Rethinking the Tricolon Teaching, Research, Service: A Cluster of Essays

At the 2015 MLA convention in Vancouver, I had the pleasure of presiding at the session on our common academic mantra: Teaching, Research, Service: A Close Reading. Academics invoke this triad often, in annual activities reports, in tenure and promotion documents, in presentations to colleagues and administrators. We reproduce the discourse of three spheres on our curricula vitae. We struggle to reorganize the allotment of time dedicated to each one. The triad is our common measure, our common discourse, our common complaint.The terms in our mantra appear coequal, but we know only too well that each term carries different weight, holds different value, and applies differently to those in different faculty appointments. For the large percentage of faculty members off the tenure track, in contingent positions, with few or no benefits, and little chance for line conversion (i.e., adjuncts), the mantra is reduced to teaching only. For some non-tenure-track faculty members on renewable contracts and in a tiered system of differentiation, teaching and supervision, or service, are the applicable terms. For tenured and tenure-track faculty members, the key to advancement is research productivity and impact. For administrators, the service role has become highly professionalized. The distribution of expectations signified in the three terms constitutes social status, allocates prestige, and defines the everyday life of faculty members.We are in an expanding universe, an academic universe in which we are constantly expected to increase our knowledge, productivity, skill sets, and contributions to the collective enterprise. Service obligations balloon, especially for associate and full professors and increasingly for non-tenure-track faculty members. The preparation time for teaching is expanding as well, as we confront and adapt the new research on teaching and learning; new course formats, including online versions and flipped classrooms and participatory project-based curricula; and the new technologies available in classrooms. The expectations on the research side ratchet up, not least of all because we are entering a posttraditional publishing system that requires of us knowledge of and facility with new platforms and modes of scholarly communication, more collaborative orientations to scholarly inquiry in the humanities, and greater impetus to use a range of social media platforms to find broader audiences for our work.In the essays that follow, Vanessa L. Ryan, David R. Shumway, and Leonard Cassuto ponder this triad: Ryan riffs on teaching, Shumway on research, and Cassuto on service. They confront the mantra by historicizing each term, and they suggest how we might negotiate demands across the three domains.

Ryan questions the commonplace notion that teaching and research are entangled and synergistic activities in the academy. For Ryan, assuming that teaching and research are self-reinforcing is a sleight of hand that obscures the reality that “our universities are built not on a single foundation but on distinct philosophies of education that stand in uneasy relation to one another.” She historicizes these distinct foundations to better understand the friction between competing ideologies of higher education and then identifies three tensions that create friction at this moment: the discourse questioning the use-value of a liberal arts education in a time of high tuition costs and high student debt; the increasing stratification and separation of activities and their identification with particular sets of people (researchers, teachers, administrators); and the deepening differentiation of the skills needed to be a researcher and to be a teacher that results from the current emphasis on teaching outcomes (“assessment”) and the professionalization of teaching. Ryan calls for a redefinition of teaching as student-centered, inquiry-based, and problem-oriented, and she opines that asking faculty members to pay attention to how research on student learning affects student learning may push us toward a redefinition of research itself.

Shumway puts a different kind of pressure on the meaning and value of research in the humanities. He exposes the conundrum that the work of scholars in the academic humanities now has trouble finding readership and visibility inside and outside the academy, and yet research productivity has become increasingly important to an academic humanist’s portfolio. By historicizing the distinction between research as process and research as product, Shumway illuminates how from the mid–nineteenth century to the mid–twentieth century, “professors were assumed to be engaged in the process of research even if they were not publishing”―indeed, that was their expertise and their identity―and how since the 1970s the value of research has been attached to the commodification of its products. In his application of Laurence R. Veysey’s triadic reading of competing models based on “utility, research and liberal culture” in the history of higher education in the United States, Shumway observes that the three models loosely correspond to the prevailing service, research, and teaching missions of higher education. The effect of this alignment is the undervaluation of interpretive and critical research in the liberal arts—as opposed to the professional fields, where research can be seen to meet utilitarian needs, and to the basic sciences, where research can be seen as “pure” knowledge production.

Given the growth in the number of articles and books published in the humanities and the corresponding decrease in readership, Shumway asks us to reconsider the research mission of higher education and its reification of the research product. On the one hand, he enjoins faculty to become better advocates for the value of research in the humanities; on the other, he calls for more direct ties between undergraduate teaching and research and less focus on quantified productivity. “[P]erhaps,” he concludes, “it is time to question the significance of publication statistics. Maybe we should be encouraging faculty members to write less, but more consequentially.”

