Posts Tagged Research
Greetings from Chicago!
After an extended period of warm weather, fall has made its appearance in the upper midwest. It’s now the tenth week of the fall semester on campus and this semester has been an incredibly busy one for me.
As usual in the fall, I’m teaching four courses instead of my usual three to meet the greater than anticipated demand of undergraduate enrollments. All four are Composition I courses and focus on analyzing genres of writing and formulating arguments. My students are finishing up a group project on a Code of Conduct for students on campus and are now beginning an Opinion Piece on immigration law.
In addition to my undergraduate teaching, I also spent seven weeks working as Interim Program Coordinator for Graduate Studies in English, helping graduate students prepare for preliminary exams and the job market.
These commitments on campus have kept me from doing much else (including writing a blog post). Today is the first time in some time that I’ve been able to turn my thoughts to issues not related to student reading, writing, and advising.
What I’d like to talk about this month is the term “Independent Scholar” and how it reflects the need for a change in how scholars and scholarship are understood in the US academic context.
I owe this topic to Megan Kate Nelson, a historian of the post-Civil War Era United States, who gave up a tenure track job to speak and write outside of a university context. She wrote a blog post in September of this year titled “Hey Academics, Please Stop Calling Me an ‘Independent Scholar” that got me thinking about how and why institutional affiliations matter in the creation and distribution of knowledge and what the future of that system might be as the ranks of academic labor continue to be filled by part-time and teaching intensive positions.
Scholars have always written and discussed their work outside of an academic context. These have been, historically, the true public intellectuals. What seems new, however, is the obsession (at least amongst academic circles) of qualifying the status of such writers and speakers as “Independent Scholars.”
To a certain extent, this sobriquet makes sense. Universities and colleges are obsessed with branding in an era of scarce resources. What better way to brand than have faculty travel around the globe to present their research with an institutional name prominently displayed on their book jackets, name tags, and event brochures?
The moniker of Independent Scholar becomes a way of simultaneously welcoming “outsiders” into academic discussions on a topic of common interest while at the same time reminding them that they are, in fact, outsiders. Their research is not connected to a brand and (sotto voce) perhaps not as worthy of our attention as this other material vouched for by an institutional affiliation.
Most of my readers won’t be shocked to hear that academic life retains something of the men’s club environment of the 19th and early 20th century. When you’re in you’re in. When you’re out you’re out. No amount of “Gatsby-like” success will change that.
What makes this problem particularly acute right now, however, and demanding of every scholar’s attention, is the continued decline of the tenured professorate with its emphasis on research, teaching, and service and its replacement by a precariate whose primary tasks are teaching and service.
Amongst the precariate, I enjoy a privileged position. I work full time (3/3) with benefits and I’ve been at my job long enough to obtain a two year contract. However, my teaching load is predominantly First Year Writing, which makes up the majority of courses taught in my department, and comes with an expectation of departmental service. Except in the fall when I teach four courses for the extra income, my teaching load is not especially burdensome. Nor is the departmental service requirement. Right now my main tasks are to evaluate one other colleague’s teaching and serve on the Steering Committee, a position I was recently elected to.
The pressures I face are primarily income related, the need to find additional work to supplement my full time income so I can afford to live in Chicago, and course selection related. I tend to teach the same courses on repeat and it takes effort to not get burned out on them. Especially when I’m teaching a group of students who often need a lot of additional help in order to succeed.
Into this hectic schedule, I somehow manage to shoehorn my research, usually in the spring semester and also over the summer. However, that research doesn’t count towards anything with my employer. I am evaluated primarily on my teaching evaluations and observations as well as the record of my departmental service. Thus, for me at least, research is a hobby that I (sort of) can indulge thanks to my job.
I wonder how many scholars are in a similar position with research relegated to a hobby they do in spite of their work rather than as a part of their work. I also wonder how many scholars are doing their work mostly as a way to keep and advance their employment position. I can count on both hands the number of disappointing monographs I’ve read by authors who clearly needed the book for a tenure file or to move up in status from visiting to permanent faculty.
The pressure that the changing professorate is placing on research will someday (probably soon) make us all “Independent Scholars.” As a result, I think it’s time for us to consider Dr. Nelson’s request that we drop institutional affiliation from our conference badges and programs and refocus our attention on the point of scholarship in the first place–the ideas.
One of the things I enjoy about attending conferences such as NeMLA is the ability to be judged on the merit of my research and writing rather than my pedigree. At my home institution, I tend to be invisible amongst the research crowd because I’m part of the “teaching pool” assigned to manage courses no one else wants to teach but that must be taught. Not so at NeMLA. I (at least) don’t care what your employment status is. I want to geek out with you for a while on the ideas you care most passionately about.
Taking away one more barrier to participation is the least that academic events can do at a time when financial pressures make it difficult if not impossible for people to attend these gatherings.
Until Next Time…
Greetings from Chicago!
