Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Professing as a Profession, or Musings on a Reader's Question

Last week, when I was feeling like I didn't know what to write, Derrick gave me a topic. He asked:

Well, I have a question. If you could just teach, with all that would be involved in you making your classes what you would want them to be, would you give up the research/writing side? Or is that you need that side in order to teach?

I ask because I am approaching a career transition. One option at the CC level is to simply teach (no publishing required) and that seems attractive to me.

I took a while to take up the subject of this post because I don't want really for this to be just a post about my personal inclinations.

That said, let's get my personal inclinations out of the way. Had I wanted only to teach I never would have spent all of my 20s getting a Ph.D. that in no way guaranteed me employment. I would have gotten certified to teach high school. Pursuing a Ph.D. in English - given the constraints of the market and the demands of most tenure-track positions - is not something that someone without (at least a small amount of) passion for research should pursue. Period. Those are years of your life that you will never get back. Do something else that takes less time if you don't like the research side of things.

But now let's move on to the bigger picture. At the heart of Derrick's question, it seems to me, is a deeper question about what we think the role of college professors is/should be - a role that is of course dependent upon institutional context, but which cuts across different institutional contexts as well - and also a deeper question about what it means to do this job as a job - not as a calling, but as a profession. What are the conditions of our labor? What do we wish were the conditions of our labor? And how are our ideas about these things influenced by past experiences (graduate school), present desires/demands (one's current job/location/personal life stuff), and future prospects (career advancement/potential changes in one's personal life)?

To begin at the beginning, I think that one of the primary things that distinguishes a college professor (whether at a community college, a regional comprehensive university, a small liberal arts college, or a research university) is the combination of working as a teacher and working as a scholar. Notice: I say working as a scholar and not publishing articles, which to my mind is not necessarily identical to scholarship. What I would call scholarship could include any of the following: presenting or attending conferences in one's field - even if they are small or local, doing one's own individual research to put together a talk for presentation locally to members of the community or at one's own university, keeping up with the scholarship done by others in one's field, publishing or presenting on teaching in one's particular field, publishing a textbook, and - of course - publishing scholarly articles or books in one's field. I'd say that the relative weight given to each of these activities - and the amount of time spent doing such activities - should be bound to institutional context. That said, if a faculty member has absolutely none of these activities ongoing, I would argue that they do a disservice not only to themselves as professionals but to the students that they teach. I think that in order to teach at an advanced level - i.e., beyond K-12 - that some sort of scholarly engagement with one's discipline is crucial. Thus, if one wants to think of oneself as "just a teacher," I would argue that perhaps a higher education setting may not be ideal - for the teacher or for the students.

But, see, this is all bound to what I think it means to be a college professor. I think that as a professor - in whatever the context - that one should fill a certain kind of a role as an intellectual, and to me, people who are not engaged in any form of scholarship or intellectual inquiry - even in the reading of what others are talking about related to their fields - are guilty of being anti-intellectual, and that's not who I think should be responsible for educating people to go out into the world. That said, I think that it's ridiculous to limit our idea of what constitutes scholarship to publication in a list of approved journals or to the publication of a book by a university press, as when we do so, I believe it does have a negative impact on the work that one does in the classroom. Yes, I have been pretty active in traditional forms of scholarship in my 3 years on the tenure-track at a regional comprehensive university. Now, the main reason for this is that I am not one of those people who is motivated to keep up with what is happening in my field if I'm not participating in the conversation (i.e., I do not read journal articles in my free time just to know what is happening, and yes, I know that makes me kind of a slack professor, but unless I'm working on a presentation or an article I'm not keeping up with my field, and thus, I'm an active presenter/publisher). I do not believe that scholarship has to look for everyone like it does on my cv. And, perhaps this is more important, nor do I think it should. We need different kinds of scholarly engagement from different people in an institution to give students a range of experiences in the classroom and models for intellectual inquiry. The "publish or perish" model - particularly outside of a R1 context - seems to limit the possibilities for scholarship and teaching to influence one another.

