Thursday, November 08, 2012

JTB on Harding's Presidential Transition

So, Rich Little has been hosting a series of guest bloggers sharing their thoughts on our alma mater's Presidential transition. So I thought I'd share the perspective of an out of work alumna on my own blog. (These thoughts will be a lot less polished than the high-profile public statements on Rich's blog.)

Like the bloggers that shared their thoughts so far, I have fond memories of Harding. Those memories revolve around a roommate who is the longest-standing female friend of my life and her husband and the girls I played soccer with and the year I roomed with my little sister and HUF and the classmates I learned with and the professors I learned from.

I also have some terrible memories. Harding is the place where I entered into a mode of such deep self-deception that I willingly continued what I now understand was an emotionally abusive relationship, and subsequently a depression that didn't lift until years after leaving there.

It seems appropriate in the midst of all the nostalgia and fond reminiscing, meant as a sort of bona fides for "despite the fact that I'm going to be slightly critical but first let me prove to you how much I love Harding," to point out that "the Harding experience" is not wholly positive for everyone. And hell, I was a rule-following straight white CofC girl from Tennessee--it's not like I didn't fit the Harding mold. I imagine "the Harding experience" might have been significantly more nightmarish if I were gay, or a Baptist who loved her instrumental music.

Others have expressed eloquently their concerns about transparency and academic rigor and faithfulness and the inadequacy of maintaining the status quo as a strategy for leadership in an institution. These are excellent concerns, but they aren't my primary concerns. It surprised me to begin drafting this post and realize that what I most wanted to say didn't, after all, revolve around the academic implications of the presidential transition. It's important to me, as a professional academic myself; don't get me wrong. I think this decision reflects a larger trend of decline of terminal degrees in the faculty, particularly Bible department faculty. This makes me sad, because I personally received an education from Harding that prepared me well for subsequent degree programs. I would like to trust that this was still a priority, but this decision doesn't bode well.

But even that's not why I won't send my daughters there. I won't send my daughters there because I don't want them to experience a culture where the second-class status of women is so unquestioned that it not only shapes chapel, Bible classes, church, devotionals and specifically God-related stuff, but pretty much the whole "Harding experience."

Is that too large a claim? I don't think so. I was an RA in Cathcart, Searcy Hall and New Marrieds; every night for three years I made curfew rounds, every week I did a housekeeping check. I policed dress code violations. And as everyone at Harding knows, these things only apply to girls. Even then, I knew this was something to grumble about as more than just an annoyance. An institution that literally keeps its girls locked up in a tower, and then, because we're safe under lock and key, lets the boys be boys? Sure, that's not sexist or anything.

Then there's that whole "MRS" degree thing. My dad still shakes his head in disbelief when he tells how, in the new Harding parent thing he went to, President Burks guaranteed everyone that their child would find their future spouse at Harding. (He always ends that anecdote with threatening to get his money back, though I'll note that as a technicality, I did meet Brent at Harding even if he never bothered to ask me out while there.) I took a class where married students got an extra "skip" and where we were told we'd get extra credit for going on a first date during the semester (that turned out to be false advertising--I tried it.) Only married students can live off-campus. Oh, and there's that better-not-to-burn-with-lust thing plus the front lawn--talk about entrapment... Even leaving aside the questionable ethics of promoting a culture that rushes people into marriage (a huge issue to just politely bracket!), the marriage factory culture creates an assumption that at least some female students are not there as students but as sex objects--I mean, future brides.

And then there's the serious stuff. The way that female students get penalized differently than male students for having sex. The way that women aren't always offered the same academic scholarship opportunities that men are. The way that everyone knew it was laughable to even pretend that a female candidate for the position of President had a chance in hell of actually getting it.

The way that, in a relationship that I was sure was going to get me my own Mrs. degree, I took emotional abuse as my due penalty for disclosing past sins of my previous dating life. Because, after all, I owed this guy total honesty and had grievously betrayed him before I even met him and so it was all my fault. The way that for years after I struggled to regain any confidence that anyone could ever love me, such a damaged wreck.

