The Carnegie Foundation has established three ways of classifying Doctoral-granting Universities. In the past, these designations were Research I, Research II, etc…, and these terms are still preferred by many people. However, the official classifications are:
RU/VH: Research Universities (very high research activity)
RU/H: Research Universities (high research activity)
DRU: Doctoral/Research Universities
This classification is based on a rather complex statistical analysis considering monies spent on research and development (R&D) in science and engineering, R&D in fields other than science and engineering, doctoral degrees conferred in the fields of humanities, social sciences, STEM, and others such as business, education, public policy, and social work. Factors such as the aggregate level of research activity, expenditures, and numbers of staff primarily engaged in research determine whether an institution is designated as Research University/Very High, Research University/High, or Doctoral/Research University (http://classifications.carnegiefoundation.org/methodology/basic.php)
This classification sets up—with or without intention—a competitive rating system establishing research as the most important criteria in university rankings, pervading nearly all corners of the university. Research sits atop the hierarchy of faculty activities. Moreover, the legacy of empiricism continues to have a firm hold on prevailing assumptions that research means an objective scientific investigation conducted according to established methodologies.
I’ve written about research previously, and in sitting with over 400 individuals from across all disciplinary fields, no matter whether the person I’m speaking to was a student, staff or faculty member, administrator or educational executive, with only three exceptions every person indicated that research is a purposeful, meaningful investigation in order to learn, discover, or create something new. They did not necessarily use these precise words, but the ideas and meaning were consistent, resulting in an extremely common meme shared across disciplinary cultures with very little variation to the pattern. Indeed, I’d venture to say that this is almost a definition of research as the broadest category of activity occurring within a university. Then, via Inverse Fractal Concept Analysis, research can be categorized and agendized for the domain-specific disciplines that dictate the methodologies and practices associated with a given category of research. When someone is working in one of these academic domains, they employ the methodologies and practices that are common to that discipline and appropriate to their study.
Based on the data I’ve gathered in these interviews, the word “research” is only an identifier, and is present in every academic domain; however, it is frequently employed as a superlative. This is discernible in the ways universities evaluate the activities of faculty members towards tenure and promotion (T&P). T&P language typically differentiates between research and creative activity, making provision for those faculty members whose work does not meet presumed standards for research per se. Especially in the arts, creative activity is considered equivalent to research for the purpose of consideration for advancement, but this does not mean that it is the same or that it is believed to have similar value.
I’ve begun to see the word “scholarship” employed as a possible third category in order to account for the increasingly diverse activities of faculty members. Even when professorial activities can be considered research in a more formal sense, the setting in which they take place and the primary academic domains of the faculty members under consideration can create a great deal of uncertainty among advancement committees, particularly if these are populated by members from fields other than the candidate’s own. This means that tenure committee chairs or others who advocate for a candidate’s application for T&P must provide a thorough explanation in their recommendations to the committees, arguing convincingly as to how the candidate’s activities meet advancement criteria since this may not be apparent to the committee members.
Rather than constituting a third category for evaluation, I’d like to propose that it would be more advantageous to employ the term “scholarship” as a broad descriptor of faculty members’ engagement with scholarly work in their fields, whether this means traditional research, creative activity, or another kind of learning or knowledge accomplished at a high level. This could provide a means by which all faculty members could receive due recognition for work that supports their teaching, advances knowledge in the world, and thereby qualifies them for advancement in addition to their work in teaching and service. Let’s consider three very different examples:
1. A pianist performs at Carnegie Hall, among other venues, building a distinguished record as a musical performer.
2. A historian writes and publishes peer-reviewed journal articles about an aspect of the Civil War, leading to publication of a book, building a record as a distinguished scholar of 19th Century American history.
3. A neuroscientist works on a project involving how the brain processes visual stimuli, using experiments and MRI imaging leading to publication of the study’s results in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
Of course, the T&P process is more complex than this brief description, but loosely speaking, the pianist’s T&P committee would consider his or her creative activity, the historian would be judged on professional publication, and only the neuroscientist would be judged on the basis of empirical research. However, all of these activities are scholarship—they exemplify learning and knowledge at a high level, taking place through domain-specific action occurring within a rigorous category of inquiry. T&P guidelines are intended to prove that a candidate is a distinguished practitioner in a specific field—that he or she is demonstrably excellent. By calling this pursuit of excellence “scholarship,” it places each kind of work on an even footing, as opposed to the usual construct, “research and creative activity.”
