When she decided to make college teaching her career, Janet Dizinno had a shining vision of her future: She would preside over a prestigious department in a large, renowned university. Her articles would appear in major journals in her field. She would be quoted by the national media.
Hey, she might even win a Nobel prize.
''That was my dream,'' Professor Dizinno chuckles in retrospect, with a cheery ruefulness.
Her dream was whetted at the huge University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where she got a heady taste of academic success as a teacher and as co-author of the revision of a widely read social-science book.
''Oh! It was wonderful,'' she recalls. ''I got to travel. People knew who I was!''
Now she teaches at St. Mary's University, a small institution in San Antonio, Texas. It's a good school, but one where academic fame and prestige are not in the curriculum.
And she loves it. She made the switch voluntarily after she tired of what she says was a marked neglect of teaching skills and concern for undergraduate learning at her old job. Although her vision may have been scaled down, she finds her career much more satisfying - in everything from professional opportunities to home life. The key advantage, according to Dizinno, is that she's now a much better teacher.
At a time when the quality of college teaching is coming under increasing scrutiny, smaller colleges are gaining visibility and appeal as growing numbers of academics choose to teach there when they begin their careers or move there after teaching in larger schools.
Many acknowledge times of isolation, but they argue a payoff in everything from greater contacts with students to appreciation of teaching skills by college administrators.
''More teachers are discovering smaller colleges and universities, where they can focus on teaching,'' says Ellen Wert, program officer for education at the Pew Charitable Trust in Washington, which funds educational projects and also tracks academic trends.
''College teachers have been choosing [small schools] in greater numbers than they used to,'' she observes. ''They are becoming much less worried about making it in research institutions. They're also finding that, although less research-intensive, the smaller colleges are often are every bit as intellectually vigorous.''
Last year, the Washington-based Association of American Colleges and Universities asked 186 first-year doctoral students interested in an academic career where they would like their first job to be.
''Forty-five percent said a liberal arts college - small places,'' says Jerry Gaff, vice president of the association and director of a project called Preparing Future Faculty, which conducted the survey. ''That was the single largest category of choice - almost twice as many as the second choice: research universities.''
This is something new, says Mr. Gaff. ''The tradition has been for colleges to think they are producing PhDs to go on to other research universities,'' he points out. ''That's not happening now. For one thing, there are not that many jobs. The students are choosing alternatives.''
Just a few years ago, Gaff says, it wouldn't have been ''socially permissible'' for graduate students to have expressed to an adviser an interest in teaching at a smaller liberal arts college instead of at a research facility. ''It would harm his or her career,'' he says. ''Graduate students still often don't talk about these things or tell their faculty colleagues.''
Citing ''widespread public concern about the quality of teaching on the nation's campuses'' among college-bound seniors, US News and World Report has for the first time included a ranking of colleges by their commitment to undergraduate teaching in its annual ''College Guide.''
Six years ago Skip Wade, a college teacher for 22 years, found that commitment compelling enough to leave a tenured position at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. He switched to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., where the student body numbers about 1,250.
''I was hired at Colorado State to have most of my emphasis on teaching,'' he recalls, ''and I had a fair number of colleagues who were interested in the undergraduate program.
''But that interest has waned, and by the time I left, the last colleague I had who was seriously interested in undergraduate education was retiring, so it was about time for me to leave,'' Mr. Wade says.
Promotion and tenure at big universities today, he says, are ''strictly based on the amount of publishing you do and the money you bring in research grants.''
At Whitman he found the criteria were exactly the opposite.
Emily Baird, a chemistry major who has made the move from Northwestern University in Chicago to Whitman College, acknowledges that ''bigger universities may have more resources.'' But ''undergraduates weren't allowed to use them anyway,'' she points out.
At St. Mary's, Dizinno says her teaching is bolstered by an improved home life.
''It's heaven,'' she says. ''I have a daughter named Jackie who's 9. Recently we were walking across campus and saying hello to everybody and calling them by name.
''Jackie said, 'You know, Mom, we're famous here!' That would never happen at large place.''