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.
- 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).
- 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.
- daily quizzes.
- 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.
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?