Mapping Your Academic Career: Charting the Course of a Professor’s Life by Gary Burge. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.
Based on the reviews on the back cover, this book is already striking chords with many faculty at all stages of their career. It also should be required reading for those in professional development programs, administrators, and organizations like Emerging Scholars that work with faculty. Dr. Burge highlights a lacuna in faculty development and gives some frame for those stakeholders to engage faculty in their midst.
While many reviewers mirror Dr. Burge in that they teach at Christian institutions, the book also speaks effectively to Christian faculty who teach in other types of institutions, especially those at public state universities like me. It also speaks well to the divide or balance between teaching and research. The book is framed on psychological stages of aging – and this may be surprising coming from a New Testament scholar. But Dr. Burge notes he team-teaches the capstone doctoral course in psychology each year at Wheaton. That general psychological frame is also a great asset of the book because the reader then follows Dr. Burge’s interaction with another, somewhat unrelated discipline. His scholarly curiosity shows itself as he explores intellectual assets some Christians see as “secular.”
While the title may imply mapping a career from the beginning, Dr. Burge wrote the book to fill what he saw as a big gap in research in career-long professional development: a book that charts the evolution of academic careers. In that manner, a professor at any level can pick up and read the chapter written about their current stage. Yet it is important to note, as Dr. Burge argues, new professors and senior professors have more in common than they realize.
The book was intended as a conversation between Dr. Burge and his younger self. This conversation mirrors the kind of interaction he hopes other senior faculty develop with those in the other two stages. These kind of relationships define in part the search for “significance” Dr. Burge sees in this later career stage. In that manner the tone of the book is one of mentoring, sage advice, and a handing down of wisdom. He completes the alliteration trifecta with stage 1 faculty seeking “security” and stage 2 seeking “success.”
The book’s central argument is that the risks associated with each stage often revolve around how the professor relates to their fellow faculty, discipline, and campus. I suspect I will (and suggest to others to) flip through the book every few years or before every milestone. That is made easy by the organization which summarizes the “traits” and “risks” of each stage and an addendum on a specific issue facing each group. Because I am a new faculty member I was mostly interested in stage 1. Yet even as I read with more interest in the “new faculty” chapter, Dr. Burge situates his discussion on any group with another group. For example, in discussing one of the traits of new faculty (“core identity formation”), he notes that if this trait does not emerge, it affects a career long-term. A “profound lack at the center of their soul” is often compensated by some seasoned faculty through “unfortunate behaviors such as gathering cliques of students or employing negative attention-getting behavior” (33).
The specific issue for the new faculty Dr. Burge discusses is the mentor relationship. New faculty need “safe” relationships with mid-career and senior faculty who are outside their evaluation hierarchy and who are also perhaps outside their discipline. This relationship is again discussed in stage 2 and 3 as Dr. Burge notes a risk similar to both cohorts: “egocentric” or “self-absorbed” behavior. Dr. Burge does not lay the blame for such behavior solely on the individual as he notes many administrators do not understand how to guide their most senior faculty, especially those who are disinterested and have built up years of cynicism toward their institution and perhaps career. [He warns new faculty to not just be aware of these ‘types’ but refuse their company.] He is certainly calling for more senior faculty to mentor and deans and department chairs to do more to train mentors. But he also argues for a more sustained career development so that by the time senior faculty start looking for “significance” they will not regret who they have become.
As I read the introduction I was caught by the method of Dr. Burge’s analysis. While he certainly has grounded himself in the psychological and pedagogical research, he aims to generalize his story to others. This is not a bad approach until one realizes the diverse faculty on both Christian and “secular” campuses that have developed since he began his career. So I was hoping for and was not disappointed when Dr. Burge at times acknowledges issues faced by other groups, particularly women. That said, and perhaps it is due to his own history at Wheaton, where a lack of racial diversity has been an issue, there is no direct mention of issues outside those managed by female scholars making their way in an environment that has been traditionally male-dominated. But throughout the book there is a constant refrain of understanding one’s campus culture. Yet as minority faculty know all too well, “fitting in” may never happen no matter how much effort is made. This attention to culture is also beneficial so that while the book can imply at times a career at one location, people do and should move to other places. Dr. Burge notes his own moves from two other colleges.
In the end a faculty member who takes the time to grow the traits in each stage gains what Dr. Burge notes is a “mindfulness” or an attention to the “present” that dispels cynicism, teaching fatigue, and scholarship pressure. This mindfulness is a rare trait in faculty, he admits. But it can be developed at all stages, not just in the beginning. This may be the best lesson for the diverse readers who come to this book: you can become who you want no matter the stage.
About the author:
Matthew Boedy is an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia. He has degrees from the University of Florida (BS) and the University of South Carolina (MFA and PhD). He enjoys books by Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Frederick Buechner. His research interests include the rhetoric of evil, ethics, and professional writing.