Wednesday, October 19, 2011

becoming a "radical scholar" at a liberal arts college

Earlier this month, I wrote about Kate Clancy's call for women (especially parents) to become "radical scholars".

Here's what Clancy says about becoming radical:
But those of us who insist on playing with our toys in the academic sandbox need to be radicals. And I do think a lot of the ways we need to be radical involves how we perform our job: we need to set boundaries so that we aren’t always doing the service work no one wants, we need to make our passions our scholarly interests in the face of some who would invalidate it, we need to perform our confidence in front of people who might undermine us. We need to get tenure.

But I think it also means reflecting critically on what it takes to get tenure, and whether the way it’s done is the way it should be done. There are two problems with the current criteria for tenure: they don’t reflect modern, interdisciplinary scholarship, and they don’t include metrics to evaluate influence and perspective beyond peer-reviewed publications.


She goes on to discuss the importance of new methods of publishing and service to the field (like blogs), and developing new ways of counting interdisciplinary scholarship toward tenure.

Clancy's article is from the perspective of an R1 faculty member. But what about those of us at liberal arts colleges (LACs)? I don't know if women and mothers at LACs get tenure at lower rates than men and non-mothers, but we still face many of the same balance issues. How do we become radical scholars?

Here are a few ideas from my own experience:

1) Teaching counts for more in tenure decisions at a LAC, so include time-saving technology, child-focused research, and other mother-friendly activities in your teaching and sell them as pedagogical innovation. Seriously. I teach intro courses in cultural, biological, and archaeology. In those courses, I include a substantial on-line component, where students use their home computer to take exams, quizzes, do weekly assignments, on-line prelabs, participate in discussions, etc. In my tenure file, I call this "innovative use of technology" that "continues the opportunities for collaborative and interactive learning outside the classroom." But do you know the major reason I do it? Because most of those on-line activities are automatically graded by the computer, and the grades automatically added to the on-line grading system. When a question requires human attention, I can grade at my own convenience, on my own computer, without having to haul around stacks of paper, or deal with 75 different examples of illegible handwriting.

Another example: I'm obsessive about breast-feeding (Pumpkin is sleeping and nursing in my lap as I type). I've done a lot of research on it. I'm also interested in other aspects of pregnancy and reproduction. So, I've made that the topic of one week of my ecological anthropology class. It's not my field, but it's an interest of mine, and it allows me to apply research that's important for the care of my own children to my teaching.

2) Service may count more at a LAC than at an R1 school (depending on the LAC and the R1, of course). Here at Tiny U, community-service based class activities are considered particularly impressive in a tenure application. I'm focusing my community service activities around young children, so my mothering experience and interests will complement my professional service. This year, my North American Archaeology class will be putting together a presentation on archaeology and site stewardship, as well as local culture history, for the preschoolers and kindergarteners in town. Yup, I'm taking my "big kids" to my own Bunny's kindergarten class. I get double bonus points for volunteering in my child's classroom and doing professional community service!

3) Although LACs put more focus on teaching than R1s, at many colleges, research will also be rewarded. Here at Tiny U, a mediocre teaching record and a stellar research record will get you tenure, but a bad research record will not necessarily be balanced by even the highest teaching honors. At Tiny U, only a small percentage of the faculty do significant research, but we have little pots of money to encourage faculty to do more. I've never been turned down for any money I've applied for, including grants in the $5,000-20,000 range! If you're one of the few here who do research, you can have a significant advantage when it comes to available seed money.

Obviously, the reason so few of us do research is because our teaching and advising loads are so high. This is where it becomes important to say "no", and to refuse typically "mothering" roles that both administrators and students may wish you to fulfill. I don't listen to students' personal problems. I'm happy to serve as their academic adviser, but they need to come to me with coherent questions and plans, I won't spend an hour discussing their vague dreams for the future. I'm not their mother. I'm not rude when I refuse this role, I'm just professional and distant, and I refuse to take any conversational opening that invites more "sharing". Every once in a while, a student is unable to read the conversational cues that say "I'm not your personal counselor, I'm your professor, let's keep this professional", but in general, I find my more "hands-off" role easy to maintain. (I should mention that I'm neither young, pretty, short, nor particularly feminine in appearance, advantages that help maintain some distance and respect.)

4) Public outreach is a category of service that is also highly prized at some LACs. I often have great ideas for public outreach (I'll give a series of lectures on human evolution! I'll put together an archaeology day!). I've decided to avoid these as much as possible, unless I can "double-dip", for example, by having one of my classes put together the archaeology day as a community-service based component of their classroom experience.

That brings me to the topic of this blog. One of the original purposes of this blog was to create a forum where I could vent, which is one of the reasons I made it anonymous. (The other reason is that I am concerned my colleagues in anthropology would see this blog as wasted time that could be spent on teaching or publishing.) I have used this space to vent in the past, but I've since regretted making this blog anonymous. In general, I like my job and my colleagues, and I don't have that much to complain about that I can't openly acknowledge. I wonder, if I was more open about my identity, could I foster more dialog on the topics of zooarchaeology, teaching methods, and family/work balance which are the main focus of this blog? I never intended for this blog to influence the field, or impress anybody, but it would be nice to have more interaction with other archaeologists interested in the same topics. Obviously, the few people who comment on this blog already know who I am. I'm not really keeping my identity secret, especially from other zooarchaeologists, but I do regret that I didn't begin this blog openly. I feel it would be too difficult to change now.

As a final note, I planned to write this post 10 days ago, but I was delayed by the same sorts of life events that make motherhood and academia hard to merge. Pumpkin had minor surgery, and my parents were here for a week to help. Between the surgery, a day at home for Pumpkin, and a volunteer responsibility at Bunny's school, I lost most of last week. This week, Bunny doesn't have school Thursday and Friday, and Pumpkin has been sick at home the last two days. If I'm lucky, he'll be well enough to go to daycare tomorrow, so I'll have one day this week to work. I had a Wenner-Gren grant proposal 80% done on the 7th, and I've barely touched it since. (Hmm, maybe I should be doing that instead of writing this blog.)

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