An article  in last week’s Inside Higher Ed discussed the option of teaching at a religiously affiliated college. It caught my attention since I am in my 42nd year of religiously-affiliated education. I went to Catholic grammar school, Catholic high school and college and then even earned my Ph.D. at a Catholic University. When it came time to find a job, I made the conscious choice to work at a Catholic College, a decision based largely on my past positive experiences with such schools.
I realize that some may fear that teaching at a religiously affiliated school might pose difficulties, and indeed, there are some religiously affiliated schools, including some that are Catholic, where I know I would be unhappy. I want to share with you my own perception that they can, alternatively, be very vibrant and exciting places in which to work.
I describe the atmosphere at my undergraduate university as being one in which an atmosphere of social consciousness permeated the school, providing a common “air” that everyone breathed and which became part of the overall experience. That air helped to shape me from a very selfish teenager into the (perhaps somewhat less selfish) person I am today.
One component of this was the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching that was studied and celebrated throughout my undergraduate experience. With its central focus on the dignity of labor and the preferential option for the poor, this is a tradition that would probably appeal to many academics who are not Catholic themselves. In this setting, no one was surprised when issues of justice arose in classes ranging from History to Economics to English, as well as, of course, in Theology. Learning in such an environment exposed me to changes that needed to be made in the world, and gave me the confidence and tools to go out and work to make those changes. I hope that we are doing the same for our own students, who cannot help but be aware that one of our alumnae was doing just that when she was martyred in El Salvador in 1980.
For my B.A. and Ph.D., I attended two colleges that were focused on research and were very interested in pushing back the boundaries of knowledge. I don’t remember any professors from those schools, many of whom were not Catholic, being constrained in their research agenda. It is interesting to note that, despite this research focus, I remember both schools as being student centered and the (excellent) professors as being very available to us as we pursued our studies. I will always credit the professors from those schools with inspiring me to pursue an academic career.
My two academic jobs since earning my Ph.D. have been at relatively smaller Catholic Colleges where research is encouraged to varying degrees. My first job was much more research oriented, but my present job consciously puts more emphasis on teaching. This is not to say that research is not celebrated here. Instead, faculty members here maintain a vibrant research agenda, with news of new journal articles and books being announced on a regular basis. I actually find that not having pressure to publish enables me to be more successful at publishing (being more healthy and having a good co-author don’t hurt, either.) Perhaps because of my field, I have never felt constrained in the topics that I explore in my research. I feel I can confidently say that, for most faculty members in this corner of Catholicism, the days of Galileo are over.
However, I do recognize that we put our emphasis on helping our students, some of whom are from the poorer sections of Cleveland and many of whom are members of the first generation of students to attend college (as am I.) As proud as I am of my publications, I am much more proud of the amazing lives I helped to shape over the years. I recall my student who became a single mother at age 16 and who went to medical school, my student who was an organ transplant recipient who went to graduate school in math, and two of my students who adopted hard to place sibling groups to swell their family size and parenting wisdom to sizes I know I will never approach. It is an honor to have played a role in shaping the lives of many of our students, and the student-centeredness of our small college allows me to truly appreciate those opportunities.
Being a professor for a Catholic College has given me great joy and for me is certainly a good way to develop an academic career. If anyone wants to contact me for more insight, I will be more than willing to share more thoughts.