on academic distance


I was discussing with my students the topics they have chosen for their “Explaining a Concept” essays during their House Tutorials yesterday. One of my students chose “religion” as her concept. I’m fine with that, as long as she does her research properly and I know that I will workshop how to research in class tomorrow. It’s also a chance for me to teach a different concept: academic distance. And it didn’t take long for me to demonstrate just that. As part of the group discussion for how she could focus her paper topic, another student said, “You could say how religions change. Like how there were Catholics and then the Christians came–”

“Catholics are Christians,” I said automatically.

“But Catholics pray to angels and believe in the Virgin Mary and Christians don’t,” said another student.

“Actually, Catholics don’t pray to angels. Catholics are Christians.”

“Are you Catholic?” they asked. To which I replied, “Now, about your topic, one way you can focus it is by choosing something specific…”

Which means, of course, they think I’m Catholic. Explaining the finer points between Catholicism and Anglo-Catholic Episcopalianism would take too long; also, my denominational preference doesn’t matter. They don’t understand that what I personally believe did not matter in that discussion: factually, Catholics are Christians. Catholics don’t pray to angels. As for saints and the Virgin: veneration is not the same thing as worship. “Praying to” the saints relies on the premise that all Christians, living and dead, are the body of Christ. “Praying to” a saint is, in a sense, equivalent to asking a friend to pray for you. Now, we could talk about the “cult of the saints” during the Patristic and Medieval periods, but that would be different–because it is in a different historical context.

You can be familiar with a subject without being that subject. It is possible to research a topic without being personally invested in that topic. It is possible to research a subject without putting your own beliefs “at risk.” If you are afraid of that happening, then perhaps you need to question the strength of your convictions. Investigating opposing or alternative viewpoints to your own is not a weakness, but a strength. And when you are personally invested in that subject? Challenge yourself. Identify your bias, become aware of it. Then you can set it aside. You can’t completely detach yourself from your bias; it will keep you company, sprawling on your papers, occasionally getting in your way, like a cat would, while you do research on that subject. Maintaining academic distance requires you to be intensely self-aware.

One of the things I try to teach my students is the habit of critical thinking, the practice of questioning everything, to not accept generalizations at face value. Question the source. Who are they? What authority do they have on this subject? Where are they getting their information? Are their sources credible? I can lecture, I can demonstrate, I can give examples–but whether they take any of it in is up to them.

Photo: Chiesa di San Francesco in Lodi, Italy.