Theologians and Academic Labor, Continued

I have now heard from a number of respondents about my earlier post asking whether tenured theologians have an obligation to help rethink the present system of academic labor. Several rightly criticized the post for not going far enough.

Inspired by those responses, and ready to put more cards on the table, let me briefly sketch some further thinking on the renewal of academic theological identity and practice.


Theological careers are now defined by administrative and professional processes that have outrun the willingness, and perhaps even the ability, of theologians to adequately and capaciously analyze, comprehend, criticize, or even affirm them. These processes are simply “how things happen.” I mean developments like the substantial dependence on adjunct faculty, who are overworked, underpaid, and typically outside of any institutional governance processes, and now teaching a plurality or even majority of courses at some schools; the exploitation of graduate student labor for teaching and related work, often accepted by graduate students in the hope that this “apprenticeship” (rarely adequately theorized as such) will result in landing a tenure-track job; the lack of attention to the dynamics of academic labor as intrinsic to theological training, including how faculty labor relates to the labor of graduate students (and undergraduates), to staff labor, to administrative labor, to ecclesial labor; the accompanying lack of awareness of labor union issues and activities in higher education that conditions many of us and our theological societies to often avoid the deep concerns of labor in higher education entirely.

The financial crisis and the resulting crisis of labor in academia underscore the generational changes in theology more starkly than ever. The last thirty years have seen substantial change in processes that constitute the environment for academic labor in theology, such as: the standards for tenure; the state and dynamics of academic publishing; the entrance of lay people and particularly lay women into theology; the emergence of a plurality of Catholic theologians who are parents; signals of awareness of persistent colonial practices and attitudes in theological life and institutions; and the discovery of the permanence of clerical culture and its structuring effect on academic and church life. Under the weight of the changing profile of we theologians, and against the backdrop of the administrative and professional processes that structure our lives, more is at stake for theologians and the many families that depend on their success than ever before.

It is legitimate to ask, with patient focus: What, now, is our theology for, after all? What is the theological measure of success in this academic system, and what is the significance of the tenuring of theologians for the new system of theological labor in which we find ourselves? Are we measuring the teaching of theology and the management of theological labor according to what theology might be for?

Such an analysis suggests a strong turn toward a theological examination of professional practices as closer to the heart of what it means to live a theological life in the academy today. A focus on practice has been present in the dominant fields (in the Catholic theological world) of systematics and ethics or moral theology, but the hermeneutics of textual interpretation have far outpaced the kind of attention we need in our theological training to theories of action, practice, and performance—within the academy as well as in the church and wider world. Praxis theologies (by which I mean the practical, pastoral, liberation, feminist, womanist, Black, Asian, Latino/a, postcolonial and more theologies that contain not only or primarily a concern for the systematicity of faith, nor only or primarily a concern for the application or translation of “the faith” to or for a “situation,” but who take practice, action, performance or their cognates as the field for the generation and effect of theological material) have a contribution to make, but the common and rhetorical separation of the systematic-ethical and the praxis discourses keep this kind of shared thinking about why we go on doing what we do in a state of constant traffic jam.

To think of theological work on these terms is simply a way of suggesting how to continue to shift theology from a field of study resistant to self-examination of its cultural practices, toward academic theology as occurring relative to the practice of a theological life, in and out of the academy (without, it will have to be said, compromising theology’s hard-won rigor and scientificity over the past generation).

None of the above is meant to suggest that nothing in this regard is actually happening substantially in theological faculties. However, whatever is actually going forward would seem to bear little overall effect on the normal way of proceeding, and in tough times as these, the restrictions on creative thinking can tighten even further.

The financial crisis, which is a crisis for academic labor, gives theologians the occasion to now begin to deal with all these issues that were already there before the crisis, and thereby to contribute to a renewal of our theological identity and practice.

Tom Beaudoin

New York City

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