All posts by talesoutofschool

Being There

The landscape of higher ed these days can be pretty despair-inspiring. Admissions scandals, badly-behaved administrators, shrinking budgets and the like do much to demoralize. As these challenges and crises play out on individual campuses, anxieties mount, tensions flare, and we are often not our best selves. And curiously, the structural patterns and organizing principles of higher ed do much to exacerbate this.

Perhaps ironically, given its origin story as an institution that evolved from corporations of students and teachers, the post-modern university has become a highly atomized environment. We speak of and suffer from the compartmentalization of silo-ed departments and colleges. And this fragmentation reaches all the way down to the faculty and shapes their behavior as well. A 2014 study found that faculty spent an average of 57% of their time working alone. Some of this isolation derives from where and how we work—on weekends, in coffee shops. Some of it derives from our academic disciplines: my own, history, is driven by the model of the solo researcher (though that is slowly changing). And further, as a system, higher ed encourages faculty to think in highly individualized terms. Faculty talk in terms of “my course” and “my syllabus” and “my research.” I am currently reading Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking and part of her thesis is how the competitive funding structure and tenure and promotion processes of academe pit us against one another in potentially unproductive ways.

Some of this independence or separation has its place and serves worthy functions. But I do believe that in times of crisis it doesn’t always serve us well. If anything, I think that those who would undermine or subvert the nobler aims of higher education (educating and empowering students, creating knowledge, faculty governance, etc) benefit from, and perhaps sometimes even capitalize on, our atomization and separation from one another. It is easier to drive a wedge when there is space between people or units where that wedge can fit.

With that in mind, I believe there are small steps we can take to push back against a system that would isolate us and turn us into competitors with each other. I am going to put aside—for the moment—large-scale ideas about big projects where we can and should cooperate and collaborate and systemic changes that would work against a competitive rewards system.  Instead, I am going to say that we should just show up and be there for one another.

Obvious, right? Not necessarily. I read this article about supporting the emotional needs of junior faculty with a combination of head-nodding (“yes, yes, we should do this”) and head-shaking (“what the hell? Why aren’t we already doing this?”).

And I mean being here and showing up for each other in its most basic sense. Go to your colleague’s presentation at the local library. Throw someone a little party when their book gets published. Thank a staff member in a department outside your own for something they’ve done that makes your life easier. Create community where there was none before. A few years ago I started a very small online writing group with some colleagues who lived all over the country. I had some self-serving reasons: I had a writing project I needed to finish and I knew I needed accountability. But I also drew together this group of friends because I suspected they would be good for one another and benefit from the opportunity. Two and a half years later, we’re still going strong. Sometimes we touch base about writing projects, but we have also morphed into a group that offers all other kinds of professional and personal support.

And I also believe strongly that we have to extend these efforts beyond the obvious beneficiaries like the friends we already have at our institutions. Go to the retirement party of the colleague you didn’t always agree with. Send an email to congratulate the colleague you don’t know terribly well who just won an award. Treat your co-workers as people who, just like you, have complicated lives. Examine long-standing practices and traditions that may, in fact, work to the disadvantage of those on the vulnerable side of a power differential. For example, the Psychology Department at UCLA recently discontinued the unspoken expectation that PhD students bring refreshments to their dissertation defense. Build connective tissue between you and your peers. A few years ago two of my fellow deans created an opportunity for all of the deans to get together on a monthly basis. We are a group that, given the funding models and other circumstances at our institution, should be fighting with one another over resources. Instead, these gatherings have made us more collaborative and collegial. We still represent and protect our respective units, but we do so with more care and concern for each other than we might have otherwise.

Even as I write these words, I worry that they are painfully obvious. Or that you’ll think I’m being a Pollyanna. And certainly big structural change is necessary to make higher ed a better place for all of us. But, as readers of this blog will know, I also try to think about what we can do in the moment, while we fight these larger battles. And certainly, I am more inclined to slay those dragons if someone’s worked alongside me collaboratively, noticed my efforts, or just said a kind word to me.

