So You Want to be a Liberal Arts College Professor?

18 January 2013, 1614 EST

Ok, you went to Oberlin or maybe Swarthmore or Bowdoin or Haverford or Macalester. It was your first experience away from home — your first real intellectual stimulation, the drugs, the sex — it was a total mind blowing experience. You had dinner at a professor’s house and then stayed late into the night discussing the Russian Revolution. You experimented with Marxism, liberation theology, or maybe even poetry. From the moment you left college, you knew you would get your Ph.D. and become a liberal arts college professor.

Sorry to burst the bubble, but let me be blunt here. You can’t get it back. Seriously, you can’t. When you finish your Ph.D. and land that job in a liberal arts college – you are not a student experiencing new and “fresh” ideas for the first time in your life. You are an untenured assistant professor. (With an emphasis on untenured and assistant). There is nothing “fresh” about being untenured and assistant (emphasis is still there). And, there is no more experimentation.

And for those of you interviewing for a job in a liberal arts college and planing to tell us all about how “the liberal arts education transformed” your life. Don’t. Really.

OK, perhaps this is a bit too blunt. It actually is a great gig.  I’ve been one for the past 13 years – as a Five College professor in western Massachusetts – with a tenured joint appointment at Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.  And, while I’m pretty satisfied in my position, I recently toyed with making a lateral move to a prominent research university.  A very interesting and eye-opening experience.  Throughout the deliberation process it really struck me that there is a big gap between the two types of institutions. Yes we all teach, research, write, and do some administrative work but we do so in really different ways. The profession in a liberal arts college is very different from the academic profession in a research university. It is also a very different profession from the one for which we are trained as graduate students.

So, I thought I’d write up a few observations and hence, this is the first in a series of posts, on academic life in a liberal arts college (I’ll also add a post or two on holding a joint appointment across five different institutions – four liberal arts colleges and a state university).

Today’s post:  research in the liberal arts college.

First, it’s probably somewhat obvious, but the research expectations and support at a liberal arts college are significantly different from a research institution. Twenty years ago, and after decades of pleas from faculty, many of the top-tier liberal arts colleges moved from 3-2 to 2-2 teaching loads with the expectation that the faculty would increase their research profiles. (Curiously, the deans and trustees got this new religion just as faculty research production and reputation became part of US News and World Reports ranking methodologies…) And, somewhere along the line many of these colleges re-designated themselves as liberal arts research colleges. Yet, let’s not fool ourselves.   The reality is that with all of the pressure on liberal arts colleges to demonstrate their relevance (and justify their price tags), teaching and individualized undergraduate advising are the most important missions to these institutions.  Research is clearly secondary.

Don’t get me wrong, good research is expected – usually a book from the dissertation plus three or so refereed journal articles and misc. other publications — for tenure. But, there are clear differences between a liberal arts college and a major research institution. Here are my top three:

1. Research support. Even at the top-tier liberal arts college, there is only very modest support for research and travel – and it pales in comparison to the institutional support, budgets, and leave policies at major research universities. Most liberal arts colleges have small or non-existent offices of sponsored research so grant writing and support is a self-help and labor-intensive enterprise here. I had a recent conversation with an NSF program director in the social sciences who wondered why she receives so few NSF grant applications from liberal arts college faculty. After I explained our institutional research support structures, her response was an apologetic “oh.” Furthermore, departments are small and with teaching the priority, most institutions discourage or simply don’t allow faculty to buy out courses with external money. Not only is it difficult to replace courses with graduate students (we don’t have them — see below), large numbers of visitors lead to dings in the rankings.

This isn’t to say that there is no research support. Money does flow into these institutions. You just have to be flexible, innovative, and aggressive — and you have to plan ahead. There are several foundations like Mellon and others that provide generous support for a variety of institutional initiatives. At a small institution, there are usually plenty of ways to help structure these institutional initiatives and build in various pockets of money for travel and summer stipends to support research — especially if the research can be tied broadly to new course development or pedagogic innovations.

Also, if your research agenda is flexible, research support can come from fulfilling other institutional commitments — I’ve been to China six times in the last eight years including a summer in Beijing and a summer split between Shanghai and Seoul to set up and support college programs. I parlayed those trips into a focused research project, extensive interviews, and ultimately, produced a co-edited volume on China. This was not something on my radar ten years ago, but it came up along the way.

2. No graduate students. It probably goes without saying to many of you that this can be a really good thing. I get it. But, not having graduate students also has its drawbacks – really, hear me out on this. No graduate students means no graduate-level survey seminars; no advanced seminars built around specialized research projects; no comprehensive or qualifying exams to read/grade; and, no lengthy dissertation lit reviews to read and mark-up. Obviously, there are a number of plusses to all of this, but without teaching and working with graduate students, there is little in the day-to-day teaching routine in a liberal arts college to keep one up to date, challenged, and engaged on the latest scholarship in the field. It is rare to assign an I/O, ISQ, Security Studies, APSR or even an I/S article – they are often too narrow and specialized for undergraduate instruction. And, with more content and specialized publications it is particularly hard to keep up with literature that can’t be integrated into the classroom. I really could use a decent continuing education program for routine updates on new trends in the literature.

3. Breadth over depth. We live and work in very small departments with only a handful of IR faculty to teach a wide range of courses. I teach courses on IR theory, international security, regional conflict, American foreign policy, human rights, and human rights advocacy and fill in with courses on international organization, international law, and methods when needed. Prepping and maintaining courses across such breadth is great fun, but it does sacrifice depth and it does consume a lot of time that might otherwise be used for research. This isn’t unique to liberal arts colleges — there are plenty of universities with small numbers of IR faculty. But, in liberal arts colleges, we are also expected to advise half a dozen or so senior thesis projects every year as well as a number of other independent studies projects on topics that are not covered during the normal course offerings.

All of these – limited research support, no graduate students, and lack of specialization – have implications. First, if not for the drinking and poker the professional networking, ISA would probably really suck. The profession is becoming increasingly more specialized and I sit in on plenty of ISA panels wondering how folks have the time and support to do the work they do. It triggers a certain amount of anxiety watching the field seemingly pass one by.

But, more broadly, faculty at liberal arts colleges appear to focus on a different kind of research and produce at a different pace than those working at research institutions. A few years back at a conference coordinated by Stacey Goddard at Wellesley, Sue Peterson reported on some initial findings (unpublished) from the TRIP data in which she looked specifically at the data on security studies and the liberal arts. The data appeared to suggest that liberal arts college faculty tend to publish more review essays and book chapters (presumably because these can be easily fed back into the classroom for instruction) and are generally underrepresented in publications in the top tier and more specialized journals. I don’t want to overstate this – there are plenty of highly talented scholars in our midst — but generally, liberal arts faculty produce at a slower rate and in different forms of publications.

Finally, research is only one part of our job description as a liberal arts college professor – and, it is probably the part of the job in which we spend the least amount of time during the academic year. Even with a 2/2 teaching load, most of us are doing increasingly more work on enhanced advising, more work on independent studies, more work developing an experiential learning component to the curriculum, and more engagement in the shared faculty governance of the institution than ever before. When the workload is increased on teaching, advising, and service something has to give — at least in part. In the liberal arts colleges, that tends to be the research side of the equation. I’ll admit that for me there is a certain degree of envy watching others produce their scholarship faster and speak more fluently about the literature.

Overall, though, there are a lot of other differences – in teaching and throughout the institutions — that led to my decision to stay in the liberal arts – at least for now. I’ll address some of them in my next post in the series. In the meantime, I’d love hear if this matches any of your experiences. Comment away…