Thursday, December 11, 2014

Teaching What 'Professor' Means Is Big Challenge

(From the December 11, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

For years, when people would find out that I am a professor, they would ask me: “what are you a professor of?”

Aside from cringing at the use of a preposition at the end of a sentence, I would find this question a little awkward. I could answer it quickly and tell them I teach public relations, but that led to blank stares or even worse questions.

In a shoe store about a month ago the nice saleswoman was striking up a conversation as I tried on shoes. When we got to the part about me teaching public relations, the conversation felt like ill-fitting boots.

“So, that’s like talking to people?”

“Not exactly.” I then gave the officially sanctioned definition of the profession from the Public Relations Society of America. This was a mistake.

“So, it’s like sociology?” At least she didn’t call it “spin” or “getting the word out” or “publicity.” I decided to cut my losses.

“These shoes are just what I need. Thank you.” And in changing the subject and preserving the relationship, I exhibited a form of public relations, though the point was likely lost on her.

It gets even worse when people don’t ask about my subject matter expertise but the very nature of being a professor. They’ll ask “what class do you teach?” As if professors teach only one class. Three classes per semester is typical at most universities, though at “research universities” faculty may only teach two and spend more time on research. At other colleges, faculty may teach four courses but do little or no research.

They express shock that you have a PhD, even though that’s a minimum requirement for most professor jobs. Or they think you get tenure if you show up on time for two years. My own mother tells me she thinks tenure sounds like ten year and she gets confused.

Recently, when I got promoted to professor, the highest rank of professors, confusion really followed. “What?” friends would say, “I thought you already were a professor!”

Well, there’s the generic term professor and then there’s the more formal rank. Most professors on what is called the “tenure-track” are hired as assistant professors. This is just the rank title—it doesn’t mean you actually assist another professor, though in medieval days that may have been the case. After seven years, during which there have been several review meetings, assistant professors can go up for tenure and promotion to associate professor.

This is a daunting process. Candidates must show they are excellent in teaching, research and service. Teaching excellence is determined by a review of student evaluations, which are completed after every single class at the end of a semester. Other faculty watch candidates teach and review their teaching materials. Advising students is part of teaching and is also part of the record. As for research, candidates must show they have presented at conferences and/or published in appropriate journals or books. Finally there is this category called “service,” which means a faculty member has been on committees and/or taken an appropriate amount of administrative responsibility, as determined by colleagues.

In my time as a professor I’ve seen a handful of people not make it past this review process. So when someone says they have tenure, or are associate professor. it is a major accomplishment. After another seven years, the stakes are higher in all three categories. Candidates must be excellent or significant in all three to be promoted to full professor. It took me the better part of a summer to gather supportive documents into four large books for the committee in my unit (department) and at the college level to review.

Of course, by explaining all this to those outside of academia I expect a response not unlike that of students in an evening class—namely, a tired and indifferent expression, with eyes glazed like a Krispy Kreme.

So while it may be personally satisfying to have made it to the highest rank among college faculty, it is also humbling. I was humbled just the other day when I explained to someone that I was a full professor.


“What are you full of?” they asked.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Wife's Persistence Keeps Her Running

(From the November 13, 2014 Grand Haven Tribune)

Ever since my wife’s diagnosis with stage 4 breast cancer more than two and a half years ago, people often ask me, “How is your wife doing?” More recently, they have been asking me, “WHAT is your wife doing?!”

In late summer, my wife had a foot injury common to runners. It is a stress fracture in her heel. An X-ray and an MRI confirmed it. The doctor said she needed to wear one of those boots (air cast) you see people in with similar injuries. What is worse, she had to stay off her foot for several weeks. At a subsequent check-up, the doctor said another month.

So my wife, more active than a hummingbird, who has survived surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation, and has run through all of the significant stress and side-effects of cancer treatment, would now be sidelined by a common running injury unrelated to cancer. Right.

Wrong. You think I would know this woman after nearly 20 years of marriage. You would especially think I know her these past several years.

