The term is rapidly winding up here at Carleton, and graduation is less than two weeks away. Between honors convocation, senior dinners, and other end-of-the-year festivities, there are plenty of opportunities to celebrate what our students have accomplished this year. Scientiae this month is also asking people to celebrate because, unlike college life, with built in opportunities to recognize accomplishments, in the professional sphere successes can come and go without much acknowledgment.
What to celebrate? I feel like I’m in the thick of several things without any waypoints deserving recognition. Last week, I did turn in my record of scholarly activity, the packet that gets sent to external reviewers for the college’s tenure review process. That didn’t feel like much of a milestone as it is one of many deadlines in the tenure process, and the ultimate outcome is uncertain. Nevertheless, it did provide an opportunity to reflect, and in those reflections, I found both successes and setbacks.
At Carleton, the record of scholarly activity highlights what one has done outside of the classroom, and in the sciences, it provides a snapshot of how one’s research program is developing, grants received, results shared through presentations and publications, etc. However, compiling the report was a challenge because it reinforced the traditional research/teaching dichotomy of academia. As someone who particularly wanted to be at a liberal arts college so that I could work with undergraduates, remain close to the experimental work, and not be the PI/administrator of a lab that runs on the efforts of grad students and post-docs, I found it difficult to present a record of scholarly activities in a manner that fully acknowledged the teaching/learning involved in doing research with undergraduates. Jim Gentile, President of the Research Corporation, in a 2008 PKAL conversation, highlighted the interaction: “I think undergraduate research is one of the purest forms of student learning and faculty teaching that goes on at any college or university that is serious about science learning, teaching, or research.”
If one considers research output, science happens slowly in my lab compared to places where research is the central focus. Things would move faster if I didn’t emphasize having students contribute or if I used laboratory facilities elsewhere, but that’s not why I’m at a place like Carleton. One part of research that I enjoy the most is working with talented students, introducing them to the process of doing research, and getting them involved as colleagues on the research questions I find so exciting. Through these experiences, some students find that experimental research is not for them, and I consider that process of self-discovery to be just as valuable, and as much of a success, as when students fall in love with the lab work and decide to go on to graduate school. I’ll be the first to admit that shaping undergraduate research projects is an on-going learning process, and in that realm, I’ve had my share of setbacks as well as successes, completely independent of the scientific setbacks and successes. Knowing how to structure a project that is meaningful to a student in the short-term yet moves the larger agenda forward in the long term, fostering group dynamics yet encouraging independence, being accessible yet promoting self-reliance — it’s not an easy balancing act, and it’s a process that I’m still figuring out after five years. Student involvement is integral to my research, and, yet, those interactions are notoriously hard to capture in the cut-and-dry record of scholarly activity. They can’t be accounted for in the same manner as grants or publications.
A couple of weeks ago my alma mater sent out the link to this year’s graduation address, delivered by Rachel Maddow. I particularly liked one of her central points, “[T]hat personal triumphs are overrated.” Maddow encouraged graduates to “tak[e] as your baseline that you will not seek to reach your own goals by stepping on your community.” Given the option to celebrate, I’d prefer not to celebrate what I’ve done, but rather to celebrate the community to which I belong — a community of curious students and dedicated faculty, at an institution that supports meaningful interactions between these two groups through scholarly engagement. Yet on CVs and records of scholarly activity, the opportunity to appropriately recognize and celebrate these interactions is limited, so I do it here instead.