I’ve been in the graduate seminars of enough disciplines (like English, cultural studies, political science, and religious studies) to see that various relationships can exist between a Christian graduate student and their secular academic environment. Undoubtedly, if I were to venture beyond the humanities and social sciences, I’d see increased diversity. Over six years of graduate studies, my witness to the good news of Jesus has been inevitably flawed as I’ve struggled to know my self, my context, and my Lord. But somewhere down the road, if I were to share with my daughter any of the wisdom I have gleaned during this time about how to be a Christian and a graduate student, I’d say these four simple things, at least: Listen well; know your audience; know your worth; and keep reading Christian scholars.
As a hopeful undergraduate student, I listened in on a panel of graduate students who had gone on from my Christian university to public graduate studies. I wanted to learn what I could about the logistics of applications and about how I should approach graduate studies as a Christian. A comment from one woman on the panel stood out to me at the time. “Listen more than you speak,” she said.
It was worth saying. In academic discussion, listening is as important a part of your witness and learning process as speaking. Two years older and a fresh student in a master’s program, I quickly learned which scholars in my department listened well to others and who I could trust to dialogue fairly with me. I determined to strive to be a good dialogue partner and to prioritize spending time with people who listened genuinely.
There is one moment for which I will always be grateful: in a class discussion about an 18th century novel, the topic of death came up. The mood was somber and frightening as someone’s comments about the finality of death scared everyone into silence. I chose not to speak because of the profundity of the moment: an encounter with death. But later, I felt slightly guilty that I had not spoken hope into the silence.
That weekend, two classmates drove with me to Toronto to visit a new Japanese restaurant that had opened up. Knowing I was a Christian, they asked me what I thought about death and what came after. The outrageous answers I gave about sleeping in Jesus, Christ’s second coming, and final judgment were taken seriously because they had been solicited. Curiosity about my silence had in fact opened up a conversation.
When you listen well, you more deeply understand your partners in scholarly dialogue. My own assumptions about postmodernism and other approaches to scholarship took a beating in the first year of graduate studies. My faith did as well until I began to train my mind and heart to be flexible and resilient. In writing seminars, lectures, articles, and papers I needed both to know my audiences’ interests and beliefs and to know my audience personally. I realized this at key moments in seminar discussions when uninformed Christian perspectives spilled passionately and awkwardly onto the table, and were left writhing in their own discomfort by other students without the categories to engage with them. I realized it when heated debates left a bad taste in my mouth that could have been alleviated by a post-debate pint at the university pub. The Christian story, so compelling to me, needed to be contextualized and woven into discussions using language that wooed an unimpressed listener.
“Listen well” became something of a mantra for me during my studies. As a stand-alone piece of advice, though, it could contribute to the self-doubt and depression that plagues many graduate students. I once sat through an agonizing half-hour presentation by a brilliant colleague who was arguing that the Judeo-Christian creation story was responsible for everything from oppression of women to environmental destruction and, especially, colonial power. When the presentation finished, the class sat silent. The presenter had woven his damning case with such complicated sophistication that it seemed impossible to find loose ends or even a way to add threads to the fabric of his argument. As I sat staring at the notes I had taken, agonizing over what I could say, what would be helpful for the discussion, and whether I should say anything at all, I remembered “listen well.”
And just as I decided not to speak, my mouth opened ever so slightly and the professor asked me to respond. I suggested that the presenter’s critiques needed to be more carefully aimed by asking if he was aware of the cultural and historical context of Genesis’s first audience, or if he knew why it had been written. It was a simple question and thought. It generated a number of questions about what that context was and how to understand the Bible’s original intent and its entanglement in 19th century colonialism, and resulted in me recommending Middleton’s book on Genesis to an interested colleague.
I discovered that day that I had something to offer my classmates. As the program continued I became convinced of my worth as a scholar beyond what I could add to discussions about Biblical allusions and Christian authors. I found that no matter how many times I revised my dissertation proposal and outline to fit into academic discussions that I thought were respected, the Holy Spirit kept drawing my writing back to the task of writing out my faith. What I discovered when I handed in my first chapter (which was meant to be an analysis of humanitarian citizenship, but became an analysis of hymns to understand the theology of church-based refugee activists!) was that my unique perspective was welcome. I was welcome to take my faith seriously as long as I was taking secular scholarship seriously too.
Each Christian graduate student’s particular passions and skills have been given to them by God. This should give us confidence when we contribute to scholarship, despite the constant self-doubt that most grad students struggle with. Maybe I should have known it earlier, but finding out late that I had worthwhile things to say meant that when I finally began to contribute out of the heart of my own passions, I aimed to speak carefully, with measure, and with confidence.
Finally, another important activity I learned late and am still reminding myself to attend to is to find other Christian scholars that I can trust, and read their stuff! The fear of finding irrelevance and second-class scholarship in authors I had read during my Christian schooling kept me from reading Christian scholars for a couple of years. Returning to the work of people whose faith and worldview I shared was one of the healthiest things I did, re-grounding me in the conversations I most cared about and reminding me of the people whose thinking I am indebted to.
If my daughter ever decides to undertake graduate school—hopefully not for a long time!—I’d say many more things to her, but I’d start here: be a dialogue partner who is good at listening, work hard to know your secular context (both academically and personally), trust that you have something to offer the secular academy no matter how small your contribution is, and read other scholars who will sharpen your understanding of faithful scholarship.