Discussion: Preparing for Academic Life

In this conversation

  • Ján Baňas, is a professor in the Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts and Letters, Catholic University in Ruzomberok, Slovakia.
  • Thomas Bell is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin, where he specializes in constitutional theory and American separation of powers.
  • David Tomkins is a lecturer at Newcastle Law School, University of Newcastle, Australia where he teaches constitutional law, administrative law and the philosophy of law. 

How did your experience at the John Jay Institute prepare you for your further academic pursuits?

David Tomkins: My John Jay experience was a little different from most in that I came to the John Jay Institute just after having completed my Ph.D. dissertation rather than before embarking on graduate school. Despite (or perhaps because of) having done a Ph.D. I was far from certain at the time that an academic career was what I was called to. One thing the John Jay Institute gave me in preparing for an academic career was perspective – an ability better to see things for what they really are and why they matter. The John Jay curriculum helped enormously in this regard as did living in Christian community. My experience at the John Jay Institute enabled me to see that education is so much more than the transmission of knowledge (as indispensable as that is); it is about inculcating in others a love of the true, the good and the beautiful; fostering virtue; and inspiring others to use what they have learned in love and service of God and neighbor.

Jan Banas: The experience was helpful in many ways, but I will mention three aspects that provided me with the opportunity to train some of the habits needed in academia, namely: one: it helped me to realize more strongly that we need to be trying to find the truth, not to win an argument. This is very important to keep in mind, since I think in many of the current academic discussions this is often forgotten. Winning an argument is important, but it can never become an end itself, but must always remain just a means to finding and proclaiming the truth. Two, we had many discussions where we had differing views and opinions on a given issue. The discussions at times became heated and passionate. However, even then we stayed respectful to each other. My fellowship experience helps me to this day to keep in mind that having opposing views with someone does not mean we are enemies and that our disputes and disagreements have to remain respectful. Three, the last aspect of my experience I wish to mention here is the internship part of the program. Namely, the very practical, administrative, at times unexciting tasks that came as a part of the internship work. Having this experience helped me many times to deal with unexciting administrative tasks more effectively during my academic work.

Thomas Bell: While I knew I wanted to pursue graduate work in political science prior to my fellowship at the John Jay Institute, my time at the Institute was invaluable as it helped shape the character of my vocational calling to the academy. Substantively, the fellowship helped frame the kinds of research questions that I pursue. While much scholarship today focuses on knowledge for its own sake – with a seemingly endless pursuit of the novel – I am interested in working within our civic tradition, to understand its normative commitments and to diagnose how our politics works today in light of the political framework devised by the framers. These are questions of public import that are relevant to any citizen. Moreover, the fellowship helped place the American experiment in a larger context. How as Christians are we to understand ourselves as Americans and how do we work within the system we’ve inherited, even as we recognize the limits of the liberal project upon which our institutions and political culture are premised? No doubt this larger emphasis helped me develop a critical eye and helped shape my priorities.

The John Jay Fellows Program was also crucial in helping me integrate my faith and my work. This was done primarily in two ways. First, the semi-monastic atmosphere at the Institute meant that our days, even with their rigorous schedule of seminars and readings, were bookended with morning and evening prayer. Even when we had too much to do and couldn’t possibly conceive of taking breaks from our work, we stopped what we were doing and prayed together. I constantly have to remind myself of this important lesson. Indeed, one of the most difficult parts of being in academia is that there are rarely discernible stopping points to tasks, and projects can take months, even years, to complete. Consequently, it can be difficult to find time to stop and incorporate spiritual disciplines into my daily life. This can only be done by force of habit and routine, which is no doubt the reason why Alan Crippen so steadfastly incorporated this discipline into our lives. Second, the rigor of the John Jay Fellowship was undoubtedly crucial for my academic preparation for grad school. Father Crippen constantly reminded us that we “can sleep when we’re dead,” and he designed a curriculum and daily schedule no doubt meant to bring us closer to the grave than we otherwise would have been.

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

Jan Banas: I think what is needed in the academic contexts where conservatives are systematically pushed out of academia is to work hard to be the best in your field so that it will be impossible to easily dismiss you. Don’t make compromises in order to be liked and/or accepted, seek not to win an argument but to find the truth, and - as St. Mother Theresa used to say - remember we are not called to be effective and successful, but to be faithful. We have to work hard to become the best in our fields so that we can formulate the ideas of conservativism and the fundamental truths in a clear and persuasive manner. We have to be brave and voice and defend these ideas even if - as a result - we might receive unfair treatment or ridicule. And most importantly, we have to not only proclaim, defend and teach those ideas in the classroom, but also live them consistently in our lives.

