Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Things I Learned at Patristics Camp

Last week I was given the wonderful opportunity to work as a Teaching Fellow for an intensive summer program at a seminary in Boston. I jokingly referred to the week as "patristics camp," but this actually turned out to be a fairly apt descriptor for the week. It consisted of approximately six hours each day spent doing close readings of texts from the early church in small groups, interrupted only by meals in the dining hall and occasional trips around the lake to buy ice cream. My job was to guide these discussions under the supervision of a faculty member, and in my class the topic happened to be that of my dissertation: Patristic Homiletics (i.e. preaching in the early church). The program director had also described the week as a chance for graduate students to explore their vocations as teachers, and I also found that to be true. In no particular order, here are a few thoughts I had through the course of my week:

  • I'm not sure how "comfortable" I will ever feel about the act of teaching. I believe I've grown a lot in the past decade; things like presenting my work at professional conferences are now thinkable for me in ways that maybe they wouldn't have been ten years ago. But if shyness and self-confidence are still issues for me at 30, then I don't know that they are things I can just shake off, or that I will wake up one day to discover they have been abruptly healed. I think I will just have to keep confronting them, one day, one situation at a time. It's frustrating, too, when my best efforts at assertiveness seem to be undermined by the fact that many people interpret me to be much younger than I actually am. (I've been told I should feel flattered by this; mostly, it's just maddening.)
  • On the other hand, the effort expended on such things is often worth it, because I have found that interacting with others around my work is one of the only things that motivates me academically. This has come as a big surprise to me in the past year. I had always assumed that, because of my personality, I would thrive when it came time to spend most of my days alone at my desk, immersed in my own research. So, when that time came and I found it to be a tremendous struggle, it was quite disorienting for me. I've even been wondering if I'm cut out for academia at all! But I wonder if it simply means that I am less of an eccentric hermit than my own self-caricature had suggested. I noticed that I felt so much more motivated while I was talking with students and colleagues about my research than I do when I've spent weeks toiling, often fruitlessly, in my home office. I have noticed similar things from attending conferences, as I did in May, or even just chatting with people (especially pastors) on the topic of patristic preaching. I suppose it makes a lot of sense. I mean, the past year has largely consisted of spending time alone with nothing to listen to but my own thoughts -- sometimes without even the outlet of being able to write them down in a coherent fashion. No wonder I've felt like I've been losing my marbles in the past year! So, looking ahead, I'm trying to think of some ways that I could incorporate . . . *gasp* . . . more social interaction into my working routine.
  • It's possible that I have been experiencing some burnout in focusing so intensively on the Early Church period. And I don't think that's a crime. I need to persevere with it for the time being, because it is too late for me to switch my major area of concentration, but I think that in later years, I might be just as excited, or more, about working on Reformation/early modern material, and that's okay. In fact, maybe it will even be an asset to my teaching, lending a broader scope to my scholarship. It wouldn't change anything about my fundamental sense of academic calling.
  • In that vein, I think we really, really need a Reformation Camp! How awesome would this be? I've lost count of the number of times I've talked with people in churches, who are not academics, but nevertheless have a strong interest in the history of their tradition, yet don't necessarily have the opportunity to sift through the foundational writings or know where to begin. I think there is a subset of people who would jump at the chance to spend a few days reading, say, Calvin's Institutes or some Puritan texts in a low-pressure environment. I would love to be involved in something like this!
  • The Lord keeps putting me into situations where I am in the minority theologically. This has never been a very comfortable position for me, but I know there must be a reason for it. First there was Yale. Now I am a confessional Protestant enrolled in a Jesuit Catholic university. Last week, I was one of relatively few students who was not Eastern Orthodox. Some of these students grew up Protestant and converted to Orthodoxy at a later age. It should be noted that, at one point not so many years ago, I believed I would likely end up among them. Since then, I have obviously chosen not to convert (though I have definitely changed!). I think that any time someone joins a church that is markedly different from the tradition in which he or she grew up, that intensely personal, hard-won "choice" can easily become freighted with defensiveness. I have a lot of thoughts about this, but for now I'll just say that last week gave me the opportunity to recognize some of those same roots of defensiveness in myself and to understand why others, who ended up in very different places than I did, feel them just as acutely. I think there are times when speaking defensively is not all bad, but it probably depends on just what one is defending and how . . . and it takes wisdom to discern the difference. There are times when it is better to back off and abandon the defensive posture, no matter how chafing someone else's offhand critical remarks might be, and last week was definitely such a time for me.
  • Finally, one of the highlights of the week was getting to visit with my sister-in-law and nieces in Maine before I flew home. The visit confirmed my belief that my family and close friends are one of the most important things in the world to me, a joy I would rank high above anything academic. I long to be able to make such trips a priority in future years.