The great irony for me is that Harding is where I simultaneously learned my second-place place and began my process of unlearning it. Harding is the place where I took the infamous class called "Christian Home"--and even then knew enough to pitch the textbook across the dorm room more than once before giving up reading it. Harding is the place where I met my spouse, an ardent feminist and liberated man indeed. Harding is the place I learned biblical Greek--but "for fun," because what would be the point of taking it seriously? Harding is the place where I learned to craft my voice; Harding is the place that taught me I'd have to go to China to use it. Harding is the place where I preached my first sermon. And Harding is the place where I was told not to go to seminary because I'd be "getting dressed up with no place to go."

The critiques of this presidential decision that worry about the inadequacy of preservation of the status quo as an institutional leadership strategy aren't wrong. But many fall short of addressing the real question, which is, what is wrong with the status quo? Why shouldn't it, after all, be maintained?

There's much more to say in answer to that. But this is my answer. This is one thing that is wrong with the status quo. And the one thing on which everyone seems to agree, supporters and critics alike, is that this is what the presidential decision here was all about.

So, I hope that's wrong. I hope that some of these deeply embedded practices in Harding's campus life, policies, and institutional structure are named, recognized as a problem, and constructively addressed. Because you shouldn't have to unlearn as much you learned at college. Because your faith shouldn't be an instrument of oppression, externally or internally. Because God made us with brains and guts and voices as well as wombs and vaginas, and we're supposed to use all of it as we see fit to the greater glory of God. Because Harding ought to be helping its women do exactly that, not locking them in a tower.


Indie Pereira said...

Harding was the place where I preached my only sermon. (Best in the class. I should be in charge of ladies days.) It was the place where I holed up in the library all summer reading feminist theology books, kind of confused. Where I was told it was a waste of my money to add a vocational ministry second major and while it sort of was, it was where I learn how observed the hermetic we were using is and where I dabbled in a dangerously small amount of Greek so I could understand the articles I was reading that finally led me to believe what I'd been taught about women was all wrong and if that was all wrong then.... Well, it took years for me to become a real liberal. But it did all start there and I'm thankful for that at least.

But at the same time I remember being in tears because the curfew rules were different for folks with a car to drive to Little Rock and those who had to stay in Searcy because they didn't have a car (classist much?). I remember being so scared to break the rules and walk into the guys dorm that I gave someone horrible news over the phone instead of just saying screw it and walking in. I remember sitting in the first day of Biblical Interpretation and looking around terrified because I was the only woman then at the last minute seeing a few other women walk in. The prof yelled at me in front of the class multiple times, trying to make me the example of the ungrateful woman. And when one woman changed her major from Bible to something else, he praised her and said it would have been a waste and she should let her husband do the ministry.

Anyway, enough of that. Clearly there's no way my children will go there.

Justin Burton said...

I haven't been able to bring myself to read any other critiques of this choice because, well, my initial response was a massive shoulder shrug...and it felt good not to care.

I still don't, I think. I've given up on Harding doing anything as an institution that involves integrity - academic, theological, whatever.

But I care about you, and that paragraph about emotional abuse is heartbreaking and sickeningly familiar all at once. And, somehow, it's good to know that you and others like you care. It makes me want to care about what Harding is doing, too, because even if we're thankfully long gone, the university's policies, official and un, are wrecking students' lives. I still have very little sense of what I can do about any of it, plus little hope that anything will ever be different, but maybe caring about those in HU's crosshairs is a good place to start.

Greg said...

"Well, it took years for me to become a real liberal. But it did start there and I'm thankful for that at least."


Anonymous said...

Rude truth? More like rude myths! I went to Harding and have to say that the males also had curfew and cleanliness checks just as much as the females! If you lived "on campus," you were being babysat by RAs. Two of my friends (one male, one female) got into trouble for having porn in their possession. The female got off easy with only a semester's suspension. The male got permanent suspension.
My mother passed away while attending. One of my professors to;d me to bring back the funeral "memorial" program in order to receive a break. Later during that semester, he told that their was no way I could pass his course.

