Elizabeth Dickens

Program Coordinator at Association of American Colleges and Universities

Why Take a Job at an Evangelical College? To Help Students

Full forks spoon

Image: Spoon/Flickr user Jonathan Cohen

About five years ago, with some ambivalence, I accepted a faculty position at a small Christian college that required faculty and staff members to sign a statement of faith. The reaction of my department’s placement coordinator when I told him the news perfectly mirrored my own conflicted feelings: “Congratulations,” he said, “but are you sure?”

The question of why someone who is unsure about the fit would take a job at an evangelical college feels particularly relevant in light of the conflict between Wheaton College and Professor Larycia Hawkins. I cannot speak for Professor Hawkins, but I can say that when I accepted a position at a college where I was in broad agreement with the institution’s basic identity but certainly not with every particular of its theology or practice, my own motivations were complex.

Christian colleges are upfront about their faith statements and their expectations of their faculty — so there is an obvious argument that someone who does not fully subscribe to all aspects of a college’s faith and community standards should look elsewhere for employment. Yet anyone familiar with the desperate job-searching culture that is the Ph.D. cohort of a humanities department understands how hard it is to walk away from anything that has a chance of working out.

After two years on the tenure-track job market, I considered this job to be the best of my options. Besides, this college was not among the truly fundamentalist institutions. The statement of faith was fairly ecumenical, and I was not being asked to sign anything I felt I couldn’t put my name to, especially if I squinted and rationalized in one or two spots. And otherwise, it was a tenure-track job at a small liberal-arts college with dedicated faculty and eager students. Even if the fit wasn’t perfect, there were opportunities for something great, I thought and hoped.

Yet my motivation for taking the position went far beyond merely wanting a job. Rather, I wanted my students to believe what I’d had such a hard time believing when I was an undergraduate at a Christian college: that they, too, could “fit,” even if they were not stereotypical evangelicals. I wanted to be the professor I wished I’d had in college. I believe I was that professor for at least some of my students, but the strain of doing it was brutal.

At my undergraduate institution, I received an excellent education, made wonderful friends, and had professors who were inspiring mentors. I also chafed at every turn against the conservative, evangelical nature of the place. The vast majority of my professors were straight white men over 40, even though my major, English, was hardly lacking in women nationally. At one point I asked my favorite professor why there were no women among the literature faculty. He told me that the English department had hired women for two of the most recent vacant positions, but that they had not stayed long. Women, apparently, were not successful there. “But,” he asked, “does it really matter?”

I was upset that I couldn’t explain why it mattered. I wish my 19-year-old self had been able to articulate that diversity makes us richer because different points of view and different life experiences are essential to educated citizenship and to the kind of well-rounded education that most Christian liberal-arts colleges aim to deliver. This diversity is particularly essential for Christian college students, most of whom are of traditional age, white, and coming from evangelical homes and often Christian high schools. Some students have scarcely met anyone who did not espouse a narrow definition of evangelical Christianity, and Christian colleges do them a disservice if this cultural bubble is perpetuated. I did understand, even then, how important it is for students to encounter faculty members who share basic features of students’ identities, such as gender, race, and sexual orientation.

Today, I recognize that most Christian colleges realize that diversity is important and make at least some effort to hire a diverse faculty. Yet there are some obvious restrictions to these efforts. Most evangelical colleges will not hire openly gay professors, for instance. Though most of these colleges would enthusiastically hire women and faculty members of color who share their faith commitment, there seems to be little understanding of the way that the lived experiences of these people might contribute to views and politics at odds with the colleges’ evangelical ethos. Almost 10 years after I had trouble articulating the importance of gender diversity among my undergraduate professors, I started my own brief stint as a woman teaching at a Christian college. During new-faculty orientation I learned that with my hiring the institution for the first time had more women on the faculty than it had men named David. As I tried to adjust to my new world, I thought of my new students who might need to know that even a Christian college had a place for left-wing, feminist, intellectual, nonheteronormative women. They were why I had come.

Three weeks into my first semester, the provost told me that I could not teach Atonement by Ian McEwan, a novel I had on my syllabus. A vigilant parent had complained that incidents of sex and coarse language in the novel were inappropriate for a Christian college; either the book went, or her daughter did. I knew the institution was heavily tuition-dependent, but I was still shocked to realize that the administration was siding with the parent, not with me. Since I was so new, I felt particularly pressured to give in, to redo my syllabus midsemester, to give my students the administration-approved story of why we were making a change. I still regret that decision.

I didn’t have another run-in with the administration over what I taught, but the trauma of that incident persisted. I scoured prospective books for language and rejected anything that wasn’t G-rated. Yet students still complained that Jesus wouldn’t approve of my syllabi, and colleagues still questioned how I justified feminist or Marxist theory in the context of Christianity. When certain students and colleagues stopped by my office, my first instinct was to fear that they were attacking the moral merit of some new thing I had said or assigned.

I knew, three weeks into this job, that it wasn’t going to work out. I stayed for two years. In that time, I also had wonderful experiences. I taught some fun and challenging courses. I grew close to a number of students, including a lot of misfits and doubters, not to mention the liberals, feminists, and the gay and lesbian students who were trying to reconcile the things the evangelical church was telling them with the realities of their lives. I was doing exactly what I had hoped to do; I was also miserable, lonely, and depressed. The constant small slights and judgments were exhausting reminders that I didn’t really belong.

When I left that position, I decided that sacrificing tenure-track work was preferable to trying to persevere in an environment that, despite many wonderful students and colleagues, was ultimately too hostile. But I miss teaching, and most of all, I miss teaching the students who particularly need professors like me. I am grateful, for their sake, for all of the diverse and perhaps ill-fitting professors who persist in their positions at Christian colleges — professors like Larycia Hawkins at Wheaton — even when many of those institutions don’t make it easy.

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