Monday, February 28, 2011

Academic Job Search I - Tips for the pre-interview stage

For other posts in this series:
Networking   First Interview       On Campus Interview      Contract       Rejections
I have been wanting to discuss job search tips (applicable to everyone but with some special considerations for moms on the job market) for a while now.  When I wrote the post, though, it turned into an extremely long post no one would want to read.  So, here for your reading enjoyment are shorter versions of that blog post (which people may ALSO not want to read, but at least I'll have tried ;-))

Usually, people come to me seeking tips on the academic job search in early fall.  I don't mind offering tips any time of year, but I hate to say it: early fall is just a tad too late when doing a job search.  So I'm posting this now in the hopes of helping people out a little sooner.

The academic job search is in a category all its own.  Imagine, first of all, that every.single.job offered involves a nationwide search (in many cases, international search), and then imagine that this job search only happens once a year (that's right: one time per 12 months or you have to wait a year), and then finally imagine that each spot will most likely have over 50 applicants, but more probably over 100 applicants for the spot.  With all that in your head, you're beginning to get a sense of the academic job search.

[You're thinking: there must be a caveat.  Well, there is, somewhat: the above is for full-time, well-paid, generally tenure track positions.  If you're just looking for a part-time temporary position, or adjuncting work (pay at $2500 or less per class per semester), those are usually offered (again, nationwide) between March and July - after people have said they're leaving to take new jobs elsewhere and institutions find themselves at loose ends trying to find someone to cover their fall classes.]

I've been on the job market three times and had countless first round interviews and eight second round interviews, and been on a few hiring committees myself, so I'm basing my tips on those experiences.  (My mistakes, mostly.... ;-)) This post is about the pre-interview stage, where you have to write the cover letters, CVs, teaching philosophies, research statements, and whatever else the school might be looking for, in the hopes of getting an interview. 

In a word: it's YOU, Academic (Cue those Dr. Oz books...).  It's all about you at this stage.  You're trying to showcase your best self (cue Oprah music).  So what does that mean, practically?

1. Take a close look at the job ad.  Is it focusing on research, teaching, or a little of both?  If you can't tell, presume a focus on teaching as that's where most of the jobs are.  If their focus is teaching, when writing your cover letter, you'll want to focus, therefore, on teaching as the second paragraph.  I can't tell you how many times I've seen cover letters focus on the dissertation.  Not a good strategy.

2. Take a close look at YOU in relation to the job ad.  I know the job market is tight.  I know that you're willing to take almost any job because it's a job.  But watch my words here: it REALLY, REALLY, REALLY, won't help to apply for a job that you know is way out of your field.  REALLY.

I cringe to think that I applied for a church history job in my first job-seeking round.  I really am a theological ethicist but I wrote my dissertation using Augustine to comment on the contemporary theological scene.  I milked that Augustine angle for all it was worth, but I'm just not a church historian.  I never got a reply back from that school, wasted postage and time writing a dazzling (but apologetic) letter explaining why even though I had a PhD that said "theological ethics" I could teach church history.

Don't waste your time and money on that kind of thing.  If it's a general position (includes the words "general" or "broad" or "multi-") then that might be worth your time, but if they're looking for someone that specific and you know it isn't you, don't do it.

3. Take a second look at the job ad in relation to YOU.  On the other hand, there will be job ads you might pass over automatically because you think it isn't "you."  Take a second look at those.  There will be some jobs that don't at first look like good fits, or maybe the job ads are just too vague.  In those cases, ask advisors and friends what they think about that position.  It might be worth a look.  My first real academic job was not one I initially thought I could apply for, but I am sure glad I did!

4. The mysteries of the "cover letter" revealed....  Fill in the blanks, amend as necessary for your particular skills...
Dear ____________

I am writing to apply for your job position that appeared in ________________.  I am ABD/PhD candidate at _____________ studying ______________  with (name of professor).  I believe I have the background and skills you are looking for.

