way outside our comfort zones. It becomes understanding that no one is born knowing how to deal with people and ideas that shake you to your core. Everyone, irrespective of background or privilege, must learn how to do that.

To the core outcomes of critical thinking and communication, we would add contemplative listening, a skill we have argued elsewhere is both essential and overlooked as a prerequisite for the other two. For example, although it can be claimed that the pundits are adept at critical thinking, and are expert at communication, they lack contemplative listening while they are on the air. In previous papers, we presented a case for adding contemplative listening to the list of core outcomes in general education, grounding that discussion in theories of adult cognitive and personal development.

The listening-thinking-communicating triad forms an essential foundation for helping students develop the skills necessary for success in a society based on free and open debate. Bloom’s taxonomy could be a good initial framework. And just as we provide wraparound support structures for writing, math and so forth, we will need to ensure that similar supports are in place regarding all sorts of challenging and complex situations. In that approach, safe spaces, for instance, are no more problematic -- nor is the label any more pejorative -- than math lab.

From this perspective, colleges do not coddle anyone. Whether they provide sufficient opportunities and support for learning and practicing the requisite skills to handle intellectual and emotional challenges may be a very different matter. Only when we adopt a mode of creating supported learning opportunities, through scaffolding, a technique used to gradually move a learner progressively and incrementally from one level of understanding to another by providing temporary support, or other approach, will we adopt the more appropriate stance that handling challenging and complex situations is something we learn how to do. Robert George and Cornel West adopted this perspective in their well-known course on how to listen to contrary points of view. Our main point is this: telling students to “grow up” is no more helpful than telling them that if math is hard for you, you simply don’t belong.

Perhaps if we all were better at listening, we’d know this from our students already. Perhaps if we started demonstrating more effective ways of handling challenging and complex situations, we would have more opportunities for people to imitate more effective behaviors. Perhaps if we just understood that bursting our own bubbles is difficult and often traumatic, we would be better positioned to guide our students through the same process. Perhaps then we would move on, more productively and effectively, to confront the underlying issues that drive the content of the debates.

John C. Cavanaugh is president and CEO of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area. Christine K. Cavanaugh is president of Pathseekers II Inc.

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Boston students protest Trump's election.
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Making the most of your sabbatical year (essay)

Jennifer Lundquist and Joya Misra provide recommendations for making the most of your year away from traditional campus duties.

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Thursday, May 11, 2017
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