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The Costs of a Calling

The Duke Divinity email fracas shows the peril of academics viewing their work as a vocation and not a job, argues Jonathan Malesic.

May 12, 2017
 
 
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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.

Bio

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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