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Susan Brayford

In the midst of grading papers, preparing exams, and consulting with worried students over final grades, I vow to make next semester's syllabi less burdensome on me and my students. I tell myself it's just not worth it to spend so much time helping students write a concise, coherent, and grammatically correct paper or to explain that downloading something from the Internet and pasting it directly into a document is not research, but plagiarism. But, as always happens, I realize that all this is part of teaching. It doesn't compare with the more rewarding aspects of seeing a student's eyes light up when she finally "gets it" or the "ah-ha" experience of another when he successfully translates several verses from Hebrew to English. Yet, I have to acknowledge that these more rewarding moments cannot occur without the hours spent doing more mundane work. So, I sit here at the end of my sixth year teaching at Centenary College of Louisiana — having recently been awarded tenure and promotion — and ask myself, was it all worth it?

To answer that question, I need to reflect on "all" and acknowledge that "worth" cannot mean "material or monetary value," but rather "personal value or merit." Certain events stand out as definitive, both personally and professionally. First was retirement, at which I failed miserably! After having spent close to 20 years in the computer business, I was burned out and ready to simplify. My husband and I moved from southern California to Colorado. What a breath of fresh air — literally! I reveled in cooking, baking, and cleaning — for nearly three or four weeks. Although I needed to get out of the house, I did not a want a "real" job with long hours and responsibility. Like most jobs, the one I choose — as an assistant to a real estate appraiser — started out meeting my criteria. However, several years later, it was too much like a "real" job in some ways and not enough in others.

After trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up again, I succumbed to what I thought was a call to ministry and went back to school for an M. Div. at the Iliff School of Theology. Quickly, I realized that my "call" was to college teaching, not church preaching. Great — but why, I asked myself, was I drawn to biblical studies? Why not some other aspect of religious or theological study that did not require me to learn a handful of ancient languages that no one speaks any longer? Contrary to popular wisdom that "older" people find it difficult to learn foreign languages - and to my own assumptions about wanting to do so, I actually enjoyed learning Hebrew and Greek (and later Aramaic, Akkadian, and Ugaritic) and developed strong skills in those areas.

The next major event was to apply for Ph.D. programs. Anyone who has completed the many essays and experienced the interminable waiting process knows how daunting this can be. Nevertheless, I got through it and received several offers. I chose to accept that of the joint program at Iliff and the University of Denver. Being in my late 40's, I had little time but a lot of ambition. Four years later, I had completed course work, comprehensive exams, and my dissertation — and to my surprise, landed a tenure-track teaching job. Walking down those long hallways of the Employment Information Center brought unanticipated results.

At that time it all seemed worth it — not only completing the Ph.D., but also applying for jobs, interviewing, negotiating, and finally accepting an offer. Because this was to be my second career, I thought I would not take it as seriously. I thought I would not feel crushed after responding to innumerable ads and hearing from only a few schools. I thought I would not care if I did not get several campus interviews. I thought I would not accept the first job offer I received if it were not in a part of the country where I might consider a real retirement. I was wrong. I was demoralized by the lack of response to my many applications; I wished I could have interviewed with more schools; and I never dreamed of moving to Shreveport, Louisiana — a city that promotes itself as being in "the buckle of the Bible belt." Nevertheless, it was worth it. I was about to begin a new adventure, and my husband reluctantly agreed to come with me.

Like most new adventures, this one required many adjustments. I needed new clothes; the parkas and sweaters that I loved in Colorado did not make the trip south. Even the suits that I thought would be appropriate classroom attire betrayed my northern attitude. Within the year, I'd adopted a more casual khaki and tee shirt centered wardrobe. Although I'm still reluctant to don shorts and sandals in the classroom, like some of my colleagues, I at least know it's an option during the brutal late August, early September beginning of the school year.

After figuring out my wardrobe options, I needed to work on my language. How easy it was to slip into the "y'alls" — something that actually makes some sense when teaching languages that distinguish between singular and plural second person forms. More difficult was learning to talk more slowly, so that students accustomed to a slower pace could take notes in my lecture classes. Fortunately for them, I write most of the important points on the board. So if they missed the oral tradition, they still had the written one. Of course, I also had to learn to understand what they were saying — how short words like "you" could be expanded to three syllables and big words like "Centenary" could be reduced to one. However, the day that I heard myself use the vernacular "fixin to," I knew that I had acculturated. I hoped no one else heard!

Probably the biggest adjustment — and continuing challenge — is learning what it means to live in the Bible belt where there is a church — often Southern Baptist — on practically every corner. Many sprawl over three or four blocks and need police to monitor traffic on Sunday mornings. Yet the overwhelming atmosphere of religious conservatism contrasts ironically with Shreveport's other claim to fame — a thriving casino business. Its five riverboat casinos outperform those in New Orleans. Drawing tourists from Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, the "boats" have helped the local economy that was devastated after the oil bust. Perhaps that is why the vocal religious community voices little condemnation. Two billboards, side-by-side at a major intersection — one announcing the events at Harrah's and the other proclaiming the brand of good news associated with the politically active and socially conservative Broadmoor Baptist Church — offers a compelling image of the co-existence of two opposing forces. Right down the street from this intersection sits one of many "drive-through daiquiri" businesses. Here in Louisiana, you do not even have to get out of your car to buy a frozen alcoholic treat.

