Scholarship is Societal Sustenance

The work of university faculty has commonly been distributed across three broad areas of activity: teaching, research, and service.  Over the last two decades the concept of university teaching has evolved significantly as the information revolution has transformed higher education.  The expansion of distance, distributed, and hybrid instruction as well as ubiquitous access to the nearly infinite mass of digital resources has disrupted the traditional role of the faculty as the primary transmitter of academic information.  University teaching is no longer a unidirectional flow of knowledge from the faculty expert to the student novice.  This change is recognizable in the now broadly recognized concept of the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL).  The role of the student as an active participant in the learning process, the role of the faculty as both expert and guide, and the integration of experiential and problem-based learning are now all common, if not required, components of university curricula.  Likewise, the concept of faculty service, to the university through committee work and participation in faculty governance, and to the profession through refereeing manuscripts, leading technical sessions and symposia, and perhaps through elected office in professional societies has evolved to the broader and richer concept of the scholarship of engagement (SoE).  In addition to participating in traditional forms of university and professional service, an engaged scholar applies her or his professional knowledge to the challenges of and for the betterment of society at local, regional, or global scales.

My long-time friend and colleague, Professor Emeritus Alan Sandstrom, former chair of the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW), was frequently frustrated by the attention and energy that went into defining and supporting the expansion of these new arenas of faculty work.  When others would extol the virtues of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, or promote the value and impact of the Scholarship of Engagement, Alan would exclaim, often loudly, that while those activities had merit, universities were primarily in the business of the “Scholarship of Scholarship”.  While his pithy criticism would generate a laugh or two from those hearing it for the first time or a wry smile from those who knew him well, Alan was pointing out the undeniable facts that the creation of new knowledge is a defining characteristic of a university and that both the processes of teaching and engagement would soon grow stale without the constant infusion of energy, new ideas, and new understandings that come from the faculty-driven creative act known variously as scholarship, research, or creative endeavor. In the following I hope to use Alan’s oft repeated comment as a spring-board to further define the value, significance, and variety of faculty scholarship, to defend the centrality and significance of scholarship to the mission of regional comprehensive universities such as IPFW, and ultimately suggest an underlying force in the current socio-political drive to limit the scope and significance of scholarship within the regional university setting.

What is Faculty Scholarship?

For the purpose of this essay I wish to use the term scholarship to encompass the full spectrum of faculty work that includes pure and applied research, archival and text-based scholarship, literary and cultural criticism, as well as artistic and creative expression.  While these fields of faculty activity are astonishingly diverse they all share several important characteristics:  a foundation of preexisting knowledge, one or more guiding theoretical frames in which work is conducted, a rigorous process of peer evaluation that defines what is and what is not a significant contribution to the body of knowledge, and finally the privileged position at the modern terminus of the interwoven and ever growing fabric of human knowledge and understanding that stretches back to antiquity.

 Because of the great variety in disciplinary history and traditions as well as conceptual and theoretical frameworks that are the subject of faculty scholarship at a regional comprehensive university, it is understandable that external observers would find greater value and significance in some domains of inquiry relative to others.  It is not acceptable, however, to extend the limited vision of any individual or group of individuals to a political or economic effort to restrict or constrain the academic mission of the institution.  A defining characteristic of a university is that it is a locus for the creation of new knowledge.  If one domain of knowledge is given a position of privilege over another, if technical or applied knowledge is valued more than foundational or theoretical knowledge, then the balance in the institution’s comprehensive mission is disrupted.  In order to maintain the rich and dynamic intellectual environment of a university, all forms of scholarship must be both embraced and valued.  Institutional strength is to be found in the diversity of methodologies and intellectual approaches of its many faculty, not through a constriction of mission that serves to stifle or even eliminate any academic domain that does not bear immediate tangible economic benefit.  Of course a university must also balance the benefits of comprehensiveness with its cost.  It is not possible for a regional university to have programs of study in all domains of human knowledge.  Additionally, good scholarship generally does not occur in isolation.  Establishing collegial groups of scholars with overlapping areas of expertise is an essential prerequisite to sparking the synergy necessary to maximize scholarly achievement.  Yet universities must distribute their resources – primarily in the form of faculty positions – among a finite number of academic programs.  In so doing, it is essential to establish or build on existing strengths in ways that support the institution’s comprehensive and regional mission.

