One of the scholars I study in my field began his career in literature studies, especially drama. He wrote this:
Currently there is a lot of talk of ‘decision-making.’ Often the decisions are conceived after the analogy of voting, or purchasing, or giving answers to questionnaires, or the taking of risks calculated on the basis of probability. Or there are these tense moments of decision in formal drama, when the protagonist debates whether to make a certain move, and finally makes the choice that shapes his destiny, though he still has to discover what that destiny is. [Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion, pg. 101]
There are many analogies or metaphors for decision making. And each way shades it differently. The primary rhetorical frame I have been using is “the will of God.” We try to “find” such, we “discover” such, we “pray into” such, and we “determine” such. And Romans 12 says we “discern” such. Other translations of that second verse use “test and approve” or “prove.” Our Greek help-texts let us know the Greek word there can also mean “to recognize as genuine after examination.” This is how it is used in 1 Thessalonians 2:4 which says “We have been approved by God to be entrusted with the business of pointing out to men the way of salvation.”
I highlight that phrase to steady your hand at this moment of decision. You have been approved – by God, by the dissertation committee (or very soon), your advisor, and your university. And now add to that list of approvers at least one other college or university. You have proven to be genuine after examination.
Second, you have been entrusted with the business of many things: the gospel, the academy, your discipline, pedagogy, and the list could go on. They like you, they really do.
With that renewal of your mind in place (Romans 12:1), let’s look at the decision you have before you.
First, there is the decision between a job in higher education or some other job. Sad as it may seem, there will be some of you who either get no offers or a single offer that has many red flags. I won’t tell you not to take that second option. And I can’t be more ready to grieve with you over not getting any. There are several options:
- Push back your dissertation defense to the fall, go back on the job market a second time, this time with a degree and perhaps more publications. This would entail looking at funding availability, family, and other issues.
- While you wait out the summer looking for a better “lesser evil” job (and they will pop up), you can look outside higher education. These alt-ac jobs or careers are more prominent than ever. [I say career because once you walk away, it may be forever.] Let me return to the above encouragement. There is no shame in being something other than an academic. None. But walking away takes a different kind of toll of your emotions, finances, and family than staying in (for whatever future). [For a good working-thru of leaving academia behind, read kellyjbaker.com.]
- Take the one offer that comes. I have portrayed this as a “last resort” and it may be worse than that. You can tell yourself you will take it for a year and go back on the market. You can tell yourself (or your family) a lot of things. God does work in mysterious ways, but if you go into a job with a negative attitude, it may stay. And so sadly, may you.
Second, there is the choice between academic offers. The only advice you need here is this: “get it in writing.” You can certainly accept a job over the phone, but that doesn’t mean anything. You can accept it over email, smoke signal, or even teletype. None of that matters until you get that contract and you send it back signed. I have a story I could tell here, but unlike journalism, I can’t grant myself anonymity. So trust me. Get it in writing.
That may make the decision for you – who has an offer literally on the table (or as most colleges do, by PDF in email…)? If they are equal titles, salary, and locations, what are the negotiable aspects that might not appear in a standard contract like travel money, office start-up money (computer, books, etc.), or teaching load? Oh by the way, did I say get it in writing? What is the relationship you have with the department chair, the relationship between the chair and the dean, the future of the university in regard to size, academic freedom (see Wisconsin, etc.), and funding?
On the “will of God” in choosing between offers, there is much to say. But one important thing to do: while you can seek advice from all types of people (friends, family, pastors, etc.), prioritize their advice according to their understanding of you and your field. Pastors may be good at reading texts but not you, and they may be no good at knowing academic conditions. Family may want you stay close. And it goes on.
And if those people are any wise, they will say this: God is for you. Go somewhere, do good, and leave the results to God.
But sadly this doesn’t make the decision for you. I have always wondered if I have ever done “praying for God’s will” correctly. Not so much did I choose right, but did I do the praying right. Are you praying for a specific end or a general “take me where you will…?” Isn’t the latter going to happen anyway? And if I fail there, if the school isn’t what I thought it would be, if the non-tenure track vanishes in a year? What then?
If you have read this far and read these posts and are expecting me to offer some nugget of advice that will tip the scales for Almost Good State U over Private College, I am not sorry to disappoint. I was never going to do that. And if you use my words to tip your scale, please don’t. Make it your decision. Married or not, it has to be yours. It does not mean you eliminate your spouse, but that person doesn’t have to go to that school every day. You have to be happy with it. If you are pleasing people, you are not happy. If you are pleasing God, you are. Oh, how clichés make things so simple. Perhaps too simple.
Here is a better, more profound thought from one of my favorite writers:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Thomas Merton is his name. Look him up.
And finally remember Kenneth Burke: “… [the protagonist] finally makes the choice that shapes his destiny, though he still has to discover what that destiny is.”
God’s will isn’t just this decision – it is a much grander, more complex, wider set of responses, choices, and situations where you walk into and with Him. Yes, you can ‘screw this up.’ I almost did. But it ‘worked out.’ God worked it out. Here, now, and forever.
His will is his will, not yours. Your will is to follow his. His says make a choice, I have approved you to do so.
My last post will be on moving into his will. I hope you read one last time.
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.