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July 06, 2010
The Search for Authenticity—And a Job
I had a problem. Before I landed a tenure-track position at a wonderful seminary in Virginia, I was addicted to websites that carried job postings in my fields. I do not know why I was so drawn to visiting these websites daily—hourly. When I was close to completing my dissertation, I sent in my application materials to the schools with open positions in my field. That was standard practice for persons in my situation. I would tell myself to be patient and optimistic. Any reasonable person would do that. Yeah, there is only one problem with that; I exhibited my impatience and anxiety by frequenting the job openings. They did not change that much from one minute to the next, but I needed a job!
The Chronicle of Higher Education did not help my addiction (See Nora L. Corrigan’s column (January 18, 2007.)) The online version of the Chronicle updated its job postings often; that did not really help me. The American Academy of Religion website could change from one day to another with position listings being added overnight. In addition to these sites, I researched the schools to which I applied a couple of times a day. That required more time on the computer which led me back to checking the openings on the aforementioned websites. You do see where I am going with this? Do you realize how much time this can consume in one person’s day? I was a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies, trying to complete a dissertation. I woke up at 6 a.m. each day feeling like I was two hours behind.
To be sure, my introduction makes it seem like I was a little on edge about my prospects for securing a job. That may have been the case. Can you blame me? Graduate school can be one of the most productive and expensive apprenticeships in which a person can enroll. The numerous hours spent on coursework and exams seems immeasurable. I did not even mention the time that “ordinary” people spend on dissertations. (Two gentlemen in my program took about nine months to complete their dissertations. From my vantage point, that does not seem normal.) The benefits are wonderful and the stresses may even be worth it. But the apprentice should not remain that for the rest of her/his life. One subjects—I mean allows—oneself to “sit at the feet” of the masters in order to assume her/his calling in life. At the end of the process it is only natural that the student becomes the master. At least that is what I keep telling myself.
So here is my self-esteem checklist when I visit the job websites. I hope to complete my dissertation in a couple of months, check. I have published some projects—check. I have received fellowships and I have teaching experience, check and double check.
Wait a minute, what is this thing called “fit” to which everybody in these job search columns refers? I do not remember completing a course in that area. As a matter of fact, I do not think that “fit” was a research topic in my Theology in America course. Looking back at the job descriptions for the positions that caught my attention, I do not see anything about “fit” being a necessary qualification. Hold on, there are other columns on the Chronicle’s website about academics entering fields outside of the academy. What kind of dirty trick is this? Why can’t the Chronicle be like conservative talk radio or Air America and only offer one-sided declamations? Try this one: Every budding scholar who wants a job in the academy shall get one! Who cares if it’s not true? It sounds good to thousands of graduate students who need hope and a decent income to repay any student loans. (Okay, I admit, there needs to be a tempered approach to counseling graduate students on the job market.)
I also had another problem, a much bigger problem. In addition to these job listing sites, I visited the openings list on my denomination’s website. I must admit, I am an ordained American Baptist minister who still felt/feels somewhat torn between serving full-time in the church or the academy. I completed the three-year seminary experience and my church ordained me in 2001. At that point, I was certain that I was “called” to the classroom. Therefore, I did not apply for a pastoral position and dedicated myself to the ministry of graduate study. When I was close to completing my dissertation the vocational path did not seem so easy to follow. The closer I was to graduation, the more concerned I was about my “fit” in the world. Am I supposed to be a full-time professional church leader? Waiting to hear from the search committees at the schools where I applied did not help my moments of discernment. (It feels like an eternity between sending one’s application materials to hearing from academic search committees.) What, did they have jobs to work when they were not in committee? Oh, yeah, they were full-time professors. That is beside the point. They give us candidates a lot of time to think…And think…And think.
What is my point? It seems to me that job searches are all about being authentic. The time-consuming preparation of application materials can really be an opportunity for a person to re-examine her/his direction in life. This idea of “vocation” guides my thinking on this matter. To what am I being called to do? The reality is that I have had to revisit that question several times in my life. Can one have abilities and qualities that work well in multiple settings? There are several spaces in which persons affirm the work of a historian. Can one create intellectual conversations about one’s research in spaces outside of the classroom? Maybe. I see a number of my colleagues sharing ideas in varied spaces of public dialogue.
Should I accept the fact that I have traits suited for academe and religious life? The part of me that enjoys and is equipped to do research, writing, and teaching can find its home in the academy. Those same attributes are a good fit in the church as well. The “pastoral side” of me that wants persons to be engaged in conversations and activities that enhance their personhood can function in both settings. I want to mentor, instruct, celebrate with, and console as a part of my duties. I want to identify potential in a person and develop leadership. These qualities are not incompatible with the environments to which I am destined to occupy, I think. So what was I to do?
I know what you are thinking, “You could have your cake and eat it too.” Stop complaining, you have choices! You would not be the first to express this sentiment. I asked a former classmate about his success in the job market after the 2006 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion. He told me that he had no leads and that he admired my position. What he meant by that was that if I could not find an academic post, I could always serve a church. There are two major issues with what he said. First, he has never been interviewed by a pastoral search committee in a Baptist church. You want to talk about illegal interview questions! (Okay, you caught me, I tried it once.) Second, I refer you back to my idea about being authentic. Which setting will allow me to be me? Here is where my idealism seeps through the pages of this text. I do not want a job. I want to touch lives with the work that I do. I know, I am asking for a lot—including poverty. One can operate with the belief that there is more to a tenure-track than publishing and more to a pastorate than a weekly broadcast on the Word network, right?
I can hear you questioning my reasoning again. Do I want a tenure-track position at a college, university, or seminary? Yes. Do I want to be a local church pastor who encourages the positive changes that take place in a person’s life? Sometimes. Can I do both at the same time? I probably cannot do both well; not if I want to live past the age of 45 and do a decent job for both communities. Will I be happy with either one? Sure. My vocation is to be authentic—the real me—by making use of who I am and what I have (i.e., personality, education, etc.) in whatever work I am led to do. A job with a salary and benefits helps.
Adam L. Bond is an assistant professor of historical studies at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University. He wrote this journal entry while a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies—Historical Theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 2007
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