Nearly fifty percent of doctoral students in the arts (including biblical literature) fail to finish their degrees within ten years.Worse, the job market is glutted with Ph.D. graduates looking for work: for every two to three students who finish, only one tenure track (permanent) teaching position exists. In other words, the odds were stacked against us: first, to finish a degree, and second, to find a teaching position. We knew the odds, but I also knew that I had to go for it. I had to finish what I’d started. Until then, my spirit would be restless. I might complete a doctorate and never find a teaching position; if so, I could learn how to be a better pastor. But I knew that without a Ph.D., I would never even have a chanceto teach.
Since I was already thirty-three years old, it was also obvious to me that I could not afford to take the ten-year path to a degree. On one hand, I couldn’t ask or put David and T’auna through such a long, unsettling time of sacrifice. On the other hand, fair employment guides might prohibit discrimination in hiring on the basis of age, but given the choice between two candidates with new doctorates, few departments will choose someone already in their mid-forties over someone who is only thirty-years old. So, my wife and I decided that I would become a fulltime student on a mission to finish as quickly as possible. My wife went to work fulltime. We took out student loans, and I worked every job I could find and fit into my schedule without slowing me down. During the semester, I did a lot of work for the World Bible Translation Center (WBTC), reading back translations against the Hebrew, one cog in a long process of developing readable non-English translations. The process began with native speakers translating a biblical book into their language (e.g., Korean, Chinese, Ukrainian) from an easy to read English translation that includes extensive explanatory notes (prepared by the WBTC editors). Then a different native speaker would “back translate” the new translation into English. At this point, I (or others) would check the back translation against the Hebrew text, making corrections, offering suggestions, and raising questions to make sure the new translation accurately represents the Hebrew. Later, one of the WBTC editors would work through all of my notes with the same or another native speaker, checking and correcting the new translation as needed.
Between semesters I used the carpentry skills I learned from my dad. I helped flip houses before the term “flip” was cool and helped two friends build new homes. I also found my dream job, at least as a student: I became a Certified Pool Technician. I managed a private swimming pool in the summer, tasked with keeping the pool clean and keeping out non-members. Part one I accomplished with fifteen or twenty minutes of cleaning in the morning. Part two I achieved as I sat in the shade reading hundreds of pages for a guided study on the book of Genesis. Or, since my program required reading fluency in two contemporary research languages, I also used these hours under the umbrella to teach myself to read French: Parlez-vous français?
I beat the odds. I not only graduated in the spring of 1999, less than four years after we moved to Denver, I was also blessed or lucky (depending on your point of view) to graduate with a tenure-track teaching position in hand. Some dreams do come true.
In the fall of 1997, I received a call from an administrator at ACU, telling me about an opening in the Bible department for the fall of 1998, and asking me to send my Curriculum Vitae (C.V., an academic equivalent of a resumé). In my wildest dreams, I never imagined going back to teach at ACU. So I wrote a cover letter, brought my C.V. up to date, and sent both documents to Abilene so fast that, like the roadrunner cartoon, I left a trail blazing behind me. My excitement was stoked even more when I was invited to a pre-interview lunch with the chair and associate chair of the department during a national conference in late November (1997).
I waited for word about an interview. Then I waited a little longer for a letter or some communication about the position and my candidacy—something, anything. But winter turned to spring, and spring turned to summer without a word. As time passed, the sparks of excitement from the phone call and the pre-interview lunch turned into a smoldering bitterness that erupted into resentment and anger when I heard through a third party that the department made its selection in early spring. I’m not proud of how I felt, but once bitterness and anger took hold, it took little fuel to sustain or to reignite. A year later, when I was teaching at another university, I learned that Dr. Jack Reese from ACU recommended me for the job, explaining that ACU had dismissed my candidacy because my progress (they thought) was behind that of other applicants. I should have felt gratitude for what Dr. Reese did for me, but I didn’t. At the time, all I could see or hear focused on their incorrect assumptions and their lack of communication that gave me no opportunity to respond. They assumed I was on the typical slow boat to a Ph.D.—like their new hire who began in August (1998) without a completed doctorate. Meanwhile, however, I finished my work and left Denver four months later, returning to defend my dissertation and graduate in the spring of 1999—years before ACU’s new faculty member would finish. Indignant, hurt, and angry, I swore I would never work at ACU. I would never let ACU play me along again: call me up, act interested, get me excited, take me on a date, and then dump me like your junior high girlfriend.
