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Research, creative work, and the faculty role

Upon entering the Skidmore Presi- dent’s Office, a visitor first encounters a sampling of scholarly books that repre- sent our faculty’s research and several works by members of the studio art de- partment. We are an institution that places its highest emphasis on our stu- dents’ learning and, hence, on our facul- ty’s teaching. And yet we go out of our way to celebrate our professors’ scholarly and artistic productivity—for example, in the prestigious Edwin M. Moseley Fac- ulty Research Lecture, given annually by a faculty member selected by his or her colleagues. Why do we deem it so essen- tial that each Skidmore professor main- tain an active research or creative agen- da? After all, we are a liberal arts college, not a research university. What relation- ship does faculty re- search and creative activity bear to stu- dent learning?

First of all, as part of their ongoing pro-

our professors invite ad- vanced students to par- ticipate with them in these scholarly or artis- tic endeavors. Some of the best learning at Skidmore occurs through collaborative faculty-student research, and it affords increasing


numbers of our students the opportunity to present the results of such collabora- tions at disciplinary conferences or in professional publications.



fessional development, faculty members owe it to their students to remain current in their fields—to be able to reflect the newest developments in their teaching. They do this best not as passive observers but as active contributors to the extend- ed conversations that define their aca- demic disciplines. As they continue to deepen their involvement in their fields, faculty members gain new perspectives that they then can share with students. Second, faculty members need to model for their students a life of active involvement in their disciplines—a life that involves doing precisely the kind of work they assign to their students in class. If students see their professors de- livering papers at disciplinary confer- ences, writing books, or creating their own works of art, then students know that the work they are being asked to do in class is not just make-work. It is im- portant because it is what their teachers are doing themselves. When possible,

Third, monitoring students’ progress as they gain expertise in a field is a key aspect of teaching. But the student- teacher relationship is asymmetrical: stu- dents are seldom capable of evaluating the expertise of their professors. So faculty mem- bers need to test the quality of their own schol-

arly or artistic work—and, by extension, their current knowledge of their fields— against the judgment of disciplinary peers capable of making such informed assessments. This is a primary reason why we emphasize peer-reviewed re- search and creative work in promotion and tenure evaluations. Supporting faculty research and cre- ative activity comes at a high cost. Skid- more professors teach five courses per year, down from an earlier six-course teaching load. They are eligible for pre- tenure sabbaticals and, following tenure, for regular sabbaticals every seven years. As a result, about 15 percent of our fac- ulty is absent from the classroom in any given year, though we routinely replace those away on leave (at no small cost). We provide start-up funds for all new faculty members, often at considerable expense for science professors. We also fund a good portion of our faculty’s re- search and scholarly travel (e.g., to pro-

fessional conferences) through our annual budget. Finally, we en- courage professors to apply for external re- search grants and sup- port their efforts through the sponsored research office—and these efforts pay off:

from June 2010 through September 2011, Skidmore faculty members re- ceived more than $3.4 million in exter- nal funding.

Even more challenging is balancing all the burdens on faculty time. In addi- tion to their teaching and research, our professors are asked to serve as mentors for their students, to engage students in independent or collaborative research, to continue developing their pedagogy, and to contribute to the shared work of the faculty through service. Managing these competing demands presents a substan- tial challenge. So it is important that we not overvalue research and creative pro- ductivity to the detriment of the other crucial faculty responsibilities. Skidmore wrestles with these issues, as do other elite liberal arts colleges. In the end, however, the strongest ar- gument for supporting faculty research and creative work is passion. One pur- sues a PhD because one has fallen madly in love with a field of study, with the re- sulting desire to make that field one’s life work. The best professors inspire a similar love in their students, and over the course of an academic career they must keep their own disciplinary fires alive. One of the best ways to do so is by maintaining an ongoing program of re- search or artistic creation that leads them to new questions, new explorations, and new discoveries—which translate into renewed enthusiasm in the classroom. This is the ultimate reason why faculty research and creative work do indeed matter so much at Skidmore.



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