My Journey To and Beyond Tenure in a Secular University
Faculty Forum Luncheon Remarks by Dallas Willard at the C.S. Lewis Foundation Summer Conference, University of San Diego. June 21, 2003
I have ten minutes…let me first talk about my road to tenure.
I love literature and writing and thinking. I always have. And so, without really intending it, I was drawn into graduate studies. I started out at Baylor University and finished up graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin. That’s where Stan Mattson and I were drawn together – discussing, thinking. I had not decided to be a university professor. In fact, I never decided to, I just ended up there.
After I finished with Baylor, we went back to Jane’s home in Georgia. There for a year I taught English Literature in high school, and Jane taught junior high literature. I was Associate Pastor of a Baptist church there. During that year I became convinced that I really was a hazard to the people who had to listen to me. I really didn’t know…especially about God and the soul. And by that time I knew that I wouldn’t be able to study those topics in seminary. And I knew that I wouldn’t be able to study them in psychology. And I knew that philosophers spent more time talking about these topics than anyone else. So I decided to study philosophy for a couple of years.
I didn’t intend to take a degree, but one thing lead to another. We were deeply involved in Christian events around campus and in a little Christian Missionary Alliance church nearby. One thing led to another. I finally took the degree, and they invited me to stay and teach there the following year. Mark Singer primarily was the one who did it, I think. During that year the Lord said to me, “Now if you stay in the churches, the university will be closed to you; but if you stay in the university, the churches will be open to you.” I know that the Lord said that to me because I sure didn’t have enough sense to understand what it meant. I really didn’t. The church was still the cultural authority. It wasn’t for long after that, but it was still the cultural authority in 1964. I had no idea what was happening culturally, and so I just say that the Lord moved me step by step. We were offered a position at the University of Southern California, without even applying. So you can see it’s certainly not due to me.
Now here’s the part that might be interesting to you. And I really do believe this is just me – it may not be you, that’s all right. Basically, when I decided to start teaching at Wisconsin, I said “My role is to share understanding with my students.” I can guarantee that I loved philosophy, and no one had to give me any incentive to do that. When I left home after graduating high school, I left as a migrant agricultural worker with a Modern Library edition of Plato in my duffel bag. It sounds kind of crazy, but I loved it. I loved the stuff. Before I knew there was a subject called philosophy, I loved it.
I decided I would do nothing trying to secure myself or gain advancement. I am very much a literalist in terms of the Bible. The Bible says promotion does not come from the East or the West, it comes from the Lord. So OK, I don’t have to do anything about promotion. But what I did was this: I said, “I am going to do the best work I can by God’s help,” and that meant in writing and teaching. And once again, it wasn’t that I was smart. The Lord just guided me. So I worked on papers, and my idea was that, if it was any good, I would be able to send it to the best journals (where no one knew me), and it would be accepted.
The first two papers I published were each two solid years in writing. They came out in print 12-15 pages long, but they’d probably been re-written 65 times. That’s what I tell my students now. “Work on it. Work on it. When you think it’s good, it’s probably not. Just keep working. It’ll get better. All writing is re-writing. You never get it right; it’ll just get better. When you’ve gone through it many times and replaced the one word with another word, and then replaced that word with the same word again, you’re getting there.” So that’s how I worked.
Just before school started in the Fall of 1965 at USC, I sent an article to Gilbert Ryle, who edited arguably the leading philosophical journal at the time called Mind, and within a week and a half I had a really wonderful letter back from him saying, “We want to publish this. We don’t like the last few paragraphs, but that’s OK.”
So on to the next paper. My strategy was this – do really good work. Do work that you would think God had to help you with to get you there, and then do some more. Just stay at it. That’s the only strategy I’ve had is to work in that way. My view is that, if you are in a good field, you must work on the things that are really central and essential to that field. And you ought to believe that God will enable you to do work in that field that will be a benefit and challenge to everyone. And going back to some things that Calvin (Edwards) said so well earlier — what we as Christians want to do — we want to get to the point where people scattered around the academic world are worried about what we are doing. They sit up at night and think about us. They get on the internet, and they chase our work down. I really challenge you to believe that about yourself, whatever your area of work is. Not because you are so good, but because God is so great.
I don’t know anything more to say in terms of how I work, because that’s all there is to it. I try to teach classes well. I pray for my students. I pray as I set up the course schedule and the outline. I pray for them when they come in to interview. They don’t know I’m praying most of the time, but I pray for them, and I pray for the class. I say, “Lord, let this be a class that will really help these students in their work, in their field, in their self-confidence.” Because, you know, many of the students I have, especially in the beginning, don’t know they have a mind. One of the things I will do often in a large introductory course is say, “How many of you would like to be known as thinkers?” Of 150 people, you may get 3-4 hands, and those will be tentative. And then I say, “How many of you would like to be known as feelers?” They all want to be known as feelers. So you know that you have to start working to encourage knowledge of what it’s like to learn, to build their foundation, to help them to come to understand how the mind works.
I’m not there to be a witness. I’m there to do a good job as a teacher and writer. I will be a witness. I can’t help that. The only question is, “What am I going to witness to?” And I take a lot of comfort from Jesus’ statement that you cannot hide a city that is set on a hill. So I don’t have to think about it. I have to try to do real good work; and that’s my business – to do real good work. I wouldn’t say it’s the best in the world or anything like that, others can make judgments, but my intention is to do the best work possible. And by that I don’t mean within my human limitations; I also mean God helping me. I’m going to put my human limitations on the line, but my expectation is not from them. I expect to see something happen that I could not possibly do. And I would do that if I were preaching or witnessing on the streets, or doing whatever wherever. I want to see something happen that I couldn’t possibly do. And that’s what I would encourage anyone in the academic line of work to do: to say “I know what good work is. I’m going to do it, and I expect God to help me. I will give my life to it.” Of course, I will be a prisoner of Christ; that’s what I am. Because when I am doing my work as a philosopher or a writer, that’s what I’m doing. Of course, I write a lot more in philosophy than I do in religion, but few people read that. That’s kind of the way it is in the academic world, the writing in philosophy helps me in everything else I do. So I really want to do very good work in my field. I guess that’s the simple thing I would say: I just want to do good work.
I’m afraid to say this, because I’m afraid to burden someone else. But I never ask for a promotion. I never ask for money. Of the books I’ve published, all have been solicited from me by the publishers. And I’ll tell you why I have approached things in this way. When I was at Baylor University as a young man, as a very green young man, I was watching other green young men trying to find a place to preach. And the Lord said something very simple to me: “Never try to find a place to speak, try to have something to say.” If you read my books, you know that I really do believe the Lord speaks to us. And one reason I believe the Lord speaks to me is because I don’t have enough sense to know things like that. So that helped me a lot, just in terms of what I don’t have to mess with and what I then can concentrate on.
I don’t know if that may have helped anyone, but it is really all I have to say about my path to tenure and beyond.