There and Back Again: A Grad’s Tale

What can you do with a degree in Religious Studies or the humanities? Have questions about what happens after graduation? Come find out from a successful REL graduate. Join us on Wednesday, September 26 for our Grad Tales event! Jennifer Alfano Nelson is a Religious Studies graduate who will be discussing her undergraduate degrees (English and Religious Studies) earned from UA in 2007.


Jennifer went on to earn a M.A. in Education at UAB and taught middle school English from 2010-2017, and she is now a member of the Alum Liaison Committee. During this time, she developed an interest in educational technology and software development and decided to learn to code, receiving a scholarship to Flatiron School’s Web Developer program from Women Who Code. She is now a software developer at Quantalytix, Inc. in Birmingham, AL. She also gets to combine her passion for education and technology as a Microsoft TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) volunteer, co-teaching an introduction to computer science course at Tarrant High School.

Meet Jennifer…


Jennifer’s host in the event will be Kim Davis also an REL grad and member of the Alum Liaison Committee.

The Individual, the Organization, or the System? Teach for America and Blame in American Education


Liz Long graduated from the University of Alabama in May 2016 with degrees in Religious Studies and Psychology. She then moved to Indianapolis with Teach for America and taught second grade and preschool for three months total before leaving the program. She now works for the Indiana Department of Child Services.

In the spring of this past year, I was getting ready to graduate, and desperately searching for a job. I wound up applying (and getting in to) Teach For America (TFA). So in July, after 5 (hellacious) weeks of training in Houston, I packed up my apartment and moved to Indianapolis to teach 2nd grade at a charter school here.

Around mid-September, I found myself physically and mentally unable to do my job, and with extremely mixed feelings about my position, my school, and the organization I had joined. In mid-October, I left my school, withdrew from Teach for America, and started searching for new jobs. The decision to leave was difficult – I love my students, and I still have some desire to work in education – but there were a lot more factors in play. I felt unsupported and unheard by my school, and I felt like there was considerable discord between TFA’s expectations for me and the school’s expectations for me. Additionally, I felt like a hypocrite. TFA’s mission is to close the achievement gap between wealthy, white kids and poor students of color, but it felt like my school was working towards the opposite. To make matters worse, the day I turned in my resignation marked four weeks since I’d come down with bronchitis, with no signs of recovery.

Teach for America is a nationwide non-profit organization with the goal of placing new teachers in low-income, high-need schools. A quick Google search of its name reveals countless op-eds, blog posts, and articles both criticizing and praising the organization. Since it began in 1994, it’s been fraught with controversy. Its major criticisms are:

  1. TFA does not adequately train teachers – the majority of TFA corps members did not get degrees in education, and TFA’s Institute (their training program) is merely 5 weeks of classes and the organization’s equivalent of student teaching.
  2. TFA corps members often do not stay in the classroom after their two years are up. Many move into positions in school leadership, or use the program as a stepping-stone to law school, medical school, grad school, etc.
  3. TFA perpetuates educational inequality by placing teachers with little training in the classroom.

The American education system is one based on class and race (also see these two articles). Put simply, if you’re white or middle to upper class, your education is likely far better than it would be if you were a person of color or came from a low-income family. Some critics place a majority of the blame for the continuation of this system on TFA, for the reasons listed above. Some even take it so far as to blame individual TFA corps members for entering into a corrupt organization (one which many of us do not understand upon joining-we just want to be teachers). But simply blaming TFA for its failures obscures the larger systemic problems in American education that make TFA even necessary or possible to begin with.

I can’t speak for the whole country, but I can speak fairly well for Indianapolis, though I’ve only been here for a few months. Indianapolis, like many of TFA’s placement regions, faces a teacher shortage nearly every year of 70-90 teachers. I worked with more than one person on an emergency license (meaning they also are not traditionally licensed teachers, and are often without even the 5 weeks of training TFA corps members receive). The city is also home to the Indianapolis Teaching Fellows, an organization almost identical to TFA, but the organization is much smaller. Indianapolis Teaching Fellows (ITF) also go through six weeks of training in the summer, followed by a two year placement in either a public or public charter school in Indianapolis. ITF members are enrolled alongside TFA corps members in Marian University’s Masters of Arts in Teaching program.

Despite being an almost identical program, searching Google for ITF returns mostly information on the program. On the first search page, I found only one blog post on ITF or its parent organization, TNTP Teaching Fellows. If they’re such similar programs, why does TFA take all the heat? Why are there no posts about the fact that Indianapolis needs two low-income teacher training programs, in addition to emergency licensure, and still comes up 70 teachers short year after year?

