Monday, December 22, 2014

Survivor's Guide to Seminary, Post #11 (Your Professional Image and Its Cultivation - Part 4)

So, whatever you are going to do with your seminary degree, there’s one thing that is certain no matter what direction you are headed – you will be a professional and it is in your best interest early on to cultivate a professional “image.” We chatted about this in my previous posts. We're continuing that discussion in this post with Tip #4.

TIP #4 – Be mindful of your interactions with other students and faculty

In terms of our professional image, one of the most important things we can do is respect others and expect respect in return. In some ways, our relationships are the most important grid in which our professionalism is maintained, for it is the consummate professional who is concerned with collegiality – the cooperation of colleagues – and makes it her highest priority. In the seminary, an individual’s independence of thought is sacrosanct in my opinion, thus it becomes important for each of us to concern ourselves with mutual respect. Now, this does not mean that we cannot disagree with one another; after all, I too have independence of thought. But the way we adjudicate our differences and manifest our mutual respect does much to enhance our professional image.

One example here might be helpful. Once, a fellow student was struggling in a language class I was in at seminary. For whatever reason, this person was having a bit of a hard time and it was beginning to wear on them. In their tired and frustrated state, a little idea popped into their mind that perhaps it was a pedagogical flaw of the instructor, rather than the student’s own struggle to master a challenging course, which was at issue. 

“Professor failure” was to blame. 

They came to me to discuss a plan that had hatched in their mind.

The plan was this: approach the Dean of the graduate seminary and express the frustration that, because the student had done so well in other classes, and yet, was having so much trouble in the current course, that it must be the professor’s fault. What did I think?

“I think this is a terrible idea” I replied.

“What!? Why?” they asked.

I told the student that I was not a fan of whining. 

Yes, I said it just like that. I told them that I thought students at our level ought to “take our lumps” better than that. Moreover, if they planned to ask for recommendation letters from the Dean or this professor in the future, there were better, more positive ways, of approaching the problem – ways that were less likely to sully the student’s reputation. 

I offered other, more positive alternatives, which did not involve an end run around the professor to the Dean and which would bring the student and the “offending” professor into a more productive relationship. Of course, I also reminded them that the class was hard, and they ought to give themselves a break, too.

The primary reason for my advice was professionalism. 

Indeed, I think one day I might need a recommendation letter from my professors. And when I ask them for one I want them to think of me as a “go-getter” – a person who can handle the workload of the next level, whether the next level is a local church or a doctoral program. 

Also, it’s a matter of pride. As I told this student, I don’t like to whine to professors because I don’t want to give them the satisfaction that they are getting the best of me. Now, don’t read me the wrong way here. If you have a legitimate struggle in a class, take that concern/challenge to your professor in their office hours and see if you can work out a plan to overcome it. That kind of problem solving is the thing a professional would do. But remember, your professors are colleagues, and you are like their junior colleague now, and you don’t want to make your professor your therapist. Call home to your family or friends if things are tough. When things are tough in the classroom, approach your professor in “problem-solving mode” and be professional.

Now, your other colleagues in your seminary are your fellow students. You need to cultivate courteous, intellectual relationships with them as well. And enjoy the comradeship of seminary. You are going to experience a lot of trials with your seminary cohort (the students with which you enter the program). The relationships with students can be more casual than with professors, but remember, they always need to be professional, as well. One day, these fellow students will likely work in the Church with you, and you never know when one might serve at a church where you end up serving. Be professional.