The Professor's Puzzle - A Review

There are very few jobs where someone recently from their training does not feel inadequate and somewhat unprepared. This occurs even in training nuclear operators, where we spent thousands of hours practicing in a simulator, studying the facts behind systems, and performing tasks under the supervision of qualified operators. Despite all of the practice, operators consistently reported that on the first day on the job on their own they felt nervous.

In the case of college professors, unlike many other professionals, the complaint is much more valid. This is because PhD programs focus on expertise in the field instead of pedagogy. In other words, the prospective professor learns the subject matter and not the means to explain it well. This is a benefit when it comes to doing scholarly research and writing, but it does not prepare PhD candidates for one of the most important tasks in their academic careers: teaching students.

Michael Lawson’s recent book from B&H Academic aims to fix that problem, specifically for professors teaching in a Christian context. The book he’s written, The Professor’s Puzzle, is a gift to the church because it fills in significant gaps that PhD programs leave out. He’s written a book that will help recent graduates, whether they come from a seminary or a university.

Summary

In ten chapters, Lawson manages to at on the major skills that are neglected by most doctoral programs. In Chapter One he builds a philosophy of education, which is frequently skipped. Then, in the next chapter he outlines the basics of the integration of faith and learning. Lawson’s version of faith and learning integration goes well beyond slapping a Bible verse onto the syllabus but shining the light of the gospel on the whole educational experience.

Chapter Three gives an overview of several significant learning theories. Given the diversity of opinions on this topic, Lawson’s chapter is obviously not the final word, but he is balanced and informative. In the fourth chapter, Lawson outlines a method for outlining a syllabus, which is a skill that many new faculty lack. Lawson lays out the basics of course design in a single chapter; I’ve taken and witnessed many professors late in their careers who could benefit from reading and applying that chapter.

The fifth chapter continues the pedagogical theme, discussing degrees of mastery of content and introducing Bloom’s taxonomy. In Chapter Six Lawson discusses managing a classroom, which includes the layout of the classroom, the volume of content in the course, and the flow of the class time. This chapter is, perhaps, a concentration of the most important aspects of teaching that many new professors may have never encountered before receiving their hood and guild card. In the seventh chapter, the assessment process is discussed. This includes assessment of the students, assignment of grades, and assessment of the course.

Chapter Eight touches on basic instructional techniques. Lawson does not call for killing the lecture, but he does recommend doing something besides merely lecturing. The ninth chapter deals with the relational skills that are particularly important for the Christian professor. As fellow believers or as witnesses to unbelieving students, Christian professors have the responsibility to engage their students on a personal and spiritual level. In the final chapter, Lawson presents some of the realities of university life to the young professor. These include budget concerns, enrollment, advising, tenure, etc. All of the things that keep the administrators up and sometimes bleed into faculty life more than they’d like. The book then closes with three appendices with examples and additional information to augment the earlier discussions.

Critique

I have been a professional instructor (in commercial nuclear power, not academia), a longtime student, and an administrator in higher education. This book is a condensation of much that I wish all faculty knew. It does not provide the definitive word on any topic, but it does touch on most of the major topics.

The two weaknesses of the volume are that it has limited advice for online instruction and it does not cover academic assessment of student learning. Lawson does address online some, but it feels like the discussions of online are tacked on the end of the chapters. There is room for more development here. Additionally, Lawson talks some about assessing learning, but given the pervasiveness of assessing Student Learning Outcomes, it would have been beneficial to discuss that more in detail here. In this regard, however, I may be overly biased as I am a Director of Assessment.

These weaknesses are minor in comparison to the extraordinary breadth of information that Lawson covers. This is a one-stop shop for the new Christian professor. It should become part of PhD curricula across the country, particularly at seminaries. Lawson’s vision for teaching the whole student and integrating knowledge with a distinctly Christian worldview are more important today than they ever have been.

This is the sort of book that should be included in courses at Christian seminaries and universities that deal with pedagogy. I am recommending it for my university’s new faculty orientation next year. Faculty who are early in their career should pick it up and read it this summer; it may provide the solution to various problems both inside and outside the classroom. The Professor’s Puzzle is not a volume that will lead to high volume sales to the general Christian population, but it should be a keystone in the library of most young Christian academics.

