Thursday, May 31, 2012

Guest Post: Nicole Zellner on Vibrant Research at a Liberal Arts College


Nicolle Zellner is an Associate Professor of Physics at Albion College, where she teaches general astronomy and upper-level physics courses. Her research interests focus on understanding the impact history in the Earth-Moon system, the extraterrestrial delivery of biomolecules, and how impacts affect the conditions for life on Earth. Nicolle actively engages in professional and public outreach activities, including invited talks and observing sessions.

Vibrant Research at a Liberal Arts College
Hi. My name is Nicolle Zellner and I teach at a liberal arts college. 

I imagine your collective reply would be “Hi, Nicolle”. 

Privately, though, you might say to me, “Wow. You must teach a lot.” or “How do you find time for research?” or even “Too bad you had to give up research.”  In the snarkiest of all comments, I’ve heard “Wow. You couldn’t do research so now you have to teach”.

My goal today is to change your mind about what it means to teach AND do research at a liberal arts college.  I’ve been at mine for seven years now. In the past two, I’ve been very successful in receiving NASA and NSF grants, and I am looking forward to starting to publish the results in the next year or so. I made a conscious decision to pursue career opportunities at a liberal arts college because I learned early on that I did not want to be subjected to the whims of Congress or NASA and thus (possibly) be affected by limited federal budgets. One of my best life experiences so far was participating in the WUPPE (STS-67) mission in 1995 but when the mission (and accompanying money) ended, so did my job.

What is a liberal arts college?  
Our students think it means a small college where you have access to professors 24/7, but most of the faculty would agree with the
definition given by the Encyclopedia Britannica: a “college or university … aimed at imparting general knowledge and developing general intellectual capacities in contrast to a professional, vocational, or technical curriculum.”  Generally, liberal arts colleges are undergraduate only and residential in nature, but a growing number are starting to include Masters degree programs, a limited number of PhD programs, and an on-line component, as ways to increase revenue.  For the undergraduate student, part of acquiring “general intellectual capacity” means that s/he is required to take a limited number of classes in all divisions (e.g., Natural Sciences, Humanities, Social Sciences, and Fine and Applied Arts, though different colleges might use different names), for a broad educational basis, in addition to specific courses required for the major. Sometimes the educational component can include significant research experience or an internship (or two) but it always includes being involved in many clubs and other organizations that serve to “credential” the student.  For the faculty member, “imparting general knowledge” usually means that we teach many students (e.g., 25-50) in service courses (e.g., Astro 101 or Physics for Pre-Meds) and smaller numbers of students (e.g., 3-10) in courses required for the major. 


The Liberal Arts Triad
Teaching is very important at a liberal arts college and is probably the main reason you are being hired. Teaching time is measured in “contact hours” (i.e., how long you are actually in class or in lab) and can range from 9-18+ hours each week, depending on your institution and whether or not your teaching load includes a lab component (which usually counts as a “half course”).  That means that, at a college that requires you to teach three classes each semester, teaching one lecture (three hours) and two lab sections (three hours each) of an astronomy course can cost you as many as nine hours each week and there is still one other course you need to teach – and grade.  Remember that you don’t have any graduate students to do your grading for you! Yes, teaching is a large component of your workload at a liberal arts college. 

A second component of working at a liberal arts college is service to the college and to the community. This is just a nice way of saying “committee work”.  With fewer faculty to go around for roughly the same number of committees, you can spend a lot of time discussing campus politics and policies.  You can also spend upwards of 10 hours every semester visiting with prospective students and up to 10+ hours every week holding office hours.  Every semester you also meet with current students in an advisory capacity – at my college, advising is required (both of the faculty and of the student).  Sometimes this means you have to chase down the student (either electronically or physically) to get him/her to meet with you. Yes, service can be a large time sink.

But what about research?  “After all, this is what I’ve been doing the last five (or more) years of my life in graduate school.  Please tell me research is the third component”, you plead.  Yes, it is! More and more liberal arts colleges are starting to value faculty research; note that others continue to value it.  Research dollars brought into a college help to generate revenue for limited amounts of time, but encouraging grantsmanship also helps to recruit and retain faculty, as well as motivates these faculty to recruit outstanding undergraduate students to their programs.  These students are looking for research opportunities that will help their career after graduation – law school, graduate school, medical school, engineering, etc. – for which research experience listed on an application can only be positive. Supervising students in research projects can be very rewarding – in many cases, the student will become a first author on a conference poster presentation or a co-author on a refereed paper.  However, not all of these research projects may be related to your own research topic, so your own professional growth may be stymied.  For example, I am known as “the astronomer” on campus, and most students here want to undertake telescope projects.  Each summer, I teach someone new how to use the telescopes and we take images and spectra of stars and planets.  Unfortunately, there aren’t enough (any?) peer-reviewed journals that will accept papers (written by a student or by me) on learning how to operate a simple telescope.  Been there, done that – gee, thanks, Galileo!

Balancing the Triad and Finding Time for Research
So, how do we do it? How do we balance these separate aspects of our professional life? Teaching, service, research, personal attention to undergraduate students… all told, many of us in the Science Complex spend ~60 hours each week trying to get the job done.  That doesn’t leave a lot of time for the family, and sacrifices are usually made.  And, honestly, there’s little time during the semester for research; we make the most progress during the summer months. However, there are some ways to increase your efficiency or your “me time”.

1.  Try to teach the same class (or classes) every semester. Yes, this can get very routine, but think of the time you’ll save if you don’t have to prep a new class (or two) every semester.  And you can offset that “routine” by implementing different class activities and new topics.  I teach an introductory astronomy class for non-science majors every semester – the Universe in 15 weeks, I tell them – so there are plenty of topics to trade in and out of the syllabus.  I’ve taught this class for 14 semesters now and it’s still one of my favorites!

