This will not be a tantrum-style post. Instead, I want to think more critically about the hostility to research in my particular environment in a way that might be helpful or productive in a broader way. In a sideways sort of way, this is in some ways my response to Sisyphus’s call for people to write about their teaching philosophies, or, as she says, “for the complainers,” to answer the question: “What about this part of our job just really ignites your passion? Electrifies, revitalizes and energizes you? What has made you grin with pride or jump up and down with glee a little?”
First, some background. I never wanted to be a teacher. Like, as a kid, I never said, in answer to the “what do you want to be when you grow up?” question, “a teacher.” Seriously, it was nowhere at all in my plans – even as a five-year-old – to teach. In fact, when I thought about my options once I decided I wasn’t going to be a journalist, and once I realized I had to become an English major, one of my reasons for not doing English Ed was that I didn’t really see myself as a teacher. I came to the English major as a person who was so into the criticism part of it. Who was so into the idea that writing about literature could be a career. If I’d wanted to become a teacher, if I’d seen myself as a teacher, seriously, I’d have gotten an English Ed degree in order to teach high school. It would have been the more practical path. Instead, I saw teaching as a necessary evil, as the thing that would allow me to do the thing I really wanted to do.
My grad program did little to disabuse me of these ideas about teaching. Sure, teaching was part of my funding, but it wasn’t what I was there to do. For the most part, my professors didn’t think that it was what I was there to do either, other than that I needed to teach those comp classes that no tenured person at a research university teaches. However, I did have one mentor in my grad department who said something that I have never forgotten, and that I think was probably the most important mentorship I received, in some ways, toward my actual life in the profession. She said something along the lines of: “It’s disgusting when people talk about needing time to do their own work, as if teaching is not their work. Teaching is your own work. If you don’t understand that, then you’re not doing half of your job.” (Let’s note that this mentor of mine won the James Russell Lowell Prize for her research work. Let’s also note that she was the most generous and instructive professor for whom I ever TA-ed, using her TAs not just as graders but rather grading alongside us and teaching us how to teach, how to do teaching work in a way that was excellent, because she really, really thought (thinks) teaching was (is) important.)
But so anyway. I go on the market the first time, and I was one of the lucky 3% of first-time-on-the-market people in English that year to get a motherfucking job. Awesome, right? Yes, awesome. (Though let’s also note that my diss director asked me if I “really” wanted to take this job. I responded, um, I need a full time job with benefits so yeah! At the time I felt judged by him asking that question. In retrospect, I actually appreciate that he asked it, because that question would have given me permission, if I wasn’t sure, to say no. In a weird way it was a vote of confidence. That said? I’d have been in a really shitty position if I’d not taken this job, given the opportunities in my field. So I’m glad that I thought he was a fucking lunatic.)
I went from an environment (and an attitude) in which teaching was clearly peripheral to an environment where Teaching Was All. Except for that we don’t really evaluate teaching in a meaningful way at my institution (it’s all student evals all the time here, which isn’t the best way to evaluate teaching, or even close). No, Teaching Was All because we teach a 4/4 load. It is All mostly because it’s all most of us have time to do, not because we truly value it through expecting exceptional teaching.
But I became a professor because I cared about research. So I had to find a way to do research, because I cared so much about doing it. I had few examples within my department who cared the way that I cared. I chose my mentor (we were expected to choose a mentor toward tenure) entirely on the basis of the fact that the person I chose was the ONE person in my department who was recognized as a “researcher.” Somehow, he found a way to be a “researcher” here, I thought, so obviously he’s my guy. If I have to work here, I want to find a niche in the way that he did – I want the career here that he has. This was my thinking. What I didn’t know then was that he had held the title of “The Researcher” and that others were actively discouraged from doing research.
I started to figure out that this was the case in my first performance review, when my chair told me that I didn’t need “to worry about publishing” since I had an article come out that year. “That’s enough for tenure, Crazy, so you’re all set,” was the message. The subtext was, “um, don’t do anything else that will make other people look like they’re not doing enough to be tenurable.” It was after that performance review that I began going on the market again. I liked my department, my location, my students, whatever, but I didn’t like feeling like I had to apologize for excelling. I didn’t like feeling like doing solid research was in some way verboten. That’s not what I became a professor for. Dude, I became a professor for the research part of the gig. And yes, I knew that I was hired at a “teaching” university, but I also felt strongly that a “teaching university” shouldn’t be the equivalent of high school.
