Comparing Faculty’s Role at Public vs. Faith-Based Schools

By Denise McGill

School of Journalism & Mass Communications, University of South Carolina

I worked for 10 years as a photojournalist in newspapers and later as an overseas correspondent for a national magazine. Upon finishing a master’s degree, I taught at two small, faith-based colleges. I’m now on faculty at a Research I, publicly-funded university.

I appreciate each setting for different reasons.

I’m a product of public education. I completed K through 12, bachelors and graduate degrees at public institutions. I’m a big fan of the concept that students at every level should have access to quality, affordable education.

That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the role of private schools. Far from it. In fact, teaching at private schools helped me see the advantages there.

There are many differences, but the biggest is the core mission of the universities. By working at a school with a faith-based mission, faculty and staff assume a common interest in building spiritual lives of students.

For instance, at a public school, a course on ethics is mostly an intellectual exercise: the students read about ethics and demonstrate they understand the material. One can earn a top grade in an ethics course without being an ethical person. With my public-school upbringing, such a paradox had never occurred to me. At a faith-based school, a course on ethics is more likely to attempt to influence students’ behavior and attitudes. Whether you agree to not, I was glad I was exposed to this paradigm.

One pleasant surprise was the approach to diversity. I taught at a parochial school with a large program in American Sign Language. Over 10 percent of the students had disabilities of all kinds, and they were woven into daily campus life. I learned to teach web design through a translator. I threw a pizza party for a newspaper staff that included a quadriplegic student who was a sports writer. These experiences helped me understand some of the nuances involved in making my classes accessible to all students.

Most of the differences in the institutions are not about faith, however. The biggest differences involve the size of the schools and the funding sources. I’m sure many of our colleagues in the Small Programs Interest Group share my experiences. The emphasis is usually squarely on teaching. In my case, all faculty taught four courses per semester.

At my first teaching gig I knew a lot about photography, but not much about teaching. I benefitted from immersion in the teaching world and good mentors from the education department.

Working at a small school is a lot like working at a small newspaper. Doing it all with fewer resources is great training for a larger market. It turns out I like being a little fish in the big pond. I like challenging all students, not just students of a particular faith. I like having time to publish creative work. But the lessons of my early career have made me a better professor now.

Denise McGill has a master’s degree from Ohio University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri. She is on professional tenure track at the University of South Carolina. Current RMIG newsletter editor Greg Perreault was a student at Palm Beach Atlantic University in one of the first courses McGill ever taught. God bless him.

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