Advertisements

It’s Called Work for a Reason

So I have been thinking a lot about work.  And overwork.  And boundaries.  And trying to have a life (whatever that means).  My inner monologue is a constant tug of war between feeling woefully behind and unproductive and pep talks about how it’s okay to make time for things that don’t involve work. And judging from my Twitter feed, I’m not alone in this.

Undoubtedly, these anxieties are fueled generally by our culture’s obsession with overwork and productivity and how we make those the measures of our self-worth.  More particularly, the current metrics and marketplace of academe create a relentless cycle of never having done enough.

But I think there’s another, less examined culprit as well: the tension between a job on the one hand, and a vocation on the other.

A vocation is literally something you feel called or summoned to do.  And at the outset (before all the committee meetings and grading marathons) I suspect most of us came to higher ed with at least a small sense of that.  We wanted to teach.  We wanted to create knowledge.  And because it’s something we feel drawn to doing, a vocation is, by definition, supposed to provide satisfaction.  We wouldn’t be doing it, if we didn’t want to do it, or even love doing it.

But you know that saying, “Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life”?  We might think this encapsulates the essence of a vocation–a job that transcends drudgery and mere necessity, and provides some sort of deeper fulfillment.  But here’s the thing: there’s a part of me that pushes back (hard) against this pithy little saying.  I think the concept of vocation also has the potential to become a limiting and tyrannical force in our lives.

On the one hand, I get it.  We all want to feel a sense of purpose and as though we are in the right place, doing the work we were meant to do.  We all want our work to be meaningful.  Considering the amount of time we spend there (and perhaps, even the amount of time we spend going back and forth to our workplaces) feeling passionate and excited about our work is critical.  And as someone who has supervised others–both faculty and staff–I know how essential it is for people to be excited and engaged with the work that they do.  And most days, I have these feelings and I love my job.  I work with amazing students, the college classroom energizes me, I have creative and supportive colleagues, and I’m still excited about my research agenda.  I do feel called to do the work I do in higher ed.

But some days it’s awful.  An angry parent, an uncooperative colleague, a failed grant proposal, a rejected article–all of these can derail that passion and sense of vocation.

And even without such dramatic interventions, sometimes work is just that: work.  It can be tedious (hello, endless forms required for anything to happen at my university), it can require tasks that are not naturally in your skill set (hello, Excel spreadsheets!), it can be boring (hello, bi-weekly compulsory meeting where nothing is accomplished). I don’t know about you, but I have days and moments when I genuinely question this thing I’ve felt was my vocation for so long.  Thankfully, those episodes usually pass quickly or are at least batted away by going for a run or drinking a margarita.

But this idea of a vocation can still mess with our heads and lead us to make bad choices.  Focusing on our job as a vocation and not simply the work that it sometimes is, runs the risk of encouraging us to make unnecessary sacrifices because it’s our “calling.”  If we treat our work as a vocation it becomes all too easy to justify staying in the office after 5pm, checking email when we wake up in the middle of the night, or saying “yes” to another commitment when our plate is already full to overflowing.  And I would venture to guess that the tyranny of vocation is particularly the bane of women and POC in the academy who tend to do or be expected to do more service and more emotional labor than their counterparts.  These individuals may in turn feel as though they should discredit or brush aside their exasperation and exhaustion because they’re meant to be fulfilling the higher call of a vocation.

It’s okay to be passionate about our work.  And we ought to seek and nurture and expand those parts of our job that deliver joy and satisfaction and purpose.  But sometimes work is work and it’s hard.  And we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about that.  So it’s also okay to say “it’s just a job,” and to close the laptop, set the phone aside, and to step away to do something else that makes you happy.

It’s a New Year–Welcome

So with the advent of a new academic year, and because over the summer I added some new Twitter followers, I thought I’d say welcome and provide a smattering of what the work of this blog and my other higher ed publications are all about.

My most recent publication is a good indication of what matters to me: being thoughtful and attentive to how we do the work we do in higher education.

In short, I am deeply committed to making the workplace of higher education a supportive, constructive, and meaningful endeavor.  With nearly 25 years experience in higher ed, over a decade of that spent in administrative roles, I have worked with colleagues to help faculty be effective administrators, to enhance the cohesiveness and effectiveness of academic departments, and to build collaboration and #academickindness in higher ed work environments.  In my blog posts and publications in Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education (sample below, see “Recently Published Tales” above for more) I advance ideas and practices to promote these goals.

