Monday, April 03, 2006

Must it be a question of hierarchy?

I mentioned a little while ago that last job season I conducted three telephone interviews, each with a very different sort of school and program. Recently, in discussing this opportunity at Tough Commute University with a friend, she asked where that program lies in the rankings. To be honest, there's no way for me to answer that, since my niche is basically unacknowledged so far, because it is inherently interdisciplinary. The best programs have strong departments in each of the areas. Academia is filled with the hierarchies and divisions between types of schools, types of programs.

For the record, as I have written in several recent cover letters: Unabashedly excited by research, I am equally at home teaching survey courses, or lecturing to the general public. Where does that place me in the spectrum? I think for one thing, it means I might not be fully happy at a two-year school. Does that mean I look down on Community Colleges? In a sense that would be like saying a high school teacher has disdain for elementary teachers, or that those in geriatrics think pediatricians are unworthy!

Surely not. They are different. In some ways, the students are different, not always on a slide from worse to better, simply different. I want it understood that I speak not purely out of supposition. I taught as part-time adjunct at a smallish community college for two years, six semesters, summers included, after completing my Master's and before beginning the PhD. My lecture sections were mostly about 30-35 students. Some of the students were there to blow off life, some to seek further opportunities. Some of them I disliked, at least as many I was quite fond of. Some were rich, some poor, some international students, many locals.

It is not them however that leads me to the thought that I'd be unhappy there. I have thought long about where I might like to work. I have gone back and forth, never quite being sure. Do I want graduate students? PhD committee work? How much teaching? What about research opportunities? A four-year school, or a comprehensive, or a "Tier 1 Research" school? If I think back to my applications to doctoral institutions, I applied to four top-tier schools. Each of them well-known enough. One was private, the remaining schools were public. Three in the States, one in Canada.

For me, to a large extent it comes down to the balance between teaching and research. Perhaps I don't need graduate students of my own (within my own subdiscipline). I can always serve on PhD committees as outside reader. The better known I become in my niche, the more likely this will become. With the present experience I am having, I have come to believe there are far too many PhDs in my subdiscipline (even if I, as Mr. Interdisciplinary, only partly self-identify with it). I don't wish to contribute to that overabundance.

I think I could be happy at a comprehensive school, a 4-year liberal arts school, as much as at a doctoral-granting research school, assuming (and here's the key) that I could continue with my research. The gig at Tough Commute U calls for teaching 6 half-year courses. I think that's the limit for me. At my doctoral institution, tenure-track faculty taught mostly 4 courses per year. In my ideal world, a 2+2 or 3+2 teaching load would be just fine.

Why are research and teaching so often discussed as opposing forces, rather than as complementary enterprises. Teaching means I have to understand my work well enough to make it accessible, which strengthens my research, and enriches it by keeping it grounded. My teaching benefits from an active research program, because I continue to be passionately involved in aspects of what I'm teaching, keeping the arguments and materials fresh.

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