I keep spending time, this summer, with people who work at more prestigious institutions than LRU, and I am always interested in the differences between our attitudes toward the academy.  These matters touch on Flavia’s consideration of privilege, but as usual, I’m going to go off on my own tangent, so I’m writing here rather than chez elle.  I am also partially inspired by the Worst Professor Ever, now enjoying a new life; however, I am clearly one of the people she does not want to be.

Some of what I’m observing is institutional, structural; some has to do with personality.  I have the temperament of a Cistercian.  I’m also a scholar, rather than an intellectual.  I like to focus deeply and narrowly on my research topics, but I’m not greatly interested in the Important Questions of the Day.  I am particularly indifferent to politics, much more interested in science, and not nearly as interested in literature as you would expect an English professor to be.  And the nature of my position at LRU, and the constraints of my life, allow me to indulge these characteristics: I teach the same courses repeatedly.  My commute can be contemplative time, and it also affords an excuse for avoiding social life.  Sir John and his friends are more likely to talk about science than about literature.

A friend who teaches at a SLAC said, when we were talking about structuring requirements for an English major, “Students don’t sign up for classes, anyway; they sign up for professors.”

That was a point of view that had never occurred to me, but I quickly saw why it would seem so to him but not to me.  “Well, at a small school with students who are resident for four years, sure,” I said, “but we have a lot of transfer students, and a lot of returning students, so none of those people are plugged into campus networks that would tell them what to expect of particular professors.  And I rarely teach introductory classes, so I don’t reach an audience that way.  A lot of our students work, sometimes full-time, so they select their classes based on what will fit their work schedule.  And we have a large enough department that a person could easily complete the major without ever having the same professor twice.”

My friend boggled.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I enjoy teaching this population, and I’m glad to be doing it.  But it certainly is different from what a lot of people expect “college” to be like, whether they’re thinking about teaching or taking classes.  My friend’s experience is more in line with those traditional expectations.

Then there were the people I had dinner with, people who work at Ivies or prestigious SLACs, people with distinguished research to their names, who all insisted to each other that teaching is the most important work they do.  Do they truly believe this, or is it a sort of defense mechanism with which they protect themselves from doubts about the significance of their research, precisely because their institutions place so much emphasis on it?  They have fewer students, better-prepared students, students more interested in medieval history and literature than I get; they have graduate students who want to write dissertations and theses under their direction, rather than grad students who want to check off an MA requirement.  So they might well think about teaching differently than I do, for those reasons.

But I think there are at least a hundred people who could do what I do in the classroom, quite likely more, given the rate at which PhDs have been produced in the last decade.  Probably other people could do my research, too, but the thing is, they aren’t.  My particular projects are mine, and they are important to me.  I love them.  I love working on them.  I love figuring out the connections and finding out more about the background of these topics.  My work isn’t important in the sense that it will change the world (sequencing the human genome) or even, probably, the scholarly conversation, but it is important to me and my sense of who I am, and I think it is useful to other scholars in my field.  I did not go into academia from a love of teaching, as my dinner companions claim they did; I came into it because (Cistercian temperament) I thought being locked in the library overnight or for a weekend sounded like a rare treat.  As it turned out, I quite enjoy teaching, and I am at least decent at it, but I also find it a drain on my introvert’s emotional resources.

Again, though, is my present attitude toward both teaching and research a defense mechanism?  LRU is an R1, but it is also teaching-intensive, and recent developments are focusing ever more on teaching (in a way that makes me a little nervous).  So perhaps I deny that teaching is the most important thing I do for precisely the same reason that my dinner companions affirm it, because of insecurities.  They, having fewer students and more writing, hope that human connections matter more than producing books.  I, facing large classes in which it is hard to nurture individual connections, take refuge in writing, through which I can address those individuals who share my interests.  If I had spent my career at a SLAC, Ivy or near-Ivy, no matter my temperament, would I sound more like my dinner companions?