But still, this is, after all, a job. And I don't want to make it seem as if, when I talk about scholarship above, I am mystifying the fact that in becoming a professor one is, after all working at a job. Of course we don't get to pick and choose what all research we do, or what kinds of research "count" for us according to our administrations - just as we don't necessarily get to pick and choose the courses that we teach or the service "opportunities" that are dumped in our laps. Because the reality is, this is not a choice between total opposites. All jobs are going to have downsides - or things that make one's job difficult. Research requirements can be one of those things, but I think to characterize the way that one looks at research as either a-miserable-and-impossible-to-achieve-task or as one's "calling" is too simplistic. Just as it's too simplistic to characterize teaching as either "what I have to do in order to do research" or as being one's "calling." There is a vast area in between the poles, and that's where most of us really live.

And so, I think the reality is that at most 4-year institutions, some kind of scholarly engagement is required, some service is required, and some teaching is required. The ways in which those are defined and the relative weight of each depend on the institution, but this is how the job of college professor has conventionally been understood. I think that it is dangerous not to understand the job through these three categories particularly at non-elite, non-research institutions, because with the corporatization of higher ed, it would be much easier for administrators to have one or two "researchers" per department, to throw resources at them, and to burden everybody else with teaching and running the university - making for a burnt out, intellectually depleted, unmotivated faculty. Why would administrators want to do this? Because it's the next step in streamlining the business model of the university. First comes contingent labor in the form of adjuncts and non-tenure-track faculty, and then comes different classes of citizens within the professoriate, which would make budgets for travel smaller, profits from courses offered bigger, etc. In other words, I would never consider working at an institution that did not value and encourage my work as a scholar, first because that part of what I do is important and satisfying to me personally but second because I do not want to work in an institutional context that sees what I do as only about supply and demand, profit and loss.

That said, I think that the choices that we make about what conditions we'd most like to work under have as much as anything to do with where we are in our lives and what experiences have shaped us as professors and as professionals. At my current institution, teaching comes first, and research and service are secondary. Right now, I'm over-performing in terms of research for what my institution demands, but I can see where, if I ever have sex again and if I ever got pregnant, I would like to be at the sort of institution where I could cut back and not worry about losing my job. Similarly, one of the reasons I'm probably over-performing right now is because I was acculturated in my Fancy Grad Program to believe that one had constantly to over-perform in order to be regarded as a human being. In other words, my response to the current situation of my job has everything to do with how I was brought up into the profession. All of these things are specific to the individual, and they change over time and with the changes in one's life. Just like real people in the world, we will make decisions in our careers based on what we need in other parts of our lives, right? And it's important to keep that in mind, but I also think that it's important to characterize these choices and decisions as having a broader impact on what we believe this profession is and what we'd like it to become.


Derrick said...

I thought you missed that little comment...LOL...Thank you for the response!

I am late in the game, hitting 48 in two weeks and hoping it doesn't hit back too hard. But I find that my motive for doing admin work is money and stability. It is not a passion and I guess I am not ready to give passion up just yet.

Ideally, I would teach as a Philosophy/Religion instructor/professor. I have passion for that and it would pay the bills. In fact, I draw energy from it.

You put an arrow through the target on your connection between teaching and scholarship for me. I can't see teaching without reading and wondering and quilting together a perspective.

But the real nugget of gold is your distinction between scholarship/research and publishing. I did not make that distinction. My faculty colleagues at this institution do not do scholarship. I know that sounds harsh but it is the reality. Maybe that is OK in some fields but it takes the life out of the humanities. Students suffer. Learning suffers.

I did a three year run at a Th.D. that imploded during a divorce. I don't want to make another run. You put in place a better option and fleshed it out enough that I can see it as a rewarding path.

There is much more to what you wrote and I will need time to digest it. Thank you, again, for your perspective.

Deb said...

