Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Research and the Regional State University

I've been thinking a lot about scholarship of late, both of the student and professorial varieties. It's that time of year when we read student portfolios for our annual writing award and where both undergraduate and graduate students have the opportunity to present their research writing. I've also been thinking a lot about my own research, with sabbatical coming ever closer and with an idea for a pedagogy type article percolating in my head for a special issue of a journal, and a lot about mentoring junior faculty in their research agendas so that they will smoothly sail through tenure and promotion.

When I think about the bigger picture of scholarship in my context - so not just my own individual projects but rather the broader scope of what we have to offer in terms of faculty and student research (so whether we're talking about the research/scholarship that we assign our students to do and to write up or the research that faculty themselves do, which then of course influences how they mentor their students) - I often find myself frustrated. Why?

Well, we're not a research university. And I accept that. But the way in which that often plays out at my institution (and I suspect at many other institutions) is that research is this unspeakable thing which is nevertheless "required." And since it is unspeakable - i.e., that professors even within the same department don't really talk about it seriously with their colleagues, that we look at research as a thing we get done in spite of the "real" demands of our jobs - research becomes something that we think of as a distraction or as something that doesn't demand a high level of achievement. Instead, we see the research "requirement" much in the way that students see "requirements" that aren't meaningful - and we just do the bare minimum to pass. Further, we pass this way of thinking about research on to our students, who see a research paper as something to be "gotten through" as opposed to something that can be personally and intellectually rewarding. We perpetuate a culture of mediocrity.

Now. I am not saying that I will ever have the potential or resources to "produce" in terms of research as I would if I worked at a research university, nor do I think that I or my colleagues should be held to such a standard of production. The reality is that we do teach a 4-4 load, and the reality is that we have a very heavy service load on top of that. And, given the mission of our institution, those things are central and very important. But. That doesn't mean that research isn't a "real" part of the job, something to be done on the weekends and "summers off" like a hobby that you enjoy, and I think that is the attitude that many take.

And, funnily enough, the thing that bugs me most is the "passing that attitude on to students" part of it, because ultimately we are not a community college or a teaching only general education courses. It is, to my mind, my obligation - regional state university or no - to be engaged in scholarly pursuits, at a level appropriate to my institution, and to communicate the value of those pursuits in a knowledgeable and realistic way to my students. I think it is irresponsible, quite frankly, to do otherwise.

But, this is the thing: not all of my colleagues agree with me about the centrality of scholarship to what we do as professors of literature at a four-year university, or about the rigorous standard to which we should hold students.

So, here are some examples.

Recently, I attended a colloquium organized by and for our MA program. Now, it's true that most of these students have absolutely no intention of becoming professors, and we serve a unique niche population that is generally employed outside higher education full-time and intends to continue on in that outside employment. (And those who intend to work in higher ed typically are not expecting tenure-track employment.) In that regard, I have no problem with our program existing, its audience, or its requirements. But I do have a problem that a student was not advised that he shouldn't present a paper in a public forum that, at its center, had a serious theoretical failure of understanding that made its entire argument fall apart. This is a paper that, if this were an undergraduate student of mine, would have earned no better than a high C. Yes, it was acceptable, in terms of prose style, in terms of citation of sources, in terms of whatever. But. Nice effort, nice try, but dude, you don't understand the central thesis of the theory that you're engaging. And that gap makes the paper a less than exemplary effort. And yes, I expect precision, or at least an attempt at precision, even from undergraduates.

Chatting with a colleague during a break in this colloquium, we were discussing teaching upper-level lit courses, which we both teach, and the theory course that is required for some of our majors, which I also have taught. What I learned from this conversation was telling.

