Theses on Professionalization: Jennifer Collins-Elliott


Thesis #11. While higher education is organized so as to train ever increasing specialists–a process that begins with surveys and broad course work, examines candidates on their knowledge in general areas, and then culminates in writing a dissertation on a highly technical topic–eventual full-time employment can just as easily depend upon one’s ability to contribute lower-level, so-called Core or General Education introductory courses to a Department’s curriculum. Because many Departments of Religious Studies justify their existence not simply by appealing to the number of their majors or graduates, but also the number of Core or General Education courses that they offer to students pursuing degrees in other areas of the University, gaining early experience in such courses as a Teaching Assistant is an important step toward being able to persuade future employers of one’s ability to be a colleague who helps to teach their Department’s “bread and butter” courses.

by Jennifer Collins-Elliott

I see in Thesis 11 the confluence of a few vexing and sometimes controversial strands in the modern university, particularly at research-one state universities like McCutcheon’s home institution. First, Thesis 11 speaks to the ways in which the modern academy pulls graduate students and young faculty in two different, and sometimes competing, directions: that of specialization (research) and that of generalization (teaching). Woven into this are the concerns raised in Emily D. Crews’ piece last week and the reappearance of the Platonic form of “well-rounded job candidate”—the person who publishes original research that contributes to their specialization while also learning enough on far-flung subjects in their broader field to feel intellectually honest in the classroom while teaching survey courses. And second, McCutcheon presents here, though only in passing, an on-going conversation about the “usefulness” of the Humanities, the rhetoric of which is consonant with the increasing corporatization of public universities, and what future employment in the Humanities might look like.

Is there a teaching experience saturation point?

Similar to Thesis 10, there is a call here to be able to demonstrate one’s flexibility and range on their CV and throughout the hiring process. In a market awash with qualified candidates, institutions can, to some extent, afford to look for their unicorn. While McCutcheon recommends gaining experience as a Teaching Assistant, it is often not enough simply to have assisted in a course but rather is necessary to have been the instructor of record. To have the potential or educational training to teach such-and-such a course without having actually taught it can be a deal-breaker for a hiring committee. There is no time for on-the-job teacher training at research-one state institutions when the enrollment and numbers of majors is ever more used to justifying the existence of many Humanities departments. What increasingly appears to be the case, however, is not the lack of teaching experience before entering the job market, but rather an excess of teaching experience that, at a point, becomes less useful and more redundant—a point McCutcheon addresses in Thesis 5 and the struggles of which Matt Sheedy gives voice to in his post.

While demonstrating teaching experience in “gen ed” courses can help open the door, the axiom “publish or perish” remains as true as ever for those who are offered tenure-track positions. As a graduate student working on her dissertation who is also teaching “bread and butter” courses, I waver between appreciating and questioning the usefulness of the experience that I’m currently gaining. I, and others in my position, have the opportunity to learn how to balance research and teaching, which is a challenge that tenure-track professors face. How can those of us trained in universities that rely on graduate student labor protect our research time? How can we graduate students or young scholars in lecturer positions, tasked with teaching large survey-courses while also trying to establish a research and publication record, work “smarter, not harder”? How does one fight the teaching undertow? Years ago when McCutcheon was the keynote speaker at Florida State University’s Department of Religion Annual Graduate Student Symposium, he gave me two pieces of advice about teaching: he told me that I wasn’t obligated to the textbook, and that every course should have a thesis statement. I found this advice to be a relief. With this in mind I found it much easier to craft a more cohesive world religions syllabus and one that would give me space to incorporate aspects of my own research. While I still think of this advice each time I write a syllabus, it has also led me to invest an inordinate amount of my time in my teaching—a danger addressed in Thesis 19. While McCutcheon is undoubtedly correct that having teaching experience for “bread and butter” courses on one’s CV is crucial in the current job market, the process of gaining this experience in graduate school can feel a bit like trying to do a wheelie while you still have the training wheels on your bike.

Future Employment in the Humanities

With politicians like Florida Governor Rick Scott doing their best to marginalize the Humanities and as of 2007 at least 70% of faculty members being employed “off the tenure track,” perhaps we should think about for whom these theses were written, or rather, what kind of future they imagine? When McCutcheon says that, “gaining early experience in such courses as a Teaching Assistant is an important step toward being able to persuade future employers of one’s ability to be a colleague who helps to teach their Department’s ‘bread and butter’ courses,” I think he’s absolutely right. But then I find myself trying to imagine what these “future employers” might want me, and the majority of graduating PhDs in the Humanities, for, and what kind of positions might become more common in the next 5-10 years? The AAUP’s report on tenure and teaching-intensive appointments suggests that there is an emerging employment field between semester-to-semester lecture appointments and full-time tenure-track faculty. The language of these appointments vary, sometimes called “instructor tenure,” “continuing lectureship,” or “senior lectureship,” but each of these positions is meant to offer greater stability, support, professionalization, and perhaps benefits than more traditional forms of contingency labor.

Thesis 11, read alongside the other 20, continues to provide a clear and concise framework for all levels of graduate students and young scholars. However, in light of increasing graduate student teaching and longer periods of lecturership between graduation and possible tenure-track employment, coupled with the emergence of a “middle class” of university teaching, we should be mindful of the ways in which the imagined audience for this advice as well as the imagined employment landscape has changed in the nearly 10 years since McCutcheon published his theses.

Jennifer Collins-Elliott is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Florida State University. Her research interests include the body, gender, and sexuality, as well as martyrdom and violence in late Antique Christianity. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on rape in early Christian literature and is tentatively titled, “’Bespattered with the Mud of Another’s Lust’: Rape and Physical Embodiment in Christian Literature of the 4th-6th Centuries CE.” She is on Twitter @JCollinsElliott.

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