Monday, October 10, 2011

On teaching, writing, service, research . . .

For the past month, both Z and Clarissa (here and here, for example)have been writing a lot on the very teaching, writing, research and service as part of ones job as a university professor. I will not address specifically what they say, because at this point it would be too long. Furthermore, if you haven't read these amazing bloggers, it is a good opportunity for you to discover them. I agree with some of what they say, and I do not with other parts. The reason for this, I believe, is that not every job is the same. I am not just talking about working conditions, but also different institutional cultures and what different colleges/universities look for in a professor. Therefore, some people are better fit for certain places than others.

As a result, I will just spill out some thoughts that I have after reading them. Please, read each point as if the sentence started "FOR ME, . . . " I am not trying to be prescriptive, but to articulate why I am at my job, what I like it, what I believe I am good at, what are my weaknesses, etc.

a) For me, research is fun and enjoyable. I'm a curious person by nature. Writing, however, is really hard. I write most of my essays in Spanish, and it still is hard. I literally have a problem with words. I know my ideas are (usually) original, but it is a struggle to me to articulate them in a coherent and well-written piece. My prose is not exactly a pleasure to read. Let's just say that Jonathan should be happy that my field is not his, so he will not have to read one of my manuscripts.

b) On the other hand, I'm a great oral story-teller. I've been told that several times. That is one of my assets as a professor. I am funny, and I can tell a story. I know how to engage my students. Related to that, I know how to challenge them in a positive way, so that they try to respond to it and not shut down. I also love research as a way of bringing new ideas and elements to the classroom, not just for my own scholarship. Here, I am not referring to pedagogy (although I do read about that also), but to articles and books regarding things I am teaching. I might not assign them (the writing may be too sophisticated for my students), but I will find a way to introduce some of the ideas to the students, and let them discuss them.

c) I am a great teacher, and that is one of the pleasures of my job. I would feel something is missing if I don't get to communicate my knowledge with my students. In that way, I feel that I am contributing something to society. Now, I am not naive. Of course I would prefer to teach all upper level courses and not language classes. However, I do like to teach language courses (except Beginning Spanish). I don't think it's beyond my pay scale to do it, and my own background allows me to go beyond what is usually the "touristic" perspective of most Foreign Language textbooks.

d) Would I like to teach in a department that had a PhD in Spanish? Absolutely. But I also like teaching undergraduates, since I get to develop their critical thinking skills and I can manage to make them see the world in a different light. As undergraduates is when one, as a professor, has the opportunity to develop a student's interest in the same thing one is passionate about.

e) Regarding service...OK, I believe in it in abstract. I think it is the opportunity that faculty members have to influence what's going on in an institution. I also know that it doesn't work this way many times. It can be a huge time sucker, and you can get stuck in a meaningless committee. So I will serve my time, but I won't be hypocritical about it and say that I like it. I don't.

f) Above all, I think we must not forget about having pleasure. If you are constantly miserable at a job, maybe you ended up in the wrong place or you chose the wrong profession. And this applies to Academia and to many other fields. If you are miserable in front of a classroom, you will communicate that misery to your students, and that's not fair for them (yes, some students can manage to make your life miserable for a period of time, but overall I believe that somebody who is good in front of a classroom will receive positive feedback from students).

g)I love my job in many ways, and I complain about it sometimes, on occasion. But it is a job. A job that gives me pleasure. It defines a lot of who I am, but it is not 99% of my identity. Whether I am a true scholar or not, I really don't care. I believe I am, although I probably would not make tenure in a R1 institution. Why? Because I can't bring myself to be so devoted to my scholarship, so I probably would never have the book on time. That is why I am a better fit in my institution, where research is required but teaching is also paramount. I am an inquisitive mind, I love learning, and I like equally communicating my knowledge. To my peers and to my students.

These are my random thoughts regarding teaching, writing, research and service as a professor. They are highly subjective, as they are informed by my own background, my personality, my personal history. I don't pretend that they apply to everybody, but they certainly work for me.


  1. Thank you for the compliments! :-)

    I finally found a service obligation that makes me extremely happy and always put me in a good mood. It's a committee that distributes research grants to faculty at our university. Just the idea that I'm part of a process to give money to my colleagues makes me very happy.

    It's such a feel-good committee, especially since the majority of applications do end up getting funded. I feel like Papa Noel (can't remember the English equivalent right now, imagine that.) :-)

  2. "overall I believe that somebody who is good in front of a classroom will receive positive feedback from students"

    -I also wanted to add that this is absolutely and completely true. It isn't easy grades and a teacher who is a pushover that students appreciate. Rather, they love a teacher who knows her stuff and who is passionate about teaching.

  3. Lucky you with the committee. I finally like one of the subcommittees I am in, but the major committee. Oh no.

    Re teaching: absolutely. You can be hard, but if they can feel you love what you are doing, they will at least respect you. And many times, they will learn to share your enthusiasm.

  4. I'm with you on students and teaching being my passion, though I have original research and have been told my writing is solid. I'd like to consider a non-R1 teaching post, but there are none in my field this year in places my husband and I are willing to move. Maybe next year.

  5. I think your students are lucky to have an engaging professor. I've had a small taste of teaching, and I love being able to help students understand a subject better, but I don't think that I have the gift of making it interesting or funny.

    If I go into academia, it would be aiming for R1...

  6. "I'm with you on students and teaching being my passion, though I have original research and have been told my writing is solid"

    Research and teaching do not have to be mutually exclusive. My research (sometimes) informs my teaching, and I definitively do a lot of research every time I design a syllabus.

    "If I go into academia, it would be aiming for R1"

    That's a great goal. Just be sure to be aware of what the chances are that you will end up at an R1, where do you need to go to grad school so that it happens, and whether you'd be comfortable with your options if it does not happen.

  7. I do not dislike teaching and seem to get pretty good ratings for my discussion classes. As a grad student, it sometimes does feel like a waste of time that could have gone into research for my thesis. On a longer-term career though, I feel teaching has many benefits, one of which is a useful and feel-good break from the grind of research, particularly when one has hit a roadblock in one's work.

  8. I don't know what your field is, but in many disciplines teaching will be a major part of your career. Grad school is a good time to gain confidence in front of a classroom, and to polish your skills.

  9. Yes I totally agree with that. I am getting a PhD in physics and an academic career in that doesn't necessarily have to involve undergrad teaching. At least grad school is time to figure out whether one'd really want that kind of job.

  10. Yes, the sciences are a different story. And I think that given the option, those who actually like teaching should be doing it. But if you are in doubt, I'll say this: in the United States, where you have to take so many different classes during your BA, sometimes it takes a truly great professor to get a student interested in a subject. I had a student that I thought was going to law school. She started as a History major, Spanish minor. By the way, keep in mind that I work at an institution that doesn't have great research facilities (and that's an understatement). But after she took her first biology class, she was hooked on the sciences. The professor is one of those that can inspire passion for a subject. Now, she is doing her PhD in a scientific field at an Ivy.

  11. And by "she" I obviously mean the student.

  12. Of course, conducting a Research
    is the best way to learn as a student, and it helps them to grasp what they have learnt in school.