Luckily, though, I chose the mentor that I did. And he has been nothing but supportive of that part of my work. And yeah, I went on the market, but I’m still here. And so it was good to have somebody who wasn’t actively discouraging me from growing as a scholar. It is good.
But that doesn’t change the culture of my department. The culture of my department is one in which mediocrity is celebrated, because it’s not threatening, and excellence is downplayed, because it might make people “feel bad.” The culture of my department is such that when you do something great, people act like you did a violence to them, like you’re a “braggart” or that you’re somehow “less than” they are. The prevailing attitude is something along the lines of, “I’m a great teacher because I’m shitty at research. I don’t publish because I’m committed to my students. I don’t have a reputation in my field because I’m so committed to our university.”
The problem, as I see it, is the binary opposition between teaching and research. You know why my mentor is great (other than that I heart him and he’s generous and lovely and just a person you all would love to hang out with)? It’s because his research contributes to his teaching; because his teaching informs his research. He has survived here – thrived here – because there is no disconnect between the two for him. In fact, he actively resists seeing the two as distinct. He doesn’t buy into the myth that good teaching requires a professor to renounce research. Actually, that’s what makes my mentor from grad school great as well: she doesn’t buy into the myth that good research means renouncing a commitment to teaching.
But that kind of attitude to both teaching and research is rare. Or at least it seems rare to me, as I talk with colleagues across institution types, and as I accept my own department’s attitude toward teaching and research. It’s just so much easier to congratulate ourselves for doing only half of our jobs (either teaching or research) than to accept that excellence would require both excellence in teaching and excellence in scholarship.
But so, I kept doing research. I keep doing it. I care about it. I want my colleagues to care about it because I think that our connection to research distinguishes professors in higher education from teachers in P-12. I think that our connection to research is absolutely what makes it worth it to go to college and to be taught by people with higher degrees.
But many of my colleagues don’t feel the same way. And when I do some research thing – publish an article, get accepted for a workshop, publish a book – they see that as a threat to them, or they see that as somehow diminishing the work that they do. They are hostile to the fact that I do what I do. They don’t appreciate it, they don’t respect it, and they don’t approve of it, ultimately.
Is that lack of appreciation, respect, and approval easy for me? No, it’s not. My utopia would be a department in which those sorts of things would be seen as awesome, just as we would also regard as awesome what happens in the classroom. But, basically, a lot of people don’t feel the way that I feel.
Further, I feel like people view my research accomplishments as evidence that I’m a shitty teacher, a shitty adviser of students, a shitty colleague…. Except. I’m a great teacher. No, not all students love me (I’m a mean lady and I push them more than they all would like), but seriously: I’ve proven myself to be an amazing advocate for students and an amazing adviser and an amazing teacher. I am one of the most prominent people in my department in terms of service. I am doing it, people. It’s not like my research takes away from anything – rather, it contributes to everything I do.
But so yeah. I thrive in a hostile environment. And that hostility sucks balls, homeslices. But the hostility? I think it comes from the fact that people don’t want anything to expose their weaknesses, and they don’t like it when something seems to do that. Look, I do have weaknesses. I’m not saying I’m without them. But I don’t blame my colleagues for weaknesses that are my own. My colleagues? Many of them? Most of them, really? They think that by doing cool stuff I call them out. Which is only as true as they let it be.
But so you may be wondering how this is a sideways response to Sisyphus’s call. I’ll tell you. What ignites my passion is realizing that the questions that I have in my research can inform my teaching – that if I ask my research questions in class that students learn more because they try to answer them or because they realize that I don’t know everything but that I really still have questions myself. What electrifies, revitalizes, and energizes me are the conversations that I have with my students, the fact that they see things in entirely new ways and that they consistently surprise me with their insights. What makes me grin with pride is that I can teach them to approach their questions with rigor and careful analysis, and that the result is that they learn a ton and that they also teach me something about something in which I am supposed to be the expert.
All of that is made possible through the fact that I am active in research. So the hostility of my colleagues? You know what? Fuck them and fuck it.