Being a Researcher at a Liberal Arts College

25Apr08

One of the things I’ve found myself doing more and more lately is talking to junior faculty and new PhDs about the job market and career options. I enjoy such conversations, mostly because it allows me to vicariously experience the exciting possibilities tied to starting a career, with none of the attached uncertainties and risks! I also like to highlight how rewarding and exciting a career at a liberal arts college like Middlebury can be, explaining why my own move within the tenure track from an up-and-coming R1 institution with an emerging PhD program, to Middlebury was not a step-down.

This article by Kristen Ghodsee from the Chronicle does a nice job of exploring many of the opportunities and possibilities of being an active researcher at a liberal arts college, focusing on Bowdoin. One point she mentions but needs much more emphasis is that the picture she paints is exclusive to only the most exclusive schools – Middlebury is in the top tier along with Bowdoin and the other colleges she mentions, yet we lack a number of the benefits she cites. I know people at second-tier liberal arts colleges whose experiences more closely mimic the myth of liberal arts colleges as “academic death” that her article debunks. (However, I’m not sure that being at a lower-tier university would be any better either, based on the reports from friends at such institutions.) So if you’re on the job market, be sure to judge an institution by its explicit terms and features, not its reputation or place in rankings.

As another newly tenured liberal arts professor, I want to add a few points that Ghodsee doesn’t mention or give enough emphasis, with the caveat that these apply to my own experiences at Middlebury, certainly not to all liberal arts colleges – read more below the fold.

Liberal arts colleges can have schedules amenable to research. Many people I know at state universities need to teach over the summer to supplement mediocre salaries or to fulfill unspoken departmental obligations. At Middlebury, there’s no opportunity for summer teaching (at least in my discipline) and no financial need, making the summer a research-centered block of time.

Additionally many liberal arts colleges have unusual scheduling systems like Middlebury’s Winter Term, where students take a single course or project for the entire month of January. At Middlebury, most faculty teach Winter Term every other year – the years you’re on, it’s a brutal marathon, but when you’re off, you have 2 straight months out of the classroom, almost a mini-summer (without the distractions of sunshine and family vacations). At Middlebury at least, this doesn’t translate into a longer academic year, as semesters are 12 weeks long, making the entire year a standard 28 weeks. Very reasonable and amenable to concentrated research opportunities.

Advising graduate students is not all that its cracked up to be. Many faculty at top research institutions point to the close mentorship of grad students as hugely rewarding, the prize of self-regeneration that is bestowed upon a successful academic. But for every fabulous budding scholar that reinvigorates her advisor, there are more problematic cases of writers’ block, laziness, or otherwise unrealized promise. And add in the frustration of investing years into someone’s growth only to end up underemployed or disenchanted by the academic system, and the departmental politics often involved in advising, and the sheer time that advising a dissertation can take that’s not counted in the on-paper teaching loads, and so on. I think unless you’re leading a small, highly selective graduate program without internal strife and a perfect placement record – or really wanted to be a therapist instead of a professor – the joys of graduate mentorship are typically offset by its discontents.

And there are still great opportunities for mentoring at a place like Middlebury. I’ve worked with brilliant undergrads to write excellent theses and point them on a path toward further study. I’d like to think that my mentoring will be more significant in the long-term for more students that I would have in a graduate program, but even if it’s not quantitatively more valued, I take pride in those students who clearly made choices inspired by our collaborations. And I love receiving the random emails from old students who stumble across my name and are moved to say that they still occasionally think about something they learned in my class – while that might happen at large universities, at least at Middlebury I also have a good chance of remembering them as well.

The junior/senior faculty splits are not as pronounced. Obviously this differs by institution, but I’ve found that the phenomenon of dumping the crap work on junior faculty is less common at liberal arts colleges than universities. As the Ghodsee article mentions, “service teaching” is less common at smaller schools with more flexible curricula, and I’ve found that the load or this type of work is fairly balanced within a program. While the general service expectations at a school like Middlebury are higher than universities, we do a pretty good job insulating junior faculty from onerous committee work. I’ve done more service in my four months since tenure than my four years here pre-tenure!

And at Middlebury, governance is not tied to seniority that much – most departments treat their untenured colleagues as equal voices in decisions (aside from the tenure process, of course), and all faculty have equal votes in faculty elections and meetings, whether tenured, tenure-track, or term-appointed. From what I hear at some universities, senior faculty often treat juniors like their employees, inferiors, lackeys, or producers of raw materials to poach, rather than equals at different stages in a career. Obviously there are exceptions at every institution, but the vast majority of faculty here treat others respectfully regardless of rank, and it’s much common to try to protect the untenured rather than piling it on.

