Thursday, 27 March 2014

Church Times 'Best Christian Books'

So I am told, as a Church Times reviewer, that they're doing a feature this autumn on 'the best 100 Christian books of all time'. And they want suggestions. The criteria are:
Works should be of enduring value, influential in their time or after it. The list will encompass fiction and nonfiction, theological scholarship and popular titles, authors ranging from St. Augustine to Eamon Duffy to C. S. Lewis. (The only suggestion we will not consider is the Bible, divinely inspired authorship constituting an unfair advantage.) Among the categories to consider: mission and ministry, church history, theology, prayer and spirituality, the Old and New Testaments, liturgy and worship, literature and apologetics.
Now, there's a fun parlour game! What to nominate? I passed over the Prayer Book (which won't be short of friends) and Pilgrim's Progress (likewise). Here is my initial suggestion and rationale:
Philip Jacob Spener's Pia Desideria (1675). It's a short call to arms - or rather, to renewed piety: it was the book which kick-started Pietism, and is therefore indirectly (no, actually, pretty directly) responsible for modern Evangelicalism. What makes it so wonderful is that it combines two things which are almost never brought together. First, a moving call for moral and spiritual renewal: its insistence (which both Pietists and Evangelicals have too often forgotten) that to be a Christian means to follow Christ, not to be able to win doctrinal arguments. Against the hair-splitters and heresy hunters of his day, he warned that at the last judgement ‘we shall not be asked how learned we were’, but rather ‘how faithfully and with how childlike a heart we sought to further the kingdom of God’. And he added that if St. Paul were to try to follow one of the theological debates of the age, he would ‘understand only a little of what our slippery geniuses sometimes say’. BUT, he combines this preacherly idealism with a level-headed practicality about what should be done. In particular, he makes the revolutionary suggestion that Christians should not leave their spiritual fate in the hands of their ministers, nor of the political powers who usually dominated their churches, but rather take matters into their own hands. He recommended ‘the ancient and apostolic kind of church meetings’, that is, Bible study and discussion groups for mutual support and encouragement. Methodist bands and classes got the idea directly from him. It seems so normal now that it's hard to grasp how empowering and revolutionary it once was.
I think Spener deserves top-100 billing. But maybe just because I've been working on it these last couple of months. What other obscure gems want rescuing?

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Surviving shortlisting

Back in the day, when I was trying to get my foot on the first rung of the academic jobs ladder, a more senior friend told me: once you start getting interviews, you’re OK, because then you know your number will come up sooner or later. And it’s true, more or less. But how do you get onto those shortlists?

I’m shortlisting for four different posts this month. Typically there are twenty, forty, a hundred applicants who needed to be whittled down to four for interviewing. How do you make the cut? Some suggestions.

  1. Apply for the job that is advertised. No two academic jobs are exactly the same. Don’t just send a CV and a generic covering letter, which does not engage with the specifics of the institution you’re applying for and the particular requirements of the post. That’s one of the quickest ways to the bin.
  2. Write good English. I’m sorry, but it needs to be said. Most academic jobs have ‘effective communication’ or something of that kind in the person specifications. If a shortlisting panel is looking for reasons to exclude people (and usually, we are), this makes it easy for them. If English is not your native language, this is especially important. We can’t easily judge how fluent a non-native speaker will be, and for any job that requires communication with students this may be decisively important. If your written English is not flawless, have someone proofread your letter and CV for you.
  3. Remember that, in CV terms, less is often more. There are different CV cultures: in the USA, the comprehensive CV is often favoured, whereas in Britain we still tend to like the more selective one. But in any case, don’t include things for the sake of it. Maybe you have published thirty book reviews: if so, tell us that and perhaps list the journals for which you have reviewed, but don’t spend two pages giving us the full list. Or again, if you have non-academic achievements to highlight, be cautious. Make sure it’s relevant: often it is, often it isn’t.
  4. In particular: don’t fill your CV so full of detail that readers miss the good stuff. I have seen people who present lists of publications in purely chronological order, so you have to read down through all the book reviews and short notes to spot that, half-way down page 2, there is a major Yale University Press monograph. Make it easy for your readers to see what you need them to see.
  5. Don’t be ambiguous. Remember that panellists are suspicious and will interpret any ambiguity in the worst possible light. The most common case is where a publication is simply described as ‘forthcoming’. Forthcoming where and how? Is it something you are thinking of writing one day, is it appearing on a fixed date next month with a major academic press, or somewhere in between? Be precise: ‘under review with the Journal of Nonsense’, ‘under contract and due for submission on 31 December’, ‘in proof’, or whatever.
  6. Help readers to understand how good your work is. Panellists reading lists of publications are trying to work out if any of this stuff is any good. Where there are signals that you can send (such as publication in a major journal or by a major academic press), do so. If those signals need amplifying, do so: for example, if you have published in a competitive journal which some of the panel may not be familiar with, make sure that they know that that’s what it is. And if you want to quote from reviews, article referees’ reports, or whatever, do so: a nice phrase or two under an article can help persuade a panellist that this might be a quality application worth spending a tiny bit more time on.
  7. The same goes for your teaching. It is common to see CVs listing the names of courses or modules that applicants have taught. But those tell us very little. If you can, add something which indicates how good you were (feedback scores from students, for example) or which indicates the scale of what you were doing (so we know the difference between taking a few auxiliary classes and designing a whole lecture course from scratch).
  8. Don’t leave unexplained gaps. If there is a period in your CV of more than a few months when your movements are unaccounted for, people spot it and wonder – even though they shouldn’t. If you had a career break for family reasons; if you were in non-academic work for a period; or anything like that, say so. If you have something that you don’t want to reveal (like an extended period of ill health, a spell in prison, or what have you), then find a way of explaining the missing years which is not actively deceptive. But if we see someone who got their PhD ten years ago and spent eight years of the intervening time not publishing, the application will be binned unless the gap can be explained.
  9. Photos. Increasingly you see academic CVs with a cheesy photo of the applicant at the top. I know this is common in the business world. I really don’t like it: not just because some academics are off-putting to look at, but because it invites the panel to join the applicant in playing subliminal games of gender, age and racial politics. I don’t think it ever helps an application.
  10. And do try not to be actively weird or unintentionally funny. Most piles of applications contain one like this. One that springs to mind is the candidate who listed contact details for four referees, as requested, but added after one of the names: ‘(deceased)’. And then gave this person’s full postal address. Such moments help to brighten the committee’s day, but the CV that makes us laugh almost never makes the list.
Good hunting …

UPDATE: See also my notes on how to survive the job presentation and on how to then self-destruct during the interview.