Briefly Noted: On Tenure and Teaching

I’m sure nobody saw this one coming. In a recent edition of The Chronicle, Dan Berrett reports on the findings of a recent study at Northwestern University and concludes that tenured professors at this top tier university were consistently rated lower than non-tenure track professors. “Students learned more,” writes Dan Berrett, “when their first instructor in a discipline was not on the tenure track, as compared with those whose introductory professor was tenured, according to a new paper from researchers at Northwestern University.”

In the article, “For Teaching, Tenure Isn’t Better” Berrett reports on a paper entitled, ““Are Tenure-Track Professors Better Teachers?” co-authored by David N. Figlio (director of Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research), Morton O. Smith (President of Northwestern), and Kevin B. Soter.”[1] The authors answer in the negative. “The students,” they write, “were more likely to take a second course in a discipline if the first had been taught by an untenured faculty member, and they were more likely to earn a better grade in the next course compared with students whose first course in the discipline had been taught by a tenured or tenure-track professor.” After checking and double-checking, the authors report the consistent result that undergraduate students at Northwestern learned better under part-time instructors than tenured or tenure-track professors.

The study was only conducted at Northwestern, which limits its impact and applicability. As Berrett notes, “The fact that the study was conducted only on students at Northwestern makes it both useful and limited for its broader application.” The Northwestern student body is certainly above the national averages for academic performance: “ . . . students who were described in the study as less-qualified academically . . . still posted an average SAT score of 1316.” Further, non-tenured instructors at Northwestern likely do not resemble other part-time instructors; Northwestern pays quite handsomely, giving part-time faculty members anywhere from $4,200 to $7,334 per course.

I’ll limit my response to one brief reflection. As I read the article, I kept imagining the part-time and non-tenured professors at Northwestern who are no doubt “lean and hungry,” who are forced to be good teachers in order to keep their jobs. They have not yet been given cushy and almost-untouchable tenured positions at Northwestern (or at any other state or private university). Like anybody else in working America, their paycheck depends upon their ability to do their task in a way that contributes to the community.

By way of contrast, tenured professors might lock into a six-figure salary for four decades while never progressing, and perhaps even regressing, in their classroom instruction or student interactions. There are various reasons that a professor might perform poorly and without improvement over the course of their tenure. On the one hand, the fault might lie partly with an administration that does not encourage faculty members to improve as instructors, or does not equip them with the resources to catalyze improvement. On the other hand, the faculty member might be undisciplined, lazy, or apathetic. Or he might value his research projects to such an extent that he allows those projects to take clear priority over his students.

Whatever the reason, it is a crime against students and against the profession to take one’s teaching duties lightly.

Thomas Cronin put it nicely, in his 1992 article, “On Celebrating College Teaching”:

Great teachers give us a sense not only of who they are, but more important, of who we are, and who we might become. They unlock our energies, our imaginations, and our minds. Effective teachers pose compelling questions, explain options, teach us to reason, suggest possible directions, and urge us on. The best teachers, like the best leaders, have an uncanny ability to step outside themselves and become liberating forces in our lives.

Likewise George Steiner who, in Lessons of the Masters, writes:

To teach seriously is to lay hands on what is most vital in a human being. . . . Poor teaching, pedagogic routine, a style of instruction which is, unconsciously or not, cynical in its mere utilitarian aims, are ruinous. They tear up hope by its roots. Bad teaching is, almost literally, murderous and metaphorically, a sin. It diminishes the student, it reduces to gray inanity the subject being presented.

As seminary professors, may we never reduce to gray inanity the breathtaking splendor of our ultimate Subject—the Triune God and the world he created. May our efforts be pleasing to him, and may we teach in a manner worthy of our calling.


[1] Dan Berrett, “For Teaching, Tenure Isn’t Better” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Sep. 20, 2013): A13.

Southeastern Seminary (4): A Faculty Who Assess Themselves by Five Criteria

[Note: This blogpost is the fourth installment in a five-part series which articulates and expounds Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s mission to be a Great Commission seminary.]

A Great Commission faculty member is one whose professorial vocation is shaped not only by his confessional commitments but also by professional standards in the field of higher education. These confessional commitments and professional standards are the criteria by which faculty members are appointed, elected, and promoted, but more importantly are the criteria by which they can measure growth in their divinely-given vocation. Five criteria are noteworthy: Christian character, classroom instruction, research and writing, church and community service, and institutional commitment.

