Last weekend, a group of African American doctoral students and faculty members came together for the annual Expanding Horizons Summer Conference under the theme Crossing Boundaries, Advancing Dialogues for the Academy and the Church.
Marking its seventh year, the conference, hosted by the Fund for Theological Education (FTE), took place on the campus of the Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (SMU),in Dallas ,Texas.
Joining this years conference were 36 FTE recipients, representing 19 institutions across the nation. Each of those schoools is considering pursuing to teach or do research as African Americans in the academy of theology or religion.
The three cohorts that we have here at the conference are the first year students attending doctorate seminar for the first time, students who are midway in their programs, and the dissertation fellows who are currently writing their dissertations, said Dr. Sharon Watson Fluker, the director of FTEs Doctoral Programs, who took some time on Saturday afternoon to talk to the Christian Post about the conference. We tried to unpack the opportunities that the students have as scholars to engage not only in the academy and the work that they do, but also in faith community. Were spending a lot of good time in discussion and dialogue this morning around that larger theme.
One of the exciting part about the conference, according to Fluker, is the opportunity to bring a cohort of faculty to conference not only to serve as facilitators for different sessions, seminars, and plenary, but also to meet with the students in one-on-one and small groups to help them gain a better understanding the doctoral program.
Its been really exciting and many of the faculty mentors and facilitators themselves have been former FTE fellows, said Fluker. I think the FTE is doing a great job trying to bring back our fellows who have negotiated their own programs, got their degrees, now publishing and teaching in the academy, especially in theological schools and seminaries where there is a clear under-representation of racial and ethnic minorities.
One of the critical challenges the organization aims to overcome through each conference is the under-representation of ethnic minorities within the theological schools and seminaries.
Among the teaching faculty some sixty percent theological schools or seminaries have no person of color or just one person teaching in the academy. So there is a clear need for the kind of work that many of these students are doing in their doctoral programs, said Fluker.
The third time FTE recipient, the Dissertation Fellow Nevell Owens, also addressed the issue he faced in his own context at Emory University, where he was the only African American student entering his doctorate program.
There is a very few of us out there, said Owens, who is an ordained minister at an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church.
In response to the African American faculty statistics mentioned by Fluker, Owens pointed out the greater problem that lies within the woman faculty population.
Its very rare to get a black woman get hired. The one or zero statistics are truer to the case of black woman faculty. Thats just a glaring absence, said Owens. Its always important for the FTE to make sure that we have the representation in the academy so people can say that black people can talk about and teach religion and academically pursue it.
The most joyous time of ones life could also be the most difficult one, said Fluker, who addressed some of the greatest challenges facing the students.
One of the greatest obstacles tends to be the financial support for the students because the doctoral program can be a very costly program and if youre familiar with any kind of professional or graduate school opportunity, then you know that could be a real obstacle for students who are not familiar with and understand the financial and funding opportunities, she said.
Owens, who plans to work on his dissertation this summer, explained how the Fellowship has aided him in getting through the long doctorate journey by allowing him to meet other African Americans out there who are taking the same journey.
Every time I attend the FTE conference, it rejuvenates me because its a matter of knowing that there are other African American scholars in the country who are going through some of the things that Im going through, he said. It also helps me rebuild certain relationships with students who were with me in my first year with the FTE. Its very inspirational and rejuvenating in that sense.
Fluker also noted the efforts made by the FTE over the course of its 50 years of history to step up to become a place where students can build a community and network among themselves in addition to providing fellowship opportunities for the students.
The graduate education is often done in any kind of a singular way, said Fluker. You take course for a couple of years, take exams, and work on your proposals. So it can become very isolated and our effort is to make sure that isolation does not become an obstacle and we try to do that by building community among the FTE scholars.
With the summer conference as the initial step toward building the network among the students, the organization offers many other opportunities all throughout the year, including travels to other professional meetings and hosting writing workshops in the fall.
All of the students at the conference will be attending the next meeting of the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature this November in Philadelphia where over 1,200 professional religious scholars and theologians are members of.
Fluker, who has been serving the FTE for the past seven years, said the most exciting part about her work is the indeed that opportunity for engagement with the students.
To see that Im, hopefully, playing an instrumental role and their [students] ability to navigate this process successfully and to decrease the time of degree - Students within this particular program are able to move through their program as quickly as possible so that they become the FTE scholars of course who graduate with degree and teaching in theological schools or seminaries, said Flukek.
So our goal is to not only support students, but really to cut down the degree time so theyre out there teaching and providing the kind of present theological school and seminaries faculty along with providing the kind of new creative scholarship thats needed in the academies in the respective fields.