Epilogue: PhD Students at Princeton Seminary

Needless to say, last week was an interesting week.

Admittedly, calling people assholes is not the best way to start a conversation, but for better or worse, I did have a lot of conversations last week: With PhD students, with fellow MDiv students, with former students, faculty members, staff members, bloggers, anonymous emailers and letter writers, and also with the Dean of Students.

Many brought up the fact that, while there was some truth to what I said, it was the manner in which it was said that generated most of the controversy. This sentiment is not lost or wasted on me. Blogging is a balancing act. It is confessional: striving to capture the authentic emotions of the moment (even frustrated angry ones). It is marketing: striving to say something interesting enough for people to actually read it. But unlike a diary or a newspaper, it is also conversational: striving to draw people into the conversation in a way that shows respect for all. Obviously, I’m still working on that last part.

I can also acknowledge that the post in question was a rather truncated viewpoint on what is certainly a complicated issue–communities and relationships are always about more than gimmicky labels, limited experiences, and painting with broad strokes. Certainly, moving beyond those things is a step in the right direction. So I wanted to offer this additional insight in light of my experiences resulting from last week’s blog post.

I wrote a blog post about PhD Students at Princeton Theological Seminary. I said some pretty disparaging things about PhD Students at Princeton Theological Seminary. I got a lot of different responses, but here are the ones that stand out most in my mind:

  1. A PhD student who sat next to me on the shuttle this week, and listened patiently.
  2. Another PhD student who calmly offered affirmation and thoughtful insight from the other side.
  3. Another PhD student, who made it a point to let me know he had been praying for me.
  4. Another PhD student, who picked me up and took me on an errand run while coaching and preparing me for all possible angles & outcomes in my meeting with the dean.
  5. And finally a PhD student who sent an email to the dean saying “If he goes down, I want to go down with him.”

If those are the kind of things PhD students at Princeton Theological Seminary will do to go out of their way for a first-year MDiv student, then the only word that comes to my mind is “Grace.”

For what it’s worth, that word applies to my meeting with the dean as well. I spent all Friday morning reading the student handbook, noting (to my dismay) all the ways in which I might legitimately be chastised, penalized, or censored. My undergraduate years, and my all-too-frequent conversations with another dean of students accustomed me to one-way conversations that ended in penance for me. Instead, the dean explained the tense emotions of the community in light of another recent incident (that I had known about, but not considered when writing my post), explained that the Seminary had no interest in micro-managing or censoring student blogs, but asked me very nicely if I might consider toning things down as they work toward reconciliation among the community.  I am entirely willing to get on board and work toward that goal.

Are there still assholes at Princeton Theological Seminary? To be sure, and some days I’m one of them. But perhaps where assholes abound, grace abounds even more. This asshole, for one, is grateful for that.

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8 Responses to Epilogue: PhD Students at Princeton Seminary

  1. Very nice post, Neal. Thank you for following up. On a side note, can i use the “where assholes abound, grace abounds even more” line?!? That’s classic!

  2. Thanks for this epilogue, Neal. I’m glad you experienced grace in this community, and appreciate you sharing it with us.

  3. anniem says:

    Here’s one asshole doctoral student who thinks people who don’t like what you’re writing should use their doctrine of free will to click away. Feel free to censor that if you think my loquacious feelings will cause more offense.

    To quote Charlie Brown: “good grief.”

  4. Samantha (attached to T.S.) says:

    I honestly cannot believe how pretentious and uptight people are at PTS. I mean, I know it is a seminary and all, but gee whiz. It’s a freakin’ blog post. Of course, it is very complicated as to why ANY PhD students are assholes, but as someone who has been a PhD student since 2005, I can attest to the fact that MANY are assholes and I myself have been an asshole in the past. Mostly, we get really caught up in our studies and spend way too much time alone studying what we want, esp. in the dissertation phase, and then we can become too selfish. I’ve really had to take a step back on many occasions and remind myself that my topic isn’t as brilliant to everyone else as it is to me. Not everyone is as interested in renaissance music aesthetics and reception history as I am. (Weirdos.)

    But the earlier comment about free will, and to that I will add free speech, is absolutely right on!! Since when is academia the harbinger of censorship?! Aren’t we IN academia because we have our own interesting, original thoughts that need to be shared?! Since when are we supposed to just fall in line?! But then, that’s from a PhD student with eight piercings, seven of which are on her face, and reddish/purpleish hair, so I guess take my opinion for what it’s worth… If I don’t get an academic job because of my free spirited behaviour, then good riddance. At least, that’s what my outside diss. reader says, too, and she’s doing well…

  5. Samantha (attached to T.S.) says:

    Oral Roberts University, dude?! Seriously, whoa. We can totally have a conversation about Christian college sometime. I’m still recovering.

  6. Mark says:

    Most people are never stuck by lightning. Some people are. Then there are those hardy souls who are struck by lightning on more than one occasion and live.

    I’ve been the kind of person who finds himself in the middle of situations that feel a lot like drawing lightning. Sometimes I’ve caused them myself – most unintentionally and some where my actions where intentional but the results were not. Other times I’ve simply been in the right place at the right time to be in the middle of whatever is going on. It’s not fun. It’s painful, and sometimes temporarily damaging.

    What I’ve found as I look back is that there was usually one similarity among all of the situations – something was wrong, and my involvement brought the problem to the light of day. It’s a little like opening a festering wound – sometimes the right thing to do medically is let it air out rather than covering it up to keep the unsightly out of sight. Now don’t get me wrong – there are certainly times when I’ve done something stupid and no good has come of it. But more often than not a problem has been solved that would have remained hidden because I (someone not afraid to speak out) was involved.

    Also, most of the time I learned something.

    Keep it up – you bring light to the world by doing the right thing, even if it is something akin to removing the dust from something by first covering it up and causing more darkness temporarily.

    Besides, PTS is a Presbyterian institution, right? Aren’t we destined to fight? 🙂

  7. Ben Daniel says:

    I graduated from PTS in 1993, and I’ve only been back to visit once, but I have to say that I certainly experienced a culture of abuse in the PTS community. In a public debate organized by PhD students I heard a senior professor tell a junior colleague that his recent book was “Bullshit.” I saw a PhD student reduced to tears in the library foyer by his faculty advisor. The PhD student who taught my intro to Preaching class almost gave me an emotional breakdown by the cruelty of her comments on a particularly poor attempt at a sermon that I had delivered in class. (That PhD student is now an administrator at PTS).

    A friend of mine recently completed a DMin at PTS and reported similar cruelties from the faculty, as have the two members from my church who have attended PTS.

    I look back with great fondness at my seminary years. I learned a lot and I made wonderful friends. There’s no question, however, that many people in the PTS community have a really hard time demonstrating basic kindness.

    I hope this changes, and I hope your post will be a catalyst for the needed change.

    Ben Daniel
    San Jose, CA

  8. Pingback: Mr. Locke’s Classroom » Assholes at Princeton Seminary: Retrospective

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