Four Takeaways from the AAR / SBL Jobs Report

The American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature released a new report about the job market based on data drawn from the AAR/SBL job listings for the 2013-2014 academic year. The report builds on previous data that dates back to January 2001.

Graduate programs in religious studies and theology should hand this report to their incoming students. They should email it to everyone in their program. They should have a seminar on it for their first-year students. Make it required reading and spend an hour discussing it. Have the conversation.

Here four takeaways I got from the report.

1. We must redefine what success looks like for a Ph.D. graduate.


Generally speaking, success for a Ph.D. graduate meant a tenure-track job. On one level, that view is backed up in the report. 80% of the jobs listed in the SBL/AAR listings were tenured or tenure track positions.But when you look at who got the jobs, the numbers have an interesting ambivalence.

First off 90% of appointees completed their degree before they started their job. But what does that mean?

The first group of appointees to complete their degrees immediately prior to their start dates comprise almost one third of all appointees (32.7%). The typical candidate in this group would have interviewed in November of 2012, completed their degree in May of 2013, and started their appointment in July or August of 2013. Another 17.1% of appointees interviewed in the year that they completed their degrees, and 11.1% of appointees interviewed the year after they completed their degrees. Finally, the remaining third (34.3%) of appointees interviewed two years or more after they completed their degrees.

So, only about a third of the jobs went to people fresh out of grad school. The others all spent at least a year doing something else-either outside the academy or in some sort of “contingent” position.

This is the new normal. Most Ph.D.s will spend time bouncing around various positions before they land that tenure-track job. If you don’t get a job right out of grad school you have a better chance of getting one two years or more after you graduate. Success isn’t a tenure-track job, success is a job period. And we might not even be able to measure success until you’ve been out of grad school for 5 years. Why is this?

2. Teaching experience really matters.


The organizations have gathered data on the skills and/or experiences desired or required by hiring institutions since the 2001-2002 AY (Table 17), though unfortunately data are missing for the 2008-2009, 2009-2010, and 2010-2011 academic years. Holding a Ph.D., prior teaching experience, and interdisciplinary teaching or research abilities continue to be ranked highest among the twelve options.6 A majority of institutions required (59.5%) or desired (10.6%) candidates to hold a Ph.D. Almost half of hiring institutions required (29.9%) or desired (18.1%) prior teaching experience, while over one fifth required (9.7%) or desired (12.2%) interdisciplinary teaching or research abilities.

One reason for that 34% of appointees who had been out of grad school for two years or more may be the desire for teaching experience among hiring departments. Those years between graduation and tenure-track appointment are often filled with contingent teaching. Ph.D. departments that want to produce competitive candidates should be intentionally building constructive teaching experiences and pedagogical development into their programs. This does not mean that graduate students should be overloaded with teaching a ton of courses on their own from the very beginning. “Teaching experience” can be an excuse to dump heavy teaching loads on under-prepared and over-worked graduate students. Rather, it means that teaching will be part of a broader professionalization of graduate students.

The data on “interdisciplinary research” is a red herring. As the footnote in the report smartly notes, “the date include no clear definition of ‘interdisciplinary, so the meaning may vary widely.” Indeed, “interdisciplinary” has become a vacuous buzzword in many settings. The takeaway here is not that candidates should be more “interdisciplinary” but that departments should stop putting “interdisciplinary” in their job ads as a meaningless place holder or a euphemism for “we don’t really know what we want.” Candidates should just do interesting and cutting-edge research.

3. You better be able to work in a public institution.


Two of the key findings of the study:

  • The number and share of positions at private not-for-profit (private) institutions in the U.S. has steadily abated since the 2010-2011 AY, while the number at public institutions has remained steady during the same period.
  • Mid-size, private research institutions and the smallest special focus institutions are the locus of declines, whereas the number of positions at private and public Master’s institutions has risen for the past two years.

Mid-size private research institutions, like Emory, are often the places with the best programs in religious studies. Yet, their students are more likely to end up in a public institution, like Alabama. If this trend continues and the number of positions in public institutions continue to grow while private institutions hire less, it could have important repercussions for how we do religious studies. What I do here at Alabama, for instance, looks very different from what many of my colleagues do at private seminaries and religious colleges. More jobs at public institutions means that candidates who approach religious studies as an academic discipline within the secular public university will have better chance at a job. That will have an impact on what directions our field goes methodological and theoretically.

