Find Your Voice and Own It: Women and the Academic Life

24 Aug 2011 21:05

This weekend, I'm blogging Urbana, a gathering of Christian students interested in the work of the church worldwide. This session is one of a series of afternoon seminars.

What can Christian women expect from an academic life, and how can they flourish despite the challenges they face among families, churches, and university culture itself? Addressing this question is Dr Janet Clark, vice president and dean at Tyndale University College & Seminary in Toronto.

When Janet went to Urbana as a young person, she wondered if she would have to give up her academic interests to be part of God's mission. And she was willing to do that. After attending Urbana, she moved to Borneo, where she lived and served for a decade. When she moved back to Toronto, she had a chance to reconnect with her love of the academic world.

Janet polls the crowd. About half of the attendees are gradstudents, a third are in gradschool, and a handful are in the middle of PhDs.

"If you have a love for learning, a love to teach, and an academic yearning, if you are being drawn to a missional life, these things are not necessarily incompatible," Janet says.

The Call to a Missional Life

We need to start with a commitment to follow Jesus, Janet says. She points us to Ephesians 5:8, which calls us to "live as children of light." It's a call for women and men alike. Each of us needs to listen, hear, and figure out that call themselves.

Many Christian women try simply to tag along with their partner's call. Stop, Janet tells us. Women don't get off easy or have any kind of "softer" call. Janet acknowledges that the women in this room come from a diverse set of backgrounds. Many women, before they even figure out if they should pursue an academic life, have ambivalence about the role of leadership and ambition in a woman's life. Janet says this because frequently meets women from cultural backgrouds with ambivalent messages about the importance of women being high achievers.

"All of us are to be people of spiritual influence for the kingdom," Janet says, "women are equally called, gifted, and commissioned to be a follower of Christ." Many Christian women face substantial pressure and criticism from their family and churches when deciding a career. She laments cases where women hide their abilities due to ambivalent feelings about family and church. She urges women in that situation to revisit the Bible to rethink their vision about what it means to be a Christian woman. "Jesus was an emancipator of women, elevating them, welcoming them, and calling them to be people of influence," Janet tells us.

Women and Graduate Studies

"The call to be a student is a holy calling," Janet says, "not just a preparation for something else." Students sometimes make their studies secondary to ministry or helping in church. Janet warns us against this. Gradschool deserves the best that we can give it. Student life is also a testing ground to discover the possibility of a life in the academy.

Janet talks to us about gender differences in the academy. Study after study shows that men and women start out with equal possibilities when young. Throughout elementary and high school, women consistently outperform men. However, at higher levels, the percentage of women decreases. In the US and Canada, there are more women than man taking undergraduate degrees. At the Master's and PhD level, the percentage of women declines.

One reason for the decline in women is an ambivalence among some women about whether academic success is compatible with other priorities in their lives, like relationships, marriage, and having a family. The desire to be connected "is a God given desire," Janet says. Many times, this desire for deep and satisfying relationships is stronger than the desire for a career.

Girls and women also tend to be ambivalent about their own intellectual capabilities and sometimes hide their intelligence. Furthermore, many disciplines are still male dominated. English, foreign languages, psychology, and counseling are female dominated. Medicine is approximately 50/50. STEM fields are mostly male dominated.

Academic culture is also often tough for women. In elementary school and middle school is often girl friendly, but the academic culture shifts in higher education. Much of graduate school imagery is centered around combat. We "defend" theses, "challenge" and argue against "opponents." Is this competetive, combative environment hard on women who prefer collaborative forms of learning." An academic life often requires tough geographic relocation. Women also have a lack of role models as they rise in academic ranks.

Is there any good news in this? "God never calls you to anything for which he won't help you. Enter into it with gladness," Janet says, "if it's your deep gladness, if it's for you The Big Yes, pray for courage to thrive. If God invites you to the table, he wants you to speak at it. Don't hide your light." A good network can also make a big difference.

Woman and Academic Vocations

An academic life is one of the most wonderful and amazing opportunities available to women. It would be a tragedy, Janet tells us, to let uncertainties, fears, and opposition get in the way of our passions and calling.

"God, never let me become a harried, driven woman," Janet concludes, "make our souls a well-watered garden."

Questions and Discussion

Janet asks what gets in the way of women achieving their academic goals.

"My parents," answers one student. "They don't want their youngest daughter to suffer, and they block my academic aspirations." It's also hard to find a job that she's passionate about. "Will I find a good job, or will I end up homeless?" she asks. Janet responds with stories about gradschool. When she decided to continue studies, she felt lonely because her friends and family didn't understand her passion for learning. "You might not get an ideal job, but you can be an educator your entire life."

"As a girl, my family wanted me to go into a female oriented field. My brother is going into a male major," another student says. Some immigrant families with limited means put money into just the male children.

"I'm worried about making the pursuit of knowledge a self indulgence," another audience member says. Janet responds, "the life of the mind is seductive. You can live in your head, and it can ruin you."

Another participant shares her desire to have a great career, a family, and a healthy marriage. Can women have it all? "God doesn't ask us to sacrifice our children to pursue our calling," Janet says. She advises the audience to find and practice patterns of success.

"It's hard to find Christian mentorship from women I respect," a gradstudent asks. Janet responds that it's tough to find great academic mentors. When she was a gradstudent, she was told to look around at their professors and think about who they wanted to be like. Janet didn't want any of their lives. They were working all the time, they were single or divorced. None of them had families or life in their communities. Often, we can't find the ideal mentor. Instead, we can surround ourselves with three or four people who bring together different parts of life This is especially important for women.

An M.Div student from Janet's institution, Tyndale Seminary, mentions the pressure that Christian women have to get married. "How can I let others know that I don't want that right now?" Janet replies that lots of women want to get married, and that they face substantial pressure to do it soon. Many women are afraid that men might be intimidated & turned off as they earn more degrees. Janet

How can women know if they're really cut out for graduate school? Janet responds by talking about calling, that place "where my deep gladness and the world's hunger meet." You might be smart, you might get As, but look out for that combination.

"Gradschool is a lonely life. How do you justify that time?" Janet talks about life as seasons. Not many people are called to be a recluse in the library for their entire lives. When she went to gradschool she said to her family, friends, and church, "In this season, I might not be able to interact in the way we did."

Is it okay to be an academic at a non-religious institution? Won't people think I'm crazy if I live out my faith? (see my post from S Joshua Swamidass's session on Gradschool for God's Global Mission)

How an women gradstudents relate to intimidating faculty? Janet talks about differences in language between men and women. Men are more likely to use declarative, argumentative language, while women are sometimes more likely to use conciliatory "tags" and speak simply. But women shouldn't have to take on so called "male speech patterns" to succeed. Instead, try to find your own voice and own it.

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