Twelve Ground Rules for Dialogues on Difference

Diversity is a fact of life. All societies are internally diverse, but some types of diversity provoke social anxiety. We are very comfortable with diversity in sports, fashion, cuisine, in fact such diversity is encouraged. But diversity that calls into question our assumptions and most cherished ideas about meaning in the world trigger deep-seated anxieties about the order of the cosmos. Challenges to our preconceived ideas of how the world is organized risk what Peter Berger called the “terror of anomy” (The Sacred Canopy, 26); they risk undermining our trust in meaning and order in the universe. Challenges to normative views on religions, politics, race, and gender, for example, create powerful anxiety. Such fears divide us. Talking about these differences requires courage and overcoming these fears requires we talk to people who are different.

To develop an authentic sense of self in a context that is increasingly characterized by diversity and confusion, we need to think about what voices we hear (and don’t) and to which we should listen (or not). As a nation and as individuals we are in deep need of dialogue across the differences that divide us. Drawing upon David Tracy’s description of “conversation,” I offer suggestions for dialogues about and across the differences that divide us constructive.

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Grace, Vocation, and Leaving the School that I Loved

Part of a series of autobiographical reflections written by Richard T. Hughes.

It was 1970, the year before my doctoral graduation. The job market for professors was tight, so tight that I sent letters of inquiry to 140 schools scattered all over the country—large schools and small schools, state schools and private schools, colleges and seminaries. The constraints of the job market had left me desperate. It didn’t much matter to me where I taught. I just wanted a job.

Of those 140 letters, only 60 institutions saw fit to reply, and the letters I received were amazingly uniform. In fact, I could hold each envelope up to the light and count the paragraphs. There were always three: Paragraph #1: Thank you for your inquiry. Paragraph #2: Unfortunately, we have no openings. Paragraph #3: But we will be happy to keep your letter on file. I knew that the “file” that each letter referenced was the large round “file” that sits on the floor. To say I was discouraged is an understatement.

And then grace appeared in the form of a telephone call from the provost of Pepperdine’s new Malibu campus which would open in 1972. He had gotten my name, he said, from a friend, and would I be willing to fly out for an interview? After the discouraging responses (and the non-responses) to my 160 letters, the invitation to interview at Pepperdine—an invitation that essentially came out of the blue—struck me as a God-send, an act of unmerited grace. Yet, I quickly discovered that embedded within that grace was a note of deep ambiguity. 

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On Cairns and Callings

Rock cairns are wonderful metaphors for vocation, and especially vocational discernment. The rock at the top of the cairn is rectangular in shape. It lines up with the opening beneath it. That rock and that opening point from one cairn to the next. At any given point in time all you can see is the cairn behind you and the cairn in front of you. There is no clear path to follow. But, if you trust the cairns (and the people who placed them there) you can safely get to the top of the mountain from which there is an amazing view.  

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To “Know Thyself” You Must “Know Thine History”

Many people today are invoking history—sometimes erroneously, sometimes prophetically—in arguments about our future. Historic elections, historic unrest, calls to honor this history or rewrite that one. We are reminded daily that we are literally making history every day. Perhaps more than ever fostering our students’ understanding of themselves as a part of history is crucial to our efforts to prepare them to pursue a fulfilled life.

When I ask my students to write a religious autobiography, contextualizing their personal story in US religious history, they struggle to recognize a context beyond their immediate family because they have not been taught to think of themselves as embedded in history. If students do not learn to understand themselves as not only a product of history, but potential makers of history, we have neither prepared them to fully understand who they are nor to authentically understand or make for themselves a place in this world.

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Called by a Book

At its core, the question of vocation—if we are Christians—has everything to do with living one’s life as a disciple of Jesus, hearing his summons, embracing his call. And the life to which he calls us—if we have ears to hear—is a life of solidarity with those he called “the least of these”—the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, the marginalized, the oppressed, and those in prison. 

In a word, Jesus calls us to become fully human—to see through the facades of power, fame, and success, to burst the artificial barriers that separate us from people less fortunate than ourselves, and to claim our common humanity. As William Stringfellow observed many years ago, this profoundly Christian vocation can be lived out through any number of professions or careers.

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Failing and Failing Better: Teaching Vocation When You Don’t Have Time to Teach Vocation

The academy needs a new journal, and I propose we title it It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: The Journal of Negative Results. Scientists have long argued for the importance of publishing negative results, accounts of experiments that ended up disproving the researchers’ hypotheses. As Mehta Devang explains in Nature, “When negative results aren’t published in high-impact journals, other scientists can’t learn from them and end up repeating failed experiments.”

Attending to what doesn’t work, and why, is no less important in other fields, teaching included. On this blog, Kathleen T. Talvacchia writes that “It takes some measure of courage and self-esteem to reflect honestly on our limitations and, at times, the outright failures in our teaching and scholarly vocations. Often, it is not an acceptable stance in a profession based on the assumption that everyone with a doctorate has the capacity to learn all that they need in order to do the work required with excellence” (See “Reaffirming our Vocational Authenticity with Courage and Humility.”)

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Hope as the Will to Turn Things Upside Down

Picasso’s Harlequin (1918).

From an early age we are taught not to discuss politics and religion with others. Why is that?  Is it because we do not want to offend our neighbor, or is it for self-protection? Is it out of respect for other peoples’ views, or is to prevent confrontation? Although any of these reasons can be justifiable, none of them are totally sufficient because, to my mind, they produce the same result: silence. If vocation requires listening we must try to overcome silence and encourage dialogue with respect for difference and dissent. Of course, this is often easier said than done. To authentically listen and to speak our truth sometimes we need to be willing to turn things upside down. Inversion, as a reversal of order, can help us see things anew, give new meaning and perspective even to contradicting ideas and discouraging experiences in order to pursue our callings with hope.  

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A Call for Care in the Academy

As self-reports of anxiety and depression are on the rise for our students and suicides continue to impact small and large college campuses alike, we have hit a moment of reckoning: how mental health is viewed, represented, and accepted in the academy. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, administrators, staff, professors, and students are being asked to stretch themselves in new and inventive ways. Uncertainty surrounds us all. The silver lining might be officially recognizing and naming the need to care for ourselves.  

Self-Care: What it is and why you should do it.

As we are being asked to radically accept this new world order of teaching, whether it be over Zoom or behind glass shields in masks, we too must come to terms with the need to stop and care for ourselves. How often have you viewed caring for yourself as a form of professional development? Therapy can be a tool for self-care and an official way to care for yourself. A yoga app that you use at your leisure or a mindful meditation can be your self-care ritual. Self-care can be focusing for 5 minutes on your breathing—just thinking intentionally about your breath in and your breath out. I am extending the invitation to you all to add a small shift in your day, of either extending your care rituals or starting a care ritual (however long or involved) as a way to sustain us on this voyage of teaching and learning amidst a global pandemic. 

If I do not provide deep moments of care for myself, I won’t be able to extend that care to my students. Creating a culture of care for myself also allows me to model that care to my students and encourage them to take time for care for themselves. I have adopted a form of self-care pedagogy where I define, normalize and institutionalize self-care in my classroom. I insert self-care days, so students see that it is as important as the content I am teaching them. We talk of self-care as a form of ritual and practice, a way to center ourselves for the learning before us and to rejuvenate from the learning behind us.  

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