Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

Unintended consequences

Posted by Melissa on October 20, 2010

This fall’s CUR Quarterly has a provocative opinion piece by Mitchell Malachowski titled, “Unintended Consequences: Is CUR Undermining Teaching at Predominately Undergraduate Institutions.” (Unfortunately, I think one must be a CUR member to access the essay.) Malachowski, a former president of CUR, an active researcher, and a strong advocate of undergraduate research, writes:

Two questions arise as we move to a model of faculty life that is more and more driven by faculty research. First, what happens to “traditional” teaching as we move substantial amounts of resources to research activities and lower faculty teaching loads? And second, is our move toward increased scholarship actually diminishing the quality and prestige of teaching at [primarily undergraduate institutions] even as we espouse that our institutions remain student-centered learning environments?

Malachowski is concerned by institutional drift among undergraduate institutions toward the research university model, noting that promotion and tenure criteria, faculty pay, and other faculty incentives at undergraduate institutions increasingly emphasize and reward traditional scholarship as measured by research productivity. As this happens, he is concerned that teaching becomes devalued in practice, even if rhetorically it is still the primary focus of these institutions. One of Malachowski’s recommendations is that faculty research at undergraduate institutions should not be evaluated strictly by number of publications but rather by how the research engages students, impacts student learning, and informs teaching.

Malachowski’s piece reflects an idea that I first encountered while reading Faculty Priorities Reconsidered, edited by KerryAnn O’Meara and R. Eugene Rice. David Brailow, in his chapter discussing redefining scholarship at Franklin College, notes that a group of senior faculty at Franklin suggested the college “should view scholarly activity through the lens of the concept of student benefit.” This group of faculty felt there were two types of scholarship: “selfish scholarship” and “student-centered scholarship.” I strongly disagree that research that doesn’t involve students is selfish, but this categorization, however inappropriate, highlights that there are varying approaches and emphases to scholarly activity at undergraduate institutions.

Malachowski writes, “We all know that working with undergraduates is time consuming and in some cases it slows down our research output, but work with undergraduates should be supported, celebrated, and compensated at a high level. For most of us, the process involved in research with students is as important as the product.” If colleges adopt a narrow definition of scholarly productivity measured only by publications, they may unintentionally provide incentives for faculty not to include undergraduates.  As a junior faculty member, the tension between trying to get results in a timely manner and investing time in student researchers has been palpable for me. I enjoy and prioritize working with students in my research projects (and the students I work with are wonderful contributors). However, as I talk with junior faculty at other primarily undergraduate institutions, there is a broad spectrum of how much institutions value student involvement in faculty scholarship and how much the faculty reward structure is oriented towards publications. I appreciate undergraduate institutions that take a big-tent approach and recognize that there are many results from faculty research beyond peer-reviewed publications, one of the most valuable being the undergraduate students who have gained research experience and take that experience with them to their future careers.

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