Can a research-intensive university also be learning and learner-centered, as dedicated to the quality of students’ educational experience as it is to scholarship, publication, and invention?
With their mammoth lectures, terrible student-to-advisor ratios, heavy reliance on teaching assistants and post-docs, and priority placed on research and grant-getting, many would say that the answer is an unequivocal “no,” except for the small minority of students who are in honors colleges.
What, then, would it take to achieve a greater balance between scholarship and teaching? Perhaps the following conversation between Anita Casavantes Bradford and Steven Mintz about how R1s can support their faculty to find fulfillment in meaningful research and as transformative teachers and mentors can suggest some answers.
A professor of Chicano/Latino studies and history at the University of California Irvine, Anita was a high school teacher at 23, then a K-12 school director of curriculum and assessment, a freelance journalist, and a migrant rights activist, before earning her Ph.D. She is the author of two important books on the history of immigration and childhood, The Revolution is for the Children: The Politics of Childhood in Havana and Miami, 1959-1962 and Suffer the Little Children, a history of US refugee policy from the European children who fled the Nazi peril to the Central American children who arrive every day at the US southern border. She is also the recipient of numerous awards, including UC-Irvine’s Outstanding Social Justice Activist Award, the Social Science Dean’s Awards for Outstanding Teaching and Outstanding Mentorship, and the UCI Academic Senate Award for Distinguished Faculty Mentorship.
Professor of History at the University of Texas Austin and the author or editor of fifteen books, Steve has taught at the college level since 1978. A social and cultural historian with a specialty in the history of childhood, the family, and the life course, he directed Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Teaching Center and the UT System’s Institute for Transformational Learning.
Steve: As I look back on what’s now 53 years in higher education and reflect on the professors who most influenced me, not one taught in the ways prescribed by teaching centers or cognitive psychologists. None were pedagogues; they were mentors, who treated me as if I had ideas worth considering.
I still vividly recall C. Vann Woodward stopping me in Yale’s Sterling Library and asking what I thought about Clement Eaton’s Freedom of Thought in the Old South, which I awkwardly likened to Woodward’s Strange Career of Jim Crow. This turned into an ongoing debate. But what was really important wasn’t the content; it was being taken seriously by the dean of American historians — who also had no hesitation about scoffing at my arguments.
My mentors worked extensively with doctoral students (David Brion Davis had more than 60); few of us will have as many Ph.D. students as they did. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be mentors and “transformers.” However, our campuses and our faculty roles have changed dramatically in the last few decades. Last semester I taught 800 students, and this semester 80. I can’t give the kind of feedback my students need with classes that large. My department has fallen in size from 72 tenure-stream faculty to a little over fifty, with no real decline in enrollments. Discussions sections are gone. Pressure to teach high enrollment classes is up. Undergraduates are graded not by Ph.D. candidates, but often by whichever master’s students we can find.
We may have gotten more cost efficient, but quality – and commitment to the profession and students—has fallen. Today, I fear that a significant number of faculty members seem to have abandoned their unpaid professional responsibilities. Journals and presses find it hard to find manuscript reviewers, while departments often can’t locate external evaluators in tenure and promotion cases. Students complain about faculty who won’t write recommendations (or not in a timely manner).
By any standard, I had a privileged education, first at Oberlin, then at Yale. A question I repeatedly ask myself is how can we extend that kind of education to a much broader population that confronts far greater challenges than my classmates and I did.
Anita, even though you are at an R1 and are a publishing scholar, you are passionate about mentoring. Why is that?
Anita: Perhaps because of the nature of my research and teaching and location in Chicano/Latino Studies, I’m surrounded by first gen, low-income undergrads and graduate students of color, for whom the stakes of their education are so incredibly high (as were my own, as the first gen daughter of a female-headed welfare-dependent household). This reminds me every day why teaching, mentorship and service matter just as much as research.
Education saved my life, both by giving me a path to a career AND by helping make sense of the world and my place in it. I try really hard to serve both those ends when teaching and mentoring my students.
