Professor of Theology

James
Fordham University (New York, NY)
Rutgers University 
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Interview Date: 01/04/08

Interviewer: Casey Chin

Where do you work and what is your position?

I am a professor of theology at a private university in New York, and I am also the co-director of the Center for American Catholic Studies at the University of New York City. However, I'm actually a historian. I have a job title, and then I have what you would call a vocation or profession, which of course is historian. Although I'm a historian, I happen to work in the theology department, mostly because I've written books on religion.

Could you briefly describe what you teach as a professor?

My main responsibilities as a professor at a research-oriented facility like the private university are a blend of teaching and writing. I teach American Catholic Studies, which is an academic subject. It's not a seminary or about training priests. It's about the approach to the study of the American Catholic experience. I teach a few courses each semester, and then I'm also involved in doing research and writing. As the co-director for the Center for American Catholic Studies, I also give public lectures and presentations about religion and public life that might be of interest to the public.

Are you currently involved in any research?

I just finished a research project that has been dragging on for nine years. It's a book about the New York waterfront, and it's pretty much completed. Now it's just a question of being revised. It has become an endless thing, but I enjoyed it.

As a professor, how much traveling do you do for your job?

I recently went to this convention by the American Historical Association. In the old days, there would be free liquor, and everyone would party at these conventions, but that's changed a little bit. This is an annual national convention of all fields of history. There are several thousand people at this thing and they come from all around the world, mostly from the US, and they teach anything related to history. When I was younger I would go often, because that's a great opportunity to network and find jobs. In fact, years ago, the first interview I ever had was at a convention.

How would you characterize the atmosphere at your job?

Like everyone else, I had all these jobs where I worked for a boss or had somebody looking over your shoulder, but I don't have that in the university environment. I don't have a boss. It's one of the best jobs, certainly for me. I haven't worn a tie in five years. It's really a people job in the sense that it combines the solitary job of research and writing and the 'people' job of teaching undergraduate and graduate students.

What were your early years as a teacher for a university like?

I was interested in teaching while I was going to graduate school at Rutgers University, New Jersey. I was very fortunate in that they let me teach right away. I began teaching American History in 1980 as a graduate student, and I was really just a year out of college. That was really fun, because I taught all the time and I really learned a lot about teaching, and my own style and quirks. I had to figure out a way to have a workable persona as a teacher with a little bit of performance thrown in.

What happened after graduate school?

With grad school, the idea is to teach as a means of supporting yourself while you write a dissertation. First, you take courses for a couple of years, then you take exams and then the main thing is you write a dissertation, which took me many years to do. It's not unusual for a history dissertation to take 7 or 8 years. I wrote a 300-page dissertation, and it became a book. It took me several years to do. It was called "The Catholic Counter Culture in America" and it was about Catholic radicals in the 20th Century. That got me a job at Yale, a very elite Ivy League school, which is very unusual in those days for a guy from Rutgers. I don't even know how I did it. I get spooked when I think about it too much because I was in over my head. I was there for seven years.

You ended up leaving Yale, why?

The thing that totally separates this profession from virtually any other is that you have to struggle to get tenure, which is the equivalent of lifetime job security. It's very nerve wracking in the first 5 to 7 years. Then you get a decision of whether or not you get tenure. In my case I got a job at Yale, which doesn't have a tenure track. It's so elite and prestigious it can hire anybody, so it doesn't have to give you tenure. I understood that, and that's why I went to St. Louis University in 1994; I was immediately given tenure there. However, I needed to move back to Jersey City, so I surrendered my tenure, basically giving up a guaranteed lifetime job. And so I didn't have anything but part time jobs for a year or two, but then it worked out that my current university needed a professor of theology. I've been here since 2001, and I also have tenure.

Why did you switch from history to theology?

People don't realize this sometimes, but this is like any other business. So at any given time there is a desire for certain fields to be covered. I was a historian, but because I wrote Catholic cultural histories in America during a time when Catholic studies was growing in the 1990s, it made me more marketable. So I had to decide whether I wanted to stay in an American studies job or try out this Catholic studies thing, which is what I did. The only thing that drew me to theology was that a job existed here for me.

How would you describe your typical day at Fordham?

There are teaching days and there are non-teaching days. We usually don't teach five days a week because we have a schedule that divides them. On teaching days, you get ready for your classes, you see students, you teach and then you do whatever else needs to be done in the course of a day. On another day, in between, you can try to get something written. And there are always letters of recommendation; I'm doing some right now. Then there are a million meetings about hiring faculty; there are departmental meetings and then other committees of all different kinds. And then I deal with publication issues and try to work with publishers. Right now, I'm trying to decide how to get a book published. It's not like a 9-to-5 job; it takes more hours. It's a rewarding job for those that are suited to it. As a professor, I have more freedom and flexibility. I really enjoy the opportunities. You never know when you might come up with an idea or a thought. I recently came up with an idea for an essay I want to do. And then, there are other times that are slack; it just depends.