Paragraph A.  Teaching paragraph (unless this is a research position, in which case switch with Paragraph B)  I notice that you are looking for someone with ______________ qualities and I see that your university/college has an emphasis on ____________.  I believe I have qualities you seek because I have already taught ____________ classes.  My students think I am awesome, based on my teaching evalutions.  In fact, one student suggests in a course evaluation, "_______________." My particular strengths in teaching include, but are not limited to, entertaining lectures, fast, fun-filled debates, amazing discussions that include acting out parts of the readings, and tests that my students enjoy taking.  I teach writing in the following way: _____________. I always ______________ when I teach because my students love it so much.  I have certificates in teaching with technology, teaching gender, teaching diversity, teaching practical reasoning, teaching students to read, and I won the "Best Teaching Assistant Award" last year. 

Paragraph B - the research paragraph:  I notice that you are looking for someone who has __________ interests; I share many of those interests.  My dissertation focuses on _____________. (Go on about your dissertation for no more than 2 sentences).  I am also interested in ____________, ___________ and ________ and hope to ____________, which fits with your university mission in ___________ way.  I have published articles in ______________ journals and won a research award last year so you won't be sorry you've hired someone who hasn't studied _______________.

I am enclosing my dossier and I look forward to discussing my application with you further.  I will be at the _________ conference but you may also reach me at _____________.


NB: I, of course, had very few of the "extra" qualifications suggested in this letter, but I did tailor each letter to the school and explain why I thought I'd be a good fit.  That's really the most important thing: tell the school about you and why you think you're the one they need.

5.  The mysteries of the "teaching philosophy" revealed....   Some schools ask for these and lots of applicants find them mysterious.  Well, they are a bit mysterious, so here's a help:

Explore   Lecture      Write    Create       Guide     Think    Exasperate    Listen     Tell   Funnyquote  Discuss   Weirdquestion    Wastetime   Analyze     Mentor     Empathize    Sympathize     Regurgitate    Drinkcoffee

Circle the words that most appeal to you and then consider how your teaching fits (or not) with those words.  Then write a 500-750 word essay that discusses your teaching using the words you circled.

* Seriously, the purpose of the teaching philosophy is let the committee get some sense of why you want to teach and what style of teaching you have.  My own teaching philosophy started with "Funnyquote" and developed that theme, with a bit of "write" and "mentor" thrown in.

6. Research Statement -  First of all, DO NOT wax poetic about your dissertation.  Your research statement should give a sense of broad areas of research, and your next potential project in some detail.  Of all the things you write for the job search, this one is the most fun because a) it's neat to dream and b) it's fun to look back on this later and discover that none of the things you mentioned actually resemble your future research.

And while we're here, let me reiterate that you SHOULD discuss your dissertation in your cover letter, but keep it brief (like two to three sentences - you can do it!) and then demonstrate how awesome you are because you have research interests beyond your dissertation.  (You do, don't you?)

7. Don't lie on your CV.  All joking aside, if your paper isn't published yet, but you've sent it for review, just say it's being reviewed.  If you were a teaching assistant and not the main professor, say you were a TA.  Don't falsely bulk up your CV just because you're worried you won't stand out.  Those of us on the hiring committee well remember being graduate students trying to fit in to academia - and we're sympathetic to those beginning years.  You just simply won't have the publications, teaching experience and service that older colleagues will and that's okay.  Will it cost you an interview?  Perhaps - some schools do like to have people with some teaching experience so someone who's taught their own class may well win out over someone who's "just" TA'd.  Others may give an edge to someone with research experience.  But not always, and not necessarily even usually.  Sometimes the people who get the jobs are people who have no real time experience in either teaching or research, leaving you to scratch your head and wonder, "Why NOT me? I had this and this and this...."

8.  Which leads me to the following statement (and this will not be the first time I say this...):  Academic job searches are NOT rational, not ultimately.  It will make sense why a committee will reject some candidates (only has a master's degree in music when we're looking for an ABD or PhD in history) but it will not make sense why the committee doesn't call YOU for an interview.  Sometimes, you'll be surprised that they DID call.

To quote someone who once interviewed me: chalk it up to "academic voodoo." This is why, after you send off your application it is no longer really about YOU though you'll continue to need to put your best foot forward.  There are all kinds of reasons why someone might or might not call for an interview, including lack of funding, departmental personalities, institutional personalities, inside candidates, lack of funding, sudden change of heart, institutional donors, how large a department is, what someone had for lunch that day, and lack of funding. 

