If I Only Knew Then … Tenured Scholars on Professionalization: Steven Engler

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On the heels of a successful series based on Russell
McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization, where 21 early career
scholars weighed-in on a separate thesis, we at the Bulletin would
like to continue with the theme of professionalization as it relates
to mid-to-late career scholars, asking them to name one thing (or several) about
their career (in either teaching, research, or service work) that they
know now but wish they had done earlier on.

by Steven Engler

Professionalization in academia is a craps shoot: you take what you’re offered (if anything), hedge your bets, invest your scarce time based on vague market tips, flesh out your CV as best you can and scatter it to the winds—all chasing a long-shot. The table is rough, with odd bounces, and the dice keep changing shape. If you’re lucky, you get to crew a ship that is slowly sinking, as the rats of corporatization flood onboard to gnaw more holes in its honeycombed hull in their rough-tongued scrabble for metricized end-product deliverables. But it’s still a great gig.

I was lucky enough to find a tenure-track job within a year after defending my long-delayed dissertation. That sounds smooth. The backstory is better. A partial list of jobs during my drawn-out student years includes forest fire fighter, fruit picker, house sitter, lounge pianist, oyster shucker, packing house truck loader, piano teacher, radio announcer, research assistant, security guard, telephone surveyor, teaching assistant, translator, truck driver in an open pit mine, and writing tutor. I was an adjunct instructor for over eight years at seven institutions in three Canadian provinces. The transformative news that I had been hired to a tenure-track position came after a semester of no courses to teach (security guard shift boss again), a month after my latest unsuccessful interview, and a week after qualifying for my planned summer job as a tour bus driver. But after that call I had the job I’d always wanted, and it’s been better than I imagined. My lucky stars are beyond count. Easier to count are the adjunct colleagues I work with every day, all great teachers, and many with stronger CVs than mine was when I got that call.

Despite the ever-increasing challenges of finding and holding a job in academia, there are obviously different things you can do—at different points in different career trajectories—to try to shift the odds a little closer to being in your favour. Russell McCutcheon’s 2007 post and the follow-ups on this site have made many great points. Everyone seeking or holding a tenured job could offer some useful tips, and I look forward to reading more in this space. Here are nine very personal, brainstormed thoughts.

1.Balance data, methods, theory, and meta-theory. Study methodology. Learn what theorizing is as opposed to just “applying” ready-made theories or concepts (check out one of Richard Swedberg’s books on theorizing). Pay some attention to philosophy, especially epistemology, semantics, and their intersection with philosophy of science. I personally think that this is all essential to being a competent scholar in the humanities or social sciences. But so few people appear to agree with me that skimping is unlikely to hurt your job or career prospects. So, never mind…

2.Learn to write efficiently under pressure. I wrote a 2013 guest post for Karen Kelsky’s “The Professor Is In” site on this topic.

3.Explore inter-disciplinary co-authorship. This is one of the tips from that post, but I think it is a particularly useful one. A healthy co-author relationship has many advantages: it can lead to more publications; inter-disciplinary work is often valued in hiring, tenure, and promotion processes; contributions from another discipline can be fresh, new, and innovative in ways that breathe new life into old debates on both sides of the partnership; two heads are (often) better than one; you can keep each other motivated; you can cover for each other on your project(s) during busy times; plus it’s fun and a great way to learn. Finding someone you work well with is essential. Mark Gardiner, a philosophy colleague, and I tested the waters by writing a joint review of a book that straddled our areas of expertise. In the seven years since, we’ve co-authored twelve journal articles/book chapters—in addition to our solo bread-and-butter work in our own disciplines—and we’re well along on a joint book.

4.Connect personal life and research/teaching. Much later than friends and family expected, I decided to capitalize on the fact that I was fluent in Portuguese, having spent a year and a half living and travelling in Brazil in my teens. That led serendipitously to my reconnecting in 2004 with a friend, now my wife, and so to my doing fieldwork in her hometown on an ongoing basis. (The latest fruit of this happy convergence was recently published here. If you’re in a position to take advantage of personal connections and biographical quirks, then you’re likely doing so already. But it’s always worth taking stock…

5.Check out different conferences/associations. Don’t just go to the AAR (or whatever) every year—unless your networking there is paying off and you’ve no funds to go to another. Different associations have different cultures and networks. Going to a new conference is an eye-opener, a reality-check, a door-opener, and a potential game-changer. That’s not a pitch for people to check out NAASR. Though why wouldn’t you? It’s right there at the AAR every year. Attending conferences outside of your own country is especially useful for this. (That last point, of course, is not a subtle dig at American parochialism from a Canadian hiding behind the famous northern, passive-aggressive wall of so-called politeness. If any American readers insist on taking me that way, all I can say is “sorry.”)

6.Work to rule. Tailor research, teaching, and service efforts to institution-specific tenure and promotion guidelines (if tenure-track or tenured) or to an ideal type of such guidelines at the sort of institution you are aiming at (if you’re looking for work, whether full-time or adjunct). If, as in my university, you get the same credit for two articles as for a monograph, then write six articles and forget the book. (Keeping your options open, self-satisfaction, etc. are sound reasons to write the book anyway, but make such choices consciously.)

7.Pay attention to bibliometrics. Citation counts and other metrics that try to quantify the value of scholarship are becoming more important. Even if they’re bullshit (though the reality is more nuanced), they matter to many people in positions of power. You should at least know what’s at stake. See my free-to-view article, “Bibliometrics and the Study of Religion\s.”

8.Follow university and department politics. Like it or not, it’s important to keep your ear to the rails you’re tied to. Follow association/union positions and developments. Pay attention to the ways that administrators see and rank areas, departments, and disciplines, even if they make little or no sense. Note which organizational, pedagogical, and assessment speakers/gurus senior administrators are seeing at their conferences and retreats; watch especially which ones they bring to campus. Recognize that the position of your department (or department opinion shapers) can be counter-productive or wrong. Pay close attention to policies and politics regarding the status of general/liberal education requirements and programs.

9.Read the palm that feeds you. Read either more or less about the history of capitalism and its intersection with post-secondary education worldwide: either know the machine in which you spin as a cog (in order to better understand its current metamorphosis) or remain in relatively blissful if confused ignorance. I haven’t read enough to write more on this, but I’ve read too much to leave it off the list.

Steven Engler is Professor of Religious Studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada. He teaches a variety of courses and researches religion in Brazil, as well as theories and methodology in the study of religion\s. From 2005-2007 he was a Visiting Research Professor in the Programa de Estudos Pós-Graduados em Ciências da Religião at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo (PUC-SP), where he is currently Professor Colaborador. Since 2008, he has been Affiliate Professor with the Department of Religion, Concordia University, Montréal.

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