UPDATE: 11/18/14 12:27PM

A friend posted a smart critique of takeaways 1 and 3:

“I’m not comfortable with the way you’ve phrased takeaway #1 or #3: you continue to maintain the very unhelpful status quo idea of “success” as a teaching position. You revise expectations “downward,” I suppose, but you don’t look outside of teaching at the college level as any form of “success.” I think this expected outcome, and the way that graduate programs indoctrinate students into this form of reproduction, is one of the most myopic and harmful aspects of PhD programs in our discipline. We need an entirely different kind of subject formation that has a wider vision of “successful” outcomes.”

I agree that we have to broaden outcomes beyond just teaching positions. However, this report has nothing to say about that. One takeaway then, is that a report like this is too narrow to address the larger question of what counts as success for a Ph.D. graduate. 

4. Course load data is useless.


My biggest critique of the report is that it relies on course load data to measure the teaching work positions require.

Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 10.39.22 AM

This course load data shows that contingent faculty are teaching more than their tenured and tenure-track peers but it doesn’t tell us how many students any of these groups are teaching. Rather than measure course load, it would be more useful to also measure credit hour production. Are those six courses taught by contingent faculty filled with 100 students, while the tenured have four and a half seminars of 15 students? We don’t know. Course load doesn’t tell us who is really making the donuts in the department. For example, I had a 4/4 course load last year as a contingent instructor but I only had a total of about 100 students. Meanwhile, one section of introduction to religious studies taught by a tenured faculty member had 150 students on its own. See, credit hours and enrollment matter.

I’m lucky.


My own personal takeaway from the report is that I am both lucky and typical. I am incredibly lucky to have gotten a job in a year when job listings were down. I am incredibly typical because it took a year of heavy teaching as a contingent faculty member to  gain teaching experience that made me a strong candidate.



Syllabus: Honors Introduction to Religious Studies

I’ve shared syllabi in the past and I thought I’d do it again this semester. Below is the syllabus for my Honors Introduction to Religion Course this semester. As always, I’d love to hear feedback from folks and feel free to steal this and use it as you see fit. No twitter or blogging this time around-saving that for my upper level seminar.

View this document on Scribd

Tuscaloosa Bound: My New Job at the University of Alabama

I’ve already posted about it on Facebook and I think someone sent out a tweet about it but I’ll post it here and make it official. I’m happy to announce I’ve accepted a one year faculty appointment in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama for 2013-1014. I’m really excited to join such a great group of faculty members for what should be a great year. I’m even more excited because I’ll get to teach a seminar on Asian Religions in American Culture that I’ve wanted a chance to teach for some time now. I’ll also be teaching the honors introduction to religion course, which should be a blast.

So, I guess all that’s left to say is….Roll Tide!


Tomorrow: Get Free Lunch and Hear Me Talk About Teaching With Twitter

I should have posted this earlier, but I’ll be speaking as part of the great Eat Talk Teach Run series at Emory. ETTR combines four short (4 minute limit) talks on teaching with free lunch and frozen yogurt. It’s awesome. Come check it out. Details:

Eat. Talk. Teach. Run!
An event to energize grad student teaching at Emory.
Wednesday, October 31. 12 PM - 1 PM.

Eat. Yogurt Tap frozen yogurt and bánh mì sandwiches from Buford Highway!
Talk. Meet grad students from across campus.
Teach. Hear short 4-minute flashtalks from other grad students.
Run. Get back to the lab or library on time!

Few Hall G27, convenient for scientists, humanities, and everything in between!
Find Few Hall G27 here:

Grad Student Speakers:
Michael Altman (Religion)
Kate Doubler (English)
Laura Mariani (Neuroscience)
Cassy Quave (Ethnobotany, Post-doc)

RSVPs Appreciated at:

“Like” Us at:

Social Media and the Religious Studies Classroom: Twitter as a Third Space

Plate 113 of Birds of America by John James Audubon depicting Blue-bird.

I have always said that the best time to experiment as a teacher is in graduate school. In many cases your course load is lighter than as an adjunct or tenure track faculty member and your student reviews won’t go in your tenure file. Instead the bad ones can go in the recycling bin. There is a safety net and, hopefully, lots of wise faculty members to help you along the way. It is an important time to test out things that may or may not work and hone innovative strategies you can share on the job market.

To that end, I began to experiment with social media in my Religion 100 course last semester. The official title of the course was “Introduction to Religion: Christian and Hindu Traditions.” In the course I used both a public class blog, Twitter, and Skype. Things went really well and I learned a lot. I have even been asked to share what I’ve learned with faculty and graduate student’s here at Emory. Now I want to share my thoughts on social media and how it can be especially helpful in religious studies classes. I also want to explore the idea of “the social” both in our media and in our classrooms-a question I did not think through at the beginning but have returned to in looking back on the course.

