Letter to a Young Professor

Inspired by real conversations and experiences.

DEAR PROF. VAN WIJS

I finally finished my PhD dissertation and have begun a new position as assistant professor at a Christian university. I’m feeling anxious about teaching. I have several new courses to teach, and several are outside my primary area of expertise. Despite years of training, I have moments when I feel like an impostor. This may sound silly, but I have a recurring dream in which I show up for class in nothing but my underwear.

In addition, I am expected to “integrate faith and learning” in my classes. This is something that I was never taught in graduate school and seems difficult to do in technical courses. The words of James 3:1 are weighing heavy on me: “you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

Aside from all the teaching expectations, I am also required to do research and publish to get tenure. There is meager funding for equipment and little time outside of teaching for my research. How can I hope to publish when competing with large research universities?

As one of your former students, I never realized how hard it is to be a Christian college professor. I am grateful for landing a faculty position, but I can’t help having second thoughts as I contemplate the task before me. Any sage advice would be gratefully received.

Your former student,
Tim

DEAR TIM

It’s a delight to hear from you – congratulations on the new faculty position! As a young faculty member, I clearly recall standing in the washroom when a respected senior professor burst out of a stall and stood next to me as he washed his hands. I’ll never forget what he said: “Every year it’s the same, it’s the start of classes and I’ve got ‘the runs.’” This was strangely comforting to me; here was an experienced professor who felt what I was. Being nervous at the start of classes is normal, and perhaps even an appropriate feeling if you care about your classes and your students. Feelings like these will help avoid the pitfall of pride and overconfidence, a common occupational hazard for professors. Recognize your feelings for what they are, and pray that God will bless your students through your teaching.

The “integration of faith and learning” may seem daunting as a new faculty member, but you do not have to do this alone. You will be part of a mentoring program to help you develop as a Christian scholar. Regular readings and interactions with mentors and senior colleagues will shape you as “iron sharpens iron.” There is something special about a school in which all faculty are committed to the common project of Christian scholarship. Take every opportunity to learn and in time you will make your own contributions to the ongoing dialogue about faith and learning.

Finally, don’t fret about your publishing and research now. Once you are settled into the rhythm of teaching, set aside a few hours each week to keep abreast of developments in your field. Attend conferences, read journals and seek others with whom you might collaborate. Ideally, find ways to include your students in research projects. Pray to the Lord that he might direct which side of the boat you ought to cast your net, and trust that he will establish the work of your hands.

Remember, the end of your career will be not be measured in the number of publications listed on your resume but on your “living CV,” which is the list of students and lives you have touched and shaped. The next time you are in town let’s meet for a coffee. In the meantime, may God continue to bless and keep you in your new vocation, and may he “equip you with everything good for doing his will” (Heb. 13:21).

Sincerely,
Dr. van Wijs

Author

  • Derek Schuurman

    Derek C. Schuurman is a Canadian currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is professor of computer science at Calvin University. Prior to arriving at Calvin, he worked as an engineer and taught for many years at Redeemer University. He is a fellow of the American Scientific Affiliation and an Associate Fellow of the Kirby Laing Center for Public Theology. Besides his technical interests he is interested in faith and technology issues. He is the author of Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (IVP, 2013) and a co-author of A Christian Field Guide to Technology for Engineers and Designers (IVP, 2022).

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