Tenured Professors and Passionate Learning

Brian Taylor

March 10, 2010

In December, during the Modern Language Association Convention in Philadelphia, I spent my last morning at the conference wandering through the book exhibit, with the luxury of a few hours to do nothing but browse. Because I have a brother who teaches at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, and I have visited him there a few times, a booth advertising the Scottish Writing Exhibition caught my attention, and I stopped to see what it had to offer.

I spotted a few books by authors I recognized, but many of the titles and authors were unfamiliar to me, so I asked the enthusiastic booth manager to recommend something from contemporary Scottish writing—a novel I could squeeze in before the new semester. I selected a recently published novel from the half-dozen or so titles she named.

"How much?" I asked.

"Oh, they're all free," she said brightly. "We're trying to promote Scottish writers, so we give these books away."

"Ah," I said, "then I'll take anything you think I should read!"

She filled up a bag with books, and seemed as happy to give them away as I was to walk out with a semester's worth of new reading material. I began reading through them over the holiday break, and did so with growing interest and excitement. Although my area of academic specialization is contemporary British literature, I had not done much work on Scottish authors—and in what I was reading I could see both wonderful new talent and connections to previous research I had done.

I made a commitment, at the end of winter break, to spend some time this summer exploring the state of contemporary Scottish literature, and to identify an author or novel that I could write about to extend my previous research into this new area of interest.

I am just a tiny bit ashamed to confess that this spark of renewed interest in a scholarly project was the first such spark I have felt in many years. Part of the reason has been the interest I developed in writing about teaching and learning, but the other part has been the heavy teaching (seven courses a year) and service load that we all carry here at my liberal-arts college.

The service load, in particular, has grown heavier since I earned tenure a few years ago, as I find myself taking on more and more tasks to support a college that seems as if it will be my permanent home—helping out with admissions events, assuming a part-time administrative position, working more closely with students on advising or extracurricular events.

And yet, even though I find it difficult to maintain an active research agenda in contemporary British literature, I know that when my scholarly interests are active, it enlightens my teaching and inspires new approaches to my courses.

For example, this semester I am teaching the second half of the "British Literature Survey," and instead of starting off with the English poet William Blake, as I have done in the past, my newfound interest in Scottish literature led me backward to the work of the 18th-century Scottish poet and songwriter Robert Burns. So I opened the course with a review of his work, and even showed a video in class of a contemporary Scottish singer-songwriter doing a rock version of one of Burns's songs. It was one of the most enjoyable teaching days I have had in some time.

The particular dynamic I feel caught in right now—the pull of the energy and time commitment required of a new scholarly interest in conflict with my usual obligations of teaching, grading, and service work—is a typical dilemma for the newly tenured faculty member, according to Professing to Learn: Creating Tenured Lives and Careers in the American Research University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), a new book by the higher-education scholar Anna Neumann.

Neumann's book initially caught my attention because of its unusually specific focus: the scholarly lives of post-tenure faculty members. I picked it up with some skepticism, not sure what I would gain from exploring such a seemingly tiny corner of academic life, not to mention that the book focuses on faculty members at research universities so would seem even less relevant to my experiences at a liberal-arts college.

But as I read through the introduction, I was surprised to see how immediately I connected to the challenges faced by faculty members in her study. In the immediate post-tenure period, Neumann explains, "professors' responsibilities expand, sometimes in overwhelming ways. ... Newly tenured university professors often find that they are doing more work than ever before. They also find that their work becomes more diversified and more complex. ... What could be time for reading and study becomes time for committee work."

Having identified those challenges, Neumann describes her goal for the book, and for post-tenure life in general: She wants to help professors "hold on to their learning and to advance it, to become better learners than they already are, and to help their students learn."

That seemed to me like an admirable objective, one worth sharing with a wider audience. Rather than try to encapsulate her study in this brief space, though, I decided to write to Neumann and ask her to share with Chronicle readers, in a more informal and advice-oriented way, her insights about the importance of post-tenure scholarly learning, and the best means to achieve it. I also wanted to hear her thoughts about the extent to which continued scholarly learning makes a difference in the lives of those of us at small, teaching-oriented colleges.