1. Christian character. Professors display a Christian way of life. One way of encapsulating this way of life is to say that they are actively engaged in obeying the Great Commission. Another way is to view it through the lens of the Great Commandment, in which we are told that the Lord God is one (Mk 12:29), and which instructs, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment. And the second like it, is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mk 12:30-31). It is interesting to note that our Lord refers to the Shema as he articulates the two greatest commandments (Deut 6:4). He draws upon its declaration of God’s Oneness and its instruction to meditate upon God’s Word in order to instill Christian love for God and neighbor. We can say that the loving and mutually reciprocal inner life of the Triune God is the model for us as we seek to love God and neighbor. We can further say that love for God issues forth in love for neighbor. Faculty members love and honor God publicly in front of their students. They love and honor their fellow faculty members, the seminary’s administration and staff, and the students who sit under their tutelage. Such love is at odds with cynicism, hyper-criticism, and other vices which sometimes poison academic communities.

The study of religious truth ought to be undertaken and prosecuted from a sense of duty, and with a view to the improvement of the heart. When learned, it ought not to be laid on the shelf, as an object of speculation; but it should be deposited deep in the heart, where its sanctifying power ought to be felt. –J. L. Dagg

2. Classroom instruction. Professors shape their courses and pedagogy consciously in light of the mission, and the core competencies which cause students to flourish as learners. A professor’s course never stands in a one-to-one relationship with any single core competency; indeed, even though a particular course will emphasize certain competencies over others, it will somehow be related to all of the competencies. A systematic theology course, for example, will conceptualize and articulate truth by reflecting upon biblical teaching (biblical exposition), conceptualizing and articulating it (critical thinking and communication), bringing it into conversation with what has been learned in other courses (theological integration), applying it to life and ministry (ministry preparation), and allowing it to drive us deeper into fellowship with God (spiritual formation). Inversely, a core competency never stands in an exclusive relationship with any single course or discipline. Biblical exposition, for example, is not the sole possession of the Old Testament and New Testament faculties. Each professor shapes all of his courses in light of God’s Word, listening attentively to his address in relation to the subject matter at hand. Moreover, Great Commission classroom instruction extends beyond course design into instructional method and style. Great Commission professors value each student under their charge, embracing the challenge to teach every student the churches send, whether that student is undergraduate, graduate, or post-graduate; whether that student is residential or online; whether that student is learned or unlearned; whether that student is male or female; whether that student is a member of our ethnic and cultural heritage or not.

To teach seriously is to lay hands on what is most vital in a human being. . . . Poor teaching, pedagogic routine, a style of instruction which is, unconsciously or not, cynical in its mere utilitarian aims, are ruinous. They tear up hope by its roots. Bad teaching is, almost literally, murderous and metaphorically, a sin. It diminishes the student, it reduces to gray inanity the subject being presented. –George Steiner

3. Scholarship: Professors will engage regularly in research and writing. God’s revelation of himself sets the stage for the importance of such scholarship, which is vital to the life of the seminary. Because God has spoken, we listen attentively to his voice, in submission to the Scriptures, seeking to craft lecture notes and publish research in a manner worthy of our calling. As we teach our students to love the Lord God will all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength, we ourselves demonstrate love for God by faithfully engaging our chosen disciplines with spiritual purpose and intellectual rigor. Although some professors will be more inclined than others toward research and writing, each professor is expected to engage in research and writing at some level, for the good of our students, our colleagues, and various publics who might benefit. A professor who continues to grow and develop within his field is likely to be a more interesting classroom instructor. A stagnant researcher is likely to make a stale instructor. Further, one of the seminary’s distinctives is its expectation that faculty members remain in scholarly conversation with professors from other disciplines, so that each professor has a transdisciplinary perspective which helps him to understand his own chosen field of research. It should be noted that the seminary integrated its office space for just such a reason. Faculty offices are not arranged by departments or fields of research; instead they are integrated in a transdisciplinary fashion.

The point of Christian scholarship is not recognition by standards established in the wider culture. The point is to praise God with the mind. Such efforts will lead to the kind of intellectual integrity that sometimes receives recognition. But for the Christian that recognition is only a fairly inconsequential by-product. The real point is valuing what God has made, believing that the creation is as ‘good’ as he said it was, and exploring the fullest dimensions of what it meant for the Son of God to ‘become flesh and dwell among us.’ Ultimately, intellectual work of this sort is its own reward, because it is focused on the only One whose recognition is important, the One before whom all hearts are open. –Mark Noll

