Middlebury College is hot. It is one of the most selective schools in the country. The line at Emma Willard is long, and the competition for admission is keen.
A key reason for the college’s enviable position is the quality of its teachers. In fact, the Princeton Review recently ranked Middlebury’s faculty as the best in the country.
When I encounter prospective students and their parents, I regularly hear approving statements along these lines: “At Middlebury, professors, and not TAs, teach their students” and “Undergraduates are the focus of Middlebury professors and not graduate students.”
I inevitably nod in agreement, while remembering that I was once a teaching assistant and never felt like a bumbler in the classroom. But I also try to clear away a misconception: that the energies of Middlebury faculty are exclusively directed to their charges.
By this, I don’t mean that they spend countless hours running departments and serving on committees (which they do); but rather, that they are devoted to their scholarship. That this is so is, in my opinion, a very good thing.
I say this not because I believe that Middlebury faculty must be in the forefront of the creation of knowledge, which is the essence of research and scholarship. Remarkably, many of my colleagues are, even though a residential college is not as congenial to that aspiration as a research university. My colleagues and I don’t have TAs and abundant release time from teaching as buffers to the heavy demands of the classroom.
What I’m getting at is the relationship of scholarship to teaching and thus to the fundamental mission of the college, “to engage students’ capacities for rigorous analysis and independent thought within a range of disciplines and endeavors.”
I must admit that I don’t possess empirical evidence that conclusively demonstrates that active scholarship leads to better teaching. But after nearly twenty years as a professor I am convinced that it does.
Increasingly, Middlebury faculty are asking their students to become researchers themselves. (Last spring, the faculty voted in a mandatory senior work requirement calling upon all students to take on independent projects as capstones to their Middlebury education.) To guide students in this work, it is important that faculty are active in their scholarly fields. They can then recognize the challenges and obstacles facing student researchers and readily suggest creative and innovative approaches.
Active research agendas even enrich introductory courses. Over time, these courses can become stale if their pilots lose touch with current trends in their fields of study. Introductory courses benefit from regular updating and rethinking.
At an even more basic level, the research-oriented professor serves as an example to their students of the value of the quest for knowledge and the thirst for insight. As Ernest Boyer, a seasoned observer (and friendly critic) of the academy, once wrote, “all faculty, throughout their careers, should, themselves, remain students. As scholars, they must continue to learn and be seriously and continuously engaged in the expanding intellectual world.”
In short, while it is important that Middlebury faculty conduct stimulating classes, return papers and exams in a timely fashion, and are available to field questions and to offer advice outside of the classroom, it is also vital that they find the time and space to read the latest scholarship, carry out their own experiments and field work, and write notable articles and books.