Special considerations for the women/moms out there: None at this stage, except to remind you that in this, as in all job searches, at the beginning stages you must pretend you have no family. In some fields, it helps that you're a woman (if your field is mostly male); in others, gender is a neutral thing.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Being Truthful about Being Human: or, "Having it All" Revisited

I apologize for the blog break.  Last Saturday, I attended a symposium with other theologians, and I spent last week writing the paper for that symposium.  It went well, by the way, and I really enjoyed it.  It also makes me think, once again, about the whole concept of working mothers "having it all."

I took the whole family with me to the town where the symposium was - actually, THAT fact was more Philosophy PhD's choice, since he 1) wanted to make sure that I made the 3 hour trip okay by myself (which meant him coming with me); 2) wanted to get out of town; 3) was maybe ever so slightly worried about being alone with L. for a whole day (?).  I'm guessing here.  In any case, they all came with me.

Baby G. actually went with me to the symposium, too.  Most of the time, that's a big "no-no" in academia, especially if you're presenting.  At least, I haven't generally felt welcome to do that.  But when I was asked to present a paper, I was already 7 months pregnant, and knew that in February there WOULD, God willing, be a baby to show for it all.  I also knew that I wanted to nurse the baby and therefore knew that my being away from her for a full night plus a whole day would likely not work.  (She does take a bottle here and there, convenient for quick meetings and such...but a whole day and night?  Philosophy PhD responsible for the feeding and care of a 3 year old plus an infant?  I'm sure he would have balked.)  Frankly, I'm not sure if even she were solely a bottle-taking baby, I would have left her for that long at 2 months old.  I suppose that's one of those "your mileage may vary" things, highly dependent on the parent and the baby.  At 7 months pregnant, you have no idea what kind of baby you'll have nor how you'll feel.  And, given that the baby could conceivably have come at any point up to January 11, when they would have induced for post-term pregnancy, the symposium could have been only a month after the baby was born.  All those caveats.  Despite it all, they kept their invitation open and I decided, why not?  It sounded like a fun symposium, and this is one of the several reasons I went into academia - to think about topics with other theologians!

The symposium planners and people were fantastic!  They welcomed the baby; one of the participants walked my baby around while I gave my paper (he totally didn't have to do that) and generally it went well, at least from my point of view.  (I don't know about theirs....)  But the fact is, I wouldn't have gone at all if I couldn't have brought her.  It was my sine qua non.

But I want to add still further to the reflection on all this.  I was one of only two women in the room, and the only woman with young children.  Actually, that's rather common both in my field and in academia in general.  There are a few fields that have more women than men, but for the most part, that's not the case.  The men there were all family guys themselves, so quite understanding about issues with kids - but still, there's a gender thing there.  I'm the only one who has breasts, to put it bluntly.  Whatever my brand of feminism at other times and places (I tend to favor post-modern feminism), in situations like this, I seem most like a cultural feminist, because there IS something to their idea that women have undervalued attributes like breasts.

This is especially so in the workplace.  It's one of the reasons why I am angry about this country's maternity leave policies, because the underlying view seems to be that, "Oh, OKAY.  We'll hire a woman, but after she's hired, she has to pretend that she doesn't have a uterus, breasts, children to pick up from school, or anything else that leaks 'family'."  (And let's not make this a those-Europeans versus these-Americans thing, since that seems to devolve into cross-ocean name-calling and discussions of who is most/least responsible when it comes to the national budget. For example, I was speaking to a friend in Uganda last week, where the national policy is three months...)

The standard of pretending one doesn't have a family belongs to a time when men could pretend that they could arrive at work and appear unconnected to family life precisely because they didn't have bodies that betray otherwise.  Well, I think partly because women have been in the workplace for a while, that attitude has been changing/changed for a while too.  Lots of men now proclaim themselves as family men and leave meetings to pick up kids early.  Our maternity leave policy is SO nineteenth-century - and while we're at it, the lack of a paternity leave policy is SO twentieth-century.

