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Professors Are People, Too

Charles Mathewes's Job, Career, Vocation, Life
Professors Are People, Too

Charles Mathewes, Carolyn M. Barbour Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, has gone outside his considerably wide-ranging fields of interest (his university bio mentions his research interests as “Christian thought, esp. Augustine and the Augustinian tradition; religious ethics, esp. comparative religious ethics; religion and culture; religion and politics; evil and sin”) to write this straightforward and insightful essay.

Or has he gone outside his field? In fact, every professor needs to think—and think hard and well—about the issues Mathewes raises, and from the comments responding to the piece, many have. They range from the greatly appreciative (“This is a wonderful essay. It needs to be handed to everyone seeking an academic career early on.”) to the deeply disagreed (“I don’t see how this is helpful to the overwhelming majority of academics who can only get jobs but do not and will not have careers in the current system.”), and that only means it is generating good thought and discussion.

And that discussion is well-deserved. Mathewes frames a sensible statement about how academics should view their lives in the current crisis in higher education, which he believes is caused by two factors: a developing two-tier job market (economic), and a “broader cultural assault on academic authority”. Though he calls for resistance through academic reflection on these problems, the substance of his essay takes the wiser approach of attempting to answer the question: “What shall we do to ‘learn to live in this new academic era’?”

Mathewes develops a taxonomy of subsets by which he hopes to help academics to think about balancing different dimensions of their lives: job, career, vocation and life. As he says, “Collectively they offer a fairly comprehensive vocabulary within which to think and talk about your existence — as an academic, and beyond.” By job he means more than just the activity they pay you for. He means the variety of specific tasks an academic may have at a university: teaching specific classes, serving on committees, being departmental chair, etc. By career, he means a longer look at one’s professional life and its trajectory over time, mostly seen by expectations and requirements foisted upon the individual by his or her field of research. Mathewes describes vocation as “your deepest, most basic, in some ways most romantic vision of what it is you really do” and plays it off against career (as he has career against job).

“Yes, you’re a professor — but are you a teacher? Or a writer? An intellectual? A scholar? A researcher? Some combination of all these things, complicatedly ranked?  Under the canopy categories of “academic” or ‘professor’ lie a thousand different ideals, individually defined…”

These three areas revolve around the specific goals and attitudes academics have about their lives within the university’s walls, but the fourth, life, is a simple way of labeling everything else, every other relationship or way of spending time that a human being has: family roles, friendships, leisure activities, etc. This category is described the least by Mathewes and yet is given no less importance by him. It conflicts with the other three as much as they conflict with each other, when faced with the decision in time of what a person should do next.

Having defined these four roles or aspects of one’s life, Mathewes spends most of his time in the essay reflecting on the ways in which they conflict with each other, using these contrasts to elaborate the roles more fully. This is the most helpful part of the essay, beyond the taxonomy itself. Just dividing the variety of roles a university professor plays from one another and describing them as cleanly and helpfully as he has is worth so much.

The Christian will have some differences of opinion with this essay, though they do not tarnish the usefulness of it for discussion, whether with Christians or any sort of mix of people. Vocation requires two actors, if one takes it in its deeper, more etymologically based Christian meaning of the call of God upon one’s life; Mathewes only describes one, the self. (To be fair, Mathewes does state the following in a parenthesis: “I recognize that traditionally one’s vocation was the determinate moral and spiritual shape given to one’s life; but I think that today we effectively distinguish between the two. There’s a lot of argument to be had there, but that’s another matter.”) God as an actor in one’s life is ignored by Mathewes for obvious reasons: he is writing for a much broader audience in terms of the human values that we all share. Nevertheless, the Christian will have much more to bring to the table in sorting out all the difficulties of prioritizing one’s life than will others who do not believe. Listening for the voice of God through Scripture, prayer, wise counsel, tradition—all these play a role for the Christian in living the juggling act Mathewes describes.

A minor quibble can be made, too, with the use of the word life for the last category. How are one’s job, career, and vocation not also a part of one’s life? I don’t know what to recommend in place of the word, but that one seems confusing.

These are small problems, however, within a very helpful essay. Perhaps best of all Mathewes eschews any “easy answer” solution to how one would go about balancing the dimensions of a person’s life, and he is of course wise to do so. No human being is the same as any other, and the variables that must go into any one decision at any one point in one’s life are so many that everyone must take responsibility for these decisions for themselves.

To have laid out in a clear, simple fashion the competing values the way he has, makes this essay worth discussing for any group of students, and this is so whether they are contemplating a career in academia or not. Mathewes’ categories are applicable not just to professional life as an academic, but to any profession to which the Christian is called. Everyone has, or knows what it is to have, a job, a career, a vocation, and a life, as Mathewes describes them, and the conflicts he so well describes take place within every field of endeavor.


The article can be found HERE.


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