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How to do good research at a teaching-intensive institution (essay)

Doing Research at a Teaching-Focused College

September 13, 2013

I’m on the faculty at a small, teaching-intensive college, which at my institution means that I regularly carry a 4/4 load. I also from time to time pick up an extra course, teach in our summer sessions, and do regular committee work. Those I know who carry lighter teaching loads, along with the occasional anxious graduate student I’ve met at conferences, have asked me before how it’s possible to keep up a meaningful research program with such responsibilities.

More often than not, questions framed along these lines are loaded, albeit in a non-antagonistic way: they assume that it must be impossible to do real scholarship with so many responsibilities.

Don’t get me wrong. I love teaching and the preparation that goes into it, and I love my students, though like most I could do without most of the grading. But I also love doing research and keeping up with my field more generally, and I ultimately think that doing so makes me a better teacher. Although it’s true that I may have more regular, day-to-day responsibilities that limit the time I can spend on research than those in more research-intensive positions, I’ve found numerous ways to keep up a meaningful research and publishing program.

First, and this will certainly sound like a cliché, a little time management goes a long way. Given my teaching schedule and other responsibilities, it’s rare for me to have huge chunks of uninterrupted time that can be used for research and writing. My free time during a normal day is usually composed of numerous, sometimes sporadic chunks of 15 to 30 minutes, 45 if I’m lucky.

Rather than viewing this time as downtime, I try to make the most of it, using it as efficiently as possible. When all is said and done, that time can easily add up to a couple of hours of solid work, depending on the day. It was difficult at first to adapt to such patterns, and in my first year teaching I tended to waste a lot of time. Of course I’d still love to have regular blocked hours of unscheduled time to research and write. Who wouldn’t? But it’s possible to adjust, and now I find that some of my best work is done in short spurts.

Related to the use of time, I also try to set small, achievable goals for each day. My current goal is to write 500 words a day, no matter what. If I do that five days a week, that’s 2,500 words a week.

Not all of that is publishable or even salvageable down the road, of course, though I’ve often at a later date been able to pull from material that initially seemed useless. But setting a goal keeps me writing and, eventually, the regimen produces some solid work in the form of academic articles, conference papers, and shorter essays.

Second, I’ve tied my research more closely to what I teach, more so than I did a few years ago when I started out. Of course, there’s always some relationship between research and teaching, no matter what the institution. But whereas in research-intensive jobs research tends to drive teaching, at least for me it’s been to a certain extent the other way around.

As a general rule, I don’t get to choose my classes, and I often have to pick up courses outside -- sometimes far outside -- my areas of expertise and competency. It's easy to view having to teach courses outside one’s area as little more than a necessary burden. That’s the way I viewed it in my first year of teaching. At times I still do view it that way.

But things have always turned out best when I’ve viewed such teaching responsibilities as an opportunity to learn something new, as an opportunity to better myself as a teacher. Picking up courses outside of one’s area is also a two-way street, though. I always make it a point to incorporate in courses outside of my expertise readings and topics pertinent to my own work, at least to the extent that these fit the content of the course and the needs of my students.

In the process of this give and take, I’ve allowed what I research and write on to be more influenced by what I teach. I’m not saying that my work is totally determined by what I teach. I continue to work in specific areas of my discipline and keep up with the literature, though I certainly don’t have time to read it all.

In other words, even though my teaching load and responsibilities, as I’ve said, often require me to cross into areas outside my immediate expertise, I don’t consider myself a full-on generalist, though there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Rather, the teaching I do has determined my research more in the way I approach my specific interests: I do so with a broader set of sources and concerns in mind, a set drawn from the various courses that I teach.

A trendier way to say this is that working at a teaching-intensive college has fostered interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity in my thinking, reading and writing. Indeed, my current project would not have come to me at all if I did not have to wear numerous hats simultaneously.

Third, I’ve found that working at a teaching-intensive institution allows for a great deal of flexibility and self-determination regarding where and what I publish. My current institution encourages publishing, but it doesn’t make it an absolute priority. Its priority is, of course, teaching.

That means, however, that I don’t have to pull down a major contract from a top-tier university press or worry about if I’ve met the quota for articles published in top-ranked journals in order to keep my job and gain promotion. Nor do I have to publish strictly in my field in order to gain the requisite recognition. I’m certainly not opposed to such things, and I continue to write and submit specialized work to good journals in my field.

But I can submit my work to other, less prestigious but perhaps more amenable venues, and even write on topics that, in the end, have little to do with my discipline, narrowly conceived. This past summer, for instance, I published numerous policy-related opinion pieces in publications that reach a more general audience.

What’s important to me is that I can do all this without having to feel that I’ve wasted my time, while I worry about how my publications will be perceived down the road by a tenure and promotion committee. Perhaps that’s not a conventional recipe for rising to the top of one’s field, but it gets my name out there in various venues and has allowed me to cross into areas that I may not have otherwise. More importantly, I’ve enjoyed it, which is, in the end, one of the things that I value most.

Finally, one of the most important things for me in keeping up a research program has been to have a colleague who holds me accountable, who provides some moral support, so to speak. That may sound trite, but I’ve found it essential to my own development as an academic to have a close friend in a similar position there to ask me regularly about my work -- not in a perfunctory way but through genuine interest. It motivates me to keep plugging along with my research, even when I feel bogged down and overwhelmed with other responsibilities.

It is possible, then, to do real, meaningful scholarship in a teaching-intensive environment and, more importantly, to sustain and enjoy it. The pressures of working in a teaching-intensive institution may, of course, dictate what form research may take, and even limit its scope to a certain extent.

Working at a teaching intensive institution certainly has its challenges when it comes to keeping up one’s own research interests, but it can also offer unique opportunities that shouldn’t be ignored. What has worked for me may not work for everyone, but I hope that my own experience with doing research at a teaching-intensive institution may help and inspire others in similar situations.
 

Bio

Hollis Phelps is assistant professor of religion at Mount Olive College, in North Carolina, and author of Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-Theology (Acumen Publishing, 2013).

 

 

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