I’ve been on mostly-vacation for the past week. I thought I’d share something different. Some of my favorite museums are ones that usually don’t make it to the top of must-do lists. If you find yourself in the vicinity of one of these, you might be in for a treat.
This is a manifesto about science research.
The National Museum of the American Indian opened on the national mall in Washington, DC in 2004, as a branch of the Smithsonian Institution. The building is a work of art, the exhibits are mostly engaging and informative, though the most remarkable thing about the place is the food court as its own lesson in biodiversity and cultural plurality. It’s worth a visit, along with scores of other great museums in DC.
The mission statement of the museum reads like boilerplate, about advancing knowledge about the diversity of Native American cultures in the Western Hemisphere. The museum itself accomplishes this task as well as it can, considering the massive diversity of peoples that could be represented within one building.
The NMAI was born after a long gestation, more than a decade. The creators of the museum had a tremendous challenge in presenting a unified structure that communicates the experiences of so many different kinds of peoples, ranging from those in the arctic to Patagonia and every place in between. They developed many mini-exhibits featuring a representative but small subset of the peoples of the Americas, featuring citizen curators who worked with the museum professionals in an attempt to use a small amount of space in an attempt to represent a culture. It was ambitious, and the success of these efforts varies. The result is a visual melange, and a cognitive jumble. This medium appears to be, in part, the message of the curators.
When the museum was being developed, it is my understanding that the creators had a more challenging mission, which isn’t explicitly stated on their website. They realized that most US citizens have a mistaken view of the role of Native Americans in our past and present.
This primary task for the museum is very straightforward: Tell the people that Native Americans still exist. Tell the people that Native Americans are one of us.
I suspect that museum staff hopes that visitors to the museum leave thinking, “I had no idea! This was a total surprise.” I would guess that the typical visitor walking through the doors for the first time might expect a series of maps, valuable old artifacts, and a history lesson. Instead, the exhibits are about the lives of people who are alive today, where they live, how they make their living, and the great diversity of their spiritual, linguistic and social practices.
American Indians are not (just) a part of history. They are a large set of vibrant and active cultures living within and among all of those who live in the Americas. If you learn about American Indians in school in the US, the story you learn is that the European settlers steadily and systematically exterminated Native Americans. That story is a falsity. Native Americans persist. They are both distinct and a part of us.
What does this have to do with being a scientist?
The mission statements of this site, of sorts (the “about” tab and “rationale for existence“) said that I wanted to represent the experience of doing research in a teaching institution. There are many kinds of teaching schools, and they all have different kinds of opportunities and challenges. I thought that those of us doing research in these environments should have a bigger voice.
I have received unanticipated (and uniformly wonderful) feedback from readers, especially senior graduate students, postdocs and junior faculty. Based on what they’ve told me, I now realize that I had jumped the gun with my mission statement. I started by getting into the nitty-gritty of what it’s like doing research on a teaching campus. That wasn’t a mistake, but I didn’t adopt the broader perspective. I needed to follow the example of the creators of the National Museum of the American Indian. I neglected to frame this endeavor with an elemental message:
We are doing research in these teaching campuses. To take this kind of job doesn’t mean that our research career is over. We do research in your field, and we train those who become your graduate students. We create new knowledge and we are scholars just like you.
We are one of you.
We are rarely on disciplinary grant review panels or the mastheads of journals. We aren’t able to hire your grad students as postdocs. We are rarely invited to give seminars at your big research universities, because schmoozing us won’t yield as many tangible benefits as schmoozing someone else.
This doesn’t invalidate the fact that many of us have good research labs. We read and publish in the same journals as you. We get funding from the same agencies, and we have specific talents and resources that allow us to get stuff done and to be valuable collaborators. Our undergraduates do not handicap our research programs. These students are our greatest asset. They are both the means and the ends.
The grad student who opens a research lab in a teaching campus is not a failure. Be proud. Do not expect us to disappear from science. If you keep us as members of your research community, we will be able to participate in the community.
Don’t see this as settling for less.
It’s not less, unless you perpetuate this perspective.
On teaching campuses, faculty aren’t required to do much research, if at all. This doesn’t prevent some us from running serious and productive research labs. We have to do some things differently. We also have the opportunity to do things differently.
And, let’s face facts. There is a steady decline of tenure-track positions as the 20th century notion of the professoriate is relegated to the history books. Nowadays, lots of researchers are taking teaching positions. Research institutions, and their faculty lines, will not disappear, but it’s been a long time since research has broken out of traditional research institutions in the United States.
Researchers have a variety of motives for taking jobs at teaching schools. Some are dedicated to teaching and are seeking to do both teaching and research actively. Others are more excited about teaching, and others might prefer a research institution but have personal reasons for choosing a particular job. While there is more competition for tenure-track jobs at top research universities, none of these jobs are inherently easier, less stressful or more rewarding, if you’re doing them right.
It’s not easy to do research at any university. You’re working to keep funded from grant cycle to grant cycle, and juggle competing demands of student training, teaching, service, writing, and outreach. At teaching campuses, we do things differently than at research institutions. That’s what this site is about – how research gets done at teaching schools.
It sounds like I’ve struck a resonant chord so far. I’m hopeful that what I choose to write here continues to be helpful to those developing their career paths, at all levels. So far, I’ve heard that the most helpful aspect has been the formerly tacit message, that we exist.
It should seem perfectly natural for labs at research universities to train people to run research labs on teaching campuses. After all, that is the actual status quo. My job here is, in part, to make this obvious fact more visible, and a shift in this perception will continue to produce more great research labs on teaching campuses. If this site is capable of shifting perceptions, then it is my hope to write this blog out of existence.
And now, back to our normal programming.