Lower key academic politics. Again, experiences vary by institution and discipline, but graduate programs tend to be invested in battling as a way of life – fights over theories, over resources, over titles, over students, over parking. At a liberal arts college, the stakes are lower (I guess parking squabbles are a universal), as we all know that what our department does will not “shape the field” in any meaningful way. Plus we all must be generalists to enough of a degree that we have to accept some plurality of approach and topic in the classroom, and hopefully that extends in attitudes toward other people’s research. Since most people at such colleges are the only ones who work in their particular field, there’s little of the intellectual infighting that I’ve witnessed in larger departments – I’m the only person here who does media studies, and my colleagues are content to let me do whatever I want to do in that field.

Even when fights get nasty – and a few years ago, one of my departments was involved in the nastiest academic battle anyone at Middlebury can remember – most people try to insulate the junior faculty members from the battlefield. We’re all in such a small community and ultimately there are few rewards and prizes to be gained from “winning” such battles, so usually civility and respect trumps drama and discord in the end. Usually.

Potential for more experimentation. Obviously experimenting in the classroom is encouraged and rewarded at schools like Middlebury, but I think research that follows atypical paths can find more fertile ground here. Because ultimately nobody else at a college this size keeps up in my field, I am able to chart my own path and define my research and publication trajectory, not needing to mirror someone else’s choice in presses, journals, or the like. In my tenure review, my external reviewers praised my work in non-traditional publication venues, like blogging and online journals, and there was (seemingly) no resistance to that internally (or at least none that mattered in the final decision). Things might have been different if I hadn’t also published a book and refereed print journal articles, but the personal scale at small colleges provides much more opportunity for a candidate to self-define their own research and for the administration to treat each case as unique, rather than measuring everyone with identical scales of quantity and rigid tiers of presses and journals.

More honesty about what we do. In the end, the thing that matters the most for me is that I feel that my institution’s expectations for what I do match my own priorities of how I want to spend my time. One of my greatest pet peeves is when faculty refer to their research as “my work” (as in “I’m glad the semester is over so that I have time for my work“) – our work is in the classroom as well as in the library/lab/office. I create great synergies between my teaching and research that are rewarding and rewarded in both facets of my career, and neither could thrive without the other. I became a professor not because I loved research as the abstract process of discovering new knowledge, but because I love to share my ideas – whether its in the classroom or the conference panel, the book or the blog.

My greatest frustration with large universities is that teaching is seen as a pull away from “productivity,” rather than a feeder for ideas and intellectual energy. While I gripe about too much grading or too many demands on my time in the semester, I still typically walk away from a classroom thinking more energetically about my ideas than being burnt-out on them. The greatest strength of being in a small liberal arts college like mine is that the institution as a whole shares that approach to melding research and teaching productively rather than as competing poles of a career.

I’d love to hear from others about their perspectives from the various places where you work at – how does your institution enable or limit your ability to find career satisfaction? (With the necessary caveat that no matter what else you compare it with, it’s hard to beat the life of a faculty member!)



13 Responses to “Being a Researcher at a Liberal Arts College”

  1. That’s a great post showing the realities (good and bad) of liberal arts teaching. I do think grad schools do their students a disservice by not always offering all the options and elaborating their advantages and disadvantages.

    I just wanted to add one point, namely the working with brilliant young minds and mentoring–now, I don’t have a job with either grad or undergrads top mentor and yet I’ve felt like I’ve been part mentor to several people in the last few years. My personal online network has been an intellectual life saver, and while I’ll never get to put my official signature on anyone’s diss, I do get to experience the positive sides of that relationship.

    As for the rest: thank you for calling on us not to neglect “our work” in the classroom. I love teaching and I love sharing my ideas–whether that be to colleagues or students. Because the two are inextricably intertwined, and I’m glad you point that out.

  2. I teach at a public arts university, which means that it’s larger and less selective than schools such as Middlebury and Bowdoin. We are also on quarters, rather than semesters, which tends to intensify the teaching load (12 credits per term, normally translates to a load of 3-3-3 or 4-4-4, summers optional). As an institution, we are slowly working out how to create more time and space for faculty research and creative projects, particularly as the expectations for such productivity have risen at all levels – hiring, tenure, and promotion, and notably promotion to full professor. On the whole, though, as at Middlebury, the Powers that Be at Western Oregon are “honest about what we do,” and, at most levels, what you do in the classroom is not only taken seriously, but is given the highest priority.