Apparently this colleague assigns an x-minimum-page-number paper as the major project in the colleague's lit course, but students regularly come in at well below that minimum (think 5 pages below the requirement). The colleague was genuinely upset that the students were just refusing to do the work, but when I suggested that the colleague should tell students that they will receive a failing grade if they don't meet the page minimum, the colleague looked at me like I was an ogre. "But how can you do that if they submitted something? How is that fair? I think most of us who've been here a long time just give them a C when they do something like that, because what else can you do?" And I said, "um, if you really believe that the page minimum is central, then if they don't meet it than they don't fulfill the minimum requirements of the assignment. Period. You warn them in big bold print that this will happen on the assignment sheet, you warn them about it in class. And if they still do it, well, then they get an F. And let me tell you, if you do that with one section, just once, you will never have another section in which this happens. Word will get around that you really mean it, and also you can tell the tale of the course in which 1/3 of the students in olden times failed the paper for just this reason. If you just hand out Cs, Cs that won't even necessarily result in the lowering of their course grade, how will they ever learn that these requirements aren't arbitrary but rather that they are about the size of the idea and their ability to see an idea through over an extended page length?"

Let's note that I don't actually make such a statement on any of my syllabi or in my course policies. But I also devote 1-2 class periods in upper-level lit courses to writing instruction, and a further class to library instruction, so my students don't test me the same way - in fact, at least some of my students typically go over the page maximum that I set. My colleague doesn't do any writing instruction in lit courses, apparently. There is no reason why my students should listen to me when they don't listen to this senior colleague of mine. There is no reason why I should scare the crap out of them more (though I know that I do, in spite of the fact that I'm still the youngest professor, and female, in my department). If there's any reason for the fact that my students perform while this person's student's don't, it's that they know that I take them seriously, that I take their writing seriously, and that I'm not going to just pass them on through so that I don't have to deal with complaints. And yes, this requires more work of me, in the way that my colleague would frame it, and yes, it requires me to be a hard-ass, when really I'm a big ol' softy on the inside, but it also makes reading those papers that I receive infinitely more rewarding - not only for me as a teacher but for me as a thinker. And it makes those papers that I assign infinitely more rewarding for my students to write. But more on that later.

So then we moved on to discussing the theory course, which movement happened because the colleague was moaning about the fact that I'll be on sabbatical and so I can't teach it in the fall and colleague will need to do it two semesters in a row. Apparently a few of the students currently enrolled in the colleague's course had signed up for my theory course when I taught it and, because I'm a Mean and Unreasonable Lady, dropped. But so we got to talking about what we assign in that course (in terms of reading, in terms of writing, in terms of presentations), and, well, let me just describe the facts.

My class:
  • 4 or 5 (I don't remember which) 1-page (but they can be single-spaced essays in which they take a piece of theory that we've read, take a short passage from it, and use it to provide an analysis of a work of literature.
  • 1 group presentation (where they are expected to introduce the class to a theoretical debate with which the entire class is not familiar and to explain why it's important).
  • participation
  • A take-home mid-term exam in which students engage with foundational theoretical texts (so I know that they can move beyond them into things that build from them)
  • a theoretically oriented research paper that requires students to actually write a 15 page piece of literary criticism that engages not only theory but also secondary critical sources.
  • a presentation final in which they describe their research paper and link their work in it to what they learned in the course.

Colleague's class:
  • daily quizzes.
  • Midterm
  • Final
  • Two presentations (which apparently at least the current students are really screwing up).
  • There may be a paper, but I'm not sure. I feel like there is, but I'm not sure what the parameters of it are.
  • Participation.

When I described what I do in there to my colleague, all I can say is that the colleague replied, "God! But all of that is so much WORK! Why would you have them write short papers when you could just give them daily quizzes! You actually expect them to use theory in a sophisticated way in their own writing!" or something close to that.

But see, here's the thing: I have my students do that kind of work precisely because that is the kind of work that I value. Yes, it's not easy to teach. Yes, students drop my classes because I push them WAY beyond where they want to be pushed. (Like in Mean Girls, "I'm a pusher!") But I am not willing to hand out Cs like candy, and I'm not willing to pretend that this pesky research, theory, and scholarship stuff doesn't matter. It is what the discipline is, as far as I'm concerned. Because, here's the thing: it really matters to me. I care about it. I think it's valuable. I think that even students who will never go to graduate school learn a whole hell of a lot by doing it. I think that theory, critical writing, and deep thought are things that are going to serve my students whatever they do after graduation.

