Higher education is a by-the-book, highly structured reality. From syllabus design (written for students as well as for administrators) to navigating the tenure track process; from classroom lesson planning to student assessments; as well as the preconceived even contrived ways articles and books are selected for publication – those of us ...
As a womanist biblical scholar working in the context of a theological institution, Christian Practical Wisdom: What It Is, Why It Matters helps me understand my role as a theological educator. Authored by Dorothy Bass, Kathleen A. Cahalan, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, James Nieman, and Christian B. Scharen, this volume takes seriously the concept of Christian practical wisdom (the ability to “render a proper assessment of a situation and to act rightly as a result”) (4). Theological educators are called to instill this virtue within students.
Divided into three parts, the largest sections (Part One and Part Two) loosely interrogate embodied knowing with interdisciplinary conversations. Part Three serves as an invitation to collaboration and experimentation and expresses gratitude for the gift of collaboration that the authors experienced while working on this project. Indeed, collaborative work is rare within the academy of religious scholarship and makes me wonder what theological schools would look like if faculty from across disciplines gathered together to collaborate in their own contextual spaces.
Here are brief highlights of a few essays. In “How Bodies Shape Knowledge,” Miller-McLemore engages the modern biases that separate bodily practices from our modern practices of worship. Thinking across denominational differences, Miller-McLemore ponders a theology of sensory movement that, while seemingly easy for children, becomes more difficult as we age. Realizing that we have a long history of “damning the body and its temptations” (29), Miller-McLemore uses the apt metaphor of “spooning” within the marital context to illustrate “everyday body wisdom” (30). Spooning serves as part of a discussion around how a body knows, enacts, and evokes love even in a state of unconscious sleep. As bodies lead, oftentimes thoughts follow. Miller-McLemore argues that the wisdom of God is bodily wisdom gained through everyday reminders of death and love together. Since sleep is like death as it mirrors the body’s vulnerability, the act of spooning while sleeping serves as a reminder of the love within the context of death. Miller-McLemore argues that there is disconnect between the spooning that we experience in relationship with God and how we traditionally teach within a theological context.
I found two essays particularly edifying as a woman and a scholar of color. First, Scharen’s essay entitled “The Loss and Recovery of Practical Wisdom in the Modern West” evidences the need for a kind of knowing that is both concrete and universal, timely and timeless, practical and abstract (174). To highlight his point, Scharen engages the feminist history of the Bohemian Princess Elisabeth of the Palatinate and her letters to French philosopher Rene Descartes. Even though the mind-body dualistic legacy of Descartes ruled for a time in Western philosophy, Elisabeth’s recovered feminine voice rightly pushed Descartes to discuss his maxims for public life instead of relating his pontifications only to himself (160). For Elisabeth, practical wisdom had to relate to the practical ethics of public life and duty. Attention to the feminist revisionist history and philosophical debates behind these letters allows Scharen to converse with contemporary theologians such as Fergus Kerr and Sarah Coakley and the “taken-for-granted notions we live by” (166).
In the essay “Biblical Imagination as a Dimension of Christian Practical Wisdom,” Bass rightly argues for the concept of biblical imagination as “a knowledge of, which cannot be had without life-shaping embodied participation” (236). As a womanist biblical scholar within a theological context, I am constantly advising students to embrace the “both/and” nature of academic biblical scholarship in combination with their embodied participation with the biblical text. Indeed, we need both.
While I thoroughly enjoyed reading and pondering deeply the issue of Christian practical wisdom, please allow one critique. I wonder how the conversation and collaboration would have changed if there were a visibly identified religious scholar of color working on the volume. While each of the scholars involved are esteemed in their own right, I am left wondering how Christian practical wisdom looks different from other perspective such as, but not limited to, global South, African American, Latino/a, or Asian Christian perspectives. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reviewing such an important volume.
Graduate schools produce a good number of well-educated women who then go on to become successful professors, published authors, and administrators in institutions of higher learning. Women in academe are expected to do it all, do it well, and have well-balanced lives outside the work place. Graduate schools do not prepare women for the numerous challenges they encounter in the various facets of academic life. This book identifies challenges and issues related to women’s lives in academe and suggests practical and studied tactics to help women thrive in the academic world and in their own lives.
Rena Seltzer has extensive experience as an academic coach and has gathered a compelling amount of data and first-hand experiences from women professors. She acknowledges that surviving in academia is not easy, especially for women and under-represented minorities. Oftentimes, women feel isolated and are not aware that some of the challenges they face are not uniquely their own. By identifying such challenges, Rena Seltzer achieves the goal of bringing awareness to these common experiences. In addition to identifying these challenges at the different stages of academic life, the book offers a deeper analysis of the issues and obstacles of academic life as well as provides practical advice on how to overcome them.
In ten chapters, Seltzer addresses the following topics: How to have more time; Establishing a productive writing practice; Teaching; Work-life balance; Networking and social support; Tenure, promotion, and the academic job market; Authority, voice, and influence; Negotiation; Life after tenure; and Leadership.
The book includes numerous practical tactics, from how to phrase effective emails to how to say no to attractive projects and roles that would overtax an already crowded schedule. This ability to say “no” when appropriate leads to a more productive and balanced life, thereby reducing stress. Each chapter offers a variety of further sources the reader may wish to investigate. The author’s style is engaging and friendly, and her voice comes through as wise and reassuring. Chapters can conveniently be read independently, as fits the reader’s interest.
