Exit Interview with Elizabeth Schrader Polczer
October 31, 2023
Elizabeth “Libbie” Schrader Polczer was the 2022-23 Anne Firor Scott Public Scholarship Fellow with the Forum for Scholars and Publics. During her fellowship year, she developed and hosted a four-part series, “Contemporary Conversations in Christianity,” featuring eminent scholars discussing some of Christianity’s most pressing issues. Elizabeth completed her doctoral degree over the summer and is now an Assistant Professor of New Testament at Villanova University. Before she left, we asked Elizabeth to reflect on her year with the Forum for Scholars and Publics. Our Q & A, edited for length and clarity, is presented below.
By Margaret "Lou" Brown
Why did you apply for the Anne Firor Scott Public Scholarship Fellowship?
I was particularly interested in the Anne Firor Scott Fellowship because it seemed like a way to launch certain conversations more into the public sphere and also to practice ways of sharing information that weren't necessarily based on my own research. The fellowship gave me the opportunity to show hospitality to some of the best public scholars in my field as I learned from them about how they do their work.
How did you choose the four public scholars (Dr. Diana Butler Bass, Dr. Beth Allison Barr, Dr. Khyati Y. Joshi, and James Martin, S.J.) to invite for your conversation series?
It was a combination of factors – a mix of personal relationships, the topics that I wanted to cover, and the topics that I felt capable of covering.
I wanted there to be a variety of topics that were all pertinent to current situations in Christianity right now. I relied a little bit on my personal relationships because I had done some public scholarship already. Diana Butler Bass and I had already become friends, and I’d had conversations online with Beth Allison Barr and James Martin because of my own research. I did eventually meet both of them in person before we held our public conversations.
Khyati Joshi was recommended by a colleague at Duke, and it turned out that her book was directly relevant to something that I wanted to talk about, which was Christianity and race. I ended up teaching a chapter of her book, White Christian Privilege, in the class that I taught in the spring, and we focused our public discussion on "Christianity and Whiteness."
Elizabeth in conversation with Khyati Joshi about "Christianity and Whiteness"
After selecting the guests, I had to think carefully about our conversation topics. For instance, Diana Butler Bass writes a lot about Christianity and politics, and that would have been the natural thing for her to talk about. But I don't feel as well versed in the political landscape, and I don't have sufficient training to be able to lead a discussion on that topic. She and I considered various possibilities, and we landed on “Christianity and its Future.” This is a topic that she is also an expert in, and one that I, as a scholar of Christianity and someone who attends church, felt able to discuss.
What was it like to be up on a stage in this very public space, where you had to show some facility with talking about things that are not the subject of your own research? How did you prepare?
Getting ready for each talk actually took a substantial amount of preparation. I had to read a book from each of the invited scholars and also survey some of their more public scholarship – op-eds, news pieces, and in James Martin’s case, I watched a documentary that features him. I had to familiarize myself with each of their corpus of work so that I could ask intelligent questions.
I let my own interests guide the questions on stage: What was something that they had specifically written about that had made me really think when I was reading their work? I thought that probably would make the most engaging conversation.
So for instance, in Beth Allison Barr’s book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood, she talked about how patriarchy is a “shape-shifter.” I hadn't really heard it put that way before, but I thought that was a really interesting thread in her book. It turned out that was also something that mattered to the audience that showed up for our conversation. As someone who is a trained academic, I knew how to develop a thread from her work and highlight it for the audience; I had confidence that if I found something interesting, they might find it interesting too.
I was learning new skills in the course of doing the speaker series, but my PhD training had prepared me for it in ways that I hadn't expected – for example, learning how to read an entire book and pick out the central themes. And I also realized that my own interests could be highlighted, which made for a more stimulating conversation.
Beth Allison Barr and Elizabeth in conversation about "Christianity and Women"
Could you talk about the audience reception and engagement that you experienced in this series?
The audience reacted to each speaker in different ways, I would say, and they were all fruitful. I remember Beth Allison Barr’s conversation about Christianity and women, where I think there were people crying in the audience when she was talking, and there were some very emotional questions. Beth had in the past been part of the Southern Baptist Convention, and she could share a lot of personal stories as well as her scholarly expertise in the history of women and Christianity. Her discussion really resonated with the audience. She created a situation in the room where people felt safe sharing their own sometimes painful stories, and she did an extraordinary job of attending to those people and their needs in that moment. She made sure to take time for each question, and she spoke to people afterward as well, one-on-one. And again, that was something that I could learn from: When you're speaking to something that really deeply resonates with your audience, how do you care for them?
When you're speaking to something that really deeply resonates with your audience, how do you care for them?
James Martin's discussion about Christianity and the LGBTQ community, which was on Zoom, also stays with me. People were sharing their personal experiences of being LGBTQ or having LGBTQ family members who wanted to be part of the Catholic Church, but who aren’t allowed to fully participate. You could see in the audience response that he was giving them a perspective that they had not necessarily been aware of before, and at the same time he provided that perspective with a sort of pastoral quality, saying, basically, “I know that sometimes your experience in the Church is painful.”
There was, again, a very emotional response from the audience members during that talk, and that to me is what public scholarship is really about: When participants get the opportunity to speak with someone who is an authority, whose work might have resonated with them in the past, and they acknowledge participants’ personal experiences. It has the ability to bring healing.
I would say to other PhD students who hold this fellowship: Maximize the opportunity! Be creative and think big. Make it into something that pushes your boundaries as a scholar and as a contributor to the public conversation.
As you know, the Anne Firor Scott Fellowship is intended to be for someone who's in the final stages of their dissertation work. For some people, there is a worry that this kind of public engagement gets in the way of their academic development, of their “real” academic work. Could you talk about that?
I would say that the fellowship only benefited me. Duke has an unlimited amount of opportunities for graduate students, not all of which we take advantage of. I think PhD work isn't just about finishing your dissertation. It's about expanding your skillset and learning as much as you possibly can.
Additionally, I think that beyond just the skills that I received in having this fellowship, it also made me a far more competitive applicant on the job market. I was able to plan a speaker series with these top public intellectuals. How many PhD candidates can say that?
It also helped me extend my range as a scholar. I study and teach Early Christianity and the New Testament. But here I had to learn about the history of Christianity and racism in the United States, and I had to learn about the current Pew report documenting the declining number of Christians in the United States, and I had to learn about the specific discussions that are being had right now in the Southern Baptist Convention. Those topics have nothing to do with my primary area of research. But they make me a stronger professor because I understand the world that I'm living in much better.
I would say to other PhD students who hold this fellowship: Maximize the opportunity! Be creative and think big. Make it into something that pushes your boundaries as a scholar and as a contributor to the public conversation. Because once you go into the academic world and become a professor, you might not have this kind of safe training space again, where you have the room to do what you want to do.
We appreciate the wonderful conversations Libbie Created and hosted and wish her all the best on her Journey beyond Duke. Thank you Libbie! To view the videos of the conversations she hosted, visit the individual event pages on our website or view the video playlist on our YouTube channel.