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 other posts in this series, see here.
by Matt Sheedy
Thesis 5. Whether as an ABD or after having been awarded the Ph.D., some candidates accept year-to-year work as a full-time Instructor or Lecturer (sometimes also called a Sessional position or a Part-time Temporary Instructor). Such positions often entail teaching loads that are heavier than tenure-track or tenured faculty members and, depending on the salary offered, may necessitate supplemental teaching (e.g., evening or summer courses) for one to earn sufficient income. Although the benefits of teaching experience and an academic home can be invaluable to an early career person, the costs such temporary employment entails for one’s ability to carry out research and writing can be high. Navigating these costs/benefits is no easy task; for instance, one might learn that, sometimes, time is more valuable than money.
I am reminded here of the now-infamous remarks by Mitt Romney in his presidential bid in 2012, when he stated the following about how college students struggling with debt might find a way out of their predicament:
We’ve always encouraged young people: Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business.
While borrowing money from one’s parents is not an option for many the idea that those with an advanced education (either pursuing or having recently completed a Ph.D) could be strapped for cash seems to be at odds with what many (rightly) take to be a path of privilege that leads to the ivory tower, instead of the unpaved road that it often resembles, with numerous casualties along the way. The recent student strike and arbitration settlement for TA’s at the University of Toronto is but one of numerous examples of present challenges.
All of which is to say that we must acknowledge the larger issues at play effecting departments in the humanities—political, economic, and structural—giving rise to both creative solutions, entropy (left unlinked for professional reasons), downsizing or mergers (both with other humanities departments or, in the case of the Study of Religion, with departments of classics, philosophy, history, theology [or some kind of realignment]), and death. Although McCutcheon’s Theses on Professionalization was written before the economic crisis in 2008, and thus before the most recent round of belt tightening effecting the academy, such realities are nothing new (see Part VI: Religious Studies and Identity Politics in Reinventing Religious Studies 2014).
To whatever extent creative solutions might aid this current lull, it cannot be overlooked that the primary reason for the plight of sessional and part-time temporary instructors has much to do with larger social forces and the glut of recently minted Ph.D’s trying to fill fewer positions in a highly competitive market. Unless these problems are addressed, time will be a commodity only available to a privileged few who are able to avoid the need to teach more than a productive scholarly life can easily afford.
I find myself in a similar situation to that described in thesis 5, though with several important caveats that offer a useful point of comparison.
I defended my Ph.D in January 2015, waded through three months of bureaucracy to finalize the process, and convocated in May. Having been without the official Ph.D stamp throughout most of the application process for positions starting in 2015-2016, I was (arguably) at a competitive disadvantage and did not secure anything for this coming academic year. Despite these obstacles however, my position is an extremely fortunate one… for the time being.
For some years now I have taught a course with Distance and On-line Education at my university, which functions as a public-private partnership, and thus offers a different pay-scale than other in-class sessional positions that fall under collective bargaining agreements (the pay for these is quite paltry at my institution). This has, in certain years, provided more money than my yearly fellowship (which was good for four years) and has allowed me to keep my financial head above water without having to search out a heavy teaching load or (as is not uncommon) find part-time work outside of the university. Criticisms of on-line courses and MOOCs notwithstanding, I know of no other Ph.D student who has had such a position, and therefore take it to be an anomaly and not a path toward the future. This is doubly fortuitous in my case, since recent cutbacks at my institution have meant that there are no other teaching positions available for this coming year in my department. Add to this the fact that I am located in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which, unlike Southern Ontario or, say, the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, does not have many other universities in close proximity where I can find part time work.
As editor of this blog, Bulletin for the Study of Religion, I have been afforded numerous opportunities to gain contacts and establish professional relationships. I’d like to think that those who have contributed to the Bulletin over the years have also been able to establish contacts through this forum, contributing not only the occasional blog post, but also essays that have appeared in the Bulletin’s journal. Likewise, my tenure as editor has given rise to opportunities for collaboration with other scholars on a number of projects, and the Bulletin has benefited greatly from our affiliation with the North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR). All of which is to say, there have been numerous opportunities outside of research and teaching that I have been fortunate to tap into that have aided my process of professionalization.
In the coming six months I have three conference presentations (two at the upcoming NAASR/AAR conference in Atlanta), a few book projects that I am planning to edit, two essays slated for books, and at least three essays to submit to journals. On top of this, I will be chipping away at the dissertation-to-book process (see the helpful guide by William Germano, From Dissertation to Book, Second Edition 2013), and fielding the firestorm of job and post-doc applications that come my way starting in September. This will be a grueling period, to say the least, and one that aim to rise up to with shinny gold stars.
If I were saddled with three or more courses to teach during this time (I will be teaching one on-line course in the fall), as many in my position are, methinks that premature wrinkles and grey hair would be sure to follow. Indeed, for many early career academics, myself included, time is more valuable than money.
Matt Sheedy recently defended his Ph.D in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.