But why use any form of technology, social media or otherwise, in your teaching? My basic approach to using technology is based in the metaphor of the tool belt. Technologies are just like any other tools we use in our teaching-tests, assignments, or readings. So, the question is not “How can I use Twitter in my class?” Rather, the question is “What do I want to do in this class?” In some cases the best technology is a whiteboard while in others it could be something a little higher tech. In any case, you start with the goal or problem, not with the tool.

In Religion 100 I had 4 goals (these were separate from but related too the learning objectives of the class):

  1. I want to figure out what students are getting out of the reading BEFORE I lecture in class.
  2. I want to open up the classroom. That is, I want to get students thinking about class outside of the the class period and get outsiders thinking with my class.
  3. I want to teach them to be able to connect course material with the world around them. ( I think of this as a civic pedagogy.)
  4. I want them writing across different genres

As I considered the above goals I came up with three social media tools that would help me: a blog, Twitter, and Skype. I’ll start with Twitter in this post and address the other two in a subsequent post or posts.

So here’s what I did. You can find the whole syllabus for the course at the link above but here’s the section that outlined the Twitter assignment:

We will use Twitter as a way to share thoughts on the reading, comments or questions in class, links to possible blog stories, and for general communication. You are required to send out three course related tweets per week using the hashtag #REL100. These three tweets must relate to content in the course. They could be comments that come to mind as you read, a question about the reading material, a comment or question during class discussion or lectures, a link to something you’ve found online that relates to themes we covered in class, or a response to someone else’s tweet. Retweets without further comment do not count. Messages or mentions to me about details (i.e. “@MichaelJAltman What time are your office hours tomorrow?”) do not count.

If you are not a very talkative person and do not enjoy speaking up in class, Twitter is a great option for you to participate in class. Class participation is part of your grade and Twitter may give you a more comfortable platform for asking questions, making comments, and joining in the discussion. I will be monitoring #REL100 during class and responding to comments and questions that appear there. You are not required to follow the Twitter stream during class.

I will spend time in class explaining how to use Twitter so everyone feels comfortable with the platform. I will also briefly cover how to write a good “thick” tweet.

I was surprised how quickly students got the hang of a “thick” tweet. I was also surprised at how hard it was to follow the stream while also lecturing. I eventually gave that up. I used the now defunct Twapperkeeper to archive the tweets which means that I had them during the semester but they are now gone into the internet ether. I think The Archivist would work if I was doing it again and I also think a simple RSS feed for the course hashtag would have been sufficient. For more on these nuts and bolts issues check out the links on my teaching page.

So how well did it work? A few things went really well. First of all, it did open up the class. Students were thinking about the course materials for a few extra minutes each week. I could tell this because I could see the tweets and their time stamps. Also, a lot of students tweeted links to things they found around the internet that related to class. They began to see the course material in the world around them (more on that when we get to the blog). While not a lot of outsiders joined into the Twitter conversations, I do know that there were folks following our discussion and so in that way it opened up our class to the outside.

Beyond opening up the class, the tweets made my lectures better. Many students tweeted as they read with questions, ideas, and thoughts. It was like I could see their marginalia before I had completed my lectures. I knew which parts of readings needed emphasis or explanation in class and I got their first impressions so that I could begin the process of pushing their thinking to a deeper level. While some students commented that they enjoyed the Twitter activity itself, overall the class reviews almost unanimously cited the lectures as the best part of the class. Little did they know that they were helping write those great lectures. I also got comments from students that the 140 character limit forced them to really boil down their thoughts. This reminds me of some of the creative writing assignments I had in college where you had to write a short story using only one syllable words. Constraints can force critical or creative thinking.

I did learn a few things that I would do differently the next time around. First, I would have been more clear about why I was having them tweet and how their tweets were informing my lectures and improving the class. I think a few people felt that it was busy work because they didn’t realize that their were real benefits for them in the tweets. Second, I would spread it out. I had a few students who would wait until the weekly deadline and then send out three tweets in a row or three quick responses to other people’s tweets. A group of late night religion tweeters began to assemble every week right before the deadline for a Religion 100 tweetfest. I think next time I will require students to tweet X number days, instead of times, to spread it out. Finally, less is more. I think two tweets a week or even an average of two tweets a week throughout the semester would have been a better assignment. They would have had less to do and I would still have had enough tweets to use in my lecture writing.

