As college tuition continues to increase, some in the popular press have begun to ask what it is that professors do when they are not teaching. Even among Bowdoin students, alumni and some staff, there may be confusion on this matter.
You students see us in classrooms and you understand that teaching involves much more than this time alone; we must prepare our lectures, draw up syllabi, grade papers and assignments, direct honors theses, etc. You also meet with us as advisors concerning your Bowdoin education and your next steps after college; you ask for and receive letters of recommendation.
But beyond teaching and advising, what do professors do and why? A few of us on the faculty thought it might be useful to answer these questions.
The Bowdoin Faculty Handbook makes it clear that professors have two additional obligations beyond teaching: research and service. For the purposes of tenure and promotion at Bowdoin, teaching and research are seen as paramount, while service is significant, but less important.
Service at Bowdoin is a broad category, but it includes administrative matters at the departmental level and attendance at faculty meetings. It also includes service on working groups and college committees, involving tasks ranging from reviewing curriculum and educational policy to interviewing students applying for Watsons and Fulbrights.
Faculty also organize academic events on campus, serve on search committees for new faculty hires and oversee the tenure and promotion of junior colleagues. Such duties can be extremely time consuming, but they are crucial to the governance and administration of a liberal arts college.
But beyond teaching, scholarship is the more important component of our job. Bowdoin professors are expected to be part of the broad enterprise of the arts and sciences: enhancing our understanding of the world around us and producing works of beauty and significance. This means, in the first instance, that faculty members have a responsibility to keep abreast of developments in their chosen field, reading the latest journal articles and books, attending professional conferences and the like.
Moreover, professors are expected to be productive contributors to their disciplines. For most, this means doing original research and publishing on a fairly regular basis in scholarly journals or writing books for academic presses. For those in the fine arts, it means creating new paintings, poems and musical compositions, as well as performing or exhibiting them.
The research process varies greatly by discipline, but there are some common elements.
First, in many fields, faculty write grant proposals in order to get necessary funding, including support for laboratories or travel to field sites in foreign countries. Grant writing is a time-consuming process, often requiring multiple rounds of revision.
Once funding is secured, there is the actual research process. Depending on the discipline involved, this might require extensive time in a laboratory in the basement of Druckenmiller Hall, fieldwork in Asia, long days reading in archives, or long nights puzzling through difficult conceptual, theoretical, or mathematical questions.
If, through this process, the faculty member arrives at a result that seems to represent an advance in her field, she will typically write it up in the form of an article or scholarly book. She will then submit her article or book to a press or journal, where it is sent out for anonymous peer-review to professors at other colleges and universities who determine whether or not the piece is a sufficiently valuable contribution to the discipline.
Sometimes even well-written and solidly-researched books and articles are rejected (some journals have an acceptance rate of five percent or even less—harder than getting into Bowdoin!), but some are, eventually, accepted and published—often after a lengthy interval for revision and reassessment.
Beyond publishing our work, Bowdoin professors also present our scholarship at conferences and give invited lectures at other schools.
We also serve as anonymous reviewers for other scholars’ journal articles, grant applications, and book manuscripts. We review our colleagues at other institutions for tenure and promotion, write book reviews, serve on book prize committees, and organize panels, conferences and symposia. We write letters of recommendation, not only for students, but for colleagues and graduate students at other institutions.
Some professors edit volumes of critical essays, become the editors of scholarly journals or serve on editorial boards. Some are elected as officers of national professional associations or are elected to Boards of Trustees. Some write op-eds for the mainstream press or write books for a more general audience, making their scholarship accessible to the broader public.
So why do we engage in scholarship, particularly when it takes so much time and effort? Why not just stick to the classroom? There are several reasons.
First, it is simply part of the mission of Bowdoin College to contribute to the advancement of knowledge and art. It is part of who we are; it is our passion; it is central to our support of the common good; it defines being a professor; it is just part of the job.
Second, scholarship infuses teaching. If you were going to learn about neurosurgery, you would want to study under someone who performs operations on the human brain rather than under someone who had only read about how to do those operations properly. It only makes sense to learn about history or anthropology or philosophy from those who are successful historians, anthropologists or philosophers.
In these fields, the production of original research is the equivalent of brain surgery for the neurosurgeon; our publications demonstrate that we are experienced members of our respective guilds. In our classrooms, then, you have the opportunity to work with people who are engaged on a daily basis in contributing to our understanding of the past, the present, and the future. In our scientific laboratories, students have the opportunity to participate in pioneering research.
Third, our work as scholars enhances the reputation of the College and thereby increases the value of the degree you hope to receive. In U.S. and World Report’s annual ranking of national liberal arts colleges a significant factor in a college’s ranking is a “peer assessment survey.” This means that faculty and administrators at other colleges are asked to comment on the academic reputation of Bowdoin. Their judgments are based in no small part on the scholarly reputation and contributions of the Bowdoin faculty.
Therefore, every time a Bowdoin faculty member publishes an article or a book, produces a play, composes a symphony, wins a prestigious grant or fellowship, is elected as an officer in a professional association, or is awarded any kind of honor, we not only advance the common good, but we bring distinction to Bowdoin, enhance the College’s reputation, and thereby increase the value of a Bowdoin diploma.
The hours we spend on teaching and advising are obviously an absolutely central component of our job. But it is not the whole of who we are and what we do as Bowdoin professors. And you wouldn’t want it any other way.
Barbara Weiden Boyd