[The scholarly life] implies a serious resolution. The life of study is austere and imposes grave obligations. It pays, it pays richly; but it exacts an initial outlay that few are capable of. The athletes of the mind, like those of the playing field, must be prepared for privations, long training, a sometimes superhuman tenacity. We must give ourselves from the heart, if truth is to give itself to us. Truth serves only its slaves. –A. G. Sertillanges

4. Church and Community Service. Professors serve their churches and communities. Similar to a profession of faith in Christ, meaningful membership is a prerequisite to one’s vocation as a seminary professor. A seminary professor who is not regularly and closely involved in the life of his church is disqualified vocationally. Although a professor may not be serving on staff at a church, he is known as a regular attender, a person in close fellowship with the church, and one who otherwise demonstrates his commitment to the redeemed community. Through meaningful church membership, professors teach their students that one who loves Christ will also love Christ’s bride; they model for their students the life-on-life discipleship that emerges fully only within a local church setting.  Likewise, professors may find ways to serve the community.

The enduring authority of Christ’s commands compels Christians to study the Bible’s teaching on the church…. Christian proclamation might make the gospel audible, but Christians living together in local congregations make the gospel visible (see John 13:34-35). The church is the gospel made visible. -Mark Dever

5. Institutional Commitment. Professors serve at Southeastern because they are committed to Christ’s call on their lives through the ministries of this institution. They teach in accordance with, and not contrary to, the articles of faith and statements of affirmation. They are committed to the vision and mission of the seminary as expressed in its mission statement. They are committed to engendering faith, hope, and love among their colleagues, students, and the administration. Although the seminary is not a church and should not be confused with one, it is indeed an institution which trains the church’s servants and which should therefore serve as a model of Christian community. Faculty members will be careful to love and honor students, colleagues, and the seminary’s leadership. They will pray for the seminary community, and faithfully seek to play a part in the spiritual vitality of that community.

Christian community is like the Christian’s sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim…. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases. –Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We are all in the same boat, in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty. -G. K. Chesterton

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (4): Theology is Not Primarily for Professors or Preachers.

At one point in my life, I thought “theology” was for only for eccentric religious professionals who wore hounds-tooth jackets with elbow patches, smelled like papyrus, smoked hand carved pipes, sported Santa Claus beards, and talked a lot about topics such as Second Temple Judaism and revelational epistemology. In other words, I thought they were weird. I thought it would be fun to stick a theologian in a room of normal people and play the game “Which one of these is not like the others?” (It would have been an easy game. In a room full of normal people, as I saw it, a theologian sticks out like an Amish kid with a nose ring.) Or so I thought. After I had actually studied theology at Southeastern, and had met a good number of theologians, I realized that theology is something that all believers do, and it is something that is done for many different audiences. That’s the question this installment answers. For whom do we do theology? For the church? For unbelievers? For the academy? Former University of Chicago theologian David Tracy is known for arguing that theologians must find ways to interact compellingly with three distinct audiences: academy, church, and society.[1] This blog will “one-up” Tracy by arguing that theology must address at least five audiences: God, family, church, the academy, and society at large.

Theology for God:

First and foremost, theology is done for God. Just as God seeks to bring glory to his name and increase his own renown, so we must do all that we do to glorify him and make his name great.[2] The biblical testimony could not be more clear on this count. God created humanity for his glory (Is 43:7), sent his Son to vindicate his glory (Rom 3:23-26; 15:8-9), will one day fill the earth with the knowledge of his glory (Hab 2:14), so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10). In the present age, we are to do all things for his glory (1 Cor 10:31). “All things” includes the task of theology. For this reason, Barth writes, “Evangelical theology is concerned with Immanuel, God with us! Having this God for its object, it can be nothing else but the most thankful and happy science!”[3] As theologians, we have the great privilege of studying God’s Word and, in so doing, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good (Ps 34:8), delighting ourselves in the Lord (Ps 37:4), seeking him early in the morning (Ps 63:1), and savoring his words (Ps 119:103). There is nothing more wonderful than attending closely to what our Most Loved One is saying to us, and then speaking it back to him, and telling others what he has told us. Theology is done, first and foremost, for God.

