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Small liberal arts colleges are experiencing unprecedented pressures, including the impending demographic cliff, the devaluing of central tenets of a liberal education and a general rise in anti-intellectualism. The most drastic responses to those pressures have been vast and sweeping budget cuts in anticipation of reduced enrollments, including the elimination of programs and scads of faculty positions. That’s been the case at my own institution, Carthage College in Wisconsin.

As a result of all the belt-tightening, the responsibilities of faculty members at primarily undergraduate institutions have changed in real time to focus more on increasing recruitment, retention and graduation rates. All faculty members have felt those changes, including those of us in tenured positions, who have often had to assume greater administrative and service responsibilities.

Aside from shouldering heavier workloads, faculty members have often been called to cater more to the desires of the consumers—i.e., the students—and adopt student-centered teaching practices. Yet while a focus on the needs of our students is laudable, it is not always efficient, and, as Christina Maslach and Susan E. Jackson noted, the stress of working closely with high-need individuals or groups can be a major contributor to burnout.

Robert T. Blackburn and Janet H. Lawrence argued that self-knowledge should guide one’s approach to teaching, scholarship and service, encouraging faculty members to make choices in the domains that harness their aptitudes and interests, possibly protecting against burnout. Here, I argue for a model of faculty engagement that builds upon their vision, one that empowers faculty members to approach their work in a way that benefits themselves, their students and their institutions: I call it the selfish teacher-scholar model. In fact, I’ve found that, counterintuitively, selfishness can be selfless!

While I’ve gleaned my approach from personal experience as a psychology professor working at a small liberal arts college, there’s no reason this guidance shouldn’t transfer to other educational contexts. Indeed, this approach could encourage faculty members at research institutions, for example, to view their teaching responsibilities in a new, energizing light.

Selfish Teaching

Start by asking yourself, “Are there particular facts or pieces of disciplinary content that our graduates absolutely need to know?” My colleagues in the department of psychological science frequently ask ourselves this question, and we always arrive at the same conclusion: the process of psychological science is more important than the content. Thus, we approach the content as a vehicle for communicating the process of psychology—hypothesis testing, theory development, statistical inferences, research methods and the like.

If your discipline is similar in its focus on process over content, that should empower you to teach the content that best leverages your expertise and interests. Indeed, the American Psychological Association’s 2014 Introductory Psychology Initiative advocated for a course framework that empowered instructors to teach the content they were most comfortable with, as long as they were sampling topics from each of five broad areas within psychology. In other words, we should resist the temptation to teach every chapter of the textbook and instead zoom in on those content areas that best allow us to communicate the processes we want students to understand.

We’ve all experienced the discomfort associated with teaching material that isn’t in our wheelhouse. It can be draining trying to maintain faux enthusiasm for it. But if instead you concentrate on the content you are legitimately enthusiastic about, then that energy will transfer to the students. Sometimes the learning objectives will necessitate teaching content for which you have no passion, but the enthusiasm you have garnered from teaching to your strengths will allow you to muscle through those times.

Besides determining how to teach core curriculum classes, the selfish teacher-scholar also meets departmental learning objectives through offering boutique courses in their area of expertise. In my case, before I was an academic, I was a professional magician. I have found ways to weave my previous profession into my current one. Indeed, one of my research programs explores cognitive psychology through the lens of performance magic. As such, this topic can be a powerful tool for inviting students to consider cognition and mental processes.

To that end, I regularly offer a course on the cognitive science of magic that benefits me as much as it benefits the students. Perhaps surprisingly, the science of magic is a burgeoning research area. Teaching this course selfishly gives me an opportunity to catch up on any research I’ve neglected over the past year. Also, I am highly enthusiastic about the topic area, and that enthusiasm rubs off on the students. Finally, offering this course creates a pipeline of students into my laboratory. After taking the class, students understand the hypotheses being tested and the general approach I use. Of course, those students aren’t just workers, as the work I do with them in the laboratory is inherently collaborative. It benefits me and it benefits them.

Selfish Scholarship

In the modern university, the boundaries between teaching and scholarship should be blurred. Research is a powerful teaching tool. Indeed, it has been identified as a high-impact practice. As with most high-impact practices, supervised research is also labor-intensive for the faculty member.

I’ve sat on or chaired many faculty search committees, and I regularly read teaching philosophy and scholarship statements in which candidates described what I saw as a huge blunder: inviting undergraduate students to generate and test their own hypotheses. Science is hard, and inviting students to generate and test their own hypotheses sends the opposite message: “Science is easy and you can do it in a semester!” Further, it usually wastes everyone’s time.

In order to generate sound hypotheses, one has to know the work that has already been carried out in a research domain. Without an adequate grounding in the prior work, student researchers often land on hypotheses motivated by nothing more than their intuitions.

They then put time into designing underpowered experiments to test these half-baked hypotheses. The hypotheses are not supported by the data, and the project dies. It cannot be presented at conferences or published. It is not science—it’s an exercise in science. An exercise in science is a perfectly fine experience for a student, but the faculty mentor often feels they need to come along for the ride, attempting to acquaint themselves with a research literature that is unfamiliar so they can advise on the project. The faculty member sinks time and energy into a project without legs. Only the student benefits from this work.

An alternative to that dead-end exercise involves inviting students into the fold as co-investigators in your ongoing research program. Note that co-investigators have different responsibilities than research assistants, as they are partners in discovery. They influence the direction of the science and have a hand in nearly every component of the research process.

Such influence is earned over time. When a student joins my lab, I typically invite them to focus on a project for which we are already in the data-collection phase. While learning the ins and outs of data collection, students can be carrying out background reading to get up to speed on the literature and theories that have inspired the current work. They can then have a hand in analyzing the data they have collected and envisioning and designing the next step in the research program.

One concern I frequently hear about this model of faculty-guided research is that students want to have the experience of testing their own hypotheses, so they are unlikely to buy into research that isn’t their own. That hasn’t been my experience. Students quickly take ownership of the projects. In fact, they often forget that the ideas weren’t theirs in the first place.

These collaborations tend to be much more fruitful than the one-off collaborations when students test their own hypotheses. This model has led to scads of student presentations at conferences, and highly motivated students have become authors on my published works. The relationships have been truly symbiotic.

Developing Your Selfless Selfishness

My model has implications primarily for teaching and scholarship, but faculty members should also consider their interests and aptitudes when committing to service work. Time pressures are the greatest of the perceived pressures for faculty members, so they should engage in service work that does not feel like a misuse of their valuable time. That’s perhaps most important for female associate professors, who often see an increase in their service workload that misaligns with their viability for promotion, leading to a deep sense of dissatisfaction.

The fact is that we are pulled in many different directions in academia. We’re supposed to be jacks-of-all-trades, but that expectation is unreasonable. Each of us has different proficiencies, and the amalgamation of those proficiencies is what makes the faculty as a collective tick.

Adopting a more selfish approach to your work can feel foreign and uncomfortable. One way to situate your selfishness is by writing your own personal mission statement and letting that mission statement drive the choices you make in your teaching, scholarship and service. The thought you bring to your mission and its implementation will not be seen as selfish by promotion and tenure committees. Instead, it will be seen as self-aware and focused. You will be perceived to be a virtuous teacher-scholar.

Anthony Barnhart is associate professor of psychological science at Carthage College.

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