On the life of the teacher-scholar-founder

Today is my last day of class. While that means students are filling out course evaluations and finals are coming up, it’s also a time to for me to look back at what I accomplished this semester and what my plans are for the upcoming break. It’s in the air, too: There’s been some discussion at Whitman the last few days about the teacher-scholar model. What does that mean for me, as the founder of a new program?

When I first started to think seriously about applying to this position at Whitman, Valerie Barr and Mike Erlinger warned me that it would be difficult to push my own scholarship forward as the founder of a new program. Mike, in particular, told me how he had almost not gotten tenure as the first assistant professor of computer science at Harvey Mudd. That in itself is a good argument for an initial senior hire. It makes sense to fill the program founder role, with all its responsibilities, with someone who has already established herself as a teacher-scholar and who has already earned tenure (albeit at another institution).

Just applying for this job made a bubble in my scholarship pipeline. I wasn’t planning to apply to this job. I remember using most of fall break last year to pull together my application materials–transcripts I hadn’t needed in years, teaching evaluations, new teaching and research statements. (My tenure materials were not written to the right audience, and the salary review documents I prepared the same fall certainly were not.) And then there was preparing the research talk, working out a teaching demo on a topic I’d never taught, and the interview itself. All that on top of what I had planned to do—teaching a new course and starting in a half-time administrative role—meant I did not have much time for scholarship.

In the spring, I felt like I had two jobs and my feet in two worlds. It certainly didn’t make sense to take on summer research students with plans for a summer move. I thought about it briefly, but then reality hit.

Fortunately, I had already agreed to serve as second author on a journal article, or my scholarship would have stalled completely last year. During the summer, I submitted that article and a proposal for a co-authored book chapter. During the fall, I helped with a revise and resubmit on that article, moderated a panel, proposed another panel, and did some final polishing on my section of a many-authored article that was finally coming to fruition.

I also re-reviewed a journal article and reviewed some conference papers. Reviews are great for staying connected to the field. I flex my scholarly muscles, learn what others are doing, and often find in their references papers that I should read myself. The reviews have deadlines and come in nice discrete chunks. At the same time, reviewing is professional service, not scholarship of my own. Reviewing takes up time I could spend on my own projects—and that time is pretty limited. As a scholar who sees herself bridging research areas, I wonder if I’ve gotten myself into reviewing for too many different scholarly communities.

The lesson I take away from this is that what I’m getting done as scholar is what other people depend on me for.  I can use that as a strategy for future planning: hence the book chapter and panel proposals. I just agreed to consider co-editing a journal special issue. After wrestling with how to find time to start an exciting new project this winter, I realized it would be a great student collaboration. Writing a summer research proposal is a far more manageable first step for this winter break than what I had been planning to do.

The challenge, of course, is how much I can commit to. I hate backing out of a commitment; I hate leaving a mess for someone else to clean up. (Except, as Brooks will attest, in the kitchen.) And in all of this, the first commitment I made was to lead the development of Whitman’s new CS program. That and my students need to come first.

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