And so what frustrates me, about my context, is that I think a whole hell of a lot of my colleagues don't believe those same things. Hell, I think they don't even believe that theory, critical writing, and deep thought actually benefit them in their lives beyond school. Or, maybe that's too uncharitable. Maybe they just believe that our students won't be benefited by those things, because, you know, our students are working-class, first-generation college students who just need a piece of paper to get on with their lives. Although, while that's not uncharitable to my colleagues, I think that attitude is deeply uncharitable to the students whom I teach and to the value of the humanities, and English specifically, generally. (Let's note that I was one of those working-class, first-generation college students, so this may be one source of my bristling - not just my commitment to my field.)

But if anything gives me hope and solace, it is this. In the past two years running, I have been the teacher of not only the students who received the "outstanding major" award, but also the teacher of the students who received the "outstanding writing for a graduating major" award. And if I look back over my time on the tenure-track, I have many more students to add to the count in both of those categories, and it is typically my students who are eligible for those awards and nominated, even if they don't end up winning. In other words, the pushing of them? The expecting really excellent work from them? It works. It's not like they're not capable. And it's not like my colleagues don't realize the incredible quality of my students' work when they see it in front of them. They do. It's just they think those students happened by that quality magically, whereas I see that "where the magic happens" is in my classroom - not as some gift bestowed by the gods. This is not in any way to say that I am solely what produces my students' achievements. No. I think this is about their ability. I think these would be strong students whether they had me or not. But I think that the ways in which I challenge them push them beyond the levels that they would reach otherwise. And I think my belief in them, that they are capable, and I think that my belief in the value of the critical and theoretical study of literature, does push them to the next level.

Don't believe me? This year's winner of our department's award for best writing of a graduating major was a student of mine. This student resisted me all the way. This student, as far as I could tell, hated everything that I assigned (in terms of both reading and writing), hated everything upon which I insisted. In this student's portfolio this year, though, I read that this was the hardest class that the student ever took but also the one in which the student stretched the most intellectually and in which this student, an honors student, felt the most challenged. In which the student did work of which s/he was most proud. In which the student saw his/her intellectual limits. This wasn't an honors course. And while the paper wasn't the best I read in that section, it was exceptional work. And when I read it again, in the judging for the writing award, I had a junior colleague say, "this student is an undergraduate!?! This student used Very Important Theorist appropriately and correctly and clearly got it? Plus integrated secondary criticism?!?! Unbelievable!" And let's note, that theory that the student used? Not required. This was a lit course and not a theory course - I just suggested to the student that it would be interesting, and then talked to the student about it independently.

And so yes, this is the student's achievement. The student wrote it, the student did the work. The student allowed me to teach everything I could, in spite of his/her resistance. But I believed that the student could do the work, and I was willing to put the work in to get the student there. And that is because I really do believe in the value of my discipline and of scholarship in it.

And so yes, I am frustrated when this isn't what's happening across my department. Because our students are capable of so much. And while I love that it's "my" students that are winning the awards, I really wish that students I've never met had a greater chance of competing.

So I guess this is my conclusion. Yes, I'm at a teaching institution. But I am at a university - a 4-year university - in which faculty mentor students in ways that suggest that they should go on to graduate degrees and in which we claim to be "experts" in our fields (although at a lower price than students would pay if they went to an R1). If we're going to sell ourselves in that way, we've got to value research. Even if we don't do as much of it as our R1 counterparts (and even as our lower-ranked R1 counterparts),. we've got a responsibility not to pretend that research is insignificant or stupid or hard or not a part of this field. Seriously: you've got a PhD. You've got a tenure-track job at a university. Why should you think that research doesn't count? Why would you want to think that research doesn't count?


