More on the balance between liberal arts teaching and scholarship

Terry Dolson and I have been conversing about the balance between scholarship and liberal arts teaching.  This is a response to Terry’s last response, in which she says:

I believe that if faculty could see clearly that the WAY they teach may have even more impact on the majority of their  students than the CONTENT they teach, then they would feel compelled to explore new techniques.

What’s missing from both our earlier posts is the nuance that the roles a faculty member plays in scholarship and in teaching in the liberal arts are different, but equally important, equally legitimate. If one thinks that scholarship is one’s real work, but that teaching is like service, merely something that one is required to do, I think one misses the point of liberal arts teaching and is likely to fail at it.

It’s a question of audience and respect.  Successful scholarship requires “recognition in one’s field.”  Recognition  in this context is more than the accolade you receive from others.  It’s the response to the respect that you show in your work.  It’s the response to your making others think in ways they haven’t before, or in your taking them to intellectual places they haven’t been before.

Successful liberal arts teaching is the same.  You must show your audience respect for where they are in their intellectual journey, by treating what you do (as well as what they do) seriously.  The respect you receive is the response to making your students think in ways they haven’t before or in your taking them to intellectual places they haven’t been before.  But it’s also doing it explicitly in the context of liberal arts.  This is where many introductory courses fail.  They are designed only as introductions to the major, as gatekeeping courses for the select few who will be inducted into the priesthood of believers (i.e. the major).  It may be that only some students can be majors in a field, but all students should be able to understand the context and contributions of a discipline in the liberal arts.  Or to phrase it differently, anyone can teach students who have an affinity for the field, but it takes a serious teacher to be effective at teaching those students who do not, at making those students see the relevance and import of fields outside the major.   It takes a serious teacher to help all students see that courses outside their major are just as important and worthy of respect as courses in the major.  That is the liberal arts ideal.

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