by Tenzan Eaghll
In this new feature with the Bulletin, we have asked 21 early career scholars to weigh in on Russell McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, first published in 2007. In his 21 theses, McCutcheon offers advice to young scholars entering (or soon to enter) the job market, addressing the all-to-important (but often overlooked) question of professionalization. Each of the contributors in this series has been asked to comment on a single thesis, addressing its contemporary relevance, and how it relates to their own experience moving forward in the academic world. For previous posts in this series, see here.
Thesis #2: A Ph.D. is awarded not only as a mark of intellectual competence and disciplined method but also as a professional credential that signals one’s eligibility for employment as a researcher and teacher within academia. Although these two aspects of the degree can complement one another, they can just as easily conflict, as in when one’s research expertise fails to overlap with ever changing employment needs.
I am entering the sixth (and final) year of my doctorate at the University of Toronto, so I am right at the cusp of encountering the gap between my area of expertise and the demands of the job market, and I am worried. It is not that I am unprepared, I mean, I have been studying religion for 12 years and feel confident in the subject matter. It is just that the gap between my area of expertise and many of the classes I will be expected to teach is so big as to make the latter seem like a foreign territory. Moreover, given the current job market, this foreign territory may be a place I am exiled to for a very long time. With the shrinking pool of tenure-track jobs and the rise in the amount of poorly paid adjunct positions, I have to prepare myself for the possibility of getting stuck in the adjunct loop.
Early on in my studies I had assumed that by developing intellectual competence in one particular area of religious studies I would be preparing to teach both my topic of expertise and more general introductory classes in the field, but I am coming to believe that this is incorrect. Part of the reason for this is because my area of expertise is philosophy of religion/method and theory, which doesn’t see a lot of job postings, but also because PhD grads are not trained to be experts in any of the “bread and butter” classes on which religious studies departments depend. Most entry level positions require teaching a whole slew of introductory classes I have only basic knowledge in: Introduction to World Religions, Nature of World Religions, Introduction to Christianity, Religion and Violence, Religion and Film, etc. Although I have served as a Teaching Assistant and Course Instructor in some of these classes, I have never been tested to prove my competency in any of these particular subjects. In order to attain my PhD I have only passed comprehensive exams that tested my knowledge within the fields of study related to my dissertation topic. Never once was I tested in my knowledge of “Hinduism,” “Buddhism,” the “religious experience of mystics,” or even the “history of Christianity,” yet those are the topics I will be expected to teach with sublime proficiency (lest I be fired for poor student reviews!).
Of course, I am not suggesting that there should be exams for these general subjects in all PhD programs but am simply trying to underline the fact that the particular reasons for which a PhD is awarded doesn’t necessarily overlap with the demands of the job market. Moreover, I am trying to point out that the gap between intellectual competence and employment opportunities is not just a result of changing employment needs but a systemic problem in religious studies.
Religious Studies is not a discipline with a rigidly defined phenomenon of investigation, and this makes the leap from graduate research to the job market all that more difficult. In Critics Not Caretakers McCutcheon writes that the introductory religious studies classroom is,
[T]he site of some of the most unsophisticated scholarship we collectively produce. It is the place where we often fail to live up to our responsibility of educating critical thinkers and future scholars and, instead, where we often act as trustees concerned for the general well-being of religion. (66)
Perhaps part of the reason these introductory classes are so “unsophisticated” is that they are dumped upon lecturers who have expertise in a very specific area of research, and very little experience teaching general subjects. How are PhD grads fresh out the gate expected to reinvent the wheel when they have neither the experience nor the departmental weight needed to refashion out-dated course models?
Traditionally, it has been expected that new lecturers will spend several years teaching these introductory subjects in order to prove their acumen, and then after a certain period of time they will be given more advanced classes that reflect their area of expertise and their research. However, given the current job market this latter opportunity may never arise for some aspiring academics, and many, including myself, may get stuck at the introductory level teaching “bread and butter” classes for a department that is looking for neither “sophisticated” nor “original” input into traditional courses.
Tenzan Eaghll is Ph.D candidate in the department of religious studies at the University of Toronto. His dissertation analyzes Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on the Deconstruction of Christianity.