In my work with doctoral students, I’ve noticed that what often sets apart “good” graduate students from “good” junior scholars is the ability for the latter to say something important and distinctive. That is, while it may be sufficient during coursework and qualifying exams to master the canon of whatever counts as good scholarship in one’s field, success beyond graduate school will require academic hopefuls to make a bona-fide scholarly contribution to her field of study.
For this reason, I am frequently asked by the graduate students I mentor, particularly those who are women, about the process by which I came to find–or claim–my scholarly voice.
What follows bellow is a version of a talk I gave at the annual conference of the Pacific, Asian, and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry (PANAAWTM) in 2014 on this very question.
The year was 2001. As an ABD, I was delivering a paper at my first academic conference (one for theology graduate students). There were four of us presenters, one from each of the schools represented in the Northeast (Harvard, Boston College, Yale, Brown). Naturally I was equal parts honored and nervous about making my debut.
I remember stumbling over a few phrases, but being pleased overall with my performance. The Q&A that followed also generally went well. As it turned out, however, I had mentally prepared for nearly every question save one, which in hindsight had been the most important. In a nutshell, it was this—what say you? A senior white male faculty had noticed that I had let other thinkers do the talking for me. He observed that my paper had mostly been about advancing a theoretical paradigm of a particular scholar for a certain purpose and that I had responded to questions mostly by referencing what this same scholar or others would say. But that gentle soul kindly pressed to hear my authentic voice: he told me that those 50 or so assembled there were eager to hear me and that someday if he or others were to buy my books(!), it wouldn’t be because I had mastered the literature on any given topic, but because I had something unique to say about it.
That exchange is one of my earliest and clearest memories of being invited to find and claim my own scholarly voice. Post-conference, I wish I could tell you that I experienced a Saul-to-Paul conversion and no longer deferred to the views of others. The truth is that the process of emerging as a scholar in my own right took longer than that. As I see it, I only started to grow comfortably into that new role in my second or third year as an Assistant Professor.
Though certainty about our own motives ultimately remains inscrutable even to ourselves, my best guess of what initially kept me from speaking in my own voice was a fear of being wrong. I had always done well in school and had long grown accustomed to a conception of myself as a good student. And while I continued in grad school to succeed in absorbing and critically interrogating difficult material, the prospect of offering something constructive, something to take the place of what I had in whole or in part undermined, was much more daunting. Who was I to stake my claim on a weighty theological or philosophical question, particularly when some of the brightest thinkers throughout history had yet to resolve or reach a consensus on the matter?
What I now interpret as enabling me to overcome this fear of being wrong was a combination of several factors: (1) a few “wins” or occasions where I took a decisive stand on a scholarly issue and was rewarded for it, (2) a few experiences where I encountered opposition to the central thesis I was offering but suffered nothing catrastrophic as a result, and (3) a growing awareness that my privilege in some cases obligated me to make my voice known.
Let me share a few of those experiences.
An Early “Win”
In my third year on the job (as Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Tech in 2005), I had one of my first tastes of professional success. My colleague and I had co-presented a paper at the AAR on the then-recent Pledge of Allegiance controversy. We had used the sociological category of “civil religion” to critically interrogate the longstanding practice of teacher-led recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. Our paper was well-received, so much so that the editor of the flagship journal in our field, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, invited us to submit it for publication. While revising for that purpose, I began to see that my views on the matter couldn’t be contained within the confines of religious studies – that I held even stronger views on the topic in light of my Christian faith. Since my co-author was Jewish, the question remained whether it would be wise for me to seek an additional publishing venue to voice my objections on explicitly Christian theo-ethical grounds.
Here were the risks. As someone who was then pre-tenure, I knew of senior faculty in my College who advised us juniors to postpone tackling controversial subjects prior to overcoming the tenure hurdle. I was also working then in a cultural climate that unabashedly linked patriotism with Christianity and where those who would eventually have the power to evaluate my tenure dossier could be drawn from the sizable lot in Southwestern Virginia who would think nothing of calling the U.S. a “Christian nation” and to this day refer to the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression.” Despite these projected risks, I felt so strongly about the topic that I claimed my voice as a Christian, delivered my first paper at the Society of Christian Ethics on the topic, and saw the article through to publication.
