Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Research, Sabbaticals, and the Reality of Higher Ed

It has been quite a while since I've posted, and -- for once -- it's for a good reason. I've been working on some new research which is very timely and somewhat sensitive, in that I am hoping that it is the start to a new larger, hopefully book-length, piece. I was recently granted a sabbatical for the Spring semester of 2019. While a year's sabbatical would be more conducive to research, my university only grants year-long sabbaticals at half-pay, which wasn't feasible financially.

I won't get into the details of my current project work here, but I hope to be posting more often, writing what I envision to be "parallel" pieces that indirectly relate to what I'm working on. Apologies for the intrigue, but sometimes when you've got a really good project that you think has legs, you want to keep it under wraps for fear of being distracted or getting "scooped." It's an aspect of posthumanism that hasn't really been explored in any meaningful way, and I'm hoping to be one of the first to do so.

It's an interesting feeling now, post-promotion to full professor, to establish a research agenda that -- while tempered by demands of my own field -- is my own. As academics, we often find ourselves driven by the desire to land positions that offer some kind of security amid various market pressures and political attacks. And even when we do find those positions, we're faced with internal pressures to engage in research that will ensure tenure and promotion. In most cases, academic freedom allows us to research what we'd like, but we also know that it has to be something publishable. And even then, as economic pressures on higher ed tempt universities to re-create themselves according to certain "identities" (i.e. we are a "destination" or "technical" or "public service" university etc), we find that rushed and panicked marketing campaigns begin to trickle down into discussions of liberal arts and general education: "perhaps if we taught more of [insert fundraising magnet field here], then we'd get more money."

It's especially frustrating for me when the perspective and knowledge I've gained from posthuman studies shows that competing and popular fields pushing these discussions forward are doomed given the demands of the coming decades. You can see the paths ahead to create curricula and programs that could make an institution a real force, but you're told -- directly -- that there have to be donors to support those changes. "Show us a donor with eight million dollars and we can talk about it." When those words can be spoken aloud -- to faculty --  at a university, it's hard to engage in research agenda not affected by those forces (whether it's to try to attract money or to purposely entrench in one's own research agenda out of classic academic spite).

Both extremes are destructive.

I'm not going to stand on the perspective of tenure or promotion to justify my position, because tenure and promotion mean nothing when your program is eliminated. But I can and will speak from the perspective of two decades' worth of experience. I know that to be an effective instructor and researcher, I need to engage in the research that speaks to my own passions and interests. I also know professionally that I have to adapt and shape those results into something that is marketable. And if it doesn't fit into the newest identity one's university is trying on for size, it has to be marketable enough to be published, and perhaps get a little attention. Even if a professor isn't publishing in the most popular majors, universities will still plaster their pictures up on website splash pages to tout their faculty's achievements.

My own research has taken a turn into something that is both meaningful and important to me but could also be timely and popular (well, as popular as academic writing can get). And my upcoming sabbatical is a chance for me to lose myself in it without dealing with the institutional noise and growing list of tasks that are being heaped upon faculty on a daily basis: write the copy for your program for our marketing materials for the 6th time in five years because we've fired the last five marketing people and have no idea where any of that information is; come to this campus discussion about how we're going to revolutionize our curriculum to the point where we're "encouraging" you to add certain content into your own classes; call prospective students to convince them to come.

At a teaching university, all of those are things that take me out of the classroom and interfere with my primary duties as in instructor. All of those are things that directly interfere with my face-time with students. All of those are things that contribute to the fatigue that makes me pass on sitting on committees that could actually make a difference. Some instructors make the transition from professor to fundraiser, although the titles they are given mask that fact: "Director" or "Dean" of something seems much more palatable than "chief fundraiser." The one token course they might teach a year become pegs upon which whatever pedagogical integrity they had is precariously hung.

I do, however, understand the need for people who can chase millionaires and billionaires for funds which are desperately needed to keep universities afloat. It's become a sad reality. And I have no problem speaking to parents and prospective students when they visit campus; I do see that as an aspect of what I need to do in order to actually remain employed. But my old mantra which I've said to the multiple marketing people who have come and gone has been "you get them into the classroom and I'll keep them here." That, sadly, is no longer enough.

It's ironic that sabbatical will take me out of the classroom which I so enjoy -- and have always enjoyed. It's not the classroom or the students from which I need a break, it's literally everything else. I am, in fact, very nervous to be without that classroom energy for a semester, because my students have always sustained and inspired me. But, in the bigger picture, losing myself in research will be a way for me to re-charge my classes and give the students the experience they all deserve.

"Your sabbatical isn't a break," I was told by an administrator at my university, who weeks before had told me that despite my "excellent proposal" I had "about a 50/50 shot" at getting sabbatical due to budget cuts.

But it is a break. A break from the things that distract me from what I do best. When the burdens of non-teaching duties and increased pressure to do the jobs of others encroaches on my class preps and time with students, then stepping away from that for even a semester IS a break. And during that time, I'll tap into the excitement of research that was the core of what allowed me to become a professor in the first place. As I said to a student recently, I knew early on that I wanted to be a professor, but my initial problem was that I saw research and the dissertation as a hurdle or impediment to that goal rather than the path to it. That research was a foundation upon which to build a career; a springboard for my passion to teach.

So, after twenty years, it's time to revisit my foundation, inspect it, and shore it up where necessary. I know I'll be a better professor for it.