Dear BYU Religious Education (Part 2)

Dear BYU Religious Education,

It’s now been over a year since our last correspondence. I’ve had some time to formulate my thoughts a little more constructively. I’d like to speak to you about the hiring process, and how you might adjust it to the mutual benefit of the candidates and yourself. I realize that some of these may be more applicable to one of your departments rather than both; but I hope this provides you some insight from the other side of the table. I also realize that some of these points are parts of on-going discussions within RE, so a lack of clarity on your part is not always intentional. It very well may be reflective of yet unfinished discussions.

Now, on to the recommendations, numbered for the sake of organization:

1) Accurately frame the role of research for incoming professors. Every incoming professor should have a research agenda; and it seems that you are very supportive of these agendas in terms of allowing for summers off, funding conference and research travel, etc. However, you need to be clearer about your expectations. The idea that’s portrayed by talk of publishing requirements (in the job ad, during interviews, and informally) and by requesting multiple writing samples in the application process is that you are looking for someone with a research agenda appropriate for a Research-1 university. The truth of the matter, though, is far from this. BYU is not an R1, and so talk of research should be appropriate to the context. As such, I have the following suggestions:

a) Stop requiring more than one writing sample in the job application process. Not even Yale asks for more than one sample. If you’d like to see more, then wait until you have a list of invites for the campus visit. At this point it makes sense to ask to see other material. For most candidates, this will probably entail sending you our dissertation.

b) In conversation be clearer that the departments are moving toward peer reviewed publications, but the vast majority of the faculty have not been required to publish in peer reviewed venues for Continuing Faculty Status. In other words, stress the transitional nature of RE where new faculty will be held to different standards, and that these standards will be commensurate with the context. I imagine that, given the context, new faculty will not be expected to be publishing all-stars; rather they will help move the faculty toward a more rigorous research agenda. I imagine the conversation might go something like this: “We in RE hope to be ‘here’ someday, but realize that we are not there now. Should you come to RE we will not expect you to arrive ‘there’ overnight, or even before you are tenured. Instead, you will be a part of an effort to move us in that direction.”

c) Create clear and realistic research expectations for CFS. A realistic goal, given the current situation, is 3 articles in 6 years. Two of these should be in peer-reviewed journals from the 2nd tier or higher. Peer review in this case means double-blind evaluation done by those with expertise in the particular field and with no conflicts of interest (this means that no one at BYU, and certainly no one in RE, should be reviewing someone from RE’s work so as to avoid conflicts of interest). The third article might be published in a devotional venue or without peer review.

2) Acknowledge that excellence in teaching can come from places other than RE and CES classrooms. To be frank, it’s a slap in the face to teach one’s own classes at say, Duke, and then be treated like these classes don’t count when being considered for employment in RE. Please look at the syllabi, look at the evaluations, look at the teaching awards, and read the letter of recommendation that focuses on teaching. The teaching demonstrations during the interview process should give you a real good idea of whether or not a candidate can teach RE classes. On this note:

a) Do not dismiss candidates who have not taught classes in RE or Institute.

b) Recognize that it’s not always appropriate for you to come out and observe a candidate teach a class at his or her current institution.

c) Please tell us if anyone that’s taken a VAP has gone on to get a tenure track job at an institution other than BYU. Since VAPs are not guaranteed to turn into a CFS position, candidates should know up front how accepting a VAP might affect their future options.

3) Stop the inquisition into a candidate’s orthodoxy that’s currently a part of the interview process. A decent research agenda, demonstrated excellence in teaching, and a temple recommend qualify one for the job. Asking questions of an ecclesiastical nature circumvents the process already in place and makes candidates feel like they are sitting before a tribunal of (ultra)orthodoxy.

4) Stop interrogating candidates about their excitement to be in RE. I fear that my previous post, which has been used as a litmus test for candidates, has been misunderstood. There are many good reasons to desire employment in RE (I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t believe so). If someone is applying to work there, they are interested. Also, to calm your mind a bit, I haven’t applied for a position in RE and at this time I have no intention of applying.

5) Have two clear contact points in each department if you expect candidates to get in contact with you prior to applying for a CFS job (and a webpage explaining this). I know several candidates who fell through the cracks because they contacted the wrong person and relied on him or her to forward their information to the right person. Also, I say “two” clear contact points in each department because as it currently stands there seems to be one person heading this up, and as good a job as he is doing, it still creates a situation where a single individual can act as a gate-keeper and essentially determine a candidate’s future very early in the process.

6) And, finally, if you can’t reform the Latter-day Saints and the Bible panels at the SBL, you can at least provide more than a cookie at the BYU reception.

All the best,


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • vicki

    I don’t understand this post. If it’s not your dream job, which I guess it still isn’t, then go find your dream job.

    Oh, and anyone who went to grad school, or even college, should have two non-dissertation writing samples. You wrote term papers, didn’t you?

  • Julie M. Smith

    Interesting. I won’t argue with you like I did last time. 😉

    As for the orthodoxy test, that’s a real can o’ worms, especially after the Bott incident.

    This is pure speculation, but I wonder if the >1 writing sample policy is so a candidate could provide something purely academic and then something more devotional in nature.

  • SmallAxe

    Hi Vicki,

    I sense you don’t fully understand the academic job market. In any given year there are maybe 15 tenure track positions available in any sub-field of religious studies. These are 15 positions from over 2000 four-year colleges (counting those in America; although not all these places, of course, have religious studies departments). Even if you had 20 “dream jobs” there is only a small chance of any of them being available in a given year. And even if any of them are, you’d be competing with 75 other candidates for that position. So, it’s possible to have a dream job in the sense of “it’d be really neat to be there or there,” but not in the sense of “I want to be at that institution and I’m going to work toward it.”

    Now, as far as writing samples are concerned, the writing sample submitted for a job application is different from term papers in several ways. For one, it needs to be written for a broader audience. A term paper written for a class on Buddhist art, for instance, is likely written for the professor that offered the class, whereas a writing sample needs to be written so that it’s accessible to all professors in a given department. Secondly, the writing sample should be something publishable (in a good journal). Term papers do not meet that standard.

    Many of the profs in RE have not published two papers in solid journals. Why require something like this from a candidate?

    This is all to say that RE is a decent place; and could be better. I wrote this post because I care about they way in which religion is taught at BYU. Unfortunately there are few other ways to have a voice on this issue.

  • SmallAxe

    Hi Julie,

    Regarding the writing samples, that thought crossed my mind, but that isn’t the way it’s worded on the job postings. Given RE’s mission, though, that would be worth exploring: one paper targeted to the LDS community, another to one’s academic community. While this might put an added burden on the candidate to craft another paper for this one particular job (this is in addition to cover letters, cvs, teaching statements, research statements, a teaching portfolio, following up on letters of recommendation, and the standard writing sample), it does make sense in the context of RE.

    Also, FWIW, I thought the issues you raised in the last post were legitmate, so don’t hesitate to raise them again if you feel so inclined.

  • jupiterschild

    An Inquisition? Really? Sounds horrible.

  • The Yellow Dart

    An important post on an important subject approached in a kind, gentle, respectful, and very helpful manner. Very well done, thank you for this smallaxe!

    Best wishes,

    The Yellow Dart