Christmas music is now on the radio and stores are all decorated for the holiday season, but it’s 55 degrees fahrenheit outside. From my office window up on the 18th floor, I can see students sitting on the Quad in between classes enjoying their lunch and getting ready for final exams as well as a few students practicing their skateboard skills. This is the last week of class on the UIC campus. Next week begins exam week and a massive grading crunch for faculty as they scramble to get student work evaluated before leaving campus to celebrate the holidays with their families. I have a particularly busy December this year as my brother in law is getting married this weekend. After a whirlwind trip to Missouri to celebrate his nuptials, I’ll be back on campus to collect student writing and begin calculating final grades for my courses. Then I’m only in Chicago for a few weeks before heading off to Vermont to visit my family.
For this month’s blog post, I’d like to take a moment to consider the concept of the “public intellectual.” Public Intellectual is one of those terms that generates highly polarized responses. Some people see the term as reflecting a healthy engagement between faculty and the general public. Others see it as patronizing, an attempt by elitists generally sheltered from society, to meddle in the affairs of people they don’t understand. These polarized responses to the public intellectual indicate two things to me. First, academics are bad at communicating with people outside their areas of specialization, justifying the charge of being patronizing. Second, academics don’t have a clear sense of the social value of their work.
Let’s start with the issue of communication. Last semester I had the privilege of teaching ENGL 240, a course in literary criticism and critical theory designed to prepare English Majors for upper level surveys and seminars. One of the frequent topics of conversation between me and the students in that class involved the density of the language in the texts we were reading. Many of these texts used jargon from disciplines outside of English such as philosophy, economics, and sociology. They were also often poorly translated from their original languages (typically French and German). When students would complain about the difficulty of something we were reading for that class, I would point out to them that sometimes a text is complicated to read because the concepts examined are complicated. However, sometimes complexity of language is an attempt to make something simple sound complex. In my teaching, I instinctively gravitate towards making complexity understandable for novices just learning how to read and write about literature. Yet when I write, I feel compelled to mimic the structure and tone of the experts in the field that I assume will be reading and critiquing my work. Often this means adopted the tortured syntax and vocabulary of “theory.”
Adapting your writing to meet the needs of a specific audience is not a bad thing. I teach students in my rhetoric courses to always keep audience expectations in mind as well as pay attention to the rules of genre. But it’s not always easy to shed the jargon, lengthy sentences, and analytical backflips so common in academic journals and books when speaking to non-academics or even to faculty outside of your own field. I remember a History professor telling me once that the worst books he had ever read where written by English faculty who seemed to think that complex syntax and jargon could substitute for critical insight. Although I tend to agree with that critique and write in all my work as directly as I can, the issue of “code-switching” seems more relevant to me. Often applied to multi-lingual speakers, code-switching describes the ways in which we adjust our language to meet the expectations of our audience. It also recognizes the relationship between language use and membership in a wide variety of social groups. Lecturing is not just a technique. It is a tone of voice. To have a conversation with the general public, some genuine code-switching is in order. Speak to people in a tone that doesn’t deny your status as an expert but that also doesn’t deny the expertise of those to whom you are speaking. Everyone is an expert in something. Share that expertise.
Moving on now to the issue of the social value of academic work, the problem varies from discipline to discipline. In my own field of English studies, the problem has arisen that no one is clear anymore on what counts as literature, why we should read it, and how we should talk about it after it is read. It is kind of a paradox that our abundance of creative writing is paired today with the lack of an audience. Particularly an audience that knows what to do with creative expression. My approach to the problem has been to contextualize creative expression in the classroom and in my publications. I try to help students see the factors that went into the production of a piece of literature, including the cost of printing and purchasing a book, and also to consider the responses of prior audiences when they read a work of literature. We then discuss why we believe that a book remains a subject of discussion as a way of answering the “literary question.” I also engage in the thorny issue of evaluation (i.e. Is the book really any good?). In my publications, I also contextualize the works I examine but I tend to assume the “literariness” of the material I analyze. Since I’m writing for experts, I assume that they will see the works I examine as worthy of examination. Particularly since other scholars have already written on the authors I am analyzing.
None of this addresses the problem, however, of how to convince the general public to see the value of your scholarship. For me the essence of the problem is how to create the kind of spaces outside the classroom that mimic some of the elements of what I do in the classroom. Public lectures like those held by Emerson and Twain in the 19th century are rare today. As are book clubs. Thus far, my only answer to this dilemma has been to blog. My blog posts serve as a quasi-lecture series for the general public. I’ve also offered book reviews on occasion in my blog for academic works related to my field hoping that some non-experts might be tempted to read those works. Obviously, however, this is not enough. What is needed is a recommitment to the concept of lifelong learning. Faculty need to become more engaged in what remains of their campus extension programs and courses for adult learners who are auditing courses rather than pursuing a degree. Improve what is there and expand it. We also need to become more comfortable on television, radio, and other forms of media not commonly used by experts to speak to other experts. Who among us is brave enough to be the Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson of the humanities?
