My Academic Conversion

Recently I was asked by our university president to contribute some thoughts to a faculty dialogue he was leading on the meaning of the university. The dialogue took place last night at our annual faculty retreat. In the discussion that followed, my piece was described as “Kyle’s conversion narrative.” I suppose it was a conversion of sorts. Here is, more or less, what I said:

What University Means to Me

When I was asked to share on the meaning of the university, I began by reflecting on my own undergraduate experience and I never got past that. I am a historian, and so what I have is a narrative.

UofS libraryI fell in love with university as an undergraduate in Saskatoon, at the University of Saskatchewan. That wasn’t my intention. I went to university with an instrumental mindset, because I knew I needed an undergraduate degree to go to seminary, which is what I planned to do, presumably in Fresno, CA, where all good Mennonite Brethren candidates for ministry went in those days. And so I thought I would use my undergraduate degree largely to get my biblical languages out of the way. I launched into Greek and Hebrew with gusto, and even met my dear wife Colleen in first-year Greek class, which was a great bonus! But by the winter of my second year, three things had changed. I realized I couldn’t construct a B.A. degree out of two languages, and had to broaden my horizons. I began taking history, a subject and an approach to learning that fit me like no other. And I began to fall in love with university.

When I think back to my undergraduate experience and my socialization into the university, three things stand out: the place, the papers, and the professors. There is no question that the physical space of the university made the first impact on me. When I crossed College Avenue onto the university campus, it was like entering another world—a kind of sanctuary of ideas, an academic monastery of sorts, where thinking was cool and ideas were food, and where it was so exciting just to learn new stuff—to be one of the cognoscenti with inside information about important people and ideas. (This is, of course, the elitism of the undergraduate, and the reason for the term sophomore.) I spent much of my time on the third floor of the old Murray Wing, sneaking coffee and muffins past the commissionaires who guarded the entrance to the library and studying for hours in the old wooden carrels among the endless stacks of books, occasionally looking out the window over the campus green. I also worked a part-time job at the Health Sciences Library, and saw—night after night—the same tired medical students poring over Grey’s Anatomy (the textbook, not the show) or Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, now in their 40th and 18th editions, respectively. I shelved huge volumes of bound periodicals: Nature, Cell Biology, JAMA, The Lancet, Archives of Internal Medicine, Gerontology, and a hundred others. In so many ways, I experienced the university as something of a sacred space—a kind of temple of the mind–a place where nothing really mattered except learning.

From the second year of my undergrad until well into my master’s program, I can honestly say I don’t remember ever talking about why I was learning the stuff I was learning. I wrote papers on medieval church-state relations, the burden of German guilt for the Holocaust, the 1848 revolutions, Roman and Carthaginian military tactics at the Battle of Cannae, Erasmus and the Reformation in Basel, John Wesley’s relationship to the Enlightenment, the French churches during the 1789 revolution, the origins of German Pietism, and something to do with Peter the Great. (I’m actually not sure about Peter the Great, but I loved him so much that I can’t think of anything else I would have written about in the Russian history course I took.) And we read and discussed all manner of material: Dante’s Divine Comedy, Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, Muslim accounts of the Crusades, Reformation propaganda, Roman historians Livy and Tacitus, and nineteenth-century Russian novels like Gogol’s Dead Souls and Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. The university was for me a place of boundless exploration, with time and space to chase any interesting question—a place where learning was, well, everything.

And I had such interesting professors to learn from. Michael Swan, a gentle, dignified, and brilliant Roman historian, who expected ever so much from his students. Chris Foley, an agnostic archeologist who taught me upper-level Hebrew and tried all year to convince me to learn Ugaritic, just for fun. Christine Piechura, an energetic young instructor who introduced me to history with such precise explanations of important events. Peter Bietenholz, a small Swiss scholar whose eyes sparkled when he interacted with students, who was arguably the world’s leading expert on Erasmus in his day, and who smoked beautiful pipe tobacco in his office (well after it was prohibited). Dr. Bietenholz lived in the university ghetto—just a ten-minute walk from campus—and he held his weekly seminars on Dante and Erasmus in his home. There he gave us coffee and cookies and read classic historical texts with us, as we sat among his own collection of sixteenth-century manuscripts. And Hubert Johnson, who did more than any other to teach me how to read and write—the former thanks to the 400-level seminar in which students had to present a book a week, the latter thanks to his red pen, striking out the entire first paragraph of my essay and all the other “chicken words” and indirect constructions that filled my writing. Many of these professors had come to Saskatoon during the expansion of the university in the mid-1960s, and over the course of about 25 years, they formed a learning community of extremely high quality. They edited a historical journal together and held monthly colloquia at the Faculty Club, at which graduate students would present papers. These colloquia were very well attended and could be quite intimidating. I well remember Ivo Lambi, a large, bearded, chain-smoking German historian from Estonia who named his dog Bismarck and who grunted and harrumphed when he liked—or didn’t like—the quality of your paper. It was only in the question and answer time afterwards that you learned which view he had taken. These professors devoted themselves to teaching and learning—I assumed it was all they really cared about. They were committed to their students and their fields of research and they validated, in word and deed, every inclination I had to think, to question, to investigate, and to learn.

These are my memories of my undergraduate education, and they encapsulate what university means to me. The university is a physical space designed and devoted to learning, where just about everything under the sun is waiting to be discovered, investigated, studied, and learned, and where engaging, eccentric, intimidating, focused, and encouraging faculty invite, inspire, and model the life of the mind.


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