Thursday, December 15, 2011

Holly Crocker on Research Leave

by J J Cohen

Following Karl's lead in calling attention to some of the excellent comments this post has garnered, I want to frontpage some words composed by Holly Crocker. She touches upon not only what was omitted from Bauerlein's "research glut" essay, but also the importance of the many intangibles that arrive with research support. Many of us teach at state universities and have been condemned by the elected representatives who should be supporting education as leading a leisurely life that leaves plenty of room for more teaching. Their argument is more blatantly anti-intellectual than Bauerlein's, more obsessed with bottom lines and value for the tax dollars expended (where "value" is simply hours spent in a classroom, as if teachers were pedagogical factory workers who turn on at 9 am and off at 5 pm). At a time when state legislators have been fuming against sabbatical leave, Holly gets (among many other things) at why research support of this sort is so necessary, and how it benefits everyone.

Thanks, Karl, for calling attention to this comment, and thanks, Irina, for writing it. I’d like to endorse Irina's powerful articulation of the importance of subjecting ourselves to critical peer review, especially as that sentiment relates to the close of Jeffrey’s original post:

“But you know, even if seven or eight people in the world ever read the book I'm working on, that is OK. My life has been profoundly affected for the better for having worked upon the project. My students, colleagues, family, and university have benefited in ways tangible and invisible.”

I couldn’t agree more. Today is my last official day of research leave, and I find myself reflecting on the accomplishments and frustrations of this precious time. I believe it is extremely important for scholars to publish significant research projects, regardless of citation counts, since these make us responsive to the intellectual demands and offerings of others. And although this endeavor is thoroughly collaborative,(& the classroom shows the process of working through ideas better than anywhere else, probably), we should also continue to value the solitary struggles required of such work.

Sabbatical leave, research release, and fellowship time remain crucial to the intellectual/pedagogical process. While I know that I benefit directly from conversations and engagements with scholars and students, I also need time away to nurture my own intellectual investments. Really, I should say, too, much of this time is spent figuring out how *wrong* I am about many of my presuppositions (including those I might have trumpeted in my original application for research time). During the past year I’ve spent a lot of time reading philosophers, mostly women, whose work I really had only “survey class” knowledge of before now (including Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Elizabeth Anscombe, Iris Marion Young, Martha Nussbaum, Bonnie Honig, Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Annas, Elaine Scarry, and Seyla Benhabib). Many of these writers give me fits—I think some of them are deeply wrong about certain formations of politics and ethical life—but all of them make me confront my own assumptions with freshness and vulnerability (what Eve Sedgwick, with characteristic honesty and clarity, describes as being “pressed against the limits of my stupidity”). This confrontation, I believe, is most powerful for its terrifying, if somewhat fictive, solitude. Of course, I don’t labor alone (as my reading list—itself a compilation of reading suggestions from others—affirms). And I don’t intend to keep all this thought to myself, either. But time away to think, reflect, and revise is important to teaching and writing, too. If I ultimately do nothing citable with some of this reading, it will affect my students and colleagues, because it will have lasting influence over my thinking.

So, while I applaud the collaborative scholarship model that is being developed at present, I will always believe in the importance of the traditional monograph, or the long scholarly article, as well. Even if monographs or journal articles have little direct “impact,” they make better scholars, teachers, and colleagues. As we formulate new models of research, Bauerlein’s reductive article demonstrates, we also need to be precise about the values of scholarly research (at once personal, collective, intellectual, and pedagogical) that we are seeking to enrich and protect. Impact isn’t everything, and many scholarly virtues, Jeffrey and Irina rightly note, are conferred invisibly but tangibly, in daily interactions that are both profound and mundane.

-- Holly Crocker


Anonymous said...

"they make better scholars, teachers, and colleagues" care to make 'visible' how exactly this works, especially the better teacher and colleague part?

medievalkarl said...

I'm not sure I understand the question, Anon. Are you asking how producing scholarship--even if it's not read by many people--can make us better teachers and colleagues? For one answer, see Irina Dumitrescu's comment below.

Holly Crocker said...

Yes, Anonymous, glad to do so (and sorry to omit): putting oneself out there as an active thinker--someone who experiments with ideas in a fashion that guarantees no measurable results in advance--enriches the classroom by showing students that it is the careful and prolonged attention to scholarly work, not the quantifiable results one might predictably produce within a limited time period, that develop habits of mind with increased potential for discovery, breakthrough, and—let’s not be coy—greatness. We sell our students (and ourselves) short if we encourage them to generate answers that are pre-formulated, already discovered, settled knowledge. On the collegial side, putting oneself out there as an active thinker (in the terms articulated above) gives one the opportunity to appreciate the discoveries of others with humility and admiration. I learn from my colleagues all the time, and my ability to appreciate the risks my colleagues take with their work (even if it is not in my field) has in part to do with my own willingness to grapple with new ideas. I understand their commitment to lived form of intellectual experience because I know the sacrifices it entails.

