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“The Life of the Professor” — My Talking Points for our New Faculty Workshop

I was asked earlier this week by the provost here at Southern to come in and speak to our new professors. We have a large and growing faculty and in this recent batch there were a few recent PhD graduates who are facing the intimidating beginning to their lives as professors. I am sympathetic and remember those days well. Impostor Syndrome 2.0!

I put together a brief talk that focuses on three areas of the life of the professor — Teaching, Scholarship, and Mentoring.

Here are my far from perfect and far from comprehensive talking points for those who might be interested.

“The Life of the Professor”

New Faculty Workshop

Jonathan Pennington

Aug 8, 2017


The driving conviction for what I want to share with you today is that true, lasting, and beautiful growth takes intentionality. Sometimes we get lucky and accidentally do good things and stumble upon success, but often we don’t. And the wisest and surest and most fruitful plan is to be intentional about the good and beautiful that we want to experience. So today I simply want to project some visionary thoughts to inspire you to be intentional about your academic life in some very specific ways.

As I have thought about the life of a professor and developing as a faculty member I have identified Five Areas of Professorial Life.

These are:

  • Teaching
  • Scholarship
  • Supervising / Advising / Mentoring
  • Administration / Academic Leadership
  • Career Development

I’m going to talk to you today about the first three of these and leave the other two to others.

(1) Teaching

I come from a family of teachers and professors and much of a love and passion for teaching has bred into me like a show dog before I was born. And because teaching (and preaching) is, in my opinion, ultimately about who you are as a person and how you show up, there are many aspects of teaching that are in fact personality and may be out of your control.

For example, a pleasant voice, natural warmth of personality, cleverness/wittiness, creativity, quality of past education (most of which was decided for you from childhood). If we think of it from the perspective of the Myers-Briggs personality types, some types of people simply make better teachers than others because of a combination of traits (and more specifically, different personality types perform better as teachers of different subjects; see

Some people are just naturally more gifted teachers. That’s ok.

However, there is a LOT about teaching that functions on the skill side, not just the gift side, of the equation; principles of pedagogy and tips for teaching excellence that can be learned and honed.

The big thing I’d like to encourage you with in regards to your life as a teacher, whether you have vast experience or limited, natural giftedness or not, is this: being smart, being knowledgeable, and being scholarly is necessary for great teaching but not sufficient; necessary but not sufficient (such an important cognitive category!).

You wouldn’t be here today if you did not have some level of notable intelligence and have gained some higher than average level of knowledge, and shown some capacity towards the life of the academy. However, while this is a relatively small subsection of broader society, there are still a lot of people in this category, many of them are smarter than you and me, yet many of them are not nor ever will be good teachers.

There is a place for pure researchers — non-teaching specialists, especially in highly technical fields, whether it be nuclear physics, quantum mechanics, computer programming, or textual criticism — but that is an extremely small group within the academic (and business) world. Most academics can and should be teachers. And here at Southern where we do indeed recognize and maintain a real focus on our professors as scholars, we are primarily a teaching institution. Our mission is to train the next generation of leaders, primarily pastors (though also future scholars through sending students to PhD programs AND through our own doctoral programs).

To do this we must be scholars ourselves, engaged in deep thought and deep understanding, but on top of that, we must be able to teach. Indeed, not discounting the value of the tiny group of pure technical researchers, I would suggest that the ability to teach well is often the sign of the best kind of scholars. This is because of what I call the Simple-Complex Principle. It can be summed up with this aphorism — On this side of complexity is simplistic; on the other side of complexity is simple.

Additionally, you will find (if you haven’t already) that teaching is very often the means/instrument by which deeper understanding happens! I can’t count how many times, though I can recall many of them, that I came to understand my own thinking and to make deep and lateral connections because I was teaching; the act of articulation (as also in writing) forces and forges understanding. Teaching enables understanding.

So I want to invite you to embrace teaching not as a necessary evil for you to be a scholar and still get paid. Or you probably wouldn’t state it so starkly, but maybe closer: I want to invite you to see teaching as an integral and beneficial aspect to your life as a professor — regardless of how natural of a teacher you are (or think you are!).

And I want to encourage you again to be intentional about developing as a teacher.

Here’s a cornucopia of thoughts on teaching:

  • Approach the design of your courses from the perspective of teaching your knowledge not from the starting point of merely scope and sequence.
  • Related, keep in mind that good and powerful teaching is not the transfer of knowledge(as if that were an object anyways) but training and leading students to see and how to see. This is education — helping others to be knowers. (See Dru Johnson’s sparkling, Scripture’s Knowing)
  • Also related, good teaching involves credibility and trustworthiness and love, so focus on being that kind of person if you want to be an effective teacher, not just a thrower of ideas.
  • As you go through the course try different pedagogical techniques and evaluate how they worked. Make adjustments to your syllabi at the end of the semester for the next semester rather than waiting until the week before class next time!
  • Think of assessment as a part of excellent pedagogy. Don’t assume tests and other assignments will actually help learning.
  • For post-secondary education (and especially graduate school) seek the magic middle between lecturing and other pedagogical techniques. Avoid the extremes on either side — all lecture versus all discussion.
  • Have as a goal to write at least one new lecture / one new topic within a class every semester that is based on your reading and research.
  • Seek out mentors and have discussions with colleagues about what they’re doing. Maybe get in the habit of sharing your ideas and syllabi with others. Ask professors/friends at other institutions what they do. You may be very motivated to do this now out of desperation, but I’d encourage you to make this a life-long habit.
  • Automate and delegate aspects of grading that can be delegated and make a commitment to doing what you should do for your students. I’m afraid that we often delegate too much grading of papers to our wiling and large group of PhD students. I think we either should eliminate assignments that would require this if the classes are too large or adjust professorial expectations.