So let's be truthful about ourselves.  We are a people who work and who have families, even if we're not married with children.  That doesn't mean "having it all."  That's a statement about the way humans exist - and have existed for a long time.  Let's break away from the false ideals from the mid- to late- nineteenth century and post-World War II about women and men and families.  People have long been merchants with families, farmers with families, restaurateurs with families, etc.  Work wasn't always imagined as cordoned off from one's family life.  I think it is largely because we started to imagine a space called "the office" that family got pushed to the wayside - but that's too straitjacketed a way to live.

Having such a hugely separate place called "work" or "the office" is too great a luxury for us, I think.  I know my detractors will say, "But children are too distracting," and actually, I agree with them.  I'm a big fan of well-paid child care, but I also think there are many times when we are too quick to say that children don't belong.  Like, for instance, at academic meetings where for many participants, the main things aren't the papers but getting together over beers to discuss their field.  I do, in fact, judge academic meetings by how welcoming they are to children.  Society of Christian Ethics: excellent.  Other rarefied societies of which I am/have been a part?  Not so much.

Overall, we need better work policies in terms of hours, flexibility and the like.  We need to be able to be fully human, fully with families and also fully participants in the economy.  To pretend that we are machines or just individual objects in space, unconnected to each other, isn't realistic or good.

Just as a related aside: while I was on partial bedrest during pregnancy, I watched the entire series of "House, M.D."  (Never seen it before.)  Anyone else ever notice that ALL of the characters on the show have failed marriages, no children, no spouse, even no significant other (unless married to each other)?  There's an interesting underplot about work becoming family if you make it to high enough/rare enough ranks.  And obviously, the "best" doctors can't be ordinary, or mingle with the ordinary - that is to say, people with families.  It's kind of life marriages in Hollywood: can't associate with the plebs, because it "just won't work."

My kid is a scissors genius...

I don't usually talk about her, but I do, in fact, have a 3 year old daughter.  She is a great kid - funny and insightful, as well as being whiny, as with most kids - and to answer the question everyone has these days: yes, she is great with the baby and loves being around Baby G.  Sometimes a little too close...

Yesterday, I went to pick her up from preschool and one of her teachers cornered me for a bit.  "L. is over in the drawing area cutting valentines.  I asked her if she wanted help and she said, 'No, I don't need your help.'"

Here, the teacher paused.  I wasn't quite sure what to make of the pause.  Apologize for my daughter's rudeness in reply?  I thought probably no, because she is her own kid capable of saying "I'm sorry" herself, first of all, and this IS a professional teacher who knows that "I'm sorry" in three year olds is still something they're learning.  But still, why the pause?

"Well," continued the teacher, "that's just way beyond where most kids are at this age."  "Really?" I asked.  I know very little about this age level, so beats me if that's true or not.  But the teacher said, "Yeah - this is something we'd expect to see two or more years down the road."

Now, I will say I'm impressed.  L. had never picked up a pair of scissors till a good family friend was trying to get her to make snowflakes two months ago.  And here we are in February, and she's drawing and cutting (on the lines) hearts out of paper.  She is clearly proud of this.  I asked her this morning what she thought she'd do today and she said, "Make hearts!"  Cool.

But I'll also say: what's an appropriate response to the teacher here?  Or to L.?  I decided not to make too big of a thing of it (didn't mention it to her at all, and really, couldn't think of a response to the teacher), because after all, it's not like on the basis of "Uses Scissors in Advanced Manner" that she can skip two grades or get into Harvard.  I'm seeing it as a cool, quirky, interesting thing - that, yes, I also feel the need to brag about a little on my blog ;-)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Movie Review: "The Invention of Lying"

Obviously, this is not one of those cool, up-to-the-minute, hot-off-the-press reviews.  Philosophy PhD and I tend to get our movies from the library and we also don't watch TV, so we have very little, if anything, to offer toward opinions on up-to-the-minute films.

"The Invention of Lying" is a film I chose from the Fast Views section of the library - DVDs that are semi-new.  I had never heard of the film before, but the premise as described on the back of the box seemed promising.  Now that we've seen it (well, admittedly, only about half of it) it has continued to occupy my thoughts as a kind of mind worm, so here we are: my blog's first movie review.

