Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Scholar vs. Academic? Should We Take More Time to Smell the Roses?

David J. Leonard, a Professor at WSU in comparative ethnic studies made a really good point in a recent blog post he wrote entitled "Scholars versus Academics".  I thought his short, succinct post was well-argued as someone currently in-process of getting a PhD.

He argues that the normal constraints put on graduate students and junior faculty are often too much on their own and take away from the bigger picture.  We should be training scholars, after all, not academics.  Scholars, according to Leonard and others, are multidisciplinary and focused on development outside of publishing.  Academics push paper and publish.  That's a problem for some.

Certain responsibilities are bound to take over, of course, and publication will matter even for those on the teaching school market at this point.  You are out there in a sea of newly-minted PhD's and those who have accepted visiting positions that now have even LONGER CV's and more experience than they did the year before.  You have to focus on what sets you apart.  But even before that, graduate students are taxed with a ton of responsibilities that can really hinder their development as scholars.

Think about your first year in grad school.  Here, you are required to hold down a .25 or .50 teaching load or research assistantship (these are rarely given to first year students in my department).  You are focused on working 10 or 20 hours a week on teaching, supposedly.  In most of my assignments, I have worked well over that 20 hours maximum.  So, you have to focus not only on your first year of coursework and possibly proposing some conference papers, but also that teaching load.  And it's only the first time you have likely ever been asked to teach or guide students in this way in your life!

This, I believe is a main problem for a lot of departments - and it's worse in many departments than my own.  I think putting the burden of teaching on fledgling graduate students is unfair to graduate students and it's unfair to undergraduates, as well.  I think back to my time as a green-as-grass first year and shiver about all of the things I did not know.  I learned so much about the discipline, teaching, and subject matter in that first year that I can't even explain it easily.  I worked with both a seasoned and a new professor and took a lot away from that important contrast there.  I think observing teaching and the ways others did it (even if I didn't agree with things or would have done something differently) was a key part of my development.  I have since gone on to teach my own "labs" for an intro methods course which is, arguably, the most time-consuming assignment our department offers to graduate students.  But that was in my 3rd year of school not my first.

Some departments are throwing grad students out to teach their own introductory sections their first semester or second semester - well before they are capable of handling these responsibilities.  A lot of my colleagues complain that we don't get enough teachers training.  I see their point but I also have heard the horror stories of others about being "thrown to the wolves" in other departments.  I think we actually have it pretty good compared to other departments in that regard.  Our department rarely gives students their own labs or sections until year 3 or year 4 of their graduate career.  Most independent sections of classes will wait until a student is ABD.  This is the best thing for ALL involved, in my opinion.

What happens when you are a first year graduate student teaching your own course all on your own?

Bad things.  Your perceptions of what is the reality of teaching, what works, and what you need to do emphasize will probably be off.  You will also likely burn out with little mentoring support.  And, perhaps most disturbingly, your students will suffer.  Maybe some people with a Masters already or some prior teaching experience will handle it well enough but I know I could never have managed it.

Professional development really, really matters.  Having a mentor matters. Watching others teach is an integral part of "growing" as a scholar.  Getting more time to smell the roses is good.

This also concerns field research.  I believe an over-reliance on teaching assistantships makes it difficult for students to pursue qualitative research or case studies.  Here, you want to find your data ASAP, write your dissertation in an "okay" and publishable format (3 journal articles, generally) and get the hell out.  The problem is that lots of problems go unaddressed and you never learn to do field research.  I have been lucky enough to have gotten some opportunities in this area which have helped me smell the roses, meet people from other nations and disciplines, and grow as a scholar AND academic.  Many are not this lucky and my fellowship on top of my teaching assistantship affords me more flexibility.  Most of the students in my program don't have this luxury.

I think there are definite priority problems for PhD students, as I've said above.  Teaching is something you should LEARN to do and should be something you are mentored on.  It's not some sort of sink-or-swim experiment in which you take the lives of unassuming undergraduates in your hands and pray you can survive your semester alive and teach as best you can.  That's not the point of training scholars at any level.  Being a scholar is also about broadening the approach and answering important questions- some which can't be answered by canned data which already exists on ICPSR.  Being too focused on the teaching assistantships offered by the department leads graduate students to either forgo funding and finish their dissertation or forgo answering important questions to save funding.

There is still a great deal which needs to be improved upon.  Nothing is perfect but I count myself as one of the lucky graduate students that HAS received good support in teaching and research from department.  Not everyone is so lucky.

We shouldn't lose track of what makes a scholar a scholar.  If we want to educate a new generation of scholars, we need to create graduate students that broaden their minds and go on to teach a new generation of undergraduates that can also go on to be scholars.  If we lose this goal, we do a disservice to the next generation of thinkers and make ourselves irrelevant.


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