Frontlines EXTRA! The University Lecturer

GJM: In these Frontlines interviews, I have been speaking to a wide range of Christians about what living out their faith means in the secular workplace. If you’ve been following the series you’ll know that I’ve spoken to a teacher, GP, politician, scientist, artist, council manager, engineer and many, many more. Today, I’m delighted to be joined by Professor Nick Megoran. Welcome Nick, tell us a little about your job? What are your roles and responsibilities?

NM: Hi Gavin, it’s really good to meet you! Well, I am a Professor of Political Geography which means I have to do a number of things. I love the teaching part of my job, I get to design all my own courses – and really enjoy teaching and stimulating my students to think. Thinking is another part of my role, along with a lot of research and writing too, which I do with other colleagues in seminars, conferences and discussions. The third part of my job is travel. As a Geography lecturer I conduct research around the world, and I do a lot of research around international boundaries. So one question for example is, what happens when you make new international borders where there weren’t any before? My research has taken me extensively into the states of the former Soviet Union in Central Asia, especially Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as well as around the Danish-German border. Family holidays often involve exploring contested border areas too!

GJM: What’s the best part of your job?

NM: I actually love my job, as I have so many opportunities to engage with so many interesting colleagues, meet fun students and travel to great parts of the world. I thoroughly enjoy being in front of students and getting them to engage and think about the world differently and appreciate the wonderful world we live in. Being a Geographer is also a copper-bottomed excuse to see all kinds of fascinating places around the world that others might not get to see!

GJM: What are some of the challenges that you face at work – and how does your faith in Christ help you to navigate those?

NM: Universities have changed enormously in my lifetime. Under successive governments they have adopted a market-model and are competitive, with league-tables and great pressure on individual lecturers to win grants and publish in the top journals. Failure to hit these targets has consequences both for you, and for your department. It’s become highly pressurised with high degrees of overwork, stress and mental health problems. Being a Christian has made a huge difference in that context, because for me this work is a ‘call’ from God, a ‘vocation’ that I received when I was a student myself. That means that if God has called me – it’s His job to make it work for me, if you like! It’s my role to trust Him, and the consequences are with Him. So I don’t exhaust myself working seven-days a week, like some colleagues feel they have to do. I don’t take part in unethical practices – such as only making an effort with people to the extent that they can further my career; and not having the same time for people who can’t. Time is an important thing – even as an undergraduate doing my finals, I didn’t work on Sundays which is a day for rest and worship. I remember one of my friends telling me off and saying that I should be working harder…. but I ended up getting a pretty decent degree. And that was a good lesson for me from the outset. It means I don’t have to over work, get over-anxious, or take short-cuts in my work. I do work hard, honestly and well and trust God with the consequences; as a result neither my family life nor my involvement in church community has suffered. So in that way my faith has been of enormous help in navigating the pressures and difficulties of the job.

Another significant way that being a Christian changes how I face challenges at work is this: to fear God makes a huge difference because it means you are not afraid of the boss! A few years ago my workplace introduced a dire performance-based management system which they called ‘Raising the Bar’. Everyone was given targets about how many journal articles they had to publish and how much grant money to get, and the targets were simply unobtainable. People were crying in the corridors, looking at retiring early, and all sorts. So I got involved through the union and helped organise a campaign against this which culminated in a strike. On the day the strike began they capitulated and withdrew the whole thing. In the dispute, I had stood up publically and repeatedly challenged the vice-chancellor of the university (in a respectful way). A friend of mine in the union who was not a Christian said to me, “Nick, aren’t you afraid of the consequences of what you are doing?” and I said to her, “No, because I fear God and that means I care more about what God thinks than about what the vice-Chancellor or anyone else thinks! It’s my job to do what’s right and the consequences are with God, and if I get sacked, He’ll have to find me another job!” My colleague looked at me, paused and said, “That must be very liberating”.

GJM: So do most of your colleagues, and student know that you are a Christian?

NM: Yes, most of my colleagues do. I actually get quite a lot of opportunities to share that – including in lectures. I talk openly about the fact that being a Christian influences the research I conduct. The idea of ‘positionality’ is important, because it acknowledges that everyone has a certain perspective. Some people are Marxists, some people feminists and others Post-structuralists and so forth. So I say to the students that everyone approaches things from a certain perspective and it is dishonest not to acknowledge where you are coming from – so I say this is my understanding of the world, what’s yours? Part of why you come to university is to figure out how the world works and how to make it better; what do you think?

Then during the pandemic I held a “Christianity and Geography” discussion group with Christian students, working though the Bible’s narrative together. Each week we’d look at a Bible passage and an academic article written by a Christian. So we looked at creation, and an article by a scientist who is a Christian, then at “the fall” and an article on the concept of evil, and so forth, and in fact several non-Christians joined us too.

The university I work in is not world-famous for Nobel-prize winners, but it has one unusual claim to fame. In 1967 when Martin Luther King came to the UK, we were the only university to present him with an honorary doctorate. He came and gave a very moving acceptance speech, shortly before he was murdered. I’ve been very involved in the 50th anniversary of that, and we had a statue of King put up. I‘ve argued publically that we cannot forget that King was a Christian, and the reason that he fought against what he saw as the three evils of racism, poverty and war was because he believed that all people are made in the image of God. It was a theme that ran all the way through his work, from student essays to his last talks. I gave many lectures, and school talks around King and his faith.  I did a piece of research about the shift to temporary employment contracts, and the use of people as ‘human resources’ – which I was asked to present in parliament. I was able to use the history of Newcastle University, the faith and ethics of King to speak something of the Bible’s message into all kids of different contexts.

