Friday, January 26, 2007

Research at a Teaching Institution

Last night I did this post about research, and then this morning, when I woke up, I decided to take it down. I rarely do that - even when I probably should - just because I feel like, what the hell, that was what I wanted to write at the time and I've got to own whatever it is that I wrote, even if I feel like I don't like it now. But I chose to take that post down because I felt like it was weirdly apologetic and yet also disingenuously modest and yet also not really true. And also really long-winded and without a point.

But so throughout today I've been thinking that I wanted to do a post that actually does talk about research in a real way, and specifically about my experience as a person who does research at the kind of institution at which I teach.

First, I should say that since I realized I enjoyed teaching and that I had a talent for it, teaching and research have never been in competition for me. For me, each contributes positively to the other, and that's not just a schtick I've worked up for cover letters and performance review purposes. I really do believe that I'm stronger as a researcher when I'm devoted to my teaching and that I'm stronger as a teacher when I'm devoted to my research. That's just the way I roll.

I know that not everyone has that experience - some feel like teaching takes them away from their research and still others resent the demands that research makes upon them that stop them from focusing on what they do in the classroom. I don't fall into either of those camps, not really. Sure, I resent having to teach writing as much as I have to teach writing. Part of that is because I don't really believe it's where I'm strongest as a teacher, and I get frustrated when I feel like I'm spinning my wheels, spending great amounts of time on something that I'm not really very good at and not likely to get better at doing. I often feel in the writing classroom that I've got to lower my expectations for what I can achieve with my students, whether for my own sanity or whether to accommodate the students themselves, and I really hate feeling that. But this has a lot to do with the unique configuration of writing requirements at my institution. I'm not sure that I would feel the same about this part of my job in another context, and how I feel about this part of my job does not extend to a feeling about teaching generally.

But I didn't get into this gig to be "just" a teacher. If I had wanted to be "just" a teacher, I would have gotten secondary certification and taught high school. The attraction for me to being a professor - not "just" a teacher - was really deeply connected to my love of research. Now, I'm not the best researcher in the world. I'm not setting the world on fire, and I really don't think I'm that wildly productive. I pursue questions that are interesting to me, and I do so in a methodical way, and then things happen because of that. I don't say no to opportunities that cross my path. But I don't devote time each day (or even each week) to research, and I don't spend my summers writing like a maniac. If I've got a particular project, with a deadline, I do the research stuff. I devise projects because I'm interested in thinking about certain things - if I didn't have an idea that I wanted to pursue, I probably wouldn't have projects just to have them or because I felt obligated to do so, particularly in my current job. It's just not necessary to do that here.

But since it's not necessary to do research (beyond one article and attending some conferences) at my institution, that leads to some questions. One question that many people ask me (astonished) is how I've managed to be active in my research given the things that ARE required at my job (MUCH service, MUCH teaching). Another question is why I do it, given the fact that the deck is in some ways stacked against me.

But so first. How have I "managed"? I think part of it comes down to personality. I think I'm actually more likely to do research when I've got to squeeze it into limited blocks of time. I feel less pressured about it (which may seem contradictory, but for me that's because I don't feel like I've got to do something "good" but rather that I've just got to get the task completed, which is kind of liberating) and I don't get bogged down in minutiae as much. I also think I've been very good at being efficient with the projects that I take on, so that I'm not doing three radically different projects at once that are also radically different from anything I teach but rather that all of my various projects are intertwined, so reading one article "counts" for like 4 different things. Finally, I've managed because I've made it a priority to do so. I care about research, and I feel like I'm losing something if I don't do it. Some people feel that as well, but because they are so overwhelmed they just come to resent their job or to give up on trying. My response is rather to make sure that I find a way to keep this part of my intellectual and professorial life alive, whatever else I'm doing.

