As some of you know, a couple of years ago I decided to slow down on my research and writing. I was feeling burned out and wondering what the point was. Do I really need to keep writing more books? Why not read more novels, cook more, take more walks, get in more work outs, watch more football/basketball/tennis/golf, and on and on? So I did. It lasted about four months.
As it turns out, I am indeed doing all these other things more than I was. But I’ve also cranked up (rather than down) the research and writing. How is that possible? Because I’m on academic leave this year (at UNC, for some historical reasons we don’t call these “sabbaticals”). Batteries are getting recharged, I’m having a great time, and doing tons of research/writing on a number of projects, enough to make my head spin at times. But all in a good way. It’s been fantastic.
And I was thinking this morning that it might be interesting for me to lay out on the blog the various projects I’m working on: a scholarly monograph – which is taking most of my time; putting final touches on my trade book on the afterlife as it heads into production (I’ve had to do some final edits); writing up two book proposals to send to a publisher for possible next trade books (one on the book of Revelation; another roughly on the relations of Jews and Christians in antiquity, with an interesting twist); working on a new 24-lecture course for the Great Courses; proposing another course for them; writing book reviews and blurbs for three scholarly works; and … other things!
It seems like it would be useful to explain all these projects because it’s always useful for people who are not academics to see what it means to be an academic – and all this work is part of it. And I will explain all this, not at boring length but just to give a sense of what I’m working on, in case anyone on the blog wants me to devote a thread or two to any of the projects.
But then it occurred to me, it probably seems completely weird generally. You’re on *academic leave*?? You mean you’re not teaching?? But, uh, you’re a university *professor*. Isn’t teaching your JOB?? Isn’t that why they pay you a SALARY??
And so I thought I would just take a minute to explain how this kind of academic career works.
Most (but not all) scholars in the humanities get a PhD because they want to teach at the college/university level. But there are different kinds of colleges and universities. To speak in very rough terms, some put almost all their focus on teaching, others put a very, very heavy emphasis on research, and many are somewhere between the two on the spectrum.
Historically, a four-year liberal arts college focuses on undergraduate teaching (like the one I went to: Wheaton; but there are lots and lots of these, many of which you would never have heard of. Just near me here in North Carolina there is Davidson – you’ve probably heard of that one – but also Queens, Meredith, Mount Olive, Belmont, Catawba, Gardner-Webb, etc. etc.). Professors teach lots of classes, often four courses a semester (or even five), with lots of demands for student contact outside of class and very heavy small-college departmental and administrative duties that take loads of time and energy.
Professors in the those schools are often up to their necks, and beyond that, in such various activities, and for them it is very, very difficult to carve out any research time. As a result, they rarely can publish a lot. Many, many of them absolutely love this kind of career; it’s what they have always wanted to do with their lives. Others wish they had a bit more time for their research (or a lot more time).
Over the past ten or twenty years many of these schools have started requiring research as well as these otherwise heavy duties. That can be very painful indeed.
At the very other end of the spectrum (with lots of colleges/universities in between) are the Research 1 universities. These are the state and private universities that have PhD programs and place a much, much heavier emphasis on research for the faculty. UNC is in this category (along, say, with our cross-town neighbor Duke; but also most of the Big Names you think of as major universities in the country: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, NYU, Chicago, Berkeley, Stanford, etc. etc.).
At universities like this there is a much lighter teaching load, almost always two courses a semester. Those courses are typically a mix of undergraduate class and graduate seminars. Over the course of my career at UNC, I’ve typically taught, in any given semester, one large undergraduate class (with, say 250-350 students) and one highly intense graduate seminar (with, say, 4-7 PhD students). There is far less personal interaction with undergraduate students. And far less administrative work.
But there are enormous publication demands and expectations. Almost every college/university (including the four-year colleges) has some kind of sabbatical/academic leave program for their professors to do research (a typical program would involve a semester off of teaching and administration very seven years; at Research 1 universities there are more opportunities). And that, of course, makes universities quite different from high schools, middle schools, etc. But the reason is compelling. Professors at universities are expected to be true experts of their academic field, and to be on top of all the current research being done. And in a Research 1 university they are expected to have national or international reputations as research scholars who are not just digesting knowledge but also producing it.
Without an academic leave policy/program, that would be impossible. And it would mean that scholars who are teaching the next generation of scholars who will be teaching the undergraduates of the future would not be able to teach them the current scholarship in their fields. They might be fantastic teachers, but without time to do their own research they would in many/most instances be teaching knowledge that is twenty-years out of date. That would not be good.
And so all universities want their professors to be up on their fields. And in Research 1 universities they are expected to be at the cutting edge. And that requires additional time for research, factored into the system.
And so I’m on leave this year, not teaching or doing any administration. Simply doing my research and writing. And lots of it. As a result, even though I’m a professor, I’m being paid in this instance to be a scholar, rather than a teacher, so that when I return to the class room after my leave, I’m equipped to be the kind of teacher I need to be, for both undergraduates and future researchers / professors.
OK, with that in mind, I’ll discuss a few of the projects I’m working on!
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