She makes the word tenacious seem synonymous with a half-hearted effort. She is well beyond that. She did relent and wear the boot, and has been staying off her foot. But she doesn’t just use her crutches to go from bed to couch and back again. No, she got one of those scooters so she could be more mobile. Of course, what comes with mobility? Running.

This is why people started asking me what my wife is doing instead of how she is doing. They see her on the bike paths of Spring Lake, pushing with her good leg, following the same routes she would on two good legs. She calls it her scoot and run. I call it crazy. Kids want to upgrade from their scooters to the kind my wife has, especially since she has it all decked out with pink “Hello Kitty” tape.

But wait, there’s more.

It wasn’t enough for my boot-scootin’ bride to just tool around on bike paths. She had to participate in one of our traditional events—the Grand Rapids Half Marathon. Since I worry about her, I had to participate as well.

A friend from church works with the race director and suggested we start a half-hour early, with the group of people called “Team in Training” who push specialized wheeled strollers to run with special needs children and others who are physically challenged. Running with a smaller group put me at ease that my wife would not miss a pothole in the crowd of thousands of runners, or get knocked off her scooter.

It was cold and dark when we started. In other words, it was a good morning to have stayed in bed. But as is often the case, after we started running the light and warmth increased, as did our positive spirits.

Running across a downtown bridge over the Grand River that early in the morning afforded us a view of stunning beauty. Fall colors and skyscrapers were reflected in perfectly still water, as a light fog hovered above it. As dawn increased, we were able to enjoy even more of the beauty of fall as we ran.

Eventually, more crowds of spectators lined the course. We enjoyed their encouragements, as well as their comments about their amusement and shock to see a woman “running” a half marathon on a scooter. Comments ran the full course, from “you go girl!” to “that is dedication” to “here’s something you don’t see every day” to “what an inspiration!” We also saw her doctor, who advised her not to do this, and waved and smiled as we ran and scooted past him.

Even the elite runners took notice and gave encouragement. Since we got a half-hour head start, we were able to see the lead runners as they passed us in the hilly section at about mile 7 or 8. They patted her back, offered words of encouragement, and even said they—the fastest in the race—were inspired by her. It was really touching. Also, I can now say that I was neck and neck with the lead runners in a half marathon, for about a second or two.

We finished the race to comments from the PA announcer and cheers from the crowd of spectators at the finish line. We had completed the course in 2 hours and 5 minutes, slower than our normal running time but not bad considering the circumstances.

And when we consider the circumstances, all that my wife has been through in the past two and a half years, we would have to say we have run the course well. We have run in spite of situations. We have persevered, and finished the race. We have thought about where we’ve been, and where we have yet to go, and we find the strength to keep going. We have done so with encouragement and good cheer. I dare say we even enjoy the race.


The day after the event, she had her sixth surgery related to cancer. This one was on her nose. As a result, she can’t run for a while. But I’m sure she will run again.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Cross Controversy on Dewey Hill Exposes Misunderstanding About Constitution

(From the October 9, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Dewey Hill, that grass-covered dune, is a focal point of our community and a controversy once again. One or two people are “offended” by the cross that appears on that hill on Sundays

It’s ironic that someone could be offended by something that is meant as an invitation, an offer of hope. They are still free to reject the message of the cross. But their being offended should not preclude others from the right to display the cross. All of this is allowed because of something called free expression, a freedom that some in our society frequently propose be denied to those of Christian faith.

It’s all a big misunderstanding.

At issue is the U.S. Constitution.  People often justify their bigoted exclusion of Christians from the public sphere with the phrase “separation of church and state.” Please know this:  that phrase is NOT in our nation’s founding document.

There is, however, something called the First Amendment, which reads exactly as follows:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It goes on to speak of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right of people to assemble peaceably.

But most folks who argue for separation of church and state utter only the first part of what I quoted. This is known in legal circles as the “establishment clause.” But they ignore the part after the comma, the part about free exercise.  Allowing a cross on Dewey Hill, especially if it is provided and hoisted and funded by local citizens and not the government itself, is certainly not endorsing religion. It is not an example of the government saying, “Hear ye, you all must be Christians and worship the same way.” No. Ridiculous. But not allowing a cross to be displayed on public property violates the constitutionally guaranteed free expression of religion. 

