What Does it Mean to Be a Teacher-Scholar?

Here’s an excerpt from an essay, penned by Kenneth Ruscio during his recent presidency at William & Lee University. The essay was published in 2013 in Peer Review, the premier publication of Association of American Colleges & Universities, AAC&U.

Teaching introductory courses (and I mean really teaching them), conversing with colleagues outside your field on a regular basis, attending public lectures, meeting with visitors in different disciplines-all of that is bound to result in scholarship that is original and creative, genuinely interesting and imaginative. The teacher-scholar model in a liberal arts college is not an adaptation of the research-university approach to a constrained organizational setting. It is not Berkeley-lite. Instead it is a model with virtues all its own, pursued in a setting that affords advantages unavailable elsewhere.

The dash between teacher and scholar is meant to be a link, not a line of demarcation. Scholarship and creative endeavors enrich our teaching and are essential to instruction of the highest quality. Participation in scholarly communities keeps us current, connects us to wider worlds, and reminds the teacher of the learner’s experience: mastering new material; meeting with resistance or rebuffs; receiving and responding to criticism; and finding ways to communicate effectively to different groups.

Scholarly engagement usually produces published writings and professional presentations. A hallmark of the liberal arts college, however, is that conversation about new scholarship also takes place in our classrooms, in our offices, in our hallways, in our homes-anywhere that we exchange ideas with students. Scholarship sometimes grows directly out of relationships between students and faculty. Excellent students frequently serve as assistants in laboratories, colleagues in clinics, assistants in research projects, or collaborators in artistic performance.

Intellectual energy comes not only from faculty talking with able students but also from faculty talking with fellow faculty. Some of this activity is not clearly research or teaching, but it represents the spirit of creativity and curiosity that supports both. For instance, there is the English professor who audits colleagues’ psychology courses so that she can write about empathy in literature. There is the chemistry professor who studies art history so that he can better solve questions about the chemistry of art restoration. And there is the mathematics professor who learns biology in order to introduce science problems into calculus courses.

Though there are many ways in which teaching and scholarship are closely intertwined, there is also a tendency to separate the two activities and to emphasize scholarship over teaching in faculty evaluation. That comes because publications and professional activities are easily counted and measured by metrics that do not necessarily reveal the impact that they have in the classroom. At Washington and Lee, we try to avoid that temptation. We refuse to specify a number of articles, books, presentations or grants that constitute a threshold for success in scholarship. We try to make our standards for the review of academic performance flexible and fair-flexible, because we belong to different schools and different disciplines and apply criteria appropriate to different stages in our careers; fair, because reasonable colleagues across campus can witness and document the essential elements of progress as teacher-scholars.