Theology for the Family:

Second, theology is done in the presence of, and for the sake of, our families. Family is the most basically human of all our vocations, the one in which God’s gracious love and his providential care are most tangibly conveyed through human beings. Moreover, God instructs all believers to talk about him and his word consciously and continually within the home. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:4-9). We are called to know and love God in the midst of our families, teaching God’s Word to our families diligently throughout the day, in such a way that it functions as blinders on a horse, keeping our feet on the path of righteousness.[4]

Theology for the Church:

Third, theology is done for the church, universal and local (Eph 4:11-13). Just as the apostle Paul wrote theological epistles that benefited particular local congregations as well as the church as a whole down through the centuries, so we should do theology consciously with God’s church in mind. “Theology for the church” can be done in many ways, but we will mention three. First, the pastors of local congregations are the lead theologians for their churches. They should preach theologically, orchestrate their services theologically, and counsel theologically. Well-crafted sermons, services, or counseling sessions are examples of theology for the church. Second, a group of university and seminary professors could collaborate to write an integrative theology (such as the present volume) which takes as its primary audience the pastors, missionaries, counselors, and other ministers whom they teach. Third, a pastor, university, or seminary professor might set forth to write or teach in a manner which is technical and academic in nature. Even though this volume is written for scholars rather than for typical members of a given local congregation, it can (and should) still be done with an eye toward knowing and loving God, and building up his (universal) church as a whole.

Theology for the Academy:

Fourth, theology can be done within the academy and for the sake of the academy. Unfortunately, in the past century, Western universities have increasingly shied away from recognizing theology as a legitimate academic discipline. George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University and Stanley Hauerwas’ The State of the University speak to this situation in which Christian theology has been removed from the domain of “true scholarship” and in which Christian theologians struggle to be granted tenure.[5] We believe that this modern Western conception of theology is false. Christian theology is an eminently legitimate discipline. Theologians should do their scholarly work with excellence, constructively and critically engaging other scholars in theological studies, religious studies, comparative religions, and so forth. This task is not easy. “The dilemma for evangelical theology,” writes Clark, “is whether it can maintain intellectual integrity, as judged by the academic world, and still serve the needs of Christian believers…. This means that evangelical theologians want to do what many believe is impossible: both think critically and also recognize biblical authority.”[6] In fact, we would argue that the recognition of biblical authority should itself foster critical thinking. The rational, creative, and moral capacities necessary for intellectually rigorous theology are the very capacities through which the image of God shines. In other words, intellectual rigor is a part of spirituality (1 Pet 3:15).

Theology for Society:

Fifth, theology can be done for society at large. Theologians can do their work with an eye toward various publics, taking into account their questions and concerns, and communicating in a way we hope will be meaningful and compelling. C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer are examples of public theologians. Lewis was known for mediating Christian truth by means of radio talks, fiction literature, apologetics, and even debates. Schaeffer did theology in public by means of speeches, videography, and popular level books; he addressed existential and ethical issues which were immediately relevant to society as a whole, and used those issues to invite people to consider Christian truth. The point here is that the Christian faith is not something to sit back and stare at, but something to lean forward and look through. The Scriptures are like a pair of spectacles through which we view the world. The Christian theologian is uniquely positioned to speak truth about issues of interest to any person in any walk of life.

Theology with Faithfulness and Excellence:

For whichever audience a theologian intends to teach, preach, or write, it is incumbent upon him to do his work faithfully in the hopes that he might be able to do his work with excellence. Excellence cannot always be achieved, though faithfulness can. A theologian can always do his work faithfully, by lashing his theology to Scripture, and doing so in order to know and love God, and participating in his mission in this world. To the extent that he is able, he will also draw upon theology’s various sources, integrate its various sub-disciplines, and remain in conversation with philosophy and other fields of learning. Most importantly, he will work hard to evoke from his students a curiosity and excitement about the things of God. For, to be a lazy teacher, preacher, or writer is a sin. Although George Steiner was not writing about theologians, his words are instructive: “To teach seriously is to lay hands on what is most vital in a human being. . . . Poor teaching, pedagogic routine, a style of instruction which is, unconsciously or not, cynical in its mere utilitarian aims, are ruinous. They tear up hope by its roots. Bad teaching is, almost literally, murderous and metaphorically, a sin. It diminishes the student, it reduces to gray inanity the subject being presented.”[7] Theology is done for the purpose of knowing and loving God, and equipping his people to join his mission; therefore theologians work hard to teach, write, and preach with excellence, so they can be maximally meaningful and compelling.

[1] David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 3-46.

[2] John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998). James M. Hamilton, Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010).

[3] Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology, 12.

[4] For a fine example of a theological text written to help parents teach biblical truth to their children, see Bruce Ware, Big Truths for Young Hearts: Teaching and Learning the Greatness of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009).

[5] George Marsden, The Soul of the American University (New York: Oxford University, 1998); Stanley Hauerwas, The State of the University (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).

[6] Clark, To Know and Love God, 200.

[7] George Steiner, Lessons of the Masters (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 18.