Student, Scholar, Author

Recently I was interviewed by a Christian college Dean of Faculty who is doing research on faculty productivity — what makes some productive in writing while others, having shown all kinds of promise and success in their PhD, can’t seem to get the articles or books completed?

Having never done any kind of research for such a question and never having read even a research article on it, I both wondered why he would ask me and decided to distinguish three stages on the productivity spectrum.

First, scholarship is learned and then enacted in the student phase. In this phase the budding professor is assigned papers or assignments, the student does them and does them well, and the student is graded. An approach to productivity can be absorbed or be the motivating factor in this phase. The approach is a combination of grades, competition with other students, and the goal of finding some day an academic career. In the student phase productivity is tied to external results: the professor’s grade, out doing one’s peers, and the hope that one can be good enough to teach.

Second, scholarship is first genuinely measured in the masters and doctoral programs by intellectual giftedness. How is it measured for this phase, a phase I will here call the “scholar”? Papers or a dissertation. Again, there is a significant dimension of external motivation: the professor’s approval, again comparison with other graduate students, and the hope of getting to teach — now closer and palpable when the graduate student gets to teach. Perhaps the biggest external reward in the scholar phase is the doctorate: PhD, EdD, ThD. The student-scholar is now “Doctor.”

But excellent students and excellent scholars don’t always become authors. This is not, however, a matter of ability or intellectual giftedness. Sometimes the scholar doesn’t want to be an author; sometimes the “academic culture” at the school is not one that encourages writing; and sometimes the scholar’s course schedule for teaching is so demanding, often shaped by the professor’s need for more money to live, that there is little time for writing. The Dean who interviewed me thought his professors had sufficient time to carve out a career as authors, and was wondering why so few of them were becoming routinely productive.

Third, the student-scholar becomes an author only when the external is removed and the internal is the driving force. To be sure, some are motivated by gaining tenure and only then does the productivity decrease. But the author phase of the student-scholar development is measured by the professor’s continued productivity in writing.

When I was in college I learned something about this: an American history professor, instead of assigning specific topics (reasons for the Civil War) or assignments, both gave us a list of general topics to study in the syllabus and then during each class would call out a topic as he was lecturing. We were asked to write mini papers on topics of interest to us. I realized quickly that not many topics in American history grabbed my passions or curiosity. But in my Bible and theology classes I wanted to write a paper on every thing that came up because I was curious …

… my point is this: an author is internally motivated out of curiosity and exploration and experimentation to come to terms with something, something that grabs a person’s attention so deeply that until that curiosity is satisfied the author is not done.

So I told the Dean that assigned topics needed to be balanced with freedom to let a student’s curiosity shape a paper — in consultation with the professor — and to let a student’s creativity shape the paper or project. In other words, we need to help students become more internally motivated and less externally evaluated.

Authors are curious and won’t rest until their curiosity is satisfied. Their motivation is internal; a student and a “scholar” want a grade while an author wants to know. Students and scholars who are shaped and motivated by curiosity are more likely to become productive author-professors.

The Dean seemed to like my ruminations.

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