Critical engagement and academic citizenship

Image 'Citizenship' by Nick Youngson is licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0

For the next in our series of posts on skills for Christian academics, I wanted to revisit one aspect of last week's excellent post by Will Allchorn on 'engaging in debate and controversy'. Will presented Dr Andrew Basden's LACE framework for Christians engaging in academic debates – Listen, Affirm, Critique, Enrich. The emphasis this places on a necessary balance of affirmation and critique – which together engender an attitude of encouragement and community rather than competitiveness – reminded me of an experience from the early days of my own academic apprenticeship. It's rather embarrassing for me to bring it up again now, since it doesn't paint me in a good light, but it taught me a very important lesson about Christian scholarship, so I thought it might be worth sharing with you!

It all began when I was in the process of writing my MA dissertation. Having thrown myself into close reading, I'd quickly discovered that there were only two or three other scholars writing about my chosen topic (not a particularly unusual situation in the study of contemporary music, it must be said). Much of the teaching I'd received regarding research over the previous years had stressed the importance of a critical approach to all existing scholarship, and certainly I'd lapped up the idea that I could make a contribution just as valuable as others who'd been working in an area much longer than I; so with all this in mind, and seeing an opportunity to make an original contribution, I set to work on these existing sources. In order to carve a space for my own interpretations, I took every opportunity to point out holes in the reasoning of the other texts I'd read, to undermine aspects I found unconvincing, and to underline the ways in which my viewpoint was so much more substantive, so much more cohesive. Throughout this it never really occurred to me to think of the authors of these texts as people with lives of their own; they were ciphers, meaningful primarily for the source-material they provided for my own intellectual display.

A year or so later, I had the privilege of meeting one of these scholars at a conference. And it was a privilege! When they heard about my interest in their area of research, they absolutely bent over backwards to help me out – sending me useful documents, arranging for me to attend relevant study days, inviting me to participate in a conference that they organised subsequently. It's no exaggeration to say that I owe some of the most formative experiences of my PhD to them. When I look back on the way I handled their own ideas in my MA work, I am heartily embarrassed. (I'm also extremely relieved that I didn't seek publication for that work, and thus they can't have read it!) It's clear to me now that I had barely even begun to think then about what it might mean for my academic work to think of myself as a Christian scholar; after all, I'd fallen at the first hurdle, that of doing to others what I would have them do to me (Matthew 7:12).

What this brought home to me was the constant need for all acts of critical challenge to be grounded in a broader vision of responsible academic citizenship. I thought the academic life was all about an impersonal quest for originality; but focussing instead on the academy as a living community – with its concomitant demands of encouragement, support and generosity – opens up a much richer and more welcoming concept of scholarly activity, and one which is much more in line with our calling as Christian scholars. I want to explore this concept of academic citizenship further in a future post, but for now I'd invite others' comments on their own experiences of this area: do you have any examples of academics acting as generous and responsible citizens (perhaps even as they respond critically to some of your ideas)?

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