So, You Want to Be a Liberal Arts College Professor: Life in the Liberal Arts edition (Part I)

28 April 2016, 0702 EDT

MIDDLEBURY, VT (August 31, 2010) - Students and Faculty meet to discuss the book "Tortilla Curtain" during the 2010 Orientation week, Middlebury College, Vermont. (Photo © 2010 Brett Simison)

MIDDLEBURY, VT (August 31, 2010) – Students and Faculty meet to discuss the book “Tortilla Curtain” during the 2010 Orientation week, Middlebury College, Vermont. (Photo © 2010 Brett Simison)

[Note: This is the first of two guest posts on life in the Liberal Arts Colleges from Sarah Stroup and Amy Yuen, both Associate Professors of Political Science, Middlebury College]

Job market season is fast approaching, but information about those jobs can be scarce. For those on the market, just starting a liberal arts job, or just curious, we offer a little insight from two women recently tenured at a liberal arts institution. Elaborating on prior Duck posts here and here, we first offer a snapshot of research in the liberal arts and later offer a few tips for job applicants. These reflections draw on own experiences as well as from email conversations with early- and mid-career faculty at eight other liberal arts colleges (thanks everybody!).

The stereotype of the liberal arts is one that is all teaching, no research. A number of us have had a very different experience.

The balance of research and teaching looks different.

Teaching is still what draws people to our campuses, and we got little research done in our first year while prepping 3 or 4 new classes. Having prior teaching experience helped a lot with this workload. On the plus side, small classes allowed us create relationships with our students and demand more from them. Our students bring us presents from their study abroad experiences and regularly attend office hours. We know them.

Research by liberal arts faculty looks different, but not necessarily deficient. Those who bemoan the move of academics towards “minimum publishable units” should celebrate the slower pace and broader view allowed by liberal arts institutions. Yes, the emphasis on research (and publication venue) increases as one moves up the USN&WR rankings. Still, across the liberal arts spectrum, there is more room for research than you might expect. We also may be part of a generational shift, as many new liberal arts faculty have brought their commitment to research with them.

Like any institution, liberal arts faculty must protect their research time. We have a bit more with a low teaching load (an average 4.5 courses/year). But most top 50 liberal arts colleges have less than a six-course load and the top 100 require no more than six. Our rate of production is slower than at an R1, but liberal arts faculty publish with leading journals and university presses (for just a few examples, see here, here, and here).

Competitive pressures are pushing many liberal arts colleges to emphasize professional preparation. Students want to develop concrete skills – in regression analysis, data management, or human-subjects research – and administrations want to support these efforts. This can generate new resources and rewards for student-faculty research.

Yes, you can stay in the conversation.

With a slower research pace and no grad students, you might worry about how a liberal arts job would shape your interaction with the discipline. Few PhDs want to invest years only to be shut out of the discipline as soon as cap and gown are hung in a closet. You can’t stop publishing, but there are many ways to engage, even without armies of data coders or large travel budgets.

  • Sit on the other side of the table. Like R1 colleagues, we review manuscripts and discuss papers at conferences. Here, being a teacher helps, as liberal arts faculty are practiced at giving detailed feedback on written work. This service is valuable, depends on volunteers, and is an easy “in.”
  • Use technology. We use many means to connect our work to others and discuss conceptual or methodological problems. This is particularly important in the liberal arts because they emphasize breadth, so you are unlikely to find two IO scholars together or a methodologist down the hall. We read the blogs and use Skype and Dropbox to converse with co-authors and colleagues. We’ve taken part in the new online colloquia for presenting research and getting immediate feedback from colleagues all over the world (e.g. Online Peace Science Colloquium or the Conflict Consortium Virtual Workshop).
  • Max out your institution’s support for professional development. There are lots of opportunities to attend workshops and meet others who share your interests. Research workshops are an obvious venue, but there are also pedagogical workshops (and often separate pots of money for these) where you can meet colleagues with similar interests (which can then feed back into research).

We share many of the challenges that our R1 colleagues face; we struggle daily to balance teaching, writing, meetings, and childcare. Others are more common to our liberal arts jobs, like conference interactions that sometimes involve some confused squinting at our name tags (“where is that again?”).

From our vantage point, the more difficult obstacle to engagement with the discipline is access to resources, which is only partially a function of the institution. Ours has been a great place to practice political science, with a regular research leave and generous support. We may have traded name recognition for a slower pace, but we have not traded in our research to teach.