Peer Review and the Liberal Arts Classroom
Paul D. Barclay, September 2007
Proponents of the research/teaching divide, those who would relegate the former to universities and the latter to colleges, are in essence proposing that we staff our undergraduate institutions with what may be called "peerless" faculty. For all of its common-sense attraction, however, such a position is misguided at best if one considers the career trajectories of individual faculty and the long-term factors affecting a campus's intellectual climate.
Since 1999, I have taught at Lafayette College, a 4-year institution with 2,200–2,400 students and about 195 faculty members. My students, with very rare exceptions, are aged 18 to 22, and my colleagues are stretched rather thinly over four branches of engineering, several natural and social science disciplines, and a number of fields in the humanities. Student and faculty demographics, taken together, mean that professors must present research off-campus to receive criticism and to collaborate in their fields of expertise. Those who do not, are, in effect, "peerless faculty."
It has been argued that faculty who dedicate all working hours to classroom teaching and cocurricular activities contribute more to undergraduate education than those who divide time between teaching and research. While this view gains plausibility in light of the reality that our students attend undergraduate colleges because they seek individualized faculty attention, I believe it is shortsighted, for it fails to consider quality-of-teaching over the course of a professor's career and the other vital roles that faculty play in college governance.
In my opinion, the most salutary benefit of peer-review for classroom teachers, and by extension our students, is the sense of humility it instills and continually reinforces. Aspects of the peer-review process—such as the marked-up manuscripts, the long quibbling e-mails from article reviewers, and tough questions in conference settings from colleagues who have earned the right to question us by toiling in the archives and putting their own work on the line—make us sympathize with our students. We share their frustrations in being criticized and forced to rework, sharpen, clarify, and defend our ideas. On the other hand, we share their triumphs when a project comes to fruition and we find ourselves enriched for having subjected our ideas to the mercy of our peers.
Secondly, peer-reviewed projects—books, articles, grant proposals, conference presentations—keep us in the game of knowledge production. By remaining peers to others, we better understand the strengths and limitations of our secondary sources. If we are contributing to the discussion, we have a greater chance of appreciating, and being able to explain to students, the often implicit structure of our sources and the open-ended nature of our collective enterprise. Thirdly, the desire to build and maintain an off-campus reputation, to earn the esteem of those in a position to judge us as experts, is a great stimulus to keep up with recent developments, long beyond the achievement of tenure or full promotion. And finally, the research process, generating important questions and finding ways to answer them, fosters the habits of mind—curiosity, ingenuity, and constancy—that we are trying to model for our students as classroom teachers, advisors, and project directors.
The view that active scholars make for better teachers has been institutionalized at Lafayette College for some time. Just before I arrived in 1999, Lafayette moved to a 3/2 teaching load, down from 4/4 in the not-too-distant past. Moreover, junior faculty research leaves were made automatic upon successful completion of the mid-term review (they were previously competitive). And as we undergo our current strategic-planning process, other means of fostering a more research-active campus climate are being considered. These campus discussions have in turn revived old arguments for creating a divide between research and teaching. The forces of reaction, those who remember the 4/4 days fondly, contend that more aggressively research-active faculty, and a climate that punishes peerless faculty, threatens to destroy the character of our institution. They argue that students are best served when faculty spend eight hours per day, five days per week in their offices, and generously participate in cocurricular activities, even if contact-time on that scale jeopardizes a scholar's research agenda.
A possible way out of the impasse is compromise in the form of multiple tracks, whereby teaching-oriented faculty can be encouraged to excel in the areas of their own choosing while working in conjunction with, and complementing, those who are research-active. Unfortunately, college professors do not work as independent contractors who can be mixed and matched by administrators. On the contrary, faculty persist as administrators cycle in and out. Faculty make the hires, have the most say in tenure decisions, and collectively hammer out and update the curriculum. Under such circumstances, faculty perforce make tough decisions about who gets a post, who must leave, and what gets taught. With limited pools of expertise, college faculty must have some criteria for defining excellence, potential, and relevance. Successful external grant-applications, publications in well-regarded presses and journals, or letters of reference from disinterested experts are, to be sure, imperfect means of evaluating one another or deciding whose ideas should carry weight in campus deliberations. But the alternatives—popularity among students, collegiality, seniority, or fame—are worse.1
I agree that faculty have varied opportunities to pursue research interests depending on the size, mission, and resources of their institutions, and concur that there is no easy solution to the question "how much research is necessary?" But all faculty should be required to pursue a serious research agenda, if only to structure their curiosity in such a way as to channel precious time into a cumulatively productive channel. To underscore the necessity of peer-review across the faculty, I close with an observation from an exemplary Lafayette colleague: "the impulse toward investigation and writing is not like a faucet that can be simply turned on and off. In far more cases than not, if that impulse does happen to be shut off or repressed for too long, it will dry up and be lost forever . . . ."2
—Paul D. Barclay is associate professor of history at Lafayette College, Easton, Pennsylvania.
1. As Geoffrey Galt Harpham explains, "Our committee found several problems associated with "flexibility," each one of which we considered insurmountable. The first was that it granted extraordinary powers to department chairs to work out individualized agreements with faculty members, and that was a recipe for corruption and cynicism. Second, it eroded faculty governance by making department chairs into members of the administration, rather than volunteers arising within the faculty. Third, it meant that the rank of professor at an AAU, Carnegie I institution would not mean anything in particular, and that would lead to a loss in status for all," Scott McLemee, "Criticism, Character and Tenure," Inside Higher Ed (December 27, 2006) http://insidehighered.com/views/2006/12/27/mclemee (accessed 01/19/2007).