Sara Shady and Marion Larson Q/A

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Philosophy professor Sara Shady and English professor Marion Larson sought out to change the status quo of the “Bethel bubble” and help Christians engage in interfaith dialogue in their new book From Bubble to Bridge: Educating Christians for a Multifaith World, published by InterVarsity Press in January. The two talked about their book in the Bethel library March 2.

Marion Larson

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By Miranda Weippert | Features Reporter

Marion Larson began teaching at Bethel University fall of 1986. She was born in Alabama but raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She earned a B.A. in English from Wheaton College and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Minnesota. Her research focused on English composition and rhetoric. 


Why Bethel?

I had a really good experience as an undergrad at Wheaton and very much liked the idea of teaching at a Christian liberal arts school. My husband and I were living in the Twin Cities while I was completing my Ph.D., and a friend of mine learned about a job opening at Bethel. I wasn’t finished with my dissertation yet but I knew that Bethel was the kind of school where I wanted to teach and we (my husband and I) both liked the idea of staying in the Twin Cities so I thought heck, I’ll apply and have been here ever since.

What was one success or failure in your career?

I might say success and failure are kind of the same thing. I took a career path that I would never advise anybody else to do, which was going straight into Ph.D. program without doing my masters first. I had a baby and full time job before I was done and this meant by the time I was 30 I had finished my Ph.D., had my real job for four years already and finished my dissertation.

Why do you teach?

I teach because I like to watch people learn and I like to be a part of a community like Bethel. I think the third reason is that I really like learning things and teaching feeds that habit really nicely. 

Who or what has influenced you the most? What are your other influences?

My dad used to take me to the library every Saturday when I was a kid. My mom was a stay at home mom and my father was pastor so I know we didn’t have a ton of money but every time the Scholastic Book order would come in grade school they would let me order as many books as I wanted. Roger Lundin probably influenced me the most. He modeled a person who was intellectually curious, cared about his faith, cared about his students and drew personal sustenance from the novels or poetry we would read. I’ve always told myself I kind of want to be him when I grow up.

What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?

The best advice I’ve ever been given was advice given by Lucie Johnson who was in the psychology department. She’s mostly retired now but teaches a class once a year … online. I’ve known her my entire career at Bethel and I remember when I started teaching here I was all uptight about wanting to do everything really really well. I had lunch with her one day and I was going on and on about questioning how I was going to finish my disertation and how I’m going to do this … and she looked me in the eye and said not everything worth doing has to be done really well. That might not be good advice for some people but that was absolutely the advice I needed to hear right then. I was kind of figuring out when okay is not only good enough but the most responsible decision you can make depending on everything else that is going on.

What do you love about Bethel?

Depends on the day. Today, I would say I love my colleagues. A bunch of my best friends teach here, people that I know I’ll stay in touch with when I’m not here anymore. I love Bethel students. I feel like Bethel hits a sweet spot for a bunch of different things. It’s a big enough place that I can have space from people, it’s a small enough place where I run into my friends in the hall regularly. It’s big enough that there’s variety in what I get to do but small enough that I get to know students and get to know colleagues. I like the weird-like maze way that the buildings are laid out because it makes the boundaries between departments a lot fuzzier and I think that’s really cool.

What would you wish to change about Bethel?

It would be nice if Bethel had more money. In the time that I’ve worked here anxiety about institutional finances has occupied more energy than I would ideally like it to. That’s one thing. I would like to see us be still really strongly Christian but broader in what we understand that to mean. Both of my kids went to Lutheran schools where’s there’s greater broadness but I know something got sacrificed there. I don’t know what that would look like here but I would like to see us broaden a little bit.

What is one critique you have of Bethel’s student community?

The negative, to me, is that too many Bethel students aren’t willing to speak their mind in class if something challenging or controversial gets talked about and I think one of the reasons that they’re not is because they care so much about their relationships with others. I think people care too much what others think of them. When I was in grad school at the U of M, I taught some grad students. I was teaching a writing class and I had to tell them to remember that a real person wrote this draft that you’re going to be commenting on, so don’t be so savage in the way you word your comments. I’ve never had to give that speech here. I always have to say be willing to be a little tough. So there’s too much Bethel nice on the surface even if that’s not what’s going on, on the inside.

