A few months into a new Ph.D. program, my adviser pulled me into his office, clearing a chair of books and papers so I could sit down and, as he said, explain my future plans.
At that moment, my future plans included lunch in a local sandwich joint with classmates and an afternoon in the library, but I knew he was looking for something more substantial and long-term.
"I want to teach at a small college," I told him. "Preferably a religious institution." Having attended a Quaker liberal arts university several years before beginning graduate work, I knew exactly what kind of influence faculty at a small university might have on a student. In essence, I had gone to graduate school because I wanted to guide others in the same ways my professors had transformed me.
My graduate adviser, however, would have none of it. "You don’t want to teach somewhere like that," he sneered. "First, you’ll be considered a religious zealot. You’ll also never make any kind of money."
I’m certain I gave him the same impassive look I sometimes see in the classroom, one that suggested I was open and willing to listen to his wise words when I really believed him a fool. Within a few weeks, I found myself a new faculty adviser, one who mentored me and helped me land the teaching job I desired.
Twelve years into my career at a small religious university, I’m grateful I didn’t believe my first adviser’s pronouncement. True, I haven’t made a windfall, but who goes into academe for the money? (I drive the same kind of Subaru my wealth-happy adviser did, at any rate.) I also don’t think I’ve gained a reputation as a zealot for anything other than good television programs and early bedtimes. Instead, I’ve enjoyed a rich first decade of teaching, discovered research interests far different from those I had in graduate school, worked hard to earn tenure, and developed a strong community with like-minded colleagues dedicated to our university’s mission.
In other words, as I sometimes tell my students, I landed the best job in the world.
Yet when I talk with job hunters who fear applying to teaching-intensive institutions, I’m always shocked by the dread they express about accepting what they see as a heavy teaching load — and yes, I teach the equivalent of four courses a semester, plus sometimes an overload — and by the general perception that a smaller college or university is the last refuge of the damned. And of course those who believe the only faculty jobs worth having require two courses of teaching a semester rule out not only colleges like mine, but community colleges as well.
Certainly, working at a teaching-intensive college or university can be onerous, and come May, I sometimes think I’d rather gouge out my eyes than read one more first-year essay. On the balance, though, spending so much time with students is a delight, as is reading the well-crafted and potentially publishable essay of a senior, someone whose academic trajectory I’ve been fortunate to guide, given the small class sizes and the potential of having a student take all the courses I teach.
Of course, this sometimes means the same irritating schmuck will populate the back row of my classes for four (or five) years, but for the most part, a teaching-heavy institution affords me the opportunity to work closely with students, to see them develop into strong writers and scholars and human beings.
Although a good bit of my time is spent in the classroom — or, more likely, in grading essays — there is also space enough to pursue a scholarly agenda, and despite the perception of some, there are expectations for scholarship at many smaller institutions. But these expectations do not seem overwhelming or paralyzing. Faculty are required to research and publish for promotion and tenure, but we are not an up-or-out institution, and the tenure review does not loom as a potential career-breaker for someone whose scholarship hasn’t been stellar.
Removing this pressure to produce superior scholarship, published in only the finest journals and with the most prestigious university presses, frees faculty members to explore those research questions that interest them most, rather than grinding out scholarship that no longer (or maybe never?) excited them. So that once I’d published my first book and thought I could not study that particular topic one more minute, I was free to change directions and research emphases completely: something I’ve done several times now in my career.
Would I like a book contract with Oxford University Press? Well yes, of course — and at least one colleague has landed just that. But barring a Oxford UP miracle, I would rather produce research I know will be read and appreciated by broader audiences, and on a range of subjects I find personally meaningful. So that in the last decade, I’ve been able to research and write about my denominational history for Mennonite journals, on topics not far from my first book’s focus; but I’ve also published creative nonfiction in literary journals; written about peace and justice for progressive religious publications; explored issues in work/life balance for parenting and feminist magazines; and published a second book that combined my interests in peace, justice, and parenting. Without the constraints of a narrowly defined understanding of scholarship, and the pressure to produce for a small range of publications, I have earned tenure and my writing life has blossomed, another opportunity afforded me by institution’s focus on teaching.
More than anything else, though, I love my small college faculty job because of the people with whom I spend each day, and because of our shared belief in the institutional mission. Working alongside colleagues who enjoy teaching as much or more than I do, and who are here because of their dedication to students, has made even the worst committee assignments (which would, in my mind, be assessment) far easier to endure. Sure, there are colleagues who irritate me, and given the small size of our campus, I end up in the same lunch line now and then, but when I do, I will probably keep conversation polite, rather than telling them I find their political or theological leanings ridiculously small-minded.
Lest I’ve given a false impression, the institution where I teach is no utopia. Every institution will have its dysfunctions, and certainly small institutions have theirs, too: especially colleges that are tuition-driven (as is ours), and that now face the pressure to professionalize, to take on massive online open colleges and other online challenges, and to viably face an always-transforming educational marketplace.
Still, I’ll take my university’s dysfunctions any day of the week, because even given these — and a myriad of other complexities — I get to do exactly that for which my graduate school adviser prepared me: transforming students’ lives, just as I was transformed. Faced with this opportunity, I would never fret about a 4/4 teaching load, even if that means driving a 10-year-old Subaru with a pile of ungraded essays in the passenger seat.