The premise really is rather interesting: a world, very much like ours, but where people do not know how to lie.Then one day, in a moment of desperation because he's about to become homeless, the protagonist develops a sudden capacity (perhaps via evolution?  The film hints at this but really doesn't go into depth) to say that he has more money in his bank account than he actually does.  He clearly believes it won't work but strangely, it does!  The teller believes him and he finds himself able to pay his rent.  From there, he goes on to use his new found skill/genetic change to hit on girls and steal loads of money from a casino. 

Our protagonist also has a mother who is close to death in a very depressing nursing home.  She has a heart attack and, as she lays there dying and afraid to die because she knows there is nothing after death, her son concocts a "lie" telling her how happy and joyful things are when we die, how everyone has a mansion, etc.

Therein lies the crux of the whole film.  The doctors and nurses have overheard the son's explanation and believe it; the son's lie makes the news so that people all around the world start wondering at and believing in this alternate life-after-death reality.

This is the part when we turned off the film.  I googled the film later and found that Ricky Gervais is an atheist and clearly has an argument he wants to display here, that a happy afterlife can't exist.  Apparently (because again, I haven't seen this part of the film and doubtless won't) Gervais' character invents a "Big Man in the Sky" who told him all about this afterlife, which then overtakes peoples' realities and makes them believe in things that don't really exist.

It wasn't actually the life-after-death "lie" that was the major cause of our not finishing the movie.  That was just the cherry on top  of a number of other fantastical things that happen in the movie.  We'd been wondering whether to turn it off prior - so that when we reached the point where it was quite clear that the movie had a bone to pick with "religion" we knew, okay, this really is not a movie we want to continue watching.

The problems, from our points of view as philosopher and theologian, were numerous.  First was the way in which truth telling was depicted from the beginning: the characters just feel free to blurt out whatever they are thinking.  Telling the truth is more about behaving like my three-year-old, as we got a running commentary on what each character was literally thinking and doing any time they opened their mouths. The female romantic lead talks to the protagonist about the fact that she was masturbating when he rang the doorbell, side-by-side with noting that she things the protagonist is an ugly loser who will not be getting any sex. (Similarly, my three-year-old said yesterday: Mommy, I'm building a fort.  Mommy, I'm putting blankets on my fort.  Mommy, I'm going potty  in my fort.)

Omitting saying anything that might hurt someone else was also a "lie" Apparently having good manners and being polite counts, in this film's world, as lying.  To us, that seemed like a really, REALLY constricted view of "telling the truth."  Did the film makers really intend for truth tellers to behave like toddlers and preschoolers?

Along with this constricted view was also that truth cannot be involved with fictional stories.  At one point in order to save his job, the man writes a science fiction screenplay; everyone takes it as historical truth, because the only "story" that can exist in this rarefied world of no-lying is hi-story.  This is a strange idea for a number of reasons.  First, history is never as "cut-and-dried" as some want to claim.  Betsy Ross did not (gasp) sew the first American flag, and yet telling the story of the "fact" that she did is somehow important to American ethos.  Historians argue over the best ways to tell their respective stories.  Second, it overlooks that poetry and fiction can tell us something true even if they are not the constrictive literal truth portrayed in the film.  It isn't clear to me that a world without lying requires a world without poetry and fiction.  One would perhaps know the difference between fiction and non-fiction with a bit more clarity than my students sometimes do.

Since the film seems to be so constricted in its view of truth, it also lacks consistency with its main idea, which was making the point that any idea of The Big Man in the Sky is a lie.  The film rather clearly was on the side of Big Man in the Sky = lie = stupid, childish idea, but yet it is the truth tellers do not behave like adults.  Is it more adult to lie or more adult to tell the truth?  Is it better to be constricted or not?  It is possible that some of the people involved in making the film wanted the viewers to consider this quite interesting conundrum.  But that conundrum gets overtaken rapidly and completely by the film's point that the Big Man in the Sky is just an invention made up by an average guy, and that no one really needs to believe it.

Finally, from a theologian's point of view, the movie is very childlike in its visions of 1) evolution, 2) human life, and 3) God.