Click here or the link above for “Traveling Tales,” if you’re interested in working with me and having me visit your campus.  For a sampling of what I’m passionate about, these links are a good start.

On Women in the Academy

#metoo in the MeantimeInside Higher Ed, May 18, 2018

Of Surgeries and Superwomen

On Preparing Faculty to be Administrators–and why we should be

Stop Calling It the Dark SideInside Higher Ed, June 14, 2017

In Our Own BackyardsInside Higher Ed, June 16, 2016

Faculty Morale

It Goes to Eleven

We Are All Bunnies

 

A Commencement Story, or There Are No Small Conversations

It had been a long Sunday and I was leaving the commencement exercises and walking to my car.  I heard a voice call “Dr. Lehfeldt.” The voice belonged to a student I had advised at least five years ago. At the time he was a chemical engineering major, but wasn’t happy and wondered “what one could do” with a History major. We had talked about transferable skills and how he could do just about anything he wanted to with a History BA. I had encouraged him to take his enthusiasm for the study of history and translate it into the kinds of habits of mind and abilities that were desirable to employers–things like critical and creative thinking and cogent and clear oral and written communication.

Mdi96LAc7

He had graduated that day at our commencement ceremonies with his History degree and had already started a full-time job with the Cleveland Clinic as an analyst. “You were right,” he said, “and I just wanted to thank you.”

I thanked him for stopping me and letting me know.

And I haven’t stopped smiling since.

Department of Consolidation

Periodically, universities announce their intention to consolidate or outright cut academic departments.  Such a proposal is currently on the table at the University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale.  As reported in Inside Higher Ed, the Chancellor there has proposed creating, for example, a “School of Humanities within the proposed College of Liberal and Performing Arts” where “there would still be programs, courses and majors in history, English, philosophy, philosophy and languages, cultures and international studies. But there would no longer be a departmental structure to support them.”

Such plans are typically presented as an opportunity to (1) cut costs and (2) promote interdisciplinary collaboration and “innovative” thinking.  Both of these presumed opportunities are built on false narratives about higher education and are dangerous to our common enterprise.

Arguably, consolidating departments into larger units has the potential to save some money in staff and related bureaucratic costs.  Academic departments typically have support staff and fewer of those individuals will be needed if restructuring amalgamates and thereby reduces the number of academic units.  But such savings are a pittance in the grand scheme of things.  Support staff are often poorly paid and the financial savings of eliminating a few secretaries or administrative assistants would hardly solve the budget deficits that many universities face.

Additionally troubling is the administrative assertion that there is a kind of intellectual inefficiency that results from departments being disciplinarily distinct.  Breaking down those silo-ed barriers, it’s argued, will foster collaboration and multi/cross/interdisciplinary projects.  All well and good.  And I fully support this kind of work.

But until all academics attend graduate schools built on this interdisciplinary model and attend conferences and publish in journals that have erased all disciplinary singularity and identity, faculty are not likely to collaborate simply because they now belong to a “School of Humanities” instead of an English department or now have an office next door to someone outside their discipline.  This is simply the higher ed version of the “open office” plan–the notion that if you throw people together in a shared space–physical or metaphorical–the innovative ideas will simply jump off the page and be ushered to fruition.  And guess what?  The effectiveness of the open office plan has been largely disproved by several recent studies.  While consolidating departments does not include moving to a different configuration of actual workspaces, it does operate on the (unproven) assertion that the thing holding back interdisciplinary work is the self-containment of academic departments.