Dan Shill said...

I graduated from Harding in December of 1990, and I only set foot back on campus twice after, once, in 1991, for a visit with a friend, and then again a couple of years later for a special A Capella alumni recording session with Uncle Bud... (who, by the way, remains one of the VERY small list of Harding Professors I still have ANY respect for) For all the years I was at Harding, I was a gay man in denial, forced to fit into the "Christian Man and Husband" mold... I definitely can relate to the rush to get married... I met my now ex-wife my Freshman year (she was a Senior), and we were married at the end of my Sophomore year. (Uncle Bud performed our wedding, btw). I knew, not so deep down, that I was lying, both to myself, and to everyone else, by trying to live up to the expectations of that mold, but what can you do? I wish I had more fond memories of Harding than I do, but sadly, I don't. We never had children, and I have no plans to ever have any, but if I did, rest assured, Harding is the absolute LAST place I would send them!

Anonymous said...

I got a minor in biblical languages at Harding, and despite being excluded from the all-male study sessions, got the highest grade in my Greek class. I did not receive the award for best Greek student though because I was a woman. The gave it to the second highest. Despite all of the abuse at Harding, I was so earnest about biblical studies that I pursued an mdiv at Harding grad. Goal was to become an "academic" like you, because lord knows I couldn't be a preacher. I was broke and couldn't have any side income like the other students by preaching at small congregations. Harding grad, in spite of itself, did teach me something very valuable that has changed my life. Christianity has no epistemological foundation. There are other ways of knowing besides trusting an ancient text, like your own experience and logic. When I learned to trust myself instead of "leaders" or texts that would oppress me, I was truly liberated. I have been a happy atheist ever since. Thanks Harding!

Anonymous said...

Your story is so similar to mine. I endured the emotional and even physical abuse of a past relationship because, after all, didn't God want me to marry this man? It took years to realize how brainwashed I'd been both by him and Harding. I'm still not fully healed, though I am in a wonderful relationship. I have no children and possibly never will, but I have discouraged all of my siblings from sending their children here.

Amy Moran said...

Thank you so much for throwing books against the wall when I just roll my eyes and snicker. You are such a blessing.

JJT said...

Amy, without you and Jacob I would never have made it through. Love y'all.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I graduated from HU in 2004. I have fond memories of my time there (probably due, in part, to the fact that I didn't follow all the rules while I was there....and was never caught doing so) but,like so many others, it was the beginning of my transition to true faith and leaving the c.o.c. I am a woman and can definitely relate to the conditions you describe. I am also a black woman, and can attest that there are some racial issues there as well. The one that sticks out to me most happened one year during summer school. I took several classes to earn some quick credits. In my US History class, we were studying the period of time surrounding slavery. On one of or tests, we were asked to choose the correct multiple choice answer to the question : Which statement is the most true about slavery? Of the choices given, I only remember the one I chose and the one that the prof deemed as the only right answer. I chose the answer that said millions of families were devastated and ripped apart by slavery.....however, the "correct" answer was something along the lines of slavery was needed for the economic success of our country. Really? I could not believe it. These dyas, my faith is more true and genuine and fulfilling than it ever was as a card-toting member of the c.o.c. I use my music degree and work in area churches as a music director and worship leader and I love it! God has blessed me with a gift that I am proud to use for his glory! I have a son......and he won't be going to HU. While I'm all for Christian education, I want him to be in a place that respects women and recognizes them as equals...I want him to have true, meaningful faith.....I want him to know that the sign on the door of your church isn't what gets you a ticket into heaven.....

J-Wild said...

I just want to say this was a fantastic piece of writing and spot on articulation of what so many find difficult about their experiences at a place like Harding.

Jennie Gay Baird said...