What is the private university like and how important is the campus to you?

I work for a 2-campus Jesuit university founded in 1841. It was formerly operated by the Jesuit Order of Priests, but in the 1960's had a change of governance, so it's actually an independent-private university that still maintains a presence of the Jesuit tradition. It's pretty large for a Catholic college, with maybe a total of 11,000 students. The campus here is just a couple of square blocks. The thing that makes it distinctive is that the campus I teach at is in New York City. There's no feeling at all of a college town or a campus, really. The character is totally urban. I just love a campus with the streets running through it. I like to be able to get in and out, and get around and to see life right in front of me.

Where do you spend most of your time on campus?

I really spend most of my time in the office. In the past, I would've spent more time in the library, but now with the Internet, more and more work is done on the computer. That's the other thing about my job - I spend so much time at the computer. It's on all the time. Emails, there are so many emails. It takes up a big part of my day. When I was younger, I spent a lot more time in the library, and I'd be running around looking at books and journals, but a lot of contemporary literature is online now. You can do so much more research right at the computer.

What time do you arrive at work and what is the first thing you do?

I don't get to work until 10:30 a.m. and sometimes I stay until 10:30 p.m. I work these long days about 4 days a week. I turn on the computer as soon as I get there. I have to take care of my emails. Then I try to write, because the thing about writing is that it is hard for me to maintain it for many hours at a time, so I try to get it together in the morning and get it out.

Who do you interact with throughout the day?

I work a lot with graduate students and undergraduates as a teacher and advisor. My actual workplace is not really physically connected to another department, so I'm kind of on my own. Most of my meetings are held in the other campus, so I commute to those. The day-to-day work involves students and a lot of work on my own in my office. I don't work as much directly with other people as somebody would be if they worked in a department where the professors were all physically together. This is more specific to my own situation, because I asked to be relocated here.

What's the salary of a new professor and how does it change?

The range is really high. Starting pay is probably about $40,000, and then it'll go up to $50,000 or $70,000 by the time you reach full professor. A lot of places you might get $100,000. Someone who is in his 50s, and is very well known in their field or is a well-known researcher, can make up to $200,000. But for the average full professor at the high end of the scale, they will make somewhere between $90,000 and $100,000 after 20 to 25 years.

How many hours do you work?

I work about 60 hours a week. People seem to work more than ever; people work really long hours now. And you know, it's not bad if it's a good job that you like. If it's not a terrible job, then it's good. Other faculty and professors show up two or three days a week and they work at home. I don't do that. I treat it like a full time job.

What do most professors do when school is not in session?

What's good about this profession is that the salary is based on two semesters, which is like 28 or 30 weeks of work. So it technically leaves you with 22 weeks free, almost five months where you can make extra money. The main way to do this is to teach summer school. We all do something full time in the summer now because people can't afford to sit at home. And you can make about another $12,000 doing that. Some people make extra money by writing and lecturing. It's not like before when professors used to take more time off. I'm usually only able to take a week or two in August off.

When do you see yourself retiring?

What I like about this profession is that if you're healthy, you can do it forever. You can do it well into your 70s and they can't really get rid of you. So I probably figure on another 20 years for me. For retirement, there's a system that is specifically for college teachers. You and your school pay into a pension that you receive when you retire. So, it's not bad. If you work for a state school, you get into whatever state pension they have.

Does being a professor require you to travel?

I used to travel a lot. I would go to conferences. The other biggest travel reason is for research, because a lot of times if you're looking for someone's personal papers, manuscripts or archives you have to go there. For example, I went to Austin, TX in April to view someone's papers. I've also had to relocate myself as a professor, both for family and for a position. This job is different in that way. You have to move. You have to go to the place where the job is, unless you're really lucky.

What satisfies and frustrates you about teaching at a university?

Seeing the students develop a greater understanding of things really satisfies me. You see students change and ask better questions; that's the best part. It's about human growth and development. What's frustrating for me is not being able to make myself clear, I sometimes have a problem with that. It's the same thing with writing, too. I want to be clear, so that everyone understands me and I feel like I'm in tune with people. This is a communication job, and that can be challenging sometimes.

What is your outlook on the teaching profession today?

