Scholarship and regional universities

Scholarship and Scholarly Work

I would like to write today about scholarship and scholarly work and its importance to all of us in higher education, especially at BSU and other regional comprehensive universities.

Approaching my 35th year in education, I find it increasingly more comfortable to express exactly how I feel about issues regardless of who I am speaking with. I saw that in my grandfather long ago when I was a young man and remember thinking, “I guess as you get older you don’t much care what other people think about what you have to say.” My wife says that I am becoming more like him every day.

Whatever the reason, I definitely have my own perspective concerning scholarship, its definition, and the importance of it to the university. As I share that perspective with you, I will use BSU as the example, but you may substitute the name of another regional university in its place, or the name of a research university as far as I am concerned. I believe that defining what constitutes scholarship and scholarly work is critical to the future of higher education regardless of institutional type.

In talking about scholarship, scholarly work, and how it could be defined, I believe we must consider two significant areas that impact our thinking about what constitutes scholarship and scholarly work: Institutional mission and the beliefs and attitudes about scholarship that faculty members bring to those institutions.

First, institutional mission

I believe that there are three major generators of institutional status, or prestige, in higher education:

1. student selectivity,

2. high-level research (peer reviewed/juried grants and publications),

3. big-time athletics (football and men’s basketball).

In the quest for status, BSU does not fare well in any of those domains. Neither do other regional comprehensive masters granting universities.

We are not highly selective. While we attract significant numbers of students with excellent records, we are not competitive in attracting large numbers of students at the highest academic levels. We accept that both philosophically and historically because BSU is about access and value added education. We are the people’s university. We offer higher education to students from a wide range of backgrounds. We serve our communities through a variety of educational, cultural, and lifelong learning opportunities, and we don’t apologize for that. In fact, we take great pride in it and believe that a student entering our classrooms leave here 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 years later with learning gains that are equal to or greater than learning gains made by exceptional students entering elite private or research intensive universities.

Faculty members at BSU do not publish at high rates in the traditional sense of what is valued in academia, not high enough to attain high status or prestige for the institution as a whole.

BSU has considerable difficulty breaking into the big time sports arena. Although we love our teams and our student athletes, the Sanford Center and football stadium are not central to the identity of BSU or to our mission.

What makes us distinctive is our mission. The traditional mission of the research university is to conduct cutting edge research to generate new knowledge and to prepare students who will continue to do so. The traditional mission of the liberal arts college is the classical education of students.

The core of BSU’s mission is the blending of a liberal arts core with professional preparation for a broad range of students who might not otherwise secure access to higher education, to conduct modest amounts of research (primarily applied) and to make place matter through regional stewardship.

That mission is crystal clear to us. It aligns with our vision, values, and priorities. It has high value even if it does not convey high status and prestige.

Second, faculty beliefs and attitudes

Like me, BSU faculty members typically receive doctorates in traditional disciplines from research universities. They were socialized into that value system and their discipline over several years. They participated in seminars, informal and formal discussions with faculty and other graduate students, attendance at professional meetings, reading and analyzing the professional literature of the discipline, assisting with research, etc.

The values I learned from my experience as a doctoral student included: the centrality of research and publication to the defining of scholarship, the importance of advanced library and technological resources, the importance of professional involvement in the discipline, the value of having graduate student assistants to work with, and the critical need for time away from teaching to conduct research, pursue funding opportunities, and publish. I believe those experiences are shared by others on our faculty as well.

If a new BSU faculty member, fresh out of a Ph.D. program brings those values with him or her, some degree of cognitive dissonance is sure to occur when they arrive. The discrepancy between their view of a successful university professor and the reality of teaching 4×4 loads, advising 30+ students, coordinating programs, serving on committees and task forces, and serving the community and region at BSU may be considerable.

Boyer pointed out in 1990 that when a regional university hires faculty members based on their research potential rather than on their desire to be at a comprehensive university, those faculty members often feel “no sense of pride for either their institution or their role in it.”

My experience confirms that assertion. BSU faculty members who seem most content with their jobs are those who are able to find a workable compromise between the research university values they bring with them and the mission of BSU. I believe the core of that compromise must be considered in our definition of scholarly work and what constitutes scholarship.

