I’ve decided to read Scholarship Reconsidered by Ernest Boyer and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching from cover to cover. I’ll post a summary and my unstructured gut-level responses as I go from chapter to chapter. I’m finding it a fascinating study….
Chapter One — “Scholarship over Time” — is an excellent history of the shifting ground of American college missions over the past 350 years or so. Boyer tracks this history to uncover how it got to be that most of today’s college professors juggle three different missions: to teach others, to serve the community, and to engage in research as scholarship. As it turns out, these tendencies emerge from shifts in the cultural understanding of what function an institution should perform.
In those early days of the colonial settlers up through the 19th century, colleges were focused entirely on undergraduate learning and teaching was viewed as “a sacred calling — an act of dedication honored as fully as the ministry” (4). This “colonial college” version of scholarship treated professors as educational mentors, in and out the classroom. But as colleges multiplied and higher education became a place of practice rather than pedagogy, colleges entered into a “service-oriented” phase that emphasized serving the community. Thus, schools at the turn of the 20th century were beginning to specialize in attending to communal needs in what we call “applied research” (Boyer gives the example of academics spreading agricultural knowledge to pig farmers) (6). And individual states began rewarding this enterprise through land grants and other incentives. “Service” took on an expanded role: “the goal was not only to serve society but reshape it” morally (6). Around the same time, a Germanic model for “research” was gaining popularity in the states, which worked against the “service” paradigm: it stressed that professors view the everyday world from a distance in order to study phenomena objectively. Some schools began to make a name for themselves as centers of research, seeing it as their mission to advance disciplines as much as educate students or serve communities. And after WWII, when “the nation moved from an elite to a mass system of higher education,” the research universities swelled in numbers and in enrollment (11).
It is this paradigm of research — the Germanic model, which seeks to advance knowledge through the discovery of new information — that dominates the identity of most colleges and universities today. The phrase “publish or perish” — which ostensibly would advance the discipline through disseminating the findings of a study — is symptomatic of the institutionalization of research as the primary duty of the professoriate.
Professors are rewarded for publishing not only because they develop as scholars and advance their discipline via discovery, but also because they advance the reputation of their institutions in much the same way that a winning football team or a Nobel Prize might. Research became a way of quantitatively “keeping score” in a way that the local practices of teaching undergrads or serving the community or campus couldn’t.
But obviously, professors must still teach and serve, too. Most students assume that teaching is a professor’s primary obligation and to some degree that’s how the majority spend most of their time. There is a disjunction between the pressure to research and the obligation to serve and teach and Boyer’s book will go on to “reconsider scholarship” in a way that more accurately reflects what it is that college professors actually do as scholars, thinkers, learners, and teachers. Boyer’s model of the four facets of scholarship — discovery, integration, application and teaching — will be outlined in the next chapter.
I’m struck by how interesting this really was to read. Academic histories are not my favorite genre. Yet as I was reading the opening chapter to Scholarship Reconsidered, I was reminded of a book I read several years ago called Professing Literature by Gerald Graff. In that book, Graff explains how the art of reading stories became Literature with a capital L and a legitimate area of study in the academe, resulting in the institutionalization of certain forms of literary taste and teaching style. (I should go back and review that book some time — I bet there are parallels between the trends that Graff tracks and the history that Boyer maps out). Likewise, Boyer charts the emergence of today’s standards of performance — scholarship, teaching, and service — the powerful triptych which is used to evaluate professors for promotion and tenure. I enjoyed discovering the historical impetus behind these criteria; it’s a little liberating to recognize how historically-contingent one’s profession is. But the institutionalization of these criteria has led to some pathologies that are unhealthy (e.g., that in some institutions profs spend most of their time teaching, but tenure decisions often depends more on their publishing record).
In Boyer’s discussion of the Germanic research model, he quotes one scholar, Irving Babbitt, as saying that “German doctoral dissertations gave him ‘a sort of intellectual nausea.'” (9) I liked that passage. It describes how I felt when I read Samuel Beckett’s novel, THE UNNAMMABLE, which I felt as a sort of torture when I first read it, but which I now consider one of the most important experiences of my academic life. It taught me how to endure anything…and it is actually a successful, meaningful literary experiment. When I’ve re-read it, I’ve marveled over its genius. “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Anyway…..
Boyer’s book is short; I look forward to chewing up the rest of it quickly. The sequel, Scholarship Reassessed, is in the mail on its way to me.