Steve: At many R1s, it’s easy to prioritize research and writing and limit intense mentoring to doctoral students. What challenges do you face as a dedicated publishing scholar who is also a committed mentor not just to grad students but undergrads?
Anita: I face the same challenge that all R1 public university faculty members who are committed to teaching and mentorship face — the daily struggle to serve two masters, so to speak. There is a fundamental misalignment between the stated commitment of flagship and land grant R1 universities to educate and serve their students and communities, and the all-encompassing drive for “excellence” as it is still too-often unthinkingly imagined by R1 campus leaders. Despite pretty public statements about student success and equity and diversity, too many leaders continue to measure excellence almost exclusively in terms of how their campus stacks up in terms of grant dollars and research productivity in comparison with peer institutions.
This mindset is driven by the increasing importance of “corporate” leadership models as well as the growing predominance of STEM research culture in academia. To be clear, I have nothing against business OR science — we need them both, especially in this brave new world of global pandemics and dramatically diminished state funding for higher education — nor am I afraid of hard work or the need to “produce” as a research scholar. But many of our public R1s are organized around a review process that expects all faculty to publish a minimum quantity of new scholarly research every two or three years; this mechanistic review model reflects the values and modalities of team and lab-based science, but makes little concession to how humanistic or historical research (and especially the writing of books) actually develops over time.
Whatever the faculty members’ discipline, the emphasis on constant publication as the most important element in the review process means that, despite statements to the contrary, teaching, mentorship and service are not valued in the same way. It also creates a culture of constant comparing and competing that works against collaboration and collegiality and leaves many faculty feeling increasingly anxious and alone. I feel it, too.
Despite a publication record I’m proud of, and my recent promotion to full professor, I have to admit that lately I feel worn down, too. I see this same effect on many of my colleagues across campus, but it seems more pronounced among those in the humanities and humanistic social sciences, who are too often compelled to ‘produce’ more and more scholarship, in ways that don’t always respond to their disciplinary culture or intellectual needs, at the same time that their fields of study seem to be in an ever-more precarious position on our increasingly STEM-oriented campuses.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that many of these faculty don’t have a lot left to give to their students. While it breaks my heart to see students getting the short end of this stick, I think it’s important to remember that this is a structural problem, and that individual faculty aren’t necessarily always to blame.
Steve: Could you please describe the effect of this disconnect on R1 faculty from underrepresented groups?
Anita: Sadly, as all faculty have less time and intellectual/emotional energy to give to their students, those of us from underrepresented communities inevitably end up taking on the additional invisible labor of “shadow advising” first gen, low income students of color from other departments—who, despite their talents and work ethic, desperately need mentorship, and sometimes more of it, to succeed in academia. Like most underrepresented scholars, I consider these students my own, and mentoring them is a privilege and a blessing. But it also takes hours away from the research that still needs to be done to feed the R1 publications machine — time that I then have to figure out how to make up for, usually at the expense of my family, or my own mental and physical health.
Steve: In addition to teaching at R1s, I had the honor of teaching and administering at broad access institutions. But unlike you, my experience differed fundamentally from my students’. I wasn’t a commuter student. Nor was I the first in my family to go to college. I had attended a high school that offered many advanced classes. On a visceral level, I did not appreciate my students’ life challenges, their insecurities, or their aspirations. That made me typical among my colleagues.
What did you know about the students that I certainly didn’t?
Anita: As someone who spent her early childhood in a female-headed, welfare dependent and food and housing insecure household, and as the first woman in my family to finish high school, I know what education meant to me—and what it means to many of our structurally disadvantaged students. Many of us see education as a “way out” of the instability, fear and despair that continue to do so much harm to our families and communities, and a “way in” to the careers that will provide the kind of security, dignity and access to decision-making power that we and our loved ones have rarely enjoyed. They may also see it as a “way out” of harmful ways of thinking—racism, sexism, homophobia, to name just a few—that they’ve encountered in broader society as well as in their own homes, and as a “way in” to new ways of understanding themselves, their individual and collective histories, and their place and purpose in this world.
