The other day we had our annual ceremony for giving years-of-service awards to faculty and staff at Fuller. The folks who planned the service chose “abundant hospitality” as the theme, based on the Apostle’s call for us to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10). It was a fine occasion for acknowledging once again the diversity of gifts in the Christian community—including the Christian academy.
I hear sermons about that notion of the Body of Christ, especially as it applies to congregations. Christians are members of a Body, and bodies have different limbs and organs. Not every part contributes to the well being of the life of the whole in the same way. Many functions, many gifts. Some sing in the choir; others make the coffee; and there are deacons, elders, pastors, committee members, Sunday school teachers, custodians—and so on.
But the message about diverse gifts is true of other areas of service as well. That it holds for academic communities is something I had to learn in several stages. To be sure, I was aware of it in one sense from the beginning. Early on in graduate school, for example, I learned that the departmental secretary had an influence that went far beyond her pay grade!
A new level of awareness happened, however, when our son started college on the campus where I had been teaching for fifteen years. Suddenly I became aware of realities about which I had only been vaguely aware for a decade and a half—dormitories, resident directors and academic advisors became a part of my consciousness.
I entered into another stage of awareness when I became a senior administrator. I found out what admissions officers actually do, as well as fund-raisers, the folks in the payroll department, office managers, trustees. In the academy as well: many functions, many gifts.
But the diversity of gifts also functions within the scholarly community. As a visiting lecturer on a university campus, I had a conversation with a faculty member about one of his colleagues. “A good guy,” the faculty member said, “but he is a mere popularizer of the high level scholarship that the rest of us produce.”
I wondered about the word “mere” in this case. The scholar with whom I was speaking was in a field of expertise different than mine, but it is one that I feel the need to know something about. I found this person’s writings a bit difficult to stay with. But I had read a well-written book by his “popularizer” colleague we were talking about, and had found it extremely helpful. The book did not have a lot of footnotes, but there were several references to the work of the scholar with whom I was now speaking.
I am an avid consumer of very technical scholarship in the areas that matter most to me. But I am also grateful for “mere popularizers” who enlighten me about other fields of intellectual inquiry. They have an important role in the broader academic community. And the same holds for those who spend more time than others of us in mentoring students and writing extensive critical comments in response to answers to exam questions and term papers. And also (not to be too self-serving!) for those who have chosen to expend much energy in academic administration.