Note: A gratis copy of this book was granted by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Why Academic Conferences are Important: Observations from ETS 2015

For the introvert, conferences of any sort tend to be an exhausting affair. The attendees are never alone. There are a million hands to shake, people to talk to, questions to answer. The germophobe, too, will find himself in a veritable purgatory of horrors.

Image from Ben Rogers, used by Creative Commons License. http://ow.ly/UOFOS 

Image from Ben Rogers, used by Creative Commons License. http://ow.ly/UOFOS 

Despite my own preference for small groups or solitary scholarship, I find this sort of theological nerd-fest to be important. This importance is often despite our best efforts to make it intolerably unimportant.

Many of the papers are, indeed, boring. Sometimes it seems that scholars are attempting to demonstrate a sure-fire cure for insomnia, or run a clinic trial on such a cure through their papers. Often this is a result of the desire to appear sufficiently scholarly, as if only in bland statements with a torrent of references can one demonstrate their expertise.

Other papers are, to be honest, quite bad. They were proposed at a point in life when the months until presentation seemed inexhaustible. The summer break from classes offered seemingly infinite hours to mull deep academic thoughts and write a paper reflective of sheer genius. In reality, those hours were consumed with other, often more important activities. Stellar scholarship is thus lost in a melee of mediocrity slapped together in the waning weeks before the conference event.

Still, these events are important.

Reasons for Importance

Academic conferences are important because for every mediocre paper, there is usually another—often from a surprising source—that is quite good. Often, despite self-doubt over the potential failures by student presenters, the fledgling scholars produce the most provocative and most helpful papers.

In some of these papers, there are a wealth of new ideas, freshly mined sources, and voices brought into harmonious conversation in a way only possible when students are trying to make sense of the readings of diverse PhD seminars and finding history, philosophy, and hermeneutics at the same time.

In other papers, there are nuggets of information at the very edge of the argument that stir the coals of the imagination and inspire the hearer (or reader) to further investigation on a topic only tangentially related to the paper itself. These are the gems that can be mined from the academic conference—not necessarily new information, but new ideas and new promises of horizons yet to be explored.

Another reason that academic conferences are absolutely essential is that in those hundreds of handshakes—each of which costs the introvert so very much—there are new opportunities for alliances, research partnerships, and synergistic relationships.

Scholarship is best done in community. In our age, that community often occurs over the internet via e-mail, blogs, and Skype. However, the personal contact at these melting pots of weird people are often the necessary foundation for later community.

These events are also, in one sense, like a meeting of a support group, but without the anonymity. Academics tend to be well off the center of the bell curve socially. We are, often, what most people consider weird. In fact, the cast of characters at a Comic Con and an academic conference are not that much different—except the academics tend to dress up in costumes that are more uncomfortable.

Academic conferences are important times for those of us who feel more comfortable with footnotes and formatting than new people. They provide both an opportunity to get the weirdness out and to experience true sympathy for our shared malady. The gathering allows us to feel a little more normal, if only because it concentrates the slightly abnormal segment of society in one place. This can strengthen the scholar’s heart for solitary legs of the journey to come.

Another significant benefit of academic conferences are the opportunities to walk through the hall of books. Of course, for some academics this results in marital stress. However, even without making forbidden purchases from publishers, there is value in seeing the scope of fresh publication from a variety of publishing houses and getting the opportunity to peruse volumes recently released.

Thankfully, these conferences typically require travel, so the purchasing opportunities are naturally limited. Still, the temptation is fierce and sometimes volumes just follow the lonely scholar home—or so the story goes.

Finally, in addition to meeting fresh faces and new acquaintances, there is great community built over years of bumping into the same people. A casual conversation in an elevator, over a period of years, can develop into a friendship with correspondence and real bonds of mutual interest. This is a fascinating experiment in human psychology that bears more study, but it is a real phenomenon.

The moral of the story, if there is one, is that conferences are worth going to for a number of reasons. They are also, for those spouses left at home with young children, worth sending your spouse to because they fuel the fire in so many ways and are more important than our esoteric paper topics might make it seem.

Mapping Your Academic Career - A Review

As a PhD student (No, my dissertation is not done. Yes, I should be writing it now.) there is a mysterious land beyond the portals of graduation called “an Academic Career.” I have witnessed that this land exists, because my professors are all experiencing it. However, until recently, I have encountered very little information that can help me understand the challenges that may be ahead. (Of course, as I write this, I am an administrator at Oklahoma Baptist University. My academic career as a professor is likely to remain a secondary concern to my role in the administration.)