In fact, interdisciplinary research is stifled not by departmental singularity, but a host of other structural impediments that are practically written into the DNA of academe.  A recent report funded by the NSF and examining the need for but also impediments to interdisciplinary work in the sciences discovered that “‘excellence-based’ journal rankings have a systematic bias against interdisciplinary research. This may create or reinforce disincentives for researchers to engage in interdisciplinary research. When journal rankings are used to help determine the allocation of prestige and resources for faculty, it can hinder interdisciplinary research.”  In addition, although women have a demonstrated greater propensity to engage in interdisciplinary research, they also worry about the effects this will have on their career advancement: “compared with men, women expressed more desire to pursue additional opportunities for collaborative and interdisciplinary research. However, women also perceived greater institutional constraints. Women agreed more than men with the statement, ‘I would like to pursue more interdisciplinary research, but only after I am more established in my career.’ Compared with men, women agreed less with the statement, ‘Participation in collaborative research is viewed positively during the tenure/promotion review process.'”  With such impediments and disincentives in place it is little wonder that interdisciplinary work doesn’t occur more often.

The insidious effect of these false narratives about financial and intellectual inefficiency is to shift the blame to the academic side of the house.  It suggests, incorrectly, that the university is in financial trouble because faculty are not responding nimbly to student interest because they’re sequestered away in their departments instead of developing cool interdisciplinary programs that will draw the students in.  I find it hard to believe that the current combined budgetary/enrollment crisis facing some campuses is result of the History department being distinct from the English department.  Being flexible and responsive with curriculum might allow us to create opportunities for student-designed majors and other programs that blur disciplinary distinctions, and perhaps would attract students, but such efforts are not going to solve the multi-million dollar budget crises proliferating across college campuses.  The best way to retain and graduate students (thereby ensuring the financial health of the university), in fact, is to invest in faculty and student support services.

And despite these narratives shifting budgetary blame to academic departments, such reform programs are typically enacted with little if any consultation with the faculty in those very departments.  Some faculty at Southern Illinois are rightly arguing that collapsing departments into larger units has curricular and other implications that fall within the domain of shared governance.  While it would undoubtedly take more time, wouldn’t it be more interesting and constructive to ask faculty to be participants in these discussions, encouraging them to identify thematic overlap and potential areas for interdisciplinary collaboration?  This, however, will be hard work.  Departments can undoubtedly and demonstrably behave in unproductively silo-ed ways and shifting that culture will be no small feat.  But forcing such decisions will only destroy faculty morale, which in turn will yield little or none of the results that chancellors and others claim to be so desirable.

 

Of Surgeries and Superwomen

I love the start of a new school year.  Even after 20+ years in higher education, I thrill to the new-ness of it all.  Fall temperatures, new students, and that “anything is possible” atmosphere all bring me great delight.

Thus, I was both surprised and disappointed when I found myself in the emergency room the night before the start of the semester, looking at the possibility of needing a surgery that week [spoiler: I’m fine; everything worked out; my health is good].

So I missed the first week of classes, had my surgery, and, as you’ve probably already anticipated, the world didn’t end.

But neither did my fretting, fear of falling behind, or general anxiety about missing so much work.  So I went back to the office the following week.  And lasted about four hours.  And then later that week I put in a twelve-hour day.  Which turned out to be a very bad idea.  I spent the next three days recovering from that decision.

Reflecting on the experience of those two weeks, I have realized that I let my desire to be a superwoman outweigh common sense.  “I’m tough,” I reasoned, “I can go back to work.”  I wanted to be some sort of shining example of resilience and determination.  This surgery couldn’t slow me down.  I’m a superwoman!

While I do not think that women exclusively fall prey to the temptation to be superheroes in these situations, I want to address this post to women in the academy and point out why this behavior and the temptation towards superwoman-hood does us a disservice.*

Senior superwomen: I suspect that we build this tendency towards superwomanhood when we are junior or contingent faculty, trying to be the best and most dedicated colleagues possible.  But what dismays me is that this behavior continues even later in our careers.  I was out once for drinks with a group of female colleagues who all held administrative positions at my university.  At one point the conversation devolved into a somewhat competitive round of who got to work earliest/stayed latest/put in the most extra hours.  It is telling that even senior women who are tenured and secure engage in this behavior. We are still trying to prove ourselves in a culture that whether explicitly or implicitly has not fully welcomed us.  Some places are better than others, but overall, women in the academy as reflected in service obligations, teaching evaluations, pay scale, or any host of other metrics still fight an uphill battle for acceptance.  So whether consciously or unconsciously we continue to try to prove ourselves and our worth and our right to be here.