Then finally, through my church I ran a discussion group entitled, “Big Questions in a Pandemic”, looking at things like, “Does life have a purpose?”, “Can we know whether God exists?”, “If God, why suffering?”, “Can we make sense of death?” and “How can we live well in a global crisis?” So after the discussion group, I wrote a short book about it, which has just been published as Big Questions in An Age of Global Crises. It’s full of humour and contemporary cultural references, for a non-Christian audience. I was able to share it with lots of my colleagues, who have read it and commented on it.

GJM: And what kind of reactions has it drawn?

NM: So, one colleague said to me recently, “I’m not a churchgoer at all, but this has got some really important questions in it, and it’s got me thinking.” Some Christians say that they can’t talk about faith at work, but that’s not true actually. We live in a country with laws on freedom of speech, and there are always ways in which we can talk about these things. In fact, not to speak about faith, or speak about your assumptions… well there’s a certain dishonesty about that if you are a teacher. That’s particularly in the social sciences, where we are encouraged to reflect upon our values and where they come from.

GJM: How do people react when you talk about your faith in Jesus? Interested? Angry? Apathetic? Do they ever raise objections – in a lecture, perhaps?

NM: Generally the feedback I have from the lectures is very, very positive – I put an enormous amount of work into my lectures. So during the pandemic, I stopped doing writing and research, made loads of creative videos for students.  They loved that much more than listening to narrated PowerPoints. Students who are Christians often thank me for raising these issues – as do students of other faiths. One very devout Muslim student said to me after a lecture recently, “thank you for talking about God – no one else does.” A lecturer in another department came to find me to have a discussion because she had heard that I wrote about faith in my research. She is a Hindu, and wanted to talk about her faith and her work – and felt safe doing that with me. I’ve never had negative responses from students, because I don’t push ideas down people’s throats, rather I say, “here’s an idea that makes sense to me, but what do you think?” There have also been times when students have sought me out to ask spiritual questions, such as around times of tragedy or bereavement. One student was upset about the death of his friend, and after we talked a long time he said, to me “you’re a Christian, aren’t you Nick –how does that help you?”

In terms of push-back, a lot of colleagues have said to me, “what you say is OK, but the church has been responsible for huge amounts of war, oppression and violence”, and I can only agree with them. I study conflict and peacemaking and have looked at the role of the church in that. So, while I agree with their critique of the church, I do ask them to question whether these things reflect the foundational biblical teachings of Jesus or not. I think that it is when the church has departed from the teachings of Christ that it has started blessing wars, and weapons and that sort of thing, which is a tragedy and a cause of great sadness to me.

GJM: Why do you want to talk to colleagues and friends about Jesus? Why not privatise your faith, and leave Jesus at the door?

NM: I was student at Durham. I imagine that quite a few of you will have gone on the train from London up to Scotland. And as you go through Durham station you see the beautiful view of the castle and the cathedral on its wooded hill in the city centre, it’s one of the most absolutely beautiful sights in England. Whenever I see it, my heart skips with joy! The other day I was on the train and there were some Russian tourists on board, and when we got to that view they all said, “Look, look at this!” and I was delighted that they had seen it. If I’m travelling with someone who doesn’t notice it I can’t help but point it out.  We all want people to admire something that is intrinsically beautiful and matters to us – and that is the same reason why I want to talk to friends and colleagues about Jesus. Because Jesus is the most lovely being in the universe, he is kind and good and gracious and loving and wise. He taught us to love our enemies and do good to those who mistreat us, he teaches us the best ethic we can know. And in dying on the cross to take our sins away – he opens the way to everlasting life; of course I want people to see him and admire his beauty.

And in my own context, working in a university – Jesus meets our deepest needs. My colleagues, working in the social sciences, want to make a better world. If you work in the social sciences you are examining the world that humans have made – and humans have often made a pretty bad hash of it. And I see two reactions there; some people become jaded and without hope, but I see others who are so desperate to create things like justice that they become angry which leads to the kind of ‘culture wars’ which erupt, especially online. There is a fierceness, intensity and a hatred in much of the debate there. In the Christian message we have a hope that here is a ‘new heaven and a new earth’ coming, that Jesus will return. So it is worth working for peace and justice and truth, and goodness and beauty and we don’t give up; but we don’t do that through hating the ‘other’ because it’s not all down to us to make that happen. We do that through loving others and seeing God’s love work. So, the Christian message meets this need in my colleagues for a better world.

The Christian faith also meets our deep need for love and acceptance. I remember a student knocking on my office door and coming in and crying saying, “Nick, I’ve just handed an assessment in and I’ve failed I’m sure”. It seemed to me to be a bit of an over-reaction as she hadn’t even got a mark yet. I said, “tell me more”, and the whole story came out. She had come from a privileged background, private school – and had done well in her A-levels but not done ‘the best’. She’d been OK at sport but never been the star of the show. She’d come to a good university – but not the best, and there was this huge weight of expectation on her from family and society. And she just cried. Now we’d speaking previously about Martin Luther King so I said to her, “I don’t know what you think about all this, but you know that I am a great admirer of Martin Luther King and he said, every human being is valuable because they are made and loved by God and it doesn’t matter what we achieve or what we look like or whether we meet other peoples’ expectations because we are made and loved by the creator of the universe”. Now she didn’t say anything, but she stopped crying, smiled – said ‘thank you’ and left and never talked about it again. In knowing Jesus Christ, we can know the love and acceptance that we all so desperately crave.

GJM: That’s wonderful! And so my final question is this. What advice would you give a Christian entering your profession?

NM: I’d say it’s not a ‘career’, it’s a calling from God so never, ever, ever treat it as a career. Alexander Solzhenitsyn – a Russian dissident in the Soviet era, who was a Christian once said, “never try and scramble up the career ladder, there is nothing more boring than a man with a career!” So, see it as a calling from God and He will open the way.

GJM: Thanks Nick, what a great note to end on!