I don't say this often, but AMEN sister. I am so sorry to read/learn about your particular experience, especially as it involved your acceptance of emotional abuse.

One of the saddest realizations I had after leaving Harding was NOT that the institution fostered inequality – that was always a given for me, for many of the reasons you outline above. Rather, the saddest realization after graduating for me was that while I was there, I ACCEPTED that those inequalities were excusable or somehow valid. While there, I justified those few professors, administrators, or fellow students who told me I shouldn't pursue academia (what would be the point of that?); who discouraged me from taking science and math courses (they'll probably be over your head); who expressed concern for permitting my then-boyfriend to follow me wherever I chose to go to grad school (surely he'll resent you for that role-reversal). I excused all the above, not because I agreed or even because I listened to these voices (I didn't) - but because I trusted their authority. If the institution sent me a message – however subconscious or subversive – I took it seriously.

I'm not bitter or angry (any more). I read posts on Rich Little's blog with distant amusement at first. My initial reaction to the board's announcement was - like Justin’s - a shrug. I had no expectations for Harding as an institution to re-direct, adapt, or refresh their vision or their values. And I was okay with that because I know that, no matter what decision the board made/makes, there will still be professors and students who will sharpen, challenge and inspire; who are incredibly thoughtful, inclusive, provocative, and genuinely earnest scholars. My in-laws, whom I love and respect, happen to be among them. Many of my former professors there are among them. Many former students who I consider now to be my closest friends are among them.

But as I kept reading the responses posted on Rich’s blog, something felt amiss. There was an underlying conversation that wasn't being explicitly teased out - almost as if the authors trying to offer a salient (and sound) critique of the board's decision and the institution's direction were afraid (?) of coming across as bashing the same place that, for all its faults, helped to shape them the people they are. And I can understand the hesitation. It's hard holding up a mirror to someone you love and/or respect, telling them that they're better than what they're doing/saying/choosing to be.

It’s not that we who feel conflicted or flat-out disappointed by the direction of HU deserve to vent, criticize or attack our alma mater. It's that Harding deserves to hear and consider these concerned voices - because 'she' can do better. And she should be held accountable for institutionally granting authority to behaviors and choices that are flat-out wrong, if only because there are students (past, present, future) who do not reflect upon their experience with mixed emotions - students who were institutionally rejected, discouraged and ignored.

Thank you, JTB, for telling the harsh, raw, and desperately needed truth.

Lauren Smelser White said...

Like Jennie Gay Baird says above, I don't (get to) say this often (enough)--least of all to a CofC/HU sister--so I'll repeat her: AMEN SISTER. There is a whole, whole lot in your post that I want to echo and comment on, but I don't have time to say all I'd like. For now, I simply want to applaud your calling folks to attend to the most pressing question, what is wrong with the status quo?

I also want to stand up and cheer at your statement, "you shouldn't have to unlearn as much you learned at college." When it comes to my experience, this says it all too well. I learned a great deal at Harding that I still value immensely...I've also had to do a lot of long, costly work to unlearn many of the untruths that were solidified during my HU experience. I'm still doing some of the hardest parts of that work.

I've come to believe that what has made my particular journey somewhat distinct is that my time at HU was relatively trouble free, despite my own burgeoning feminist sensibilties that were offended by unfair policies and "MRS" assumptions. I think that my trouble-free-ness could be due to a lot of factors, not least being my privileged social position, which I completely took for granted at the time. This positionality has proven a strange obstacle to overcome as I've developed my theological voice, taking up a process inevitably shifting me further and further to the margins of a community that once privileged my way of moving through it. In the end, I find myself in what is generally a lonely place--ill at ease both "abroad" and "at home" due to my formation and reformation.

However, as I know you know, there are also bountiful gifts in this liminal position. I've found that one of the foremost of those gifts is a deep appreciation for (and authentic fellowship I feel with) those who've climbed similar steep(er) hills. God bless your prophetic work, Jen. Thank you for speaking the rude truth.