Dr. Michael R. Stevens has been teaching in the Humanities Division at Cornerstone University since 1997. He did his Ph.D. work in Literature at the University of Dallas in Irving, TX, where he—as a native of upstate New York and a lifelong Buffalo Bills fan—was forced to witness the Bills losing two Super Bowls in a row to the Cowboys. Stevens loves reading and writing about baseball and about the Civil War, and he owns and sometimes dons a Union blue uniform for presentations.
Comment: What are the biggest challenges facing recent graduates who hope to do the kind of work you do?
Michael R. Stevens: The first major challenge to university or college teaching is the disparity between the enormous effort of time and energy it takes to complete Ph.D. program, and the scarcity of good, firm jobs that await the aspiring professor. The magnetic pull of financial efficiency has turned many schools into adjunct-faculty shops, so that low wages and no benefits (as well as crazy commutes to a variety of different sites) are the only sure thing. This is why I think that the choice of a small, “insignificant” school (perhaps by one’s graduate school professors’ standards), where you can teach a wide array of courses and be deeply tied into the life of the institution, needs to be seen as a pleasing and admirable way of life. Of course, such places are often on the brink of financial trouble—but maybe, just maybe, you can be part of a renaissance.
Comment: How does the Christian faith address those challenges?
MS: Faith allows us to plunge into difficult, rocky waters, to stretch ourselves, to recognize that vulnerability is okay—better than okay: a necessity. Every time I step in front of a class, I feel vulnerable. I wonder if I can help to create the sort of exchange that makes learning happen. When I develop a new class, or step outside my specialty (assuming I have one!), or seek to team-teach to show students what it looks like to speak and think across personal and disciplinary boundaries, I feel joyfully vulnerable. In believing that God values this sort of inquiry into His world and what it means to be fully human, I sense that we in the classroom get a chance to do a bit of “working out of our salvation,” albeit “with fear and trembling.”
Comment: What can students do while still in school to prepare for those challenges?
MS: I would tell every college student to study widely, broadly, vastly—to read outside of your major and in other fields and realms, to follow your intellectual curiosity, to talk about many ideas with many different people, to stretch the opportunity for expanding the life of the mind as far as you can in the time and context of your schooling. Resist the dangers and lures of hyper-specialization that impoverish even undergraduate programs now—find an interdisciplinary major, study other languages, go abroad if feasible, go at least to whatever local lectures and forums you can find. That being said, I think it’s also helpful to find one thinker, author, or scholar with whom you can deeply familiarize yourself—one who will give a shape to your work, a framework from which to start.
Comment: Is there a writer, magazine or newspaper columnist, or blogger who addresses your sphere of life with wisdom?
MS: I would instantly and insistently point all students looking for a starting point toward Wendell Berry, whom I consider to be the wisest writer in America. He offers the best critique of the subtle but unstoppable abuses being meted out by dehumanizing forces of consumerism and corporatism in our culture. But he also shows a vision for healthy and healing local communities that gives hope blazing in the midst of darkness.
Comment: Are there disciplines and practices that you recommend students cultivate for life in general?
MS: I am not a strong and able counselor, generally, when it comes to sustaining personal disciplines and practices. But, I would suggest becoming comfortable with reciting written prayers, perhaps from a lectionary or one of the many sources now available, and “climbing into” those prayers as a way to vitalize one’s own prayer life. I’d also suggest thinking closely about all of your economic exchanges, even while in college, so that you can become as little a mere consumer, and as much a participant in healthy, life-giving exchange, as possible. That sounds pretty vague, but there is plenty being said and written about this that can help concretize it for students.
One last thing—try to practice neighborliness and hospitality, no matter who your neighbors are or how difficult it might seem. It’s the simplest praxis, but nearly always fulfilling.