I think Twitter was very successful tool for accomplishing my goals. It improved my lectures, opened up the class, helped them connect material to their world, and got them writing in a new genre. I think it worked well because I made sure to bring interesting tweets into the classroom and reference them in lectures. I also think it worked because I restrained myself as much as I could. I tried to hold back and not answer their questions. I tried not to respond to their thoughts too often or too quickly. I tried to sit on my hands and make Twitter stream more their space than mine.

Twitter became a “third space “in the class. When I used to work a certain giant green northwestern based coffee company they would refer to their stores as a “third place” between work and home. You could get a coffee and sit on a couch or you could write on your laptop and check emails. It wasn’t home but it wasn’t work. That’s how Twitter functioned in our class. It became a third space where students could float ideas, try to make connections, and ask questions. Because I restrained myself and let them respond and answer each other it became more their space than mine. It wasn’t their personal space but it wasn’t the classroom space where right answers are rewarded and I maintain control. It was a 3rd space between their thoughts/notes and the classroom. It was also a very productive space for them.

I think this third space is especially important in religious studies classes because of the nature of what we teach. Twitter was a place where confessionalism (still within certain boundaries) was tolerated more than in the academic classroom. For a class on Hinduism and Christianity, it gave my Hindu and Christian students a place to work out how the course materials related to their own religious identities and practices. We don’t often have time to let students work out these sorts of questions within the confines of our classrooms or written assignments but Twitter acted as a pressure valve that allowed students to make sense of the course in terms of their own subjectivity. A conservative evangelical student was able to take issue with an essay we read on early Christianities without disrupting class time by tweeting to me about it. The whole class saw the tweets and my response and so he felt heard, the exchange was respectful, questions were answered, and we moved on. That could easily have been a twenty minute distraction if it happened in class. Instead it was a teachable moment. My restraint at other times made my interventions into the Twitter conversation more productive.

I definitely think I will use Twitter again in the classroom. For my lifestyle and my teaching style it proved itself as a constructive tool for achieving my goals in the classroom. As a piece of social media, Twitter gave the course a congenial feeling that we were all in this together and that it was a safe space for discussion and disagreement. Also, I’ve found that if given the choice to comment on a blog post or write their own blog post of the same length, most students will simply write their own because it is easier to come up with their own thoughts than read, understand, and respond to someone else. Not the case with Twitter. The short tweets actually make it easier to respond and thus build a conversation than a message board or blog. But the biggest advantage was the ways it narrowed the gap between the student’s thoughts on the material and my presentation of the material. Overall it enhanced the social aspects of the course. That works for my teaching style and, from the responses students gave, it worked for them too.

[Image: Plate 113 of Birds of America by John James Audubon depicting Blue-bird. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

Places to Send Students in Search of Religion Blog Topics

UPDATE- This post has been updated with new sites. (2/20/2014)

I gave a couple of talks around Emory last week about my experience teaching with social media last semester. In the wake of those I’ll be posting some resources for folks looking to use blogging or Twitter in their classes. Here is a list of good sites I recommended to students for looking for articles/posts to write their posts about. While I didn’t require them to use these, almost every one of them did and they had great results.

Sacred Matters:

Sacred Matters twitter feed:

Religion & Politics:

Religion Dispatches:

CNN Belief Blog:

NY Times Religion:

NPR Religion:

Religion News Service:

Huffington Post Religion:

Religion in American History:

The Immanent Frame:

The Revealer:

Killing the Buddha:

The Anxious Bench:

American Society of Church History- History of Christianity:

John Fea, The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

Warren Throckmorton:

#REL100 in the (student) News

Pardon the self-promotion:

Introductory level courses here at Emory are not famous for their enthusiastic levels of participation, attendance or commitment. Often these classes are big, too drafty or, let’s be honest, just too early in the morning to meet the same standards of discussion and debate set by upper-level courses and seminars.

Professors in these classes face a unique challenge: getting a large group of students, often from many majors and years, to take an active part in class discussion and lecture.

The Religion 100: Introduction to Religion course taught by Ph.D. student Michael Altman this semester is meeting this challenge head-on. The class is growing from the more conventional, old school homework assignments by injecting the curriculum with technology and the hallmark social networking of our generation.

Twitter and blogging are given an academic spin in the effort to boost class involvement, enthusiasm, and engagement.

So, I’ve made it into the student newspaper. Now, let’s just see how the course evaluations turn out…