Scholarship Reconsidered

Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the ProfessoriateScholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate by Ernest L. Boyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What exactly do we mean when we say scholarship? On some level, it’s simply whatever scholars do when they’re not teaching or in meetings or preparing for class. It is, in the popular conception, research: spending time in laboratories, pouring through sources, writing out one’s thoughts– communicating creative ideas based on original research, meaningfully reviewed by one’s peers, and communicated with one’s field. It is the production of knowledge.

Yet (at my institution at least) there has long been discussion of other “models” of scholarship: the scholarship of integration, the scholarship of application, and the scholarship of discovery. (My institution being a Christian university, the scholarship of “faith integration” is often tacked onto this list as well.) I never quite understood what these distinctions were about, despite the fact that my own PhD was in an integrated history/philosophy program, and when discussion of the “scholarship of integration” came up in a talk with a colleague about a new university program, I realized it was probably time I familiarize myself with the work in which Ernest Boyer first lays out this model.

Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate  was published by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as a “special report” in 1990, the result of an extensive survey of American professors. The work itself is quite slender, with a large appendix containing data from the survey. Being twenty-five years old now I suppose qualifies the book as a “classic” in the field of higher education, but the things Boyer has to say still seem very relevant (though in parts depressingly unobtained).

Boyer’s study is local, an attempt to quantify and qualify the history and character of American higher education. This localism in his approach appeals to me, especially his emphasis on the need for small colleges to remain distinct and committed to their own unique missions, resisting the pressure of accrediting bodies or the example of larger research universities to conform to a undifferentiated approach to education. Different colleges and universities exist for different and complementary missions, Boyer implies; this tapestry should remain rich and diverse.

From Boyer’s overview of the history of higher education in America (which, though cursory feels composed of fairly safe generalizations), he claims the purpose and structure of higher education has changed over time. Boyer argues that scholarship at these institutions has always been broader than research alone (“scholarship of discovery” in his parlance). Early Colonial colleges were focused on character formation, land-grant schools of the mid-1800s were focused on application, and research colleges proliferated at the conclusion of World War II in response to the burgeoning of the large-scale scientific enterprise. To focus solely on the scholarship of discovery, he argues, at the expense of teaching, integration, and application or to prioritize pure research alone is to disproportionately skew what has traditionally been a much richer heritage of scholarship.

Many of Boyer’s claims made sense to me, especially having spent most of my career thus far working at a “teaching-based” university that purports to value quality instructional practices and evaluation. In such an environment it seems reasonable that a major portion of what scholars do is to reflect on developing and evaluating their own teaching techniques, ideally with the help of a scholarly community. Its identity as a liberal arts university (and my own scholarly background at the intersection between science and the humanities) makes me resonate even more strongly with Boyer’s “scholarship of integration,” the idea that active research can involve synthesizing and forming connections between various and even seemingly disparate disciplines.

The book is at its heart though a recommendation and call to action. Though it has many good things to say, and backs this up with frequent quotations from professors as well as the data of the survey itself, there isn’t much practical explanation of what these things look like on the ground. How is scholarship of integration evaluated by one’s peers when it crosses disciplinary boundaries, for instance? What is the relationship between scholarship of application and the commercial or economic pressures increasingly shaping the educational landscape? Boyer doesn’t have a lot to say about this, and I’m not sure where to go next. Who has taken up this model and written about how it does or does not work in particular institutional settings?

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