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Teach First, Research Questions Later: Understanding the Role of the College Teacher-Scholar.

WE ARE AT A CROSSROADS in the profession wherein we can either find a way to support teaching-focused academics in remaining part of the scholarly conversation or risk losing recent doctoral graduates from our community. This short paper is a bit of a meditation on why that is and what comes next.

I'm a community college instructor working at Douglas College in Metro Vancouver. We're the largest public college in the province and the fourth-largest postsecondary institution, period. I don't have an academic rank, much of a travel budget, graduate students, or access to sabbaticals, but I do have a stable income with benefits, a reliable (if reliably large) teaching load, and an institution that tells me they would like me to be doing research, as long as I don't need much of anything to make that happen. This is the position in which teacher-scholars in the community college sector find ourselves: we are teachers by trade and researchers by training, and increasingly we are looking to make both roles work. This is often seen as a more natural fit in so-called applied research fields, like health sciences and community services, but with increasing numbers of humanities PhDs finding work at community colleges, it's an issue for those of us with an academic or "pure" research focus, too.

Community colleges are one of the few places still seeing substantial growth and opportunity for employment of new PhDs. Recent numbers show that as many as half of all postsecondary students in Canada are now attending colleges, and colleges across the country are hiring fulltime faculty in larger numbers than universities. Anecdotally, I arrived at Douglas College in 2010, and since then we've hired eleven new faculty members in the English department alone: most doctorate holders, most continuing to pursue their research agendas, albeit off the sides of their desks. We must prioritize support for these early-career researchers in maintaining research agendas, lest we lose a large number of new, highly engaged voices from the discipline. Permanent, tenured, research-focused jobs are, we all know, few and far between and greying quickly. Considering those positions the gold standard for PhD bearers--even those who want to stay in the postsecondary sector--is not a recipe for a vital future for literary studies in this country. We need to do a better job of understanding the pressures on teaching-stream faculty and supporting their desire to do research, be it applied or "pure."

Teaching remains the primary duty of all community college faculty, but as part of a larger community of postsecondary educators, it's worth thinking about how we talk about these jobs and the people in them. For examples of the kind of language we use to describe college-sector employment, it's worth looking closely at Linda Muzzin's 2010 ssHRC-funded findings into the working conditions in community colleges for Academic Matters, the journal of OCUFA; it's a thorough and thoughtful article that also typifies the kind of language common to these examinations, steeped in a sense of incredulity that people could be satisfied by teaching-centred work (Muzzin). This incredulity should not be surprising, when as an industry we refer to sections and semesters off from teaching as "release," a reprieve from prison for our good behaviour. And in advice for new PhD graduates, college teaching is usually listed as an option after adjuncting; being in a university offers status so compelling to academics that we advise new graduates to pursue contingent, precarious, underpaid labour in a university over permanent, well-compensated work in the college sector. I remember being at Congress 2009 and telling a past professor with whom I had worked closely that I was seriously considering a career in the college sector. His response? "You don't have to settle, you know. You're good enough for a real job."

I think we can't be surprised at this attitude when we consider the devaluation of teaching in our institutions as a whole, as though teaching and research are not mutually beneficial tasks toward the same end goal. Our engagement with research invigorates our teaching and keeps us from losing touch with our fields, but teaching is how we learn to disseminate research effectively and meaningfully to people who might actually make use of it. The idea that these are separate skills or that either can or should exist in a vacuum is one I find baffling. And in truth, I've never known it to be true--the scholars I most respect are often also dazzling teachers, and the teachers I seek to learn from are always up-to-date in the scholarly work of their field. And yet, the distinction persists, and it creates structural barriers particularly for those of us in positions that explicitly define our roles as teachers first and researchers not just as second, but something that comes after service and other commitments on the priority list. What can we do, as a scholarly community, to support and advocate for supports for colleagues working in these roles?

The staggering, unfortunate, and problematic reality that the teaching stream dilemma underscores is that as an industry we do not value teaching. It's why we exist, and yet it's not our first priority. The sheer economics of this issue--that we pay postsecondary teaching professionals less, on average, than those hired to do research--is the clearest indication of this devaluation. But this devaluation can be seen in other, subtler ways, too--the hierarchy of research often places SoTL, the scholarship of teaching and learning, at the bottom of the pecking order, when it's a field that each and every one of us could stand to stay on top of. The contingent nature of much of the undergraduate teaching load in our research universities and the institutional disinterest in the hows and whys of teaching and learning signals to students that the priority of the institution is not them. So professions that prioritize teaching--whether university teaching stream, positions at teaching-focused universities like the new undergraduate teaching institutions, or community college teaching--being consistently looked down upon should not surprise us.

We know that our institutions have pursued teaching streams largely for financial reasons. But we don't have to accept the institutionally- and governmentally-defined terms that a teaching-centred career is somehow a lesser life of the mind. Perhaps we will never be rid of these machinations of status and power within the academy, but it might be worth thinking about the message we send when we devalue and delegitimize the work of members of this community who devote themselves to teaching undergraduates: those who teach first and research questions later. As we consider the demographic shifts and the lay of the academic land in 2016, it's not an overstatement to suggest that the strength and the future of our discipline depends upon it.

Work Cited

Muzzin, Linda. "Deciding on a Career in the College Sector." Academic Matters. November 2013.

Brenna Clarke Gray

Douglas College

Brenna Clarke Gray lives and works just outside of Vancouver, where she teaches literature and writing at Douglas College. She writes about Canadian comic books and other aspects of the intersections of Canadian literature and visual culture.
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Author:Gray, Brenna Clarke
Publication:English Studies in Canada
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 1, 2017
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