Theses on Professionalization: Emily D. Crews

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In this series 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 other posts in this series, see here

by Emily D. Crews

Thesis #10. Whether working at a publicly or privately funded institution, professors are comparable to self-employed entrepreneurs inasmuch as they can increase their social capital (i.e., reputation) by seeking out new books to read and review, unique topics on which to research and write, novel and timely courses to develop and teach, and different professional service opportunities to provide them with additional experience as well as new national and international contacts. Graduate students are in much the same position and the additional qualifications that result from their entrepreneurial pre-professional activities can serve to distinguish one job applicant from another. Documentation from such activities, as recorded on one’s c.v., communicate to the hiring committee that one is already skilled at participating in the many aspects of the profession that will surely be required of a tenure-track Assistant Professor.

In #10 of his “Theses on Professionalization” Russell McCutcheon writes that the young scholar entering the job market may distinguish herself from her peers by making evident that she possesses “additional qualifications that result from” her “entrepreneurial pre-professional activities.”

For many graduate students, advice of the type offered in Thesis #10 is both helpful and frustrating. It is immensely useful for us to have any lamp in the dark of the academic job market, particularly one that clearly points us to a course of action. However, to some this particular course of action sounds eerily similar to the unrealistic suggestion shouted down from the ivory towers of our institutions: “Do everything and be good at it all.” I know very few graduate students and early career scholars who are not already engaged in a dizzying array of more-than-dissertation activities. Many of us are teaching, advising, publishing, and working while also applying to fellowships and serving as workshop leaders or conference organizers, all as part of our professional development and in spite of a common pressure to reduce the overall time it takes us to obtain our degrees.

Thus, the advice in Thesis #10 can, for many, incite an overwhelming fatigue: “This again. How can we possibly do more than we already do? And how can we possibly be good at everything in a field that’s littered with speed-reading, twelve-language-knowing demi-gods?” What’s more, many might suggest that it is yet another example of a tenured faculty member perpetuating the crippling indentured servitude of academia through willful ignorance of the toll taken by such demands for hyper-involvement. I understand the impulse to approach recommendations of this type with a defensive posture, and am sympathetic to the perspective that academia continues to suffer from a multitude of crises.

However, I think that to read McCutcheon in this way misses the real point of his suggestion. Instead, it would be helpful to consider that McCutcheon has spent much of his career at large state schools, often serving as a department chair; at Alabama he has been responsible for the growth of a robust undergraduate program in religious studies in an era where many of its kind have shrunk or disappeared entirely.

It is out of this context that McCutcheon offers Thesis #10, which I would argue points us not toward a “do more, be more” philosophy, but instead toward the importance of using our graduate school experiences to indicate that we have been and will continue to be productive members of a community. As university budgets are slashed and the Humanities continue to take heavy fire, it is more crucial than ever that new hires are able to help overburdened departments tackle growing workloads. When there are dozens of things that any given department must be able to do—offer courses; advise students; produce original research; organize job searches, conferences, and publications—asking to join the team means that we must be willing and able to shoulder part of the burden. Candidates who are unprepared or uninterested in doing so would, I assume, be unappealing as future colleagues, and thus less likely to land a tenure track position.[1]

McCutcheon’s thesis leaves me wondering, however: are all types of preparation created equal? If not, what types of preparation are most valuable? What indicates that we are “already skilled at participating in the many aspects of the profession that will surely be required of a tenure-track Assistant Professor?” Conversely, are there types of preparation that are a waste of time? Further, from the perspective of members of a hiring committee, where is the line between diversification and distraction? Which types of activities or contributions make candidates seem well-trained and which make them seem unfocused? In the Sophie’s Choice of graduate school, where every moment is precious and each new commitment means the loss of another hour of sleep, what is the wisest investment of our time?

Take, for example, this very exercise. Were I to cite it on my c.v., how would a hiring committee view my having participated in this discussion? Does a relatively casual post in an online forum say much at all? If so, what? Could it read as time I have wasted when I might have been working on my dissertation (suggesting, perhaps, that I might go off course on the road to tenure)? Does it indicate that I am interested in being an active part of a rich community of people and ideas (and that I would be an asset to a department for this reason)?

Or another example: book reviews, an oft-debated topic in my own program. Are book reviews a service to the academic community and an indication of our expertise in a given area, or are they lines on our c.v.’s that potential employers skip over on the way to other, more relevant types of experience? Should graduate students write them or shouldn’t we?

While there are certainly many answers to all these questions, each based on the idiosyncrasies of the particular institution and department holding the search, I wonder if some who are reading this post, particularly those who have experience on hiring committees, might be able to provide a general set of guidelines for reference.[2] This includes a hope for further suggestions from Professor McCutcheon who, both in writing his “Theses” and in so many other ways, has been immensely helpful and generous to early career scholars.

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[1] It should be noted that McCutheon’s advice, written before the economic crisis and the dramatic shift in the landscape of the academic job market, is specifically geared toward those who are applying to tenure track positions. How this advice might have changed or lost its relevance in light of the increasingly limited availability of such positions is well worth further discussion, which limited space has prevented here. On this topic, however, I will offer one question: does it make sense to prepare so thoroughly to be part of a department when most of us—well over 70%, according to recent statistics—will end up in jobs that might not even not come with an office, much less full membership in the faculty body?

[2] For instance, I’m sure that the needs and priorities of a large, elite research university differ significantly from those of a small liberal arts college.

Emily D. Crews is a PhD candidate in History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her dissertation examines the religious lives of African immigrants in the United States, asking what role religion plays in the process by which Nigerians create homes in new geographical and epistemological places/spaces. Emily is also the editor of the Religion and Culture Web Forum and an editorial assistant at History of Religions.

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