I continue here with my reflections on what a research scholar at a research university actually *does*. This post covers the most important part of the work. The main job of a professor, of course, is to teach. (!)
Different colleges and universities have different requirements and expectations for their faculty. At many small colleges, professors teach four or even five courses a semester. Rarely can a person teach that much and still produce substantial (or much of any!) research, so that professors in those contexts are usually handicapped when it comes to publishing scholarship in the form of books and articles. But many of them are in the job because they mainly LOVE teaching. So do I. But I’m in a different situation.
Large research universities expect their professors to be at the cutting edge of scholarship, and so the teaching requirements are lighter (since the research demands are so much heavier). Faculty in research schools can never get tenure or promotion (or raises!) if they do not regularly and extensively publish in their fields of expertise. (That is becoming increasingly true in all colleges and universities, even ones with heavier teaching requirements, which scarcely seems fair, and is probably not good for scholarship or teaching).
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a “Research 1” university, which means it places very heavy research expectations on its faculty. But we still teach a good deal! In my Department of Religious Studies the normal teaching load (not counting independent studies, directing honors theses, running reading courses, administering PhD exams, directing PhD Dissertations, and so on) is two courses a semester. Since I came here in 1988, I have taught one (usually very) large undergraduate course and one small PhD seminar each semester. These two courses are about as different from one another as you can imagine.
The undergraduate courses are almost always survey courses for large numbers of students who are not involved in doing original research themselves but who are learning the results of research scholarship at a fairly low, introductory level. Every Spring semester I teach my Introduction to the New Testament. For this class I have a group of graduate student teaching assistants, each of whom runs three separate discussion sessions with 20 students in each, every Friday. And so each TA has 60 students, which means that the class size is determined by how many TA’s I have. This year I had four, so we had 240 students in the class; some years I’ve had six or seven, and correspondingly larger classes. It just depends on how many TAs are available for me.
This class is designed for underclass students (say, 19 and 20 year olds) who may know nothing about the New Testament. The reading and lectures and discussions all take a rigorously historical approach, rather than a devotional or confessional approach. This comes as a bit of a shock to many of my students, whose only exposure to the New Testament has, in most instances, been in religious contexts, where the emphasis is on believing the Bible, rather than studying it. For my class we study the context of the New Testament in the Roman Empire and within the context of ancient Judaism and paganism, we ask who its authors really were (and how we can know), what historical value can be ascribed to its narratives, and so on. We look at historical problems, discrepancies, contradictions – not in order simply to show that the Bible has problems, but in order to open up new avenues of interpretation that would never occur to someone who doesn’t realize how thoroughly historically situated the New Testament books really are. I never insist that a historical approach to the New Testament is the only approach one should take; but it is certainly one valid approach, and the one that is most appropriate for a secular research university setting.
In this class the students have the benefit of two weekly lectures (by me), of 50 minutes each, and, as I indicated, a weekly small-group discussion led by a trained graduate student teaching assistant. As a rule, students find the class eye-opening, challenging, and interesting. It is the class I am best known for around campus.
In the Fall semester I will teach some other course – and over the years it has been a range of things. Last semester I taught my course on “Jesus in Scholarship and Film,” where we did the following: (a) read a number of ancient Gospels about Jesus – not just the ones in the New Testament, but others as well, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Proto-Gospel of James, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and so forth; (b) saw what scholars have been saying about the historical Jesus, based on the application of rigorous historical criteria to the ancient accounts of his life; and (c) considered how Jesus is portrayed in modern film, in such great movies as “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and my personal all-time favorite, “Jesus of Montreal” (which *everyone* should see, multiple times!).
Over the years I have taught a wide range of undergraduate classes at UNC and, when I started out in the mid 1980s, at Rutgers University. They have included the following:
• Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (a survey course like my New Testament class)
• The Life and Letters of Paul (an upper-level course on the Apostle Paul)
• Varieties of Early Christianity (about so-called “heresies” and “orthodoxy” in early Christianity, with attention to such topics as early Christian Gnosticism)
• The Birth of Christianity (dealing with how Christianity succeeded in spreading itself throughout the Roman World, and the trials and challenges it faced)
• Apocalypse Now and Then (dealing with ancient Jewish and Christian apocalypses – such as the book of Daniel, the Revelation of John, and non-canonical works; and with how apocalyptic themes can be found in modern novels and film)
• The Problem of Suffering in the Biblical Tradition (about different views of suffering in different authors of the Bible, both Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament)
I often get asked what is my favorite part of my job – given all the things that I do (as is true of all my colleagues), and I have to say, teaching undergraduates is right at the top of my list. A lot of scholars at research universities teach undergraduates, frankly, because they have to do so. It’s part of the job. Not me. I do it because I deeply enjoy it and find it personally rewarding and satisfying. Promoting the knowledge acquired through hard research among young people, getting them to look at the world in a different way, opening their eyes to enormously important issues, getting them to think deeply about fundamentally significant topics – all these things I consider to be “percs” of my job. There are few things I enjoy more than lecturing to a large auditorium of eager and attentive undergraduate students.