Dean's Update - October 16, 2023

October 16, 2023

Dear Colleagues:

Three years ago, I led an Honors Colloquium on Will Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly, a National Book Award finalist. Following the colloquium, I shared in an Update with you my regard for the book and positive experience with the students.

A cri de coeur for racial reconciliation, the book begins with an epigraph from G.M. Hopkins: “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame…” The epigraph invites us to read the book through the lens of Hopkins’ poem, and thus as straining toward a vision of life in which “the just man justices” and “acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—Christ.”

I wrote to you at the time: “Monday evening was a good one. Will Campbell was a good one. Brother to a Dragonfly is a good one. And if we do our work with humility and sobriety of judgment—reading, sifting, interpreting, critiquing, teaching, and modeling—we have the hope of being good ones too.”

Little did I know that within a few days, I would receive a student’s strident complaint:

I found this book extremely offensive. . . . I have also shared this text with several Black students on our campus, and they also find it upsetting that Baylor would allow a text like this to be taught.

The student’s grievance alleged defects in Brother to a Dragonfly and included emotionally charged elements connected to her own narrative. The prospect of social media-fueled outrage and Lariat stories concerned me, and with them the possibility of a shadow over our work in the Honors College. Yet the student extended a saving grace:

I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to discuss my discomfort with this text in a face-to-face conversation . . . if you are open to meeting with me because I understand it was written in a much different time, and historical context could help me understand the values of the text further. . . . I sincerely appreciate you providing encouraging feedback and your efforts in promoting racial reconciliation.

I shared more with the student about Rev. Campbell—his status as the only white person at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, support of the Freedom Riders, and friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, et al. I noted what Peter Cooper said of him: “He was audacious, and controversial, and he asked more of people’s hearts than most people’s hearts could stand to give. Some of his admirers found his message impossible to follow.” I urged the student to remember that learning from difficult books is central to the work of a university. I extended thanks for her willingness to wrestle with Brother to a Dragonfly—and to talk with me about it.

We live in times in which disagreement too often leads to distrust and disengagement, or worse. In this case, honestly expressed doubts and openness to conversation led to understanding. I’m grateful for the student’s complaint and her desire to discuss it with me.

If you know Vincent Lloyd’s story (hint: show up at his talk today!), you’ll understand why I shared my story. The charitable, patient exploration of hard questions in the Honors College—not despite but because of our Christian conviction, is a great blessing indeed.

Please take note of the following news and events in the Honors College:

  • I hold an idealistic vision of Christian intellectual community. In presence and conversation, in common reading and inquiry, in prayerful aspiration and mutual correction, we open ourselves to a form of life uniquely possible at institutions such as Baylor. Among the special expressions of shared academic life in the Honors College are our endowed lectures. One is this week—indeed today—and the other is next week. Your presence matters. I urge you to attend both, seeking better understanding and deeper friendship at each event.

  • Today, we’re honored to host Vincent Lloyd, professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, where he directs both the Africana studies program and the center for political theology. The cornerstone of Vincent’s visit is his Drumwright Family Lecture, scheduled at 4:00 p.m. at Armstrong Browning Library on the topic, “Pursuing Justice in Toxic Times.” The author or editor of twelve scholarly books, including Black Dignity: The Struggle Against Domination and Black Natural Law, Vincent also engages wider publics, notably in a viral article in Compact Magazine earlier this year.

  • Next week, we will host Kyle Harper, the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty, Professor of Classics and Letters, and Senior Advisor to the President at the University of Oklahoma. A consummate scholar and gifted teacher, his books have won the James Henry Breasted Prize, AAR’s Award for Excellence in Historical Studies, and PROSE’s best book in the history of science, technology, and medicine. Kyle will give the Laura Blanche Jackson Endowed Lecture in World Issues, on Tuesday, October 24 at 7:00 p.m. in Truett Seminary’s chapel, on, “Pandemics: A Hidden Hinge of Global History.

  • Thanks to all who participated in our listening session with Strategic Planning Group co-chair, Tiffany Hogue, chief of staff to the president. Two ongoing forms of engagement in the SPG’s work remain available through October 31: a survey that invites responses to four questions (here) and white paper submissions that describe strategic, interdisciplinary or cross-functional initiatives that you believe warrant consideration (here). If you plan to submit a white paper, please be in touch with either me or SPG member Jonathan Tran, associate dean for faculty, so we can understand and effectively support your great ideas.

  • Congratulations to Sarah Walden, associate professor of rhetoric in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core, on her appointment as associate director of the BIC. In this new role—a recasting of the faculty assistant director role in which Jason Whitlark and Mark Long served—Sarah will collaborate closely with staff colleagues, lead student recruitment and success efforts, and facilitate curriculum development and class scheduling.

All the best,

Douglas V. Henry | Dean
Honors College | Baylor University | 254.710.7689