And, I should say, I believe the model of academic life I’m promoting here is as suited to the sciences as it is the humanities. My version of it, in fact, was fostered by my friendship with a physicist (who always used to tell me, “hey, my research won’t brown your toast faster, but like yours, it might make people think a little more deeply about stuff they *think* they don’t need to know at all”). My emphasis on the value of monographs and scholarly articles (and the research time it takes to produce them), finally, expresses my basic commitment to competency and expertise, a commitment that is also reflected in my relationships with students and colleagues. It is not that I don’t expect any results from focused work (this is not the “effort gets an A,” do whatever you want, academic life of leisure so frequently caricatured in dodgy pop cultural representations); rather, I expect recognizably uncommon results—the kind that might withstand even reductive critique by offering more comprehensive explanations--from myself, from my students, and from my colleagues. As Irina’s comments below make laudably clear, great teachers push students beyond mere facility, and they can do this because they are themselves great scholars and colleagues. [and, lest this last term remain unclear, “great” does not equal “famous,” with lots of citations, etc., though it might include those scholars and colleagues, too].

cheers, h

Jane Chance said...

Right on, Holly! I would just add that that very spirit of inquiry and curiosity carries on into the classroom by means of the dialogue between student and teacher. I have always learned from my students something about the subject--maybe not all students in all courses--but the process of exchanging ideas in a forum has enriched my own research. It's a virtuous circle, enhanced by the time to take off on a sabbatical and recharge batteries. We work damned hard at what we do, and giving back in whatever capacity means making sure we are healthy and able to function at top levels.

Anonymous said...

HC, thanks for the generous reply, the attitudes that you describe are laudable but each of these tasks/settings requires differing skill sets and so do not automatically flow from one to the other, and certainly the kind of ideals that you are describing are not necessarily tied to the tasks of writing or other institutional roles. If we could find some way of making faculty of only those who exemplify such characteristics than there might be a stronger general case to be made but that would not be our system (to the degree that there is one such type) as it stands. ps, when do students get exposed to the experimental researching aspects of faculty writing (this does happen some in research labs, but usually only for grad students).

Holly Crocker said...

Dear Anonymous,

I’m not describing “ideals”; I’m describing a practiced set of excellences that you could observe as connected *and* enacted in the work of the contributors and commenters here, were you to give this matter keener attention.

And to answer your final question, which you mistakenly think you know the answer to in advance: my university, like other state institutions, funds undergraduate involvement in ongoing faculty research. In the humanities, to name just a couple of cases that I know about, some students work on digital humanities projects; others work directly with professors in support of writing/archival projects (David Lee Miller and Scott Gwara are the faculty sponsors for the projects I’m thinking of, but any faculty member can participate with any ug-student). At other institutions undergraduates work directly with professors on co-authored articles (Myra Seaman has published just such a piece), and for years Marcia Smith-Marzec has organized sessions at Kalamazoo dedicated to undergraduate research. Those are just the immediate ones that come to mind, moreover. The most obvious place where undergraduates collaborate with professors in the experimental fashion I endorse, as Jane Chance and Irina Dumitrescu amply demonstrate, is in the classroom.

Overall, I object to your dismissal because it analytically inadequate. Please clarify this sentence, in particular: “the attitudes that you describe are laudable but each of these tasks/settings requires differing skill sets and so do not automatically flow from one to the other, and certainly the kind of ideals that you are describing are not necessarily tied to the tasks of writing or other institutional roles.” What attitudes? What do you mean by “skill sets,” and what “tasks/settings” are you talking about? I’ve provided you with discrete examples—from my own experience and from others I know about directly—and you’ve provided only quips and haziness. Do better, or you’ve lost my attention as an interlocutor. And I'm totally serious. I expect more from you, too. cheers, h

LanglandinSydney said...

Just a quick addendum re undergraduate research: the new volume of Profession 2011, published by the Modern Language Association, has a substantial article on that with a list of journals that publish undergrad research. And, right on Holly! Excellent post. --Lawrence Warner

Alex Mueller said...

Thank you Holly and Irina (and everyone one else who chipped in to this thread) for helping me identify what has troubled me deeply about Bauerlein's piece. Essentially it comes down to this: if this is the kind of knowledge that Bauerlein and his ilk are selling, I'm not buying.

