Peer Review

What Does it Mean to Be a Teacher-Scholar?

While this issue centers on the changing roles of faculty, I believe that it also fitting to look at traditional faculty models. While changes in the academy, due to economic constraints and the adoption of new technology, no doubt mean shifts in faculty roles and responsibilities, I contend that the core principles of the academic profession are timeless.

Each fall, at the same time that we are welcoming a new class of students to campus, we also are greeting a group of new faculty, many embarking on their first academic appointments. What shall we tell them today about their futures? How do we guide them toward success in this work they’ve chosen?

In my view, we should encourage them to commit fully to a teacher–scholar model. If they do, I believe they can thrive. Why teacher–scholar?

On every college and university campus, perennial discussions take place about the proper relationship and balance between instruction and research. At liberal arts colleges, those discussions have a special importance, because the commitment to undergraduate education is a crucial institutional priority, and because the allocation of resources between teaching and scholarship is bound to be different at such colleges than at larger universities with more expansive and more complicated missions.

We intentionally call our faculty “teacher–scholar” at Washington and Lee and have frequent conversations about exactly what that term means, or should mean. Naturally, it means different things in different disciplines and at different times in an academic career. As a university president, I give the term special meaning because of the responsibilities I hold in connection with decisions about tenure and promotion, and because of my duty to provide adequate support for the faculty’s professional development.

Embracing the Teacher–Scholar Model

At Washington and Lee, we want every member of our faculty to be a successful teacher–scholar. And teaching comes first. Our professors have a common and deep commitment to students. They strive to discover students’ aptitudes and to nurture those students’ intellectual interests into passions that will shape their lives. The faculty takes pride in their teaching; the institution celebrates the timeless task of revealing to young minds the joy of learning and its constant challenges.

But scholarship matters, too. For liberal arts colleges everywhere, the model of scholarship is distinctive, suited especially to a college where the ultimate prize is the passion for learning we see among our graduates.

Teaching introductory courses (and I mean really teaching them), conversing with colleagues outside your field on a regular basis, attending public lectures, meeting with visitors in different disciplines—all of that is bound to result in scholarship that is original and creative, genuinely interesting and imaginative. The teacher–scholar model in a liberal arts college is not an adaptation of the research-university approach to a constrained organizational setting. It is not Berkeley-lite. Instead it is a model with virtues all its own, pursued in a setting that affords advantages unavailable elsewhere.

The dash between teacher and scholar is meant to be a link, not a line of demarcation. Scholarship and creative endeavors enrich our teaching and are essential to instruction of the highest quality. Participation in scholarly communities keeps us current, connects us to wider worlds, and reminds the teacher of the learner’s experience: mastering new material; meeting with resistance or rebuffs; receiving and responding to criticism; and finding ways to communicate effectively to different groups.

Scholarly engagement usually produces published writings and professional presentations. A hallmark of the liberal arts college, however, is that conversation about new scholarship also takes place in our classrooms, in our offices, in our hallways, in our homes—anywhere that we exchange ideas with students. Scholarship sometimes grows directly out of relationships between students and faculty. Excellent students frequently serve as assistants in laboratories, colleagues in clinics, assistants in research projects, or collaborators in artistic performance.

Intellectual energy comes not only from faculty talking with able students but also from faculty talking with fellow faculty. Some of this activity is not clearly research or teaching, but it represents the spirit of creativity and curiosity that supports both. For instance, there is the English professor who audits colleagues’ psychology courses so that she can write about empathy in literature. There is the chemistry professor who studies art history so that he can better solve questions about the chemistry of art restoration. And there is the mathematics professor who learns biology in order to introduce science problems into calculus courses.

Though there are many ways in which teaching and scholarship are closely intertwined, there is also a tendency to separate the two activities and to emphasize scholarship over teaching in faculty evaluation. That comes because publications and professional activities are easily counted and measured by metrics that do not necessarily reveal the impact that they have in the classroom. At Washington and Lee, we try to avoid that temptation. We refuse to specify a number of articles, books, presentations or grants that constitute a threshold for success in scholarship. We try to make our standards for the review of academic performance flexible and fair—flexible, because we belong to different schools and different disciplines and apply criteria appropriate to different stages in our careers; fair, because reasonable colleagues across campus can witness and document the essential elements of progress as teacher–scholars.

The Challenging Lives of Teacher–Scholars

While we celebrate and facilitate the integration of teaching and scholarship, and resist the temptation to separate those activities in faculty evaluation, we also recognize that good research and writing sometimes involve travel, solitude, or collaboration with distant colleagues. And so we provide travel support, summer research stipends, sabbatical opportunities, and assistance in securing outside funding for worthy projects. Here the ideal is not the seamless integration of teaching and scholarship, but the smooth transition between periods of time that, for good reasons, emphasize one or the other.

When we greet those new faculty members, we are clear that we expect them to succeed in the classroom and to prosper in scholarly endeavors. But we also understand that the life of the teacher–scholar can be challenging. Expecting faculty to be effective instructors and contributing researchers, while finding creative ways to keep those activities connected, is asking a great deal. Requesting that they simultaneously serve the university community and larger, off-campus audiences only adds to the challenge.

Yet, in a busy career as a teacher–scholar, people bear burdens out of love of learning, a passion for seeking and expressing the truth as best they can, and a commitment to serve institutions with long and distinguished histories of introducing young people to the lifelong enrichment of the liberal arts.

By embracing the teacher–scholar model, this newest generation of faculty can find their greatest fulfillment. And they will enhance the value of the institutions that they serve.

Kenneth P. Ruscio is the president of Washington and Lee University.

Previous Issues