In the Old Testamanet God spoke through a donkey. Could He also possibly speak today through a course review? Maurice shares a hard learnt experience to encourage us all
The quinquenial review was expected to be a relative formality – but God wanted to encourage me through it.
We had been successfully running the M.A. programme for five years. It had been well acclaimed by both students and external examiners. Successful students had obtained good career starts, and recruitment had seen steady growth.
The programme followed the traditional pattern of two taught semesters followed by a dissertation. I had a minor part, only teaching one module in the first semester.
We were a good, seasoned team. Well prepared, with good documentation. We had rehearsed for the occasion, each trying to spot potential areas of concern, and each prepared to support the other. So we went into the review quietly confident that it would go well and so it did – for most of the time. Insightful questions were naturally raised and they were dealt with competently by the team. It seemed to be going well. But then it happened.
Just before the end, one of the panel decided to pick on my module, and me in particular. Others joined in later. What a grilling it turned out to be! Question after question, argument after argument, and the more I replied the more dissatisfied the panel appeared to be with the module and me as module leader. I did my best to answer the issues raised, but as it progressed it seemed to me to go from bad, to worse, to terrible. Outwardly I hope I managed to appear to be calm and objective, but inwardly I felt I was making a real ‘pig’s ear’ of the job. Every point I made seemed only to dig deeper the hole I was descending into.
Maybe you cannot relate to this scenario, but I was certainly dying on the inside. And no one threw me a lifeline!
Eventually the chair moved the discussion on, but it was clear to me that I had made a disaster of my part.
Such reviews do not last for ever, and eventually the team were asked to leave the room whilst the panel had their own discussion. Our programme manager and course director were permitted to stay as observers, but I left with colleagues.
Outside the room one colleague said “My, you were really put under the cosh weren’t you. I don’t know why you had to endure that”. Another colleague added “But you answered their points very eloquently”. I said thanks to my colleagues for their support and thought it kind of them. But I felt the complimentary words were more out of kindness than impartial, academic judgement.
In due course we were called back into the meeting and the programme was approved for another five years subject to certain conditions.
Sometime after the whole process was over the programme manager came to our office for a coffee, and gave me some personal feedback on the closed door panel discussion following the presentations. He mentioned that some panel members had misgivings about my module, but they were impressed with the eloquent way I dealt with their concerns. There came that word again – ‘eloquent’, only this time from the panel.
A few days later I was at a meeting of the Christian Academic Network Leadership Team in Birmingham. During our time of prayer Alan, from UCCF prayed for academics that they might have ‘confidence’ not only in their faith but in presenting it to the academic community. That’s when God spoke clearly to my heart.
I never for one moment felt my presentation to the panel was eloquent, but evidently that was how it was received. I was very upset about my performance, with feelings of inadequacy, having let the team down etc, but both the team and the panel’s reaction was opposite.
Recent research by Agapé and UCCF found that many Christian academics failed to speak out as Christians because they lacked confidence. They lacked confidence in their ability to say the right things, confidence to present a Christian view authoritatively, accurately and reliably, confident that they could handle the response effectively or confidence as a new / junior member of staff. Whilst having confidence in the Christian Gospel and God himself, they lacked confidence in themselves and how what they said would be received.
As I write this I remember 40 years ago leaving home, catching a steam train from London to travel 200 miles North to William Blake’s land of those ‘dark satanic mills’ in Bradford. Having freshly committed my life to Christ, I well remember my early student days. Within a few weeks I had to stand before the class and give a 5 minute talk. In my youthful spiritual enthusiasm I attempted to speak as a Christian. I really did make a hash of that. Not only did the class laugh at me – but the lecturer laughed at me. The laughter was personal, and with hindsight I cannot blame them. It truly was a dreadful presentation. A model on how ‘not’ to do one. But thank God I did not let their laughter destroy me, but I continued to share the gospel at University to the best of my abilities, attempting to learn lessons and improve.
Just before the end of the course one of classmates opened up. He spoke of the derision they felt towards my presentation, but they watched my life. In time they came to realise and appreciate where I was coming from. Sadly my class-mate admitted that the gospel I shared then was true – but the cost of discipleship seemed too great for him to embrace.
Trust is the key
I still have serious misgivings about my ability to share my faith, and I am often unclear how best to do this. But I have learnt not to judge how good or bad a job I am doing. If I only do my best I can trust and leave the outcome with God. Whether or not I can have confidence in myself I can have confidence in God’s ability to ‘take the foolish things’ on earth, like me, and use them for His purpose.
I hope that these reflections will help you to take courage and be confident in your calling as a Christian academic – not just an academic who happens to be a Christian – and speak with confidence, without being too hard on yourself.
You may wish to share your experience too, and encourage others. If so please forward a short statement for possible publication to firstname.lastname@example.org