Pursuing Scholarship at its Highest Level

What is the highest level of scholarship for a faculty member doing research with undergraduates? Maybe it’s grant-writing. Dr. Keri Colabroy shares some insights from her recent trip to CUR dialogues. 


 

It was at CUR dialogues this past February, when I heard a fabulous talk by Jeffery Osborne – Dean of the School of Science at The College of New Jersey. If you’ve never been, CUR dialogues is a weekend in Washington DC in which grant program officers meet with faculty and administrators in small group sessions. There are mock panel reviews, sessions on individual grant programs from the NSF, NIH…and even the NEA this year. If you want to learn about the funding opportunities to support undergraduate research – there is no better place. 13072108135_a3e93cd7f9_m
So, why was Osborne’s talk so amazing? In his talk “Engaging your Dean: a comprehensive school-based approach to support grant writing,” Osborne discussed how the School of Science at  TCNJ went from a faculty that submitted relatively few proposals to a faculty where 29 out of 72 faculty submitted a proposal in the past year – and this is a primarily undergraduate institution with a 3/3 teaching load. The key to that transformation, Osborne argued, was changing the institutional culture around grant writing.

“…we’ve all heard how funding rates are so.incredibly.low. Why even make the effort? And – let’s be honest. The effort required is enormous.”

In my experience at a PUI, only the un-tenured and the habitual over-achievers pursue grant writing. The arguments not to make the attempt are compelling – we’ve all heard how funding rates are so.incredibly.low. Why even make the effort? And – let’s be honest. The effort required is enormous. I teach a 3/3, run an undergraduate research lab and I have a family…I consistently operate at a time deficit. My institution – like many – has few resources to offer the intrepid that wish to brave the battle for external funding. The prevailing opinion seems to be “why even try when the chance for success is so small”?

“I teach a 3/3, run an undergraduate research lab and I have a family…I consistently operate at a time deficit.”

iconWhen I went to Osborne’s talk, I was expecting to hear how I could cajole my Dean into supporting faculty grant writing efforts. And – to some extent – he did offer ideas in this area. But his main point was something else entirely. TCNJ transformed into a PUI grant-getting powerhouse NOT because  of the money and NOT  because they changed their identity to a “research institution.” This Dean motivated his faculty to pursue grant writing as a manifestation of their scholarship at it highest level. The primary goal was the intellectual benefit of the grant writing enterprise, and the consequence was that it “raised the bar” on everything they were doing.

“TCNJ transformed into a PUI, grant-getting powerhouse NOT because  of the money and NOT  because they changed their identity to a research institution. This Dean motivated his faculty to pursue grant writing as a manifestation of their scholarship at it highest level.”

grantwritingThis was certainly a shift in my thinking. I already knew that grant writing produced my best scholarly activity. When writing a grant, I am deep in the literature – thinking about my research in its context, planning experiments and arguing for their impact. But, I had never considered the act of proposal writing for any other purpose than to get funded. While I experienced intellectual benefits, it had never occurred to me to consider these benefits as primary and the funding as a happy by-product of this intellectual exercise. The intellectual activity that goes into creating the proposal is of incredible value, whether or not the proposal is funded.

“..I had never considered the act of proposal writing for any other purpose than to get funded. While I experienced intellectual benefits, it had never occurred to me to consider these benefits as primary and the funding as a happy by-product of this intellectual exercise.”

facultymentoringIf TCNJ is any indicator, “Pursuing scholarship at it highest level” in the form of proposal-writing has long term benefits. Intellectual development of both faculty and students, more undergraduate research – a high impact practice, a culture of faculty peer-mentorship in grant writing, and…funded proposals. Well, of course. With everybody writing…eventually they would experience success.

“If TCNJ is any indicator, “Pursuing scholarship at it highest level” in the form of proposal-writing has long term benefits.”

So, now what? The pursuit of scholarly excellence – sustained thinking, reasoning and writing – it all requires TIME (and remember my time deficit?). Osborne did share how he (as the Dean) supported faculty – but I’m not the Dean. I’m not in a leadership position where I can strategically plan and support a cultural change. But, I can look at my scholarly activity in a new light.

And maybe, that is where cultural change begins.


 

6e164a_67ee223822044abdb5e42e3a6cbdb8d0~ Dr. Keri Colabroy is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Muhlenberg College – a private, liberal arts college in Southeastern Pennsylvania. And she’s really tired right now…because it’s April. But when she isn’t working on this blog, she is teaching organic chemistry, biochemistry, kitchen chemistry or doing enzymology research with undergraduates.

 

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