PhysioProf said...

Sounds like you are an awesome professor! What a great feeling when your students excel!

Megan said...

Bravo! This is something that is ongoing at my institution, as well. Thank you for articulating many of the ideas raging in my head during many meetings in which research (and theory) is dismissed as an interesting hobby.

Dr. Virago said...

Hear hear!

Sometimes, Crazy, I daydream about you, me, a bunch of our blog friends, and a handful of my colleagues running off and starting our own university.

A girl can dream, can't she?

heu mihi said...

Excellent post. I've been having some conversations lately about how some of our colleagues here do not seem to value intellectual inquiry for its own sake--they're intent on pushing students through the major and checking all the Gen Ed boxes, but talk them out of minors or the Honors program or anything else "extra" (why risk hurting your GPA, right?). It's a problem of institutional culture that I don't know how to address...other than by doing what you describe here. And I do think that the minimal research expectations placed upon faculty contribute to that culture: the thinking of a college education as a "job" or in highly careerist terms, rather than as a formative experience (or, to wed the ideal with the practical, a combination of the two).

Anonymous said...

Very good that research shouldn't be a hobby for weekends and summers ... I never thought so in graduate school and my main complaint about professordom is the expectation that one take it as a hobby. "It's not what you're paid for," I was told at my first job (not at a non research school, I might add).

My courses are like yours, and many colleagues' are like your colleague's, but it does mean I have to work more on course design, project design, grading.

A paradox. One colleague says the meaning of it is that many faculty do not actually like teaching or research; that is why they teach in that rote way and put research off for "vacation" time.

I haven't gotten my head around all of this YET in all of these years, because all my examples in undergraduate and graduate school had these light teaching loads and it isn't nearly so hard then to "balance" teaching and research (I think they go together and that the very idea that they are somehow 'naturally' hard to balance is indicative of a deeper problem).

life_of_a_fool said...

Ahhh yes, I have many of these frustrations as well!! Sometimes I wonder if this isn't the bigger disadvantage of being at a university like yours (and mine). Less than the prestige and the resources (though resources do matter, more or less or differently so in different fields, maybe) and the students, it's the complacency of many of the faculty. I may well be romanticizing top program departments, and I definitely know there are disadvantages there as well, but it seems less likely that the level of disengagement, tolerance for mediocrity, and low expectations would be as high.

karen said...

I'm sure this is the most annoying post ever, but I was wondering how you define "regional state university"?

Talleyrand said...

I also think this is an annoying post. It seems to me that undervaluing research is not a problem. If you can get tenure, or keep your untenured job, at an institution without having to neglect your teaching in order to fulfill stringent research requirements, lucky you I say.

Of course, stretching students intellectually is great etc. but that seems to undercut your point about doing research, not bolster it.

Dr. Crazy said...

Regional state universities (or, also often referred to as a regional comprehensive universities, or, more pejoratively "directional" universities, as many of them have a direction in their names) = Typically non-highly-selective (or just non-selective period) public universities that appeal primarily to a student population that comes from the region immediately surrounding the area. Such schools typically have 4/4 (like mine) or 3/3 teaching loads, they are often historically underfunded in comparison with other schools in the state, and they tend to have begun as teacher's colleges and have then morphed into a sort of hybrid between a research institution (they have graduate and professional programs) and an undergraduate teaching institution. Students often choose these schools based on tuition costs (which are much lower than flagship universities, typically) and proximity to home as their primary motivators, and we are the sort of school a student transfers to when they haven't done well at the state flagship or another more selective university. All of these are generalizations, and conditions vary from institution to institution. However, as a group, this is one of the sectors of higher ed that is stretched most thin in the current budget crisis because more students are choosing these schools based on cost and accessibility.

Dr. Crazy said...

Tallyrand, I would never argue that research requirements should equal or even approach that at schools designated as "research universities" at a school like mine, so we're not in disagreement there. I deeply believe in my university's teaching mission, and I think that teaching is the most important part of my job (and my colleagues' jobs). Also, I don't think more stringent research requirements are really something that would solve the attitude issue that I'm talking about in the post, whether in terms of the impact on teaching or on research.

