I’m sitting in a college café filled with energized students, and the noise is unrelenting and optimistic. I’m looking out onto a green lawn with equal numbers of gum trees, pines, and palms, and a group of four bright green parrots with bright red wings just flew by. If I could hear anything outside this cacophony of youthful excitement, it would likely include the beautiful bellbirds whose bright chirpy communication is the delight of my daily walk to Avondale campus. But the corner of this noisy café is silent, and the three academics around me are silently and firmly focused on their writing. We are part of an ad hoc writing group, created through mutual desperation, and dedicated to supporting each other for one hour—just one blessed hour!—of working on our writing goals.
This is something I’m enjoying during this time at Avondale. There’s a strong culture of celebrating each other’s work outside the classroom: supporting it, collaborating on it, and creating time to help make it possible. It could be because it is a small campus geographically and because the spaces for working and seeing others who are working are physically more connected and, therefore, more possible. It could also be because the interdisciplinary nature of the Arts throws together academics from a range of disciplines who must collaborate over teaching and research for the good of the program and the school. It may just be the unique nature of the people in the hall in which I work. Or maybe I’m just paying more attention here.
I’m realizing that I know more about my fellow teachers’ research and have been invited to think about participating in more diverse sorts of partnerships than I would usually think about in my mostly strictly history department at home. The creativity of the range of projects that are encouraged and supported here is a rich way to push the boundaries beyond the strict disciplinary lines that I’m used to operating within. This is the blessing of a highly skilled and small community of scholarship.
But it mostly has to do with the good will of my colleagues here. They are practicing “communities of grace.” When we decide that we are engaged in the discipleship ministry of education—following Jesus in the life of the mind and coming alongside (mostly) young people as they also do this, we can try to practice the implications of what we say we are doing. We think we are teaching skills that widen hearts and minds, that allow our students to be better communicators and team workers and innovators. We are teaching forgiveness and discipline and humility and how to love better when we know better. And we can practice this in our classrooms—they are laboratories for getting along with each other and listening to each other.
But too often as academics, we enjoy practicing this grace in the contexts where we are in charge, the classrooms we govern, and forget to do this with each other, in a peer setting. Our students may be our primary audience, as are the members of our professional guild off our campus (my fellow historians, for example), but neither of those communities provide the long-term possibilities for support and celebration that our colleagues in and out of our particular departments offer. When I get to hash through something I’m researching with a theologian, or have a film scholar invite me to participate with her in a project she’s been invited to, or when the professor of international development studies asks the biology researcher and the communications prof to join her for a weekend of political observation and activism—these are rich moments of creativity. And Avondale is full of them. The serendipity of proximity mixes with the bright-eyed concern for, and interest in, one’s neighbor.
It takes real time and attention to schedule this involvement in other scholars’ lives. It involves reading each other’s work, arranging one’s schedule around the information and priorities of another scholar, trying to understand what someone else means or what they see as significant. I’m pushed to do things I would otherwise be too nervous to do and have become much more open to creative applications of my scholarship in both teaching and as a public intellectual. This is the gift of this generous group of teacher-scholars here in Cooranbong, who are choosing to practice the joy of life, the mind, the playfulness of collaboration, and to forgo any sense of jealousy and competition in celebrating and drawing attention to each other’s work.
I have also been involved in at least three church-focused collaborations in the three months I’ve been here. I’ve fallen into a community of pastor-prophet-artist-leaders who have been doing deep teamwork for years. At home I’ve rarely had the luxury to spend delightful weeks planning a sermon with a friend. The spiritual blessing of listening to the Spirit together and submitting some of my priorities and ideas to someone else, being inspired by how God has gifted them—there are few experiences like it. This may be something that is unique to the specific communities I’m part of here, or maybe it is a wider cultural phenomenon, but the enjoyment of, and submission to, the talents and skills of others is a real thing. I’m realizing that in the past I have been far too quick to do the things I’m asked to do and then leave, not investing too much in making sure I show up for others or taking the extra time it would mean to involve others.
Australians have a reputation for being hard on each other, for not engaging in too much feel-good “affirmation.” But that hasn’t been my experience here at Avondale, and I’m deeply grateful for the way they are living out Proverbs 27:17: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”
Lisa Clark Diller is Professor of Early Modern History at Southern Adventist University. She is currently enrolled in a year-long faculty exchange program at Avondale College of Higher Education. Learn more about the exchange here, and read Exchanges Down Under Part 1: Hospitality.
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