Interviewing to be a Lecturer…

As many of you know already, I’m interviewing for a full-time Lecturer position at the University of Arizona very soon.  This is the latest step (maybe the culmination?) of a long process God has had me on, and I thought I should write it all down.  So sit down in a comfy chair – since I’m writing this, it’s going to be a long one!

Back in 2005, I was working at IBM and unhappy.  I didn’t like working for a big corporation – I didn’t like the bureaucracy, I didn’t like the fact that they owned all my inventions, and I didn’t like the work.  But I loved working with computers.

The Village was about five years old at the time, and I had long anticipated that God would someday call me away from IBM to work full-time at the Village.  On the one hand, I looked forward to doing work that was more fulfilling – but on the other hand, I feared having to give up my love of working on/with computers all day.

I found myself often wanting to just “get out.”  I dreamed of quitting my job and going to drive trains, or maybe trucks – but both would take me away from home too much.  I dreamed of getting my “call” to the Village and stopping work at IBM.  I dreamed that something would happen to get me out.  Em was afraid that I was going to go do something really stupid, and ruin the good job that God had given me.

One day late in that summer, Em and I were talking about my angst and my dreams.  I wanted to do ministry, but I also wanted to work on computers.  And, as one of us pointed out, I seemed to be pretty gifted as a teacher – I had had great success as a math tutor in the past, and I loved to preach.  (Back then, I preached more often at the Village than I do now.)

Suddenly, it all came together: I should be a professor.  Em says that it was my idea, but I remember it as hers – but whomever thought of it first, it was a captivating.  I could teach, I could do computers, and I could do (a form of) ministry by mentoring the students.  I immediately signed up for classes, and began my schooling in the fall of 2005.  (There’s a whole story about the trouble I had getting in, which I’ll save for some other time.)

When we first conceived of this plan, I imagined that being a professor would be primarily about service to others.  What I love most is inventing – and a job as a professor would be (so I imagined) mostly focused on the kids.  But then God offered an exciting change of plans: when I actually talked to professors at the U, I found that they spent most of their time doing research – and that teaching was a secondary responsibility.  I had entered this planning to be selfless – but it seemed like God was going to give me back (some) of my selfish desires (some day).

God used graduate school to completely remake the sort of man I was.  I had been selfish and unhappy at IBM – wanting to spend my time on “fun” projects, and to retain the rights to my inventions.  I had been a very poor student during my undergraduate years – skipping class, ignoring homework, and nearly dropping out.  But God used my desire to be a professor – and my fear of failing at that pursuit – to turn me into a new man.  I was now a diligent, disciplined student.

I feared that this life-change was temporary – would I lose my motivation?  Would I keep up the good habits once I was no longer afraid?  But God used this time to change me from the inside out – and one of the most obvious proofs of it was how I viewed IBM.

It took me five years to finish my Master’s degree, and by the end of it, nothing had changed at IBM (in fact, some things were worse), but I was now at peace.  I looked seriously into my future, and considered the possibility of retiring from IBM – but without fear or despair, this time.  I would never be a famous inventor (because they owned all of my inventions), but I could be a good father and a happy programmer.  I still hoped to complete my PhD and become a professor, but I no longer worried whether or not that would come true.  In fact, I told a number of people that God often redirects us suddenly – and so I kind of figured that God would wait until I had my PhD, and then call me to something completely unexpected.  I had no idea what that might be.

But after five long years doing both work and school, I was tired.  And so before starting on my PhD, I decided to take a one year sabbatical.  Three months in, as I luxuriated in my new-found free time, I decided that I could not go back.  A PhD was going to be harder than a Master’s – and I no longer thought that I could do it while I worked full time.

I could have, of course, just quit my job and gone back to school.  But God had provided me with stable employment, and it was my job to provide for my family.  I didn’t want to pile up student loans with no guarantee of future work.

I very much wanted to go back to school – I just didn’t think that I could both go to school, and work full-time.  And so I asked God, “If you want me to go back, you either have to get me a huge fellowship – or you have to get me laid off from IBM.”  Neither seemed likely, and so I basically was telling God, “If you want me to go back, you’re going to need to work a miracle.”

When I started school, I had envisioned being a professor as a matter of self-sacrifice for the students; then God hinted that there might be more fun than I had guessed.  But now I was back to being powerless again – I had no plan that would realistically get me back to school.  Though I prayed that God would send me back, I didn’t really expect it – and so I tried my best to be the best IBM employee I could.

Three years passed.  My courses from my Master’s, the first of them taken eight years before, were growing stale – college courses generally “expire” after ten years.  I faced the fact that my dream was dying – if I ever went back, I likely would need to start over from scratch.  And then IBM had a terrible quarter.

IBM is like an abuse victim – having gone through a terrible time, they are terrified of ever going back, and so they overcompensate.  In the mid 80’s, IBM almost went bankrupt because they “just kept doing what they knew how to do” – and they were blindsided by the home computer revolution.  IBM excelled at mainframes – and suddenly, nobody wanted them, and it almost destroyed the company.