2. Assign little homework or develop a way to grade the homework (or lab reports) quickly.  I like giving homework because it helps me know who is keeping up in class, and I like assigning lab reports because it helps the student develop good writing skills.  My grading trick? Score them on how well they got the gist of the assignment – did they get half of it correct? 60%  most of it correct? 80% All of it correct? 100%!  Using this method, I can quickly skim through each assignment, looking for key words.  Several professors I know also use Mastering Astronomy, which is an on-line HW system, to save time in this area.  

3. Since service is a component of the tenure and promotion process, serve on committees that matter to you.  Are you passionate about increasing campus diversity? Then serve on the Affirmative Action Committee (or its equivalent). Do you think you can contribute valuable ideas to the tenure and promotion process? Then serve on the Faculty Personnel Committee (or its equivalent).  What about righting perceived wrongs? Then perhaps the Judicial Board or the Hearing/Grievance Committee is for you.  Meetings like these can take up several hours each week, so make sure that you, too, are benefitting from participating on them.

4. Service can take many forms.  Are you interested in public outreach? Some colleges might consider these activities to be of service to the community at large.  For the astronomer, public observing sessions are a great draw!  Recently, the Girl Scouts of America overhauled their badge requirements to include more STEM activities, and leaders are looking for ways to introduce their troops to more people working in these fields.  Click here to learn more about this.

5. If you intend to be “research active”, finding time for research is essential. Block your time as much as possible. It’s exhausting, but teaching four (or more) hours in a row (e.g., one one-hour lecture, one three-hour lab) and then holding office hours can free up time to pursue other activities.  It may also be possible to schedule a “research day” each week – a day for research! Not teaching, not service, RESEARCH!  As a result of our other obligations, our time is precious and our time for research is invaluable; blocking time is one way I’ve been able to analyze data to present at conferences and thus stay current in my field during the academic year. 

6. In order to pursue research, it may also be possible to negotiate a course release, which means that you are released from a portion of your teaching duty so that you can concentrate on research.  Times to do this might include during your first year or during the year (or so) before you are up for tenure review.  If you can’t negotiate the release time but are motivated to write proposals, budget not only for summer salary but also for course buy-out (i.e., you buy-out your teaching time).

The Power of One
Oftentimes, you are the only person in your field (not your specialty, your field) at a liberal arts college, so feeling isolated is common. To whom do you talk?  How do you develop and pursue new research ideas?  This is where it’s nice to be at a small college – your colleagues in other fields are usually down the hall or across the quadrangle.  Currently, I have an astrochemistry project that relies on the expertise of my colleague in the Department of Chemistry, and I’m also working on putting together a series of public outreach events with a faculty member in Department of Anthropology and Sociology.  I know these people well because we see each other at Visit Days, discuss topics at faculty meetings (where it’s the whole of the college’s faculty!), and sit on the same committees.  I think these fabulous interactions would be a lot more difficult if the college was larger or if either of these departments was across campus.

Another way to stay current in research and to develop new ideas is to keep collaborating with your graduate school advisor or your post-doc advisor or both.  Since these people are more likely at a larger institution, there is more pressure for them to write grants and to show progress quickly.  If you continue collaborating, you can help contribute to their success and still keep up with your own research.

A few years ago, my department implemented a weekly seminar series. This has been a fantastic way to introduce our students to other researchers in the field, to invite our colleagues to give a talk (and to then have a research meeting!), and to develop new collaborations.  The American Physical Society has a Women Speakers Program, which pays up to $500 for the second female speaker invited to give a talk, and it also pays up to $500 if the invited speaker is a member of a minority. If you’re interested in giving a talk, enroll!  The Outer Planets Colloquium Series at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory allows for planetary scientists and engineers to visit university campuses and research institutions – at no expense to you. These are just two programs that provide speakers; many others can be found with a simple search.

Things They Don’t Teach You in Graduate School
If you go to enough ‘career’ sessions at our professional meetings, most of previous ideas are mentioned often and are probably not much different from what a faculty member at a large research university experiences. However, at a liberal arts college, you have the chance to be deeply committed to the success of the college, and you can be involved at any level.  Faculty are tapped to help recruit students, to speak to members of the Board of Trustees, to evaluate curriculum, to implement department assessment plans, to raise money, to track alumni… the list goes on and on.  Being involved in any of these activities can be good for you, for your department, and/or for the college.  However, be selective and be protective of your time - knowing when to say “no” becomes an important part of working at a liberal arts college!

Leave Your Mark
For the first few years after I was hired, I was told the same story: “You’re the first female physicist in the department in 40 years!” and this constantly reminds me that I am a role model, both for the science majors and the non-science majors.  When one of us plugs that leaky pipeline, we make a difference.  Working at a liberal arts college has been the right choice for me.  I’ve taught hundreds of students in all sorts of majors, and I’ve been able to do a fair amount of research.  Perhaps a job at a “teaching college” is for you, too.  In fact, with about 40 percent of the available teaching positions at two-year campuses, teaching at a community college
might also be a good choice.  In either case, salaries are guaranteed for at least nine months, summer research possibilities exist, the campus community is small, and you can make a big impression on hundreds of students.

1 comment:

JJKW said...

Thank you for your post! I'm currently graduate student and have no desire to find myself working at an enormous public university when I'm done here. I very much want to teach at a small liberal arts college (probably mostly because I had such a wonderful experience at my own undergraduate liberal arts school and I agree with the pedagogical style of LAC; I think it's much more effective than large institutions) but don't want to feel as though I'm giving up research. I enjoyed reading your post; thank you!