TFA is far from the only low-income teacher development program out there. Almost every state offers emergency licensure, alternative certification programs, or another teacher development program similar to TFA. In my eyes, this is indicative not of TFA’s ineffectiveness, but of a much, much larger problem in American education. All across the country, low-income school districts are facing teacher shortages for a number of reasons, chief among them low pay, high stress, and long hours with no overtime. After a few years, no one wants to be a teacher, so districts are forced to rely on teachers with little to know formal education in education. Even among traditionally licensed teachers, the turnover rate is extremely high. Only 50% of teachers nowadays stay in the profession after five years. Many traditionally licensed teachers note that a degree in education does not adequately prepare you to teach in a low-income setting. Yet, schools like this make up roughly 50% of American schools.

Perhaps I’m a bit biased by my time in TFA, but it seems more like the public is looking for a scapegoat than providing legitimate criticisms of TFA. What is needed in American education are large-scale reforms and shifts in discourse. Many have shared these videos on Facebook comparing Finland’s treatment of teachers to America’s, and the structure of Finland’s schools. I don’t disagree with these, though America would likely need a much larger education budget in order to implement the same high pay for teachers and resources for schools – even public schools in high- and middle-income neighborhoods. In some posts to come, I’ll better outline some of the issues in American education. And none of this is to say that TFA is without flaws, because it absolutely is. But in order to get at the heart of TFA’s issues, you must first look at the system it operates in.

Should Sunday Schools Be Registered with the Government?

schoolclassThe head of the British government’s Ofsted — the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills — Sir Michael Wilshaw, was on the radio the other day, discussing a variety of things that scholars of religion might find interesting. Continue reading

The Difficult Art

Picture 4“What we labor at together in college is the production of individuals who know not only that the world is far more complex than it first appears, but also that, therefore, interpretative decisions must be made, decisions of judgment which entail real consequences for which one must take responsibility, from which one may not flee by the dodge of disclaiming expertise. This ultimately political quest for paradigms, for the acquisition of the powers and skills of informed judgment, for the dual capacities of appreciation and criticism, might well stand as the explicit goal of every level of the college curriculum. The difficult art of making interpretative decisions and facing up to their full consequences ought to inform each and every course, each and every object of study. This is the work of education, it is also the work of the world and of life. Let students and the public and, above all, the faculty be told this clearly. This is the only sort of work for which college trains. It is more than enough.”

– from Jonathan Z. Smith’s “Puzzlement” (1986), republished in On Teaching Religion (2013: 127; edited by Christopher Lehrich)


Living on a (Deconstructed) Prayer

Geoff Davidson

Geoff Davidson earned his B.A. in Religious Studies and Political Science in 2009. He went on to earn his M.Div. from Baylor University in 2012. He is currently employed at Habitat for Humanity of Waco, Texas, while also working as a supply preacher.

Last week a state representative in the Alabama Legislature lit up social media by proposing a bill requiring public school classrooms to begin each day with the examination of a text. The politician in question is Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, and the bill is HB318. Why is starting the day with a text stirring up so much controversy? The text in question is a prayer; namely, any prayer used in the opening of Congress.  Continue reading

Who Gets to Think?

Think New ThoughtsThink New Thoughts! A recent tagline promoting the Department of Religious Studies is not simply highlighting our desire to challenge student preconceptions but emphasizing our department’s effort to develop important intellectual skills. While public discourse often emphasizes education as the means to gain economically and overcome poverty, some evidence suggests that economic privilege breeds economic success and that education for the children of the 1% may differ from education for children of the lower rungs of society. Continue reading

“You Just Watch Me!”

My undergraduate degree was in what my university (Queen’s University) called Life Sciences–what others might have once called pre-med. Many of us wrote the MCAT (as I did) but not all of us got into medicine (as I didn’t, but as my roommate did). In our first year, we predictably took courses in Chemistry, Biology, Physics (each of which had its own three hour lab too, of course), Calculus, and Psychology–the last being an elective but everyone pretty much took it. In other years we enrolled in such courses as Organic Chemistry, Genetics, Biochemistry, Histology, Abnormal Psych, Anatomy, Statistics, Brain and Behavior, Physiology, etc. I would imagine that many of my classmates who, like the vast majority of us, didn’t get into medicine, have ended up in one of the many adjacent fields–such as going on to do a Master of Science degree in Microbiology (“micro” for the initiated), or eventually going into, say, Pharmacology–either to do research, work for a drug company’s marketing division (as one friend did after getting his Ph.D.), or owning your own pharmacy (the route taken by another good friend from my Life Sciences days). Continue reading

Not Just for a Job…

Our new University President, Dr. Guy Bailey–who, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, earned his own B.A. and M.A. at the University of Alabama (in English)–arrived on campus about a month or so ago, and in a recent interview, had this to say in reply to the following question:

Q. What did UA give to you as a student that you want current students to receive?

A. Our students should have the highest quality education at the best possible value. Their degree and education should equip them not just for a job, but for any career the future might hold for them. UA gave me the ability to write well and think critically. This is what the core curriculum provides and its importance shouldn’t be underestimated today.”

What do you think the relationship is between job training and education? Which do you think the contemporary university is all about? Why do we have a core curriculum? And what’s the liberal arts got to do with it?