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Integrating Passions in Research, Teaching and Service

Projects that clearly connect research, teaching and service should get competitive release time

Eventually someone had to figure out how faculty could multitask their research, service and teaching.

Those “someones” are at Pennsylvania’s Alvernia College. Dr. Mary Schreiner is assistant professor of special edu-cation in the department of education and Dr. Anne Skleder is vice provost and faculty member in the department of psychology, where she will soon return.

By planning out social justice partnerships, it’s possible to eliminate the proverbial two birds with one stone, they ex-plained at the National Association for Women in Catholic Higher Education (NAWCHE) conference held in Washington DC in June.

The key is to identify your passions and then find ways of integrating them into your teaching, research and service. One way of doing this is by looking for opportunities to frame a specific question, look for answers to it and then present the data on it.

Put core values to work

Alvernia College, a former women’s college rooted in the Franciscan tradition, enrolls 2,700 students including 750 in graduate programs and 600 evening students. It’s committed to educating underrepresented populations and preparing graduates for professional success, ethical leadership, service to others and lives of integrity and spiritual fullness. The school’s core values include service, peacemaking, contemplation, collegiality and humility. Half of its students are not Catholic.

 Like other schools, Alvernia believes faculty excellence is comprised of three distinct pillars: pedagogical leadership, purposeful scholarship and responsive service. Being a pedagogical leader in the classroom means that students learn as a response to instruction. The course content is arranged to communicate both the big ideas and small details.

Pedagogical leadership also means that faculty members model experiences for the students. “You can’t send the students out on a social justice experience if you don’t go,” said Skleder. “A good teacher is a good model.”

In a pedagogically strong classroom, students and faculty receive immediate feedback on their level of understanding. There is time for questions and reflection.

Purposeful scholarship begins with a valid research question and ends with the ultimate goal of a research product. At Alvernia, responsive service means “consumers” in the community are served at many levels based on their actual needs, not on projected need. “There’s a difference between responsive and ‘save-my-soul’ service,” said Schreiner. “It needs to be congruent with your institutional mission.”

Service to others

Service projects are congruent with the institutional mission and Ex Corde Ecclesia, the Vatican document that states that in a Catholic school, research, teaching and service necessarily includes an integration of knowledge, a dialog between faith and reason, an ethical concern and a theological perspective.

All of these objectives sound good until you take a good look at the barriers faculty members face: limited time, lack of resource support, preparation needs for both pedagogy and research, lack of connections to community and the reward/recognition system. Students may not be interested in the type of research a faculty member wants to do. “You teach many courses and are a generalist, not a specialist,” Skleder admitted. “And service costs money.”

A model for integrating efforts

Using gardening as a metaphor, the duo outlined a process model for integrating pedagogy and research into the third component, community service. Beginning with envisioning, faculty are asked to look at community needs and their particular interests. They need to ask themselves who would want to know about any research results. “Take time to dream about what can be,” said Skleder. “Any good research or teaching comes from your heart,” added Schreiner.

  • When you’re envisioning, one of the first questions is “What makes ‘me’ me?” What do I want to know about my students, myself or the people in the community? How can I measure the answers to the research questions?

    In Schreiner’s case, her interests are her faith, teaching, people with disabilities and music. “I’m passionate about young people who are disabled and where do they go after high school,” she said. Some of her research questions are: Can exposure to people with disabilities affect students who go into special education? Can you teach someone to be compassionate?

    Begin by identifying those in the community who are working in your field of interest. What are their needs and what do you want to know about? In Schreiner’s case disabled students from the community job-shadowed Alvernia college employees. If you imagine your garden as finished and in full bloom, you’ve set the stage for a successful project.
  • Step two is to plan or “gather your seeds.” These seeds are the connections, questions and data collection methods, as well as the approval and design that will bear fruit. “Think mutually beneficial partnership potential,” they said. Then contact the community organization to offer the service activity and address logistics.
  • Acting, or planting your garden, involves organizing and explaining the specific activity to the students and then engaging in side-by-side work. “I don’t send students out alone; I’m with them, scrubbing bleachers with them, increasing my appreciation for the person who does it full time,” said Schreiner. “It models me as a social servant. I can give feed-back and calm their fears. Later we can process it together.” With specific directions, your students can help you collect data. Don’t forget to express your gratitude for their help as well as the organization’s help.
  • And last, but not least, produce or “harvest your yield.” Analyze your data, offer to present it to your constituent groups, and pursue both publication and presentation. Don’t forget to document and cross-reference the outcomes in your tenure portfolio and vita.

School administrators play a major role in enabling this process to work. Starting with shared governance, administrators need to support faculty as they develop clear guidelines for the reward and evaluation of these experiential learning/social justice partnerships. Curriculum is the role of the faculty; funding is the responsibility of administrators, who must facilitate their convergence.

The evaluation procedure should also take into account team teaching opportunities (recognizing the financial impact) and faculty scholarship. Projects that clearly connect research, teaching and service should get competitive release time. “It shows that the work is as valuable as the course you teach,” said Skleder.

Help from administrators

Administrators should create situations that encourage formal and informal conversation among the faculty. “A lot of Catholics are caught in the humility trap and say ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’” she added. Other roles they listed for administrators:

  • Help facilitate faculty entrée to community groups. Administrators often have more local connections than do faculty members.
  • Address the issues of liability and safety.
  • Match budget support for faculty development, project costs, research and staff to support crucial logistics.
  • Incorporate efforts into strategic and campus planning.
  • Model these planning efforts in your own teaching.
  • Remove barriers.
  • Listen to faculty needs and concerns.

While the model represents the ideal, in actuality it’s a two-way street. Faculty have to do their part to move closer to what administrators can provide.

Some practical advice for starting similar programs:

  • Start small and do one new activity per semester. Patience is a virtue; it will likely take 18 months to two years for each activity to cycle through.
  • Plan in cycles, semester by semester, with staggered starts for each of the four steps: envisioning, planning, acting and producing.
  • Engage in sustained community partnerships for a variety of projects. If you’re careful, you can use the same community groups for different classes and purposes without wearing out your welcome. Sometimes one project will lead to another in a different class.
  • Explore collaborations beyond your own department. Look for individuals whose passions, motivations and work styles mesh with yours.
  • Engage in a dialog with administration. And don’t forget to share what you’re doing with others, even if it’s still a work in progress.

 Contact Dr. Mary Schreiner at 610.568.1520 or mary.schreiner@alvernia.edu and
Dr. Anne Skleder at 610.796.8234 or anne.skleder@alvernia.edu

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