Created in Their Image

Julia Gergits considers whether regional state universities mold or mangle the careers of their faculty members.

February 24, 2010

At a meeting of our newly resurrected Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Council, a frustrated colleague blurted that Youngstown State University ruins the careers of newly minted Ph.D.'s by remaking them in its image. What’s best for YSU, according to him, is not what’s best for a rising academic. Success — getting tenure and early promotion — may not lead to someone moving to a “higher” institution of higher learning. It’s certainly true that Youngstown State wants to keep its faculty members if they’re good teachers and scholars, and it has specific needs that may not enhance one’s ability to move on.

Although Youngstown State can’t counter-offer or grant merit pay to keep faculty members, the university does have powerful indirect devices to persuade colleagues to stay: good health care coverage, excellent retirement benefits, straightforward tenure and promotion guidelines, full-year sabbaticals, half-year faculty improvement leaves, and generous dean’s reassigned time. Our universities seduce faculty members into staying. But money and benefits are not what my colleague meant when he asserted that our university eats its young. He meant that YSU’s heavy teaching and advising load, endless committee appointments, and somewhat eccentric scholarship expectations make it hard to develop the kind of “productive” career that many new Ph.D.’s expect.

At Youngstown State and similar state colleges and universities, we become the kind of professionals our university values, not the kind we intended when we first joined the profession. After accepting positions at teaching-intensive universities, many are stunned by the direction their careers take and how academic roles are shaped by the institutions. Working for an Ivy League institution or a big state research university would also shape careers and lives, but new faculty members don’t anticipate the consequences of working for the “lower-tier,” “open-admissions” universities and colleges that pick them up fresh out of graduate school.

As a “lifer” at a mid-sized, teaching-intensive state university in northeast Ohio, I can affirm that my career neither looks like that of my graduate-school professors nor conforms to the career I envisioned. Luckily, it’s far better than I imagined — I’m happy at a teaching-focused university. However unlikely the event, I have to admit that I dreaded winding up at a prestigious research university where I would have to focus more on scholarship and far less on teaching. However, an uncomfortably large number of my colleagues are startled and resentful as they look around and find themselves, as they say, “trapped” in a “lower-level” university, with no way to “escape.” Many new Ph.D.’s find that their paradigm of a university faculty member’s academic and professional life clashes with the reality of their careers, and some are unable — or unwilling — to adjust.

Part of the problem is the unrealistic preparation for an academic career that most graduate programs provide. Disciplines vary in their methods, and some attempt to address the realities of the profession, but most doctoral programs pride themselves on their focus on research, grant-getting, and publishing — or what they think publishing might mean, as they know and value only a small segment of the publishing world. Teaching preparation usually means teaching lower-division general-education courses that full-time faculty members avoid. English Ph.D.’s have fairly extensive training in teaching freshman composition and some experience teaching general-education literature; those in the sciences or social sciences may have some experience teaching lab or discussion sections. The leap from a research focus with some teaching to teaching four courses a semester is huge and, for many, terrifying.

Scholarship and publishing play a different role at comprehensive universities, and service, barely ever mentioned in graduate school, is vital. Without faculty participating in department, college, and university-wide committees, the university stops working. Faculty members at YSU take pride in being instrumental to institutional governance, and they have fought long and hard to defend their governance role. The union contract and Board of Trustees’ policy identify segments of university operation that are exclusively the faculty’s province, some that are jointly held, and others that are administration-only. Many departments at YSU try to protect their new faculty members from getting immersed in committee work, but it’s usually hopeless. After a token semester or two with a lighter load, new faculty members begin committee work, and committee appointments pile up. Within a short time, most new faculty members are on five or six committees and responsible for such things as departmental program assessment (that hot potato). New Ph.D.’s beginning a career at a state university must learn how to juggle their scholarly agenda, teach four different courses a semester, advise dozens of students, and serve on varied, often demanding committees.

Evidence of our institutional schizophrenia is that faculty members confronting and adapting to their teaching and service-intensive positions must still find time to do research and writing in their fields. All general-purpose universities extol the importance and relevance of research. A quick survey of universities’ mission statements reveals how important scholarship is at comprehensive universities. In nearly all state college and university mission statements, scholarship is mixed in with service, teaching, outreach, and economic development. At our version of the professoriate, we must dig out time for scholarship while managing high teaching and service loads.

Despite Youngstown State’s heavy teaching and service load, it expects substantial publishing and scholarly activity, particularly of new faculty members. In a recent public-relations campaign (thankfully replaced), YSU plastered the faces of premiere faculty members on huge billboards on the local highways. Yes, those chosen were excellent teachers, but they had garnered recognition for their scholarship and publications, inventions, patents, and grants. Faculty members join the tenure track with codicils in their contracts that dictate discipline-specific scholarly output; the scholarship of teaching and learning gets lip service at best.