That said, I try not to play along with my colleagues.  Whenever possible, I leave work at 5.  I don’t check my work email after I get home.  Weekends are for non-work activities.  Now certainly there are exceptions to this.  Big projects or the inconvenient overlap of multiple deadlines sometimes means I stay late or work on the weekends.  Sometimes my role as dean comes with evening and weekend responsibilities.  But generally speaking, making overwork and the dissolution of work-life boundaries a competitive sport is not productive.

Which brings me to my next point:

Modeling and normalizing: What message are we sending to our female colleagues when we try to be superwomen who prove their dedication and their talent through overwork?  We’re certainly modeling a behavior that says that self-care doesn’t matter.  We’re setting a presumed standard that values and perhaps even rewards overwork.  We are perpetuating the cycle and a culture that asks women to rise to the standard of superwomen at a possible expense to their health and well-being.

As I repeatedly argue on this blog, those of us in a secure position of power have an obligation to do the work to gradually shift the culture of academe.  So I would ask you: what example do you set for the women in your office or department?  If you are an administrator what policies do you lobby for at your institution?  Sometimes, for example, our jobs require us to work nights and weekends.  But if we’re going to normalize the expectation for that kind of work, then we also need to normalize the concept of comp time [this idea came from one of my wise female administrator friends].  Work four hours on Saturday at a recruitment event?  Fine.  The duties of the job require it.  But then when you take four hours on a Friday afternoon to have a life, you shouldn’t feel guilty or have to explain yourself to your provost.  We need to stand up for and beside our female colleagues when they make choices like these.

Talk about it: Wherever and whenever possible, we need to highlight this issue.  I posted on Twitter when I started working on this post and was surprised/not surprised at how many people responded, indicating that these issues resonated with them.  Despite an enthusiastic response for addressing this issue, I have never had a conversation about this with anyone on my campus.  That needs to change.  Again, those of us in secure positions need to take some risks and bring this up with the senior administration at our universities.  We need to forcefully and vocally advocate for female colleagues who we see trying to take care of themselves while still fulfilling their responsibilities.  We need to intervene when we see someone falling prey to the Superwoman Syndrome.  This last one, I think, is particularly tricky; we tend to praise, and even reward, superwomen, not caution them.

Our efforts to speak up and highlight this issue probably won’t go terribly smoothly.  We will probably be accused of whining or shirking.  And I am the first to acknowledge that institutional structures and cultures do not always support our ability to take care of ourselves and have fulfilling lives beyond our workdays.  But until those of us who are senior and reasonably well-protected begin modeling better behavior and advocating for ourselves and our female colleagues nothing will change.  We will be very unhappy superwomen.

 

*I want to be quick to say that I think this issue is undoubtedly relevant for scholars of color, contingent faculty, and others who find themselves feeling unwelcome in the academy and/or needing to prove themselves through overwork.

Administration and Faculty: Can This Relationship Be Saved?

A week or so ago I published a piece in Inside Higher Ed about bridging the divide in higher education that too-often separates the administration from the faculty.  It prompted some lively discussion.  I appreciate those of you who engaged with my argument and offer the following as things I learned from your feedback.

* Experiences vary: One thing that the response to my essay taught me is that experiences vary widely.  I would not have necessarily characterized the relationship between faculty and administration at my university as good, but I have learned that it certainly isn’t as difficult as it is elsewhere.

* Point taken: Several of you called me out for describing my colleague’s move from faculty to administration as a “promotion” since that contributed to the very divide that I was railing against.  You are absolutely right.  And such a description is part of the problem.  I will think and write differently about that as a consequence–thank you!  I need to avoid characterizing, and thus valuing, administrative work as something “above” the work that faculty do.

* There are administrators and there are administrators.  What do we mean when we say “administration”?  The responses to my piece would suggest that among faculty the word conjures up images of overpaid and ineffective presidents, vice presidents, deans and others in the upper echelons of administration.  My own definition is a bit more all-encompassing and includes individuals who occupy more modest, but nonetheless administrative, roles at the university–associate deans, directors, and department chairs, for example.  It is often these folks that I think of (though not exclusively) when I think of talented, dedicated colleagues who are not deserving of faculty antipathy.  So we need to be careful that we don’t paint “administration” with too broad a brush.

