Encouraging faculty research at teaching-focused institutions (opinion)

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The continuing COVID-19 pandemic, rising inflation, attacks on higher education and concerns about the demographic cliff are all causing major revenue shortfalls for colleges and universities. Institutions are slashing spending, including support for research and faculty development. But even though academic research can seem trivial while fighting a never-ending pandemic and grappling with continued violence against BIPOC, attacks on voting rights, assaults on democracy and the war in Ukraine, supporting faculty scholarship is more important now than ever.

Rigorous and sustained research informs policy responses to health, economic and political crises, and it critically contributes to debates over truth. For individual scholars, research productivity is not only central to career advancement, but it also provides solace and regeneration amid personal strain and increased workload. A vibrant scholarly community supports faculty morale at a time when more and more faculty members are considering leaving academe.

Thus, it is vital that higher education institutions support their teacher-scholars in their research and other creative endeavors—especially at teaching-intensive institutions that pay lip service to the teacher-scholar nexus but rarely offer sufficient institutional support. The following suggestions for developing a community of scholars on a limited budget are based on our experiences at Wheaton College, a small liberal arts institution in Massachusetts. Our advice is particularly relevant for the small, close-knit communities inherent to such colleges but may also be suitable for larger institutions.

Before offering specific recommendations, we wish to emphasize that building and sustaining a community of faculty scholars is most successful when faculty members, rather than college administrators, lead the initiatives. That way, the programs will prioritize faculty needs, involve fewer conflicts of interest and fit more naturally into faculty schedules. Such grassroots efforts also lead to heightened levels of faculty commitment due to a stronger sense of personal investment. Moreover, when faculty members themselves create programs aimed at scholarly productivity, participants feel no sense of coercion, judgment or supervision.

Faculty members possess diverse personal constraints, scheduling commitments and ideas about their scholarly and community lives, so the best and most inclusive communities also include different points of entry and varied ways to participate. Multiple forms of programming allow different individuals or groups to coordinate the initiatives, thereby distributing and decentralizing the administrative burden and creating shared ownership. The nonhierarchical, bottom-up approach is also more inviting to new, junior and contingent faculty, as well as faculty from underrepresented groups.

Some of the various forms of programming that we’ve found to be most successful are co-writing, writing groups, faculty flash talks, writing retreats and faculty success summits. We recommend them to faculty members at other institutions with limited institutional research support and describe them below.

Co-writing. Co-writing is the practice of writing synchronously with others at a fixed time, whether virtually or in a set place. It forms positive relationships of accountability and provides social motivation and support. We have experimented with many different models and discovered that the most productive co-writing occurs when we schedule consistent writing times in a dedicated, comfortable space that provides an environmental trigger for forming good habits and productive mind-sets.

After our co-writing program, Write Now, Right Now, spent an initial semester moving around campus (reserving various meeting rooms), a few years borrowing space in an underused storage room and yet another year sharing a room with our campus teaching and learning center, our college designated a room in a newly renovated building entirely for faculty professional development and specifically Write Now, Right Now. Throughout the year, our space now hosts daily multihour co-writing sessions, as well as longer ones lasting two to five days during semester breaks. Those latter sessions—full days of protected time and space to work—are helpful for building and sustaining research momentum, and they draw a different and wider constituency than the daily blocks.

The opportunity to work in the presence of other people is especially valuable for scholars at our institution, where teaching is well supported and prioritized. Our writing space and scheduled writing times offer a structure and visibility previously attached only to teaching and service commitments. Co-writing demonstrates that individual faculty members are not alone in their research passions, and our co-writing community celebrates and commiserates together throughout the writing process.

A dedicated room is probably the most expensive resource on space-stretched campuses, and demonstrating faculty commitment to co-writing was essential in our campaign to obtain space. We continue to track and share our statistics—hours worked, number of participants, publications and other accomplishments—to show sustained return on the investment. Most other expenses—comfortable furniture, a coffee machine, drinks and snacks—are incidental.

While a physical location is vital, the pandemic has taught us that these co-writing sessions are not only successful on Zoom but also encourage faculty members who choose to write from home on nonteaching days. We have now begun to offer all co-writing sessions both in person and virtually. Perhaps most inspiring are the regular emails and texts we receive from colleagues who join us “in spirit” because they can’t easily sign into Zoom but have chosen to write at the same time as our co-writing sessions out of a sense of academic fellowship.

Writing groups. Faculty writing groups provide scholarly camaraderie in ways akin to, yet different from, co-writing. Such groups of three to five faculty meet regularly to discuss one another’s writing. By providing deadlines, writing groups offer accountability; by creating discussion spaces, they provide constructive feedback from supportive audiences. At a small liberal arts college like ours, most writing groups are necessarily interdisciplinary. And while lacking the deep knowledge of disciplinary insiders, interdepartmental collectives offer new perspectives and encourage accessible writing with less jargon.

Faculty writing groups might form naturally, but workshops and other informal structures can support their formation. One of us, Dana, and other members of her organically formed writing group shared their experiences and advice in a faculty workshop that led to the creation of the writing group of the other of us, Aubrey. More recently, we have assisted other faculty in creating their own writing groups through recommendations and introductions. A volunteer point person can use online surveys to connect faculty members to each other and create writing groups, which is particularly helpful to new, contingent and introverted or isolated faculty.

