Dear Prof. Van Wijs,

I finally finished my PhD and have begun a new position assistant professor of computer science at a Christian university in my home state. As I face my upcoming classes, I find myself feeling anxious about teaching. I have several new courses to teach, and several are outside my primary area of expertise. Despite years of training and a new set of letters behind my name, I have moments when I feel like an impostor. This may sound silly, but I have a recurring dream in which I arrive for class and, when I look down, I am wearing nothing but my underwear.

In addition, I am expected to “integrate faith and learning” in my classes, even the classes with mostly technical content. I appreciated how faith was woven into my classes as an undergrad, but it’s an entirely different matter to move from hearing to doing. Frankly, this is not something I thought much about during graduate school. At best I find myself simply opening class with prayer; at worst I sometimes stretch Bible verses in an effort to make them fit into my lectures. The words of James 3:1 are weighing heavy on me: “you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

Aside from all the teaching expectations, I am also required to do research and publish to get tenure. There is meager funding for equipment, little time for research outside of teaching, and no graduate students to help. My PhD resulted in a few publications, but how do I sustain a research program at a teaching university? How can I hope to publish when it requires competing with much larger research universities?

As one of your former students, I never realized how challenging it is to be a Christian college professor. Don’t get me wrong – I am grateful for landing a faculty position! But I can’t help having second thoughts as I contemplate the task before me… Any sage advice would be gratefully received.

Your former student,

Tim

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Dear Tim,

It’s a delight to hear from you – congratulations on new faculty position! As a young faculty member, I clearly recall standing nervously in front of the mirror in the restroom before the start of classes. Suddenly, a respected senior professor burst out of a stall and stood next to me as he frantically washed his hands. I’ll never forget what he said: “every year it’s the same – it’s the start of classes and I’ve got ‘the runs.’” It was strangely comforting to me; here was an experienced, senior professor who also felt what I was feeling. Being nervous at the start of classes is normal, and even an appropriate feeling if you care about your classes and your students. Feelings like these will help avoid the pitfall of pride and overconfidence, a common occupational hazard for professors. Recognize your feelings for what they are, and pray that God will bless your students through your teaching.

The “integration of faith and learning” may seem daunting as a new faculty member, but you do not have to do this alone. I happen to know that the college where you are teaching has an excellent mentoring program to help new faculty develop as Christian scholars.1 Seek out a friendly and wise senior faculty member to be a mentor for you. Regular readings and interactions with mentors and senior colleagues will gradually shape you as “iron sharpens iron.” As a computer scientist, avoid the temptation to silo yourself; instead seek opportunities to interact with colleagues in other disciplines. There is something special about a school in which all faculty are committed to the common project of Christian scholarship. Take every opportunity to read and learn; in time, you will make your own contributions to the ongoing dialogue about faith and learning.

As a computer science professor, consider joining the Association of Christians in the Mathematical Sciences (ACMS) and the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA).2 These organizations provide venues for faith integration conversations and will connect you with other Christian scholars for fellowship, encouragement, and support.

Although your teaching is important, don’t let it become all consuming. Be sure to secure time each week for some writing and research and to keep abreast of developments in your field. Attend conferences, read journals, and seek others with whom you might collaborate. Ideally, find ways to include your students in research projects. As a new professor, it will generally be fruitful to continue the momentum of your PhD research. However, in time, be open to opportunities that arise which may take your scholarship in new and surprising directions. Pray to the Lord that he might direct which side of the boat you ought to cast your net, and trust that he will establish the work of your hands.

Don’t underestimate how undergraduates can contribute to your computer science research! I have had many clever undergrad research assistants assist me with coding and simulations and even co-author publications. These are students for whom you can be a mentor, shaping both their professional and spiritual lives. I have enjoyed watching these students sprout wings and flourish as they enter graduate school or industry. Your impact as a scholar is not only measured by the number of publications in your CV, but also by the “living CV” of students’ lives you have touched and shaped.

The next time you are in town let’s meet for a coffee. In the meantime, may God continue to bless and keep you in your new vocation, and may he “equip you with everything good for doing his will” (Heb. 13:21).

take care,

Paul

P.S. Since you are no longer my student there is no need to call me Dr. van Wijs – call me Paul. 🙂

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Note: Although these letters are fictional, they are inspired by real conversations and experiences. This is an edited version of a column by the same author that appeared in Christian Courier, February 11, 2019.

Footnotes

  1. See Caroline J. Simon et al., Mentoring for Mission: Nurturing New Faculty at Church-related Colleges, Eerdmans, 2003.
  2. In Canada, the ASA’s sister organization is the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation (CSCA). For engineers, there is also the Christian Engineering Society.

Derek C. Schuurman

Calvin University
Derek C. Schuurman is Professor of Computer Science at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI.

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