Practicing Scholarship

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Somewhere in my office I have a cartoon from the New Yorker, I believe, that shows two people standing next to a headstone. Below the deceased’s name and dates are the words “Published but Perished Anyway.” It points to what is widely thought to be the reason for scholarly publication—to survive in the academic world. If you don’t publish, according to a widely accepted system, in the first six years of appointment as a professor, you do not received tenure. And if you do not receive tenure, you must leave the institution and seek employment elsewhere. Publish, or academically perish.

It is a demanding system, and one that can easily fail to provide the outcome it intends. The purpose of the systematic requirement, is not the prestige of the institution—‘look how many of our professors publish books; see how important we are.’ The purpose is not simply to require that professors prove that they are doing their jobs. And it is not, it seems to me, that universities justify their existence by their ability to create new knowledge.

There is a deeper reason, and that reason is at the heart of what we do as a regional university that has its roots in the liberal arts and sciences. The reason is very simple, but it requires a slight shifting of our understanding of what professors do when they “publish.”

In the accepted system, a professor does research. In the shifting of understanding that we need we refer rather to scholarship. In current understanding this is broader than research which may be included in “scholarship” under the name of “discovery.” It also includes the “application” of research or knowledge, and the “integration” of it—pulling discrete bits of understanding into a more comprehensive whole. It includes the examination of “teaching” we do in our various disciplines and the effectiveness of particular kinds of teaching practices in the gaining of understanding (or education) by students. In some of our fields scholarship might take unique forms. For instance in my fields in the humanities it might focus on “interpretation,” taking research and philosophical approaches to deepen our understanding of particular texts and traditions of writing. There may be other forms as well that are not fully described in the expanded definition that moves us from research to scholarship

These categories of scholarship were developed by Ernest Boyer, of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He developed the outline and rationale for these forms of a professor’s work for institutions just like Fresno Pacific, institutions embedded in local and regional communities of cities, schools, businesses and churches, and dedicated to teaching. He sought to explain and by explaining to guide us to greater effectiveness and influence as universities. It seems to me that his central insight was profound.

In our world of increasing knowledge where the research university is the dominant institution, we must explain ourselves. We cannot just say that we teach and do it better than the research university (though I think we can demonstrate that we do overall). The research universities have a profound claim. By engaging in research and producing new knowledge, they not only contribute to the productiveness of our society but they are also, they claim, at the forefront of the knowledge that ought to be taught, whether in the sciences, social sciences, humanities or professions. That claim is not entirely true, but it makes some sense and has become the standard rationale of higher education today.

Boyer’s insight was that we too in an institution dedicated to teaching can expand knowledge and teach current understanding to our students. We may not want to spend all of our time on the creation of knowledge—“discovery” or basic research—but we can and should participate in the broader forms of scholarship that add to our understanding, deepen our personal knowledge, and so deepen and expand its range for our students

By adopting the standard and accepted understanding of what constitutes the work of the university, and broadening it to include important areas of understanding that other institutions might neglect, we offer our students and our communities the benefits of a distinctive form of education that is made to deepen and broaden the understanding of students, with current knowledge for the benefit of their communities. We participate in scholarship because it makes us better teachers, and our student better learners. We bring our students into this work with us to form a community of learners and scholars. We send them out professionally, intellectually, and faithfully ready to serve. The broader and profound element of Christian faith and learning that shapes all that we do and that has a long scholarly tradition contributes both to our service and to our scholarship.

This is not the full story. I have left out some important pieces. But it seems to me a better way to understand that though we all will eventually perish, even though we publish, there is good reason to pursue the life of scholarship at Fresno Pacific, and publish as we go.

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  • Marshall Johnston

    A wonderful tapestry of the many different journeys on which we embark, literally and metaphorically. Thanks, Darren!