Thomas Bell: I think it’s too easy for conservatives to wear a chip on their shoulders in academia, which is certainly something I’ve struggled with at times. This isn’t to say that I don’t think conservatives sometimes face particular hardships in academia. More often than not, however, if you produce good work and are a good colleague, you will succeed. So for conservatives considering academia, I think it’s important to always take time to fully understand the perspectives and arguments of people with whom you are predisposed to disagree and to only contend with the best possible case for opposing views, even when the best case isn’t made by proponents of that view. It is true that this same courtesy isn’t always extended back, but this can be an opportunity to sharpen your own work. Moreover, by showing Christian charity in this way, you can earn the respect of colleagues. Secondly, always keep in mind that your work can be better and resist the urge to dismiss disagreement with or criticism of your writing. If you look for possible valid critiques of your arguments, you can learn to treat such criticism as an opportunity to make your work better

David Tomkins: The modern secular university (and I'm speaking generally – there are no doubt exceptions) is a long way from the vision of higher education that motivated the founding of the great universities. That means that if you share in this vision (I imagine as a conservative you might) you will likely often find yourself in a minority among your colleagues. So one piece of advice I would give is to go in with your eyes open and be prepared to live as a minority. That said, however, the work is valuable and rewarding and there are many opportunities to make a positive contribution in both teaching and scholarship / research. The academy could certainly do with more people with a passion for genuine higher education. If that sounds like you then I would encourage you to talk to members of the academy – both in your preferred discipline and in other disciplines (I think there is value in seeking counsel from people involved in a range of disciplines) – to find out as much as you can about a career in academia with a view to discerning whether this is what you're called to. While you may hear horror stories about the state of the modern university (and sadly many of these are true) it is by no means all doom and gloom. My own experience is that students on the whole notice the difference between professors who have the vision of higher education I have referred to and those who do not and very much appreciate the former.

What do you think of the recent controversies over trigger warnings and safe spaces on college campuses? How should colleges respond to these ideas?

Jan Banas: I think these developments are most disturbing and run contrary to the very idea of university. One of the main reasons to have a university is to create a space where students can be exposed to and discover new ideas, where they can discuss these ideas with professors and among themselves, where they try to discern/discuss which of the ideas are true and worth maintaining, and which are false and should be rejected. And there are no ideas, views, and/or opinions that should be exempt from academic scrutiny at a university. To create safe spaces where one does not have to be exposed to ideas, views, and opinions one does not agree with at college campus seems absurd to me. It seems analogous to building a five-star hotel at a camping site so that you do not have to face the discomforts of not having warm shower, not being able to sleep in a comfy bed, etc. when going camping.

Thomas Bell: As a political scientist, this is an important question, as fundamental questions of justice are at the heart of many of our classes; these are highly contested questions, and our country is divided at historic levels today. There have been times I have left classes worried that I might have said something that could have offended students. When I told one of my professors this, he told me that if I never say something that could be construed as controversial, then I’m probably not saying enough things that could provoke students to think. I agree with that statement, but I also think trigger warnings can be an effective pedagogical tool. When I acknowledge that we’re going to talk about things that might offend some people, I can generally push the envelope further in class by explaining why it’s important that we discuss certain things. For example, in a class on the first amendment, it’s important to acknowledge that we can’t sanitize our discussions of certain forms of offensive speech of the speech itself. It’s impossible to have a discussion in the abstract about some of these things. I’ve noticed that students are generally highly amenable to this approach. I think it’s also important to take time to encourage students to disagree with you and to even help them make the best argument for positions that differ from your own, as this helps students recognize the kind of enterprise we are engaged in as learners. More than anything, I always try to remember to treat my students with kindness and respect, and I’ve found that doing so goes a long way to build a learning environment where people can engage passionately yet respectfully.   

About these Alumni

Ján Baňas, Ph.D. (Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts and Letters, Catholic University in Ruzomberok, Slovakia) Jan warned his MA in Philosophy & English Language and Literature at Comenius University in Bratislava, and his Ph.D. in Systematic Philosophy at Catholic University in Ruzomberok, where he now holds the position of an Assistant professor at the Department of Philosophy. Between 2005 and 2012 he served as a member and in leadership of both the Faculty and University Academic Senates, and during 2012-2016 in the capacity of the Vice-Dean for Undergraduate and Graduate Study. He is an alumnus of the Witherspoon Fellowship (Fall ’03), and is married with three children.

Thomas Bell is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin, where he specializes in constitutional theory and American separation of powers.

David Tomkins is a lecturer at Newcastle Law School, University of Newcastle, Australia where he teaches constitutional law, administrative law and the philosophy of law. David holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Laws with first class Honors from the University of Western Sydney (Australia), a Master of Laws from the University of Trier (Germany), and a Bachelor of Civil Law and Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Oxford (England), where he studied under John Finnis. Since 2016 David has also served as coordinator of the Ph.D. program at Newcastle Law School. David's research interests include federalism, the separation of powers (with a particular specialization in judicial power), natural law theory and, latterly, law school curriculum design and pedagogy (with an interest in the applicability of the renaissance of classical education to the teaching of law as an academic and professional discipline).