Saturday, May 13, 2006

A Brit at Duke: Reflections of an Alien Professor

It is Duke Graduation Weekend. Earlier today, I took a break from swimming and sitting by the pool with my family to drive in to Duke to attend a Graduation weekend reception on the East Campus lawn, at which I had been asked to be a "host". To be asked to be a host, a number of seniors (= graduating students) have to have put your name forward as someone they'd like to be there, who could meet their parents and so on, so it is a kind of an honour, though I have no idea of how many of my colleagues were also invited but declined. I was one of only two present from the Department of Religion. To be a host means to hover around the table of your general section, in my case "Humanities". Other tables included "Professional Schools", "Natural Sciences" and so on. You then meet and greet those you know, or those you don't know (far more of the latter in my case). The event is what we would call in England a "garden party", a tea-time outdoor summer event, where people are smartly dressed, a band is playing, and good buffet style food is eaten. The main difference from the British garden party here was that there was no alcohol served, no champagne, no pimms, no wine. And I must admit that it does change the feel of the event somewhat. One glass of pimms really would have set off the whole event perfectly, and I can't imagine a similar event in the UK going off without a nice glass of something. I suppose that this shows the extent to which Duke is in the puritan south and still influenced by its past. I wonder if other American universities are dry on such occasions?

Nevertheless, and in spite of the absence of a celebratory drink, one of the great things about Duke, and no doubt this is typical of the American university, is that a great deal is made of graduating. The very fact that an entire weekend is devoted to this is, to me, delightful if not surprising. In the UK, we are used to seeing American TV and films where leaving school at eighteen ("High School") is even dignified with the term "graduation", and mortar boards are warn, and massive ceremonies are held. It's a big contrast with the UK, where we just slink off home at the end of sixth form (Ages 16-18), perhaps going for a celebratory drink in the pub on the way home, but no more than that. So it's little surprise that after four years of learning at elite institutions like Duke, graduation gets marked with a whole weekend of activities.

Let me provide a little more context still. At British universities, it is common for students to miss their graduation ceremonies altogether, and to collect their degrees in absentia. It's common for academic staff (= what Americans call "faculty") to avoid graduation ceremonies too, and when I once asked a colleague in Birmingham why he avoided them, he told me that he did not like "pomp" and that he had missed his own graduation, even for his doctorate. And a little more context too: there is a horrible time lag between finishing your degree in the UK and graduating, and it is one of the things that effectively discourages people from going to their own graduation -- they are usually returning to their university; they are not still in residence. In Birmingham, you will have finished your finals by the end of May but you won't have your graduation ceremony until the middle of July. Indeed, you won't get your results until mid June. Worse still if you are in Oxford. Graduation is not automatic. You have to make an appointment, and unless you organize it carefully, you won't be graduating with anyone you actually know. I graduated from my BA a good year after completing, and the only person I recognized at the event was one of my favourite tutors, Canon John Fenton of Christ Church. (And bear in mind that the entire ceremony is in Latin). I made up for this a little when graduating for my MA, MPhil and DPhil (all in one ceremony) and organized it so that several of my best friends were graduating the same day, returning to Oxford to pick up their MAs -- a very happy occasion.

I suppose that what I am saying is that there is a lot that I love about the British university system, but graduation is one thing the Americans do really well, and we Brits would do well to learn a bit more about the importance of ritual and the public celebration of good achievement. It is a truism that graduation ceremonies are more for the parents of graduands than for the graduands themselves, yet that is why the public celebration of academic achievement is so important, because the parents are those who have partaken in that achievement and are in many ways responsible for it, perhaps through emotional support, almost certainly through financial support. Those of you Brits who don't attend your own graduation ceremonies, what are you thinking? Here is a chance to celebrate your achievements, to reflect together with your colleagues, in front of your teachers and your parents, in the university that has been your home for several years.

The reason my mind is turning to these things is that later today, I drive in to Duke again to attend another element in this Graduation Weekend. It seems that as well as the outdoor receptions and the big official graduation ceremonies (which are held in great sports stadiums seating thousands!), each department also holds its own celebration for its majors. As the new kid on the block, I have been asked to share a few words at our Religion graduation ceremony tomorrow. To be honest, it is quite a daunting task. I tend to think that it is easier to speak in public when you know what to expect, when you know the nature of the audience and the feel of the occasion. But what I do know about the event tomorrow is that there will be a lot of good feeling, and there will be a lot of (the right kind of) pride in the audience. And to speak to that kind of occasion should be a pleasure. I have taken as my theme the title to this post, "A Brit at Duke: Reflections of an Alien Professor", and I will speak for about ten minutes.

The fact that not long before the ceremony, I will be trying to catch a little of the Test Match from England on Willow TV over my broadband connection, will instantly tell you the unfortunate truth that after eight months in the US, I've not become completely like the natives. But I am making some important progress:
  • By accident, I used the term "soccer" with reference to what we (and, let's face it, almost all the rest of the world) call "football" last week.

  • I can now talk about "grading papers", rather than "marking" them, almost naturally.

  • I have only occasionally driven on the left hand side of the road by mistake, and have not yet been unfortunate enough to meet someone coming straight towards me.

  • I now understand that the correct pronunciation of "LA-Z-BOY" is "La-zee-boy", "Maths" is "Math", "aluminium" is "aluminum", a "bonnet" is a "hood", a "boot" is a "trunk", "revision" is "review", "biscuits" are "cookies", "scons" are "biscuits", the "pavement" is the "sidewalk", but the road is made of "pavement". "Trousers" are called "pants", and "pants" are . . . ?