One might think that the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) would have particular traction at such universities; that’s partly true. At the spring 2009 SOTL conference at Eastern Michigan University, Richard A. Gale, visiting scholar at Royal Roads University and Mount Royal College, noted that while comprehensive universities more often respect and foster teaching scholarship, SOTL is a safe endeavor only after faculty members have satisfied discipline-specific requirements and achieved tenure. Despite years of discussing Ernest Boyer’s Scholarship Reconsidered and Maxine Atkinson’s, 2001 proclamation that “we are in the initial stages of a new, major and long-lasting trend in higher education... [a] transformation [that] once again elevates teaching as an activity central to the academy” and her warning that “[l]imiting Scholarship of Teaching and Learning to refereed publication will assure that Scholarship of Teaching and Learning will have little or no impact," we’re left with promotion documents that often specify discipline-specific, traditional scholarship. We have more maneuvering room than our colleagues at research institutions, but we are in defensive positions.

As most state college and university mission statements indicate, scholarship also serves economic goals that have become important in this era of budget cuts and tuition freezes: internally, scholarly activity brings in additional operating funds from prestigious grants and attracts more students, particularly in graduate programs; externally, scholarship in a region such as northeast Ohio is expected to produce a research agenda that will spawn new industries and enhance economic development directly and measurably. We are expected to compete for grants and other funding to support scholarship, and part of our success is measured by how well we increase those outside sources of funding. The scholarly reputations of most comprehensive universities may be dots on the national academic map, but in our regions, we are crucial to economic and cultural vitality. This is a laudable mission; however, new Ph.D.’s go where the jobs are and for a chance to develop as professionals, not because they love Youngstown, or Ypsilanti, Bakersfield, or Fargo.

Despite the challenges, teaching at a comprehensive university offers faculty freedom and responsibility that are unavailable at research institutions. I mean responsibility as a gift, not a burden: it is to be prized. In many unanticipated ways, working at these institutions has been terrific for many of us, and many of the things that I grouse about the most I’d find just about anywhere (heavy workloads, insensitive and unimaginative administrators, unreasonable and inequitable pay scales, etc).

Scholarship at our institutions can be rewarding and relevant. Many of my colleagues regularly publish in the most prestigious journals in their fields; they are invited to speak internationally and participate in creating entirely new lines of study. Sherry Linkon and John Russo founded and co-direct the Center for Working-Class Studies. They co-wrote the well-received Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown and received a Ford Foundation grant. Linkon and Russo are not alone in finding that the Rust Belt provides a rich source for scholarly endeavor. Another colleague, Christopher Barzak, recently published The Love We Share Without Knowing, a well-received novel set, in part, in the landscape of post-industrial Youngstown. Researchers in exercise science have recognized the value of YSU’s Rich Center for Autism and adapted their research; others have built careers studying the politics of the region, or investigating pollution in the Mahoning River. Faculty members at comprehensive universities are adept at finding intersections between their scholarly pursuits and the region’s needs or problems.

Despite attempts to push closer to traditional scholarship, these institutions generally tolerate a wider range of scholarship than might be acceptable at research universities. Textbooks, which garner little respect on the national academic market, count as scholarship at YSU: they require research and careful writing, and they can have a huge impact on the field through guiding and directing students. Good textbooks can foster innovative pedagogic approaches and can incorporate technologies and research that would otherwise be unattainable for students. Similarly, editing journals or books matters at YSU; it’s entirely possible to propose and gain substantial reassigned time — including a full-year, full-pay sabbatical, for such work. Edited collections require editors to research the field, write introductions, assemble bibliographies, solicit articles from scholars world-wide, edit the articles, and negotiate with publishers. They matter to the discipline; they should matter for promotion and tenure. At state colleges and universities, they usually count.

Teaching is the most obvious benefit of being a faculty member at a comprehensive university. At most state colleges and universities, teaching is recognized and rewarded. At YSU the largest number of distinguished professorships are granted to faculty members for outstanding teaching. Despite Ohio’s attempt to redefine YSU as an “urban research institution,” faculty members still get full credit for textbooks; pedagogical articles; collaborative and nontraditional publications, such as Web sites like the one posted by the Visual Knowledge Project or online publications; and creative activities. This generosity is under fire, as the state and our administration try to change YSU’s mission, but the likelihood of that change succeeding is slight without an entire redesign of its structure. There is pressure to become more traditional in faculty contracts and promotion documents, but a backlash is growing. Our faculty members value the flexibility and good sense of fostering a wide variety of publishing and scholarly outlets. If we — as teachers, scholars, mentors, committee members, advisers, role models — are what our universities have shaped us to become, then let us and our institutions, look more closely in our reflective moments at the shape that we are in and see that we are, indeed, quite fit for the task ahead.


Julia M. Gergits is professor of English at Youngstown State University. The essay is adapted from one that appeared in Teacher-Scholar: The Journal of the State Comprehensive University.


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