I spent a lot of time in graduate school critically exploring the limits and possibilities of conversations for our ethical and political projects. I love deep, engaged conversations that are motivated by curiosity and the desire to imagine new ways of understanding and being. Some of the best conversations that I’ve ever had were with my mom. Before she died in 2009, we used to spend hours and hours talking about our lives, the books we were reading and the theories that I was studying in graduate school. Sometimes these conversations were circular, leading nowhere. Other times, they were transformative. I miss those conversations more than I can express (or sometimes bear).
My mom and I walking and talking at our family's farm in Upper Michigan.
Student Paper: A Life of Conversations (1996)
As I prepared to graduate from college and attend graduate school in theological studies, I became enamored with the idea of my life being about having a wide range of great conversations. Here’s what I wrote in the introduction to one of my final papers as an undergrad:
What is the essence of my life and my proposed work? What are my core set of values and where do they come from? In responding to both of these questions, I have come to the conclusion that my life is centered on conversation. Conversation offers the key to my intellectual development, my intended theological work, and my personal fulfillment and happiness.
To me, life is a series of intense, lively, instructive, transforming con- versations. These conversations take place with our family, our friends, ourselves, past thinkers, professors, other students and the surrounding world. As participants we share, explore, become en- gaged, learn, and form relationships.
Conversations result in commitment to community because they necessitate a interaction in which individuals become members of a community by both listening and responding to what has been said by others. In turn, conversations also require that individuals have their own voice in order that they may share themselves and their ideas. A strong personal voice is needed to be able to inform, persuade and be heard.
In this paper, I devote some particular attention to Gordon Kaufman and his powerful ideas about the “serendipitous creativity” that can come out of conversations. I wrote:
For Kaufman, conversations are a “mix of determinateness anD inde- terminacy” (Kaufman, 275). Because participants enter in the conver- sations with a unique set of experiences and history, they interpret what is said in their own unique way. However, as the conversation progresses, “the interchange comes to have a ‘life of its own’,” leading to new, unimaginable places. The dynamic of such a conversation, where participants respond in new and creative ways to each other’s comments, leads to new futures that go beyond the individual partici- pants contributions. As Kaufman writes, “The experience of the conversation may be so unforgettable as to meld the several speakers into a group which lives and develops for a long time, shaping and reshaping the individual lives of its members in the future in ways none could have anticipated during the original exchange” (Kaufman, 277).
Finally, in my conclusion, I imagined what my future would be:
Upon graduation from the Claremont Graduate School with a Ph.D. in women’s studies in theology, I would like to teach at the undergraduate level at a small liberal arts college. I choose this setting because I desire a more intimate, close connection with my students. As a professor, I would like to share with others the critical voice I have developed through my extensive conversations about religion, and I would like to help them develop their own voices. Through conversations about modem Christian theology, I want to discuss the importance of religion and its study with my students.
Wow. Not one part of that vision has happened. I did get a Ph.D, but in women’s studies not women’s studies in theology. And I did teach at the college level, but not at a SLAC (small liberal arts college) and not in religion. Have I had any of these important, yet difficult, conversations about religion? No. Somewhere along the way, my passion for religion was superseded by my passion for women’s studies. And, in women’s studies programs, people didn’t like studying religion. But that’s another story. And at graduate school my (somewhat) idealistic vision of conversations was challenged. Through classes in feminist and womanist theory and hermeneutics, I became aware of how only certain ways of speaking and certain topics were deemed appropriate and legitimate. And how even when everyone was invited to the table to talk, only certain people were truly heard. Audre Lorde (Sister Outsider), bell hooks (Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center), Nancy Fraser (Feminists Rethink Habermas) and María Lugones (“On the Logic of Pluralist Feminism” and “Have We Got a Theory for You!”) were instrumental in enabling me to recognize the unequal distribution of power at the conversation table in my first years of graduate school.
I still like the idea of conversations. I think I had some great ones in the smaller, upper-level undergraduate and graduates courses that I’ve taught. I know that my conversation with my feminist pedagogy graduate students on the day that my mother died was one of those serendipitously creative events that Kaufmann extols. But I never had any great conversations in my bigger courses. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I grew to strongly dislike teaching at a big re- search university, where big classes were the norm?
Here’s the thing about conversations. They require an openness to others, a willingness to be wrong and a genuine curiosity about the world. And they don’t just happen. They require a lot of reading, thinking and critical self-reflection. As a graduating senior, writing about the importance of conversations, I had a lot more work to do. I think I still do.