The central idea of Neumann's book is "passionate thought," which is her name for the experience of becoming totally absorbed by a research topic. She defined it for me in this way: "It's the subjective experience of meaningful, substantive thought; it's what animates a subject of study for the one who studies. At midcareer, passionate thought comes, I think, in subjects we know so very well that when we see something new or different—when we find ourselves able to capture a different angle of vision, an opening—we feel incredible excitement. Real surprise."

Neumann's book draws upon a fascinating series of interviews with scholars who describe the origins of their academic passions, and who try to put into words the experience of passionate thought. But as I read along, I kept wondering whether that experience really made a difference when it came to daily life in the classroom, so I asked Neumann.

"When a scholar teaches in a way that connects what goes on in class," she said, "with what goes on in her own search for substantive understanding—seeking meaning that matters to her—a student may be able to glimpse not only that subject but the expert's live search for it. If the student can tune vicariously into what the instructor pursues, and why, the student also may feel the intensity of that pursuit and the scholarly desire that infuses it."

Multiple studies have demonstrated that a teacher's enthusiasm or interest in a subject can make a difference to student learning, and Neumann's response seems to reinforce that idea. Letting students see the passionate thought that animates our own desire for new learning may help inspire them to learn.

Even if we accept that, however, many faculty members are still faced with the problem of trying to reignite our passionate thought in the face of heavy teaching and service loads. I asked Neumann whether she had any advice for those of us whose primarily responsibilities focus on our classrooms.

For all tenured faculty members, "scholarly learning can appear in unexpected places," Neumann said. "I don't believe that scholarly learning has to happen just in research, though certainly it can. I learned in my studies that some university professors experienced their earliest instances of scholarly learning not in grad school, but in their personal lives; or much earlier, as children and adolescents, in backyards, on summer vacations, looking at the sky at night, looking at the colors of the ocean, reading a book in a darkened room, imagining."

Those faculty members "experienced scholarly learning in places other than formal research or formal classroom situations, or homework for that matter," she said. "For a number of my interviewees, scholarly learning started years ago, outside the work that eventually they came to call their formal scholarship, or research. So why shouldn't that learning continue there, in other venues beyond research, even as it continues in research?"

In other words, it's the passionate thought that matters—not necessarily the placement of that thought in a top scholarly journal. We can think about how to pursue passionate thought in ways other than through traditional scholarship.

Even though I have not yet written about Scottish literature, for example, it has already had an impact on my teaching, and has reshaped my vision of my scholarly field. Even if I never translate my newfound interest into a formal publication, I feel clearly on the road to passionate thought, and know that it will lead somewhere—perhaps to a conference, to writing in my blog, to the development of a new course, or to an application for a faculty-development grant at my college.

All of which may be enough for someone like me, given that I have tenure and could theoretically skate by on few publications for the remainder of my academic life. But, like the post-tenure faculty members in Neumann's study, I don't want to just skate by. I need new challenges and interests to sustain my professional life, and passionate thought, as Neumann describes it, may be the most sustaining experience available to a faculty member.

I concluded my interview with Neumann by asking her for some practical suggestions for tenured faculty members and the administrators who govern our lives.

"Keep your research attentive to what fascinates you," she said. "Avoid being drawn away for too long from topics, questions, and ideas that intrigue you. To the extent that you can, design your service and teaching obligations, and advising or mentoring obligations, in ways that let you talk and think about the substantive stuff you care about most. In other words, try to connect your teaching, research, and service with the thread of scholarly learning, believing that scholarly learning can animate all these activities."

She has tried to follow that advice herself. Since writing Professing to Learn, she said she has tried to be more selective in the service work she does, choosing assignments that would "advance my scholarly agenda as best possible or help me create a community where my own work, and that of my students and colleagues, would thrive. I wanted to be sure that I took care of myself much as I took care of campus life."

For administrators, Neumann offers a more philosophical piece of advice: "In your next policy session or academic planning session, ask yourself whether and how the decisions you make will touch professors' scholarly learning, given the personal meaning and value of such learning to those professors. Inside every overworked faculty member is a person who loves to learn. Without that person, and her efforts to know, the professor is but a shell."

I have only been able to skim the surface here of Neumann's study. For more insights into what the gift of passionate thought can mean for our professional lives, check out Professing to Learn.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of "On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching" (Harvard University Press, 2008). He writes about teaching in higher education, and his Web site is He welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at