In other words, higher education is a life or death proposition for those of us who are from underrepresented communities. We need it desperately, both to be able to survive and to thrive. And so we value education intensely; we revere (and fear) our professors, who seem to come from such a different world than the one we grew up in, but who also seem to hold the key to things we urgently need to know. But at the same time, we’re trying to balance the realities of our lives with our studies. And they don’t magically get easier just because we’re enrolled in university. Our families are still struggling; we’re still unsure how we’re going to pay the rent. We have to figure out how to work enough hours at low paying, exhausting jobs to be able to supplement our financial aid AND maybe send something home to help out—and then, how to find the time to study, and the strength to not fall asleep in class.
Do you know, somewhere around forty percent of our students at UCI are food insecure? They rely on a campus food bank and basic needs hub to meet their survival needs. And then, of course, there’s the mental and psychological strain that URM and first gen low-income students struggle with every day: the constant feeling of being out of place and somehow inferior to other students; the guilt that comes from leaving home to pursue their education, when their families need them and their communities are in crisis.
This particular form of “survivor’s guilt” is something I see in so many of our students—especially young women of color. Put all of this together, and you realize that underrepresented and socioeconomically disadvantaged students have to work so much harder, and demonstrate much higher level of persistence, adaptability and maturity than their financially secure, continuing generation student peers to get the same degree.
But here’s something else I know: having students from historically excluded backgrounds on our campuses benefits us all. They bring a range of perspectives into our campus life and classrooms that—when they are invited to share them—broaden and deepen our understanding of almost any topic. They are survivors and problem solvers that will challenge our existing assumptions and encourage innovation. If we let them, they will make us better as scholars and people and teach us what we need to know to deal with the many problems we are facing today.
Beyond the obvious social justice argument for diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education (and its an argument I support wholeheartedly), THIS is the most pressing reason we need to make our campuses more diverse—and why we need to do a better job of not just admitting diverse students, but actually supporting them as whole human beings so that they can succeed as students. All of our futures depend on their success.
Steve: Given the lip service paid to student success in higher education discourse today, why do you think that research campuses like yours and mine haven’t effectively addressed the pressures imposed upon all faculty, especially faculty of color, who must combine research, scholarship, and a disproportionate advising and intensive mentoring load?
Anita: In part, I think we can trace these mounting pressures back to public higher education’s financial crisis, a product of ever-reduced state budgets to support public higher education. But it isn’t just that there are more students to teach and less money. I think it’s also that public R1s have become trapped in a ranking system that designates us as elite R1s versus all other “inferior” universities – but that we continue to play into without challenging its fundamental logic. For example, one of the reasons we taken on more PhD students than we can or are willing to effectively mentor is to boost our rankings.
This has led to the production of a surplus of doctorates, what sociologist Musa al-Gharbi calls “disposable scholars,” and a “buyer’s market” for highly-ranked universities when recruiting faculty. The fact that, as al-Gharbi notes, three quarters of university faculty jobs are non-tenured, and that forty percent of recent PhD graduates have no employment offers in or outside academia, means that R1 universities can demand higher and higher research productivity from the candidates we hire before they are even hired. This then raises the bar even higher for early career faculty, and then subsequently for those at the midcareer ranks; and so on, and so on.
Just one example: I had a book in production when I was hired as an assistant professor, and this was just enough to get me offers from two R1 universities, one public, one private; most of the others in my PhD graduating class, who graduated with fantastic dissertation projects but only a published article or book review or two on their CV, found jobs in community colleges or teaching intensive universities or outside academia. As the bar keeps rising for employment at “good” (read: research intensive) universities, the result is ever-increasing anxiety and exhaustion for faculty — which, when it gets to be too much, leads faculty to adopt survival strategies like detaching from their students and disidentifying with their institution. In this kind of climate, even the most resilient, dedicated and hardworking R1 scholars have little energy left for teaching and mentoring.
This vicious cycle is, ironically, at its worst in the large public R1s that are trying so hard to serve two masters — the rankings and their students-at the expense of both faculty and students.
Steve: What, in your opinion, needs to be done if our public research campuses are to better serve an increasingly diverse student population?
