• October 23, 2014

Just Because We're Not Publishing Doesn't Mean We're Not Working

Just Because We're Not Publishing Doesn't Mean We're Not Working 1

Randy Lyhus for The Chronicle

The public is on to us. They now know our six to 12 hours in the classroom is for a week, not a day. And we teach for only 30 weeks a year if we can afford to avoid summer work. What was once just a running joke is now a serious question raised in op-eds, spread in viral e-mails, and brought before legislatures. Everywhere, it seems, unproductive faculty members are blamed for the rising cost of higher education.

The general public does not understand our workloads, and we have not done a good job educating them about what we do. We often haven't made a convincing case even to ourselves. A common academic's response to questions about our work focuses on our time spent in generating new knowledge, usually in the form of publications. Indeed, faculty productivity is often measured by numbers of publications.

But that defense won't stand up to scrutiny for many of us who don't work at research universities. Critics might be surprised by how much some faculty members at regional universities and liberal-arts colleges do write; however, compared with faculty members at major research universities, we typically spend more time with students, teach more courses and more different courses, and provide more direct service to local and regional communities. Yet for many of us, the number of hours we spend teaching and performing service doesn't account for a large proportion of our time.

We have no concise term to describe what we spend much of our time doing. Our colleges are focused on scholarly products that can be peer-reviewed and published, but the reality is that many of us spend much of our time on being scholarly, not on producing scholarship. We are, and should be, consuming the scholarship of others. Consuming scholarship includes preparatory time for teaching but is much broader. We need a name for this ubiquitous activity. I offer "consumatory scholarship."

Effective teachers (and researchers) develop expertise by reading and studying deeply and broadly. Professors take this activity for granted. Our students, our supporters and detractors on boards and in legislatures, and the general public do not.

They do not see us reading, talking with—and listening to—colleagues, or translating new information into class notes or research ideas. They do not see us struggling to find out what is important in the overwhelming amount of new information in every discipline. Yet such consumatory scholarship is fundamental to up-to-date teaching, to the initial stages of research projects, and to institutional and community service based on expertise rather than just good intentions.

A descriptive label for scholarly consumption is a first step. Those of us outside the research universities next need to begin talking about consumatory scholarship within the university, evaluating it and, eventually, using it when conveying the university's core values and activities to the rest of the world.

Administrators can talk about protecting faculty time and fiscal resources for consumatory scholarship. Budget requests for travel to professional meetings, study leaves, and library resources can point to the importance of consumatory scholarship. Requests for tenure-track positions rather than for more adjuncts can emphasize the need for consumatory scholarship in the development of faculty expertise, since contingent faculty are rarely given time to keep up with advances in their disciplines. Discussions of the need for more cross-disciplinary work in the university can focus on the important role of consumatory scholarship.

We can evaluate consumatory scholarship in a number of ways. For example, faculty members can provide narratives about how they have incorporated new ideas and information into their teaching, research, and service when we submit annual reviews and tenure-and-promotion applications. We can keep logs and blogs on the knowledge we are consuming.

As we inside the university get accustomed to using the concept of consumatory scholarship, we can begin to use it more externally. Recognition of its role should appear in annual reports, news releases, and speeches. Faculty members and administrators should make governing boards, legislatures, and potential financial contributors aware of the dependence of effective teaching, competent productive scholarship, and useful public service on consumatory scholarship.

My argument for this concept echoes Ernest L. Boyer's earliest calls for a reconsideration of scholarship in the late 1980s. However, he and his followers quickly got caught up in classifying and measuring the broader view of faculty scholarship. Scholarship was soon equated once again with externally peer-reviewed products. The ubiquitous role of scholarly consumption in the everyday work of the faculty, a role Boyer originally wanted to acknowledge, was lost.

The main contribution of universities in general is the scholarly expertise of their faculties. Today we need to persuade our critics that the time we spend consuming the scholarship of others is worth the investment, and that the relative brevity of the time we spend in the classroom is justifiable. Then, perhaps, the self-reported 50-to-55-hour work week claimed in so many faculty surveys will become more believable.

Bruce B. Henderson is a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University.

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