    As an individual, I’ve also seen and enjoyed the benefits of “lower key academic politics” and the “potential for more experimentation.” What I do now as a scholar and researcher is pretty far removed from my dissertation. I can trace the line, but external reviewers would probably have a hard time without a lot of guidance and prompting. In part, my different path has been cut by the need to be more of a generalist, a quality of teaching at a small school that you also note, but it also been enabled by not having to deal with others who are monitoring my work to see if I’m publishing and presenting in the “right” places given my specialties, my faculty line, etc. I know that my life would be very different if I had ended up an R1.

    The mentoring piece is probably the major lack I’ve felt (that and a lot of disengaged students, but that seems to be improving as the school is slowly changing its profile and drawing on a broader pool of students). Having earned my BA from from a small liberal arts school, Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, I know that mentoring and guiding students in independent work is not the exclusive domain of graduate schools. However, up until now, the geography major has been nothing more than a check list of requirements. Advising has been largely pro forma, with an occasional student needing or wanting more than brief check ins and a signature here and there. Recently, we finished a revision of the program that institutes a capstone requirement and I am looking forward to working closely with students on projects of their own.

  3. Sorry, the first sentence should begin, “I teach at a public liberal arts university …” Damn brain just filled that word in for me when I was editing.

  4. 4 Annie

    Yes yes yes!

    Who first got me excited about film and media? My professor at my small liberals arts college. Who inspired me to pursue it as a major, and eventually, as a career? My professor at my small liberal arts college. Who still serves as my primary source of mentorship, encouragement, and professional advice? My professor at my small liberal arts college. Finally, who do I want to be when I receive my Ph.D. in a few short years? Obviously, my professor at my small liberals arts college.

    I went to Whitman College, a school much like Middlebury, Bowdoin, and others, and having attending large research institutions for the duration of my graduate career, I cannot imagine teaching anywhere else than a small liberal arts college. Sure, the research isn’t as foregrounded as at an R1 — but what about overall quality of life? Or a holistic approach to academia, one that includes, as you so wonderfully put out, a synthesis between teaching and research?

    Sometimes I wonder if those who scorn the small school choice are often those who’ve never had the experience. An undergrad professor, working with a small class, can have incredible impact. I suppose I’m living proof.

  5. It may be an odd space to raise the question, Jason, but why do you think it is that the liberal arts colleges attract such heightened resentment on the job market? While they by no means have a monopoly on job seekers’ ill-will, I’ve been amazed to see the degree to which liberal arts colleges specifically have attracted some of the most heated criticism for hiring practices, not just in our field, but across the job search wikis and personal blogs. I ask this, let me be clear, with neither a personal ax to grind (in the interests of full disclosure to Jason’s readers, I was interviewed at a liberal arts college and didn’t get the spot, but everyone involved was charming and thoroughly professional, and I had a wholly positive experience), nor with any answer of my own (other than perhaps a guess that some people feel them to be an insider’s club reticent to let in others). I just thought you might have some guesses, especially since Middlebury (as you well know) was at the center of a firestorm of criticism last year on the job search wiki.

  6. Thanks all for the great comments, and be sure to read Ian’s reply on his own blog – I’ll comment there as well.

    Kristina: good point. I’ve often told people that being a school like Middlebury in the pre-internet era would be a vastly different professional experience. I am active in virtual scholarly communities that I imagine would have only been possible at major universities or cities pre-internet. And because of the general small size of our field, I can remain active in para-mentoring grad students who come to know me & my work, even serving as external reader for committees. I’m not sure how feasible this would be for someone in a larger field, where local “experts” are more saturated on large campuses.

    Shaun: I have no experience at public liberal arts colleges, but people like you whom I’ve spoken to tend to highlight the sheer time demands that curtail research possibilities – which also holds true at private colleges at “lower tiers.” Middlebury’s teaching load is a 3-2, although we’re shifting to a 2-2 to match other top small liberal arts colleges (SLACs) – the effect is that formal teaching loads are closer to R1 schools than many universities or other small colleges. The model that such schools point to is the “research college” – it’s still a work-in-progress at Middlebury.