Some Resources:

(2) Scholarship

I’ve already said something about the importance of scholarship to good thinking — it is necessary but not sufficient. Now I want to go a little further with some thoughts, mostly on the practical side, about your life as a professor-scholar.

First, a word about scholarship and SBTS. Our mission is to train pastors and other future leaders (including scholars) but the good news is that the tradition here is a commitment to, valuing of, and support of scholarship. That’s a huge blessing! This support will come in the form of sabbaticals, financial support for academic conferences, as an aspect of your annual evaluation, and general support from the deans, provost, and president.

At the same time, we can recognize that not every professor has precisely the same skill set and calling as a scholar. Some are going to do work more on the popular end, some more on the technical side, some more explicitly for the church, some more explicitly for the academy, some a little bit of everything.

An important first thing is to figure out who you are and what kind of professor-scholar you want to be and then aim for that with intentionality.

As with everything, wisdom and virtue will be found in the via media, the middle way of balance between teaching, writing, family, relationships, church ministry, leisure/recreation. There is no cookie cutter or standard formula. You have to figure out over time what you’re capable of, what you’re called to, recognizing there are also different seasons that largely have to do with family, finances, career development.

So the first point: Make a plan for yourself, both in terms of vision for who you want to develop into as well as specifics for what you want to accomplish in the first year, 3 years, 5 years, 10 years. Have realistic expectations but also push yourself to the limits of what you can do.

Second point, a word about Writing. Even as some people are more naturally gifted as teachers, both by DNA and environ and yet everyone can improve as a teacher, so too precisely with writing. Some people are better at it than others but everyone can and should improve as a writer. This has been a big focus of mine in recent years, especially as Director of the PhD program. I have added an increasingly important focus on excellent writing for our students both in GRS and in our culture. I would simply exhort you to several practical steps towards intentionally improving as an academic writer:

  • Read some of the many great books on writing
    • Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
    • Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing
    • Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
    • many others
  • Also read books and learn how to be a more productive writer
    • Cal Newport, Deep Work (more generally on living intentionally)
    • Sword, Air & Light & Time & Space
    • Paul Silva, How to Write a Lot
    • many others
  • Take advantage of and create opportunities
    • RDS office events (including 1892 Club)
    • Share writing with others
    • Start a Writing Group (see Sword; Silva; online)
    • Academic conferences are a great deadline-driven way to get writing done
    • Say Yes to writing opportunities as they come along now but eventually you will have to be more selective.
  • Write! Write! Write!
    • no one gets better at tennis, photography, carburetor repair, deck building, or writing except by doing it!

Finally, I also want to cast a vision for your life as a scholar as a communal reality. Research and writing inevitably has a deep work/alone/solitary labor aspect to it. But if it is only that you will cease to reach your full potential and also cease to be fully human. I don’t know what your experience was in your PhD years, but whether you got to taste collaborative scholarly activity or not, I would invite you and exhort you to start today to make that an essential and not peripheral part of your scholarly life. Some practical tips:

  • Find a safe and intellectually virtuous colleague and talk about ideas at a deep and sustained level (“The Conversation” that Eric Johnson and I had for five years straight with regular outbursts still)
  • Start/engage in a Reading Group (Eric and I co-lead one for a couple of years)
  • Intentionally engage yourself in interdisciplinary study — both reading and writing (Radical Christian Scholarship conference; my projects with a psychologist; philosopher); train yourself in another area of knowledge (for me it has been Greek philosophy lately)
  • 1892 Club — rare and golden pre-formed opportunity for you to engage with a wide variety of students and colleagues and other scholars, plus free cheese and coffee! Every Wed 1-2:30pm

(3) Supervising / Advising / Mentoring

Finally, and most briefly, your life as a professor can, should, and eventually will include the important aspect of supervising, advising, and mentoring students (and eventually younger colleagues). A recent study tracked college students after graduation to see what had the most impact on them in terms of happiness, retention, and future success. It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that the greatest factor was the personal impact of a teacher/professor. And if you think how you got from being a student to sitting here today I’m sure you can think of one or two or maybe several people/teachers/profs who had an indelible, formative, and directing influence on your life. I want to call you once again to intentionality of now stepping into being that for others.

Some practical thoughts:

  • Find a PhD student or two who will be helping you as Fellows and invest in them. Bring them into your processes and habits and involve them in what you’re working on.
  • Hold regular office hours that students at all levels can sign up for and meet with you. Be present. Listen. Care. Pray for them.
  • Realize that you can’t be everything to everyone so be selective about levels of investments in students. It’s ok to function at several levels of relationships, some much deeper and closer than others.
  • Seek out a mentor(s) yourself.

Wrapping Up

Overall, let me recommend a couple more great books for you to read at every stage of your professorial life: On the vision side, A. G. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life and on the practical side, Gary Burge’s Mapping Your Academic Career.


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4 Comments so far
  1. […] Here’s the text of an excellent talk by my friend Jonathan Pennington (Southern Seminary, Louisville, KY) about the life of a professor (non-Americans: read ‘lecturer’). He gave this for new faculty at his seminary, and I would think they found it very helpful. He very thoughtfully reflects on the aspects of teaching, scholarship, and mentoring and supervising others. Warmly recommended. […]

  2. Steve Walton August 13, 2017 6:03 am

    Thanks for a great piece, Jonathan. I have blogged about it.

  3. Check Out | HeadHeartHand Blog August 29, 2017 11:40 am

    […] “The Life of the Professor” — My Talking Points for our New Faculty Workshop | Jonathan Pennin…Guidance and motivation for teachers beginning another school year: […]

  4. […] “The Life of the Professor” — My Talking Points for our New Faculty Workshop […]