Last week, I had a wonderful conversation with some of Western Connecticut State University’s talented faculty, as we prepared for Scholars in Action. The Scholars in Action series features interdisciplinary conversations between faculty whose research intersects in some way. The intersection is sometimes very loose, perhaps around a single common word, or sometimes quite direct, particularly when we focus on pedagogy. The fall 2019 group was selected because of a shared focus on culture as important variable in marketing, justice and law administration, sociology, and philosophy.
One of the goals of Scholars in Action is to encourage us to get us out of our departments and into conversations with a broader university community. Indeed, each time I host one of these panels, I find myself seated at a table with a group of people who have never met each other. The simple act of introductions is enlightening and exciting for all of us, as we get to know our colleagues. Then we start talking about the scholarship, which expands our understanding of the varied approaches to research as well as disciplinary research priorities and boundaries.
This time, however, there was something more. We went around the table, hearing first about how social exclusion can drive consumer behavior, then a provocative question about the ways in which we define “homeland security,” then insights into how academics can facilitate dialogue during international development efforts, and finally the ways in which power and economics can exclude or mischaracterize critical voices in environmental decision-making. As I listened to my colleagues describe their research, I found myself thinking about the richness of the questions asked, and the importance of our contributions to thoughtful discourse.
You see, most of the time, when people talk about scholarship in higher education, they focus on either breakthrough discoveries (usually in STEM disciplines) or on politically charged works that are poised to shake up the status quo. These are important and useful contributions from the academy, to be sure, but they are only a small part of the story. For most of us, the breakthroughs are elusive, but the day-to-day insights are profound. It is these insights that guide curriculum, inquiry, and overall conversations with our students. Cumulatively, they help us further our thinking in our disciplines while continuously uncovering next questions. These questions become the heart of our teaching.
The value of the questions that we pursue in the academy, whether large or small, have the power to re-shape worldviews. For example, when a faculty member asks students in a communication class to map the representation of women athletes on ESPN (perhaps as research assistants or as part of senior research project), those students may simply contribute to a well-defined body of research surrounding popular culture and the construction of gender in the United States. This, alone, can help students see that there is more thinking to do around athletics than simply calculating the odds of a win, or mapping coaching strategies. This change in perspective can have a larger impact on how they see other questions of equity, stereotypes, and power. It might also help them see where progress has been made over time.
The faculty member who has developed expertise in the questions around representation in athletics will add to that body of literature, to be sure, but they will also have important examples and insights that go beyond the literature review. The specificity of their examples is likely to inspire deeper connections with the subject in their students because of its freshness in the mind of that faculty member. Let’s face it, we are all excited by our new insights and discoveries, and that excitement is visible to our students. With each new finding, faculty demonstrate what it means to be a critical thinker and a life-long learner, and the rewards of the hard work that research requires.
Universities like mine are rarely recognized for scholarship. While all of my faculty are engaged in projects large and small, and a few hold patents or are the recognized authorities in their field, because we are generally characterized as a teaching university, the value of our scholarly efforts are often unobserved. Yet scholarship of all kinds is woven into everything we do. Our passion for our subjects helps us support the very best learning environments for our students. We model curiosity and dissatisfaction with unanswered questions. We hope we are cultivating graduates who are interested in searching for answers to questions large and small.
As I left our preparatory meeting for Scholars in Action, it occurred to me that perhaps education should be called the Fifth Estate. Our context allows us to pursue questions without the timelines and profit margins brought to bear on journalism, and without the vagaries of re-election that drive the legislative, executive, and even the judicial branches of government. In education, we have the unique opportunity to pursue ideas that interest us and take the time necessary to sort them out. We are also committed to challenging our own assumptions about what is right, what is real, and what is possible. This can help us contribute wonderful insights into all kinds of things. This is valuable to be sure.
But our value to a democratic society isn’t just about the research questions we try to answer. Cultivating the habits of scholarship in our students is our much larger and perhaps more important contribution. The ways in which our scholarship can inspire our students to ask questions and seek answers is a vital part of creating an educated citizenry. That contribution to democracy is invaluable.