Opting Out of the Research Race
“No, I’m not Just Teaching While Seeking a Real Job in Research” by Lata Murti
“Frankly, I am surprised to read that you would like to work at a teaching university and not a research institution,” Dr. Stevens said. A white professor of urban history, Dr. Stevens had been asked to evaluate my mid-point status in my PhD program.
I was not sure why he was surprised. I had never shown a steadfast commitment to research in the graduate courses I had taken with him. Still, even then—just a few years into my graduate program — I knew that my R1 institution favored academic research over teaching and expected all of its PhD students to do the same. I knew I was taking a risk by expressing my greater interest in teaching than in research in my statement of intent for my mid-point evaluation. But to have done otherwise would have been insincere. I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a teacher; indeed, I had taught Spanish in a K-8 private school immediately before starting my graduate studies.
I followed up on my mid-point evaluation by meeting with one of my mentors — a professor of color who was very supportive of the goals of students of color. Surely, I thought, he would respond more favorably to my desire to teach. But I was disappointed. A career in academic research would allow me to keep a more flexible schedule than would a teaching-focused career, he tried to convince me, when I disclosed to him that one of the reasons I would like to pursue teaching is because it would be more conducive to raising a family.
Only one of my mentors, a professor of color who researched and wrote about the experiences of immigrant women, supported my desire to teach. “Whether at a teaching university or a research university,” she said, “professors are essentially doing the same work. It doesn’t make much difference where you are.”
Those were the words I needed to hear; and I held on to those words for many years afterwards. I tightened my grip on them when failing to land a job at a prestigious research university that was initially very interested in me and my work, because, they said, my job talk was “more suited for teaching.” I did not let go of them when I accepted my current job teaching working adult students online at a non-tenure granting university, and hearing my colleagues in research say, “You can always keep looking for a tenure-track job at a research university while you are doing this job — teaching online.”
Now in my eighth year teaching working adult students online, I have no desire to leave teaching for research. In fact, I realize now, I never did want to research more than I wanted to teach. Upon starting my current job, it quickly became apparent to me that my mentor’s words that I had held onto for so long were only half true: yes, I may be writing and publishing as much as my colleagues in research; but it does not feel like I am doing the same work.
Why I Teach
My work, and the work of all teaching-focused professors, reaches those who traditionally do not have access to research-focused professors and institutions: Those who are first-generation college students of color. Those who are single parents. Those who are active duty military and veterans. Those who are differently abled. And many who are all of these or some combination.
Indeed, recent studies show that today’s college students are older and more diverse than ever before, with the majority of online students returning for a second chance at college. Many of them, in my experience, were led to believe that they would never achieve much academic success. As teachers, we have the power to convince them otherwise. Being able to reach marginalized student populations through my teaching means so much more to me than pursuing research publications in only the most prestigious academic journals that comparatively reach only a few. I will never forget the following e-mail I received from a student in April 2017:
I have been thinking a lot about class lately, I’m absolutely becoming more and more fascinated by sociology, and have been wanting to email you.… I wanted to thank you for being so engaging. Like I said, I have emailed teachers in the past about school work etc. but have never felt this engaged with a professor. It is refreshing, the learning experience is awesome, and as I said in my post, I have beliefs about a lot of these issues, but never want to feel stubborn that I can’t learn. My father, (God rest his soul) never had a formal education, did years in State Prison, but always told me, you’re never old as long as you learn. Thanks again for everything, as I said I have always been fascinated by psychology and sociology, but sociology has become much more rich to me….
Of course, teaching does not preclude research and writing. On the contrary, not having to research and write about only specific issues of interest in my field of specialization, for only certain publications, while on a strict timeline, means that I write and publish more — and reach a wider audience — than I could at a research university. That audience includes my students, with whom I often share my publications, as they relate to specific topics in sociology. Indeed, the case studies I wrote for the Sage Research Methods and Datasets online collections are instructional essays designed to teach students about social science research methods through examples.
I also write academic blog pieces (like this one) fairly regularly. And a 2012 article on men in early childhood education, which I wrote for the American Sociological Association’s Work in Progress blog, caught the attention of an editor at an academic press. The editor encouraged me to pursue a book-length study on the topic. So, here I am, co-editing an anthology on the intersectionality of race, class, and gender in the professional lives of educators, with a research-university colleague, for an academic press. The anthology is to include my research on juvenile hall educators and their experiences of race, class, and gender.
And I couldn’t have done it without teaching. Indeed, teaching (and parenting) inspire all of my recent research and publications.
As a sociologist, I know that the de-valuing of teaching in university settings stems from our sociocultural construction of teaching as “women’s work,” and, thus, work that is less rigorous and demanding than the ostensibly masculine, objective domain of research. Changing this construction calls for a radical re-structuring of occupational hierarchies, to include paying all teachers, no matter the level of instruction, more.
But until then — or, to that end — those of us mentoring students in higher education should not discount teaching, whether it’s at a teaching university, community college, online, or at a K-12 institution. It is important, gratifying, and life-changing work. And we should not allow others in academia to discount or dismiss teaching as being insignificant in comparison to research.
This past summer, I spoke to a former student about her desire to pursue a PhD. She is the first student I have had who has wanted to apply to a PhD program. As I spoke to her about all that pursuing a PhD entails, she told me how excited she is to teach in addition to pursuing research. She said that my teaching has inspired her to want to teach in higher education as well. I was deeply touched and flattered, but also felt I should warn her about encountering professors and colleagues who would discourage her aspirations to teach, as I once did. She responded, “Well, that’s really too bad. Teaching is important and makes such a difference.” Indeed it is. I hope she will have the courage to say that, whenever anyone questions her desire to teach. I hope we all will.
Lata Murti is an associate professor of sociology at Brandman University and a member of the Diversity Scholars Network at the National Center for Institutional Diversity. Her current research projects explore various aspects of teaching and pedagogy from a sociological perspective, including effective techniques for teaching globalization online and educators’ experiences of intersectionality in a variety of instructional settings and formats.