SLU Public Information

Professing Professional Scholarship

Professor Michael Kurtz is a nationally-recognized historian and author of books on Governor Earl Long, the Kennedy Assassination and modern American history.

To a student, the word "scholarship" means money -- a certain amount of money awarded to academically gifted students to assist them in paying their college expenses. To a faculty member, the word "scholarship" means something else -- research, writing, producing plays, creating works of art, engaging in laboratory experiments and performing in concerts and recitals. Scholarship forms an integral part of a faculty member's duty. Indeed, a proven record of scholarship is one of the most important criteria in assessing a faculty member’s performance for such matters as promotion to a higher rank, the receipt of tenure, and the distribution of pay raises based on merit.
        What does all of this have to do with students? Of what value to students is Professor Nick Norton's applying for a grant to pursue his studies in electron microscopy? Or Professor Tim Gautreaux's writing a short story? Or Professor David Evenson's racing his fingers across a piano keyboard? Or Professor Bill Robison's poring over centuries-old manuscripts from the days of Henry VIII?
        My friends, nothing is more important. We, the faculty, have as our primary responsibility providing our students with the best possible education to ensure that they have the academic preparation necessary to a successful vocation in life, whether it consists of a job or the furtherance of their education at the graduate level. In today's rapidly-changing world, consumed by constant, revolutionary advances in knowledge and technology, we, the faculty, cannot perform our job satisfactorily without engaging in whatever type of scholarship is appropriate to our respective disciplines.
        Teaching and scholarship, therefore, are like love and marriage — they go together like a horse and carriage, and to further borrow from the Sinatra song, you can't have one without the other. I do not pretend that we faculty members function exclusively from altruistic motives. Like other human beings, we look after our own self-interest. Faculty do research and publish to get promoted, to obtain tenure, to receive merit raises, to make money from royalties, to relish the supreme intellectual and personal self-satisfaction of adding to the total sum of human knowledge by disseminating the results of our work.
        Whatever our motives, however, our students will benefit from the results of our scholarship, for we will share it with them in the classroom, in the laboratory, in the recital hall, on the stage. By absorbing this material, they will emerge from Southeastern better prepared men and woman, and as we once did, they will enter into their chosen professions with the background and, hope- fully, the incentive to engage in their own forms of scholarship for the benefit of future generations.

Professor William "Nick" Norton is a national award-winning cell biologist and a U.S. Department of Defense research fellow.

At issue is the question of whether students benefit from professors who are actively engaged in scholarly activity. Let's consider one form only of scholarly activity, that of scientific research.
        I am a strong proponent of the view that students derive significant academic benefits from professors who participate in scholarly activities, particularly scientific research. The underlying driving force for such a cause and effect relationship is the bond that develops between the student and the professor who is engaged in scientific endeavors. Such relationship is based on professional respect and trust. Students admire professors who are active components of the scientific community and contribute to the acquisition of knowledge. There appears to be a genuine desire by many students to excel in the classroom in order to gain the respect and admiration of the scientist/professor. These scholars, as a collective group, possess the favorable attributes that enable them to serve as excellent role models in a discipline that can be quite intimidating to students.
        I have noticed, over the years, that the individual features that are typical of competent and successful scientists are also symbolic of professors who excel in the classroom. Many of these traits, such a perseverance, dedication, diligence, and possession of an inquisitive mind are the same characteristics that you have displayed throughout your collegiate experience. There is, however, one other feature that is universal to all successful and respected scientists I have known, and that unifying trait is a genuine love of their discipline. Enthusiasm and a sincere love of your discipline are the driving forces for ultimate success.
        Throughout my career, I have had the good fortune to collaborate with a number of nationally recognized scientists on a variety of research projects. I have observed that the majority of these competent scientists, whether their affiliation is with a major research institute or a small regional university, are able to manifest their favorable characteristic traits in the classroom as well as the research laboratory. They generate an atmosphere of excitement and enthusiasm in the classroom that, hopefully, evokes a desire by the student to learn and, most importantly, comprehend the subject matter.
        If I were to select one salient feature of scientific research that a conscientious scientist/professor brings to the student, it would be the concept of critical thinking, an indispensable component of scientific inquiry. Its employment is so fundamental in science that the majority of scientists/professors understand the significance of instilling the concept of critical thinking in the daily thought processes of all students.
        Conscientious scientist/professors consistently emphasize to students the importance of integrating factual information for the purpose of comprehending basic theories and concepts. Systematic and methodical approaches to the study of scientific information by students is strongly encouraged by the scientist/professor, who employs the same philosophy during scientific investigations. Another clear and valuable advantage of having professors actively participating in scientific research is the rather frequent occurrence of them functioning as a mentor for students engaged in scientific investigations. Students are taught how to design appropriate protocols and to apply the scientific method when attempting to resolve a scientific question.
        To realize, however, your full potential and achieve mental maturity, you will have to nurture and challenge your mind continually. The primary vehicle for learning, which is reading, remains constant, however. Reading professional journals, articles, and books will enable you to remain current in fields or disciplines that are characterized by rapid changes in technology.
        Do not restrict your readings to professional materials in your field. You have a true responsibility to yourself, your family and your community to stay informed in order to make knowledgeable decisions on social, economic and political issues. Do not, however, depend upon the superficial coverage provided by television. Comprehensive and in-depth information can best be obtained by reading appropriate publication, periodicals and books. My take-home message is quite simple, yet, I believe, truly meaningful. Continue to read and challenge your mind.

Comments excerpted from College of Arts and Sciences 1996 honors convocation.

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