 It is beyond the scope of this essay to adequately or even partially define scholarship as it pertains to any single academic discipline.  To capture the broader definition of scholarship encompassing all disciplines is a task more suited to epistemologists than to essayists.  None-the-less it is possible to conclude that all academic scholarship, while diverse in detail, shares several common characteristics – a foundation, a framework, a review process, and the cumulative contribution to human knowledge.

Why is Scholarship Essential to the Comprehensive University?

Questioning the significance of scholarship runs so counter to the academic perspective, faculty at times have difficulty engaging in a rational analysis of the value and impact of their work.  Obviously some areas of discovery provide immediate benefit to society.  Medical research, engineering, crop science, digital and wireless technology are obvious examples of the social and economic impact of faculty-driven research.  Conversely, the work of some scholars carries with it no promise of direct economic return and seems clouded in the misty heights of sub-disciplinary specialization.  Yet such work can help us understand ourselves and our place in the universe, it can enrich our lives in ways that cannot be measured by employment rates or taxable income, and it continually affirms our ability to learn and grow in our collective understanding and appreciation of the achievements of other cultures and civilizations, both extant and ancient.  If we consider these two ways of valuing faculty scholarship as end-members ranging from the most immediately applicable to the most esoteric and incorporeal we will find, I believe, that the vast majority of academic scholarship to exist along a line connecting those two extremes.  Frequently, faculty research falling within this spectrum is filtered through secondary or tertiary processes of application.  Only years, decades, or even centuries later do we identify the relationship between the Bridges of Konigsberg and ad hoc wireless networks.  As such, I believe we can identify the value of faculty scholarship as being in some cases purely applied, in others exclusively enriching and enlightening, and in most cases foundational to future application.

Irrespective of where any individual faculty member’s scholarship is thought to reside along the spectrum of applicability, the combined processes of exploration, discovery, creativity, and synthesis that occur during the advancement of that scholarship are essential components of the intellectual atmosphere of a university.  Students engaging with faculty who are active scholars in their field are exposed not only to the most recent advances but equally importantly to the dynamics of knowledge creation.  It is too simple to say that active scholarship results in better teaching but there is no question that having faculty that are wrestling with the challenges of making contributions to their discipline’s body of knowledge will sustain levels of professional energy and enthusiasm that are appreciable transferrable to the students in their classroom.  Instructors that know their subject matter intimately, who are aware of the people and the personalities advancing the field, are able to convey more than content.  They bring to their students the vitality, passion, and pleasure of scholarship.  In so doing not only do the faculty make the subject matter more interesting, their behavior models the kind of inquisitive and self-motivated life-long learners every employer recognizes as essential in successful employees.

Of the many lines of reasoning one could bring to a discussion of the value of scholarship, I would like to select one final strand for consideration.  Every university defines a community with which it interacts.  For small institutions the community might be no more than a single population center or a small cluster of towns while research intensive universities typically define their community at a global scale.  For institutions such as IPFW the primary community is defined as a particular geographic region.  Irrespective of the scale of definition, every community is advantaged by having faculty scholars serving as active participants and public intellectuals.  The multiplicity of backgrounds, the diversity of theoretical frameworks and bodies of knowledge, and the commitment to open dialogue and honest inquiry are explicit examples of the ways in which faculty enrich the cultural, social, and political fabric of their community.  Limiting or eliminating the primacy of faculty scholarship not only diminishes the range and rate of the creation of new knowledge, it serves to stagnate discourse and to stifle debate.

I firmly believe faculty scholarship not only supports and sustains economic, social, and cultural well-being.  Likewise, I believe scholarship serves to enrich, enliven and inform high-quality teaching and deep learning.  But I also believe faculty scholarship stands as an essential exemplar of a process by which open debate and honest dialogue can adress complex and challenging issues.  One is left to question if it is for this reason that the critics of faculty scholarship seek to narrow the breadth of faculty-driven intellectual inquiry to a limited range of technical and applied professional subjects?

Sapere Aude ~


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