Assholes at Princeton Seminary: Retrospective

It’s been about a year and one week since I wrote this rather infamous blog post about PhD students at Princeton Theological Seminary.  While part of me would like to bury the episode in a deep hole, another part of me (the blogger, perhaps) realizes that it was a defining experience for me, and as much a part of my “seminary education” as any class I’ve taken thus far.

So…in one year, have things changed?  That’s hard to say.  I still run into assholes on a fairly regular basis — many are still PhD students, sometimes they’re M.Div students, and as I noted in my follow up piece a year ago, sometimes I’m the asshole.  However, I do think, after a year of reflection and interaction, that quantity words like “most” or “almost all” wore a little hyperbolic.

Of course, it’s hard to accurately analyze the change, since now the post itself has influenced the situation.  While a blogger always hopes that his posts will be read, I genuinely didn’t expect that post to spread as far and wide as it did, among the seminary population.  For awhile there, I was told there was a nasty letter about my lack of sexual prowess hanging on the wall in the PhD lounge (classy, huh?).  So now whenever PhD students are really nice to me, I always wonder “Are they doing that just so I won’t blog about them?”  Of course, when I’m nice to PhD students, they probably ask themselves “Does he really think I’m an asshole, and is just being polite?”   And, of course, I’ll probably always wonder (and fret over) how much temptation the blog post causes the PhD students who routinely grade my papers (yes, that’s the way we roll here).

Every now and then, someone will still give me a knowing wink and say–“I just read your blog post about PhD students, man…right on!”  This bothers me a little.  The post was born out of genuine frustration and feelings of powerlessness and isolation that probably most first-year graduate students feel.  I don’t like being reduced to a sort of stick-it-to-the-man kind of mascot (believe it or not).  The post was nuanced, especially in the comments.  And I’ve since learned that most PhD students often feel as frustrated and powerless as I did (which is, of course, still no excuse to take it out on M.Div students).  Probably a good dose of Paulo Friere is what we all really need.

What bothers me even more than this, are the few people who were deeply offended by my post, and who have abandoned relationship with me over the course of the year.  Perhaps that’s just the sad consequence of my actions, or perhaps its my unwillingness to completely “repent” of the post and retract it (I still stand by my right as a blogger to vent my frustration and be human, aka “not nice,” from time to time).  Whichever, it bothers me that there are people who live right across the street from me who haven’t spoken to me since the incident.

I still believe passionately that many people at Princeton Seminary (from M.Div students, to PhDs to faculty and staff) take themselves WAY too seriously, and that the cut-throat spirit of competitiveness is antithetical to the mission of the institution.  A year and a half has solidified that view.  If the seminary adopted a pass/fail system for all classes, that problem would be easily solved.

But that’s not too likely, and here I am slipping into back-seat driver mode again (see how easy it is?).

In studying the Bible, one question that gets raised often is whether or not God changes over the course of the narrative (to which all the orthodox readers all too quickly shout “NO!).  Personally, I don’t have a problem with a God who changes (or evolves), but usually the answer people gravitate to runs something like this:  It’s not God who changed, but rather our perception of God.

So I don’t know whether PhD Students at Princeton Seminary have really changed, or maybe just my perception of them, but all in all it’s been a better year for all of us.  In that spirit, I raise a toast to the PhD students at Princeton Seminary:  May the year to come be prosperous and productive for you, full of the choicest books, the deepest conversations, and the highest praise from your professors.  May you get to know a few MDiv students too, as friends and equals, and not hold the transgressions of the past against them.  And finally, may your humanity to others shine forth in all you do, in the classroom, in the dining hall, and on the quad.

Of course…since I didn’t call them assholes, none of them will probably read this, damn it.


Comments

Assholes at Princeton Seminary: Retrospective — 3 Comments

  1. Neil, perception I reality, eh?

    I never read last year’s post until now, and I wouldn’t attempt to rehash it except to say that I was quite surprised by your experiences. It was only 2.5 yrs ago that I was finishing up my MDiv @ PTS, and my experiences with Phds couldn’t have been more different, for the most part. And I KNOW there are at least 2 still there I knew well, and others I knew a little. But it’s funny, because my experience with PTS, students, faculty & staff definitely “evolved” thru my 3 years. I wonder if that might be your experience right now.

    I was always surprised @ the workload of Phds, particularly those with families. I found them more stressed & detached than anything. Those I disagreed with in classes were usually good for a conversation. What took me 3 years to realize is that the added workload put on Phds to proctor boring first year papers for tons of students plus steer a 50min conversation of 5 know-it-all Mdivs, 3 Phd wannabees and 4 more who say 3 words all semester each week, maybe 3x, is like hearding cats. My guess us, 18 months down the road, while you may not “take back” any if your words from that first post, you may feel quite different about those colleagues. After all, as you said already – sometimes that asshole is me. And I definitely say that from experience. Looking back, there were disappointing experiences & people during my time @ PTS, but on the whole, I was given way more good than bad from that institution and the people.

  2. Hey Neal, You know I enjoy hearing about your experiences at Princeton. But–they have their own LOUNGE? From a seminary-cultural-sociological perspective I wonder if there are traditional practices/ unwritten traditions in institutions of learning (not just seminaries, but all of them) that unnecessarily encourage us-them thinking. I’m still jealous though 🙂

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