Cassuto directs us backward, historicizing the tricolon phrase to parse the term service and the current status of the work to which it refers. He reminds us that in the early and mid–nineteenth century the essential activity of the academy was service to students through teaching and mentoring. The professionalization of college faculty members began in the decades before the Civil War, when professors in the United States sought “disciplinary training” and credentials in Europe. It intensified when the institutionalization of the German model of the research university and the founding of professional organizations such as the MLA remade higher education into a prestige economy. As specialized academic departments were formed in the early decades of the twentieth century, they needed the administrative services provided by faculty members; as a result, the concept of service emerged as distinct and focused on the practical. During the decades of the Cold War, the infusion of government money into research universities upped the expectations of scholarly productivity across all departments, further skewing the differential value accorded teaching, research, and service in personnel evaluations. Cassuto’s deep historical reading concludes with a call for greater directness in naming service for what it is―the least valued of the three domains of faculty obligations―and for greater transparency in valuing all the labor that goes into institutional life.

Ryan, Shumway, and Cassuto bring important insights to the components of our collective mantra, recognizing the complexities of category confusion in everyday academic practice and in the attempt to historicize the categories. Let me add further comments on the frustrations of distinguishing categories from one another.

In the humanities, we have a model of graduate training that becomes troubling for those who advise large numbers of students in any one year or over a succession of years. Unlike in the STEM fields, the work of graduate students does not directly advance a faculty adviser’s research agenda. Although professors in the humanities learn much in the process of advising students, they rarely if ever share bylines and authorship with their graduate students. In fact, they often work with students whose fields or subfields are different, even far afield from their own. And yet, at most institutions this work with graduate students does not count in the teaching obligation. It is indeed teaching, but it is often counted as service instead.

There is another kind of category confusion emergent in these times. I think of certain activities in what is called the digital humanities: designing new platforms; creating interactive online knowledge communities; organizing crowdsourcing; building online archives and sites; assembling, marking up, and curating data, big and small; composing new multimedia modes of scholarly communication. All these activities (and many others sustaining born-digital and digitally environed inquiry, argument, visualization, computation, display, and communication) constitute scholarship. They entail setting new questions, pursuing altered lines of inquiry, shifting methodologies and theoretical frameworks, and assembling a research team. This work is also research-based and participatory teaching, often involving undergraduate and graduate students and others in humanities collaborations; it is also service to the field, and to the academy. This work is online, in repositories, for other scholars, seasoned and emergent, to draw on in their own research and teaching. It is there for students to access and incorporate in their projects. It is there for the broader public. Such category confusion taxes systems of evaluation. (And this is where the MLA’s 2012 “Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media” and 2013 “Guidelines for Authors of Digital Resources” become increasingly important in personnel processes.)

Since Ryan, Shumway, and Cassuto call on us to rethink the tripartite structure of faculty work and identity, let me add another call, apropos of the domain of service. In this instance, I want to confuse categories rather than resolve confusions.

Administrators of all kinds turn out page after page of written material in the course of their service. This corpus of work is commonly understood to be bureaucratic writing. But what if we understood this corpus differently, as part of the scholarly and intellectual achievement of the person in the position? Much of it may be read and even appreciated as short-form essays—proposals written to launch new programs, curricular- or research-oriented; documents produced for program review; documents written in personnel cases. These kinds of documents are often collaboratively produced, but collaborative inquiry and analysis is increasingly important in the academic humanities, and our evaluation guidelines and procedures are evolving to account for this mode of communicating knowledge.

Which leads me to a final comment on the MLA session that led to the essays before you. A robust discussion followed these presentations, and the passion of the large number of people who attended the session suggests the importance of engaging this commonplace teaching-research-service mantra directly and often. The dominant concerns in these exchanges focused on the expansion of administrative roles, the call after call to do more service with fewer and fewer resources―human and budgetary. People spoke to the requests to serve on or chair committees, task forces, and targeted initiatives; to administer programs; to serve in leadership positions in professional organizations. Equally important, the discussion focused on the increasing pressures on non-tenure-track faculty members to take up more and more service obligations, as well as the way that service obligations in the humanities are often a gendered affair.

On this latter point, I have observed over the last fifteen years that the position of the chair or program director has trended female in the humanities. That is not necessarily a negative thing. Not long ago, say in the 1980s, feminist academics and others pushed to break down the barriers to white women and women and men of color advancing in leadership positions. But now women, white and of color, are being tapped for leadership positions within and outside their departments and programs with ever-increasing frequency. Further, since the majority of faculty members in contingent and non-tenure-track positions are women, and since they, too, are being asked to do service to their units and they are in vulnerable positions from which to challenge service assignments, the gendered politics of allocating service across the faculty can no longer be a subject about which we do not speak.

Works Cited

“Guidelines for Authors of Digital Resources.” Modern Language Association, 2013,

“Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media.” Modern Language Association, 2012,

Veysey, Laurence R. The Emergence of the American University. U of Chicago P, 1965.

Sidonie Smith is Mary Fair Croushore Professor of the Humanities, professor of English and women’s studies, and director of the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She was president of the MLA in 2010. A version of this essay was presented at the 2015 MLA convention in Vancouver.


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