Getting Strategic: Research, Teaching and Learning
Issue   |   Wed, 04/23/2014 - 02:34

This article is the fourth part in a four-part series about the core committees involved in this year’s strategic planning process.

This year, the Strategic Planning Committee for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning is looking into essential support structures needed to be put in place for the College to continue thriving as a research and teaching-based institution.

Specifically, this committee is charged with examining the questions such as how top-notch research by faculty plays into faculty teaching and student learning and how the College can support student-faculty collaboration and increase research productivity.

“The focus is on the academic core which is teaching, researching, and learning,” said Associate Professor of Chemistry and Chair of Biochemistry-Biophysics Anthony Bishop, who chairs the committee. “The very key aspect that this committee exists to strengthen even more is that research and teaching hold equal place and inform each other.”

Bishop said the College is invested in the process of students learning from their classroom in connection with the greater scholarly world. The committee is also discussing the College’s identity as a research college.

A research college is one that involves leading scholar-professors performing leading research in their respective field and simultaneously using that research to inform and advance their teaching. Concurrently, students are able to engage with those cutting-edge discoveries and learn from faculty active in their field.

According to Bishop, the hope of a research college is to create an environment in which “students whose education is enriched by learning with active scholars, and active scholars whose teaching is enriched by the fact that they are at the forefront of their fields and they get to bounce those discoveries of fantastic students in the classroom.”

In order for this key dynamic between students and faculty to work, the committee is examining the proper supports the College needs to put in place in terms of time, money and infrastructure in order to best foster and cultivate an environment that integrates research and learning in this way.

“We are still in the midst of discussion and nothing is confirmed as of yet, but practically, this would look like basic financial support for scholarly faculty and for non-faculty scholars to build more of an infrastructure, as well as thinking of ways that the College can foster a greater integration of research in the classroom,” Bishop said.

One of the College’s main resources for research of the College is its research libraries. Missy Roser, Head of Research and Instruction at Frost Library, is one of the members of the committee.

“Supporting faculty research and teaching has always been central to the library’s mission, and in the past few years we’ve worked hard to strengthen our library-instruction program as well,” Roser said. “Last year our librarians worked with almost 200 classes, partnering with faculty to teach students how to do discipline-specific research. In addition, librarians work with thesis writers all the way through their process, from proposal to printing the bibliography, and support students doing independent research in the summer and in Mellon and other research seminars.”

Overall, Roser said the library aims to be the space and resource for “research, discovery and learning” and has done so by spearheading events “showcasing research, hosting faculty book talks celebrating new publications” and highlighting student research at the recent Amherst Explorations festival.

The committee is also looking at how to help students and faculty use their time more efficiently.

“Both on the student and faculty side, the most precious resource is time and how to think about freeing up time for innovation in the classroom, innovation in the lab and innovation for one’s scholarship,” Bishop said. “It is one the most vexed issues of the strategic planning process, and I don’t know how we’re going to solve that problem.”

One way the committee has been grappling with the issue of time is by debating faculty time spent in committees. Matt DeButts ’14, a student on the committee, said the group is currently discussing what “a reasonable amount of committee work” is and “how to distribute it evenly” across the faculty in order to free up time for research and scholarship. No final consensus has been reached yet.

Furthermore, the committee has been investigating questions about the “teaching and learning center, senior faculty evaluations, how best to manage faculty time, and how — and whether — to modify tenure criteria such that it values conducting research with students,” DeButts said.

Specific recommendations and proposals from the strategic planning committees are not set to come out until sometime next semester, but Professor Adam Sitze, a member of the committee, anticipates that the report will discuss both short-term and long-term considerations.

“I expect that the proposals we will end up formulating will reflect a synthesis between the pressing needs our colleagues have identified, on the one hand, and our analysis of the basic dynamics that seem likely to define higher education and the world in the coming decades, on the other hand,” Sitze said.

Sophie Chung '17 contributed reporting.