1. In this film evolution seemed to "just happen" to a very weak man in dire straits.  That does not tend to be a part of most evolutionary theory, though there is quite a bit of interesting work being done in evolutionary biology about the ways in which one's environment affects the ways a being evolves.

2. Human life together involves relationships with other people.  The relationships in this film could not be deep because of the too-constricted view of lying.  There could be, for example, no sense of compassion for others, even others on the brink of suicide because compassion is a lie, for the film makers.  Everything has to be done by sheer will.  Except, apparently, romance - for the protagonist is brought together with the Girl, not out of will but out of a concept of love that one would think would also belong to the category of "lies" in this world view.  At the film's beginning, people date in order to mate and have children.  So what is the deal with this romantic relationship that seems to be based on something other than genetic desire to have genetic offspring? 

3. Finally - The Big Man in the Sky does not belong much to a Judeo-Christian view of the world.  It doesn't really belong to the views of most other "religions" insofar as I understand them.  Granted, there are points in the Bible where God seems to be nothing other than a large anthropomorphic version of ourselves.  There are many other places where God is not - God is far more mysterious than the mind can contain.  And that complexity is exactly the point in my tradition: God both wants and seeks relationships with humans (and so seems anthropomorphized in the ways that Job anthropomorphizes) but God is also extraordinarily other, so very much NOT the Big Man in the Sky.  When Augustine was wrestling with whether or not to become a Christian in the Confessions, part of his wrestling was due to his then-view that God was a Big Man.  He later recognized that view to be untrue precisely because it was so problematic and troublesome, as the film also seems to elude.  Augustine (5th century) was not the first to wrestle with his addled views about God; many, many others before and since have also come to see that human constructions of God have some degree of falsity.  How we can "know" about God has occupied the minds of people far more brilliant and thoughtful than the film's writers; this degree of complexity about the question would make for quite an interesting and thought-provoking show.

All of which is to say, finally, that the film lacks the kind of depth that its title suggests.  The questions raised by the film, including the existence of God, are indeed interesting ones to raise, but needed a more engaging worldview than the one so flatly presented.  The film does little more than feed into the simple-mindedness of atheisms as displayed by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.  For myself, I'd rather be involved in a conversation with an atheism that takes human thinking and living seriously - the atheism of a Karl Marx or a Friederich Nietzsche.  So, for giving me the opportunity to think all these things through, I thank the film makers.  Imagine what I could do with something of more weighty substance?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Dear Students,

I understand that you all wanted As in my courses and felt you worked too hard not to get an A.  So let me take this opportunity to address your concerns.  I have, for simplicity's sake, bolded your concerns first, and then offered my comments in non-bold, except for the last point. 

1. This is not an English class.  You grade too hard on form.
First of all, I hope your English professors don't take too much offense, for their classes are not solely dependent on form either.  Or put another way, what you say and how you say it both matter.  If I can't read and understand what you've written, then the content is a loss no matter what the class. 

2. Corollary to #1 - After all, I had an A in all my English classes.
Yes, my classes are focused on writing, and after that, on spoken group presentations.  In humanities classes, it is not generally helpful for me to give you quantitative tests, especially at the 300 level. But the fact that in my classes, the grading is based on your writing doesn't mean much in relation to your English classes, except for the fact that I am glad you have taken some English classes.  This is because I teach 300-level ethics courses.  That means the writing will be different and more difficult than in your 100-level English class.  (And your 300-level English class will also be more difficult, I presume.)  I do apologize in advance, but I did think the purpose in taking the course was that you would learn and grow in new ways.

3. Another Corollary to #1 - You focus too much on our thesis statements rather than on whether we know the religion stuff.
Well, on this point, I hope your Sunday School teachers don't take offense, because I'm quite sure that they didn't intend that their class, taught over 9 months and often only one day a week, was meant to "cover" absolutely everything about the faith we profess in Jesus Christ.  Sometimes some of you seem to think that because you took religious education in Catholic high school or because you went to Sunday School, you now know all about religion.  And some of you, perhaps many of you, have rejected "religion" or "organized religion" or "hierarchical religion" (feel free to put in another term if you are more comfortable with that...)  on the basis of knowing it all.

