Mapping Your Academic Career: Charting the Course of a Professor’s Life
Reviewed by Glenn E. Sanders, Anthropology, History, Political Science, Oklahoma Baptist University
Gary Burge’s short book ably traces the contours of the traditional American professor’s career, from initial appointment to retirement. Drawing on insights from adult developmental psychology, he describes “the … stages that follow the professorial career and provide[s] practical advice on how to navigate those stages” (19). Despite the book’s good recommendations, however, several significant concerns limit its effectiveness.
Burge teaches New Testament at Wheaton College. He is not trained in psychology, although he has worked often with psychologists and has read the major writers on adult development—Erik Erikson, Daniel Levinson, Paul Tournier, and others—well enough to outline what happens within three distinct (if sometimes overlapping) cohorts, each marked by an overarching goal: security (tenure) early on, then success in mid-career, and finally significance as retirement looms. In Eriksonian fashion, each cohort has its own trajectory toward success or failure before the negotiation of the next stage. For example, cohort one’s search for security depends on the formation of a core academic identity, the establishment of healthy relations with peers, and validation from both students and the college. Threats for this cohort include “skills failure,” anxiety, and difficulties of assimilating to the college and of establishing healthy relations with peers (43-53). Women confront sexualization by male students, the tendency of some students to consider women teachers weak or insufficiently trained, and the difficulties of balancing family and career (53-54). Burge closes each treatment of a cohort with practical suggestions for managing its particular transitions.
This approach highlights key generalizations, some of which are essential (“finding a voice” in mid-career), others of which are commonsense (saving for retirement). The emphasis on trajectories is overly restrictive, sacrificing nuance for clarity of description. The organization by traits/risks/recommendations suggests the process in each cohort, but it sometimes seems awkward and repetitious. The book’s chief emphases and organization are not especially problematic, however. The book does what it proposes to do: provide a practical outline of a college teacher’s development in the hope of helping that process along. It is not a theoretical study of adult professional development, and Burge’s limited background in psychology is a minor concern. To most readers, the book’s chief strength will be the way Burge refracts ideas on individual development through his own experiences and conversations, providing stories and examples to illustrate his observations—snippets of academic autobiography shaped to provide advice appropriate for each cohort. Burge writes engagingly and clearly. Overall, he fashions his map well.
Even the best-drawn maps, however, do not necessarily address the most important questions. Why this type of map? Even if the map is appropriate, how might one best make the journey? Does one need more for the journey than just the map?
Twenty-five years ago, in a memorable challenge to William Perry’s schema of intellectual growth among college students, Mark Schwehn questioned the appropriateness of developmental models when thinking about vocation. Ultimately targeting Max Weber and Henry Adams, Schwehn associates Perry’s approach with “a distinctively modernist account of our spiritual condition that informs current conceptions of higher learning” but does not “really improve upon earlier, religious accounts of our spiritual condition.”1 Schwehn sees this modernist spiritual condition as essentially “multiplist” or relativistic, dependent on the notion that adults make meaning rather than find it. Such concerns are certainly overblown when applied to the map of professorial cohorts. Burge’s use of developmental theory highlights what most people want in their careers: security, success, and significance. But his book simply assumes the typologies and processes of developmental theory rather than questions their appropriateness for a vocation. One can conceive of a vocation marked by risk and failure. Significance might nonetheless arise, but from the nature of a task performed in a particular setting or tradition, or within a particular community, rather than from a sense of personal accomplishment or fulfillment.
Burge’s dependence on developmental theory subordinates the virtues behind vocation to the processes common in each cohort. Created by the book’s focus and perhaps its short length, this limitation leaves his descriptions without adequate analysis or prescription for improvement. For example, among the “risks” in the mid-career section is “institutional dissonance,” cynicism toward the college created by years of business as usual. Burge concludes, “We need to have the courage to find some mediating position between idealism and disillusionment, to accept some degree of imperfection in our college, our leaders, perhaps ourselves as well—and still retain that vision” (84). The advice is sound, but the means for gaining such courage, wisdom, and vision remain unclear. One can overstate this effect of the book’s basic assumptions. Burge’s practical advice is often wise. He concludes his initial response to “institutional dissonance,” “perhaps the first venue for hope is in the work done in the classroom or office, not the wider college” (83). But the limitation is noticeable. Other writers have explored in depth the relationships between adult development and Christian spiritual life.2 The absence of references to them is puzzling, especially in a book published by InterVarsity Press.
This problem points to a fundamental question of audience. For whom is the book intended? Faculty member or administrator? Christian reader or non-Christian? The short answer is, yes, these four and others. The description of generic features within the developmental process benefits a broad readership. I would agree in principle, but not in application. The book is about “a professor’s life,” and administrators should certainly read it, given how the feeding and nurturing of faculty members sometimes suffers under popular corporate models of college life today. But Burge writes mainly to faculty members, and his asides to administrators remain undeveloped and thus easily dismissed. The attempt to write for a mixed Christian and non-Christian readership works better. Burge is open about his commitments to teach in three “confessional” institutions, and his work in New Testament studies places him firmly on one side. Many of his examples and recommendations flow from these commitments. And Burge does not preach; he remains hospitable to all. Nonetheless, the book’s hybrid character limits noticeably how overtly and deeply it might have treated the experience of the specifically Christian academic calling. Editorial decisions about the developmental framework and target audiences combine to limit the book’s benefits.
The book’s assumptions about what composes the “professor’s life” exemplify its limits. The trajectories of the three cohorts are general. Burge describes the stereotypical, traditional career path, from appointment to tenure to professional influence to “wind down,” with the focus on the developmental logic internal to the process. But this focus means the book does not give adequate attention to the real-life external concerns that qualify an academic career, sometimes so profoundly that the traditional assumptions cannot hold. What about the challenges facing residential college life, from an overemphasis on job training to the undermining of leisure and serious study through the manipulation of schedules for “the good of the college’s customers”? What about the proliferation of online programs? What about the “rise of the administrative university,” where a novel professional path often replaces the collegial environment of shared responsibility and action with planning exercises and reports?3
Of course, Burge’s book serves a particular, important purpose by applying developmental models to the academic career. It aims to help higher education by clearly describing the needs of most faculty members. One can only hope that administrators and trustees will read it carefully, if for no other reason than to learn how to do what they like to do: optimize institutional resources for fulfillment of mission. But the book’s isolation of the developmental processes from significant trends in higher education leaves one questioning the validity and accuracy of Burge’s description. The book often assigns agency to faculty members when in reality there may not be any.
In summary, a career is not a vocation. Careers have ups and downs, successes and failures. Vocations do, too, but the fulfillment of a vocation often comes in losing rather than winning, as the lives of prophets suggest. Careers often depend on a person’s successful adoption of particular roles within a set of social expectations. Vocations may, too, but they just as often lead one to change roles and question expectations. Careers lead to security, success, and significance. Vocations often lead to uncertainty, humble service, and obscurity, at least in this life. Burge’s book addresses the professor’s career through a useful blend of developmental assumptions, autobiographical reflection, and practical advice. I would assign it for a new faculty orientation and encourage mid-career colleagues to read it. But the book needs a fuller treatment of vocation, some reflection on professorial virtues, some clarification of audience, and a consideration of external contexts before it can have a strong influence on how college teachers live, especially those who claim to discern their teaching and scholarship as Christ’s call to service.
Cite this article
- Mark R. Schwehn, Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 95.
- See, for example, James W. Fowler, Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian: Adult Development and Christian Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999).
- See, for example, Benjamin Ginsberg, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).