Scholarship and scholarly work

If BSU is going to thrive in the 21st century, I believe we need a new model of what is acceptable faculty work. Two decades ago, Boyer provided that model. In Scholarship Reconsidered, Boyer argued that the work of faculty members at many universities has been too narrowly defined. To be a faculty member was to be a disciplinary researcher. Faculty members, regardless of where they worked, were assessed on the production of peer-reviewed publications and funds secured to support their disciplinary research. Boyer felt that much of the best work of faculty members at institutions outside the research sector was being ignored. He recommended a broader view of scholarship that included the scholarship of teaching, the scholarship of integration, and the scholarship of application in addition to the traditional scholarship of discovery. In particular regard to the regional universities, he argued that teaching and application should be, and often are, based in a faculty members’ expert knowledge and should be recognized as scholarship.

Since 1990, many institutions have adopted aspects of Boyer’s model, including BSU. However, there has been opposition from some. For example, some argue that Boyer’s expansion of the concept of scholarship weakens what constitutes scholarship. Some fear that traditional scholarship will be supplanted by activities such as serving on search committees, working with students on service learning projects, or serving as president of the local chamber of commerce.

A second concern about Boyer’s model has been that it is confusing for many. For example, there is confusion about what constitutes the scholarship of teaching, discovery, application, and integration vs. what constitutes scholarly work in those areas. There is concern that if Boyer meant for scholarly work to count in faculty reward systems, he went too far. Scholarly work, while important, is difficult to measure and does not constitute scholarship under the traditional definition of scholarship, which again is peer reviewed, juried publications and presentations based upon sound research as the best indicator of the quality of faculty and their work, and it is the easiest to quantify.

A third concern about the application of Boyer’s model has been that instead of providing an alternative way of thinking about faculty work, Boyer’s expansion of scholarship would become additional work within the faculty reward system. Understanding and documenting the scholarships of teaching, integration, and application could be more work for the faculty member to do.

So, what has happened since Boyer published his view and the adoption, at least in part, of that view by many universities?

I believe that the Boyer model, as it has been adopted, has done little to change the one-dimensional view of scholarship that has dominated American higher education for decades. Although giving credit for work in teaching, integration and application is seen as appropriate, it hasn’t been integrated into faculty reward systems to any great extent. However, if campuses like BSU are going to be distinctive and thrive, we need to fully integrate recognition for work in all of the Boyer identified areas of scholarship into our faculty reward system. A new definition of scholarship that goes beyond the traditional, historical definition and truly embraces an expansion of what constitutes scholarship is needed.

In its original form, Boyer’s concern may have been not so much about a broadening of the forms that scholarship could be presented in as for a broadened role for the acquisition and use of knowledge, or what I would call scholarly work. Traditional scholarship results in a product that is relatively easy to assess. Scholarly work is a process that requires a different type of assessment. I think what Boyer was suggesting is that at regional universities (and I believe at all universities) we need to emphasize and recognize the importance of scholarly work as a base for all our activities, and that scholarly work can count as scholarship for purposes of retention, promotion, and tenure.

While many at BSU may agree that Boyer was on the right track in 1990, the definition of scholarship is still an area of tension that needs exploration. Counting scholarly work as scholarship has not been affirmed at BSU as a basis for tenure and promotion decisions and the definition of scholarship still tends to fall within the traditional paradigm of the academy. Within that traditional definition, the notion of what constitutes public dissemination of published product is also undefined.

My argument is that we should not settle for a modicum of discovery research as a basis for faculty members to prove their value to the university in a pale imitation of the research universities. We should encourage faculty members to engage in scholarly work across any of the four areas of scholarship and then evaluate how that work meets an expanded definition of what constitutes scholarship, which can be just as rigorous as work resulting in publishable products under the traditional definition.

Simply put, scholarly work as scholarship could include a wide range of faculty activities that require scholarly expertise but may not result in publishable products. Scholarly work emerges from a faculty member’s area of expertise and the desire to make a contribution to one’s discipline. It can be peer reviewed and publicly disseminated throughout a process, qualifying as scholarship despite not resulting in a publishable product.