So yes, maybe I'm uniquely suited to being doing research while working at an institution at which research isn't terribly important. And maybe I've developed habits that contribute to my success with keeping active in research. BUT - and this is a big but - it's not all down to me. Most of the time, things end up falling into my lap. I don't have some big agenda that I devise strategically about what I will produce in a given year, and really the only research goal I've ever had is to get my damned manuscript into shape and get it published as a book. Otherwise? I'm pretty relaxed in my "plans" (if you can call them that). I think that's probably a good thing, as it means I don't beat myself up when something falls through or when something doesn't happen. Since it wasn't a goal, it's not a failure. Also, I've been lucky to have really great mentors who've sent projects my way, and I've been lucky to fall into working on something that seems to be becoming kind of "hot." (Well, not hot-hot, but not cooling off, if that makes sense.) And I got really good advice about how to market the work that I do, and so I have been steadily developing a higher profile in a very specific subspecialty.

As for why I continue, well, I really resent being told that the research I'm doing isn't important. I know that's not what my colleagues mean when they tell me that I can cut back, but that's the message that I get. I really believe in what I'm working on, even if it's not that important to most people. I really like the idea that something that I could write might make somebody read a text in a different way. And, hell, I just like to write. I enjoy it. But there is also this: I think that I need to do this kind of work in order to be content in the other kinds of work that my job requires. And no, I'm not at some fancy research institution, so I shouldn't have to do as much research as somebody there might (and I don't) and I don't actually aim to be at that kind of institution. What matters to me, though, is that people respect my intellectual life. When colleagues say to me that I should cut back on research, it feels like just another version of some members of my family deriding me for not getting a "practical" degree. Maybe what I'm doing isn't essential to anybody but me, but that doesn't mean that it isn't important.

So the battle, at an institution like mine, is a battle to keep one's intellectual life even when that's not what is most essential to the running of the institution. I imagine the opposite is true for people at research universities - that they must battle to keep teaching a priority. And it's not impossible, but it is challenging - and at least in my experience, the greatest challenge is not in carving out time to do that but rather in carving out the mental and emotional space to do it.

The likelihood is that more people teach in institutions like mine than in institutions like the one where I got my PhD. And getting a PhD at that kind of institution does not prepare you for the challenges of doing research at this kind of place. Sure, they warn you about needing to say no to things and about carving out time for your research, but they don't warn you that you'll also need to find a way to believe in how important your research is when those around you don't really care one way or another. They, I think, probably don't know to warn you about that because it's incomprehensible to them that other people with PhDs would have that kind of an attitude. So, my time on the tenure-track has been an education, in that regard. And if I stay here, I need to gear up for continuing to fight this fight, because I really do think that it's important. And if I go? Well, I'll cross that bridge when (or if) I come to it.


thelogicoftheuniverse said...

Maybe this is idealism, but I hope to believe that good research opportunities come to you because you do go work. I think you are selling yourself short. Best of luck with whatever you do.

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, thelogicoftheuniverse (and what an unweildy moniker that is!), you are very sweet. I don't mean to sell myself short here, and I appreciate your comment. I do think that I do good work, but I suppose my point, though, is that however good the work that I _can_ do is, if I didn't have certain habits, it wouldn't matter, because I wouldn't be able to do good work if those habits weren't in place, if that makes any sense. So much of productivity is about having the conditions one needs to be productive - for me, that means having a lot on my plate and feeling free to experiment. I've got to say, I've got more of that in this job than I did in grad school, and I think the work is better for it (and others seem to agree). I really didn't mean for this to be a selling-myself-short post (and if you missed the last one, let me tell you - that one was exactly that), but the longer I do this, the more I think that the quality of the work has very little to do with "success." I think "success" has a lot of variables that go beyond merit (although merit, I like to think, is necessary in order for those variables to come into play). Anyway, thanks. I know that I fall into the trap of explaining away my accomplishments because of the randomness of success, and it's nice to hear that somebody still thinks success comes from the quality of the work. (God, I'm such a pessimist!)

luolin said...

Both the post you took down and this one have made me think a bit about my own relationship to research. In a grass-is-always-greener way, I think there is a certain freedom in a lack of emphasis on research, because I sometimes find myself resenting the expectations at my institution, even when the official requirements are more or less what I want to be doing anyway. That said, I teach 3-3, and I think it takes a lot dedication and amazing work habits to get the amount of work done that you do while teaching 4-4 (especially with the comp. classes).