Anita: It seems to me we need a new way of defining “excellence” in higher education for our reality today. We need ways of ranking universities and of reviewing faculty productivity that value and support research but ALSO support teaching and mentorship. I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but I am more and more convinced that it means figuring out how to let at least some faculty in “elite” R1 institutions off the ever-accelerating treadmill of constant research production (with little regard for its actual quality or impact), at select moments in their career trajectory, so they have a little more time: to do meaningful scholarship AND to breathe and think and be present to their students and colleagues and to the scholarly profession as a whole. And we need to figure out how to make this realignment in a way that doesn’t destroy our jealously guarded rankings.
Steve: What insights and recommendations might you draw from your own scholarship, which straddles the line between the humanities and the social sciences?
Anita: As my work increasingly crosses disciplinary lines, I grow ever more convinced that we need to do more to make higher ed leaders understand just how desperately we need the nuanced thought and deep reflection on values, meaning and purpose that come from the liberal arts, humanities and humanistic social sciences. And I don’t just mean that we need to better support those units on our campuses–although we do. My concern isn’t just that many of those fields are shrinking, but also that we seem to have lost, at the university and in society as a whole, a shared understanding of the importance of humanistic thought and values to our individual and collective wellbeing.
Part of this is our own fault; in the post-cultural turn era, we humanistic scholars have become so obsessed with deconstruction that we’ve forgotten to do the work of offering an affirmative and accessible alternative vision to replace everything we’ve torn down. We’ve also taken to writing in such obscure and elitist ways that we can barely understand one another! In a time of declining public commitment to humanistic inquiry, we’ve made it that much easier for the university and society to see us as irrelevant. As we continue to push back against the increasingly corporate and STEM-driven culture of today’s public R1 universities, I think we also need to find the courage and humility to do some self-reflection, and ask ourselves hard questions about who we are writing for—and why. Is our scholarship arguing for, rather than just, something? Is it accessible to readers outside academia? If not, how can we make our work more interesting and meaningful to a wider audience?
Steve: What would it mean for research universities to make the humanities more central to their self-conception? After all, many research institutions treat the humanities as a rather marginal or peripheral part of their mission.
Anita: The humanities are NOT irrelevant. I see the harmful effects of our abandonment of humanistic thought and values every time I read the news, in our increasing political polarization, our obsession with celebrity gossip, our frenzied materialism. I see it in the mental health crisis, on our campuses and nationwide. I see it in a growing number of people’s interest in wellness and mindfulness and meditation, as they seek to fill the holes in their lives that humanistic thought and values—and dare I say, religious or spiritual practice?— used to fill.
Steve: For all the reasons you’ve detailed — above all, the triumph of STEM- and business derived definitions of productivity, quality, and excellence – re-humanizing the research university may seem like a lost cause. But it’s a cause worth fighting for.
I can certainly think of steps that R1s might take. We should place as many students as possible into genuine learning communities and research cohorts directed by a faculty mentor. We should incentivize and reward faculty who mentor. We should rethink the curriculum, especially lower division requirements that are currently met by narrow, disconnected discipline-based introductory classes, rather than the kinds of classes that many undergraduates really need: classes that build essential skills and that tackle issues of deep personal and societal concern. We should offer an education rich in relationships. Above all, we must provide more mentorship. Without mentoring, students are likely to lose focus, direction, and momentum. No student should have to go it alone.
The future of higher education is in your hands, not mine. Anita, what steps should institutions take to become the learning-centered universities that our students need?
Anita: The real question, for me, is how do we re-humanize higher education? How do we “take back” our universities, in a way that allows our ever-growing and ever-less “elite” student bodies to both prepare for the jobs they need to survive AND spend some time reflecting on what it might mean to also thrive, as individuals and a society? I don’t know the answer. But it will require a fundamental rethinking of what we consider “excellence” in higher education. And we need to do this rethinking together, on a national level. Only then will faculty be able to catch their breath for long enough to (re)discover the deep fulfillment that can come from being both scholars AND great teachers and mentors who transform students’ lives.
Anita Casavantes Bradford is associate dean in the UC Irvine School of Social Sciences and professor of Chicano/Latino Studies and history. Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.