Why We Do What We Do

So I’m in the process of finishing up my grading for this year. Two sets of papers to go plus a couple of stragglers. Commencement is Saturday. This is the end of my second year at Spring Arbor. It means I’ve been here long enough to have significantly invested in the folks who will cross the platform to shake the president’s hand.

I knew something had changed about a month ago. I was at the spring play (starring one of my students) when one student I haven’t had told me he was excited to be taking my sociological theory class next spring. Shortly thereafter, I realized that a number of our majors had taken to calling me “Hawthorne“. Not Dr. or Prof or even John. Just Hawthorne. I realized that it’s what they use as a reference when they talk about me. And now they use it as my appellation. It means I have an identity in their universe.

Last week I was in a meeting with the peer advisors who work with our freshman groups. We were talking about the nature of service. I wound up repeating a line I’d used for years: that the thing that makes a Christian residential liberal arts institution special isn’t that people know students by name — it’s that they know me. Not as the name at the top of the syllabus but as me.

I’ve invested myself in them and they’ve invested themselves in me. It’s what Spring Arbor means when we call ourselves a “community of learners“.  Those that leave us this weekend change that community as we go forward. I’ll feel a sense of loss (even though Facebook lets me stay in touch). And we’ve already begun investing in a new group of freshmen who came to preregistration last weekend.

This interpersonal dynamic is what Pete Enns was describing in this excellent post yesterday on the joys of teaching Bible classes at Eastern University. He wrote: Intellectual and spiritual growth at a Christian college requires transparency, vulnerability, and commitment to community. It is my job as the professor–especially in teaching some potentially tough topics–to create that culture.

I’d take Pete’s point one step farther. To create that culture, he has to embody transparency, vulnerability, and commitment to community. As Parker Palmer has written in nearly all his books, that embodiment (incarnation) is game-changing. Students find the ability to dream, to take chances, to push themselves.

One of my students wrote yesterday that she’d always thought the integration of faith and learning was about balancing content. Now she thinks about seeing learning as an expression of her commitment to Christ. She’s still working on what that means for her, but it’s exciting.

Today Christianity Today had this editorial about the future of Christian Higher Ed. It tells the familiar story: rising costs, concerns about debt, ponderings about the role of distance education. The author argues that churches should care about Christian universities because that’s where ministers come from and how parishioners get benefits from Christian faculty in their midst (and who, in turn, keep aware of life in the pew).

Such a narrow vision of the purpose of Christian Higher Education will not serve us into the future. We don’t exist FOR the church by operating as some kind of leadership farm club. We exist AS the church reaching out into the highways and byways. Our graduates can go out and work in community to advance the Kingdom of God because they’ve been practicing faithful Christian living for four years.

We send out missionaries. Some of them go overseas. Some work in insurance companies. Some work at Starbucks while they figure out the right grad program to attend. But they’re all carrying something forth — the notion that a community of learners matters in shaping identity.

This is why MOOCs are not the solution. If having great content delivered by folks like Michael Sandel (and he is good — I use his book in my capstone class) was all that mattered, then the folks at San Jose State and American University need to get with the program.

But it’s not just about content. It’s about personal investment in lives. And that investment is worth more than the tuition we charge. The payoff comes when we see that timid freshman cross the platform four years later as a confident and thoughtful adult. It comes when we hear that the village he serves in the Peace Corps has been dramatically changed because of his investment in the people there. It comes when new ministry forms emerge that keep Young Evangelicals engaged in the local congregation in ways that are authentic and meaningful. It comes when their children show up at the college ready to go through the whole cycle for a new generation.

Saturday my students will cross the platform and I’ll stand and clap for them. I’m looking forward to meeting their families and talk about how much we’ve been through together.

But mostly I’m excited about who they are and where they’re going. The world will be changed by their presence in it. And I’m just humbled to play a part in God’s work in this place.

Christian Higher Education hasn’t lost its mission. We just need to do a better job of reminding ourselves that it’s been right here under our noses the whole time.

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2 thoughts on “Why We Do What We Do

  1. Perhaps I’m one of the last who still call you “Dr.” Hawthorne. Rest assured that you have an identity in my universe and its been a pleasure learning under your mentoring. I especially like your statement that the investment “is worth more than the tuition we charge”. Some day, very far from now, almost so distant its inconceivable, I will have paid off my student loans. The lessons I’ve learned here though will stick with me though long after that happens though.

  2. This issue is one of the most difficult parts of adjunct “professoring”. Being on campus just a few hours each week allows for some of this, but nothing like the day-to-day relationships that develop from a consistent on-campus presence. I agree that MOOCs are not likely to provide this, but as someone whose community is scattered across the earth, I’d also like to think that we can subversively co-opt MOOCs as a starting point for creating smaller, interconnected groups of students/peers from around the world. Do you think that’s possible?

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