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Feb 22, 2013

Scholarship at a teaching college

Institutions like RIC face a dilemma. On one hand, we are a teaching college. Despite a few kinks, the culture of quality teaching and advising is extremely strong here. The absolute majority of faculty members take teaching very seriously; they spend enormous time and effort on getting better at it. They expect and demand much from each other. Our graduates would recommend RIC to their family and friends at the rate of 3.35 out of 4 (3 is agree, 4 –strongly agree). On the other hand, the institution needs a mechanism to ensure that faculty keep current in their academic fields. The only known way to do it is to check if they write and publish; preferably in peer-reviewed journals. The institution is interested in your writing only as much as it makes you stay relevant. It is especially important in graduate education: one has a very hard looking credible without a record of original scholarship.

With teaching, there is a powerful structure and incentive; your classes are scheduled, you have to show up, and look competent to your students. With scholarship, there is no schedule; it is entirely self-paced and self-motivated. When the time is precious, it is very easy to put it off for another day or a week, or a month – until after I am done with my SPA report, after I am done with grading, after I revise that course, etc. Just like with exercise or any other discipline, rewards are distant, and sacrifice is immediate. It is also ethically complicated, because teaching, advising, and most service make visible impact on lives of real people. Publishing may feel abstract, remote and not that consequential. Google tells me all my writings in both languages over quarter of century were cited 425 times. For comparison, Eric Hanushek’s scholarly writings were cited 30,462 times. Let’s admit it, most of us aren’t influential scholars. Even this very obscure blog had 64,822 page views since 2006. Give me just one motivating reason to keep writing scholarly papers and books.

Organizational needs often conflict with people’s life circumstances, psychology, and interests. Organizations and people adapt and accommodate. For example, RIC/AFT Agreement allows for a great variety of evidence of professional competence. While peer-reviewed publications are still the gold standards, it is reasonable to expect faculty integrating their teaching, service, and scholarship in many different ways. Publications for practitioners, certain forms of grant writing, service to professional communities – all these count. More can be done if we listen to some of the behavioral economic advice; see for example the Nudge blog and book. They basically say that small tweaking of rules and incentives can sometimes produce significant changes in people’s behavior. It happens when we consider the actual circumstances in which people live and work, and are not trying to change them. Here are some possible ideas:
  • Syllabus, a peer-reviewed journal that publishes good course syllabi. Oh, wait, this has been done already :)
  • “What I am working on” web page. It makes one’s work more public and less isolated. 
  • Encourage/incentivize writing groups among faculty. Even a small nudge here could make writing more fun, more engaged, and more visible. 
  • Encourage class projects that result in publications. In general, co-writing with students may feel like great service to them, and allows one to stay current. 
  • More specific tracking and accountability (to include publications) after new faculty reassigned time, AFT research reassigned time, and sabbatical leave. 
  • Serving as a reviewer for scholarly journals can be a great way to continue reading current research, because it does have deadlines, and expectations of quality. We should learn value and acknowledge it more as a form of real scholarship. 
And finally, I wonder if we can shorten the logical chain: Reading new literature->writing one’s own papers->using new knowledge in teaching. The middle link is there only because we could not figure out another way to prove that one is keeping up with one’s field. What if instead of publishing a paper, one would curate an on-line resource that reflects the new development in one’s field, for example with, or with a libguide – something that our Adams Library encourages people to do anyway. I know this sounds risky and won’t work for all academic fields, but still, why not rethink the whole problem within the new informational world we live in now? The trick is to figure out an equivalent of peer review – the only known way of controlling for quality of scholarship. But curating in general emerges as more and more important knowledge activity. I would rather read a well-curated secondary source than a mediocre piece of original writing. 

1 comment:

  1. I really believe this is how we can motivate ourselves and each other -- we won't get good writing/research done if we spend all of our time fretting and stressing and worrying about the time we lack to do it all. We can't hate ourselves into productivity. But when scholarship is fully integrated into the work we already do, and pushes us toward better work, we can be teacher-scholar (and model that practice for our students as well). Great post.