Last week I had the pleasure of presenting a paper on the history of vibrators at the second annual Kansas Gender and Sexuality Conference at Wichita State University. It was a great time and a well-run conference. I’m glad I went.
But why did I go? Although I started my career in the professoriate, today I’m a university staff member. I don’t have a job requirement to remain active in my academic field, and even if I did, the history of vibrators hardly qualifies as fundamental to my job as an instructional designer. Really, I can design online classes with only the minimum of knowledge about nineteenth century medical devices.
But my experience at the conference was an unmitigated positive. I got the chance to step out of my day-to-day job and share something I have learned with an interested audience. For 18 minutes on a Friday morning, I had the opportunity to field test my academic research skills and my reflective thinking chops. This conference gave me the chance to do what we do in academia, and it was fun.
Higher education is a product, and right now education-as-product idea dominates many discussions about the future of the university in America. But higher education is not simply a product; it is a process as well. In this environment we teach certain skills: how to research, how to reflect, how to think about new ideas.
Sometimes it seems that the only people who focus much of their time and effort on research are those new faculty who will soon be evaluated for tenure. They HAVE to research, write, and present, but few of the rest of us face similar pressures. University staff in particular get a pass on all that activity. I don’t have to do research, write articles, or present at conferences. I want to.
Academic research has value, not just as a road to tenure, and not only because disciplines rely on it. It stretches the brain and it allows us to share what we know. Universities are in the business of helping people learn how to think, research, and communicate. If those are useful life skills and we teach them well, people will continue to come to us to learn. Is there a better way to show off the value of what we teach than by getting out there and practicing our own skills?