Now, IBM is hyper-conscious of the smallest market shifts – and overreacts to any bad quarter by tightening expenses and (sometimes) laying people off.  I had been through three or four rounds of layoffs in my 15 years there – but generally thought myself pretty safe.  But the first quarter of 2013 was terrible for IBM – and so I, along with about 15% of the other employees, were laid off that June.

At first, I was enraged at IBM’s “betrayal.”  But only a couple of days after I received notice, I suddenly remembered my prayer, and my heart leapt – it seemed that God was answering my prayer.  I was headed back to school (with severance pay, no less!).  I spent time in prayer, asked for wise counsel, and also looked for other jobs – but it quickly became clear that that this was God’s doing.  I was going back – and just in time to get done before those old classes started to expire.

God’s timing is amazing.  But remember what I said earlier about him suddenly changing course on you?

I’ve spent the past three semesters taking courses and doing preliminary work on my research (that is, for my dissertation).  Just a couple of weeks ago, I took the last final exam of my graduate career (according to current plans).  I have all my coursework done.  Until about two months ago, I also thought that I was making good progress on my research.  But then God slammed a door shut.

Early this November, I ran across a passing reference on a certain website.  Intrigued (and worried), I dug into it – and found that somebody had already done almost exactly what I had been trying to do.  They simply hadn’t publicized it very well, so only a few people new about it.  In academia, you cannot publish what someone else has already done; no matter how hard you worked, duplicate work doesn’t count.

This meant that I had to start over with my research, almost from scratch.  It was devastating.  I had already learned that I had underestimated how long the research was going to take – more like four to six years instead of the two I’d hoped for – and now, I was back to square one.  And I was piling up student loans every semester to support my family.

But then my advisor mentioned an opportunity.  The department had recently started a search for a new faculty member – not a professor, but a “lecturer.”  A lecturer is a full-time faculty member, but they do little research; they focus on teaching classes.  And a PhD was not required.

The original vision from 2005 was back: being a teacher.  I would have to give up the dream of spending lots of time doing interesting research – but it might be exactly what God has called me to.  It feels like exactly the sort of thing He would ask me to do.

I applied immediately, and then waited with baited breath for a response.  Word that I had applied spread around the department, and a number of people who saw me in the hall made a point of encouraging me, and wishing me well.  But no word came, and I was getting a little frantic about what to do.  Should I go find a new research topic?  Should I find a part-time job to help support me and reduce the burden of my loans?  Should I wait to see if this position pans out?

Finally, just before finals, I was contacted, and the interview is scheduled for Jan 6 (one week from today).  I still have no idea where I stand.  Is it as I hope, that they want to hire me and the interview is just a formality?  Am I one of a dozen candidates who will interview over the next few months?  Are they just humouring me?  I don’t know, but I have hope.

But there is a cost.  If I am offered this job, I will be working full-time again.  I cannot, realistically, stay in school if I take this job.  Since I have finished my classes, it is possible that I could work in my spare time on some research.  It is possible that maybe I could get published, and eventually write a dissertation.  But I’m not sure if that is realistic or not.  Even if it is, I probably wouldn’t be able to finish before the old classes start to expire.

Thus, it may be that taking a job as a lecturer would mean that I would never complete my PhD.  Here I go again, God – only You can direct me on a course that will allow me to finish my degree, somehow.  If you don’t want me to finish, then please give me peace about it.

I was talking to Rod about all this a couple of weeks ago, and he said it sounded like I thought God “owed” me this job.  I certainly don’t want to say that.  But it does seem like this is something that God has been leading me toward for almost a decade now.  It seems like I may be reaching my destination – and I’m extremely excited.  Maybe I’m wrong – maybe He wants me to find some new research and complete it over the next couple of years.  Maybe I need to find a part-time job in industry.  I don’t know.  But I hope not.

And so I am working on my “class” I’ll be teaching next week – where I show my teaching style and (hopefully) convince the faculty that I’m qualified to join them.  Pray that God will open or close this door very clearly (and very quickly!) so I know what I should be doing in the next few months – or maybe years.


1 Comment

  1. Dennis

    Russ, I want to say that I know you’ll do well in your interview, but alas, I am no prophet. Instead, I pray that you will do well and that you are preparing well for teaching that demo class. You are a hard worker, with much perseverance. God will see you through this exciting time. The time and resources you spent on your Masters taught you how to be a super student and be at peace with your job at IBM. Similarly, your more recent educational efforts will come to some useful fruition. Maybe you’ll come up with another similar invention that won’t take as long to develop and you’ll have time to work on it while being a lecturer. For the interview, keep in mind that perfect practice makes perfect. May the Lord inspire you with timely and appropriate responses to any questions they may ask you during your teaching demo.

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