Dear BYU Religious Education

Dear BYU Religious Education December 20, 2010

Dear BYU Religious Education,

I can only speak for myself here–one LDS graduate student studying religion; but I know this sentiment is shared, and that those who share it are apprehensive about expressing it. Over the next few years, however, you, Religious Education, will hire several new professors. I believe there is one search ongoing now in Provo (using the same ad), and another in Hawaii; so this is something you should probably know sooner rather than later.

You think much higher of yourself as a place to work than I (or we) think of you. Religious Education, in my view, is not a dream job; nor is it a highly desirable job; instead, it is a job that has some benefits, but many other drawbacks that make is less than desirable.

Given, however, that the job market is so bad and that academic positions are extremely competitive, you can afford to treat me as one of many chomping at the proverbial bit to work for you. You can ask that I jump through hoops that not even Princeton asks of its potential hires–spending my summer teaching for barely enough money to get by, working as a visiting assistant professor for a year before even putting up a full-time job ad, and allowing 19 year old students to be the final arbitrators in determining whether or not my teaching is good. I do these things only because I may not have any other options; hence when you ask if I am interested in teaching for you, I feign interest; and feel a certain degree of apprehension in sharing my genuine thoughts (even now, as I share them anonymously). The notion that you can have your pick of the litter is only true for a narrow subset of graduate students. Most of us hope that we will have other prospects. In the end, though, it need not be this way.

Allow me to explain myself. In any given year there are probably 15 tenure-track jobs in my field. In ranking these jobs I take into account things such as strength of the department in the field, number of courses/credit-hours taught per year, kinds of courses taught in the curriculum, geographic location, opportunities for career development, research support, travel funding, student body, salary, etc.

The ranking goes from 1-15, with something like Princeton at #1, the University of Arkansas at #7, and Georgia Gwinnett College at #15. I would rank you, Religious Education, somewhere near 15, yet my sense is that you would rank yourself higher than 7. I think this is a large discrepancy and should be addressed.

The jobs that appear toward the middle of the pack are jobs with a moderate teaching load (usually 3 classes per semester), in a department with majors but no graduate students, in a community that values the kind of research I was trained to do in graduate school. The jobs in BYU’s other colleges fit this profile. I would be very content with any one of these jobs, as these jobs allow me to express and explore the full range of skills I’ve cultivated as a graduate student. Most of the jobs that are out there fall into this category.

You, on the other hand, offer a heavily teaching-oriented position, with not even an undergraduate program, and you provide limited opportunity for me to teach the things I’ve learned in graduate school. To be honest, sometimes I question whether or not you value my graduate training. Part of me thinks you want me for my diploma–“Yeah we have someone from [top program] on our faculty. Goes to show that you can both a faithful scholar of religion and graduate from one those programs.”

Yet, Religious Education, you are a well-funded institution, with a decent student body, in a location near family, with a unique mission dedicated to a cause dear to my heart; and this I can live with; and perhaps even learn to love.

The universities in the lower tier of my list similarly offer heavily teaching-oriented positions, but they present opportunities to teach the things I’ve learned in graduate school, and to train undergraduate majors in my discipline. On the other hand these places tend to be poorly funded institutions, with a less than stellar student body, in locations I never imagined I’d live. These negatives, however, balance out your negatives. Essentially, you, Religious Education are competitive with these jobs. Your convenient location and better funding balance out the constraints of teaching. I see you on par with the lower tier jobs available in any given year.

One big difference, though, between you, Religious Education, and these third-tier jobs is that you preclude the possibility of moving to other institutions. If I got a job at Less Than Desirable University I will at least be able to design my own classes, and gain experience relevant to other academic institutions. I could move to More Desirable University in a few years. However, the experience I gain working for you is not relevant to other institutions. If More Desirable University saw the syllabi used in your classes, they would question the legitimacy of my teaching experience. Hence, working for you means not cultivating the kinds of experiences needed to move on. The fact that accepting a position in Religious Education means remaining there my entire career is why I haven’t voiced these concerns earlier.

At the same time, though, I recognize that you, Religious Education, have goals different from other institutions; and that achieving these goals requires an alternative skill set rooted in the Gospel. I support these goals and recognize your uniqueness.

My plea, as such, is that from now on you look past my pretense to enthusiasm over the prospect of teaching for you, and see yourself the way that I see you–not as something I spent 10 years in graduate school working toward, but as something I’m willing to settle for and make the best out of when presented with few other alternatives. I think if you begin from here, rather than from the assumption that you are my More Desirable University, we might be able to come together and work to create an environment that we will both flourish in.



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