Thursday, October 28, 2010

Reno, grad programs, and Chicago (again).

Earlier this year I had gotten in touch with some other theology bloggers to discuss the possibility of writing a series of posts about graduate programs in theology (and related fields) from a number of different perspectives.  Following the aftermath of R.R. Reno's 2009 ranking of theology programs, it struck me as important to have some extensive open discussion about these matters.  Because the programs themselves can be rather opaque, decisions of upcoming graduate students can often be made as a result of rumor, prejudice, and second-hand accounts.  While a handful of blog posts could conceivably just add to this cacophony, an open discussion with disagreeing voices or voices from students actually attending these various schools would at least provide the opportunity to avoid one-sided assumptions.

Over the summer and into the fall, plans for such a blog series have fizzled, no doubt because we're all busy doing our thing.  In the meantime, Jamie Smith has put up a "So You Want to Go to Grad School?" series (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8).  Most recently, though, R.R. Reno has written a new ranking article called "Schools of Thought", and Kevin Davis has provided some more thoughts at After Existentialism, Light.  I've already responded in the comment section of Davis's post, but I thought it would be good to write at greater length here.  This is a bit less prepared a statement than I had intended last spring, and probably a bit late for those applying for the 2011-2012 year.  In any case.

Reno follows a somewhat different line of argument this year, though much of what he says is the same as his previous two rankings.  While I'm not sure whether he read my response to him last year, it seems that he's followed a bit of my advice-- a number of schools I suggested as being worthy of rank have been added, a wider (though not much wider) list of professors than the handful of names we all already know is mentioned, etc.  Duke and Notre Dame sit tied at #1, Princeton Theological Seminary is at #3, Wycliffe College is #4, CUA is #5 and Marquette is #6.  The University of Chicago doesn't make the list (I'll get back to that).

Reno's underlying point in this article is to emphasize the importance of a defined intellectual culture in a graduate program:
A good graduate program in theology doesn’t just have high academic standards and a commitment to students. It needs to stand for something—neo-Thomism, or Barthianism, or postliberalism, or neoorthodoxy, or some other angle of vision. The labels never fully capture the complex interplay of faculty interests, but they do suggest a theological culture—a corporate personality capacious enough to allow for interesting arguments yet defined enough to give the arguments weight and focus.
 The programs that do not fare so well with Reno are those which he deems inadequate on the basis of this standard:
Too often, students, faculty, and administrators—in their different ways—underestimate the importance of corporate personality. Not long ago, Harvard Divinity School stood for something. So did Claremont, Yale, the University of Chicago, and Union Theological Seminary. They were alive with the urgency of the mainline Protestant project, which reflected the needs of a living community of believers negotiating the relations between modern identity and the traditional demands of faith.

The dramatic decline of the once dominant Protestant establishment has set these programs adrift. With little sense of purpose, they tend to divvy up faculty appointments: some historical specialists, a feminist, a liberationist, somebody doing world religions, perhaps a Jewish scholar or a Muslim—even a faculty member or two who represent a moderately traditional outlook. The whole is far less than the sum of the parts.
 Kevin Davis's post concurs on the importance of such a corporate identity,  and I have a sense that such values are relatively popular in theological circles today (or for that matter, in partisan political circles).  I hesitate, though, to grant him this sort of academic standard.  Without question, it's important for a student of theology to attend a program where their research and priorities will meet with a sympathetic audience of some sort; if no professor has any interest in the prospective student's work or if there isn't any broad basis for conversation to even begin, then such a program isn't an ideal place to study.  But I think the assumption that "schools of thought" should be foundational to the identity and work of a theology department is pretty baseless, and perhaps even dangerous.

Most really living "schools of thought" that we can identify institutionally were or are a result of happy professorial constellations that produced a lasting effect on the world of scholarship.  Usually the strongly institutional identification faded in a few generations as students of these professors dispersed and took the "school" elsewhere, or as professors retired.  This doesn't mean that, say, Yale presently stands in a demeaned position because we are no longer in the 1980's.  Quite the contrary, an institutional school of thought seems to be the exception of higher learning rather than the rule.  It is a good thing insofar as it reinvigorates thought with a coherent perspective pushed by a unique group of professors, or an editorial board, or an ecclesial movement.  But I don't see any reason to take it as the ideal form of university learning.

