The Ship in a Storm: What Kind of Scholarship in a Time of Crisis?

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched humanity more rapidly and more seriously than any other major disaster of the modern era. For the first time since World War II, a major global crisis has centered itself in the west, killing hundreds of thousands and sickening millions just in Europe and North America. At the same time, the pandemic has combined with generational political forces to stretch democratic and economic systems and threatens the American perspective of entrepreneurial capitalism that has become dominate over the last century. Across the west, and particularly in the United States, major institutions, including universities, are creaking under stress; some are cracking, and some will break. 

Universities all over the United States are under pressure. Some of the pressures were created by COVID-19, but many of them represent major, systemic flaws that have plagued American higher education for decades. These flaws were brought to the forefront of educational discussions when COVID-19 closed campuses, threatened revenue streams, trimmed federal and state tax revenues, and forced higher education, much of it unwillingly, into a brave, new virtual world. One of the major questions confronting higher education today, as many institutions prepare for their first planned semester of all-online or mostly online delivery, is what is to become of the traditional faculty balance of teaching, research, and service? This article attempts to address that question and argues that, in these unusual times, faculty must pivot from a primary focus on field-specific research to focus instead on pedagogical research and particularly on the pedagogy of teaching online. 

Tension exists between the different facets of the academic persona, but none is greater than the tension between scholarship and teaching. Both have tremendous rewards, but each demands tremendous amounts of academics’ most precious resource: their time. A generation ago, Ernest Boyer1 famously redefined scholarship to relieve that tension to include the scholarship of teaching and learning.2 Boyer’s model rapidly became dominate across academe, particularly in the United States. Over time, the scholarship of teaching and learning, as Boyer defined it, has struggled to gain ground on an equal basis with its counterparts.3 Some have even attempted to redefine the scholarship of teaching as an integrative component expressing other components of Boyer’s scholarship model, instead of an independent research focus.4  Richlin ultimately separated the scholarship of teaching into two components—the act of scholarly teaching and the pure scholarship that reports those results.5 

There are significant impediments to an academic career built in the space of the scholarship of teaching learning. First among them is the challenge that there are very few well-rated journals that publish teaching and learning scholarship;6 comparatively, there are numerous A+ rated journals in each business subdiscipline. Most business disciplines (accounting, human resources, marketing, and others) do not have access to an A+ rated journal focusing on teaching and learning scholarship in their discipline.7 

The lack of a publishing home, for tenure-track faculty who must publish or perish, guides faculty away from teaching and learning and towards the scholarship of discovery. Despite three decades of further refinement of the scholarship of teaching and learning, teaching and learning scholarship remains a lower tier form of scholarship than the more traditional scholarship of discovery. 

Within this context of teaching and learning, a somewhat neglected discipline within academe, in general, and business, in particular, we insert the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly, society writ large and universities need the scholarship of teaching and learning and need it in a big way. The traditional lecture and Socratic modes of education are largely ineffective in a virtual environment. Teaching faculty have an immediate need to tap into novel methods of engaging students and provoking the most difficult types of student skill and knowledge development. This need creates an incredible opportunity for faculty to pivot out of their more traditional scholarship activities and into the scholarship of teaching and learning. The professoriate needs to redefine teaching and then retrain itself how to teach. That is a major societal problem, and for decades, academics have contended that scholarship is the best solution to the biggest problems of society.

Another great opportunity for academics is the natural experiment created by coronavirus. By forcing higher education online and using fall 2019 as a control, fall 2020 provides an opportunity to study online teaching and learning in a way that has simply never existed. Hundreds of thousands of faculty will teach online in fall 2020, most of them for the first time. Unlike their spring 2020 experience, for most faculty this will be an intentional and planned experience with the full benefit of the summer months to properly prepare. Faculty will implement new and exciting pedagogical techniques and the natural experiment will allow those results to be compared to previous terms in a direct and coherent way without the biases that have traditionally afflicted teaching online (such as a preference to put the best and most experienced faculty in classrooms and relegate online teaching to the least experienced or weakest faculty or vice versa). 

In order to accomplish the rehabilitation of the scholarship of teaching and learning as an equivalent discipline, universities must adjust faculty research expectations either to focus on the scholarship of teaching and learning or to provide and explicitly require a certain amount of scholarship in the teaching and learning space. Some institutions have already taken this step. For example, the strategic plan for the University of North Carolina at Pembroke School of Business indicates value for scholarship that benefits students.8 Within the Boyer model of scholarship, the only type of scholarship that can be expected to benefit students with any degree of urgency is the scholarship of teaching and learning. There are numerous ways to put preferences of this type into action. First, institutions can reduce the amount of teaching and learning publications that are needed for tenure relative to other types of research. For example, an institution operating on a tenure policy requiring three major publications over five years could allow three publications of any type or two publications in the teaching and learning space. Second, considering the lack of A-rated journals in the teaching and learning space,9 institutions could allow teaching and learning publications to count toward tenure even if they are in a B or B+ rated journal that would not be otherwise permitted. Third, and most interestingly, an institution could waive a required publication for research projects that are unpublished but demonstrate specific, sustained improvement in teaching (as measured by student, peer, and/or department head teaching evaluations). To an extent, this represents a merging of the teaching and scholarship components of faculty evaluation, but such a merger is consistent with the literature.10 As Boyer, Glassick, and Richlin all agree, the scholarship of teaching has two unique components – the act of teaching itself and the publication of the methods and outcomes of that teaching.11 Both activities are the scholarship of teaching and learning, so a partial merging of the teaching and scholarship components of the faculty role is reasonable.

COVID-19 presents unusual challenges and opportunities for higher education. Most important is the opportunity to rehabilitate the scholarship of teaching and learning as a valuable and impactful scholarship space for tenure-track faculty. Additionally, there is the opportunity to take advantage of the natural experiment created by the sudden transition to predominately virtual teaching. Finally, there is the opportunity for institutions to encourage additional scholarship in the area of teaching and learning by building incentives within the tenure-track promotion model that encourage scholarship of teaching and learning over other types of more traditional scholarship.


1 Ernest Boyer was an educational thought leader and practice academic of his time serving as Chancellor of the State University of New York, United States’ Commissioner of Education, and President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

2 Boyer, E. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (1990).

3 Glassick, C., Boyer’s Expanded Definitions of Scholarship, the Standards for Assessing Scholarship, and the Elusiveness of the Scholarship of Teaching, 75 Acad. Med. 877 (2000).

4 Hill, P., Twenty Years On: Ernest Boyer, Scholarship and the Scholarship of Teaching, unpublished (2009), available at

5 Richlin, L, Scholarship Reconsidered, 86 New Directions for Teaching and Learning 57 (2001).

6 Currie, R. & Pandher, G., Management Education Journals’ Rank and Tier by Active Scholars, 12 Acad. Of Management Learning & Education 194, 204 (2013) (determining through survey that there are only three A+ and only eight A- or greater journals that publish teaching and learning scholarship in all of business).

7 Id.

8 The University of North Carolina at Pembroke School of Business, Strategic Plan, last accessed June 15, 2020, available at

9 Supra n 6.

10 Supra n 2, 3, & 5.

11 Id.