I can only say that if this class was just a refresher in sixth grade catechetics, they would not have hired a full-time PhD to teach you.  They would have found a hapless but loving and generous volunteer (i.e. someone who works for free) who wants to make a difference for the Lord - and that volunteer would know many good things and teach you many good things, but would also not care about whether you have a thesis statement.

I, on the other hand, am worried about your ability to reason in relation to ethical questions big and small.  And that means I want to see a clear thesis statement about what you think, and then supporting arguments.

4. I worked really hard.
I am sorry indeed that I cannot grade based on effort.  It reminds me distinctly of my college calculus-based physics course, in which I received (thankfully) a C.  Others in the class clearly had more aptitude to learn physics principles quickly, and they appeared to need to do almost no studying, and earned As.  I, on the other hand, studied physics in all my free time, spent extra time in the lab, checked out additional books from the library in an effort to try to understand,   and saw a tutor, all to garner a C.   On effort alone, I should have received an A.  But the professor was not grading on the basis of how hard I worked but on whether, at the end of it all, I knew enough about electrical currents that I would not burn up my friends and myself.  Knowing physics well and rightly matters; though I know that many of you do not think humanities knowledge affects people in the same way, still I grade on the basis that knowing ethics well and rightly matters.

5. Corollary to #3 and #4 - And another thing about this class, you didn't let us share our opinions.
If, by opinion, you mean oral statements made in class that refer to the course readings or lectures or other students' points (even if you didn't quite understand them) AND that enable you and others to make at least a beginning toward reasoned, focused thoughtfulness, in a variety and diversity of forms, relating to important topics like the Big 5 (abortion, homosexuality, war and peace, wages, and euthanasia) as well as to small seemingly insignificant topics like what kind of orange juice to buy and how to relate to your roommates, then I sincerely apologize.

I did arrange on the syllabus a diversity of topics and readings from a broad group of people who are generally thoughtful and provocative, but who do not share the same opinions about everything in the hopes of helping you develop and refine your opinions as defined above.  If you thought that the authors we read DID all share the same opinions, you did not read carefully enough. In class, I tend to play to their arguments, in an effort to help you understand the readings.  But if you think that their opinions are mine, and therefore you cannot express an "opinion", then you must think I am the most confused, messed up individual, for I cannot be politically liberal a la John Rawls and also take a post-liberal stance a la John Milbank.  I cannot support the church's teachings on contraception a la Humanae Vitae and also raise significant (yet faithful) concerns about it, a la Martin Rhonheimer.  I cannot reject gender as a concern (a la Andreas Kostenberger) and also think gender is a great concern (a la Sarah Coakley).  To say nothing of all the great patristic and medieval thinkers we also read.

However, if by opinion you instead mean random statements of the kind you could make at 2 am in the dorms while speaking with your friends, then, no, I am not sorry.  This is a class for which you get academic credit and I am trying to help you think in very particular ways.

6. All of which leads me to want to ask you, "Do you just simply think that because it's a religion (or humanities) course, you ought to be able to get an A?"
Do you think that because the knowledge learned in humanities classes seems more opaque, more "opinion-oriented," and more "fluffy" in popular opinion, that you deserve to receive a mark that is supposed to denote the highest caliber work and thought?  Writing a good thesis (or communicating one in an oral presentation), and then supporting it well, is, yes, very difficult work.  In other words, thinking is HARD, and I value demonstration of that skill.  Good writing, good oral communication both demonstrate good thinking.  If the thought is not behind it, the writing won't be as good.  I endeavor, therefore, to give those who carry out the task a grade of the highest quality.  If you did not earn an A in my class, it is because I did not see a demonstration of those thinking skills.

It is possible I am in error and I have not graded you according to these standards.  If you think that is so, please feel free to stop by my office with your paper, and be prepared to show me your thesis statement, your arguments, your careful reasoned analysis of the readings, lectures and class discussions, using the reasoning skills I hope you've learned in my classes and in the classes of your other humanities professors.

TheologyPhD Mom
[NB: This represents comments I've heard over the years - usually off hand remarks made in the hall, and the like. This does not represent any one class I have ever had, but a conglomerate of concerns I've heard especially in relation to religion courses, but also in humanities courses generally.]