In this sense it's baseless to assume that one must seek out a "school of thought" in an academic institution.  But the standard can become outright dangerous for up-and-coming academics, I think, insofar as it fosters a sectarian outlook amongst dogmatic theologians.  There is a striking lack of catholicity in Reno's thoughts, that is.  Why, in an institutional setting devoted to critical exchange with the goal of knowledge and understanding, would we want to insist that agreement be engineered from the beginning?  This strikes me as a rather unorthodox account of the university's vocation, which I take it has always had relatively universal (again, read catholic) aims, whether in its religious or secular versions.

Reno does not simply encourage enclaves for their own sake, of course.  His goals are praiseworthy: "a corporate personality capacious enough to allow for interesting arguments yet defined enough to give the arguments weight and focus."  I'm not sure that arguments need to be "interesting" so much as "worthwhile", but his point is well taken.  He and I would both advocate for academic inquiry free enough to critically engage in the dogmatic task.  It is my burden then, I suppose, to reassure would-be graduates that a non-sectarian theological faculty can adequately grant arguments "weight and focus".  As each school will be different and I don't have the experience that Reno does, I can really only speak to this with regard to the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.

According to Reno, the Divinity School and others like it were "once alive with the urgency of the mainline Protestant project", although now they are "adrift" and have "little sense of purpose." He goes on to speak of commitment to diverse faculty specializations as merely "divvy[ing] up faculty appointments."

Kevin Davis over at After Existentialism, Light writes similarly of the University of Chicago Divinity School, "Chicago, rightly or wrongly, is perceived as lacking this shared identity, except for some vague value in achieving a rigorous standard of scientific excellence."  What is unclear to me is why a value of rigor and excellence in academic study is "vague," or why an institution that pursues such a value could be perceived as lacking an "identity" or a "spirit" or a "mission".  At what point did "schools of thought" come to resonate so strongly with the theological community that possessing one became a necessary component of university learning?  It's not schools of thought themselves that I have a problem with, or even theological departments being dominating by particular schools of thought... I can see quite well what Reno and others value in such arrangements, and I agree that where they happen to occur one should certainly take advantage of the confluence. But this is not how universities are meant to function.

Here is an example of how I think universities are meant to function.

At the University of Chicago Divinity School, every master's level student starts their program with an introductory course to the study of religion.  A text is chosen by the faculty to guide the class, and throughout the semester different professors from every area of study in the faculty give guest lectures, discussing the text from the perspective of their field.  For the past few years, the text has been Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, a 12th century fable written by Ibn Tufayl about the philosophical development of a feral child as he grows into adulthood.  This text becomes an opportunity for historical analysis, or comparison to other philosophical systems, or reflection upon the basis of theological knowledge of God.  It is not something that the Divinity School upholds in a mission statement.  It's just a text.  And we pick it apart, consider its relevance, disagree about it, come to agreement about it.

Nor do we uphold any particular approach to any particular text as a part of our "mission".  But this never seems to keep anyone from granting the necessary "weight and focus" to arguments that are made, as Reno fears.  A student who entered the theology doctoral program with me this year is interested in working with a professor of Islamic studies for his research.  A professor of Christian theology here is often in conversation with a professor Indian philosophy because of similarities in their work.  I've taken classes outside of the Divinity School itself, in the history department and the Committee for Social Thought... and in both cases my research papers on historical theological matters have been well-received and discussed by professors who have rather little personal interest in theology. 

I imagine that such breadth of interests and engagement does not characterize every university, and that it is occasionally absent within the University of Chicago as well.  But if this sort of teaching and collaborating is happening in an environment of catholic sensibilities, why would one opt for the alternative of various more restrictive "schools"?  What does it really gain for the loss that accompanies it?