    Annie: It’s interesting, as many of the faculty at Middlebury went to other SLACs, having had their pedagogical ambitions defined by their undergrad experiences. (Although I should note, a good friend at Middlebury who is amazingly successful here, had never had anything like the SLAC experience before Middlebury, so it’s certainly not an essential background for SLAC faculty success.) Like you, my dreams of academia were forged at a SLAC (mine was Oberlin), and I worked through my grad program at Wisconsin with mixed minds about the future possibilities for professional satisfaction – I was really unsure that teaching 250 student lectures was ever going to feel like a good fit for me, even though that model of career success was certainly what was held up as the ultimate goal. While my first job was at a research university, I always kept my eye on the prize of a job like the one I have now…

    Jonathan: …which brings me to this issue. I’m not sure that SLAC jobs are more fraught than R1 jobs (we’ve all heard tales from that front!), but they are more scarce. Major R1 programs simply hire more people within any field, while a school like Middlebury is only likely to have one position fitting anybody’s area. I remember in ’99, while I was still an early dissertator, Middlebury posted the job that I have now, and I grumbled that it would be the perfect fit for me, but a year too early. Three years later, the previous hire decided to leave, they reposted the job, and the match was made as a second chance for both me and the college. But such tales of second chances are rare – more often the scarcity of such jobs raises the stakes. Add onto that the general veneer of elitism and exclusivity that’s part of the SLAC brand, and resentment can grow.

    (I’ll decline to comment directly on the firestorm you mention, as it involved my department & I don’t feel comfortable saying anything publicly, at least without permission from the involved parties…)

  7. So I’ve been thinking further about the question I asked you, and here’s a bit of speculation, which dovetails with your own suggestion: I wonder whether it’s because SLACs are kind of like the perfect medium. People who apply to the really big name unis and don’t even get considered can hardly complain, since they likely know that they’re competing against a whole bunch of great people clamoring for the job. And they don’t bother complaining when the State University of Middle of Nowhere doesn’t bother with them, since secretly they’re happy. So all the really nice sounding alternatives in the middle become the source of grief and consternation, since many people can legitimately feel that they’re “good enough” to be hired, and they want to be there enough to bother to complain. Hence the SLACs get the bullseye placed on them?

  8. 8 Ace

    Jason,

    I came across this article from some general googling. It is amazing to read this by the way. I am just starting my academic program now (I went to Oberlin as well and am starting at Iowa in media studies), and I am already beginning to feel the disillusionment that comes with the university level. I want to influence people and publish as a benefit, not just publish and teach because I have to. But, there is so much importance is put on the publishing, the conferences, and not the teaching, which is immensely disappointing.

    So, it is good to know that a) I’m not alone in this sentiment and b) that it is still quite possible to make this happen. And, like most other people who end up in graduate school from a liberal arts college, all of my perspective on my future came from my departmental professors and the influence that they had on me. They don’t exist in high numbers in my department, but I know that they are around.

  9. 9 Genevieve

    Well, I was doing some research for my first interview tomorrow with a liberal arts college when I fell on this piece. I am starting to think that I might have misconceived what a liberal arts college can offer me. I was worried that on the long run I would not have any opportunities to do research or work at a bigger college, even if I have always love teaching more than research. Maybe I was wrong. I will have to ask tomorrow when I interview.
    At this point in my career, I definitely struggle to figure out what amount of teaching versus research I want, but I know that teaching should be bigger. I also would like to do some community work, and not simply write articles. The practical aspect of my research is what is interesting to me, so that is often why I do the research in the first place.
    We will see how things go tomorrow and in the future, but its exciting.
    Thanks for the inspiration.

  10. 10 Mike

    Do you think this career path makes for a better work/life balance? I love science and teaching but their are so many other great things in life too and I feel that a big research school means the end of so many of those (i.e. hobbies and family time). Do you think I would be better of at a liberal arts school?

    • I can’t speak directly comparing science careers, as depending on research agendas, a lab can be much more time-consuming and inflexible than humanistic research. The challenge for scientists at LACs is the lack of grad students to help staff a lab and the larger infrastructure of facilities & resources that may be at an R1, leading to much more modest research pathways. Humanists have more of a level playing field in terms of generating potentially important research regardless of institution, because it’s more individualistic. But as to the question of work/life balance in general? Definitely – a LAC should provide an environment where that is valued & encouraged. (I can’t speak to all institutions, but my own does.) Good luck!


  1. 1 Ian Bogost
  2. 2 Looking for a Comparative Media Scholar « Just TV

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