Reading Together: The Joy of a Graduate Student Reading Group
PhD student Bethany Bowen-Wefuan describes the powerful impact starting a reading group has had on her life and gives practical steps for starting your own.
It began with a car ride.
Two years ago, I attended a graduate seminar on theories of literature and language with my friend Jessica, also a graduate student in literature and a Christian. Most weeks, I drove her home after class. My Honda Civic became our second classroom as we discussed the new and sometimes controversial ideas from the seminar:
How does a Christian belief in the inspiration of Scripture inform our understanding of novels and poetry? What does Scripture have to say about common approaches to literary interpretation, such as deconstructionism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis?
These were some of the questions we considered in the short distance between campus and her house.
Through these conversations about faith and literature, I began to notice the extent to which I tend to separate my faith and my research. I also got a glimpse of what it would look like to do away with these categories, to see my work as an expression of my Christian faith.
Eventually, our discussions gave birth to a small, monthly reading group for Christian graduate students of literature. Although relocations, pregnancies, and comprehensive exams have put our meetings on pause for now, this group has been a highlight of my graduate studies.
Our reading group served several purposes, but I’d like to focus on three that were particularly formative in my growth as a Christian scholar.
First, it provided me with Christian mentors. Because I have not identified Christian faculty members in my department who could serve as mentors, books by Christian scholars have been invaluable in training me to think about literature as a Christian. We read essays by Christian scholars, writers, and thinkers in The Christian Imagination, pondering and discussing the beauty and function of literature for the Christian.
We also read from Marilynne Robinson’s The Givenness of Things, another collection of essays that, among other things, includes a reflection on several plays by Shakespeare and on the value of the humanities. Contrary to my (secretly-held) doubts, the pieces in both books showed me that faith does not restrict engagement with literature. Instead, Christian truth yields rich insights in literary texts, respect for skilled writers, and a deep gratefulness to God for the gift of literature. The authors of these works have become my mentors — their writings have helped me think about literature in light of my faith in Christ.
Second, the reading group helped me speak about literature in a new way. The technical language of literary studies offers little room for the language of emotion, personal experience, and faith, so using spiritually-infused language about literature was challenging. But using the personal language of faith in an academic context was one of the most freeing — though sometimes awkward — aspects of the reading group. At times, I felt like I was transgressing an invisible boundary between faith and literature, but with practice and exposure to Christian literary scholars, I have come to see that this is not the case. Theologian Francis Schaeffer says that, rather than being limited by faith, “The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.” This includes the imaginative work of the literary scholar.
Third, the reading group facilitated friendships. It’s easy for friends and acquaintances to fall into one of two categories: church friends and work friends. These relational categories only reinforce the unhealthy tendency we have to separate faith and work. Fostering friendships that bring the worlds of faith and work together has many benefits. For me, one of the greatest benefits has been the realization that I am not alone — there are other followers of Christ in my field who are wrestling with the same challenges that I face. We have much to offer each other by way of encouragement.
This reading group certainly provided the space to process and learn about the connection between faith and the work of literary scholarship, but there was a benefit that I had not anticipated: joy. By bringing the light of Scripture and the warmth of Christian fellowship to bear on my work, I have become more joyful in my work and thankful for God’s gift of literature.
If you’re a grad student reading this, I encourage you to find creative ways — such as a reading group — to bridge the gap that so often forms between our faith and academic work. There is much joy in discovering how your field of study offers a unique opportunity to serve and love God. Here are some practical ideas for starting your own reading group:
Find like-minded colleagues. If you don’t know Christians in your department or related fields of study, contact your local InterVarsity chapter or other Christian organizations on your campus. Campus ministries are a wonderful resource for connecting Christians on campus.
Locate your mentors. This is my favorite part of the process because it involves making a book list. Do some online digging to find Christians in your field whose research you can access. By reading the profiles of faculty at Christian institutions such as Wheaton College, Baylor University, and Calvin College, you can identify what books and articles they are publishing. Although it would certainly be helpful to read the research that Christian faculty are producing, I recommend focusing specifically on texts whose purpose is to reflect on the unique intersection of faith and your particular field of study.
Keep it simple! It was telling that, of the several people Jessica and I invited to join our reading group, only one person joined us, and she — like me — was in the dissertation-phase of her degree. Adding yet another book to the already-too-long-reading-list and another appointment to the already-too-crowded-schedule may sound like a pipe dream to many graduate students. So it’s important to have reasonable expectations for the frequency of meetings, the commitment level of the participants, and the amount of reading you agree to read. Our group met about once a month and read only about 30-50 pages for each meeting. Although it would have been nice to meet more frequently and to read more, this pace ensured that we were (usually) able to complete the reading and spend a lot of time discussing it.
I’m grateful for those conversations in my Honda Civic with Jessica. And I’m even more grateful for the joy, friendships, and mentors that have come from our reading group. May you find joy in your graduate studies as well, as you ponder the gifts of your studies and your discipline.
A PhD student at the Carolina-Duke German Studies Program, Bethany can usually be found in a coffee shop, writing her dissertation on the intersection of religion, family, and visual art in nineteenth-century German literature. As much as she loves thinking and writing about literature, she’s always grateful for opportunities to spend time with her church family and explore Wilmington with her husband Dieter.
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