across the pond
A Column by Mike Clifford
Sometimes I wonder why I’m an engineer, or at least why I ended up working in an Engineering faculty. Whilst many of my colleagues revel in the delights of mechanical design, as I get older, I find that I’m more interested in collaborating with colleagues in other disciplines across campus. It’s not that the grass is somehow greener in Geography, or the air sweeter in Food Science, it’s just that, well, sometimes walking in other people’s shoes adds a spring to my step. Take this morning, for instance. I had a conversation over Skype with a Theologian and colleagues from the Politics and Education departments about a paper that we’ve written for a theological conference on the Sustainability-Entrepreneurship-Pentecostal Faith nexus within the context of Zimbabwe. The research has involved interviewing local Zimbabwean entrepreneurs who have put their church’s teaching of matarenda or “talents” into practice, by starting small businesses from within their areas of expertise, without borrowing any money. The stories are quite remarkable. One woman shared her journey from working as a maid to starting a childcare business, which now employs others: “I used to sleep on the floor using a sack as a blanket. Now if you see the car I drive today, and all that I have, (it) is because of talents.”
After we’d finished our conversation over Skype, my colleague in Education shared that initially she had been reluctant to bring faith into her research, but was encouraged to do so by the Head of her Department. Perhaps the Education Department is more broad-minded; I can’t imagine having a similar conversation in Engineering. However, I’m very grateful to have a card-carrying Theologian on board to address the theological dimension of our research and to explore the Biblical basis for the Zimbabwean church’s teachings. I’ve winced more times than I’d care to remember when Christian academics have used their titles and academic positions to cloak their lack of knowledge in matters of faith, theology or indeed in anything outside of their specific expertise. Often this seems to be the case on highly-charged matters such as evolution or climate change, where talks are advertised on the subject by “Dr. X,” who, upon closer inspection, has their doctorate in nanotechnology, quantum physics or a similarly unrelated topic from the one being discussed.
Of course, confusion over areas of expertise can be purely accidental – I’ve been advised never to book an airline ticket as “Dr. Clifford” just in case there’s a medical emergency during the flight (I wonder if it’s only in bad movies that the flustered stewardess asks “Is there a doctor on board?”) And on a lighter note, when buying a mandolin at a music shop, I was asked if I could take a look at the cashier’s bad back, purely because my credit card contained my academic title. For the record, I came clean straight away!
Upon reflection, maybe I know why I’m an Engineer after all. It’s good to be able to work in inter- and multi-disciplinary environments whilst keeping my own (steel toe-capped) shoes on and to walk alongside colleagues who have their expertise in many splendid other fields. We’re part of a bigger university, maybe a bit like being parts of a body, with Christ as the head, but now I’m stealing someone else’s sermon.
.Mike Clifford is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham. His research interests are in combustion, biomass briquetting, cookstove design and other appropriate technologies. He has published over 80 refereed conference and journal publications and has contributed chapters to books on composites processing and on appropriate and sustainable technologies.