A Defense of "Research-Teaching" at Bowdoin College

Michael Toscano

Support for faculty research is a singular priority for the College.”

The Office of Academic Affairs.

In our previous Preliminary, “From Collegiate Professors to Research-Teachers,” we provided an overview of the controversial entrance of the “research-teacher” into the Bowdoin community. That controversy has not entirely abated. In the 1990s, for instance, Bruce Kimball, Allan Bloom, and William Bennett criticized American higher education for its increasing turn towards research and away from the classroom. But that criticism was directed less forcefully towards liberal arts colleges than it was towards research universities, because liberal arts colleges were perceived as stalwarts of teaching. Many liberal arts colleges, however, began to shift the balance, by increasing their emphasis on faculty research and re-defining teaching as concerned less with core knowledge and more with “critical thinking.” The latter offered a way for faculty to teach their specializations, relatively unhindered by the need to teach general courses. 

This brought with it several unforeseen cultural changes. New faculty members were teachers of mixed loyalties, having to negotiate dedication to their specialized fields with on-campus obligations. While Bowdoin’s overall scholarly productivity increased, its faculty members taught fewer classes. Other on-campus obligations, such as supporting student events and participating in campus life, were almost totally excised from formal faculty obligations. Faculty members drifted further away from their immediate community and closer to their disciplinary peers at other institutions. Students at Bowdoin today do not realize it (because they have no point of comparison), but their teachers are less involved with student life than Bowdoin faculty ever have been before.

This is the price of research at a small, residential liberal arts college and many are willing to pay it. One such man is Robert McCaughey, former dean of Barnard College, who, in 1994, published a study of faculty members at select liberal arts colleges (SLAC) which defended the research-teaching hybrid. Bowdoin participated in McCaughey’s study and in its 1996 Self-Study endorsed its findings. In our twelfth Preliminary of the Bowdoin Project, “Research-Teachers: A Validation,” we review McCaughey’s defense and through it highlight some of the attendant costs and benefits of maintaining a research-oriented liberal arts Faculty.

* * *

Since September 2011, NAS has been conducting an in-depth, ethnographic study of Bowdoin College in Maine. We asked, “what does Bowdoin teach?” and examined Bowdoin’s formal curriculum, its residential and student life policies, and its co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. We have dedicated a page on our website to the Bowdoin Project. The full report will be published there in April. In the meantime, we will continue posting a series of Preliminaries which will provide context for the report.

The Bowdoin Project >

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