I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid.
I won’t leave you as orphans. I will come to you.
We will come and make our home with them.
Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you.
— Jesus’ promises from John 4
The Holy Spirit has always been active and enabling us through a mysterious Trinitarian love to become a radical community of liberation, equality, caring, and sharing.
If we are to position ourselves for the possibility of participating in and becoming such a community, we cannot be a people whose permanent connectivity through the digital has trained us to always be living elsewhere.
No, Jesus has asked us to follow him — to be like him and, among other things, that means our personhood and consciousness needs to be where our bodies are. We need to be committed to an incarnational faith that is invested in being a presence wherever we are. We need to foreground our proximate reality and background our online connectivity.
We need to be present enough to know the needs of the community around us. We need to be present enough to perceive the nudge of the Spirit. We need to be present enough to be filled by the Holy Spirit.
While this may be challenging to any modern person in 2020, I’d like to submit that there are structural reasons why this quality of presence is especially hard for us as academics.
• • •
Academic life is a beautiful thing, and it is a privileged thing. Our jobs have seasons. And we have flexibility in our hours. As a female academic who happens to be a parent, I love this. If I play my cards right, I can pick up my kids from school. I get summers off and I can spend time with my kids when they are off from school, too. I get to live the modern woman’s dream of having a career and being a mother. I get to do it all.
And because my husband is also an academic, his flexibility plus my flexibility creates an incredible potential to co-parent and do our careers at the same time, even as it requires a significant amount of labor in constantly working out a complicated dance of schedules as we have the gift of choices to make at every turn of our life together.
But, while I am grateful for the flexibility of hours that comes with academia, a major outcome in my experiences is that the boundaries between work and home life get blurred really easily. To be more specific, work encroaches on my home life all the time.
And because academic work is by nature never done, my experience usually translates into working all the time or feeling that I should be. And when I hit a particularly frenetic part of the semester with the multiple hats that I wear at work and at home, as a working mother who was raised by traditional Asian immigrant parents on the East Coast, my default has been to do the only thing I know how to do: I bear down, and I do more. I harden my heart, I put on my blinders, and I shift into “steam-roll” mode: everyone out of my way. When I am driving, I am forcefully crafting lectures in my mind. When I’m eating, I am frantically reading. When I’m standing at the checkout, I am crushing through piles of unanswered emails.
Because it is hard for me to trust that God wants only my obedience for that day (not a zero inbox, a completely prepped set of classes, clean laundry, and made beds) and because I struggle to believe that faithfulness to Jesus may involve being interrupted to attend to someone’s needs, or attending to God’s voice, my tendency is to go non-stop.
I go non-stop because academic life is never-ending. I go non-stop because parenting is never-ending. There is always more to do. It can always be better.
Because my career and family circumstances do not circumscribe me within externally-set boundaries that separate my work and home life, or require me to clock-in/clock-out at certain times, I have come to see that creating those boundaries are essential to becoming someone who can attend to the people around me. Creating my own boundaries is essential to becoming someone who can recognize Jesus when he crosses my path, someone who can perceive the Spirit’s nudge at a given moment.
And for me, creating boundaries in the realm of the digital is particularly important. Many of the boundaries I have gradually adopted, I now see are my counter-liturgies. They are there to help re-direct my loves, and to form my heart towards all that is promised in the year of the Lord’s favor from Isaiah 61.
- My family has a dock where we charge our phones at night. It is the farthest possible place from all of our bedrooms. This is on purpose. Our beds are sacred spaces for rest and stillness.
- Our dining table is a sacred space for mutual presence, conversation, and eating. We try to keep our phones away from that space.
- I am best when I wake up before my family and I can enjoy a slow, quiet ritual of tea, seeing the morning light, and having my own thoughts. I try to avoid my phone for at least 30 minutes. I try to have it so that prayer and Scripture are the first things that I take in.
- At night, I delight in turning off my phone (not just “sleep” or “do not disturb”) because it makes me feel free. Unplugged. No new input can come in. I can rest. I can return to myself.
- This past summer, I discovered the peace and freedom that comes with batch-emailing (picking particular times of the day to churn through a set of emails that have accumulated rather than constantly checking). It allows me to go about my day, blissfully ignoring the emails that are inevitably accruing in my inbox, until I am ready to wholly focus on them.
- I’ve also discovered the courtesy of scheduling when emails get sent. So, I might write an email at 10 p.m. or 6 a.m. or on a weekend, but I schedule to have it sent out only on a weekday at 8 a.m. I want to signal to my colleagues that I don’t expect them to work 24/7. I want to create the sacred boundaries that I want in my own life, for my colleagues. And, as a department chair with mainly junior colleagues, I have been thinking more about the organizational culture I implicitly create in my style of leadership, and I want to create a work environment that respects their evenings and weekends as best I can.
In addition to boundaries, because I can become so relentlessly driven about my plans and my to-do list, I sometimes force myself to be open to interruptions. Interruptions by God or other people. I usually do this when I travel on my own to a conference or talk.
- Instead of burying my head in the phone in a taxi cab or uber, I look at the window – I take in the city I’m driving through, and if the driver is interested in talking, I talk. I learn about the city. I learn about their lives. And sometimes they learn about me.
- When I am waiting at the terminal, once we are waiting in line, again I try not to bury my head in my phone. In the crowds of people who are harried and harassed, I wait and try to be calm and bring the fullness of my humanity into a setting that often feels so dehumanizing.
These experiences have often left me excited and wanting to experiment more. Being open to unexpected interactions brings unexpected gifts.
What is my classroom space about? I want students to experience my classes as a place that is free from the burdens of the digital. This is not to say that there aren’t wonderful things that can come from using our laptops and devices in a classroom setting. I have colleagues who create amazing ways of using these devices for pedagogical effect. And they are awesome.
But I’ve come to see that what I have to offer my students is a space that is different from everything else where they live. I want to give them a taste of something that they might discover is good. I want to give them a place where, for 90 minutes, they are free from digital obligations. They can tell their parents and friends about their crazy teacher’s pedagogical requirements, and blame me for not being available during class.
- I run laptop-free classes. I love seeing eyes up. There's less wondering what’s on my students' screens. And it's better for their memory and learning when they're engaged in note-taking and not merely transcribing.
- All phones, even mine, go into a phone hotel. This is an actual box that sits that sits on my desk. We joke about it — especially when someone’s phone starts buzzing. The results of having students check-in their phones is that they talk much more to each other. There is a lot more social interaction during their five minute break.
I share these examples not because I think everyone needs to do as I do, but as a way of encouraging you to think about your own life in liturgical terms and invite you to re-imagine your spiritual formation.
What ideas might you try as you work to engage deeply with the communities in which you are physically placed?
Adapted from Felicia Song's forthcoming book tentatively titled When Left to Our Own Devices to be published by InterVarsity Press. Copyright 2020 by Felicia Song. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press (ivpress.com).
Click through to read the other articles in Felicia's series on technology.