The traditional, familiar image of a college professor is in the role of a teacher, the setting in which students most often find and interact with their faculty members.
Like many of my fellow first-year students when I entered Michigan State University years ago, I did not yet fully grasp the investment by my professors, as they prepared for our classes. I soon learned that for every hour-long lecture, my professors had spent up to, perhaps, 10 hours researching, reading, organizing the class session and conducting the research that is essential to the advancement of their disciplines.
As I further explored my field, history, and became more absorbed in my own research and teaching during my graduate work, it was then that I began to understand the idea of the “teacher scholar.”
Teacher scholar describes a professor’s holistic role, which combines the art of teaching, with the science of continuing reading and research, writing and creative activity that expands and refines the knowledge on which the contemporary world relies. Teacher scholars are scholarly about their teaching.
This progressively deeper understanding strengthened my aspiration to be not only a college professor but a teacher scholar in modern history.
At flagship universities, like Indiana University Bloomington or Purdue University West Lafayette, there is a long-established role for campuses to support teacher scholars though their theoretical, empirical and applied research, scholarship and creative work.
But, at regional, comprehensive campuses such as IU Northwest, the role of teacher scholars is an ever-apparent and important part of our everyday work, too.
Annually, for example, IU Northwest faculty members publish more than 100 scholarly articles and 15 to 20 books or book chapters. They participate in upwards of 70 exhibits, shows, performances and other creative activities, while also presenting at more than 200 professional conferences globally.
The result of all of this professional commitment benefits our students’ academic experiences, but also our community, by sharing these intellectual riches through public exhibitions, presentations and community-based education.
The student pay-off
The teacher scholar environment creates a powerful academic culture that fosters an active commitment and engagement to designing stimulating learning experiences for the benefit of our IU Northwest students.
Often, our students work alongside our teacher scholars in research and other creative projects that introduce them to the professional world of seminars, conferences and research-related meetings, opportunities typically reserved for postgraduates.
But the impact of teacher scholars is especially evident, though, when there are learning (and scientific) outcomes like those experienced by biology student Eva Elmalh, who graduated in May 2019.
In her first year, Eva met Dr. Jen Fisher, assistant professor of biology at IU Northwest. Over the next three years, they researched the spread of antibiotic resistance in human-associated bacteria, an urgent topic in the scientific and medical worlds.
By sampling untreated sewage from Gary, Michigan City and Valparaiso, they were able to track resistance trends among human gut bacteria to some of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics.
Their findings are important and relevant. They found that even the "good" bacteria associated with humans are becoming more resistant, which means that, in some cases, the effectiveness of antibiotic treatments is diminished.
The overall goal of their work is to monitor sewage for new or emerging types of resistance, to provide an early warning system to the medical and health care communities about the best patient care.
When Eva enters medical school, she will bring a wealth of research skills, as well as a sophisticated appreciation for both the power and limitations of antibiotic treatments.
Eva’s experience and learning are not unique. During the 2017-8 academic year, there were 1,093 undergraduate research experiences that deepened students’ academic commitments, refined working-world skills, and materially assisted faculty colleagues with their scholarly work.
And, our academic research is not only in the hard sciences. Similar student-faculty work occurs across all disciplines, from fine arts, history and psychology, to criminal justice and business.
We can take pride in the research by teacher scholars and their student protégés on regional campuses like IU Northwest. Everything that makes one a teacher scholar is not readily visible day-to-day, but all of the work that furnishes the depth and significance of the teaching mission is critical to insuring that our students are well-prepared for their futures and knowledge continues to advance across the disciplines.
William J. Lowe is Chancellor of Indiana University Northwest in Gary. The opinions are the writer's.