The Harvard Inklings: A Faculty Small Group Experiment

Are there ways to strengthen friendships between faculty and to promote flourishing in their academic work? For two years Harvard Professor James Kim (Education) and InterVarsity staff member Jeff Barneson have been hosting a gathering of faculty that meets for one hour every other week to explore ways to answer this question. 

According to Aristotle, friends:

  • Enjoy one another – Fellowship
  • Are useful to one another – Accountability 
  • Pursue the common good together – Partnership

These three points laid the foundation for a Christian faculty community that is distinctive in character and whose mission is useful.

The Question

What would it look like to be Faculty Friends following Jesus together in the classroom, the research lab and the dean’s office? More specifically, how might we be useful to each other as Christian faculty and how might our diversity shape creative thinking in all areas of our campus work? 

The Experiment

To create an emotionally safe space for Christian faculty that would provide just-in-time guidance, questioning, and prayer for each other. 

The Inklings

We took as our precedent the Inklings – a community of academics and writers in Oxford who formed a creative community rooted in friendship and a desire to be truly useful to one another. Jimmy’s original email invitation to his faculty friends put it this way:

It is awesome and amazing to me that God would bring us to Harvard for this season of our professional lives so that we might be more useful to each other. What if you could share an inkling of an idea at lunch, and then get great feedback from fellow Christian scholars whose diversity, intelligence, and Christlikeness provide you with a distinctive and new way of thinking about an idea?

Also, Diana Glyer’s writing in Bandersnatch as well as her Interview with the Trinity Forum provided inspiration and guidance in starting the Inklings.

Our Practices

  • We meet together every other week – this past year on Zoom.
  • We begin with a liturgical prayer – Calvin’s Prayer Before Study.
  • A faculty friend shares an “inkling” of an idea that they have for a paper, project, grant, talk, or something that is central to their work.
  • Recently, faculty have volunteered to lead conversations that focused our discussion around an organizing question/topic that has been pertinent to group members. Here are a few favorite recent topics:
    • Last Lecture: How do we give a last lecture and signal our faith in Christ? 3 loves – family, economics, and God (see Mark’s slides).
    • Celebrity Culture: How do we address celebrity culture? From David French’s, The Crisis of Christian Celebrity, don’t trust your virtue and don’t believe you’ve earned your success… peer review your life!
    • 2020 Election & Talking to Students: How do we talk to our students before and after the 2020 presidential election? A brother who is a political scientist led us through a bible study of Mark 12 based on a Tim Keller sermon.
    • Proverbs 3:5-6: What does it mean to not “lean on our own understanding?”
    • Jesus and Our CVs: How do we amplify the voice of Jesus in our CVs?
    • Christ and the Powers: What are the spiritual powers that we are up against? How do we claim Jesus’s victory over those powers?
    • Theology of Health: When and how might we bring up faith specific ideas in secular contexts? 
    • Cancel Culture: How would Jesus handle cancel culture?
    • Consumerist Spirit: How do we address the framing of life and society in terms of consumer-seller transactions? How does this shape our interactions in the academy?

Going Forward

The experiment is continuing and the faculty who make up the Harvard Inklings continue to gather in ways that they hope are truly useful. 

  • Because this group is not trying to do all the work that is required for Christian discipleship (prayer, Bible study, worship, etc…) we have felt free to focus our attention on particular aspects of faculty life and work. This more limited and focused way of thinking about our group has been helpful.
  • We are still working to understand how best to work together as faculty who work in several different academic disciplines. The original “Inklings” who gathered at Oxford were all interested in literature. Our group is made up of faculty from the Humanities, Law, Social Sciences, Public Health and Economics. So far there have been plenty of themes that are useful for all the members of the group.

These notes and the linked video provide a glimpse into the founding thoughts for Harvard’s Inklings and what we are learning along the way. If you are interested in joining in the experiment with your current faculty group or would like to start up a new group, contact Jeff Barneson.

Additional Resources

Books & Articles

  1. Rich Lamb, The Pursuit of God in the Company of Friends, InterVarsity Press, October 2003
  2. Online Conversation | The Inklings, Creativity, and Community, with Diana Glyer, Article from Trinity Forum, February 12, 2021
  3. Calvin’s Prayer upon Starting One’s Work or Study, Article from trellis.church on Medium.com, November 1, 2017
  4. David French, The Crisis of Christian Celebrity, Article from The Dispatch, December 6, 2020

Videos

Lewis Tolkien and the Inklings: The Pursuit of Friendship and the Flourishing of our Work (48:51)

Video Clip: What is Friendship? (0:49)

Video Clip: How Do We Meet? (1:22)

Video Clip: Topics (6:47)

Video Clip: Mission Review (0:46)

Video Clip: Sharing Leadership (1:39)

We value the contribution of writers who are not employed by InterVarsity, some of whom may not necessarily agree with all aspects of InterVarsity's ministry, doctrine, or policies. These writings are the words of the writers and may or may not represent InterVarsity. The same is true of any comments which may be posted about any entries. Submitted comments may or may not be posted at the writer or the editor's discretion.