Finland’s Future in Philosophy of Religion

Clarification to outsiders who may not have been aware: My weekend blog entry actually had nothing to do with professors of philosophy per se, nor with professors of philosophy of religion, within my own department in the university these days. Whatever the flaws of these professors, pretentious misapplications of Bauman are not among them.

As it happens, one of my current supervising professors is retiring soon, and this morning (September 30, 2013), as part of the process for selecting his successor, the faculty of theology held a sample lecture audition of sorts for the three top candidates for the chair. So as one last little tidbit for September I offer my readers a quick review of the event and my initial impressions as to how I would like to see the selection process go.

Another fresh perspective from Helsinki's concrete cubicles...

Another fresh perspective from Helsinki’s concrete cubicles…

I won’t bother to name off the candidates, but for those who wish to discover who I am talking about here it shouldn’t be hard. Of the three one was a Norwegian man, one was a Finnish woman and one was a Finnish man. The presented their stuff in that order. Their approaches were rather different from each other –– one might even say distinctive –– and which is chosen for the position will have a major impact on the future of the subject area within the University of Helsinki, and thus within Finland as a whole. Based on the candidates’ presentations I would go as far as to say that the faculty’s hiring decision in this matter will provide an important indicator of the status quo of academic politics within Helsinki’s concrete cubicles (rather than ivory towers).

All three candidates were given the task of lecturing for exactly a half hour on the topic of “The Challenges of Philosophy of Religion in the 21st Century”. This was intended to serve less as proof of how much they know about the subject than what sort of teaching skills they happen to possess. In brief, the Norwegian fellow tackled the subject by providing an ambitious survey of 9 challenge areas he considers to be important, the Finnish lady tried to construct an interactive classroom situation to get people talking about one aspect of the question, and the Finnish man took an approach somewhat in between the former two –– involving showing his expertise in two particular areas of concern within the field and mixing samples of his personal expertise with token elements of audience interaction. It might be worth noting that the female candidate was the only one to use Finnish as her presentation language: both of the men presented in English, though in the case of the Finnish fellow he also interacted with the audience a bit in Finnish along the way.

I can honestly say that neither language nor gender had anything to do with my personal view that among these three the female candidate would be the least suitable for the position. What she set out to show was that she has been reading up on the latest trends in constructivist pedagogical theory; what she failed to show is that she has a confidence-inspiring grasp of the subject matter –– rather to the contrary in fact. The premise of her sample lecture was that if we have rational grounding in theoretical mutual understanding, greater religious tolerance will follow. She thus attempted to initiate discussions on what we thought of the religious tolerance situation in various historical and cultural contexts, writing up on the chalk board some general themes from the audience responses. There was nothing resembling disciplined philosophical inquiry involved, nor was their evidence that she knew more about the topic than audience members. At best it was amateur café philosophy, in the looser sense of the word, looking for a place within the university walls.

On the other extreme, sort of, we had the Norwegian candidate, who did not make any particular attempt at audience participation nor at demonstration of awareness of current fads in teaching practice. The challenge he set for himself was to provide a particularly ambitious theoretical overview of the whole field within his allotted 30 minutes. He did so with a brilliant young man’s zeal and charisma, all the while letting a certain level of performance anxiety slip. Some commented after his lecture, rather justifiably, that it had more the feel of a research conference presentation than a lecture to be presented as part of a master’s level course on the subject. He also failed to make a token mention of the fact that next year there will be a five-year academic “Center of Excellence” project starting in the faculty on the theme of “Reason and Recognition in Religious Research” which the person who gets the position he is applying for will have a key role in. He did show that as the outsider in this process he had done his homework and he knew of the important role of Wittgensteinian thought in Helsinki in general, together with factors of heavy Lutheran traditionalism, heavy theological liberalism and light cultural progressivism. His 9-point presentation was based on a 3 x 3 structure: three points each within the categories of classical questions within the discipline, post-structuralist debates of the recent past, and future directions he sees the subject going in. I was particularly impressed by his emphasis of building dialog with other disciplines and establishing societal relevance in general. His weak area though was in terms of proving that he was not just a talented performer, but an interactive team player.