Where I think we do disagree is about the relationship between research and teaching. I do not believe that research is the thing that takes us away from the work that we're doing in the classroom. Rather, I believe that unless we are intellectually curious and committed to research (in whatever form: whether it's research on pedagogy, service-learning related stuff, more traditional research, text books, etc.) that we can't effectively communicate the importance of intellectual curiosity and research in a meaningful way to our students. I think caring about research and being engaged with it translates into the sorts of assignments we give; I think it translates into our ability to advise our students about their potential futures. The fact is, the most engaged teachers I know at my institution *do* value scholarship and scholarly rigor. They may not be publishing books, but they are professionally engaged as scholars. Those people who treat research as a hurdle to get over before tenure and then just abandon it? They're the ones substituting quizzes for papers, multiple-choice tests for essay exams, and pre-assigned paper topics for students' own original research. They're the ones who don't meet with students individually, or who pass students through just for turning something in. I think the claim that one is a more devoted teacher if one ignores the research side of the job is an excuse and that the evidence about quality teaching doesn't support it. And further, I think it's irresponsible to have that attitude about teaching vs. research if one is teaching advanced undergraduates (whom one is mentoring toward graduate school in some cases) and graduate students (because yes, we have a graduate program). If all we were teaching were service courses in general education, I would not feel the same way at all. But we're not, and the result is that some students are being really poorly served.

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, but let me make this clear, too. I'm not saying at all that just because a person is an engaged researcher that s/he will necessarily be a superior teacher or an engaged teacher. Obviously we can think of counter-examples to that claim, too. I'm just saying that commitment to research can *enhance* one's work in the classroom - that it is not true that "the best teachers don't do research or care about it."

karen said...

Just to be clear, I didn't think your post was annoying. I thought my question was annoying. Thanks for clarifying!

Talleyrand said...

I have no trouble buying the idea that certain academic types attempt to use the claim that they are 'concentrating on their teaching' in order to excuse a lack of research productivity. I also think it is great that you are able to both be engaged with your research and teach a 4-4 load.

However, I am not convinced that an increased emphasis on research for those slackers is going to be an effective solution for bad or lacklustre teaching, which seems to be what you are advocating. Some academics are good ones who are interested in the material AND in doing a good job teaching. Some are neither. There must be similar variation at most jobs. But there is an inescapable trade-off in academia between the time you spend on research and the time you spend grading and preparing for classes, and just saying that everyone should be awesome at everything strikes me as unrealistic.

Maybe I'm just not able to appreciate how frustrating it must be for someone who does want to spend time on their research and not being encouraged to do so. I've only ever encountered admonishments for spending too little time on research. So if I reframe your complaint as being that you are being disadvantaged or unappreciated because of your research activity, then I find it more comprehensible.

PS - I also would totally fail the student who handed in a paper 5 pages too short.

Doctor Pion said...

I came over here right after reading some of the hysterical responses to a series about U of New Mexico writing prompts on rateyourstudents, so I immediately visualized you having a candy jar labeled "C grades" on your desk ... that was empty!

And since your discussion of different approaches to a particular course did not mention the new magic accreditation word OUTCOMES, I eagerly await your view of the UNM writing prompts that come complete with a detailed rubric. I can see your desired outcomes in your assignments; can your colleague say the same?

PS to Karen:
Those kinds of questions are never annoying. Part 3 of my jobs series addressed this issue from the physics perspective, but I would imagine that the statistics (2 times as many BS as MS and PhD programs, and 2 times as many CCs as BS programs) applies to many fields where people are looking for jobs.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Thank you!

I'm at a 3-4 regional MA comprehensive myself, and I often find myself in similar quandaries. I'm glad you're keeping the bar appropriately high for both your students and yourself. I'm trying to do the same in my little corner, as much as possible.