  • I love jerky, root beer, hush puppies, corn bread and a thing called "barbecue", but I still prefer a good old-fashioned cup of English tea made in a pot with boiling water over against this extraordinary sweet drink called "iced tea".
Please bear with me, I have only been here a few months.

But these few months have given me the chance to reflect on what is different about the university at which I am now privileged to work. On a personal level, it still feels strange to be addressed as "Professor" or "Professor Goodacre", rather than just Mark. As you may know, the term "Professor" is reserved only for those with chairs in the UK, and it takes a lot of getting used to this different system, especially given the fact that I have encouraged students simply to call me by my first name (common in the UK). Yet with that deference also comes, with no disrespect intended to my former students in England, a marked confidence among the students in the classroom. Students here want you to know that they are bright, that they are engaging in the topic, and that they have some interesting or original contribution to make. I have heard so many interesting comments in the classroom over the last few months that I am now anxious that I may temporarily forget about them and ultimately publish them as some great new idea I have had. There is a drive towards achievement, an ambition to do well, the enthusiasm to get that A grade, that marks out students here as pretty special, and those I will be speaking to tomorrow deserve their grades -- they have worked hard and shown real distinction.

If I am impressed with the students, what of the system? For the professor here, there is more freedom than in the UK, but with that comes more responsibility. There is no equivalent here to the things that academics complain about in the common rooms of British universities, no QAA (Quality Assurance Assessment, an extensive review carried out periodically on the quality of a department's teaching), no RAE (Research Assessment Exercise, a five-yearly review of the quality of a given department's research record). When you grade a paper, you alone grade it and that grade is final. You set the examination yourself. There is no second marker, let alone a second "blind" marker, no external examiner, no anonymity for students. I have to admit that on one level the freedom is bliss. The amount of time that I have spent grading papers here is a tiny fraction of the time I spent marking examinations in England, not just in my own university but also as an external elsewhere. But with that freedom comes the realization that your say is final; that this is the last word, and that places far more responsibility on every piece of assessment you undertake. It is difficult to know whether to lament the lack of the same frameworks that safeguard the student and improve the process of assessment in England, or whether to celebrate the trust that is placed in every professor here, and in his/her judgement, releasing up so much more time to do the other things that make being an academic worthwhile.

But what of teaching Religion at Duke? Here I am more struck by the similarities to what I have been used to than the differences. The Department of Theology and Religion in Birmingham, where I was until last year, was a similarly non-confessional department in which the study of religion was open, critical, rigorous, democratic, with engagement by those of a variety of faith perspectives and none. Perhaps the most noticeable difference here is that our (geographical) proximity to a professional school in which the practice of religion is as important as the teaching of it inevitably encourages us, at times, to define ourselves in relation to them, i.e. we stress that we are what they are not. Yet our students probably have a better idea of what we are than we do ourselves, and one of my tasks here, on a road I am only just beginning, is to understand what it means to study, to understand religion in America. I can hardly even begin to comment on that at this stage, so instead let me conclude with something I will say later today at our ceremony, that one of the values of the best scholarship, and this is especially true of studying religion, is that it helps to keep you honest.

When you set out your beliefs and attempt to use scholarship solely to defend them, rather than to question and to test them, you are engaging in apologetics. When you subject religious claims, religious literature and your own religious ideas to rigorous scrutiny in the presence of others who have different ideas, you know that you are on the right track. Publicly available evidence, publicly coherent arguments, rigorous academic scrutiny, and honesty.


crystal said...

Very nice :-). You've given me an idea for my next blog post ... hope you don't mind if I quote you.

Jim said...

Great Post Mark.

Viola said...

I attended the graduation ceremny for my Bachelors. For my PGDip, I didn't attend because I couldn't be bothered to. For my Masters, I finished in Feb. 2005, but my graduation ceremony wasn't until Feb. 2006 -- a lag of about a year. As we'd moved to the US, needless to say, I didn't bother attending.

The other thing is -- have you noticed that Americans tend to frame their qualification certificates and put them on the wall (eg. in their offices), whereas Brits tend to put them away in a drawer somewhere and forget about them?

Cb said...

"I wonder if other American universities are dry on such occasions?" Very few. It is more due to legalities than anything else, I would suggest, especially here in the decidedly "wet" New Orleans.

I missed my DPhil graduation (my doctoral advisor missed his as well), but unlike my British advisor, I would dearly have loved to attend. Sadly, I needed the degree more than the ceremony and Oxford will only let you receive it in absentia or in person, but not both (i.e., I could not go back and "walk," as we would say in the US, later after receiving the degree).

I am glad to hear that Duke has departmental receptions. We had our graduation ceremony yesterday and it was our last with separate male and female liberal arts colleges (Tulane and Newcomb respectively). I hope that in the future we may have one unified ceremony for all schools and then break, as we did at Cornell, to the students' major department for a reception and conferring of degrees and awards. As a student I found it very personable and a wonderful conclusion to many years of work for the very faculty who handed me my diploma.

Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...


Thanks for this post. It is good to see that you are beginning to blend in with the "natives."


Whit said...

Your last paragraph says it all so well. I constantly encourage my folks at church to be able not only to tell me what they believe, but why. If you can not give a good argument for your beliefs or ideas - often you've never questioned them or had them questioned by others.

Liam said...

I have often said that when I finish my PhD, not only will I go to the ceremony, but I never plan to take off the gown. I'll wear it bowling, at the beach...

clk said...

As a Kentuckian now in Edinburgh for doctoral work, I am extremely pleased that you can enjoy that barbecue I so dearly miss.