The Finnish man –– the proper insider for the position both in terms of gender and ethnicity –– was positioned last to show his skills in the best possible light. He came across as a compromise or middle ground figure between the two presenters which preceded him on the stage, making some attempt at charismatically displaying theoretical competence and some attempt at bona fide audience participation. It must be said, however, that he fully succeeded at neither.  In terms of proving his theoretical merits he passed around a book that he had got published this year and he presented a very dense 20-slide PowerPoint presentation, not all of which he had a chance to go through. The core message within this dense package was that there are, according to his theoretical paradigm, two primary categories of challenges for contemporary philosophy of religion: 1) boundary crossing in terms of recognition and communication, and 2) providing something resembling existential relevance. Valuable perspectives, but not very well unpacked within the course of the sample lecture. At the half-way point he slipped into nervous spouting of theory, stuttering and looking at the ceiling as he went. One of his slides contained a couple of pictures in addition to text: a depiction of the stereotypes associated with the battle between science and religion, which didn’t really increase his contact with the audience by much. Three of his slides announced “group exercises” which seemed to be stuck in in order to be able to formally check off one box on his pedagogical methodology checklist. In a hypothetical graduate seminar these would have provided starting points for research papers to be presented by students to the rest of the class, but in this context they merely provided breaks in the rhythm of things to enable the speaker to regain his composure.

Thus none of these presentations were perfect, though all of them were respectable in the sense of doing better than I would have done under the circumstances. All things considered though, I have to say that at this point I’m rooting for the Norwegian fellow. My primary reasoning would be that he demonstrated clear performance skill and charisma, general competence and open-mindedness in the field, and a good balance between self-important promotion of his own theoretical perspectives and the laissez faire café philosophy approach. The point of the exercise wasn’t to demonstrate what sort of research supervisor the person would be, but I got the strong impression from the exercise that this guy would be the most useful research supervisor of the set.

The lady candidate, based on her performance, would be a significant disappointment to me if she gets the job. She seems like a nice enough person, but she doesn’t inspire confidence or a desire to pursue academic excellence. If she is selected it will send a message that anti-patriarchal gestures and promoting formal compliance to current pedagogical fashion is more important than encouraging deep, original and disciplined thought within the department. Stranger things have happened, but I would not expect them to in this case.

The male Finnish candidate shows potential as a promising young academic, and I would hope he remains a department staff member whether or not he gets the job. My primary reservations regarding him are in terms of his being the candidate who represents the greatest risk of academic in-breeding: a Helsinki theology man whose influences seem to be Helsinki theologians and whose professional merits are based on his performance in Helsinki. He speaks and performs in a fashion clearly utilizing the best of insider information on the matter –– showing that he has the sort of theoretical and technical skills that the selection process bureaucrats are looking for. What he doesn’t show is fresh perspective or a vision to make the work of the department more relevant outside of the department… other than within the sort of international academic sewing circles that professors in general tend to use to legitimize themselves. I won’t be majorly disappointed if he gets the job, but I really don’t think he has the most to offer.

It would be a major innovation for the University of Helsinki to hire someone not fluent in Finnish to take a professor’s chair not specifically designated as “multicultural” or “Swedish-speaking”. In exploring this sort of innovative possibility, Norway is really the most conservative choice they could make in terms of a potential candidate’s background: another Nordic Lutheran country of about 5 million people with a mix of traditionally religious and liberally-minded folk, looking with some reservation at the innovations going on in the larger Nordic countries (population-wise) of Sweden and Denmark. But given the limited range of adventure possible in this context at present, the adventure of having my current professor replaced by a Norwegian seems like one of the more interesting ones to embark on.

So there’s my $0.02 worth, with interest, on the state of affairs here. I’ll provide further updates as I learn more.  As always, comments and alternative perspectives are more than welcome.



Filed under Education, Philosophy, Politics, Priorities, Religion, Respectability

2 responses to “Finland’s Future in Philosophy of Religion

  1. Hanna

    Thank you for creating this report! Having heard the lectures myself I can agree that there was a distinct variation in construction of the lectures. I have to correct, though, that the Finnish fellow is not a theologian at all but a philosopher and, as far as I know, has not worked under the faculty of theology in Helsinki. I don’t know about his international connections, but nationally he has connections to several academic institutions including a professorship of philosophy.

    We all have subjective preferences with regard to what we want philosophy of religion to be and how we like to be taught and learn, so our choices are not free of bias. I was a bit surprised that we were allowed to make comments on the lectures, because the Norwegian fellow clearly had a disadvantage in that regard.

    I didn’t have a favorite before the lectures, but I ended up with having one.

    • Thanks for the correction, Hanna. It doesn’t change my preferences, but win or lose I expect that I will end up having some contact with the Finnish male candidate on some level. Good to know.

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