Down the street in a different direction sits Centenary College. Hardly a week goes by without some reminder that Centenary is thought to be a liberal bastion by many local residents. Although nearly all faculty experience some bashing by Bible-thumping fundamentalists, we in the Religious Studies Department are especially targeted. I am a woman — actually the first woman ever to have a faculty position in Religious Studies — who teaches Bible. Some would say that's biblically inappropriate. Yet, I am the least controversial member of our department. One of my colleagues was practically forced out for observing a week-long silent protest when the US invaded Iraq. Donors threatened never to contribute to Centenary again. My other colleague, an openly gay man, is subjected to malicious comments from those "who love the sinner but hate the sin." He is actually the main reason I accepted the job at Centenary. I assumed that a college where a gay man was chair of the Religious Studies department had to have an open and accepting atmosphere. I was not disappointed. Over the past six years, I've known several students who felt safe enough at Centenary to come out of their closets. Of course, what I consider an open and hospitable environment, many Shreveporters decry. Centenary, in some cases, has an adversarial relationship with its community.

For the same reasons, the college — and especially our department — is viewed suspiciously by some of the more conservative clergy in the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church. As its only denominational college in Louisiana, Centenary at times is held hostage by threats of decreasing financial support. When this is exacerbated by a struggling local and national economy, our department is the first to be called on the carpet. Nevertheless, I must admit that our administration defends our rights of academic freedom and has supported the major changes we've made in our department. During my time at Centenary, we eliminated a Christian Education major, changed the name of our department from "Religion" to "Religious Studies," and overhauled nearly all our curriculum. Instead of being focused primarily on Christianity, we now offer courses in all religious traditions and teach all our courses from a comparative perspective. Fortunately, most people within the Conference support the liberal arts education offered by Centenary and have acknowledged the importance of an academic approach to religion — especially since 9/11. Yes, it is worth it because we are starting to change some attitudes.

But what about on a daily basis? Does the overall sense of accomplishment help combat more immediate frustrations? Usually. Some days are better than others; some semesters are better than others; some years are better than others. Looking back, I experienced my first year as a honeymoon. Centenary gives its first year faculty several exemptions. We neither have to serve on committees nor advise students. All we have to do is teach. Without other major responsibilities, a 4-4 teaching load was not especially onerous. I loved the classroom and, despite my initial trepidation about relating to a much younger student population than the one I had experienced at Iliff, I became a popular teacher. Students sought me out and assumed my open office door was an invitation to chat. Most also assumed that because I was a woman, I was automatically "pastoral." So I did my best to play the part. However, I realized that I was not equipped to do more than listen to some surprisingly severe student problems. I became too enmeshed with some students and had to learn how to gently suggest that they needed to get advice from others more professionally trained to deal with their problems.

Perhaps the most significant event of my first year was the invitation I received from E. J. Brill to participate in their new LXX commentary series by writing the volume on Genesis. My gut instinct told me that I was not ready for such an undertaking. Yet, the honor of being chosen to be a part of this series and the pressure to accept the offer I received from several of my colleagues overrode my anxieties. So I accepted. The deadline was years away, and I still had a grad school mentality about scholarship. I told myself that after I completed the other two pieces I had agreed to write, I would devote all my writing time to the commentary.

It was during my second year, after the honeymoon was over, that I learned that "all" my writing time would occur only during extended breaks. It was then that I learned how much time and energy it took to teach four courses each semester — especially when I now had committee assignments and many students to advise. I loved the latter activity and grew to accept the significance of the former. That year I also realized what it really meant to teach in a small liberal arts college. Not only was I expected to teach a broad range of courses in my department, I was also "encouraged" to participate in the interdisciplinary first year experience course. The good news about expanding beyond my disciplinary comfort zone was that I had much more opportunity to interact with my colleagues in other departments. I also experienced first hand what we attempt to teach our students, i.e., the ability to make connections between diverse areas of study. It also gave me a larger framework in which to place my own courses. Yet, it also required more prep time and forced me to adopt somewhat different teaching methods. In the long run, I realized that I would be a better teacher as a result. However, I also realized that the gap between my research and my job was widening.