To be able to evaluate something successfully and fairly, it’s important to have a good understanding of the category in which the subject is considered, and the greater the knowledge base the evaluator possesses, the more valid the evaluation might be. For instance, a host might serve a bottle of red wine at a dinner party, and the guests would likely comment about the wine. If one of the guests had never tasted red wine before, his or her opinion might not yield reliable knowledge about the wine. On the other hand, if a guest were an expert sommelier, his or her opinion would be more valued.
At the highest levels of academia, we seek to develop people who are extremely focused disciplinary experts. By itself, this is not a bad thing—professors should indeed possess advanced knowledge in their fields. However, one of the most significant problems with academic personnel committees is that the individuals who serve on them have sometimes become so immersed in their disciplines, so well-versed in their own particular practices and methodologies, that it becomes difficult for them to see how another scholar’s work meets advancement criteria. It would be like inviting the sommelier to a coffee-tasting event. Whether the committee members are physicians, painters, physicists, poets, philosophers, or pianists, they have each achieved such a narrow focus in their pursuit of personal distinction as scholars, it’s especially challenging to look beyond their own primary domains in order to evaluate other scholars’ work.
Faculty members whose work crosses disciplinary boundaries present a special challenge to T&P and academic personnel committees, who expect to see a traditional package detailing how candidates’ work qualifies them as distinguished members of their departments. But what if work actually takes place in departments other than the ones in which the candidates were hired? Even more disconcerting, what if they work in ways that differ from the expected norms of their fields? In my research I’ve seen many such instances of people doing recognizably excellent, innovative scholarly work that crosses disciplinary boundaries, breaks new ground in otherwise traditional domains, or is simply difficult to categorize according to standard methods. These interviewees reported that achieving tenure or earning a promotion was very difficult because their work did not seem to fit anyone else’s expectations. This was the case with an industrial and systems engineering professor, who began working in photography and collage related to his engineering work. Neither his own department nor anyone from the College of Fine Arts knew how to evaluate what he was doing in terms of career advancement.
Outside of academia, the workplace is primarily a collaborative prospect. People from different disciplines work together, improving existing products, planning services to meet public needs, or developing new technologies. Innovations seldom arise in isolation. It only makes sense that the university should recognize that collaborative work is more of a norm than an exception, taking steps to provide for recognition of faculty members who stray beyond the borders of their home disciplines in order to engage in scholarly activities.
Emphasizing scholarship allows faculty members to engage in their scholarly work in ways that best fit their investigations and professional interests. It removes the term “research” as the primary consideration, replacing it with something much more flexible and inclusive. Under this designation, all three of the professors in the earlier example—the pianist, the historian, and the neuroscientist—would be evaluated first as scholars. This could be considered by means of three simple questions:
1. How does the faculty member’s work demonstrate excellence?
2. How does his/her work contribute to the advancement of knowledge and learning?
3. How does his/her work enhance the educational experiences he/she provides to his/her students?
Framing the evaluative process in this way renders the tenure and promotion question less problematically than comparing the faculty member’s work to external criteria of research or creative practice. It would provide a means for scholars in all fields to engage in activities that do not otherwise fall within traditional departmental lines and to recognize the interdisciplinary, collaborative nature of the world beyond the confines of the university.
It also accounts for the vastly different things that people mean when they talk about research. All of the people I’ve spoken to during this project say that they do research. What this means in practice, however, is not at all consistent. Research, like scholarship, is a broad heading encompassing activities that bear little resemblance to one another. Scholars view other scholars’ work through their own disciplinary lenses, making the research of others difficult to evaluate.
However, if we change our T&P guidelines from “research or creative practice, teaching, and service” to “scholarship, teaching, and service” it opens up evaluative criteria to many different types of academic engagement. Currently, this is presented as an either-or proposition; either the candidate is doing research, or they’re doing creative practice. But, as I’ve seen countless times in my research, many excellent educators are engaged in work that doesn’t fit neatly into either of these descriptors. The word scholarship covers these hybrid, extra-disciplinary, or collaborative faculty activities and provides room for recognition of every type of excellence.
Simple? Yes. No. But this topic is worthy of discourse and further consideration. Check back for further updates.