I've spent much of the last two weeks at academic conferences. Now, while I take a few days off to recover (!), I'm reflecting on some of the challenges of the scholarly environment that can be exposed with particular clarity at this kind of event.
I should say up front that in general I really enjoy conferences, and the two I've just attended were no exception - one was relatively small, for specialists in my particular research area, and the other was a huge medievalist congress that draws people from all over the world. At both I met old friends and made new acquaintances, heard eye-opening research papers, spoke to leaders in my field, and presented my own work to engaged audiences. I'm worn out, but I had a great time.
Various observations and discussions, though, had me thinking back to something I heard a few months ago from Sarah Williams, who spoke at the Humanities stream of the Developing a Christian Mind event. She said in her talk then that institutions, funding, and all the rest are useless without 'people who are free'. All too often, academics - especially young or early career scholars - can feel anything but free.
This can come out in the formal context of the panel, where the presence of a forbidding name in the seat next to you or in the audience can have you hedging and downplaying your work, or even overstating it in compensation. It might be the subtle jockeying over institutional class or seriousness of scholarship that comes up in question time. For many of us it's the mix of fear, embarrassment, resentment, and competition that bubbles below the surface during any conversation about the academic job market.
It can be easy to feel trapped by expectations - whether your peers', your supervisor's, or your own. And people who are trapped rarely think, or act, well.
Christians, however, are called to freedom. 'Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.' This instruction gets to the heart of the gospel freedom that comes through Christ: not total independence, but living in the service of God. Knowing that he is our highest authority, and the reason we do our work, can free us from the urge to prove ourselves, and to do so by stepping on others along the way. It can shore us up against the anxiety which, in the precarious academic world, seems to consume the lives of so many: if I have served God, then the details of my career are in his hands.
Reflect on how you interact with others in academic settings. What difference would it make to remember that Christ has set you free?
For an alternative perspective on this topic, see the latest Cambridge Paper by Tom Simpson.