What is structural, and what is personality?  My present job was my first, so I don’t have any personal experience of other types of institutions.   People who do have that may have more insight than I do into the ways an institution molds a person.

19 thoughts on “Different from you and me

  1. I am a professor at one of the most prestigious private medical schools in the United States, and–while I do enjoy classroom teaching–I spend the vast majority of my time, effort, and ego investment on research. This is extremely typical for medical schools, and is surely a function both of my personal inclinations–it is not a coincidence that I ended up faculty in a medical school and not an undergraduate biology department–and structural expectations.

    Can you explain what aspect of the Cistercians you identify your temperament with? This is what it says as a high-level summary on Wikipedia: “The emphasis of Cistercian life is on manual labour and self-sufficiency, and many abbeys have traditionally supported themselves through activities such as agriculture and brewing ales.” Are you saying that you view your teaching like “supporting [yourself] through activities such as agriculture and brewing ales”, while your research is like their devotion to God?

    1. Those medieval Cistercians with which I am most familiar spent a considerable amount of time in private contemplation, with only a few services a day sung in church, as part of a choir; their manual labor was such as could be performed alone or in silence; and they spent little if any time among large groups of people who were unknown to them. I like being alone, preferably with books (private contemplation), and doing simple quiet activities like gardening and laundry (my version of manual labor). The Cistercians were and are not a teaching order.

  2. I consider my research to be important. I consider my teaching to be my public service– I get a warm glow from removing math-phobia and teaching critical thinking to people who might go out and make a real difference once they leave. I’m at an R1 where research is what gets a person tenure, but everyone in my department cares enough about teaching to not suck at it (and the culture is one of improvement with support if one starts out sucking). I would probably feel differently if I had the 300 person lecture classes that #2 on our blog has, but it is easier to feel a connection when class sizes are capped at 35 or 25 depending on the class.

  3. I thought I was totally teaching focused, but now that I have some support for research (conference money, that is) I feel a lot more interested in doing some writing again. I don’t know if I would like being at a college that had high research expectations, though. It’s great that I get to do it, but fantastic that I don’t feel like my job depends entirely on it. I suppose I would do whatever I had to do to keep my job, but to me it feels like research can be more pleasurable to me if I’m not worrying about my job being contingent upon it.

    Then again, we get zero merit pay for publishing. So maybe I’ll get to a point where I feel discouraged about research. I can justify doing research by saying its good for my teaching, but if I run low on time for research because of my teaching, then I might start to resent my university for not making research worth my time. That’s a bit of a conundrum.

  4. Thanks for this reflection. I do think that institutional type shapes personality, though it’s hard to see it (as you say) when you’re in the midst of it and haven’t taught (m)any other places. Even when I taught only a very few extremely smart kids at my graduate institution, I always thought I’d like to teach a slightly bigger range of student abilities and backgrounds, and that’s turned out to be true. I like teaching eager, but non-entitled students, and I like getting them excited about things they don’t think they’d like, and that they don’t enter with the expectation they will (or the cultural capital that tells them they should) like. I always felt that ANYONE could teach the English majors at my graduate alma mater.

    And being at a non-elite institution where my colleagues are nevertheless very active scholars and where research is rewarded has been just right for my research, too. For the first time, I’ve felt only healthy competition and a desire to do well, not a real and urgent fear of never measuring up.

    But sometimes I question whether this will always be right for who I am as a teacher and a scholar, or whether I ought to think about moving on in order to keep growing and challenging myself.

  5. Oh, and I’ll just add that at my non-elite institution students also often pick classes based on instructor. It’s not necessarily about a deep love for that particular professor, but more often about making a safe choice: they’ve had this professor once, they liked him or her fine, found his or her expectations reasonable, and because they aren’t always plugged into a network of fellow students — and don’t necessarily know what to expect from a course based on its title or even its syllabus — they’ll just stick with someone they know if it turns out s/he’s teaching another class that meets a requirement.