I interpreted thelogicoftheuniverse's comment to mean that you wouldn't get the invitations from mentors and editors if they weren't impressed by what they'd seen as your work. (maybe because I read "go work" as "good work")

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

One of the tricks I use on occasion is to tell myself that the time I spend teaching is time for their brains and the time I spend on my own work is time I'm working on my brain.

I then look at the time I use to work on their brains and make it as efficient as possible.... but, when it is over, it is over and I stop working. This is often hard to accomplish and sometimes I have to trick myself and do stuff right before class so it doesn't take over the time I've reserved for my own brain.

MommyProf said...

Similar attitude in my dept. at PrettyGood. I feel your pain.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I get the same feeling of colleagues not valuing my contribution when telling me not to focus on teaching at a research institution. I also think you are right on money when you say in your comment above that "...much of the productivity is about having the conditions one needs to be productive". This is something I have been thinking a lot about lately and one of my big obstacles to being productive (besides a heavy administration load) is the lack of possibility to work from home - and by that I mean the lack of the freedom and creativity that comes from being able to escape from the endless nitty gritty associated with coming into the office every day.

Terri Porter said...

As someone who's followed your job search, I'm wondering if you've gotten an offer yet for next year, or if you have plans to go on the market again in September.

And I promise I don't work in your department. LOL.


Manorama said...

This was very interesting to read, and a helpful experience to consider for someone who's soon to go on the market. There are so many things that crop up that graduate students simply don't anticipate (or as you said, graduate students aren't warned about them). It was also nice to hear how you are handling the situation based on your own unique strengths and interests. I liked learning about how you think about your research (and I enjoyed the post you took down for similar reasons).

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for the comments, everybody. And for those of you who read the first version of this, well, I'm glad you got something out of it, even if I thought it was lame :)

To Terri Porter and others who are wondering: I've got no offer as of yet, thought I'm hopeful that I may be able to secure one. The crazy thing is that I don't know what I'll do if that happens. Sometimes I think I'll take it in a heartbeat - other times I think that I'm not really sure. I suppose I'm not really letting myself think that far ahead - we'll wee what happens. I expect I'll have some news to report, one way or another, in March.

If I don't get an offer, what will I do next year? Well, I'm not sure. If there's something great I'm sure I'll apply, but part of this whole search this year was about me wanting to be settled. I'm thinking if there's nothing great, I may just decide to stick it out here - to commit myself to making more of a life here and to see what comes of that. Whatever happens, I'm glad I went on the market this year, though. I really learned a lot about myself from it, and I really learned a lot about my value in the marketplace, and that was a good thing. I also learned what I'm not really interested in from this experience, and as much as this post is about my desire to do research, I learned that I don't really want to be at an R1. That was a good thing.

Dr. Crazy said...

er, we'll SEE what happens. Damn. I have a few glasses of wine and I'm slurring my typing :)

Anonymous said...

It sounds like the heavy teaching/service load was good for you at that particular point in your career - transition from "grad student" to "researcher" - in that it took some of the Fancy Grad School research pressure off so that you could really develop your interests. That is, since research was something you had to make an effort to carve out time for, and wasn't being watched by your department so much, you were able to make of it what you really wanted and not what was being demanded of you in terms of productivity.

But, now that you've developed those interests and are turning them into publications/etc., you're moving into a time where the previous situation isn't ideal anymore - not that you need to be at an R1, but at this point in your researcher life you need to somewhere where it is a focus again.

So, there's my close reading of your life ;) I've been getting a lot out of these posts because I'm also in a "yearning for some kind of transition" place right now.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post! I'm writing my dissertation now, and have always thought that I would like a job like it sounds like you have -- with a lot of teaching, but also opportunities to do research. I agree that for me, my teaching and research are totally intertwined and feed off each other. When I was in the field recently I so often thought about how I would like to tell something to my students. Anyway, I appreciate knowing there are other people who want the teaching/research combo, and I also will ponder the idea that at a teaching institution, my research may not be valued so much. I had not taken that into consideration before.