From the Academy to the Ecclesia: Alt-Ac Convergence

This morning, I met with faculty and staff at a Lutheran seminary in the Bay Area to discuss an immersion project for seminary students. From the seminary, I visited with a pastor at a “navigation center,” a new model of homeless shelter in San Francisco. Tomorrow, I will meet with a community organizer working on public transportation, rights of immigrants, and school violence. Before then, I need to edit a congregational resource on gender and poverty.

This is my job, and it is pretty far from what I envisioned when I started graduate school. I still teach a bit, but my full-time role is as program director for hunger education with ELCA World Hunger, a ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). In this position, my main responsibility is to help Lutherans understand hunger and poverty and how our faith calls us to accompany neighbors in response to both.

Before working for the ELCA, I spent several years teaching as an adjunct, and to be honest, I really enjoyed the flexibility and newness of adjunct teaching. The challenges of alt-ac work within the church were expected (a topic for another post). But what has been surprising to me – and perhaps to others – is the tremendous synergy I’ve seen between the work I do and my work as a teaching scholar. I will briefly note some aspects of this here, but before doing so, I want to note that what I share are reflections on my own experience, and I do not attempt here to represent a broader perspective than my own.

Know Your Audience

A good chunk of my work is writing resources, study guides, and articles, and I learned quickly that my writing needed to be much more accessible in the church. Words like “hermeneutics” and “eschatology” played well in term papers but drew blank stares from a congregation. It isn’t that churchgoers don’t get the concepts (often, they do in profound ways), but I had become so wedded to a specialized lexicon that my ability to communicate clearly with non-academic audiences was limited. It made me wonder how often jargon made its way into my classroom lectures and pushed me to be more aware of clarity in lectures and syllabi. (It also made me think that a great exercise for students would be to write a well-researched, doctoral-level paper with a Flesch reading ease score of higher than 60.) In my experience, the complex text of scholarly work, while invigorating to academic readers, is often alienating to the very audiences we are hoping to shape with our research. Some scholars are great at writing to wide audiences; many of us could be better.

Strategic Planning

As a ministry funded by donations, we are very conscious of the ways we spend time and money. Interestingly, there is a lot of crossover between the strategic planning and focus on return on investment (ROI) at an organization and the prep that goes into a well-planned course. When teaching, each assignment in my courses is mapped to a particular course objective. This is because when I was a student, the most valuable courses I took made the assessments matter; there was no busy work.

“Busy work” is anathema in an organization, too, where every action involves an investment of resources. Practice in planning for courses made the transition to nonprofit strategic planning rather easy, and I wish it would have been a stronger part of the formal training offered to us as graduate students. This doesn’t mean seeing education through a “business” lens, but it does mean recognizing that good planning is critical in both worlds. Constituents, like students, have limited resources. It is surprising to see how planning strong courses for the latter prepares one to plan effective strategies for the former.

Keeping Attention

Until I stepped away from teaching a bit, I didn’t realize how easy it was, on occasion, to fall back on students’ obligatory attention to what I had to say. I tried to incorporate active and cooperative learning to engage students, but in the end, their grade depended on their attention in class regardless. We’ve all experienced (or led) classes where the only thing keeping students in seats was the promise (or threat) of a grade.

Outside of academia, it’s a very different dynamic. No one has to listen to me. If a workshop is boring, they can and will just walk out. There is no “stick,” which leaves only the “carrot.” This shifts the power dynamic. It demands meeting audiences where they are at, listening carefully to their perspectives, and responding with best practices in education and engagement. On the other hand, as members or workers in the same church, we share a common faith lens with our audience, so we can try to shape each other’s perspectives, with an openness to change on both sides.

Ironically, this is what the best teachers do anyway. They have a relationship with students that mitigates the power dynamics that make it tempting to fall back on the “stick.” They also engage different learning styles, something critical for education in the church. Simply put, lectures don’t work in the non-profit field. They don’t work in academia, either, but it is easy to lose sight of this. Thankfully, many great teachers have shared well-researched techniques for people in both fields to try.

In this vein, I would also point to the importance of story. A student and a workshop attendee need to know why a theory or a statistic matters and why it matters to them. The site visits I mentioned above will help my team better connect with audiences throughout the church. This is theory in action. Nonprofit jobs provide access to projects like this much more easily than purely academic jobs might. There are many academics who are deeply involved in activism and can tell a wealth of stories, but for most, that access is the boon of years spent working within communities, often with non-profit organizations. These stories are crucial for showing the importance of theory. It’s one thing to talk about Reinhold Niebuhr’s understanding of love, justice, and power intellectually; it’s quite another to describe the community organizing effort in Houston where you saw it lived out.

I don’t know if “alt-ac” jobs are for everyone, but as the dwindling academic job field continues to make the decision for us, it is worth considering. Many of the skills that make academics good researchers and teachers are needed in the nonprofit sector and can be honed there should one return to academia later. Knowing our audience, strategically planning education, and engaging learners where they’re at are necessary in nonprofit work and, as research indicates, necessary in academia, as well. There’s a convergence between these sectors that the term “alt” doesn’t quite capture and that, hopefully, won’t dissuade more of us from seeing “alt-ac” work as worthwhile and formative in positive ways.

Ryan Cumming

About Ryan Cumming

Ryan P. Cumming, Ph.D., is Program Director for Hunger Education with ELCA World Hunger. His primary area of interest is social ethics – including criminal justice, economic ethics, race and racism, social justice, and critical theological methodologies. Ryan is a member of the Society of Christian Ethics.

Ryan Cumming

Ryan Cumming

Ryan P. Cumming, Ph.D., is Program Director for Hunger Education with ELCA World Hunger. He teaches courses on ethics, theology, and religious studies at Loyola University Chicago and Central Michigan University. His dissertation, The African American Challenge to Just War Theory, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013. Ryan has presented his research on theology, ethics, and religious experiences to both scholarly and ecclesial audiences in the United States and Europe. In addition to serving on the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s criminal justice task force, Ryan has been active with the Lutheran Ethicists network and has been both interim editor and book review editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics. His primary area of interest is social ethics – including criminal justice, economic ethics, race and racism, social justice, and critical theological methodologies. Ryan is a member of the Society of Christian Ethics.

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