Postscript on Marginalized Applicants

Tyler Wittman asked this in the comment section of After Existentialism, Light, and the issue is worth addressing:
I was speaking with one of the students, an evangelical, in the [The University of Chicago Divinity School] and he did say that evangelicals kind of had to come in through the back door. Any truth to that? He said basically if I didn’t want my application to be tossed in the garbage from the get-go, I needed to contact Hector first.

Once again, I’m not assuming this is Chicago in a nutshell, but that was the extent of my interaction back in May.
Not only is this question on a lot of people's minds (concerning Chicago and elsewhere), but I think these sorts of concerns go a long way in perpetuating the allure of "schools of thought"... I would also guess that it's a feedback loop of sorts whereby strong sensitivity to schools of thought returns to perpetuate fears of reaction against one for being of a particular "school of thought", which leads to a tighter grip on one's school, etc.

Of course I don't know what goes on in the admissions committees here at Chicago; I suppose they could be weeding out evangelicals.  But it strikes me as highly unlikely, given how many evangelicals are around here.  I did contact Prof. Hector before applying to both programs, but when I applied to the MA program I was simply asking his advice.  I have no idea what role he played on any admissions committee.  For the PhD program, I was approaching him as a potential adviser, so it only made sense to talk to him.  I wasn't going through Hector as a way to get past any more general animosity against evangelicals, that is.  I really don't think prospective students need to worry about this.  That said, if any evangelicals are worried about bias, don't hesitate to talk about the program with Prof. Hector first if you feel safer with him.  Faculty are here to work with students, and you're better off talking with them beforehand.  While I wasn't personally worried about the evangelical dynamic, I did have plenty of questions and concerns when applying here, and I pursued Prof. Hector and others in order to address them.  You should do the same.

My personal advice, however, would be to fight any urge to entertain these sorts of explanations for rejection.  When you look at the odds of getting into any decent program as a graduate student or a new faculty member, they don't look good whether you're an evangelical, or a Roman Catholic, or a mainline liberal, or a godless unbeliever.  For every instance of bias, there are ten more instances of luckless failures to make the cut.  If applications are being "tossed in the garbage from the get-go," it's likely because basic qualifications haven't been met.  At that stage I doubt the committee has taken enough interest in your application to even know whether you're an evangelical or not.  And once you get past that stage to the point of deep consideration of your application, rest assured... we at the University of Chicago are apparently "adrift" and retain "little sense of purpose" from our glory days of mid-century liberalism.  It stands to reason that we'd hardly recognize a "school of thought" if we saw one.


  1. On the marginalized applicant thing, I've been careful not to mention anything about my fundamental Keynesianism in my application. With the exception of American University (which does have a lot of 'em) I have no idea what my schools think of fiscal policy.

    Monetary policy is usually pretty safe no matter what - so surprise, surprise - monetary policy makes it into my personal statement as the research interest.

    I have no idea if this is being overly cautious, but I don't want to take the risk.

  2. This is really helpful, Evan. Even though I'm also quite positive about a number of the schools that Reno tends to like, I can't tell you how many times over the past two weeks I've had to caution students about latching on to his "rankings." Eager undergraduates are just so susceptible to being swayed by these faux-quantitative listings. The LAST thing we want in theology is another version of Brian Leiter's Philosophical Gourmet.

    And I think you're right about, ideally, finding a program with a genuine pluralism about it. (This is one of the reasons why I get less excited about Princeton Sem's PhD program.) Of course, sometimes what you get in the name of pluralism is just a bland liberalism, but as you point out: that's certainly not the case at Chicago, which is one of the reasons why I recommended it in my little listing (which was by no means a "ranking").

    I also really appreciate your appendix regarding the "martyrdom complex" as a way of rationalizing one's not getting accepted. Bingo.

  3. Evan,

    Good post, plenty to think through. I wasn't commenting on the reality of UCDS, but merely what had been passed along to me by a current student. I actually *was* surprised by it.

    I've seen fellow conservative evangelicals (who do know their stuff) be accepted at great schools and be rejected at great schools, but no more than any other equally qualified candidate.

