A Crisis of Conviction: One Woman’s Story
by Beth R. Handler - January 09, 2006
A short personal commentary about the evolution of the author's convictions about what constitutes scholarship. The author tracks her struggle with those convictions from when she was a doctoral candidate at a major research university to when she became a member of the faculty at a regional university.
Publish or perish. Thats what were told. Every year as newly minted Ph.D.s, we leave our home institutions with that bit of sage wisdom hanging overhead like a vulture circling a dying animal. With our dissertations securely indexed somewhere in the state's official records, we embark on our new careers with ambitions of productive research and writing agendas and the mantra of publish or perish resounding in our heads. We are ready to forge our own scholarly careers and see our names printed in our most hallowed research journals beside the works of our mentors. But faculty life in teacher education programs at regional universities quickly proves prohibitive to such ambitions, and many of us find ourselves with a crisis of conviction.
I earned my Ph.D. from a large, nationally recognized, research university, in the Upper Midwest. Within its hallowed halls I learned the sacred truths: Research dollars make the world go round, scholarship is more important than teaching, and publication in highly selective journals is all that counts. Indoctrinated with the belief that less than selective research journals, books, chapters, reviews, articles with a practitioner focus, e-journals, or journals with high acceptance rates were clearly substandard scholarship, I headed out to my first faculty position with great aspirations and a solid conviction about what counted for scholarship and what did not.
Like many others, I did not land a job in a major research university, but in a regional university teacher preparation program with very different expectations than those of my alma mater. I quickly learned how wonderful life in such an institution is and soon found myself happily engaged in the teaching, advising, and service activities that have come to usurp much of my time. However, it did not take me long to realize that one cannot secure large research grants or run substantial research activities in institutions that do not have full-time graduate students or sufficient resources or when teaching a course load of 12 or more credits, advising students, and serving on committees constitute the better part of ones job description. My well-intended, empirical research agenda soon dissolved; and my convictions about what constituted scholarship were shaken to their roots.
I found myself floundering and feeling ill-prepared for my role as a member of the faculty in this type of institution. After much brow beating, self-deprecation, and soul searching, I realized that I wasnt a failed scholar. I had only failed to live up to the convictions of my parent institutionto its narrow definition of scholarship and success. My lack of scholarly activity was not grounded in my current position, but in my operational paradigm as to what constituted valuable scholarship. My lack of written product was not grounded in some inability to generate scholarly work worthy of publication, but rather my failure to recognize the scholarship of my daily work and the importance of small, but insightful contributions to the field of teacher preparation. I failed to recognize the opportunities for small projects that served to not only meet the needs of community schools, teachers, and families, but also generate important knowledge about practical education issues. I finally understood that I was suffering from a crisis of conviction, a conflict of principle, and I believe I am not alone.
In dealing with this crisis of conviction, I have come to the conclusion that something is amiss with doctoral programs, particularly those like my own, when it comes to preparing graduates for life in teacher preparation programs at regional universities. In reaching this conclusion, I have pondered several questions to determine possible reasons for the existence of this seemingly common deficit in the doctoral training programs at so many of our nations major institutions. Is it that faculty members at these institutions truly believe in a hierarchy of publication that virtually eliminates the voice of scholars in teaching institutions from the major journals of our fields? Could it be that there is an underlying motive designed to dissuade the best and the brightest scholars from joining the faculty of regional universities that prize quality teaching over empirical research? Or could it be that the mentors at major research institutions do not recognize a need for preparing doctoral candidates for academic life in institutions with differing demands and expectations?
Although I fear there may be some validity to these first two possible explanations, I am most comfortable believing that it is the third that explains the failure of mentors in major research institutions to prepare their doctoral candidates adequately for life in teacher education programs at regional universities. Life in a research focused school differs greatly from life in a teaching focused university. Although I prefer life in the latter, I can reasonably believe that those who live in a research focused world cannot adequately construct a definition of scholarship that would fit in the schedules of teaching faculty at regional schoolsat least not one that would fit their own convictions about scholarship.
Unfortunately, I still lack the conclusive evidence from which to derive a satisfactory explanation for the lack of preparation for life outside the research institution, which I and many of my colleagues have experienced. Perhaps if I was only teaching a two course load or had a small army of graduate students to support my classes, I would be able to determine the reasons for this deficit empirically. But as I teach a full complement of classes, advise and direct graduate licensure and Masters Degree students who work full time in public schools, and have no access to graduate students who might complete some of my grading work, I have been unable to run a comprehensive empirical study of the problem.
After much thought and discussion with classmates from my home institution, I have reached several conclusions regarding the definition of scholarship that better serves those of us in teacher education programs at regional institutions. I am restructuring my conceptualization of scholarship to include and to value the articulation of issues important to teacher education programs, our university students, local schools, and community members. My writings are grounded in the work I do with my university students, the content I teach, and higher educational issues that affect the lives of faculty and students alike. Research projects are focused, not on theory building, but on practical improvement in the education of our students and those in our community. I have found success in rejecting the definitions of scholars from whom I learned so much, but who work in a world very different than my own.
This evolution of conviction has not been easy and is not yet fully realized. I still waiver now and again as I wonder if I am not somehow selling out or failing to meet some greater destiny. As I move toward the adulthood of my career, I anticipate these feelings will dissipate; and the voices of my mentors will be silenced as the sounds of my own convictions ring true in my mind. I know of others wrestling with these same issues; and I hope that by sharing my experience they will also come to feel that we scholars from regional institutions in teacher preparation programs have as much to share and that our definitions of scholarship are equal to those of our alma maters. In the end, we scholars who choose teaching over empirical research may not look back on careers of theory development or great bodies of systematic research publications; but if we listen to the voices of our own convictions, we can contribute to our chosen fields in meaningful ways. We can fulfill the expectations we had upon our graduation: We can publish and not perish.