Talk about an "ah-ha" moment. I must admit that sometimes I'd rather observe them than experience them. Had I made a wrong decision, accepting the first job offer I'd received? Should I have waited for one that would have been more conducive to the type of scholarly activities for which I had prepared? Should I try to find another job before I was branded with the "small liberal arts college" label and thus unsuitable for other academic institutions? Maybe. But then, hindsight is closer to 20/20 than foresight. At the time, I felt trapped in a college that demanded an above average teaching load but still expected its junior faculty to publish. Yet, I told myself I loved teaching — that was the real reason I chose to get my Ph.D. At the same time, Centenary's Provost and Academic Dean encouraged me to continue my commentary project. I applied for — and received — all the faculty development grants available. Centenary was supporting my research as much as it could. None of this changed the fact that Centenary is not a research-oriented institution and that I would spend all my summer "vacations" writing.

At the time of my third year review, I was disinclined to agree that it was all worth it. Living in Shreveport was emotionally stifling. It was also physically stifling from June through September. I missed the beauty of Colorado; I missed the mountains; I missed being able to go outdoors without worrying about mosquitoes and West Nile virus. For me, Louisiana's license plate motto — Sportsman's Paradise — was false advertising. It is not paradise; I neither hunt nor fish; and I'm not a sportsman. As a vegetarian and animal rights advocate, I almost cry when I see pickup trucks with the slogan — it hops, it drops — arranged artistically around a leaping deer. In the words of the Animals, 'I gotta get out of this place'!

So what keeps me here? The short answer — I'm tenured and do not want again to go through being a senior-aged but junior-statused faculty member. I like looking forward to being able to say "no," if and when I need to do so. It feels good having all my hard work acknowledged in what most consider the most important way. I was not especially surprised that I was tenured. The many reviews that I had during my first five years led me to expect a positive result. Nevertheless, I was happy when it was over and I had in my possession congratulatory letters from the President and the Provost. It was only later that I allowed myself to acknowledge that tenure was worth it — that it does make a difference. I feel even more commitment to Centenary and its liberal arts education and almost look forward to the committee work that is required for a self-governing faculty.

A longer answer is that Centenary's Bible belt environment actually makes what I do significant, and often newsworthy. We can be assured of a packed auditorium — and many different voices — when we offer public forums on "Religion after 9/11" or on "The Passion of the Christ." In addition, my classes are always full, especially because it's so hard for me to say "no." Although it might be the same in other parts of the country, my colleagues who have taught elsewhere have not seen the level of enthusiasm as they have here for some courses that I offer — courses like "Prophets and Prophecy" and "Apocalypse Then — and Now." Students assume at the beginning of the semester that they will discover the real answers to "biblical prophecies" or how not to be "left behind." They may not learn what they expect to, but they do learn that these topics are significantly more complex than they assumed.

A more reflective answer is that I really do love my job. Yes, I complain about the 4-4 teaching load; yes, I complain about only being able to write over extended breaks; yes, I dislike living in the Bible belt; and yes, I often feel challenged by teaching so far outside my discipline. But, I truly enjoy teaching. Centenary draws most of its students from Louisiana, which is second to the bottom in education. We often say, "at least, we're not Mississippi." Over the past six years, I've constantly revised my syllabi in an ongoing attempt to help students overcome their limited backgrounds and to encourage them to challenge the ideas they bring from their conservative hometowns. Although most first year students kick and scream when exposed to more liberal political, social, and theological ideas, many refuse to stay chained in their shadowy Platonic cave when exposed to the light. Maybe I am fulfilling my call to ministry in a way that I never anticipated.

I'm not alone, either. Most of my colleagues have similar experiences. Most of us would prefer living somewhere other than Shreveport, and most of us would prefer a lighter teaching load. Yet, we all are committed to Centenary's reputation of being student oriented. We all like the relatively small sizes of our classes. We all like the flexibility we have to teach the kind of courses we want to teach in the way we want to teach them. Several of my colleagues and I recently decided to form our own support group — we call it W-5 — Women We Want to W(h)ine With. And w(h)ine we do — about once a month. But we also laugh a lot and really enjoy ourselves.

So, has it all been worth it — completing a Ph.D., accepting a teaching position in the buckle of the Bible belt, working harder than I'd ever worked in my first career? Most days, I would say that it all has been worth it. Would I have done anything differently if I'd known what I know now? Absolutely. I would ask different questions. For example, I would ask not only what I was expected to teach, but also how much I was expected to teach. I would ask not only if the college would support professional activities, but also how much support it would offer. I would ask not only about the college's relationship with its denomination, but also what that relationship entailed and how it would affect me, my courses, and my obligations to "the Church." Finally, I would ask not only about where I was to live, but also about the others who already lived there. Even knowing what I know now, I'm sure that I would have accepted the offer to teach at Centenary. It was what I trained to do, and what I've discovered I love to do and most say I do well. It is both a call and a career, both a passion and a profession. Now, as a tenured Associate Professor, I look forward to a summer of writing and another academic year of expanding young minds.

Susan Brayford is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Centenary College, Shreveport, LA.

Citation: Susan Brayford, " Tenured and Teaching in Shreveport," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2004]. Online:


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