Scholarly work is common to faculty members at all kinds of colleges and universities. It is the foundation for all faculty work. Scholarly work includes processes by which faculty members acquire and maintain their disciplinary expertise. Reading the literature of the discipline, talking with peers and students about new findings, going to workshops and conferences, and reflecting on disciplinary issues are all aspects of scholarly work. Also included in scholarly work are informal and preliminary research activities that may never lead to publication. Scholarly work begins in earnest in graduate school and presumably continues throughout one’s career. Traditional scholarship involves considerable scholarly work. Scholarly work in teaching occurs when a faculty member has disciplinary knowledge to share, blending that disciplinary knowledge with pedagogical knowledge to positively impact student learning. It is also knowledge generated through scholarly work that faculty members use to share in consultation, workshops, etc. when they reach out to community audiences beyond the university.

Scholarly work has not typically been assessed directly, nor explicitly valued, in tenure and promotion decisions. I believe that the major reason for that is resistance by faculty members to engage in the critical assessment of scholarly work. Instead, assumptions have been made about the presence of scholarship. Published research in peer-reviewed journals has been the common measure of scholarship, and it is assumed to indicate sufficient scholarly expertise. But is it sufficient?

Could regional universities develop criteria for what constitutes scholarly work and also develop ways to directly assess scholarly work and then count that work as necessary and adequate for affirming decisions pertaining to retention, tenure, and promotion of their faculty? BSU cannot compete with the research universities in terms of traditional scholarship, but we can become the experts at directly encouraging, assessing and recognizing scholarly work. To me, the assessment of scholarly work seems no more onerous than the efforts needed to link peer reviewed publications to scholarly teaching and service.

Also, devoting the time needed to assess scholarly work as scholarship encourages a differentiated approach to faculty assignments where individuals are valued for their strengths rather than penalized for their deficits. Some faculty members will be more skilled at doing traditional research while others are better at teaching or service. But all faculty members can be held to high standards of scholarly work and rewarded accordingly. The university of the twenty-first century desperately needs to allow faculty to differentiate their assignments with an associated need to develop means to assure fairness and high quality in all four areas of scholarship.

What might the direct assessment of scholarly work look like?

I will make a few suggestions in each category. The assessment of scholarly work itself seems relatively straightforward. It would involve keeping a record of the consumption and integration of scholarly materials into activities fitting the Boyer areas of teaching, discovery, application, and integration. I can understand those who might consider this weak or ineffective. Yet I think that with the increase in the use of part-time and fixed-term faculty members such a procedure is useful and necessary.

The intellectual capital gained in graduate schools gets used up quickly when faculty do not consume and apply new information in their disciplines. Institutions need to know if faculty members are keeping up with their disciplines. Self reports of scholarly work and how that work is integrated is a start.

Scholarly work occurs in teaching in a number of ways, and there is ample literature available on the teacher/scholar model. Perhaps it would be most clearly apparent in course design and syllabi and how courses change over time. Required readings and assignments should reflect changes in the discipline’s knowledge base. They should also reflect changes in the faculty member’s pedagogical knowledge. The content of class lectures, discussions, laboratories, etc. should also reflect the faculty member’s growing expertise. Faculty members could also be asked to describe how they have incorporated their scholarship into their teaching in narrative form.

Evidence of learning gains experienced by students in faculty members’ classes would also be a critical component of scholarly work. Assessing the role of scholarly work in professional service or application may be difficult. Recipients of scholarly service often do not know when they are receiving such. It may be fairly easy to appear scholarly to outsiders without much substance. Peer review can be used to assess the scholarly work of a faculty member’s reports of application and recipients can report on effectiveness.

Scholarly work in integration could include applying professional field knowledge and expertise across interdisciplinary programming where students can benefit from seeing the connections in solving real world problems. It could include faculty work involving partnerships with students to conduct applied research that crosses multiple disciplines.

For now, this is where I must end this. I am simply out of time this morning. However, as in all things pertaining to scholarly work and scholarship, the conversation could be never ending.