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Passionate Professors

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Passionate Professors

For Anna Neumann, Professor of Higher Education, passionate thought refers to a professors' relationship to their subjects-often an intense interest in learning and researching the subjects, topics or questions that first drew them to their discipline.

Passionate Professors

Professing to Learn: Creating Tenured Lives and Careers in the American Research University by Anna Neumann (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009)

Anna Neumann has spent more than a dozen years trying to understand the dynamics of a faculty career. It’s a scholarly interest that for Neumann, Professor of Higher Education, invariably runs to the personal given her firsthand knowledge of the pleasures and pressures of the life academic.
The career path is a familiar one: First the uphill climb to gain tenure, followed by the persistent drive to add to the body of knowledge, to teach, mentor, collaborate. It can be an exciting and harried existence, Neumann says, with demands and opportunities coming from every direction—from students, colleagues, administrators, professional associations, public agencies and even community groups.
 
“Higher education as a whole has been beset by major change—demographic shifts, a contracting economy, pulls toward continuous technological innovation, pressures to go global in teaching, research and service even while remaining thoughtfully responsive to the state and national publics that our campuses continue to serve,” Neumann says. “The fastest growing part of the professoriate is not tenure-track faculty, it’s the contingent faculty. What it means to be a faculty has changed as the job structure has changed. Adjusting to all of that can be quite a challenge.
 
“So the question is: What is it that really needs to continue—to persist in the face of surrounding change? What should we hold onto even as we struggle to adapt and respond? If we are going to remain as a system of higher education that deeply values teaching, learning, research and creative endeavor, then how can faculty continue to engage in work that is good at its substantive core—attentive to contemporary social needs yet responsive to deeper humanistic strivings for meaning and value?”
 
To those questions, Neumann has a response: scholarly learning and what she calls passionate thought. For Neumann, passionate thought refers to a professors’ relationship to their subjects—often an intense interest in learning and researching the subjects, topics or questions that first drew them to their discipline.  A professor’s subject of study and teaching will change and grow, Neumann says, but aspects of the initial interest are likely to persist.
 
That scholarly fire forms the basis of, Professing to Learn: Creating Tenured Lives and Careers in the American Research University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), the book which Neumann published earlier this year. Peofessing to Learn is the product of a three-year study funded by the Spencer Foundation in which Neumann conducted interviews with 40 recently tenured professors in various disciplines at four major American research universities.
 
Neumann seeks to understand the passion for a subject that drew the professors to it in the first place, leading them to a faculty career, as well as how they were managing—for better or for worse—to tend that fire amid burgeoning administrative, collegial, teaching and public obligations upon gaining tenure. The challenges to engage in new work that newly tenured professors face vary, Neumann says, from suddenly having to teach courses with hundreds of undergraduates and advising a larger number of students to serving on myriad faculty committees and taking on outreach projects.
 
Yet scholarly learning is at the center of a professor’s academic identity, Neumann says. It manifests itself not only in research but in teaching and outreach. The professors Neumann interviewed told her that not only were they drawn to learning about their subjects, but they were also passionate about sharing what they knew with students and the public. Despite the mounting pressures to learn and carry out work often unrelated to their core interests, the professors found creative ways to persist in “the work they love.”  The many ways in which they do so is part of the story that Neumann weaves through her own scholarship.
 
Given her findings, Neumann is convinced that protecting scholarly learning throughout a faculty career is essential. In the book, she outlines some ways that professors can hang on to their academic passions, including being selective and thoughtful about the projects they take on, creating time to discuss scholarly interests with students and colleagues, engaging in committee work that’s in line with their research interests, and finding ways to connect their teaching, research and service.  Department chairs and administrators can also play a role by fostering supportive cultures of colleagueship and by creating opportunities for cross-disciplinary engagement and, in some cases, public outreach.
 
In the end, promoting scholarly learning is something to which colleges and university should pay closer attention, Neumann says. Many faculty members go on to have outstanding careers after tenure, but not all do. Some falter and burn out, and Neumann believes that measures to foster and protect scholarly learning could play role in mitigating such outcomes.
 
“We face a continuing emphasis these days to make higher education increasingly productive, but sometimes we’re pulling at the wrong thing,” Neumann says. “I think the policy conversations we have in higher education need to be more clearly fed from this internal drive, this scholarly learning and passionate thought. My hope is that my study will help a bit in this larger effort because higher education, at its core, is about a professor in the classroom who knows a subject deeply, and hanging on to that subject throughout a career, even as it changes and grows, is what’s important. What I am suggesting is that we not lose that very important thread that keeps us going intellectually and personally even as the world around us continues to change.”
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