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Teaching and Research Can Be Compatible at Small Colleges, Southwestern University Provost Says

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A recent letter to the editor of our local paper regarding the role of research at national liberal arts colleges asserted that small colleges cannot contribute to research in a significant way and that colleges of this type should focus all their resources on teaching.

By Jim Hunt

A recent letter to the editor of our local paper regarding the role of research at national liberal arts colleges asserted that small colleges cannot contribute to research in a significant way and that colleges of this type should focus all their resources on teaching. While it is true that smaller colleges have teaching as their primary mission, that does not mean that the professors at these colleges cannot contribute in significant ways to the body of scholarly work in their respective disciplines. In fact, I am certain that most national liberal arts colleges, including Southwestern University, could provide multiple examples of this kind of work. To my mind, however, the question is not whether or not this scholarly work can be done, but rather, why the work is being done – and what is its relationship to the primary mission of teaching? To answer this question, one must understand the concept of the “teacher-scholar.”

The concept of faculty as “teacher-scholars” is one that has arisen in response to the often bifurcated view of teaching and scholarship in higher education. For generations, it was held that if an institution focused primarily on teaching, then it was not interested in promoting faculty scholarship (this was typically the case at smaller colleges). Conversely, if an institution was focused primarily on faculty scholarship (as is the case at large research institutions), then it did not place a high value on teaching – especially the teaching of undergraduate students. At national liberal arts colleges, however, the bringing together of teaching and scholarship as two sides of the same coin – intertwined and in no way separate – has resulted in the development of a model of instruction and an academic environment that is, in my opinion, second to none. When you have faculty who are as passionate about their teaching as they are about their scholarship, you are able to provide students with an incredible learning experience.

Faculty scholarship can be expressed in a multitude of ways. For faculty in the humanities, it can often mean hours reading and analyzing texts, searching for connections and interpretations of ideas and events both old and new. In the social sciences, it most often means conducting research focused on humans and their social, behavioral and interpersonal interactions. For faculty in the natural sciences, scholarship quite often occurs in the context of the laboratory, or as in the case of mathematics, with pencil and paper and perhaps a chalkboard. In the fine arts, scholarship is often expressed through the creative activity of the faculty – creating art, music, theater and dance – or, as with the art historians, studying and analyzing creative works of the past. In all these cases, a key element of faculty scholarship is the submission of the completed work for peer review and critique. In this review process, faculty subject their work to a rigorous examination based on the national standards in their respective fields. If the work stands the test of this review, it is then published, presented, performed or displayed – and the faculty member can be assured that they have made a contribution to the growth of their field.

Faculty who have chosen to be teacher-scholars at national liberal arts colleges have chosen a path that is probably the most challenging of all faculty roles in higher education. The expectation that faculty excel in both teaching and scholarship means that faculty must find ways to engage in their scholarship while maintaining their engagement with students both in and out of the classroom. They cannot choose one over the other, but must balance their many responsibilities as they remain current in their field while continuing to provide the high quality instruction that is expected at a national liberal arts college. In some cases, faculty are able to engage students as collaborators in their scholarly pursuits – an opportunity for deep learning that extends beyond the classroom. To support faculty in their growth as teacher-scholars, significant resources need to be in place to support their work – work that results in excellent scholarship and excellent teaching.

Several years ago, I heard a speaker at a conference on faculty scholarship say that it would be a shame if colleges and universities became places where students were taught by teachers who had quit learning. Providing resources to support the teacher-scholar model will ensure that this will never be the case at national liberal arts colleges like Southwestern.

(Jim Hunt is provost of Southwestern University)