Gary Burge pulls back the curtain on a career in academia, using his decades-long experience and some psycho-social categories to frame a discussion of the progression of individuals through the jungles of higher education. Burge is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, so this volume has the flavor of Christian higher education. However, the text applies to all contexts, whether “secular” or “religious.”

Summary

According to Burge, there are three main stages of an academic career. He excludes the Pupal stage, which is an indeterminate but often lengthy period before hooding occurs. These stages are divided into cohorts that are bounded by landmark events rather than age.

Cohort One is the phase where faculty are seeking tenure. This is really a pursuit of security. A quest for the knowledge that one’s academic work has been truly accepted and the brand sponsorship of a university or college has been achieved. Cohort One is characterized by frenetic activity in the scholarly realm: books, conference papers, articles, and book reviews. The young scholar is seeking to be validated and achieve sufficient clout within the academy that his or her peer vote him into the club. This is also the time when teaching skills must be gained, for often they are neglected in the road to earning a terminal degree. The absence of classroom skills has a greater potential to undermine faculty success than publishing opportunities, yet it gets much less attention than it deserves. Burge champions a meaningful mentorship process, where an older faculty invests concern and effort into the young scholar who may be struggling to connect in the classroom or even simply figure out how to put meals on his meal card.

Cohort Two is characterized by chasing success. The faculty (and perhaps the Board of Trustees) have affirmed the scholar’s ability through tenure. Now priorities can shift. Burge notes that there are basically three directions a career can take in this phase. First, individuals can achieve tenure and get distracted or lazy. They may stop publishing, stop keeping up with their field and coast to retirement. Often any success such individuals had in the classroom fades as they lose expertise in their field. Another tendency is to privatize research endeavors and to withdraw from the surrounding community in hopes of publishing a “definitive” work in the field. The third option is the golden mean, which includes publications, professional activities, pursuit of teaching excellence in relatively balanced proportion. At its best, Cohort Two closes with a sense of achieved excellence both in the classroom and in the academic field.

At the tail end of a scholar’s career is Cohort Three. This time in life has a loose beginning point. About the time earlier mentors retire, you wonder who let their kids come to the faculty meeting with voting power, and restaurants begin to give you a senior discount without asking you will have entered Cohort Three. This is the phase of professional development when some administrators consider professors a lost cause and, indeed, some of them are. This cohort usually ends in retirement, but that can be preceded by withdrawal from participation in the community, a sense of despair because no friends remain, or sometimes veneration by peers and younger scholars. At its best Cohort Three entails a shift in emphasis toward lower energy activities, opportunities to mentor younger faculty, and continued personal growth until retirement.

Analysis

Burge’s book is a quick read that would be good for many seminary and university administrators to read. It would also be useful to put into the hands of an institution’s faculty because of the helpful advice about navigating some of the pitfalls of academic life.

Based on my experience (limited as it may be) in academic life, Burge’s cohorts are a reasonable way to describe the progress through the scholarly lifecycle. As he described both the successes and the potential pitfalls, there were individuals that I know that fit those roles.

The weakness in these cohorts is that there are not clear points of delineation between some of them. For example, it is difficult to tell whether one is in Cohort Two or Cohort Three. However, this does not undermine the overall explanatory power.

This would be a useful text for both religious and non-religious audiences. However, it may have been beneficial to discuss some of the spiritual dimensions of some of these cohorts instead of relying on mainly psychological categories. Perhaps another text would be more apt for that purpose, but a deeper discussion of changing spiritual disciplines over an academic career would have been beneficial.

This is well worth the time and money. If you are looking for a text for a professional development discussion group, to work through in a mentorship relationship, or for personal enrichment as an administrator in higher education, this volume would be a good choice.

Note: A gratis copy of this volume was provided with no expectation of a positive review.

Advice for Writing Papers at Seminary

It is paper season at seminary. As both a writer and grader of papers, I offer four suggestions for improving academic paper writing. There are points of writing that people may quibble over (e.g., the use of 1st and 2nd person), but a quality paper is a possibility if students exercise due diligence and consider a few basics. 

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