Scholars or Colleagues?

craftI had the good fortune the other day to go up to the University of Chicago to lead a workshop in their Divinity School’s The Craft of Teaching series. While there I met with some old friends, schemed on a project tor two, and presented a paper and participated in a discussion with about 25 people on teaching the introductory course (almost all of whom were current MA or PhD students). Of course I had to eat too and so I went out to some nice dinners with a couple different groups of people and it was there that some of the really interesting conversations took place.

Among the questions that I was asked one evening was one concerning whether early career scholars, who are about the go onto the job market, should have an active social media presence, whether that means being on Twitter or blogging…?

I’ve been a Department chair for 10 years now and have been in on the hiring of many people, so I’ve seen lots of C.V.s over the years, and — like a lot of topics — I’ve got an opinion on that one.

Although only one person asked me that specific question about social media, it struck me as a variation on a number of the questions I got from grad students while I was up north — questions not just about whether they should be blogging but also about whether they should be writing book reviews, submitting their work to peer review journals, trying to present at conferences, etc. And, in programs, like Chicago’s, where grad students don’t have all that much opportunity to teach their own undergrad class, some also asked how they can put their best pedagogical foot forward when applying for jobs in which other applicants may have considerable teaching experience.

This certainly isn’t the place to answer each of these queries in detail; I tried my best, in person, to provide as many reasons (and anecdotes) as I could to illustrate why I happen to think this and not that when it comes to some of these issues. (After all, this is a blog and @McCutcheonSays exists). But for now, consider this: who would ever ask if you need to know how to word process in order to get a job these days? Silly question, right? For that once exotic technology has, within just a couple decades, become such an integral part of what we do that we don’t even call it “word processing” any more — we just call it “writing.” So…, what role does social media play in the Department to which you’re applying and where do you think the future of the web is going in higher ed — i.e., is being conversant with the virtual world, having a profile in that world, and knowing your way around various software and hardware that make it possible, beneficial or not to your application?

Only you can answer that.

But making that decision strikes me as one among many choices that a strategic young scholar ought to be thinking about. (And besides, as one person rightly chimed in, blogging does help to get him writing regularly and that’s got to be worth something when you’re trying to produce a dissertation eventually. So the benefits of social media can be unexpected.)

Speaking of decisions: in the background of many of these questions was a broad choice that (some? many? all?) grad programs seem to have made, a choice that created the structure in which these students had been formed and from out of which they posed their questions: do we train scholars or colleagues?scholar

While its understandable for a school to have the ambitious goal of getting their grad students to write dissertations that will revolutionize or reorient the field — thereby seeing their work as producing scholars — from a Department chair’s point of view, I may be more interested in hiring a colleague — someone who, yes, does innovative, original, and rigorous academic work, sure, but also someone prepared to do that work next door to me.

colleagueThat is, the work of being a university professor is usually somewhat more than just being a good scholar (which, of course, can be a perfectly solitary life), for it means working as part of a group to achieve collective goals — like, say…, the goal of successfully reproducing (who knows, maybe even expanding) the Department in which we carry out our own individual work. So Departments are likely looking for more than cutting edge research and the ability to nail down the details in footnotes. For they’d like evidence of teaching ability and expertise (e.g., can you talk to a 19 year old who is in your class not because of the inherent interest the topic holds? After all, how else do we get majors in the study of religion other than by many students stumbling across us in satisfying their Gen Ed requirements?) and they’d also like evidence of an understanding of the service required of a faculty member and the need to be able to juggle balls without dropping (m)any — service to the profession, sure (such as serving on a program unit at the national scholarly association), but more importantly perhaps, service to the local unit (who will advise our student association, plan our guest lectures, organize new course proposals, hold the movie nights, serve on this or that college or university committee, be in charge of the website and maybe even create a blog…?).

As I believe I said one evening in Chicago, chairs and hiring committees probably hope that the people they hire will succeed in their new positions, eventually earning tenure, a hope that that makes a good hiring decision also a bold speculation on whether that person will eventually make a career out of that appointment — which puts the job applicant in the driver’s seat, for they now need to communicate as much information as possible to the hiring committee, to help them make that call, to help them feel good about the risk we all take when we bring someone new aboard.

Paint for us a picture of someone who will contribute and succeed, who will enhance what we already happen to do but also take us somewhere new.

Is blogging a piece of that picture?

That there are few positions in the country now in which faculty have the luxury of focusing almost exclusively on teaching graduate students and writing their next book — the inverse of that statement is to take seriously how many 2 and 3 person Departments of Philosophy/Religious Studies there are in the country or how many positions there are in which someone teaches 3/3 or 4/4 with all classes being a different prep… — indicates to me that grad programs in our field would be well advised to be a little more nimble than they seem to be, to help their students prepare to be colleagues and not just scholars. For while we all might want to reshape the field, it’s Departments that pay our salaries and it’s the students whom we teach there that largely justify our existence as university professors.

So…, should you be blogging as a grad student?

You tell me.

3 thoughts on “Scholars or Colleagues?

  1. This feels a bit strange and meta, because I’ve just wrote an article, which started out as a blog post. Where I comment on “collegual deconstruction” and even cast you, my blogging Professor, in an histrionic imaginary play (sorry for that).

    In a rare case, it was actually my supervisor who asked me to blog about an article in MTSR, which seemed highly relevant to my dissertation work. Partly because I was rid of the scholarly angst and the formal restrictions that comes with writing for a journal, the text grew rather quickly and it was even fun to write it! At a point, it was clear that it was something that could be edited into a more proper “scholarly” article and submitted to MTSR.

    Now, since it started out as a blog entry, I wrote it in a more personal and confrontational style (that being said, the initial article by Herman was rather spirited and dismissive as well). I acted more like a “scholar“ in the sense over. This seems, perhaps, like a paradox, but I think if I had started out writing it as a proper article in the first place, I’d be more “collegual” and way less playful with metaphors and gists on others’ behalf. Reading from the response I got, I’m afraid my objections and arguments, got a bit overshadowed by my tone, which didn’t leave me much of a benefit of doubt. Now, that’s not an excuse for anything, just a reflection on how a “blogging mindset” affected my writing in this case. So this is at least one data-point (and yeah, I get what #data is) for why you should (or shouldn’t, some may object) mix blogging and scholarship.

    Another data-point is this blog, and of course, The Religious Studies Project. The latter is a blog in disguise in the technical and the jargon sense (i.e. the “features”), primarly driven by graduate students. I think much of the work that has been produced and published here, there and anywhere, adds to the scholarly and collegiual discourse in a positive way. Not only is it more effective, but it also makes it easier to identify shared interests across the usual institutional borders. Add social media to the mix, and scholars that you previously only found in the journal, soon becomes colleagues. It’s much to blogging and social media, I now enjoy having almost daily causal contact with colleguas from around the world. That’s not bad for a graduate student.

    So, yes. Do blog!

    1. How timely–thanks for the comment. A blog turned into a response to an article in a peer review journal. Not bad indeed.