Which brings me to my next point.

* Bad actors: I resisted the urge to respond to each comment that trashed the bad behavior of a particular administrator or administration with a counterpoint story about the bad behavior of faculty.  I resisted, because that’s NOT THE POINT.  You’re mad because an administrator pushed through a bad policy without adequate faculty governance?  I’m mad at the tenured faculty member who never answers student emails and reads aloud from her textbook as a substitute for holding class.  Both of these individuals are outliers.  They are not the sole face of either the administration or the faculty.

Now, I will acknowledge that my analogy breaks down in the face of the power differential that often separates administrators from faculty.

Which brings me to my next point.

* Cultural v. structural: Admittedly, what I was arguing for was a change in the culture that often divides faculty from the administration.  But as many of you pointed out, there are often structures that mitigate against that.  On campuses without a strong tradition and culture of faculty governance it may be virtually impossible to work with the administration.  If the administration controls large swaths of the decision-making process and wields that power without input from faculty, small wonder that faculty might be inclined to view them in a negative light.  I don’t think this means that bridging the faculty-admin divide is impossible on campuses such as these, but it will face different and harder challenges.

Which brings me to my next point.

* Growing administrators: If your campus is plagued by a toxic environment that divides the faculty from the administration, then perhaps you need to think about moving some of those faculty (or yourself!) into the ranks of administration.  Many of you lamented the fact that some of the most troublesome administrators come from outside the institution and don’t stick around very long.  I agree that this creates disruption and distrust.  One remedy is to encourage talented and dedicated faculty (and again, maybe YOU are one of these faculty) to consider moving into these positions.  The faculty perspective, institutional memory, and commitment to the institution that these individuals bring to the table could go a long way to creating better relations between the administration and faculty.

 

If I learned nothing else from the comments on my essay, it’s that the relationship between faculty and administration is fraught and often outright contentious on most campuses.  But I remain resolute in my insistence that there are things we can do to change that.  I welcome your continued thoughts and suggestions.

Hands Off

Twice in the last few months I’ve had male colleagues put their hands on me.  One time involved actual physical contact.  The second time was more metaphorical.  Both were unacceptable.

In the first instance, I was standing with a group of other colleagues, talking at the end of a meeting, when I felt someone come up from behind and put his hands on my shoulders.  He used doing so to turn me towards him and then he dropped his hands and began speaking to me.  As is often the case with such things, I was so taken aback I didn’t have a witty or pointed response at the ready.  I spoke with him briefly and then walked away.

But it was another feature of my response that troubled me as well.  As I told the story to colleagues later that day and tweeted about it, I caught myself saying that he was someone who “I didn’t even know that well.”  Once I realized I was doing that, it caught me up short.  What difference did my relationship with him make?  I had fallen into the trap of trying to explain his behavior and provide a potential “out” for him by suggesting that familiarity would have made his actions acceptable.  But would it have been okay if a male colleague that I DID know that well had done this?  Of course not.  There should just be a “no touching colleagues” rule.

The second instance was different.  I ran into a male colleague on campus.  He referenced an earlier meeting in which I had very directly criticized a certain practice at the university.  And then he said with a smile “Next time I’ll sit close and hold you back in case you get all angry and fired up again.”  Ah yes, the tired (nay, exhausted) trope of the angry woman.  Had a male colleague led the charge, I’m sure he would have been praised for his dogged determination and leadership.  And I’m sure he wouldn’t have been jokingly cautioned when he came to the next meeting.  Thankfully, I was able to chasten my would-be restrainer somewhat by telling him that my critique had actually resulted in a much-needed change.

In the grand scheme of things, both of these cases are relatively innocuous.  They involved no direct physical threat or harm.  Neither has held back my aspirations as a leader on my campus–or have they?

