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Joining the Mission: A Guide for (Mainly) New College Faculty

Susan VanZanten
Published by Eerdmans in 2011

One of my more enjoyable duties as chief academic officer is to interview all finalist faculty candidates. Over the years I have developed a routine. First we spend time getting acquainted as persons. Colleges are, first and last, communities of people. Next we explore the candidate’s educational and professional stories, paying special attention to professional calling, aspiration, and achievement. A strong commitment to teaching and mentoring is a central theme of this part of the conversation. Then we finish with a least a third of our time spent in exploring the candidate’s understanding of and comfort with the mission of the university.

In over a decade of meeting faculty candidates, these “mission-fit” discussions have produced a similar pattern of responses. Every year a few respond with enthusiasm. They grasp the mission of our university and seem genuinely energized by it. Every year a few respond negatively. They make it clear that they find this discussion irrelevant at best and inappropriate at worst.

Most candidates, however, respond with some form of cautious interest. Their academic journeys have typically given them a strong identification with their disciplines but little has prepared them to reflect on the fit between their academic vocation and the mission of the institution in which they will pursue it. Looming somewhere dimly in the background is an awareness that they will practice their profession in an institution, but few have given much careful thought to the way their vocation will be shaped by the mission of that institution.

Susan VanZanten’s book, Joining the Mission: A Guide for (Mainly) New College Facultyexplores this question: Having joined the academic profession through one’s graduate education, how does a new faculty member join the mission of a mission-driven college or university? She says:

During the twenty years of working with new faculty across the country, I have met few who in their graduate studies learned about the…the specific role played by the mission-driven college or university. Commencing a career at such an institution…new faculty often feel as though they’ve been caught up by a tornado and rudely dumped in the brilliant but confusing world of Oz. (vii)

The need to orient new faculty to the context and unique characteristics of mission-driven colleges has become even more important given the current swirl of debate surround higher education. This is not an optimistic or easy time to enter the profession. Consider the following questions being discussed.

How well do professors help students learn? Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s landmark study of the current state of college learning, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, has become a focal point for the simmering debate over the real quality of the education offered by the nation’s colleges today.1 This debate inevitably turns in the direction of the faculty. “How well are faculty fostering student learning?”

How “productive” are faculty members? Policy makers and administrators across the spectrum of institutions are reminded daily of two inexorable trends: relentlessly rising costs and evaporating funding. This is an equation that cannot be balanced. This debate, too, inevitably turns to questions about faculty work. In a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Stanley N. Katz described the increasingly strident calls for accountability over faculty productivity.2

How is the profession itself changing? The teaching profession itself is undergoing profound change. In 1970, 77.8% of the instructional faculty at American degree-granting institutions held full-time positions. By 2009, only 50.7 % held full-time positions.3 In those thirty-nine years the percentage has fallen every year but four. Further, each year the faculty role seems less and less grounded in such previously hallowed concepts as tenure and academic freedom. It takes no imagination to foresee the day when the traditional full-time faculty appointment will be a fading memory of senior faculty.

In this sweltering national debate VanZanten reminds us that the interaction between faculty and students is the unmistakable center point of all that higher education has become. Faculty are never more faithful to their calling, and their calling is never nobler, than when they help students along their journeys of discovery.

VanZanten’s contribution in this book is to bring together two conversations that seldom overlap – the conversation about the unique nature of mission-driven Christian colleges, and the conversation about how to launch new faculty members successfully in the practice of their profession.4

VanZanten writes from her considerable experience as a faculty member and administrator at several Christian institutions. She is a genial guide with trustworthy sensibilities and helpful insights. The strength of her book is its concise introductions to complex issues, and its pragmatic advice about faculty work. The eight chapters address four broad topics.

Identifying Mission-Driven Institutions. In chapters 1 and 2 VanZanten offers a definition of mission-driven institutions, and then sets these institutions in their historical context in American higher education. Given her purpose here she paints with a broad brush in these chapters. While they serve as a readable introduction to a topic most faculty members will not have considered in any depth, they should best be viewed as an appetizer. There is deeper and more reflective fare available on these topics. Some carefully chosen recommendations for further reading would have been most helpful here.

