On the Spiritual Joy of Academic Work

(Adapted from comments I shared recently with the College of Humanities at BYU)

Grading, I am convinced, is a circle in hell. And maybe an even deeper circle in hell is dealing with student complaints and anxieties about grades. But as much as we professors like to moralize about this, we all know that we have helped create the problem by being part of a system that treats students like rats in a maze, chasing the elusive cheese. To try to direct my students’ anxieties away from their GPA, I ask them to work not for a particular final grade but for a particular kind of letter they imagine I might write about them at the end of the semester. I have always fantasized about the Bennington College model of only writing letters instead of assigning grades because you can say so much more about a student that way. The truth is, many “A” students would get inferior letters to some of my “B” students. There is so much more to a student’s contributions to a class than what they are able to get right on a test. Passion and discipline are what set apart the best students, not raw ability. And my mission, as I see it, is to help my students discover that passion and appreciation for the privilege of an education before it is too late.IMG_1397

I feel for them, of course. Let’s face it. Professors like me chose the profession because we were high achievers in such a system. We were among the most willing lab rats. Dangle the possibility of a reward in front of me, and I just start salivating. I am a superior breed of Pavlov’s.

And we faculty just as easily stress about rewards and punishments and complain about the rules and overseers that constrain us rather than focusing on the privilege of being educators. The reality is that we are paid to read and write, think and wonder, and teach and travel. And at Brigham Young University, I look at our beautiful facilities, the generosity of research support, our remarkable students, and at all of my truly exceptional colleagues, not to mention the staggeringly beautiful mountains, rivers, and lakes that surround me, and I can scarcely find room for complaint. I could write volumes about the quality relationships I enjoy on campus with my colleagues and the very good kind of people they are. And the students, well, I feel I won the lottery. I often wonder if I would have enjoyed academia this much for this long if I hadn’t been here. I am not saying the BYU life is without blemish or that faculty have no right to point out where we need to improve. I only wish to acknowledge how easy it is to forget my privileges.

So we faculty feel stress, and under that stress, instead of returning to the most effective and important powers of renewal available to us from God, we tell ourselves narratives about unfeeling and condescending bureaucrats and dogmatic churchy types who are breathing down our necks and making our lives miserable, demanding that we publish or perish, that we be a superlative life-changing teachers, and, while we are at it, that we be kind and gracious and giving and longsuffering and fully consecrated at all times. Not to mention that we should be grateful for BYU-produced software. And finally there is that minor matter of our personal and family lives that are expected to be without blemish, and always above average.

It is a tall order to teach at such a place, with such high expectations. For some faculty, there is the temptation to work frantically at the cost of our health and happiness, only to find that the institution or their colleagues don’t value them as much as they had hoped. Others expend most of their energy keeping up appearances even as their foundations are starting to crack. Still others just give up and stop working hard at being their best and they become obstructionists to the progress of the institution, our students, and our colleagues. These choices have all attracted me at various stages of my career. Although they might relieve some anxieties in the short term, however, they only feed an addiction to cynicism, bitterness, and resentment.

My oldest brother was a brilliant intellect, a young man possessed of an unusual passion for science, for serious music, and for literature and the arts. He was shy, hard to reach, and somewhat nervous and reclusive, but he could hold his own with any adult in serious conversation. He arrived at BYU in the fall of 1978 to begin his freshman year. He came home that winter severely depressed, with what was called back then a “nervous breakdown.” He returned to college at the University of Utah, and although he never returned to church, he managed a few more years of college thanks in part to one wonderful professor who truly befriended him there before he finally succumbed to his depression and took his life in his senior year. His professor, Gale Dick, reached out to us after his death. He was in great sorrow too because he had not realized how depressed my brother was. He was drawn to my brother because of his exceptional abilities. I think of my brother every day. I sometimes think I see his face when I see a student’s eyes light up with discovery or when I meet a student of exceptional talent and ability who doesn’t yet know how remarkable they are. I see him too in the faces of those who seem lost in darkness or who already know how to think but not yet how to believe or live. There are far too many such students. And there are many reasons to struggle at that age, in this time. I now have three children in college, two of them here at BYU, so I feel even more intensely both the nature of their struggles and the blessing of a caring and consecrated mentor.

I am eager to get more serious about thinking with my colleagues at BYU about how to provide a better classroom experience and general intellectual and spiritual atmosphere for our students to thrive and to find their role in the kingdom. We need to be better at teaching believers to think and thinkers to believe. Research at BYU done by Alan Wilkins already points to three factors that make the greatest difference in truly transforming our students lives: 1) students need to know who we are 2) they need to know that we know who they are and 3) they need to feel the passion we have for our subject and why it is important to us. In other words, in order to provide an education that is both intellectually stimulating and spiritually inspiring, professors needs to open up their hearts so that students can see who we authentically are. We need to have a relationship with them that goes beyond the formal contract of assignments and grades. We cannot hide behind the façade of expertise and authority and expect to transform their lives unless we are willing to make ourselves vulnerable and unless we are willing to get to know them better as well. And our students need us to express genuine passion for learning. We don’t have to be the people who have all the answers, but we do have to be possessed of love—love for life, for them, and for ideas.

I have recently assumed new responsibility over faculty development and rank and status in the College of Humanities, and for now, my thought is pretty simple: until we faculty tap the resources of love and joy within us, we will not have the greater capacity and fulfillment in our work that we desire. I believe that each faculty has been called to this work and to this place. I know I wasn’t attracted to BYU for a profession nor for a vacation, but for my vocation. Divinely fired love and passion for what we do in the library, in the classroom, and in our various communities is the only force strong enough to override our fear of failure, our stress, our pride, and the temptation to become cynical and resentful. I don’t think higher achievements will come, at least not the most meaningful ones, by creating more incentives and applying more pressure on faculty. I believe faculty will lift themselves higher when they rediscover real love for what they do.

Love, as we are taught in the scriptures, is a gift that is given to those who ask, not to those too distracted to recognize what they lack. Blessed are the poor in spirit, we are told. Thinking about my brother helps me in my darker moments. He reminds me that I don’t need to be a better scholar or a better teacher or a better citizen because it will get me recognition or because it will help me avoid shame or punishment. I want to excel for his sake, in his memory. At the risk of making too fine or too cute a point of it, it is another Older Brother’s face we must learn to see in the face of our students, in the faces of our colleagues, and whom we honor with our excellence. By keeping Him in our thoughts and in our hearts, I believe our work will begin to feel more like a sacred privilege than a secular duty and a much greater source of joy.

 

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