They are, of course, evidence of the insidious, subtle and often silent operations of gender in the academy.  Why are only 18% of the full professors in my field (History) women?  Why are only 26% of college presidents female (when over 57% of college students are women)?  Certainly, some of it is the result of overt and structural discrimination, but part of the reason these gaps persist well into the twenty-first century is also because of episodes like these.  And so although I’ve enjoyed promotion, leadership, and research opportunities at my university, am I truly the equal of my male colleagues if I’m going to manhandled (pun intended) and called angry when I fight for something important?  I suspect not.

What Is In a Name?

What is in a name?  A lot apparently, if this recent essay in Inside Higher Ed is any indication.  In it, Alexander Bolyanatz vigorously rejects the appellation of “teacher,” largely because of the connotations he believes it carries.  Drawing on the example of K-12 educators, he argues that these individuals, who should be called teachers, are called upon to be disciplinarians, to act in loco parentis, and are often perceived by their students as adversaries.  These associations, he believes, should not characterize the work of university faculty.  Further, he contends, he is not trained to be a “teacher” since teachers have “formal training in fields like pedagogy and learning” and he does not.

1280px-andrew_classroom_de_la_salle_university

The pushback against this essay has been hard-hitting.  And it has been heartening to see many college and university professors embrace not just the title but also the responsibilities of “teacher.”  Where I would like to enter the debate is to address an issue that I encounter frequently and have written about previously: the extent to which we as college faculty should be engaged with pedagogy and research on the science of learning.

The author is correct in asserting that most college and university professors do not receive preparation in pedagogy.  So add that to the list of things we should be changing about graduate education since the vast majority of us will not teach at R-1 institutions and will regularly and frequently stand before students and TEACH.  But in the meantime, shouldn’t we WANT to engage with this material?  I have written before about the perplexing–to me–phenomenon of some university professors ignoring the vast literature on how students learn and persisting in outmoded and ineffective forms of instruction.  I have several theories about why this is the case, but Bolyanatz’s essay highlights one of them: the unspoken and uncomfortable hierarchies by which we (sometimes) divide the world of education.

I suspect I am not alone in having heard and observed the following sentiments.  Being a college professor is better than being a high school teacher.  Within the post-secondary world, being an English professor who teaches literature is superior to being one who “only” teaches composition.  Those professors who teach “Math Ed”?  Not as good as those who teach advanced subjects.  And yet ironically we expect those whose work we rank lower to be the ones engaged with the literature and research on how to teach effectively and enhance student learning.

So when the author relegates the work of pedagogy and learning to K-12 teachers I believe that doing so is symptomatic of a larger dilemma in education writ large: the chasm that often divides post-secondary education from its secondary counterpart.  Though the author credits these teachers with having expertise in pedagogy and learning, he also simultaneously denigrates them by saying in the next breath that they act as adversarial disciplinarians.  In this he exacerbates the divide by fueling negative characterizations that separate these two worlds one from the other.

Some have generously argued that the problem in bridging this gap between the findings of pedagogy and the science of learning and university faculty is one of “communication.” We should communicate the results of the work on pedagogy and learning more broadly and that will change minds.  I wish I could be as sanguine.  I think the problem is deeper and rooted in these hierarchies which in turn foster prejudices and disdain.  So the remedy is interaction.  In my experience these hierarchies do not hold once one begins to interact with K-12 educators, composition professors, my colleagues who teach math education at the post-secondary level, and others whose work we are typically quick to trivialize or criticize.  Is teaching high school different from teaching college?  Absolutely.  Are the challenges of teaching freshmen composition different from the challenges of teaching literature?  Of course.  But different does not mean that one is better or more valuable than the other.  I am convinced that we have much to learn from each other if we open a dialogue across these gaps and subvert these hierarchies.  I doubt any one of us–regardless of what we teach–has cornered the market on pedagogical knowledge and insight.  I know I haven’t.  With any luck at all, the best teachers–yes, I said, teachers–are the ones who aren’t done learning how to teach.