Best Practices for Good Teaching.Chapters 3 and 4 focus on principles of good practice in teaching, course design, and syllabus construction. In my opinion, VanZanten’s most helpful nuggets are in these chapters. For example, she reviews the most common mistakes beginning faculty make (“focusing on knowing the material yourself, preparing too much, emphasizing content-delivery, teaching the way your favorite professors taught, lecturing too much”), as well as the seven practices of effective teachers.

1.Respect students’ differences, using a variety of teaching methods…
2. Focus on active rather than passive learning…
3. Provide opportunities for cooperative learning and collaboration among students…
4. Evince high academic expectations…
5. Provide timely and frequent feedback on student performance…
6. Pay consistent attention to time on task…
7. Develop a rapport with students that encourages and facilitates student-faculty interaction. (62)

The discussions she offers in these chapters are pedagogically sound, carefully chosen, and will prove helpful to new faculty. I found myself wishing I had had such a sympathetic and informed mentor at the start of my teaching career.

Practicing the Academic Profession in a Faithful Community.Chapters 5 and 6 tackle a primary defining characteristic of Christian mission-driven institutions—the integration of faith and learning. Following George Marsden’s groundbreaking work, The Soul of the American University, the past two decades have seen the emergence of a rich and evolving literature on this topic. Most of this work, however, is theological or philosophical in nature. Relatively little offers truly practical advice for working teachers. The faculty with whom I work generally embrace the call to integrate faith and learning. They struggle to find effective pedagogical tools to enact this aspiration in the classroom. While VanZanten provides a useful overview for new faculty of what it means to be a “faithful professor,” these chapters would have been a perfect setting for the kinds of practical teaching nuggets that sparkled in her chapters on pedagogy and syllabus construction.

Joining the Academic Community. Chapters 7 and 8 finish with a series of appealing reflections on “becoming an academic citizen” in the context of a mission-driven institution. Here VanZanten ruminates on the challenge of “composing a [professional] life” within the unique demands made of faculty members in these institutions. The strength of her work emerges once again in the nuanced and faculty-friendly advice she dispenses.

One key to leading a balanced [academic] life is to periodically remember your own call, thus putting the daily grind or current crisis into a larger perspective….No matter how our call occurred, we had a sense of excitement, a feeling of possibility, of hope….Part of our challenge is to keep this sense of calling alive, even as growth, change, and adjustments occur. (205)

In summary, VanZanten has given us a helpful resource that fills a sparsely populated niche. She offers the wisdom of an experienced colleague who is committed to and fond of the unique institutions in which we pursue our vocations. Her book is clearly introductory in scope. There is much more to read and study about the complex issues she introduces here. In fact, the book cries out for a carefully selected bibliography for further reading which is sadly missing. But on the whole, VanZanten has selected judiciously and introduced her topics well. She is a genial and trustworthy mentor. Her work deserves to become a welcome companion for new faculty who join the missions of their Christ-centered colleges and universities.

Cite this article
David Wright, “Joining the Mission: A Guide for (Mainly) New College Faculty.”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:3 , 346-349


  1. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
  2. Stanley N. Katz, “How to Justify Our Paychecks,” The Chronicle of Higher Education 57.40 (July 1, 2011).
  3. National Center for Education Statistics,

  4. For perspective one might compare this volume with Gerald W. Gibson’s older Good Start: A Guidebook for New Faculty in Liberal Arts Colleges (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992), Robert Boice’s Advice for New Faculty (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2000), Christopher Lucas and John W. Murray, Jr.’s New Faculty: A Practical Guide for Academic Beginners (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), Maryellen Weimer’s Inspired College Teaching: A Career-Long Resource for Professional Growth (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), and Barbara Goss Davis’s Tools for Teaching, 2nd Edition (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009).

David Wright

David Wright, Provost, Indiana Wesleyan University