Saturday, January 19, 2013

do you want to be a professor?

The bookstore at Concordia University
There is a question I get asked quite often that I don't really like answering.  The question is:  What will you do after you graduate?  I usually smile, say that I'll find out when the time comes, remind the person (and myself) that a lot of things can change between now and then, and mention that doors tend to open up as one goes along.  All of that is true, of course, but it is only the partial truth.  I don't usually mention that getting an academic job is quite difficult, especially in a field like theology which is being relegated more and more to seminaries and bible colleges.  The other thing I don't usually talk about is the rather arcane, laborious, and lengthy process required to get a tenured (stable) job as a professor in a university. 

There is a continuous pressure for graduate students like me to be involved in cutting edge research, to be publishing in renowned journals, to be presenting papers at prestigious conferences, to be "winning" grants and scholarships and prizes, and to be connecting to the important people in one's field.  And even if one does all that, there is no guaranteed job.  Not everyone who finishes their PhD becomes a successful thinker/academic/researcher/writer.  It's a bit like trying to thread a tiny needle with a thread while other threads are also trying to fit in the same space.  What a PhD gives you is a narrow, albeit deep, chunk of expertise, and when it comes to jobs, one's expertise and resume and personality (the thread) must exactly match what a school is looking for (the elusive eye of the needle) better than any other thread vying for that same tiny space. That's just the reality.

To be honest, I dislike spending weeks filling out multiple award and bursary applications every year (none of which have panned out for me) and somewhat resent the pressure to have a resume packed with scholarships, publications, incredible grades, and a research topic which takes even the Pope's breath away.  I have the nagging sense that I am never doing enough and don't know enough.  I am also not very good at (or excited about) networking, marketing myself, tweaking my topic according to current trends, or making sure I am known in my field.  I just like to learn and explore; I get excited about how beautiful, challenging, and hopeful the study of theology is.  I believe that we become better people by spending time with the mysteries of spirituality and getting to know the fathers and mothers of our faith.  I am blessed to be able to explain profound concepts in a way that helps some students grasp them better.  For the most part I have had the privilege of being in a very encouraging and supportive academic environment.  But once I get outside of my department, the world is not always kind.  I am a very tiny sardine in a very immense ocean.  What, indeed, are my chances of survival or "making it?"

I was doing some research on Dallas Willard (philosophy professor at University of Southern California in Los Angeles) this past week and came across a talk he gave at a faculty luncheon in 2003 about working as a professor in a university.  His words reminded me again of why I am in school and what I want to spend my energy on.  He reminded me that this requires a great deal of work, but there is much joy in it as well.  He reminded me that we do not create our own futures.  He reminded me that the values with which I started this whole journey (to learn and to take others on the learning journey with me), are still at the heart of it all.  Here are a few quotes from Dr. Willard which inspired me this week:

On writing: The first two papers I published were each two solid years in writing.  They came out in print 12-15 pages long, but they'd probably been re-written 65 times.  That's what I tell my students now.  "Work on it.  Work on it.  When you think it's good, it's probably not.  Just keep working.  It'll get better.  All writing is re-writing.  You never get it right; it'll just get better.  When you've gone  through it many times and replaced the one word with another word, and then replaced that word with the same word again, you're getting there."

On teaching:  I try to teach classes well.  I pray for my students.  I pray as I set up the course schedule and the outline.  I pray for them when they come in to interview.  They don't know I'm praying most of the time, but I pray for them, and I pray for the class.  I say, "Lord, let this be a class that will really help these students in their work, in their field, in their self-confidence." 

On success:  I never ask for a promotion.  I never ask for money.  Of the books I've published, all have been solicited from me by the publishers.  And I'll tell you why I have approached things in this way.  When I was at Baylor University as a young man, as a very green young man, I was watching other green young men trying to find a place to preach.  And the Lord said something very simple to me:  "Never try to find a place to speak, try to have something to say." 

May I always focus on having something to say instead of on finding a place to speak or a way to be heard.  Thanks, Dallas.

Quotes taken from

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