We encourage faculty who are forming writing groups to set clear expectations: how often they will meet, how and when work will be shared, how they will otherwise engage with each other, and how often the group will be re-evaluated. Minimal institutional resources are required for writing groups, as most faculty members meet on their own on or off campus or virtually. You can organize a writing group workshop for just the cost of advertisements and refreshments.

Faculty flash talks. A few years ago, the desire of our chapter of the American Association of University Professors to recognize and encourage scholarly work led to a series of faculty flash talks: informal talks over coffee, lunch or happy hour. Each one-hour session features three to four faculty members, ideally with full divisional representation. Those faculty presenters have five to 10 minutes to share their work and then take questions from the audience. Recognizing colleagues’ busy schedules, the presentations are intentionally brief, involve minimal preparation and do not require slides or handouts.

The informality and the brevity are vital for sustaining participation during the semester and encouraging scholars to share works in progress. Our best attended sessions have featured new colleagues, candidates going up for tenure and promotion, and faculty-student collaborative work. After each session, faculty members have shared how the talks boost morale by highlighting the impressive talent in our vibrant academic community.

Such flash talks require minimal institutional resources. We use space across campus to include participants from different divisions, and the only consistent expenses are refreshments. We recommend that at least two faculty members share the work of recruiting speakers, reserving venues and serving as emcees.

Writing retreats. Writing retreats, like co-writing sprints, build momentum through total writing immersion in a protected time and space. The main—and crucialdifference is their location off campus. Retreating to an unfamiliar environment allows participants to reset their writing practice without interference from contextual cues or distractions in the normal work environment. Retreats also legitimize time away from teaching and service, allowing participants to recognize writing as integral to their careers.

Individuals can go off by themselves, but group retreats create a community of faculty writers. Social interaction during such retreats promotes connectivity, facilitates dialogue and builds rapport among colleagues—all of which are associated with greater work satisfaction and productivity. Our retreats, lasting three to five days, include morning goal setting, structured blocks dedicated to research and writing, at least one session workshopping short pieces of writing, and end-of-day debriefs. Communal meals and flex time for more writing or social activities are included in the schedule.

Writing retreats are the most expensive of our activities. One four-day retreat for eight people in a large Airbnb can cost around $2,000, including self-catered meals but no transportation. Although that’s a substantial cost, institutions have good reasons to fund writing retreats: in one study, an investment of $18,000 for writing retreats was associated with $300,000 of grant funding and a 100 percent increase in papers submitted.

Faculty success summits. A full day devoted to faculty scholarship, creative work and development can be an effective way to mark the academic year’s end and set goals for a productive summer. Our institution hosts a week of workshops annually following commencement. Most workshops focus primarily on teaching and advising—except for the faculty-initiated Faculty Success Summit.

Faculty members tend to be exhausted by May, so the summit offers high-impact activities requiring minimal preparation from participants. Faculty can come for as long (or short) as they wish and attend whatever sessions they choose, prioritizing their own needs. Because of limited funding, we depend upon the expertise present within the ranks of our faculty for session leadership.

In our first summit, opening and closing sessions were plenary. The former framed the day through anonymous real-time polling (with clickers) that summarized faculty attitudes about research, scholarly community, work habits and more. Concurrent sessions throughout the day were organized thematically. Two different hours devoted to research and creative work strategies included sessions on productivity, long-distance collaborations, funding and student-faculty research. Other sessions explored the obstacles faced by different affinity groups (creative arts, underrepresented faculty, women in STEM) or by faculty at different stages of their careers (tenure, promotion and life off the tenure track). The closing reception focused on setting goals for the summer.

Assessment surveys revealed high levels of support for the summit’s continuation, and the second year forcefully demonstrated the importance of faculty leadership in such initiatives. The college’s creation of a dean-level position charged with faculty research and professional development transformed the summit into a centralized, themed series of workshops. Yet few faculty members were eager to participate in the top-down, highly structured initiative. Facing its cancellation, we created a full day of informal, plenary discussions led by colleagues with demonstrated success in each of the following areas: strategies for productivity and balance; mentoring and community; working across disciplines; and dealing with struggles, obstacles and criticism. Although smaller, the second summit was equally well received.

The third summit was, of course, canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When screen and general fatigue in the past two years led to our decision to hold sorter workshops, we learned that even those stand-alone sessions are worthwhile. Participants found that 60 or 90 minutes devoted to planning one’s summer (or semester) work, with goal setting, task-list creation and scheduling can be very beneficial. Now faculty are eager for a full return of the summit next year.

We’ve found that these initiatives can bring wholeness and balance into our professional lives as scholars as well as teachers. While individual participants have experienced increased scholarly productivity, the larger benefits are collegewide. Our colleagues sense a cultural shift stemming from our efforts that leaves even those who haven’t participated in the initiatives feeling encouraged and supported in their work. The implications for productivity and morale are clear.

We encourage other motivated faculty members to take the initial steps with a few committed colleagues. You’ll see enthusiasm grow, along with positive results.

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