Friday, 14 February 2014

Reflections on My Academic Experience

Signed, sealed, and delivered. Today, I signed a contract with UTC as a tenure-track, assistant professor of religion. Like many young academics, it has been my dream to land a tenure-track appointment.

Lately, I have been reflecting on my journey up to this point. Below are the highlights:
  • 1998-2001: Financial Consultant with A.G. Edwards in Fort Myers, Florida and Coral Gables, Florida
    • Won the "Albert Gallatin Award" in 2000, reserved for the top financial consultant within the first two years of work experience. This award meant a lot to me since I started with no family money, networking leads, or any other asset base to build upon, and all my colleagues laughed when my boss introduced me at the first meeting as a future winner of this award. 
    • I worked tediously each week on a prospecting list that I used to contact new retirees who had moved from up north. I sent these newly-planted Florida residents information on the local tax laws in a welcome basket, containing a coffee mug with my name on it, coffee, chocolate, and other goodies that was hand-delivered. I then contacted them to set up a time to meet. Most of my "cold" calls were in fact very warm leads.
    • After winning the Albert Gallatin Award, however, I ended becoming disillusioned about the business because instead of being content making six figures as a twenty-two-year-old, I was urged to make even more money. I simply couldn't find the motivation to continue working at that pace in order to be able to buy a bigger house, more expensive cars, etc. I transferred offices to Coral Gables to get away from my manager and the hostile office in which I worked (true story: in order to motivate my co-workers, my manager used to take my production run to older colleagues in secret and ask if they were going to let a "kid" beat them again that month), but that didn't make things better and I was soon looking for a way to move back to Fort Myers. 
    • Sadly, the family firm of A.G. Edwards that was founded in 1887 was bought out a few years later by Wachovia, which was then acquired by Wells Fargo.
  • 2001-2004: Account Vice President with UBS Financial in Fort Myers, Florida
    • I convinced myself that if I changed firms, perhaps I would enjoy working as a broker again. UBS Financial was in the process of completing its acquisition of the established firm of PaineWebber when I changed companies. 
    • In many ways, this was a better move. The office was not hostile, and I liked my boss and coworkers. I partnered with a senior broker and the two of us managed over 100 million dollars in client assets. Shortly after my transfer of firms, we built a new home on a direct-access canal that was minutes from the Gulf of Mexico. I was driving a new Mercedes and my wife a BMW Z3. 
    • In 2002, I earned the "Top Consultant" award.
    • My son Nathan was born in 2003.
  • 2004-2006: Graduate Student at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., Canada
    • Despite my apparent success, I was not happy as a financial consultant living in Florida. I began studying theology and soon wanted nothing more than to quit my job and go to graduate school. I did research on the best graduate schools in theology and came up with Regent College, which appealed to me because of its location in a beautiful city outside the U.S., and its renowned faculty members. Once my wife was on board, we sold our house (and everything else) and moved to Vancouver with our six-month old son, using our savings and the sale of our house to finance our time at Regent.
    • Living so close to Whistler, I skied twenty times my first year as a graduate student.
    • After earning a Master of Christian Studies in 2005, I was having so much fun that I convinced my wife to stay an additional year so that I could earn a ThM (Master of Theology), under the supervision of J. I. Packer.
    • My second son Nicholas was born in 2005 (a dual citizen).
  •  2006-2008: PhD Student at the University of Stirling, Scotland
    • I did not originally intend to become a professor when I moved to Vancouver. When my wife and I made the decision to stay for a ThM at Regent College, I knew that I needed to figure out what my future career would be. During the process of working on my ThM, I came in contact with David Bebbington, who helped me flesh out some of the ideas that I had on my thesis. I ended up meeting him at Baylor University where he was teaching for a semester, and he invited me to study with him at Stirling
    • This was a big decision for my family and I. It was one thing to move to Canada, and quite another to move across the Atlantic. My wife and I ultimately came to the conclusion that this was the right decision, and so we made the big move in October 2006.
    • Scotland is an awesome place to work on a PhD. It is cold and rainy, perfect weather for studying. Although the weather is generally miserable, the Scottish people are very warm and typically like Americans. We made a number of friends, making it difficult to leave in 2008.
  • 2008-2010: Adjunct Professor at Taylor University and Indiana Wesleyan University in Indiana
    • By the end of 2008, we had blown through a lot of money in our savings to finance my graduate education at Regent College and my PhD studies at Scotland. Although one of the stocks that I had invested before leaving for Scotland--Apple Computer--did remarkably well and helped sustain us financially during our time in Scotland, we felt that it would be best if we returned to America where I would finish my research and writing for my dissertation. We relocated to Upland, Indiana because my wife and I had fond memories there as college students, and because we knew that it was an affordable area to live. 