While the book addresses topics shared by most women across academic disciplines, it can be particularly useful for faculty who teach religious studies or theology since these fields rely heavily on self-reflection and self-giving. The balance between such theologically and pastorally motivated attitudes and the demands of academic and non-academic life is especially challenging.
Anecdotally, all female academics I have shared this book with have expressed great interest in it and admitted they would like or need to read it. One said, “I wish this book was around when I started out!” The book is recommended to all women in academia but also to any faculty at any stage in her or his career who is experiencing some of the same challenges.
Academic identity, like all identity, is fluid. This volume places questions about academic identity in the equally fluid context of “Europe,” which is here defined as at once united and fragmented, particularly after the economic crises of 2008. This volume pulls together thirteen articles in three sections: Frameworks and Perspectives, Academic Trajectories, and Formations and Re-formations. The authors are not sociologists of life course or scholars who study academic identity; they are, more usefully for this volume, speaking from their own contexts and experiences in European higher education from the late twentieth into the early twenty-first centuries.
The editors have done a fine job choosing and grouping these essays, many of which were written by authors in their second or third languages to comply with market demands for English publication. This is one of the many strengths of the book, as it illustrates the kinds of demands that are placed on European academics that are absent in many ways from American contexts. Nevertheless, much is familiar here: academics in neoliberal systems of mass higher education struggle with ever-increasing bureaucracy, top-down management, and the encroachment of academic “professionalism.” Pressure to be represented well in world rankings tends to encourage institutional systems of assessment and auditing of outcomes that shape the academic enterprise as an inward-looking, self-serving part of a labor-driven economy and individual academics as cogs in the machine. As Jon Nixon states in his introduction, treating academic work like labor, as a matter of “pre-specified outcomes and destinations,” produces an unfortunate mismatch: “Academic identity is – to come full circle – a process that is uncertain in direction and indeterminate in outcome” (13). To treat academic work as labor is to misunderstand the potential benefits of outward-looking institutions that value intellectual autonomy and innovation above target-setting and performance measures.
Many of the chapters in this volume could stand alone as case studies; each presents its own particular balance of interrogating biographical, institutional, or broader contextual identities and each brings a coherent and defined voice to the shared project. It is impossible to capture the richness of each of these chapters here, and each somehow manages to consider an individual life within the vast institutional, sociocultural, historical, and political contexts in which that life is lived.
Although there is nothing specific to either religious studies or theology in this volume, there is much here that will resonate with academics who struggle with being pulled away from research and teaching to comply with institutional mandates. This volume should help academics in all disciplines to reflect on the power of context and particularly institutional context to shape lives and careers. Implicit here is a call to embrace the best in higher education despite the “regulations, financial incentives, rewards, quality standards, as well as academic, public, and professional values” (6) that constrain and give shape to our identities. These essays hint that a mix of resilience and subversion might well be the academic’s best allies.
The Slow Professor takes its cue from the slow food movement (http://www.slowfoodusa.org). Borrowing the words of Carlo Petrini, author of Slow Food Nation, Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber define slowness as “not so much a question of duration as of an ability to distinguish and evaluate, with the propensity to cultivate pleasure, knowledge, and quality” (89-90). Slowness, in their thinking, is less about speed than it is about intentionality. They raise this point in a number of contexts.
On the slim volume’s opening page, Berg and Seeber identify the popular and academic discourses they engage in their exploration of time management and timelessness; pedagogy and pleasure; research and understanding; and collegiality and community. They intersperse expert opinions from a variety of fields, including other research on teaching and learning, to support their stance that slowness is a productive stance for academics.
Each chapter builds a case for slowness that culminates in practical suggestions, many of which seem like the kind of advice a reader with this book in hand may have considered already. I found value, however, in Berg, Seeber, and their chorus of sources confirming my suspicion that in the face of pressure to work constantly, I have a right to health, a life with my family, and enjoyable hobbies (16). Still, their advice tends to focus on what individual readers can do on a daily basis rather than on how institutional change might occur. For example, the first chapter, “Time Management and Timeliness,” ends with elaborations on these recommendations: “We need to get off line;” “We need to do less;” “We need regular sessions of timeless time;” “We need time to do nothing;” and “We need to change the way we talk about time all the time” (29-32). I am all for these, and I wholeheartedly agree that “if you want an event to be joyless, make it mandatory,” a takeaway from the end of “Collegiality and Community” (83). Still, the pressure of knowing that I have five years to publish another book, mere months to submit my next article, or a few weeks to finish a book review (ahem) gives me pause when I weigh walking the dog against writing. Institutional pressures directly affect individuals, but change in an individual’s perspective on time – especially that of a junior or contingent faculty member, for instance – does not lead directly to institutional change.
Berg and Seeber acknowledge that “academic culture celebrates overwork” but, they argue, “it is imperative that we question the value of busyness” (21). Herein lies their contribution: in questioning busyness, they advocate learning from slowness so that the work we do is planned, thoughtful, deliberate, and energizing rather than scattered, scatter-brained, hurried, and draining. The latter leads to diminishing returns hidden behind the familiar, “I’d love to, but I’m busy.” The former can yield Csikszentmihalyian flow in reading, writing, and teaching.