For Christian college and university faculty who are called to train up students to be the next generation of leaders in their field, it has been a difficult season. But in many ways, the pandemic has only compounded existing stresses of academic life. Christina Bieber Lake, the Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL), hopes to help her fellow faculty rediscover their passion for their vocation and to thrive in it, no matter the season. That’s why she wrote The Flourishing Teacher: Vocational Renewal for a Sacred Profession.
Katie Dillon, the CCCU’s government relations fellow, interviewed Lake about the book and how CCCU administrators can support their faculty during the pandemic and generally as they pursue their calling. The interview has been edited for length. For more information, resources, or to connect with Lake, visit christinabieberlake.com.
Could you provide a quick summary of your book?
I wrote the book arranged around the calendar year for academics. It starts with August and it ends with July, because the seasons of a teacher’s life are very different from the seasons of many other jobs. There’s a lot of energy in the fall, so teachers have different needs and desires in this season, whereas you’re exhausted in the spring, especially March or April. The point of the book is to help teachers get encouragement and inspiration as well as ideas that fit those particular seasons of their career. It’s the book that I was hoping I could read as a younger professor that would contain practical help as well as spiritual inspiration.
Obviously, this year of teaching is a lot different than most, and I’m sure when you wrote your book, you were not expecting to be writing to a crowd reading it during a global pandemic. In this season, have you seen ways that your teaching liturgy has changed or adapted?
I have been asked this a lot because of the way that it happened right at the same time as my book was released. I think for me, the pandemic has actually been better for some things. Teaching on Zoom is not great. But it has been helpful when it comes to things like meetings.
For instance, we would have our department meetings on Tuesdays at 10:30. Well, Tuesdays and Thursdays are the days that I work from home, and I need to have that time for my research. Before the pandemic, I would drive out to Wheaton for a 35-minute meeting. It is not far, but after getting dressed, driving out, and coming back, my whole morning is impacted. So I feel like the strategies I’m trying to teach in this book — about making sure that you don’t prep too much, making sure that you don’t let this job take over your life, making sure you have time to focus on your scholarly work and the things that are important to you in terms of advancing your career — are in some ways easier because of the pandemic.
Now that is offset, of course, by all the stress of the pandemic. The stress and daily anxiety make it very hard to focus on scholarly writing. But I write about this in the book — teachers need a clear sense of the need to focus and to clear away distractions.
Yes, I think the pandemic opened up a space that allows us to focus more on a rhythm of life that you talk about in the book. Do you think you have more time now to put thought into what your rituals and habits are when it comes to teaching?
Yes. I always had cleared out that space because that was a high priority to me. I’m hoping that the pandemic did that for others. In the book, I mention it is important for people to know which of Gretchen Rubin’s four personality types they are — obliger, upholder, questioner, or rebel. Those who are obligers or upholders, they’re the ones who either do everything because they’ve been asked to do it or because they feel a strong internal and external sense to do the things that they’ve been asked to do. Faculty with these two personalities learned during the pandemic that so much of the stuff that they do is really not worth their time.
For example, I go to campus to complete some tasks because I feel like it is important for me to complete them there. I don’t actually need to be there, and I’m happier when I’m not. The “no” to the unspoken request for faculty to be at the office all the time was in a sense said for the obligers because of the pandemic, and they learned the power of that no — that they don’t need to say “yes” all the time, because it takes away from their own energy and their own centeredness. I hope those lessons will stick for people, because what if we don’t actually learn that lesson? Then we’ll just get right back on the hamster wheel. And the hamster wheel does not help you to be a better scholar or teacher, and certainly not a better person.
In the book, you speak frequently of spiritual practices that have taught you a specific lesson in a specific season. Which of those practices would you encourage CCCU faculty and administrators to focus on in the coming year?
Definitely taking the Sabbath. I have stressed it with fellow faculty, but I also spend time in class teaching students the importance of Sabbath because of what we were just talking about — the constant work. Just because you can work all the time does not mean you should. There is a false belief that more time spent working is going to make a better product in the end. Sabbath-keeping forces you to let go of the lawnmower handle, as I say in my book, and realize how loud and vibrating it is when you’re mowing the lawn. It’s only when you let go that quiet comes in. You are allowed to say to yourself, “I’m not going to do that right now, and for this 24-hour period, I’m not going to be thinking about that.” The release that provides for people once they actually try to practice it is life-changing; it is career-changing. It changes your perspective.
Right now, a lot of professors are teaching from home, the space where they would usually find rest. Are there ways that you have found helpful to separate the work and the rest, since it’s all happening in the same area now?
I have to say that I got lucky on two counts. My son is in high school and he is able to do his Zoom classes on his own, without as much help from us. In addition, we have a large enough house that I have my own study. For people who aren’t in that situation, you just have to be more intentional and more creative in separating the two, and there’s just no other way to do it. By intentionality, this means you have to talk to everybody involved, primarily your spouse, and explain what you need and why you need it. “I need to have this time by myself to work, even though I’m working from home — how can we trade off to make that happen?” A little creativity and intentionality with regard to protecting those spaces goes a long way.
Thinking more broadly, now, how do you think administrators can help faculty narrow the gap between their teaching and research responsibilities and generally help them pursue both productivity and their God-given calling at the same time?
I would say that the first thing is making sure the granting of sabbaticals is protected. It’s becoming increasingly challenging to have sabbaticals, with finances being the way they are, but sabbaticals are essential to productivity for faculty. It is a renewal.
Related to that is providing opportunities for release time for your faculty in any way that you can. I would not be the scholar that I am today if it were not for a resource provided by Wheaton College, which is giving release time to faculty members to be in faith and learning seminars with other colleagues. The release time is essential, but so is cross-disciplinary time with other colleagues about a topic that will help you to focus your research. If administrators can prioritize this in your budget, it will pay off multiple-fold, because if you want your faculty to be productive, they need to have some release from the heavy load of teaching, especially at small liberal arts colleges. We’re not at research institutions where the load is two-two, two courses per semester. Wheaton’s load is three-three, but most people have a four-four load or even more. I can’t even imagine doing scholarly work with that many classes. So you cannot expect your faculty members with a four-four load to do reasonable scholarly work and be good teachers. You have to acknowledge that release time is required, because thinking takes mental space and time; it is not always something you can measure.
That’s the thing that’s hard for the administration sometimes to understand, because thinking is not something that the faculty member can “deliver.” I spent the first three months of my sabbatical reading and thinking. I cannot “deliver” that. However, what I ended up writing was a much better book than if I had just tried to rush in and write the book right away. I’m not saying that administrators should not hold faculty accountable. Of course they should. But giving space to think, to read, to meet with other faculty in events like faith and learning seminars, or other forms of release time from teaching, is essential.