September 28, 2020
by David Williams, President, Taylor Seminary
Our emphasis these last couple of weeks has been to drill down into the communal and contextual nature of the standards we use, particularly as we embrace a more integrated understanding of knowledge. When “knowledge” is equated with “content” and decisions about “which content” have to be made, we have suggested that the vocational context not only has to be consulted, but it should be given a privileged place. “Vocation controls content” is how we put it last week. This week, we are going to draw attention to the importance of one’s vocational context for helping us better define the standards of excellence having to do with “craft.”
Let’s take writing as an example. The vocation, through the vocational mentor, helps us understand appropriate writing standards by helping us better understand how writing functions in a specific vocation. Writing can be significantly different if one is a pastor, a chaplain, a social worker, a business person, or an academic. Paying attention to what is most important for success in the vocation is essential for the student’s journey.
Since writing is already an integral part of our standard pathway, it might be helpful to reflect on some of the formative dimensions of our current standards of excellence and the community out of which those standards have emerged. As we noted earlier, faculty tend to be hired as content experts in particular disciplines needed to be covered in the curriculum. The “gold standard” for academic credentials of a faculty member is a PhD. The PhD is a research doctorate inherently designed to create scholars; those who advance the goals of the discipline by making scholarly contributions. The culmination of this educational journey is a dissertation in which the candidate is deemed to have made a scholarly contribution. It is a rigorous, intense, and life-changing process. And, for the most part, faculty are expected to continue making contributions throughout their careers.
It is in no way surprising that one primary way faculty assess the knowledge gained in a course is through writing, and usually through a research paper. Often the research paper is the culminating project of a course and bears the greatest weight of the course grade. The standards used for writing these papers are rigorous and the documentation of sources is meticulous, as anyone who has written a graduate-level research paper knows. In fact, many of the style guides used in graduate school were developed by university presses for their own publications. I remember my own seminary experience and the hours upon hours of proofreading and care given to making sure every jot and tittle was exactly as the guides said they should be. I remember how thankful I was when I bought my first computer, an Apple IIe, and was able to edit my papers without having to totally retype the page!
Now, don’t get me wrong, these standards are really important for documenting and attributing sources for the information used in the paper. These standards are appropriate and make perfect sense for a community of scholars where the standards of excellence are essentially shaped by the task of making an original contribution to an academic discipline and for persuading the reader of the correctness of a thesis.
I think this is informative as to why one of the “chief sins” in academic writing is plagiarism. Taking someone else’s work, insights, or contributions as if they were your own is a violation of the academic community’s deepest purpose. The standards for developing and organizing the paper are important, too, in that a research paper needs to have a clear thesis; display credible engagement with alternatives to what’s being proposed; give clear evidence of the breadth of resources consulted; etc. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of this, in a particular context. Given all of this, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the highest praises we can give for a student paper is to suggest that it might be publishable.
Again, don’t misunderstand me. I am not trying to argue against the value of writing a research paper; I am only trying to highlight some of the communal and formational dimensions that we might not have noticed. Seeing these communal/formational dimensions of a particular writing assignment and the standards of excellence used to assess it, helps us better see the essential role the vocation (and vocational mentor) should play in assigning and assessing the types of writing required for the journey.
All of this has been to point out that the contribution of a student’s vocational context to their educational journey is significant and too often has gone missing. The vocational context is necessary for determining the required content as well as for helping prioritize it. The vocational practice is necessary, not only for helping us in recognizing the particular skills and abilities needed to be successful in the vocation, but also for particularizing more general skills and abilities toward the vocational practice. At the end of the day, we believe that the traditional approach to education has not attended in a satisfactory way to the vocational context in which a student is called to serve. The standards of excellence that have been formed largely by the academic community alone do not serve us well in helping our students flourish in the vocations to which they have been called. We have designed the Kairos Project in such a way as to specifically address that deficiency.