As for the fear I once held about being wrong? No doubt I had known that the position I had taken on this church-state issue was debatable; as indeed it was respectfully contested by some at the conference who were otherwise sympathetic to my critique of Christendom. But the difference between my 2001 grad school conference performance and this 2006 Society of Christian Ethics presentation was that I had come to realize that there were greater goods at stake than my ego or standing. I was no longer primarily preoccupied about being right or wrong, but about the bigger theo-political question of how (we) Christians should comport ourselves in a pluralist democracy that continues to be biased in favor of our interests.
Understanding My Privilege and Responsibility
Claiming my space in the academy was tied in that context to realizing that I had something important to share. In other cases, exercising my voice has been tied less to any particular scholarly insights I might have had, and more to do with a growing conscientization about the responsibilities I have from my privileged position.
In my fifth year as faculty, my institution (Virginia Tech) was going to hold its annual diversity summit on a topic it had never publicly discussed before in such a high-profile setting: homosexuality. The organizers, however, were having difficulty finding faculty panelists. Mind you, Virginia in 2009 still had “crimes against nature” statutes on the books (where oral and anal sex were technically felonies) and the conservative hetero-normative military culture of Virginia Tech was hostile to both LGBTQ and straight allies. When asked, I agreed to serve as a panelist not because of any particular scholarly expertise, but because I wanted to support this college-wide discussion and because I had realized that any risks I would incur for participating were minimal.
More specifically, as a married woman with children, I knew that my own sexuality would not be under suspicion. As someone who worked in the humanities, I knew that my own colleagues would be supportive. While of course the known homophobic statements made by some members of the Board of Visitors meant that retribution at tenure review was still a possibility, even that hypothetical scenario was not enough to deter me. For while an unsuccessful tenure review would no doubt be personally and professional devastating, it would not spell for my family financial ruin given my husband’s employment and income.
Somewhat paradoxically, then, it is this very awareness of my privilege that has simultaneously compelled me to claim my voice in these and other cases AND prevented me from passing judgment on those who share similar convictions but remain silent. As a Christian and an American citizen, I realized that I could speak about the dangers of religiously-infused patriotism and the inappropriateness of state-supported symbols of Christianity in ways that non-citizens or members of minority faiths could not—or at least not without drawing undue attention to their minority status or being accused of only providing self-serving (not principled) arguments. As a partnered-heterosexual woman who is not clergy, I also recognized that I could also be an LGBTQ ally without the fear of having my own relationship questioned or being subjected to heresy trials or even defrocked.
Knowing When to Speak No Longer
Lest I give you the wrong impression that my posture toward the world or the institutions at which I work is primarily that of a prophet, let me close with a story of my withholding my voice, even though I felt that I had something important to teach. Because I regularly taught a class on the ethics of war and peace, I used to be asked on a somewhat regular basis to give lectures to Virginia Tech’s ROTC. I would prepare a Powerpoint, walk the students through various ethical postures toward the question of war, and then cover in detail the basic tenets of the just war tradition.
After making three of these presentations, however, I stopped doing them when I realized the true nature of what I was being asked to do. The instructors and students remained largely uninterested in scrutinizing American actions in light of just war criteria or the Geneva Conventions; they basically wanted to leave their realism and/or ethnocentric patriotism unchallenged while cloaking themselves, with knowledge gained from me, in the righteous aura of the “just war” tradition.
While painful, that lessons taught me the importance of discernment. Now that I am raising two young children, the demands on my time have only increased. So I now subject the prospect of my claiming my voice through the following filter:
(1) Do I have something important to say?
(2) Is there a need or even obligation for me, or someone like me, to say it?
(3) Is there a genuine possibility for creative transformation?
If not, I’ve come to see that sometimes silence or a respectful “no” so such invitations is the best way to respond.
Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics and Co-Director of the Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and co-editor, with Ilsup Ahn, of Asian American Christian Ethics (Baylor University Press, 2015).