    1. This fits my (state R2, core curriculum) experience, too. There’s something of a “duckling effect” for students who had instructors in first-year classes, but I think the attachment is more a matter of feeling safe than outright love.

      On the other hand, there *are* definitely students who pick by time slot, to the extent that they may find themselves in my class again, even though they flunked it last time. Or maybe, since most of them simply didn’t finish, they’re hoping the assignments will be the same and they can save some time. Sometimes that works, sometimes not (especially since I teach a writing-in-the-disciplines class that comes in disciplinary “flavors,” of which I teach several — a fact which is widely explained/publicized, but which a number of our students manage to miss anyway).

      And then there are the students who send the same “I heard from one of your former students that you’re a great teacher and I’ve just *got* to be in your section; won’t you *please* force-add me?” message to a dozen instructors at once, not realizing that several groups of the recipients share offices, and all interact regularly during the week two before classes begin (or not realizing the difference between cc and bcc). That’s always amusing.

    2. I never get this, but I think it’s a combination of the way the major is structured and the fact that I rarely teach intro classes. I just don’t have any way to advertise myself before students get to my courses, and after they get a requirement taken care of by taking one of them, they’re usually done even if they liked the course. Only the really hard-core medieval-lovers come back.

  6. I am much more interested in research and writing than in teaching but my research is being done by others and few, it turns out, are as creative teachers as I, and few students at a research regional such as where I teach get taught by people so vastly well read and trained and so current as I.

    So that while I feel research is more important and fun I seem to act as though teaching were, and what I *really* like is reading other peoples’ research and discussing it. Which is what doing one’s own research is … and which is also what teaching is (I would have thought).

    I am confused by those who go on about how important teaching is to them. I think of it more as something we are of course going to do well and right, but not that we are going to say is more important than research. I think going on about the importance of teaching is some sort of weird compensatory gesture, but I am not sure for what. Especially when those who go on about its importance are then lazy about it … or as I have sometimes noted, are not even up to date in field for it, yet then go on about how good teaching is communication and so on and so forth … !

  7. Institution shaping, yes, but I am not sure which/how.

    I have public elite R1 training and that is how I identify, and those are the priorities I understand.

    I could not get used to the private school atmosphere, the fawning on parents and donors, the pampering of students, the extreme family pressure on students, and so on. Could not understand it at all, and could not grock not being a public entity. Those faculty, though, had gone to such schools and did understand, and wanted to be in what they called a “family” atmosphere (you consider the school to be your family) and to be “teaching oriented” (less research pressure, more instant and easy love from students seeking Mr. Chips types).

    So I chose a public non elite research place. I would rather be at an elite R1 for the resources — it really is a different job description, a different career not to be. But then I find I have been shaped by this, when people at fancier places mouth platitudes about work that they have not necessarily thought about, but have learned it is socially required to repeat.
    In these moments I am glad I have had to think about what it is I really think, and to have had to engage as much with the world / the community as I have had to do. I never set out to know as much about teaching as I do, but I am so much deeper and better at it since working at this place. So it shaped me into a teacher, malgré moi, yes.

  8. P.S. At expensive schools, faculty *have* to say teaching is the most important thing they do. Even if it’s an R1. If not, the parents and students will have their feelings hurt. So this is something one learns to say.

    I, on the other hand, originally learned to say I was not interested in teaching because:
    a) one was expected to emphasize that one was research oriented;
    b) women labeled as teaching oriented really did not get tenure track jobs in those days — you risked driving yourself right into the adjunct pool;
    c) I really did go into it for research and writing first, with teaching as a matter of course.

    It wasn’t that I was uninterested in teaching, it was that I would never have considered K-12 or community college teaching as alternatives, but rather other research careers as alternatives; it was also, as I have suggested, that I had been told so often that I would not get work if I came off as teaching oriented, so I was terrified of even mentioning it.