What is the best moment you’ve had here in your time at Bethel?

Sara Shady in the philosophy department and I write together a lot. The very first article that we published together, we got a letter from the editor saying they wanted to publish our article. We both went down to our PO’s together and got the letter at the same time and opened it. The editor said something like thanks for your thoughtful and well written submission we are eager to publish it. We went to see if friends Joey Horstman and Gary Long were in their offices. We were reading this letter to them and it was like we were twelve. Sara and I gave each other permission to share our excitement and felt like we weren’t bragging.

Sara Shady

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By Callie Schmidt | News Reporter

Bethel University philosophy professor Sara Shady recently published her first book, co-authored by English professor Marion Larson. She worked for nine years to create a gender studies minor here at Bethel, despite institutional push-back and complications. And she believes teaching gives her the opportunity to help shape people who will one day change the world.


Why Bethel?

I was a graduate student at the University of South Carolina. I was working on my dissertation and not quite on the job market yet, and I got a phone call one day from Paul Reesner saying they had an opening in their department, and they hadn’t found the right fit yet. My first thought was to say no, I’m not interested in going to Minnesota, but Jamie and I talked about it and it seemed weird to not look into an opportunity.

So I interviewed, applied and was offered the job. We initially thought we’d come here for three years and then look for other options. We didn’t have any family or connections to Minnesota, but Bethel has felt like home for me since I’ve been here. Some of my closest friends here are also my colleagues. I find the work really meaningful, I love getting to mentor students, and I feel like there’s still plenty of work for me to do at Bethel, so my time here isn’t done yet.

How did you get to where you are now in your career?

I’m probably not a good role model for this for students because I think my career path is atypical, in that I’ve never left school from kindergarten on. I went straight from high school to college, straight from college to graduate school, straight from graduate school to Bethel. When I was an undergraduate, I was majoring in philosophy at Taylor University in Indiana, and not really sure what I wanted to do as a career, and one of my professors told me you should really consider the academic track and graduate school and potentially being a professor.

So I think with philosophy, if that’s your plan, getting real-world experience first doesn’t make that much of a difference, but I did pick a graduate program that would have a lot of teaching experience associated with it, because I was hoping I would like teaching. I found out I did really love teaching while I was in graduate school, so that was a good indicator for that I wanted to go to more of a teaching college or a liberal arts college than a research university.”

What was one success or failure in your career?

My first semester of graduate school, towards the end of the semester, we had turned in drafts of a term paper to a professor of a class. He called me into his office and told me that the paper was such crap that it had to be thrown out entirely and I had to start over with a new topic, and there was only a week left to go. I actually started to cry in his office, which made everything worse. I had never had that experience before, because school was always something that I excelled at, and I think that was really a moment of me of, “Can I do this, should I be doing this?” That was a great moment for me in my personal and intellectual growth to learn how to work through a challenge and to learn to accept criticism and defeat. I wrote a different paper, got some help from the professor on it, passed the class and ended up with a Ph.D. 

One of the things I’m really proud of is working for nine years to get a gender studies minor at Bethel. Different people would get conversations going at different times, and there was some institutional pushback and complications, but it was just this long active persistence of pulling a sack of boulders up a hill for nine years. Having senate vote to approve the minor was one of the most rewarding moments of my career so far, and getting to see students take classes in the minor, add the minor, and benefit from that still continues to be a joy.

Why do you teach?

I think that I have an opportunity to shape people who will change the world, in big ways and in small ways. I love creating light bulb moments for students where they see the world in a new way, where they see themselves in a new way, where they understand something more deeply than they did before, or they realize a new question they don’t know the answer to. And I feel like education is an incredible privilege for all of us who have the opportunity to. Only 5 to 10 percent of the people worldwide have the opportunity to earn an undergraduate degree. It’s a privilege and an honor to be part of shaping people who will go on to use that privilege and use that resource in important ways.

Why philosophy?