    As someone who works in an admissions office, I know that some schools do have a distinct identity and represent a "school of thought," but I'm not sure it's as monolithic and determinative a force as the "allure" you spoke of would suggest.

  4. Daniel, you may be overly cautious on this, and likewise theology students in their own situation... but I also wonder to what extent one needs to state "I'm an evangelical" or "I'm a Keynesian" in their application in the first place. Presumably space is better spent talking about what your research interests are, what your methodological priorities are, etc. It will often come out pretty obviously where some of your commitments are through these, of course... but I'm not sure how relevant "I'm an X" is for a department in the first place. Not that students are meant to be simply disembodied arguments, but they're also not simply so many identity labels. That is, I could see one disincluding mention of being a Keynesian, or an evangelical, or a Catholic anyway without doing so out of fear of bias.

    Jamie, I agree with you that having problems with Reno's approach to this doesn't mean one needs to have problems with the programs he picked- certainly there are a lot of good ones there.

    Tyler, I do realize you were careful to clarify that this was the perspective of a current student, and I think everyone in the discussion at After Existentialism, Light was good about doing the same. I didn't mean to single you out, but rather the concern voiced by the student... because it is a prevalent one, and even though I don't think it's (usually) justified, it's not a dumb concern to have. I realize why it has some psychological staying power, and it's certainly worth discussing. The "allure" I mentioned, though, was more a reference to students being attracted to Reno's idea of "schools of thought" as a right ordering for university education, not so much to how the universities themselves function.

  5. Evan, thanks this is a very helpful response. I certainly agree that a specific identity with a specific school of thought can be dangerous. I find this to be far too narrow and lacking intellectual breadth.

    I think Hector is reason enough to go to Chicago, and if you plan to study Barth, having Keith Johnson close by at Wheaton is a major plus.

    Reno's critique of Chicago, Yale, and even Harvard I find quite shallow. Yale has great resources: Tanner, Outka, Volf, and Jennifer Herdt--all really great. Harvard has Ron Thieman who has a great track record with two recent students winning the Templeton, and the whole Boston theological consortium is a wonderful and diverse resource.

    I was most disappointed that neither UVA or Emory were on the list. UVA has great diversity and the faculty takes great interest in their students. There is Paul Jones, Charles Mathewes, Charles Marsh, James Davison Hunter, Peter Ochs, just to name a few. And Emory has Ian McFarland, Joy McDougal, and Luke Timothy Johnson each of whom I know nothing negative about.

    In my opinion Reno's rankings are not very helpful, especially to young students considering PhD programs.

  6. Evan,

    I think here you are "right on" and I appreciate the position put forward here. As a Ph.D. candidate at Loyola University of Chicago, I remember going through this. When I applied, I was accepted to both Catholic Univ. of America and to LUC. I was torn a little, but CUA sent me a list of courses I had to take and they were not thrilled about working on my project. Loyola, on the other hand, is a program that actually emphasizes the pluralism by making us take "interdisciplinary" seminars, along with a faculty that is pretty diverse in their theological commitments. And, honestly, my education has been much broader and deeper than many of my friends who went to some of the "Reno" schools.

    Anyway, consider this my post on graduate theology programs.

  7. One "ranking" that I haven't really seen discussed much but may be worth looking at is the NRC ranking that came out a little while ago. Andy Rowell mentioned this in the comment section of Reno's article. The nice thing about this ranking is that it provides low and high end rankings for a number of different criteria, which gives the report a bit more depth than simply counting down doctoral programs to 50. I think that Leiter has been critiquing the NRC rankings, though, and I'm not sure on what bases... but reading the concerns about its methodology there or elsewhere may be worthwhile.

  8. ...another point about Loyola Chicago. From what I understand, you all have quite a good reputation for placing students after they graduate. Reno's article (and so my reply as well) weren't really concerned about these more practical questions about grad programs, but I thought it would be worth pointing out.

    John Penniman's series from last fall on How to Get Accepted to a Religion/Theology PhD Program does a great job of really getting at some of these considerations, which are just as important as the intangibles of fit and academic quality (There's a handy table of contents to the series at the bottom of the right sidebar on his blog).