 

Try a Little Empathy

As an administrator, I hear lots of complaints from faculty about students and from students about faculty.  It is part of my job to adjudicate these complaints.  But the longer I do this the more I am struck by a seemingly simple observation–but one that is not acknowledged frequently enough–that is at the core of many of these conflicts.  The uncomfortable truth is that the professor-student relationship is predicated on us having power over them. We can seek to mediate that to make it less intimidating. We can seek to be more collaborative and to become their partners in learning.  But at the end of the day we occupy a position of authority and we do powerful things like evaluating their work and assigning grades. I say this not to suggest that we should lord our power over them. Quite the opposite, in fact. Instead, I think we need to remedy our (occasional) failure to fully appreciate how our students experience the power that we have over them.  We need to try a little empathy.

800px-philo_mediev

Too often, our reactions to students assume a disrespect or malice that I don’t think is there. I think instead that students are worried and anxious. I am not saying we should be pushovers. Or that students should be coddled. But I am saying that a little empathy could be constructive. And in my experience, coupling that empathetic disposition with listening can really keep the situation from escalating.

So, like you, I get emails and have interactions with students where they make requests that rankle me: they want extra time to turn in an assignment, they want a detailed study guide for the exam, etc.  There was a time when I would have gotten my hackles up: “how DARE they make these unreasonable requests?”  But I have found that doing so was a failure on my part to consider the anxiety that might reside behind such petitions.  Unreasonable requests are often the last-ditch effort of students who are panicking about a grade.  Is it likely that they got themselves into this pickle to begin with?  Absolutely.  Do I accomplish anything by responding with outrage?  Probably not.

Instead, I have found that if I make my default setting empathy and I take just a few moments to ponder the concerns and fears of my students I am usually able to work towards a more constructive response.  Better still, if I have the opportunity to engage students and talk to them, and even more importantly, listen to them, they are more likely to eventually acknowledge their responsibility.  So whenever possible, find a way to engage with the student–easier to do if they approach you in person, but if they email, invite them to come to office hours or talk to you before or after class.  Email is notoriously bad at communicating tone and intent.  My point is this: oftentimes, students just need to be heard and give voice to their anxieties.  As a chair and now as a dean I continue to be surprised at how often a situation can be defused by just listening.  At least half the time, once a student has finished giving voice to the complaint/concern/frustration, the unreasonable request has evaporated, the student feels heard, and all of this without an escalation of the situation.

But if the unreasonable request hasn’t disappeared after a conversation, your response to that unreasonable request might still be “no.”  That said, I am still persuaded that a momentary flirtation with empathy costs us very little and may keep a situation from worsening.

Empathy has other roles to play in our interactions with students.  Your empathy should include, for example, never assuming that students know how higher education works. This is especially true, of course, for first-generation college students. Even a super-rigorous college prep high school cannot prepare them for the bureaucracy and interactions that define higher education. And this means that they may not know how to interact with you at first.  They may call you by your first name. They may express frustration when you don’t respond to their emails right away. Rather than take these things as a personal affront, take the opportunity to explain the rules of engagement.

As you interact with them, your empathy should also extend to realizing that you might be scary–or at least perceived as such. I like to think that I am nice, approachable, and reasonable in my interactions with students. And I suspect that eventually they are persuaded that I am. But for a student who has never taken a class with me or never come to my office hours, I may be scary and intimidating, no matter how relaxed or jokey or unpretentious I am.  I’m the one who graded that exam they want to discuss. I’m the one who will be hearing, and presumably evaluating, that comment they make in class. An appreciation of these potential tensions and apprehensions that sometimes result from the power dynamic in the professor-student relationship might go a long way to easing interactions with our students.

Some will say that this amounts to coddling students.  I couldn’t disagree more and am inspired by Prof. Sara Rose Cavanagh‘s wise work on the science of student emotions and learning.  She contends that we need to reject the false dichotomy of assuming “that we have to choose between rigor and care.”  Are students sometimes irresponsible and immature and even disrespectful? Absolutely.  My admonition to empathy is in no way meant to deny this.  And there may be situations where a more stern response is required.  My proposal, however, is modest: we should err first on the side of empathy.  Acknowledging the anxieties that adhere to the power we have over our students is a relatively small gesture that may have a large impact on their experiences and our interactions with them.