I think I’ve said enough for this month’s post. But a long post is in order since I won’t be writing to you this December. I’m taking the month off to celebrate Christmas and New Years. I hope whatever holidays you celebrate are enjoyable, spent with family and friends. I look forward to continuing my communication with you, my readers, in January.
Until next time…
Here on the UIC campus it’s now week two and I’m already starting to fall behind. I’m sure that many of you reading this post can relate. Navigating my course schedule for the new semester, attending committee meetings, working on various writing projects, the to do list goes on. With a few spare moments in the schedule, I wanted to continue my conversation with you (the NEMLA membership) on issues relating to the research and teaching of American Literature. This month I’d like to consider what connection (if any) our research has on what takes place inside the classroom.
To start this discussion, I’ll share a bit of my own experience. My position at UIC is classified as teaching intensive. As a full time non-tenure eligible “Lecturer,” I teach a 3-3 course load on a one year contract. Of course, this year’s unexpectedly large enrollment of first year students means that most Lecturers in my department are actually teaching 4 courses with the additional class considered an “over-comp” (i.e. pay in addition to faculty base salary).
Evaluation of Lecturers is based solely on teaching and teaching related activities. What this means in practice is that student evaluations, syllabi, and faculty observations (by both TT and NTT colleagues) serve as the basis for hiring, retention, and promotion to Senior Lecturer. Research (unless it relates directly to teaching) is not considered relevant in the assessment of UIC’s fairly sizable teaching intensive faculty pool.
Course assignments for Lecturers in the UIC English Department are determined primarily by the needs of its First Year Writing Program. Nearly all of our department’s Lecturers can expect to each at least one first year writing course in a semester. On occasion, as enrollment allows, NTT faculty in the department might also be assigned to teach General Education or introductory level courses for the English Major. Some of our NTT faculty in Creative Writing also teach upper level writing workshops.
You might very well ask yourself at this point why I’m focusing on what might properly be considered “human resources” issues. These issues, however, are at the heart of the question of how research relates to teaching in my department. For Tenure Track faculty, research is the main focus of their job description with teaching assumed to follow in a holistic way from that research. NTT Lecturers, hired solely on the basis of their teaching ability, face a different situation with research considered an outside interest that runs parallel to their duties for the university. In essence, for a Lecturer at UIC, there is not (in most cases) a connection between their research and teaching, nor does the university expect such a connection to exist.
That said, many of my NTT colleagues persist in conducting research in a wide variety of fields and find ways to “smuggle” their interests into first year writing and general education literature courses. This might include course readings that either analyze an area of research interest for faculty or represent a concept crucial to their studies as scholars. Our first year writing program also encourages faculty to have topics for their courses, and a casual glance at those topics will quickly give an outsider a sense of what the research interests are of Lecturers in the UIC English Department.
So far so good, but what about my research interests? If you’ve taken a chance to read through my CV and skim through some of the writing samples on my website, you can see that my central research interest is in veterans of the United States Civil War and the cultural legacy associated with them in the late nineteenth-century. How exactly that might be turned into a first year writing course still escapes me, so I haven’t tried to create one with that as its course topic (yet). Nor have I had a chance to shape a lower level literature course to fit that topic since I haven’t (Oprah moment here) taught a literature course since 2011 (Introduction to American Literature and Culture).
The main venue through which my research has managed to cross over into my teaching has been in my methodology, which relies upon archival research. Each semester that I’ve taught the research paper course at UIC (ENGL 161), this method has managed to find its way into my syllabus and influences the topics that my students select. It also influenced the way I taught many of the units in my Introduction to Critical Theory and Literary Criticism course (ENGL 240), especially the one on Digital Humanities. Another way that my research has found its way into my teaching is the emphasis that I put on place and community in all my courses. Both of these themes were central to what it meant to be a veteran in the late nineteenth-century United States. Feeling out of place or in the wrong community is a feeling that shows up in many of the narratives examined in my book New Men.
Never in my life have I been good at conclusions. Even though I’m an introvert by nature, I love to talk and talk and talk and talk. Especially if the topic is one in which I have an interest. Yet even a blog post needs an ending and this is where I’d like to leave you all this month. Teaching has become for me a place to test ideas and find new interests that might not develop if I were sitting at home with a stack of books working alone on my next article or book chapter. The constraints of my working conditions also serve a purpose as they teach me that good ideas need skilled pitchmen and women to make their way out into the world. Rhetoric, I have swiftly learned, is not just a departmental staffing need but the mother discipline, especially in these times of budget cuts for the humanities.
In my next blog post, I’d like to share some of your experiences teaching and researching on American Literature. How do you understand the relationship between teaching and research? What types of classes do you tend to teach and how do you find ways to emphasize your interest/understanding of American Literature in those classes? You can send your thoughts on this topic to me directly via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) with the subject line NEMLA Blog Post #3. I’ll share selections of those emails with you all in my next post.
Until next time…