    • While living in Upland, I taught multiple survey courses in Old and New Testament and historical theology at Taylor and Indiana Wesleyan. This was a challenging time. I remember earning $16,000 one year teaching as an adjunct. Because my earnings were so low, my family and I qualified for government subsidies in food and health care. Instead of earning six figures, living in a new home on the water, and owning expensive foreign cars, I lived below the poverty line in a freezing cold rental house and drove a minivan.
    • My youngest son Seth was born in 2009.
  •  2010-2011: Assistant Professor at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia
    • As many of you know, 2008 and 2009 were tough years to look for a job. After receiving multiple rejection letters and emails for the few open faculty positions advertised during that time, I was invited to interview for a history job at Liberty University, teaching undergraduate American history survey courses and graduate classes in European history. 
    • Liberty seemed like a scary place to my wife and I at that time. I was not sure what to think of a school that was reputedly a haven for fundamentalism. But when I went to visit the campus, I felt less anxious. The faculty in the history department were incredibly friendly, and I was genuinely impressed at their education and scholarship. So I took the job.
    • The irony of working as a resident faculty member at Liberty was that my biggest problem was with the teaching load, and not the people with whom I worked. Still to this day, I can hardly believe that I formerly taught four sections of Survey of American History I (up to 1865) with 120 students in each class (each class requiring a paper), and an additional graduate course in European history each semester. By my fourth class, my voice was absolutely parched, and I often felt exhausted. I began looking for another job.
  • 2011-2013: Maclellan Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
    •  By 2011, my first book, Enlightened Evangelicalism: The Life and Thought of John Erskine, had been published with Oxford University Press. My book wasn't a silver bullet, in terms of easily securing another job, but it did lead to a few interviews, including one with UTC. 
    • I honestly don't know how I got the job at UTC, and so all I can say is that I am grateful. Not only was I hired to teach what I love (religious history and Christian thought), but I also live in a desirable city, and have congenial relationships with my colleagues. 
    • As part of my job at UTC, I was asked to organize the LeRoy Martin Distinguished Lecture Series. I am proud of the incredible scholars who have been a part of this series so far.
    • My second book with OUP was published in 2013: Early Evangelicalism: A Reader.
  •  2013-?: Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
    • I look forward to a long and fruitful career at UTC.
After reflecting on my journey, from graduate school to full-time work as a professor, here are some of the things that I have learned:
  • Be willing to teach new courses
    • When I first started adjunct teaching, I was only offered survey courses in the Old and New Testaments. At the time, I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of teaching introduction to the New Testament in particular. I'm glad, however, that I didn't turn down these opportunities. Surprisingly, I enjoyed teaching these survey courses, especially the New Testament. I learned a lot, worked out some of the kinks in my teaching, and was able to draw from the material in my lectures for later courses that I would facilitate. 
    • Below are the courses that I have taught since 2008. It wasn't until the last few years that I was able to teach upper-level, specialized courses.
      • Religion in the Age of Wesley, Whitefield, and Edwards
      • Pivotal Moments in Christian History (Spring 2014)
      • The Faiths of the Founding Fathers
      • Jonathan Edwards's Life, Thought, and Legacy in American Religious Culture
      • Contemporary Religious Issues
      • Religion in Southern Culture
      • Modern Christian Thought
      • Religion in American Life
      • Introduction to Western Religions
      • Eighteenth-Century Europe
      • Readings in Modern European History
      • Survey of American History I
      • History of Western Civilization
      • History of the Baptists
      • History of Fundamentalism
      • History of Christianity I
      • History of Christianity II
      • Historic Christian Belief
      • Survey of Church History
      • Biblical Literature I: Introduction to the Old Testament
      • Biblical Literature II: Introduction to the New Testament
      • World Civilization
      • Empire to Europe: Britain, 1915-1990
      • People, Politics, and Empire: Britain, 1780-1914
  • Continue to publish
    • I love research and writing, but when you are teaching new courses each semester as a non-tenure track professor, often at several institutions, have a spouse and young children, and trying to stay sane, it is difficult to schedule regular blocks of time to do research. But I am glad that I did continually work on publishing, because this seems to have been the most important factor in why I made it to several interviews over the years.
    • I don't think that publishing was the only determining factor that a search committee looked at when I was hired, but I do believe that it helped my candidacy. I am glad that I kept working on journal articles and book projects as a part of my weekly schedule, even if I felt tired from all the mercenary teaching that I did.
  • Get lucky.
    • Call it luck, fortunate, or providence, but there were unseen forces at work that got me where I am. Despite all the work that I had done to make myself a more attractive candidate, I still might not have landed an elusive tenure-track job.


David said...

What an inspirational story, Jonathan. Thanks for sharing it!

Exploring the Study of Religious History said...

Thanks David! It's been an interesting ride to say the least.