Theses on Professionalization: Jeffrey Wheatley


by Jeffrey Wheatley

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

Thesis #8: Like all institutions, academia provides a case study in the complex relationship between structure and agency; for, although there are a variety of things that one can do to increase one’s competitiveness, job candidates must recognize that there are also a host of factors of which they are unaware and which are therefore beyond their control (e.g., the unstated needs, interests, goals, and even insecurities of the hiring Department; the number of other candidates qualified at any given time in your area of expertise; the impact of world events on the perceived need for scholars in your subject area, etc.). Success likely requires one to learn to live with the latter while taking control of the former.

Most of Russell McCutcheon’s theses on professionalization provide important suggestions for how young scholars can develop their academic careers. The eighth thesis is a bit different. It suggests that we might do well to embrace on some level the vicissitudes of pursuing an academic career. McCutcheon writes that:

[A]lthough there are a variety of things that one can do to increase one’s competitiveness, job candidates must recognize that there are also a host of factors of which they are unaware and which are therefore beyond their control.

However deserving we might think ourselves to be and however much we professionalize and develop research that fulfills our particular field’s current desires, the truth is that academia in all of its institutional, personal, financial, and political dimensions will in all likelihood defy any attempt on the part of young scholars to understand the academic job market fully, much less master it completely. There are always unknowns. The academy is a game of risks.

In some ways Thesis #8 resonates with Tara Baldrick-Morrone’s response to Thesis #6. Regarding the demands of professionalization, she writes that:

[Th]is constant ratcheting-up of expectations does not guarantee us a thing, not even an interview with a third-tier institution. Performing any combination of the aforementioned tasks (or all of them, for that matter) does not equate to a job.

Acknowledging the reality of these vicissitudes does, I think, contribute to the development of a healthier realistic mentality in young scholars. To put it one way: failure to get a secure job does not indicate a failure in effort. But as I consider Thesis #8 and the Theses on Professionalization broadly, I am stuck thinking not about the “additional” skills, forms of consciousness, or exercises that will serve young scholars should they pursue an academic career (even if one of these skills is the acceptance of a lack of control), but, as Tara notes at the end of her post, I am stuck thinking about the responsibilities that the field broadly has toward young scholars. Furthermore, Thesis #8 prompts me to consider the structural forces that are more harmful and open to challenge than the examples McCutcheon provides. So, even as I acknowledge the utility and intent of Thesis #8, I want to use this opportunity to pivot towards these issues.

As a graduate student in the early stages of a PhD program, I cannot lay claim to any direct knowledge of the visceral realities of being on the job market—the ways in which the unknowns play into hiring; the ways in which the ideals of a meritocracy cannot capture the messiness of the whole process. In some ways the academic career market to me remains an abstraction, albeit one whose presence looms. Thankfully, I have been fortunate enough to have graduate colleagues and faculty members who have made frank discussions about the job market a part of academic training and central to my sense of being a member of an academic (and social) community. Furthermore, many scholars have utilized digital spaces to give priority to discussing #altac, the future of tenure, contingent labor conditions, the presumptuous privileging of those trained at elite institutions, and the ways in which gender and race structure academia today. We need to continue to examine and scrutinize these variables and how they influence our relationships, our hierarchies, and our scholarly production. Because of the efforts of these vocal scholars, I and many other young graduate students, it seems, are getting a much better sense of what awaits us and what the costs (and the rewards!) might be should we pursue an academic career.

Some of the persistent “unknowns” in academic hiring are inevitable. In truth, the phrase “the unspokens,” rather than “unknowns,” better captures what I mean in this post. We might do better to accept some of the academy’s “unspokens” as they are. The latter two examples that McCutcheon provides in Thesis #8 qualify for this treatment. However, McCutcheon’s first example—“the unstated needs, interests, goals, and even insecurities of the hiring Department” as factors beyond the control of applicantsdeserves more criticism. I think hiring institutions have a responsibility to craft pointed and relevant job descriptions that provide as transparent a view as possible to their intentions. Surely, this is a burden on these hiring committees. But I care more about the burden placed on job applicants lured by job descriptions whose authors have not disclosed (or figured out) what or whom they are really looking for. Applying to jobs is a costly and time-consuming endeavor that often occurs during a period in which many young scholars have diminishing or no support from their graduate institutions. We should question and challenge such a damaging “unspoken” variable alongside the ones I list in the previous paragraph.

I use “we” in a broad sense. I use it normatively, with the hope of drawing in scholars at all levels of academia to openly engage these issues. Young scholars have the most reason to be vocal about some of the more problematic unspokens that structure the academy today. Young scholars also occupy a position of vulnerability, which might be exacerbated if they are vocal in challenging the structures of the academy, especially if they are alone in doing so and especially if their social positionality (e.g., gender, class, race) already weakens their placement in the academy. The critique of some of the academy’s unspokens, I would like to think, should be the responsibility of our institutions, not just a burden placed upon young scholars as they navigate the complicated world of the academy. I make this claim not because I think Religious Studies is a site that, because of its objects of study (variously defined), creates a unique demand for ethical practices and responsibilities. I do not. I make this claim because I am invested in these institutions and fields. I care about the knowledges, methods, and theories we produce, and I care about the professional exercises and institutions that undergird this production.

Jeffrey Wheatley is a doctoral student in American Religions at Northwestern University. Jeff holds an MA from Florida State University. He is primarily interested in studying religion alongside politics, race, and imperialism. His current project explores the dynamics of race and religion within US colonial governance of the Philippines. Other research areas include secularism, capitalism, theory and method, and US Catholic history. He is on Twitter @wheatleyjt.

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