Readings on the vocations, and challenges, of professors today

Professor Lavanya Rajamani, Wikimedia, creative commons

For the past few years I’ve been part of an eclectic group of folks who have met every quarter to read through small, curated sets of readings on a common topic. Our topics have included current research on (and definitions of) human flourishing, systems thinking, network thinking, secularization and religion, institutions and professions, the rising generation, and many others. I’ve been honored to partner with a brilliant friend to curate the readings and guide the discussions for each of these seminars.

Our topic for our next discussion is “the vocation and flourishing of college and university faculty,” highlighting both the ideals and realities of the role of faculty in higher education and the current opportunities and challenges of being a faculty member.

One important thing we found in preparing the materials for this conversation is that when we touch on a person’s vocation, we are touching things that are deeply human – that are shared by all of us.

The resources for this session are as follows. I wish I could share the printed excerpts here (though there is at least one accessible online piece linked below), but they are under copyright. But perhaps the brief descriptions of the readings and their main ideas will lead some of you to look up these sources for yourselves. Here’s the cover email my friend and I wrote when we sent these readings to our group:

“[Our group has] enjoyed both reading and meeting (via Zoom) the sociologist Tim Clydesdale. Our brief excerpt (pp 135-138), which offers an interesting classification of faculty “types,” comes from his book The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students about Vocation – a study commissioned by the Lilly Endowment to gauge the results of its $90M bet on vocation programming in historically religious colleges (this was the single most valuable book Chris Armstrong found when starting the faith & vocation center Opus at Wheaton College). Notice, in figure 5.1 on p. 136, the forces that pull faculty in various directions – making it hard for them to find a balanced vocational experience in their work.

“Chris A. once heard this definition: A professor is someone who geeks out over a particular area of knowledge – and who wants to share that knowledge with everyone else. Read Francis Su’s Retiring Presidential Address to the Mathematical Association of America with that in mind. The speech lets us hear a professor embodying his vocation in a particularly striking way as he speaks to his colleagues. This brilliant mathematician is addressing a roomful of fellow professors, and he is reminding them of their sacred charge as educators: to foster, uphold, and promote the flourishing of their students, and of society as a whole.

“Gary M. Burge writes as a theologian and biblical scholar who taught for many years in a psychology doctoral program at one of the country’s leading Christian liberal arts colleges (Wheaton, though he now teaches at Calvin College)—and who is married to a psychologist. His book Mapping Your Academic Career: Charting the Course of a Professor’s Life is thus a deep dive into the stages and characteristics of an academic career that is informed by both personal experience and a strong lay acquaintance with psychological theories and models. And like Su, Burge is also a professor talking to other professors. The introductory excerpt (pp 20-27) gives us a quick schematic overview of his book’s argument – that there are three distinctive “cohorts” among faculty; that is, three stages of a professor’s vocational experience. The following two excerpts (pp 30-43 and pp 67-78) outline the distinctive, identifiable traits of the first two of these stages. Again in this reading, we get a very personal and “humane” glimpse into the academic vocation.

“Mark R Schwehn, longtime professor of humanities and dean at Valparaiso University, wrote his classic, much-cited book Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America 30 years ago. Though the word “religion” is in the subtitle, Schwehn takes the German theorist of secularization Max Weber and the non-theist Jeffrey Stout (among others) as important conversation partners and offers a description of how the academic vocation developed in the Western world that is wide-ranging rather than parochial. Dense at spots but laid out in a compelling narrative form, Schwehn’s book reads the professorial vocation through history, philosophy, sociology, and other disciplines. From the first page (which cites former Harvard President Derek Bok’s 1986-87 report to the Harvard Board of Overseers), the book engages with the lost purpose of higher education: character formation—relating the story of that loss to the story of how research grew to be the sine qua non of Western faculty members’ vocations.

“The three articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Tenure’s Broken Promise,” 2021; “The Tenured Entrepreneur,” 2015; and “Triumph of the Thought Leader and the Eclipse of the Public Intellectual,” 2017 – all paywalled, unfortunately for non-subscribers) round out our readings with recent topical snapshots of “faculty talking to faculty” about key questions related to this vocation: the vanishing of tenure, academics’ need for “side hustles,” and a thoughtful description of two types of expanded professorial platforms: “public intellectual” and “thought leader,” with direct reference to philanthropies that engage higher education.

The email was getting too long, so I didn’t include in it the following brief Lewisian reflection triggered by my re-reading of Mark Schwehn’s penetrating book – but I’d like to share it here:

“What Schwehn is describing is the dominance in academe of technical, objective approaches to knowledge, and the loss of the original purpose of higher learning: to gain knowledge in order to know how to live well. That is, knowledge for flourishing. As I read Schwehn, an excerpt from CS Lewis’s Screwtape Letters (fanciful letters from a senior demon to a junior demon) came to mind. Toward the end of the book, in letter 27, Screwtape shares with Wormwood about what he calls “the Historical Point of View.”  In context, Screwtape has been explaining to his nephew how best to undermine the effectiveness of human prayers.  He notes that an ancient writer had shared insights that, if humans took them to heart, would badly undermine the devils’ strategy.  There is no need to worry, however, Screwtape assures his nephew.  “Only the learned read old books, and we [he means the devils of Hell] have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so.”  Screwtape then goes on to explain the reason for this hellish success:

We have done this by inculcating the Historical Point of View.  The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true.  He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the “present state of the question.” To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge–to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behavior–this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded.  And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another.  But thanks be to Our Father [i.e., Satan] and the Historical Point of View, great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that “history is bunk.”

*See the follow-up post “Are we in academe’s ‘faith and work moment?'” for a further reflection based on a series of conversations I had in March 2022 with theological faculty at seminaries and colleges across the country.

2 responses to “Readings on the vocations, and challenges, of professors today

  1. Pingback: The Christian Story of the University | Grateful to the dead

  2. Pingback: Are we in academe’s “faith and work moment”? | Grateful to the dead

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