When Dr. Lynn McMillon from Oklahoma Christian (OC) called in the summer of 1998 my mind flashed back to the late 70’s and my only visit to the OC campus. I remembered a handful of small, worn-down buildings in a wind blown field devoid of trees or grass. A memory further tainted by a case of food poisoning the day I visited. But since opportunities to teach do not grow on trees anyway, I jumped at the chance to send materials and scheduled what Dr. McMillon called a “let’s get acquainted visit.” My wife and I flew down together and went to lunches and dinners with some of the faculty (and their spouses). We toured a campus radically different from my memory: a campus with trees, grass, landscaping, a new building for the College of Biblical Studies, plus ongoing construction. And then, before flying home on Sunday, I taught the university student’s Bible class at the nearby Memorial Road Church of Christ.
Before this trip I had only a glimmer of hope for a good match with OC. But by the time we flew home, I was stoked by the possibility of moving to Oklahoma and teaching Old Testament. Dr. McMillon shared our positive feelings and phoned quickly to set-up my formal interview. For this trip I traveled alone and spent most of my time in conversation with faculty and administrators. On Saturday afternoon, after a final meeting with Dr. McMillon, I met Dr. Jeanine Varner, Provost (Vice-President for Academic Affairs). We had a good conversation, after which her husband (Dr. Paul Varner) picked us up for dinner with the President of the university and other academic leaders. According to good southern etiquette, Paul and Jeanine insisted that I sit in the front seat of the van as she climbed into the back.
Midway to the County Line Barbecue restaurant (near the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum), I noticed that my seat was damp, not wet but moist enough to notice. By the time we got to the restaurant and I got out of the van, I was fairly certain my tan trousers held a wet souvenir of the ride, a wet imprint on both cheeks. So I negotiated all the introductions using my high school theatre experience to move like an actor on stage—never turning my back to the audience. When we finally sat down at the table, I congratulated myself on job well done.
My ordeal, however, had only begun. When we placed our orders twenty minutes later, what had been an embarrassment to avoid had become irritating. And the longer we sat, the longer we ate, and the longer we talked, the worse matters became. At first, it felt like I was sitting on wet cactus with a thousand needles poking me in the rear. I excused myself and walked, stage left, to the restroom and relief. I checked into a stall, dropped my drawers, and attempted to dry out my damp underwear. But painfully aware of time, I quickly returned to the table for conversation that lasted another hour. As the evening wore on, the thousand little needles ignited into a flame and a true hot seat. There’s no polite way to describe what I felt: my buttocks was on fire. Worse, I couldn’t imagine what those at the table must have been thinking about me as I twisted, turned, and squirmed with more moves than a Cirque du Soleil contortionist. I did everything I could to endure, just to make it through the evening without throwing away my chances for the position. It was and remains the longest two-hour dinner party of my life.
When we finally left the restaurant, another couple offered to take me to the hotel. Thank you, God! But then, this cruel interview got more complicated and became a test of my ethics: the Varner’s offered a ride to another friend and again began to insist that she sit in the front seat.
Sometimes the problem with studying the Bible and theology is that we learn more than we want to know and it puts us on the hook. I thought of the book of Ecclesiastes and its poetic lines, “There is a time to speak, and a time to be silent.” I could make a good argument for a time of silence, not embarrassing my host. But then I heard Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a German pastor/theologian martyred because of his opposition to Hitler): “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless.” Darn poets and theologians.
I still didn’t know what it was about the front seat that was burning my backside, but I also didn’t want anyone else to get it in the ‘end’ as I had. So my better self rose to the occasion. “You might not want to sit in the front. The seat is a little damp”—my little white lie for the night.
Paul responded, “Oh, I was working on the car this afternoon and took a battery in for replacement. I didn’t think about putting it in the front seat.”
The riddle of the burning buttocks was solved. My backside was on fire because I sat in diluted battery acid on the way to dinner. It also explains why, back in Denver when we washed my clothes, my underwear disintegrated and the backside of my trousers disappeared, though my skin was (miraculously?) okay. I had just experienced my first trial by fire in Oklahoma, a passing brush with pain to prove my valor. And either my contortionist act passed their test or other candidates were seriously strange, because two weeks later, OC offered me a position. I accepted, though we delayed our move until January 1 (1999) so I could finish my dissertation.
I was invited to address graduating seniors at a lunch just prior to O.C. commencement four years later. I prefaced my remarks with the statement, “If you think O.C. has been a pain in your rear for the last four years, you have no idea what they put faculty through.” And for the first time I told the story about my interview dinner at County Line Barbecue. I know I embarrassed my (now) good friend Paul Varner, but it paid off. The next week I received a check in my faculty box for seventy-five dollars. On the subject line it read, refund for trousers and underwear. Hush money that still has not shut me up.
—to be continued—
Excerpt from a working manuscript, A Fire in My Bones: A Memoir of Life with CRPS (copyright Glenn Pemberton).
If needed: From the Washington Post and a 2010 report “The Path Forward,” a joint project of the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service.