A Reflection in Puddles: Distinctiveness in Academia

It’s a rainy day outside and my mind has wandered to puddles. Puddles are commonplace (in England especially!) without much beauty or substance, but they can do one great thing: they can reflect what’s above them.

I’ve been pondering distinctiveness in academia lately, asking: how does being a Christian affect how I navigate the academy? This has been a convicting exercise but a very helpful one. Below, I’ve jotted down a few ways I think I can reflect God better in academia, and I hope my own thoughts might inspire similar personal reflections in others.

Support students

I teach a lot of tutorials. I’m not the best teacher and I’m not the most knowledgeable. This is unlikely to change, but I can choose to care about my students. Like everyone else, I'm quite busy, but finding time to run a quick review session or meeting up to discuss an essay is a great way to support and care for my students. Time taken to serve others is a sacrifice, but it is certainly not wasted!

Invest in friendships

This is the one I’m the worst at—with so much going on, I find it hard to find time to invest in friendships at all, and I often end up ‘ghosting’ around my faculty because I’m too tired or lazy to invest there properly. But He’s placed me there for a reason. Friendship provides a chance to be in others’ lives, to let them into mine, to share my hope, and to build community.

Encourage each other’s growth

I happen to be at a very supportive faculty with a group of really nice researchers in my cohort, but below the surface somewhere, there lurks the truth that we are potential competitors for future jobs. Everything can seem to be a competition, but I must remember that I don’t need to enter the race. I want to congratulate others on their work, be humble and honest about my own, especially if I’m struggling a bit, because this demonstrates that no, research isn’t a matter of life and death to me. I want to make friends, support them, cheer for them. Maintaining a generosity of spirit can’t take anything from me that I need—I have all I need in Christ.

Be honest

This is a simple one, but one worth adding to the list. Truthfulness shows in one’s character in little and big ways, but maintaining truthfulness requires commitment. I find it can be easy to compromise honesty in the little things if I become lazy or lose sight of who am I and what I've been called to be! My word should be my bond.

Be dependable

We don’t usually describe Christ as ‘dependable’… the word seems far too dim for his glorious grace! But in fact, He is ultimately dependable. We screw up; He comes through. Over and over and over again. He can be relied upon to be there, to care, to help, to comfort. Do I demonstrate dependability in my own finite way at my faculty? Do I show up to meetings and tutorials on time? Can I be relied upon?

Express difficulties… but with hope!

When grad students get together, we tend to complain about difficulties in our work. Difficulties in research, in writing, with deadlines. Anything. Everything. I think it’s important to share where we’re actually at with people… that’s honest. But I’m as guilty of ‘grumbling’ as my non-Christian colleagues. By presenting my difficulties without any allusion—implicit or explicit—to the hope that I enjoy, I’m misleading them to ‘fit in’, rejecting an opportunity to talk about what really matters. I know whatever I am currently doing is not an ultimate, so why pretend that it is? I have every reason to be joyful, regardless of how my doctorate is going.

Don't speak badly about supervisors behind their backs

This relates to the one above. As a Christian, I should not be speaking about anyone behind their backs, but somehow it feels easy to make exceptions for advisors or supervisors because they are in authority over us and it would seem that not all of them are really good at supporting their students (though I’ve been very blessed with a great supervisor). It’s tempting to join in on supervisor-bashing as it allows us to connect with colleagues sharing a knowing smile and a roll of the eyes. But this is not how we are told to treat people—or those in authority. If I have a problem with a faculty member, I should speak to them directly before involving anyone else. This is hard… but we have Christ for a model!

Skip faculty events for church if you have to

There is an optional research colloquium that I have to skip every week because I lead a Bible study. I wish I could make it, but the time conflict has actually been a blessing in disguise. When faculty friends ask why I don’t make it to colloquium more, I have an opportunity to show that my faith takes priority in my life—even over professional growth or advancement.  

Be committed to work

Being a research student—at least in the humanities—can be very lonely and quite directionless. Nobody really knows how we should be using our time and therefore nobody really knows how we really do use our time. Without accountability, it can be really hard to commit to productivity—procrastination comes with the grad school territory! Diligence in work requires motivation, but when everyone is struggling to find theirs, I have a deep, unending source of it—if I dare to draw upon it. I am not working for myself or for man but for my Saviour and Redeemer!

I am a puddle: a bit grubby and dreary, finite and fleeting, but there is a sun above me and reflecting His beauty should be my chief delight and purpose!

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