This misunderstanding of the constitution, and misappropriation of a phrase, is disturbing given the intent of our country’s founders. The phrase “wall of separation” is attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but not in the Constitution. According to Philip Hamburger, author of the book called “Separation of Church and State,” Jefferson coined the now much-disputed phrase in an 1802 letter to a Baptist congregation concerned about religious liberty. The church was concerned about the government controlling the church, not the reverse. Far from separating church and state, Jefferson himself and others of our nation’s founders frequently and eloquently intertwined the two. Michael Novak points this out in his book, “On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding.” It was Jefferson who wrote “the God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time.” And in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and other national leaders of the fledgling nation indicated a strong measure of religious faith in opposing the British when they wrote of a “firm reliance on the protection of divine providence.” 

Legally, others would also have a right. Current complainers want to display messages in favor of hot-button issues, such as pro-abortion and same-sex marriage. This may be offensive to a majority, but Madison warned against a tyranny of the majority and that minority opinion should also have voice.

However, the long court history on free speech refers to the right and responsibility of governments to rein in that which violates a “prevailing community standard’ of decency. That is subjective, to be sure. Grand Haven leaders may also decide not to allow political messages, i.e. words on signs, because it is a visual distraction from the natural beauty of Dewey Hill where only a flag and cross—mere symbols without words—are displayed. The Supreme Court has ruled that speech may be limited if not completely censored by the ‘TPM’ standard. That is to say it can be controlled given certain times, places, and manners of speech.

We’ll have to see what city leaders do on this current issue. But here’s a final point. Whether a cross is displayed on public property or not isn’t the big issue for many Christians.  For millennia governments and religions have had a tenuous coexistence.  But perspective comes from a noble source. Nearly 2,000 years ago the Apostle Paul, a Roman citizen and often persecuted for his Christian faith, wrote to Christians in Rome: “Who can separate us from the love of Christ?” It’s a rhetorical question, and the answer is--nothing. No earthly government can do so, and certainly not the misinterpretation of our modern constitution, whether done out of ignorance or intolerance.


In the end I, and I’m certain many like me, are less concerned about a symbol on Dewey Hill than about the unchanging reality of a cross long ago, on a hill far away.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Don't Deny Your Cancer

We met some people recently for the first time, and learned they have cancer. One couple talked about how they just deny it, they don't talk about it, they don't say the 'C' word.

That struck me as wrong.

For one thing, I don't know how that is possible. My wife, in the two and a half years since diagnosis, has had to talk about it. Just this week she spent more hours on the phone with doctors' offices trying to set up appointments, get questions answered, and deal with other aspects of this disease. Even though people say my wife looks good (and she does), there is still a lot going on and I don't see how pretending otherwise is possible.

But it's also not healthy to deny cancer. To deny it is to let it take the upper hand, to own you. To deny cancer is not to beat it but to give it power. To really fight this disease, and you have to fight it, you have to face it head on. You have to get to know all you can about it so you can attack it strategically.

As a Christian, I would have to say that denying cancer--or any trial you may be going through--is to deny Christ. The Bible is replete with assurances that God is with us through the storm, through the trial. To deny your caner is to live in fear instead of faith. Having cancer is not pleasant, but denying it doesn't change facts or attitude. And denying cancer, and therefore denying the opportunity for spiritual growth and perseverance and character, is to deny yourself the opportunity for blessing in the midst of trial.

My wife and I have done the opposite. We have not hidden from cancer. We have taken it head on. We speak its name, the way Christ spoke the name of demons when casting them out. We have prayed and asked for specific prayers as we fight cancer. And we are better for it.

Cancer has also given us opportunity for witness. My wife tells people in stores, at restaurants, and out walking all about it. This opens conversations and starts relationships. And when we start talking about cancer, we end talking about Christ and give those we talk to hope.

Just the other day, this came back to us. Walking the pier at Grand Haven on a beautiful early fall night, we saw an older couple getting back into their car. The woman was obviously battling cancer. "Keep enjoying sunsets," my wife said to them. When the woman looked at us, my wife explained: "I have stage 4 cancer, and you have to take every day as a blessing, enjoy life. Tonight's sunset is gorgeous isn't it?" The woman responded. "Yes it is! I'm stage 4 too. It's been 25 years now."

