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On a New Semester

The rhythms of academic life are sweet and dear and often bittersweet: meeting new students, saying good-bye to students-become-friends; being able to let a dull class go at the end of fifteen weeks, and yet having to let a bright class go at the end of fifteen weeks; always learning new things, always being challenged to articulate old wisdom afresh; the vigor and rigor of important ideas that change young people’s lives, or so they sometimes tell me, and the priceless stewardship of those young minds, many so eager to learn, the soil of their souls tilled by deep plows of good intentions, ready to receive either weeds or wheat that will spring up to a harvest either plentiful or not, a stewardship so dear that it is no wonder that the letter of James tells us that we who dare teach will be judged with a more harsh judgment. So—the start of a new semester is upon us. In honor of a new semester, I share an assignment I was recently given by our Provost, to share with new faculty this past summer “what you won’t hear in any orientation meeting” about our University. There resulted my following “My Top Nine List of What They Will Not Tell You in New Faculty Orientation Meetings.”

This list is dedicated to my friends Randy Spivey and Caleb Clanton, who were among the “new faculty” that day, and who have already proven themselves to be dear colleagues and good conversation partners and fruitful laborers in this field in which we find ourselves.

Enjoy. Or not. Anyway, here goes:

My Top Nine List of What They Will Not Tell You in New Faculty Orientation Meetings

Lee C. Camp

1) If you don’t know it, you will, unfortunately, not find it in our current publications: David Lipscomb was a socio-political radical, a pacifist who refused to fight for either the Confederacy or the Union; said that trying to prop up human governments was akin to whoring with the Beast and, quoting the book of Revelation, admonished those thus whoring that they should “come ye out of her”; insisted that a sectarian refusal to listen to the arguments of people who fundamentally disagreed with you was ignorant; and thought that too much affiliation with wealth ruined young people, because it made them incapable of being at ease in the homes of the poor that were filled with unpleasant odors and foul disease. And he believed all of this because he, first and foremost, sought first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness. Whether we agree with all his conclusions or not, let us not forget his witness, and let us talk more about what brother Lipscomb had to say.

2) Always saying “yes” is not to be equated with Christian love. Saying “no” remains necessary in a Christian community. Setting boundaries is a necessary part of being a mature human being. Precisely because we are a lively community, and precisely because we all know that if you want something done well, you should ask someone who already has lots of commitments precisely because they do things well: it means that if you do good work, which we trust you will, you will get more requests than you can say yes too. So when you need to, say no.

3) But, say yes to most everything for a few years, if only for the opportunities it will give you to meet different people, and hear more stories about the history of this place. There are so many wonderful people here, and there have labored here innumerable wonderful people here in decades past. Learn their stories: about the young men who have died in service to the poor in New York City; or the famed prankstering of Physics Professor Srygley and his brother; or the stories which cannot and should not be told in public, because they are stories of the way in which our community has sought to practice redemption among the broken.

4) One of the unfortunate realities of our rapid growth is that we are, unfortunately, increasing our alienation in our respective silos. This is one of the grave drawbacks to so-called “growth.” Let us all together look for ways to pay attention to each other, if only as an exercise in Christian hospitality; but also as an exercise in learning from one another.

5) We are a very diverse lot: real liberals and real conservatives, in most whatever way you define those terms. Whether you find that healthy or not, I would contend that in the midst of our diversity, we are a very gracious Christian community, which, generally speaking, does not wag its tongues overly much. Let us remember the words of Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, who admonished us to remember that one of the most important practices of a viable community is the simple but difficult “ministry of keeping one’s mouth shut.”

6) Please do not hold back the convictions that are most important to you. Now, I say this as one who has occupied quite a few large blocks of administrative meeting time discussing things I have said or published, or things that have been said or published about me. But the Provost did, after all, give me this assignment. So I contend that we must remember the fact that a living tradition, as Alasdair MacIntyre put it, is an extended argument across time. If we are not arguing about important things, then we cannot be a viable community of Christian scholars. If you say important things, or at least talk about important things, you may (perhaps you may likely) get push back, simply because different people of good-will hold different convictions about important questions. But if you are fair, careful, honest, and respectful, the push-back you get, while not necessarily enjoyable in any way, will still respect you even while it may be annoyed with you. Or, at least, that is my experience.

7) I have witnessed on more than one occasion the manner in which this community has sought to be redemptive in difficult, painful, or outright sinful situations. This means that what one sees publicly is not always what is really happening behind the scenes, if only because graciousness in broken situations requires discretion.

8) At the same time, we are getting better at not letting “Christian love” become an indulgence for crappy work. We expect one another to do well, and as incoming faculty, we expect you will do well as well, and we look forward to your lively contributions.

9) This University, for all its very many good qualities, is still an institution which is marred by the Fall as is every other human, and every other human institution. So there will undoubtedly, if you pay any attention to what is going on around you, be things that frustrate you to no end.

Some years ago, about two years into full-time college teaching, I was sitting in a faculty meeting, and some new policy was announced, one which was quite stupid and short-sighted, or so I thought, and of course I undoubtedly thought correctly, and I turned to my colleague Mike Williams, and I said to him, “that pisses me off.” He replied with a smile, “you’re always pissed off.” His honesty with me led to some soul-searching, and then to some repentance, and then in turn to a resolution that I have found helpful: if some policy or university practice angers me, then there are two possible routes forward: first, decide if it is worth the time and attention to go to the person first and foremost involved with it, and share my take on it. If I decide, however, that there is not sufficient time or need for making such an appointment and having such a conversation, then do my best to drop it, and speak no more of it. Grumbling to my colleagues who have no say about policies I find objectionable does no one any good. I have seldom practiced this resolution with perfection, but even my halting attempts have proven altogether liberating, and freed up much emotional energy for more fruitful work.

Cynicism, that special disposition of academics, is not, after all, a virtue. Cynicism, as I see it, is a desire to tell the truth but to tell the truth laced with judgment and tinged with resentment. But truth-telling, bearing witness to the truth as one understands it, while practicing patience and kindness, is perhaps key among the virtues of Christian academics. Let us therefore, as the Apostle put it, exhort one another to such love and good works.

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