The writer is an Instructor at a small Christian college.
“God bless you!”
I hadn’t just sneezed. I was holding open the door for a colleague struggling under the weight of a file box. “That looks heavy,” I replied, demonstrating for the zillionth time my ability to master in remarkably quick order that which is supremely obvious. “New Bibles!” she enthused. “Ah,” I said, “that would explain it.” And a wayward shoelace captured my attention.
Welcome to Religious Identity U, where I have taught on an adjunct and VAP basis over the course of a decade – and where I have done so in the closet, because I am a non-believer. I teach here because I need the money, because it’s actually a nice place to work, and because most of the schools where I live are just like RIU. I was asked to share some thoughts about teaching at a religiously affiliated university as a non-believer.
Spoiler alert: They talk about God a lot. You’d better, too.
The term, “religiously affiliated institution,” covers a lot of ground. At one end there’s places like Boston College and Georgetown – Catholic institutions, but not usually thought of as being especially “churchy.” At the other end are places like Biola University (an acronym for “Bible Institute of Los Angeles”) and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, where promoting the denomination and faith are explicit parts of the mission statement. In between are hundreds of small colleges and universities associated with one or another Christian — and usually Evangelical — denomination, where unsuspecting ABDs and newly minted Ph.D.’s often apply to job ads without really understanding what it means to be inside them. Places like RIU.
Bottom line: like RIU, many these schools sincerely want to educate and not indoctrinate, but not at the cost of the faith – so the faith comes first. Sometimes this is made explicit: at one school in my area, faculty must affirm that marriage is between one man and one woman in order to teach, while at another non-married faculty must affirm in writing they will not engage in sexual behavior. At RIU, faculty must incorporate content into every syllabus that – to the institution’s credit – can either affirm or challenge students’ faith. But at a minimum, this means that to teach successfully here as a non-believer one needs to be conversant in Christianity generally and the denomination specifically.
That the faith comes first will often be reflected in the professional achievements of your colleagues. At RIU, publishing is much less important than being a “good Christian” and getting good teaching evaluations (and RIU takes evaluations very seriously – department chairs review every one, every semester, with every faculty member). As an outsider, then, you’d do well to spend less time in research and writing and more in going to lunch – and be sure to be heard during the prayer.
RIU is an equal-opportunity employer, but with very few exceptions non-Christians need not apply. Co-denominationalists will know the “secret handshake” and will receive a preference in hiring, tenure, and promotion. There is a caste system at RIU. Faculty who are Christians, but not of the denomination, are less-than-first-class citizens, and the more liberal the flavor of Christianity (Episcopalians are especially suspect), the closer one gets to second-class. Indeed, even those from the wrong side of the Great Intra-Denominational Schism of the 1970s will struggle (resentment still festers over the introduction of guitar-accompaniment to the hymnal). There are no Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, or Muslims, and there are no non-believers (not even me, because I lie about it – adjunct job security, you see).
And of course there are no LGBT faculty. Because Jesus.
Except for life in the closet, RIU is a lovely place to work, even as an adjunct. Other than the relatively low pay (typical of Evangelical schools) and extortionate teaching load, it’s pretty much a dream adjunct gig: office and computer and phone and mailbox and helpful support staff; ladder faculty who invite you to join them for lunch or dinner at their homes; invitations to meet the deans and even the president; supervisors who appreciate and acknowledge your teaching skills; and your colleagues who seem genuinely happy to be there. They even dress for work, especially compared to the stereotypically shabby faculty of the R-1 where I received my training (and yes, it’s ties for the gents and skirts for the ladies).
But make no mistake: because RIU is small, gossip and not scholarship is stock-in-trade. Who you are as a person – as a Christian – is infinitely more important than who you are as a scholar. Take a job at RIU, and your secrets won’t stay secret long. Administrators talk, faculty talk, and students talk, and the “real” members of the community – those of the school’s specific denomination – will see each other many times a week at chapel. And that talk matters – tenure isn’t necessarily a protection against apostasy.
None of this will be in the job ad, of course. RIU is an equal-opportunity employer. But understand this: if you want tenure, you’d do well to burnish your classroom skills, you’d do well to go to chapel, you’d do well to say, “God bless you!” an awful lot.
Because at RIU, there’s never a wrong time to invoke the Almighty.