My parents would tell you that I was a philosopher long before I knew it. I was always the kid who always asked questions and would try to argue my way out of or around anything. I love wondering about things. I started off in college as a sociology major. I’m still deeply interested in questions about societies and communities and how we bridge diversity in those, but I took a philosophy class my first semester and realized, “Oh wow, I think about this stuff all the time, I didn’t know you could major in wondering about stuff.” Philosophy feels like it matches my wiring and what I’m passionate about. I think philosophy has the great power and potential to help us think deeply about why we’re here. Those perennial ancient questions about what is the meaning of life, what’s the nature of the good life, who should I be in the world – I love getting to teach those things every semester, and get students excited about thinking about answers to those questions.

Who or what has influenced you the most? What are your other influences?

There is a philosopher by the name of Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher from the twentieth century, and he wrote book called I and Thou. I went to graduate school thinking I wanted to study a different philosopher by the name of Martin Heidegger. I was in a seminar on Heidegger in graduate school and the kind of questions I was asking, the professor said, “You really need to read Martin Buber,” gave me a copy of I and Thou and said, “Read this and write a paper on this for this class.” And I fell in love. I have read that book every year for the last 18 years, and I still find new questions and ideas coming out of it every time I read it. It’s about how we relate to other humans beings, and to the natural world and God. That professor ended up being my dissertation advisor, and Martin Buber ended up being a major theme in my dissertation. And a lot of the questions I was asking back then about living amidst political and racial diversity are now questions that I ask thinking about how do we live amidst significant religious diversity. So those themes continue to play out in my scholarship, but I do find the ideas in that book deeply meaningful to my personal life, as well.

What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?

When I was finishing up my dissertation, I was close to the end and I thought, I need to reorganize this whole thing and restructure it. And my dissertation advisor said no, right now you need to finish this, because if you don’t know how to finish a project you’ll never go on to write or do anything else. I have used that statement a lot in my life about finishing an article, finishing a class project, just sort of learning to lessen my perfectionistic standards and tendencies. At some point, you do have to say goodbye and go on to the next project.

Why did you choose to adopt?

We have so many kids in the world that don’t have families, and every child deserves a home and deserve a family. So we felt like adopting gave us the chance to make a significant difference in the world of one person, and kind of all the issues we were passionate about around the globe, it gave us a chance to invest all of that energy into one person. We felt like it was something God was bringing to our attention as well.

What is your faith story?

When I think about who I am now, my faith journey has been about learning to have faith in spite of the fact that I have questions, and that faith doesn’t require certainty by any means. And learning to be okay with that and comfortable with that, and comfortable with the idea that at the end of the day, I might be wrong about all of it. I hope not. I want to believe in a world of redemption and hope that’s promised to us through Christianity, and that’s what I choose to believe. But I also have to live with the fact that I’ll never be absolutely certain of that, and there are a lot of other options that humans have good reasons for choosing, too.

What do you love about Bethel?

I love the size of Bethel. I can get to know students well and in personal ways, and see the same students grow and develop and change over four years time. I love that Bethel is a liberal arts college. That the arts and humanities are seen as incredibly valuable to anything that we study.

I love that, as much as Bethel is a bubble, it’s certainly not as conservative or liberal as a bubble might be. There’s actually some space for religious and political diversity at Bethel. I really love the pietist heritage of Bethel. The idea that what’s really important is putting faith in action and living out our faith. I love that at Bethel a lot of things come down to that question of what does it mean to love neighbors well, what does it mean to love others well. And that gives us some space for dealing with difference. But it’s not perfect by any means.

What would you wish to change about Bethel?

We still have a lot of room to grow in thinking about how to be hospitable towards difference. Whether that’s racial and ethnic difference, economic difference, gender difference, religious difference, differences in sexual identity – We allow a lot of diversity on our campus and we think about tolerating it, but tolerating or letting it be present on our campus is different than being hospitable towards difference. Being gracious towards difference.

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These interviews have been edited and condensed.

 

bubble to bridge

From Bubble to Bridge, the book written by both Dr. Sara Shady and Dr. Marion Larson, talks about drawing knowledge attained in a Christian college setting and bringing it into the world. The book is published by Intervarsity Press and is available online.

 

2017-2018 Editor In Chief of The Clarion. Most passionate about social and environmental justice, especially in Native American communities. Likes her coffee iced, her books thick and her stories edited. | ajp87848@bethel.edu

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