It's a good profession. There are more jobs than ever because of the information age. Higher education is one of the biggest job markets in the US. It has really been growing again. It was a dying profession in the 1980s and 1990s, but it has bounced back in the last 6 or 8 years. There's tremendous growth right now, because a lot more students are coming in. However, some universities have become more like businesses in recent years. Not with the profit making, but there's more consciousness of costs because it's so expensive, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. When it's a business model, you don't pay as much attention to the individual students. They're more like commodities.

What are some challenges you face today as a university professor?

Working out a way of reaching the largest community of students is a challenge. Also, since I'm a historian and not a theologian, I have to learn the language and approach of theologians. The broader challenge is that American Catholic Studies is in an awkward situation because there has been a lot of controversy in the church over sex abuse in recent years. So we get asked about that all the time and we're always in the position to figure out what we think about that. Another challenge is that students come from a totally different generation and their experience is really different. I have to find ways to build bridges to connect with their experience.

Do you ever find yourself under a lot of pressure?

The only pressure is the tremendous pressure to get tenure. It is definitely sweet when you have it, though. There's no real competition between professors. Rather, you're trying to meet a criteria that the school has established. In other words, if you're supposed to publish a book in the first five years you're there, as long as you do that it doesn't matter what someone else does. If someone else writes two books, it has no bearing on your tenure track. If you've done what's expected, they'll tenure you.

Are professors affected much by regulations or unions?

For the most part, no. There's a very low-key thing called AAUP, American Association of University Professors. I don't think that many people are in it. Graduate students have been unionizing, and that sometimes creates situations with faculty. The theory was always that you're not a member of the working class. On the other hand you are, because things have changed. We face a lot of the issues that workers traditionally faced: scarcity of opportunity or work conditions. But now, the whole definition of a worker has changed, and we're definitely workers. It's still not the kind of job where you're basically being paid an hourly wage to do somebody else's work. We have tremendous opportunities to do things of our own.

Is there anything you would do differently if you could go back int time to when you first got into teaching?

I just kind of fell into it. I wanted to do it, but I didn't have a plan. It's good to know a little bit more about the hiring process. When you're a graduate student, you should ask the faculty at your school for advice. I never did that. I just stumbled into it and took my chances. I can help students now, because I know a lot more about hiring and how it works.

Is there anyone in particular that influenced you throughout your career?

In graduate school you get a director for your dissertation, and I had a really good advisor that really helped me. The people that inspired me didn't come from any Catholic studies background; they were American historians and so I always thought that way. When I taught at Yale, the graduate students there were also so talented that a lot of them had an influence on me, too.

Are there any qualities that are conducive to success?

You have to really want to do this, because the training and graduate school alone can take 6-7 years. You really have to want to pursue this. You could do a lot of other things that are not as time consuming, pay better and are easier to get into. You could be a lawyer a lot faster than this and make a lot more money. Generally speaking, you should have the ability and desire to communicate ideas to people. You should also have an appreciation for students and where they are in their lives. Being flexible certainly helps, because sometimes people get a little rigid or set. Any kind of personality can teach because there are so many different subjects. You don't want to have just one style of teacher. You want to have a mixture. It also depends on what kind of school it is. If it's mostly a teaching college, then it's important that you know how to teach, if it's a research college like Stanford then it's important to be able to write a lot of books. You have to know the difference. The school you go to tends to train you as if you're going to work at that particular institution. It helps to know whether you want to teach more or go into research. Most graduate training is all about research. If you get a job like at a small college, you'll most likely be teaching all the time. You don't want to waste all the research skills you acquired. That's one thing that is a little inefficient about this profession. You don't know what kind of job you're going to get until you get out there and look for it.

What kind of hiring process can an aspiring teacher expect?

First you apply to an ad the school puts out. Then the school decides on interview candidates. It brings two or three applicants to the campus, and they must give speeches. The interview is a big part of the process. Sometimes you spend a day or more just being interviewed. Some jobs you might spend a couple hours in an interview, but in this kind of field you're going to spend a day or two and be looked over. It's kind of unusual. It's a little bit awkward because the school is really looking you over. Applicants are scrutinized so much, because if the school is going to give you tenure, then it will be stuck with you for the next 40 years.

From your own experience of being on a review panel, what advice can you give?

I like to see how they answer questions, because that's what the students will have to find out, too. If they act like they don't want to answer your questions, then they're not going to answer the students either. I'm not worried about the other stuff like going to dinner with them. What I really want to see in the formal setting is how they answer questions.

How important are grades in graduate school to becoming a professor?

Nobody looks at your grades. They look at your dissertation; they look at your research and your letters of recommendation. It's an assumption that everyone gets good grades in graduate school, because the grading is easy. It's more a question of how good your dissertation is and what your professors think of you. Graduate students don't really understand that, but then they figure it out. I mean if you have really bad grades then you're not getting anywhere.

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