Othering ourselves from the research community in teaching-focused institutions

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I started this blog back in 201cough because I was fed up with so many people in the broader research community not understanding what happens in teaching-focused universities. And people who think they have an understanding, but that understanding is filled with stereotypes, bias, and misinformation, driven by a lack of direct personal experience.

I was fed up with being Othered, mostly because of how this translates to the perception of our students.

I’ve been working to build the case that I, and all of my colleagues at teaching-focused universities, are not only on the same side of Team Science, but we are actually all members of Team Sciences. That we have so, so much in common, and that the differences among us are far more trivial than people in R1 universities make them out to be. That being a tenure-track professor at a small liberal arts college like Davidson or Colorado College or one at a regional state university like Cal State Dominguez Hills or Colorado Mesa University or a fancy private like Stanford or Harvard or a research institution like University of Central Florida or UC Riverside, means we all have the same job. We do research, we teach, we run our universities, we do outreach. I don’t think it’s so absurd to say that my job isn’t so different from the job of someone at Yale or at Williams. But clearly, lots of folks act like we exist on different planets.

As time has gone on, I’ve grown to get more fed up about how this Othering affects our students, as I’ve experienced setback after setback for talented undergraduates who aren’t being given the time of day by research institutions because of where they come from. Because I’ve seen so many faculty members judge students on the identity of their undergraduate institution, even though these people have almost no direct personal experience with universities like the one I work in. It’s very tiring.

The root of this issue is that while we’re perceived as being on the same side, we’re not being seen as members of the same team. (Or, if we’re members of the same team, we’re the second string or the JV crew). Because we don’t publish as many papers because we don’t have labs full of full-time researchers, we’re often excluded from the broader research community. (There’s a very flawed analogy here involving Association Football and the promotion-relegation system but no worries, I won’t go there.)

There’s one angle that I haven’t addressed that much here, and I think I’ve been remiss:

A lot of the faculty in teaching-focused institutions are willing parties to this Othering. It goes both ways. While a lot of faculty members in R1 institutions are marginalizing us by thinking that we are not part of their own community, faculty in teaching-focused universities are often setting ourselves aside in a similar fashion. We all are doing the same things at work, but sometimes you wouldn’t know it from the way folks talk.

We’re in the business of training undergraduate researchers, but so are the folks at R1s. We’re in the business of being excellent classroom teachers, but also are the folks at R1s. We’re in the business of making new discoveries about the world, and so are the folks at R1s.

While you’ve seen me here remark how little respect that folks at teaching-focused institutions can get from R1s, I think I do need to recognize that it often goes both ways.

A lot of my colleagues in teaching-focused institutions are quick to claim that faculty at R1s don’t care about teaching, or aren’t any good at it. I think these are unsupported and untrue claims. I don’t know much scholarship on the topic, but at least in my experience, the proportion of faculty who actually care about teaching well are not so different among different types of institutions. (Of course, institutional rewards for teaching well differ greatly.) Also, if you look at the time budgets of faculty members among different institution types, the amount of time that we spend on research vs. teaching vs. mentoring students isn’t so different.

There is definitely a failure to recognize the strengths of some teaching-focused institutions. For example, my university has absolutely no time-to-graduation gap between white students and students in minoritized groups. That’s an extraordinary achievement and it’s the result of hard work and deep knowledge on our campus. But it gets entirely overlooked (and I’ll be writing more about this later). But if we respond to this Othering by doubling down, then we’re exacerbating the problem.

We are all scholars, and we’re all in the business of publishing research and creating new knowledge and training the next generation of scientists. We’re on the same team.

(I would like to mention that this post wasn’t triggered by any recent interaction I’ve had, it’s just been a topic that’s been on my mind lately so I thought I’d remove it from my mind so I can get on with things. So if you suspect this post might somehow in some way be a response to something you said or did, it definitely is not.)

6 thoughts on “Othering ourselves from the research community in teaching-focused institutions

  1. Great article! Just wanted to point out that it’s called University of Central Florida, not Central Florida University

  2. Terry, this is a really great read. There are lots of similarities in academic medicine.

    Academic medical centers that emphasize teaching over research (I have been faculty of one of those centers in the past) do a great job but are often looked down on by R1 institutions, even if such centers are providing rural care and serving at-risk populations. It can sometimes be hard to get medical students or residents from such “smaller” centers into more “prestigious” centers for further training (residency, fellowship, etc.).

    Likewise, in R1 institutions (such as where I work now), medical faculty that emphasize teaching and patient care over grant funding and research are often passed over when it comes to faculty advancement. Such physicians (often called “career line”) generally are not considered for tenure. I have lucked out by getting included in both an R21 and UO1 grant that has lead to publications, and this took a bunch of time. My teaching, which I enjoy, is not really considered when I come up for my RPT committee every 5 years. One would think teaching the next generation of medical students and residents would be just as important as a mouse model, but this is not the case in our current academic medicine model. All large academic medical centers are this way — not picking on my current job.

    Your last paragraph is spot on: “We are all scholars, and we’re all in the business of publishing research and creating new knowledge and training the next generation of scientists. We’re on the same team.” I completely agree! Really, really enjoy your blog posts.

    • nice to hear this perspective from medicine. Thanks for posting it.

  3. This may be what you meant by “doubling down”, but I will add that small LA institutions exacerbate this problem by having serious “imposter syndrome” in response to the “dichotomy” you discuss. I often have had heard other faculty say “oh…we can’t do that type of research here [like at a R1]”. My small institution’s self-talk can be discouraging, and it has negative impact on the research productivity of my colleagues in many ways, including apathy towards how to fix research challenges such as lab conditions, or streamlining of campus services that would support research needs.

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