Community and a Culture of Learning

Dr. Janice Chik Breidenbach (‘04) takes a few minutes to talk to us about her experiences in higher education. She teaches as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University. She is also a Visiting Research Scholar at the University of Oxford, where she is researching and speaking on the philosophy of action at Blackfriars Hall. She and her husband Michael make their home in Ave Maria, Florida, a five-minute walk from campus.

What are the benefits and challenges of the working within a religious university?

Dr. Janice Chik Breidenbach

Dr. Janice Chik Breidenbach

Throughout my graduate studies, I expected to teach eventually at a secular university, perhaps because all of my studies were pursued at secular institutions. The first year at Ave Maria therefore required some personal adjustment. Some of my students have grown up in largely sectarian environments, which can pose challenges but also opportunities to help them understand how better to communicate with (and understand) those outside particular faith traditions. I hope to help my students understand the importance of philosophy and natural reason, and how these complement and work in tandem with revelation, as well as other sources of knowledge (e.g. science).

Being a professor at Ave Maria has provided me with the opportunity to speak freely about Church teachings, from the perspective of one committed to the major tenets of the Catholic tradition. The University provides the context and conditions for whole-person formation, and it is clear that the students benefit from this synergy in the classroom and on campus in general.

What are the positives and/or negatives you’ve found in your dual roles at Ave Maria and Oxford?

The experience has been challenging but rewarding. Some of my usual work at AMU still continues (e.g. advising students, service work, course planning, etc.) despite currently living in Oxford, where academic life proceeds at an exhilarating pace. Thankfully, the summer allows for more flexibility in scheduling, and overall it has been a true pleasure to conduct research at Oxford and collaborate with the academic community in the UK, where I did my doctorate (St Andrews).

What are you working on this summer at Oxford?

I’m collaborating with scholars at Blackfriars Hall on a research project, on questions concerning agency in human beings and other animals. My academic background is in the philosophy of action, so the project at Oxford has been of considerable interest. The group is pursuing research in an interdisciplinary way, with considerations from the empirical social sciences (psychology) and other sciences (biology, physics, chemistry), to examine questions relating to human animality, and the distinctive character of rationality within the animal kingdom.

At first glance, some may find such questions a potential threat to their view of man as divinely created. I find these questions to be of essential importance for understanding our nature from a biological as well as theological perspective. Affirming that animals possess cognition, emotion, and agency (among other capacities) does not threaten our theological status as rational, spiritual beings created by God. After all, God made all things in the natural world and we (with other creatures) are an integral part of the beauty of all creation.

What elements of your experience as a Fellow continue to impact you now?

My time learning from Alan Crippen and Douglas Minson was formative. I was particularly inspired by Alan’s love for young people. That love and unique ability to invest in young people continues to inspire me as I work with my own students. Douglas greatly helped me come to a deeper understanding of my faith through our discussions on theology, faith and reason, and ecclesiastical authority. My overall fellowship experience has had an important hand in shaping how I approach teaching and interacting with my own students.

What advice would you give Christian conservatives considering a career in academia?

It seems to me that there is no one-size-fits-all piece of advice, except for the recommendation that students should seek out strong mentors. This applies whether one is pursuing studies at a religious or secular university. I’ve been blessed with wonderful mentors throughout my academic career who have guided me as a practicing Catholic studying philosophy in very secular settings. I’ve never been without some kind of mentor, which truthfully has made it possible for me to advance and mature as a philosopher.

It is important that students of all faiths are free to practice their religion in secular academic settings. But where such settings are frequently hostile to any mention of faith, students ought to be "clever as serpents and docile as doves." Conservative Christians in particular should be conscious of how they present themselves within academia without compromising their core commitments.

On this note - how can fundamental truths be advanced in a largely secular and progressive academic atmosphere?

Communities are key. The community of like-minded professors and students at Princeton, my alma mater, is exemplary. For instance, the James Madison Program at Princeton holds conferences and seminars for visiting scholars and students who are otherwise marginalized or silenced at their institutions. Para-academic centers, such as Princeton’s Witherspoon Institute, are also effective at building communities. Such institutions can help to nourish and protect academic and religious freedom within a largely secular context.

The support of tenured, prominent professors (such as Robert P. George at Princeton) is also critical, essential for providing deserved legitimacy and encouragement to students and faculty who represent religious or political minority groups.

What can colleges do to encourage community-building and a culture of learning?

Colleges should seek out and cherish professors who love the great books. In particular, universities need scholars who want to pass on a love of these books to their students, professors who will create and nurture lifelong habits of learning and philosophical leisure. They should be willing to provide something to their students that can be gained only by reading a book together.

It is also vital to nurture friendship through classroom conversation - to encourage students to get to know one another through the discussion of ideas. In preparation for each class I always remind myself that the classroom is simply a meeting place for friendship and conversation - not merely some kind of performance or transferal of information.

I’ve found it to be incredibly enjoyable to befriend my students and colleagues. My husband and I live a five-minute walk from campus, so we use this proximity to invite students and other faculty members into our home regularly for all sorts of events, from tea to whisky tastings to musical get-togethers. We believe this kind of socializing is essential in establishing strong intellectual friendships, without which life would not be worth living, as Aristotle thought.