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 Charles McCrary
Thesis # 20: Despite what some maintain, teaching and research are complementary activities, inasmuch as teaching, somewhat like publication, constitutes the dissemination of information gained by means of prior research. Based on one’s strengths, candidates can understandably emphasize one over the over, but declining always to carry out both, integrating them together when possible, is to shirk one’s responsibilities as a scholar.
Among graduate students who teach, teaching is often discussed as if it were a distraction from the “real” work, i.e., coursework and, more importantly, writing (articles and dissertations, not blogs.) Your advisor might tell you this. Other students will tell you this. Even one presenter at Florida State University’s Program for Instructional Excellence Teaching Conference and TA Orientation, which was mandatory for all graduate instructors and TAs, acknowledged that teaching is not “what you’re here to do.” Graduate students teach about two-thirds of all undergraduates who take FSU religion classes, and yet certain faculty members (not all) advise graduate students to spend only as much time teaching as absolutely necessary. Now, there are of course all sorts of institutional issues, and we could talk about the exploitation of graduate student labor or the quality of undergraduate education. As the university becomes increasingly bureaucratic, courses are becoming standardized. The discretion and expertise of the instructor are sacrificed to mandated language and assignments designed by committees of non-educators. I could point out that while what I’m “here to do” is to write a dissertation, the university’s interest in me extends only so far as I facilitate the instruction of seventy customers students per semester, at a pay rate of about a tenth my advisor’s. But for this post I want to think about that disconnect between teaching and our “real” work and how, practically, we might bridge the gulf between the two.
Few of us would say that teaching is ipso facto a waste of time. But plenty of us, I think, do understand it as a very different activity from research—and often a distraction from it (for better or worse.) We are all busy, and as Russell McCutcheon’s eighteenth thesis recognizes, we must juggle many balls, “knowing which will bounce if dropped and which will break.” The teaching ball hits the ground first for many of us, especially those of us for whom teaching is not a part of our evaluation and/or those whose sole teaching evaluations come from our students. Quality teaching is not “incentivized,” to adopt the parlance of the corporate university.
So, if research is indeed our main focus, how can our teaching enhance, inform, or otherwise complement that research? Of course they are both important (and potentially enjoyable) in their own right, and they are both scholarship. But, at least for graduate students, one is our “job” and the other is the thing we get paid to do in order to fund our “job.” (This situation obviously is different for adjunct lecturers, VAPs, post-doc, pre-tenure professors, and tenured professors, respectively, and it varies among institutions and contracts. But I’ll “write what I know.”) How can teaching be something other than, better than a distraction, waste of time, or side job? It is probably obvious how research can contribute to teaching, but how might teaching improve our research?
In his twentieth thesis, Russell McCutcheon suggests one way in which teaching and research are complementary: they both constitute “the dissemination of information gained by means of prior research.” I hate to quibble over word choice, but the thesis argues that teaching and research are similar, related, or analogous, not really complementary. Yes, teaching and research employ some of the same skills, and by practicing one you might hone both. In the remainder of this post, though, I want to consider the ways that teaching—preparation, planning, designing courses, delivering lectures, creating assignments, even grading papers—can make your conference papers, articles, chapters, dissertations, and books better.
As much as I might agree with McCutcheon’s appeal to one’s “responsibilities as a scholar” and the internalized shame I do feel for “shirking” them, teaching is usually not about ideals or principles. It’s about what you do with your hours. When you have to write an article or dissertation but you also must plan a lecture for your World Religions class, what do you do? What follows is, I suppose, advice. (Ugh. First I dissect word choices, and then I dole out advice. I swear I’m not normally this pedantic.) Quick caveat: my “advice” is based only on my particular and limited experience. It might or might not be helpful or applicable to you. No one should have any reason to consider me a good source of advice about anything, really. [End of disclaimer/confession.]
I believe that teaching has improved the quality, if not always the rate, of my scholarship. Here are a few ways that teaching can complement, and even enhance and improve, your research.
Test your themes and frameworks. Find some similar case study and write a lecture about it. “Classification,” to quote J.Z. Smith, “often produces surprise, the condition which calls forth efforts of explanation.” If you research religion and colonial governance in one place, prepare a lecture on the same topic in a totally different place. The similarities and differences will demand explanation, and those explanations might help sharpen your understanding of your own research.
Try out some new themes and frameworks. If you are intrigued by a somewhat unfamiliar framework around which a body of scholarship (or an AAR group) is already organized, plan a few lectures on that theme and read a few books on it. Then, you can see if it’s useful or applicable, and if it is, you have a head start on joining that group’s conversations.
Find new models for scholarship. As I am writing I keep a few models in mind. These are the books I have read that I want my work to resemble in style, organization, use of sources, conceptual framing, or method. I think the most important books we read are those to which we say, “I want to do it like that.” One such book for me in Jason Josephson’s The Invention of Religion in Japan. But I never would have read it had I not scheduled a World Religions lecture on “religion in Japan.” Now, each semester I find at least three or four monographs I’d like to read (New Books Network podcasts are a great way to find these), and then I schedule new lectures about those topics. I force myself to read the books, since I need to write the lectures.
See what your students notice. If possible, teach something from your research materials. Students will bring a set of questions that you might not expect. They think “outside of the box” because they are not trained in specific sub-disciplines. They ask the foundational questions that sometimes we have skipped past.
In these ways and more, teaching has been enjoyable, intellectually gratifying, and even productive, if indirectly. It might seem odd to say it—and I never would have anticipated this a few years ago—but my dissertation will be much better because I teach World Religions. This is only because I readjusted my outlook to think of teaching and research, as McCutcheon suggests, as “complementary.”
 Please forgive the crass calculations going on here. Really, I think teaching is worth doing because it’s fun and rewarding and I would feel bad if I did not try to do a good job. I’m uncomfortable with the line of argument I’m advancing because it reminds me of corporate mindfulness retreats where they tell you that taking breaks actually makes you more productive and thus is “worth it” and acceptable. I suppose that is what I’m trying to argue about teaching.
 J.Z. Smith, “A Matter of Class,” in Relating Religion (2004), 175.
Charles McCrary is a PhD student in American religious history at Florida State University. His research interests center on nineteenth-century American cultural and intellectual history. He is writing a dissertation on the cultural history of sincerity and belief in 19th-century America. He can be found on Twitter @CharlesMcCrary.