By claiming that we should stop the research presses, Bauerlein is implicitly suggesting that we teach the "finished" work that has been done after 16,722 books on Shakespeare (thanks Jeffrey, for calling attention to the Harpham article). Holly helpfully offers a correction to this misguided view by pointing out that our continuing engagement with research, the writing and review of academic work, privileges the opportunities for "discovery" that we hope to provide for our students in our classrooms. If we aren't actively participating in scholarly work, we are asking students to "do as I say, not as I do."

Furthermore, has Bauerlein forgotten how he and the rest of us were trained as academics? I'm guessing I'm in good company when I say that my doctoral program privileged research over teaching. What should bother Bauerlein more than the "research glut" is the relatively meager teacher training that most of us received. If we are expected to be high quality teachers and high quality researchers, we desperately need mentorship programs, pedagogical coursework that moves beyond mere "toolbox" workshops, and forums to grapple with the complex ways in which research informs teaching and vice versa. For an example of how I've attempted to combine my research and teaching worlds, see: And by the way, this was inspired by my participation in the Postmedieval crowd review (also referenced in Profession 2011!).

i said...

I'll add another note, one probably too obvious to everyone in this blog to mention, but I think worth articulating anyway:

Most of us are *not* writing Book #20,000 on Shakespeare. Many of us, medievalists or modernists or early Americanists or Chicana/o specialists, are writing books #1, 2, or 3 on our particular topics. There are so many treasures, old and new, even from a totally subjective and aesthetic point of view, that have not been studied, showcased, taught, what have you.

To take up and extend Alex's point, stopping research doesn't just mean our teaching of Shakespeare stops with Shak. 16,722, but our teaching of all literature stops with Shak. 16,722. And that would be a fucking tragedy.

Incidentally, Alex, I looked up the Google Scholar stats on your Philological Quarterly essay on "the Siege of Jerusalem." I don't see any citations noted by Google, so I can only deduce that no one has read it and that you wasted your time writing and getting that one published. Who cares that it helped me teach the text this spring, right? My students and I must not count in this accounting of scholarly influence...

(Ok, I checked, there is still steam coming out of my ears.)

Anonymous said...

sorry thought that was clear, researching, writing, teaching, committee work, etc. are skills, while an openness to new ideas, risk taking, interest in other peoples' work, interest in developing other thinkers to do their own work, etc. are attitudes (surely we can all think of many examples of people with extensive academic cvs who don't fit this some or all of this kind of profile) Your examples of faculty reaching out to include students are heartening but hardly representative of the average undergrad experience. The question is not do some people have the right attitude(s) to benefit from doing extra-class work but does the system at large benefit from these being general practices/roles and the record at large isn't obviously in favor of such models.

Alex Mueller said...

Irina, the fact that my essay was useful to you and your students means more to me than a Google Scholar citation! I mean, don't get me wrong, a Google Scholar citation would be nice too . . .

i said...

Alex: :)

Anonymous: You make an important distinction, but I wonder about this claim: "The question is not do some people have the right attitude(s) to benefit from doing extra-class work but does the system at large benefit from these being general practices/roles and the record at large isn't obviously in favor of such models."

First, more broadly, I'd like to see if "the record" actually includes any research. Can you show studies that do address not just the "skills" of the professoriate but also their openness to new ideas, risk taking, etc, and its correlation to the amount of research support they receive?

I ask because of my second point, which is that people tend to remember and relate their student experiences very selectively. I had around 20 instructors as an undergraduate in Toronto, and a student attending an American college might have 30-40. Everyone remembers the incompetent or mean or closed-minded teacher, whereas the dozens of good, dedicated, innovative teachers can easily go unnoticed. Moreover, the bad teachers make better stories.

To wit: if someone asks me, here in Texas, what my undergrad was like, I'm very likely to tell them that my first-year biology class (BIO 150) had 1800 students in the day section, and that my smaller, more intimate science classes had 400 students each. And it sounds horrible. If I want to, I could add that I spent my first year unable to understand any of my TA's accented English, including the one born in the same country as I.

But this obscures several things. First, that the pedagogy in the huge bio course was actually more thoughtful and successful than in the smaller courses. Second, that I enjoyed fantastic instruction during most of my undergrad. Why don't I tell the story of taking Shakespeare with the editor of the Oxford Romeo and Juliet, of getting a sense of text as process, and of the way our college drama association consulted with her for performances? Why don't I tell the story of the Anglo-Saxonist who was supervising multiple dissertations but still found time to mentor me in a directed reading? I could add to these stories, but the point is, I studied at a great research university, and I benefited intellectually from my profs' research, and in a direct manner. And yet I still don't tell those stories quite as often as I do the one of BIO 150. Do you suppose that other students do differently? There is no "obvious" when it comes to this system.