Wow. A 25-year stage 4 survivor. We have learned not to look at statistics, because they are based on averages and if there's anything we hear a lot it's that everyone is different. But we know that a stage 4 diagnosis usually means about 6-8 years before cancer comes back and treatments can't overcome it. So to meet a 25-year survivor was a pleasant encouragement. No denying it.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Theory About Fear of Death Bolsters Faith

(From the September 11, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

It seems lately that I am surrounded by death. From this newspaper I learned of the deaths of three staff members of Grand Haven Schools, a fellow community columnist,  and the young son of a local family. Meanwhile celebrities Robin Williams and Joan Rivers recently passed away. In addition, I attended funerals for the father of a friend and the mother of another friend.

I did not know most of these people. But the sudden increase in the news of deaths is striking. The people range in age from child, to middle aged, to senior citizens. They are common local folks and international celebrities. The causes of death vary. It is a reminder of mortality.

Then I got an invitation to attend a speech on campus about the subject of death. I haven’t attended the speech yet, but I read a book chapter written by the speaker. Essentially, this speaker will hold forth on “mortality salience”, or being conscious of death, and something called “terror management theory,” which posits that human beings, being conscious of their inevitable death, are in danger of being overwhelmed with anxiety. People respond by constructing cultural worldviews, which vary but have in common the “psychological function of providing meaning and value in the face of death.”

These worldviews range from religious conceptions of an afterlife to leaving a legacy of accomplishment or accumulating wealth while alive. This latter worldview is the subject of the speech he will give next week: how fear of death leads to conspicuous consumption.  In other words, people are so uptight about eventually dying that they buy a bunch of stuff while they are still alive just to distract themselves.

I’m an open-minded guy, so I can see how there is some truth to this. But I take issue with the over-generalization of this theory—even with some empirical studies he mentions—to all of humanity. Some may consciously or unconsciously buy lots of things as a distraction from a fear of death. But there could also be more variables, such as trying to keep up with social pressure. Or maybe they simply did well in life and can afford to have nice homes, cars and other benefits of wealth.

I also would challenge the idea that all or most people are out-of-control spenders. Here again, certainly that is evident in American society. In fact the Wall Street Journal recently had an article about people with six-figure salaries living paycheck to paycheck because they can’t control their spending. But I know many people who live simply, spend frugally, and are not attracted to mere things.

While I am a thoughtful academic, I also am unashamedly a Christian. I subscribe to the Christian “worldview” that the speaker coming next week considers to be, like all worldviews, a fiction. (Never mind that his theory is also a worldview and subject to consideration as fictitious by others). I believe with billions that that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a victory over death. That is a not a fiction I cling to in order to ease anxiety about the truth of death. It is a truth I profess to challenge the fictions this world throws at us.

The author concludes that humans will be better if they gave up these various psychological functions, accepted our “puniness and ultimate mortality,” and “consume life instead of being consumed by consumption.”

I wonder if the author realizes how much his own assertions mirror the teaching of the Bible. The word  “puny” is used in some translations to describe man’s condition relative to God. The inevitability of our mortality is a frequent theme. There are also many cautions against greed, consumption and the “love of money.” A famous passage asserts that “it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.”

But the issue of fear of death is where Christianity diverts from this secular terror management theory. The phrase “do not be afraid” is replete in the Bible, spoken by prophets, angels, apostles and Jesus himself. The Christian Gospel teaches that rather than accepting death as inevitable in the manner of ancient stoics, we can accept that Christ defeated death on our behalf by dying on the cross, and being resurrected. There is nothing we can do to earn eternal life, we can only confess our sins and accept the gift of salvation. And we are not to consume life because we will one day die, but live in grateful joy and glorify God because death is not the end.


I will listen with interest to the speaker next week. But I’ll tell you right now that I am not going to admit to a fear of death or denying the inevitable. On the contrary, I accept my mortality without fear, and precisely because of that I won’t deny the Gospel of Jesus Christ.