    “Teaching is #1” usually means one of these things, in addition to the times it is said and genuinely meant:
    a) the person is not interested in research, so says they like teaching;
    b) load and circumstances are such that the person must put teaching first, so they are being conscientious;
    c) it is not #1, but for PR reasons it must be said to be … and I think this last situation is more common than one realizes.

  9. hmmm fascinating question. Like Fie although I’m at a teaching institution with absolutely no reward and fairly limited (compared to more prestigious SLAC) funding for research I’ve found myself over the years more drawn to my research for the reasons D.E.H. cites, because the questions matter to me. Sometimes I get bummed out that I’m not a bigger name, invited to do more prestigious things, but then I realize that I like the balance I have between teaching (very small classes of my own design) and research (following my own interests 100% without regard to impact or potential publication possibilities)

  10. The first teaching institution I was at rewarded research as well, so it seemed like a nice balance for those who really enjoyed both. I don’t mind doign research but I really would rather be teaching. Teaching is important to me, and maybe that’s because my grad institution didn’t think teaching was important at all (and they weren’t even good with it at the grad level). I never set out to be a teacher, but I found that I’m not only good at it, but I really care about making people think about my field and seeing someone overcome speaking fears is nice, even if speech can be the more tiring class to teach. I do well in institutions that see the importance of teaching and research–even if I’m not producing research, because I see the value in both. I get immensely frustrated at the idea that one is somehow more important and people who do/prefer the other are unvaluable. Even though I’m not a researcher, I pay attention to what’s going on in my field, the trends, what my peers are researching, because I feel like bringing that information to the classroom helps my students.

    The last place I was at provided zero support for research or creative endeavors. They were really particular about what qualified as a creative endeavor for one’s field and things I was used to doing suddenly not only didn’t count but were “lesser”—so deemed by people who never studied my field. It was frustrating to say the least, and I watched others struggle with the less than supportive environment too. It was better for me to leave, and pursue the writing I really want to do.

  11. I genuinely find teaching more rewarding than research because I like people and I am inclined to invest more in my relationships with them–including or maybe especially my students–than in anything else. This is not a compensation. I am still a writer and I enjoy writing as a means to communicate with people. I have a lot of energy for that sort of thing. I have a hard time returning to the kind of work I did in my dissertation, which was of limited interest to anybody but a tiny handful of highly critical and unpleasant people.

    And that might be it right there. If I felt like I was part of a wider community of scholars in my field who were interested in similar questions or material who also valued my voice and my approach–I mean even a little bit, enough to let me have three inches of space–I might feel differently. But for me, academic research has meant pursuing questions I don’t care much about in ways I find dull because that’s what people think is a valid way to do it. I’m much happier writing for more general audiences without those restrictions. I might be more intellectual than scholar.

    But in any case, both my teaching and my writing go back to connections I’m able to make with people. And I find people much more interesting than ideas.

  12. I describe my institution as a regional comprehensive that’s got ambitions. Descriptions are schizophrenic: we’re all about small classes (hah!) and personal attention while at the same time we’re told to pursue grants and publish more.

    For over ten years, my working hours were consumed by teaching and service with only a scant amount of time, energy and focus remaining for research and writing. That has changed a lot in the last five years, due to many factors which include institutional pressures to publish more. Getting involved in online writing groups has been enormously helpful as I struggle to reintegrate myself as a working scholar. But then I struggle with the low prestige that comes with my pop culture projects: if I’m going to put so much time and energy into something, I want it to “count” with all of my colleagues and, sadly, it doesn’t always.

    Teaching remains a big part of my work and my identity. I teach a LOT: many students, many courses. I’m attempting to link my teaching and research somewhat. Currently, there’s precious little that I teach which has more than a passing relation to my research interests and that includes my graduate teaching. I love to teach these other topics, though: puzzling out ways to help students build their competencies and understanding of material? It’s magic. But I’m trying to ration the energy and time I put into teaching while I wrap up the next pop culture book and turn back to more “acceptable” scholarly research.

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