Being a Researcher at a Liberal Arts College
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!)
Filed under: Academia, Middlebury, Not Quite TV, Teaching | 13 Comments
Tags: faculty, liberal arts