This year marks 20 years since I became a full-time professor in Christian higher education. As I look back, I recognize two distinct stages in my academic life, not unlike the “two halves of life” described by the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr in his book Falling Upward.
The first half of my career involved a period of discerning my gifts and calling. Prior to teaching, I worked as an engineer for a small high-tech company. I have no doubt that God calls people to work in high-tech companies—like Daniel in Babylon, who served in the high-tech center of his day. Nevertheless, my wife and I sensed the Lord was prodding me in the direction of teaching. The company I worked for tried to entice me to stay, but we were convinced that we had to follow this call.
To be qualified, I had first to complete my doctoral degree. At this point, we had three small children, a mortgage, and no clear idea how this would work out. However, after making our decision, it felt like a huge burden had been lifted from my shoulders. I had a sense of peace that I hadn’t felt in a long time. Things gradually fell into place: we moved to a new city, found a new home, and I began my studies. We encountered many providential “coincidences” during that time of transition. Just as my thesis was nearing completion and my scholarship money was running out, Redeemer University (which was located nearby) decided to hire a computer science professor. That is how my 20-year journey in Christian higher education began.
Generally, the first half of an academic career is marked by a desire to prove oneself, both in the classroom and by publishing within the guild. This stage is often accompanied by feelings of the “imposter syndrome.”1 During this stage of my career, I was grateful for faculty development opportunities and mentors who helped me mature as a Christian teacher and scholar. I was also encouraged by Christian faculty from across North America, discussing the integration of faith and learning with colleagues at CCCU disciplinary workshops, the Association of Christians in the Mathematical Sciences (ACMS), the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), and the Christian Engineering Society (CES).
The second half of an academic career generally emerges when a professor finds their voice, produces mature scholarship, and possibly takes on more leadership roles within the institution and their guild. I have found this stage to be one of opportunity to explore new research directions. My early research focused on machine learning for robot vision, but my lens gradually zoomed out over time to consider more perspectival questions. The second stage of one’s career also comes with opportunities for mentoring newer faculty members and, for some, serving in administration.2 A common pitfall in this stage is to get caught up making a name for yourself.3 We must heed the warning of author Thomas Merton, who noted that as we strive to climb the ladder of success, we may find that our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall. Making a name for oneself should never become more important than service to God and caring for others.
Unfortunately, the second half of life is not necessarily comfortable or secure, as I discovered. After nearly 15 years of teaching, a financial crisis forced the closing of my department and the loss of a job that I had felt was my calling. The title of Rohr’s book, Falling Upward, alludes to the fact that the second half of life can be a time of new spiritual growth and richness—a thesis I am beginning to understand. After being laid off, my wife and I took some time away to pray and discern our next steps. We spent a few days in a rustic cottage talking, praying, walking, and working through some self-directed Scripture readings. During our time away, we sensed that we should explore a one-year position, perhaps serving overseas. Immediately upon returning from our retreat we found a message waiting from Dordt College—inviting us to spend a year there. This led to a year of teaching as a visiting professor at Dordt University. The time spent at Dordt was rejuvenating—and sparked an idea for co-authoring a book on faith and engineering. Further developments brought us to Grand Rapids and my current position as a professor of Computer Science at Calvin University. Like iron sharpening iron, I have developed as a Christian scholar through many rich interactions with wise and winsome colleagues in diverse disciplines at three different Christian universities.4
My leap of faith to pursue teaching has been a privilege but has also led to some challenging seasons and situations. Nevertheless, I have not only grown as a scholar, but as a person too. My wife and I can attest that God has wonderfully provided for us in both halves of our lives so far. I have been grateful for the opportunity to speak into the lives of many students over the years. Some of my students have done summer research alongside me and have co-authored papers in various engineering publications. Other students have gone on to earn masters and doctoral degrees and to find industry positions in Silicon Valley and across the world. At every graduation ceremony, I have been proud as a mother hen to watch my students walk across the stage to receive their degrees—launched to become salt and light in various corners of the technology world.
The call to teaching is not just a privilege, it is also a responsibility. “Not many of you should become teachers,” warned James, “…because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). Richard Mouw observes, “Not everyone in the Christian community needs to be seriously involved in intellectual pursuits. But it is important—crucially so—that the Christian community have some people who are cultivating the intellectual disciplines.”5
I am grateful for the call to teaching I received just over 20 years ago. It has been a privilege to serve as a professor in Christian higher education and to speak into the lives of so many students. The word “professor” is derived from the Latin word for a “person who professes.” It is my hope that my life, scholarship, and teaching may be found faithful in professing that Christ is Lord of all—including the world of technology.
(Prof. Schuurman with some of his former students)
An earlier version of this article was originally published in Christian Courier.
- Some of these observations are also identified in a book by Gary M. Burge, Mapping Your Academic Career: Charting the Course of a Professor’s Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015).
- It is generally unwise to place faculty into administration too early in their careers.
- Burge, Mapping Your Academic Career, 81–82.
- I would heartily recommend that more institutions encourage “faculty exchanges” to encourage cross-pollination of Christian scholars.
- Richard J. Mouw, Called to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William E. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 10.