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Myth Busting: Alumni at Work in the Academy

by Jessica Sherer

In his article, “Preferred Colleagues,” Peter Wood cites research that reveals strong bias against hiring evangelical Christians over their non-Christian counterparts at many colleges and universities. “These [Christian] groups are academic pariahs, frequently characterized as stupid, anti-intellectual, doctrinaire, ill-disposed towards the values of liberal learning, and deserving of their ostracism.”1

Despite these challenges, some tenacious Christian scholars have begun to tear down barriers and demonstrate that they possess the academic dexterity to thrive in the secular academy.

Beyond classroom teaching, Frederick White ’90, M.A. ’91, Ph.D., associate professor of English at Slippery Rock University, works to preserve the Haida language and culture, studying how his people learn their native tongue and pass it on to future generations. “In the book of Revelation, John talks about the many languages spoken at the throne of Heaven. I want to be part of making sure that the Haida nation is represented.” Research allows professors like White to be a part of the larger intellectual community. “Most universities require their professors to research, and I think it’s important for Christian academics to contribute to the dialogue in their respective fields,” White explained.

Joe Denny ’05, current electronics professor at Mount San Antonio College and past APU Nancy Moore Celebrate Azusa scholarship recipient, believes in investing in public colleges and universities. He finds that secular learning environments need positive influence from Christian professionals who can offer a deeper level of care. “Many of my students don’t have healthy family support structures. When they see that I care, they respond,” he said. “And because students tend to respond to their professors’ influence, they need Christian professors who speak God’s Truth into their lives.”

Rachel Pietka ’06, a Lilly fellow and current Ph.D. student at Baylor University who also teaches in the English department, explained that a Christian perspective on research and scholarship seeks knowledge not to manipulate or gain fame, but to understand its intrinsic value. “It’s important to bring that Christian perspective to the academy, where getting published often overshadows discovery and truth,” she explained.

Jesse Cougle ’97, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Florida State University, did not take academic life seriously until coming to Azusa Pacific. He believes God used the relationships he built with peers and faculty to develop him as a scholar. He now oversees a research lab at Florida State that studies obsessive-compulsive disorder, anger problems, post-traumatic stress disorder, and more. “In the university setting, Christians can honor God by doing our work well, showing love to others, and for me, conducting research that can improve mental health,” said Cougle.

Jim Gleason ’95, Ph.D., an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Alabama, researches how high schools can better prepare students for their university math classes. “It’s not the most prestigious research field out there, but I can make an impact on how students learn and enjoy mathematics,” said Gleason. “College students need guidance from faculty who care about them beyond the classroom. I mentor two or three students each semester. Some of those are Christians, but many are not. I can reach a lot of students that way.”

Chandra Crudup ’04, a lecturer of social work at Arizona State University and a current Ph.D. student, considers it a privilege to represent her faith in the academy. “It’s important for Christians in higher education to show the learning community the rigor of Christian engagement in intellectual discovery and debunk biases,” she explained. Her doctoral research looks at biracial identity development, part of which includes studying how faith influences that development. “The field of social work embraces faith as an essential part of life for many people. We talk about sensitive topics, so the discussion often includes spiritual matters. That’s where we need Christian teachers to speak.”

These APU alumni represent but a few of the many Christian educators thriving in the secular academy. Daily, they overcome preconceived notions and outright resentment as they balance intellect and faith, rationality and passion, objectivity and compassion. They demonstrate that one need not trade in a Christian worldview to succeed in those hallowed halls of higher education.

1Wood, Peter. “Preferred Colleagues.” Innovations: Insights and Commentary on Higher Education (blog), April 6, 2011. chronicle.com/blogs/innovations/preferred-colleagues/29160/.

Jessica Sherer, M.A. ’08, is a freelance writer living in Chino Hills, California. jessicalsherer@gmail.com

“Many of my students don’t have healthy family support structures. When they see that I care, they respond. And because students tend to respond to their professors’ influence, they need Christian professors who speak God’s Truth into their lives.”

Originally published in the Winter '11 issue of APU Life. Download the full issue (PDF).