Hi. De-lurking to say: what a great post (as always).

As a cc person myself, I especially like your idea of "working as a scholar." Publishing isn't technically required in my job, though it's one of the ways we can move up in rank at my institution. But "working as a scholar" (presenting at/attending conferences, keeping up with the field, and doing other activities you describe) *is* an expectation of the job. And I'm glad that it is, for all the reasons you mention.

Thanks for articulating this conception of scholarshiop so well!

Cats & Dogma said...

In the writing program I left last year, we had a lot of uphill work to do to prove that scholarship about the teaching of writing was not the only scholarship that brought value to the (theme based, cultural studies) writing classes we were teaching. You have articulated here two pieces that I believe are both crucial, and largely ignored.

One: That scholarship is integral to higher education teaching--those two activities are not mutually exclusive. I would add that in best case scenarios, teaching can inform research, at least if the faculty is trying to tackle new things in the classroom. When the relationship between teaching and research goes both ways, the whole scholar is enriched as are the students.

Two: That scholarship isn't all or nothing...sometimes the widest public for a bit of schlarship is the classroom, but if it's in conversation with other voices in the field, it's scholarship--it just doesn't get the institution the same cred, which is one of the primary reasons for the publich or perish model of scholarship.

Thanks for yet another thoughtful post about this profession.

Jason said...

This is really terrific.

To ratchet in somewhat specifically on the cc question, it is useful to think concretely about the fact that, to a first approximation, you will never teach an upper-division class. You will never have majors. Put another way, all your classes will be gen ed.

These aren't good/bad in themselves, and obviously at many 4-yr schools some professors only teach gen ed, for all sorts of reasons.

But it does put a sharp edge on the scholarship/teaching relationship: For many of your students, you simply *are* your discipline. That can be powerfully rewarding/terrifying. Etc.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for the comments, everybody. I'm not sure what to add - this was a big long post as it was :) Keep the comments coming, if anybody else has them...

Dean Dad said...

I liked the distinction between scholarship and publishing, and definitely agree that faculty work is, first of all, work. It's a job, and it's useful to remember that.

I have to take issue, though, with your characterization of what administrators want. It's a common mental shortcut to assume that results reflect intentions, but sometimes they don't.

From my (admittedly provincial) perspective, administrators try to balance conflicting goals. Efficiency is one of those goals, but not the only one; maintaining and improving quality, student success/retention, faculty morale, reputation of the institution, etc, all count, too.

Some of us are better at that (or just more aware of it) than others, admittedly, and I'm not about to defend every decision every dean has ever made. But to suggest that we somehow personally desire "streamlining the business model of the university" as a goal in itself strikes me as unhelpful. (It also gets the 'business model' wrong; every business I know pays at least some attention to quality control.)

One of my ongoing battles at my cc has been to maintain the level of full-time faculty as people retire. With health insurance rising 10-15 percent a year, it's hard to find the money to do that, but it's necessary to maintain the reputation of the college. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose, but it's not like I get a kickback every time we convert a line to adjuncts. It's just not the case.

Sorry if that seems whiny. I just don't think it's helpful to ascribe real structural dilemmas to personal intentions.

Derrick said...

Just a couple of points for clarification:

1. I am grateful for the CC feedback from Deb, Jason, and Dean Dad.
2. I apologize if I implied CC teaching is not about being a working scholar.
3. It's good to know the working scholar model is out there and alive in the CC world.

All of this is to say that, while I do have serious concerns regarding my own little world, I meant no disrespect to my CC colleagues at large.

But it does bring a serious question into relief: "What is the function of scholarship in the Community College?"

I guess that is for another blog, eh?

Dr. Crazy said...

Hi all,
Dean Dad: I don't think that you sound whiny at all. I'm actually composing a post to respond to your comment, though, as I think this is a good discussion to get out into the open and not to leave buried in comments.

Everybody else: Yes, I'm glad that the CC perspective has been represented in these comments, too!