Five Things Faculty Can Actually Do About the Academy, Part 4: On the Importance of Teaching and Being Better Mentors

I have started the previous posts in this series with negative aspects or problems in the academy that need to be solved. As academics, we are often trained to operate this way, and that can be a good thing, but it can also be a very discouraging thing, since we may see so many problems that we feel powerless to make any positive change.  So, I thought I would start this post off with a positive discussion about my students and use that story as an avenue for discussing the importance of change in how we prepare teaching professionals.

I teach composition on a small-ish campus that offers two and four year degrees, as well as houses a collegiate high school whose students come over to the college to take credit hours during their junior and senior years.  In the second half of the composition sequence focused on argumentation and rhetoric, I have my students direct and facilitate what we call our weekly “Argument Lab.”  For Argument Lab, students are divided into four groups and assigned a role that changes each week. One group is in charge of proposing a topic for discussion based upon a selection of blogs whose subjects range from politics to pop culture to business to education. Students post their proposal to our online discussion board and the class discusses the proposal there in preparation for Friday’s in-person “Argument Lab.” A second group makes an argument in response to the proposal, a third group responds the Argument group, and a fourth group brings in questions based on the other groups’ proposals and responses in order to facilitate face-to-face practice with argument, analysis, and discussion.  I share the details of this exercise in order to show that this semester-long project is indeed student led and driven by student interests; students are genuinely in charge of what we talk about every week and have a wide range of excellent blogs from which to draw in order to come up with a topic. Last semester, one of my sections of Composition II chose to discuss education issues almost every single week.  Since students rotate the “job” they do every week, this means that every single group was primarily interested in talking about and engaging with issues surrounding education, and we discussed topics such as assessment, political ed. reform, educational technology, the usefulness of Bachelor’s degrees, whether some majors are “better” than others, administrative bloat, unemployment, the adjunctification of higher ed., and so on.

Our class was one of the most engaged and productive classes I have ever taught, and I credit that engagement primarily to how much we discussed and wrote about the purpose of education and how to make it better.  As this class went through the semester, students became increasingly concerned about issues they saw as affecting their educational opportunities, such as the fact that between 50 and 75% of classes are taught by contingent faculty—graduate students and/or adjuncts—not only on our campus, but across the nation. Students were not concerned that they were receiving a poor education from adjuncts, but rather that the institution that collects their tuition money was not investing more of its resources in the people chosen to educate them.  As the semester went on and we kept coming back to these issues over and over again, I began to ponder a series of questions that kept recurring in the back of my mind:

Why do so many humanities departments and programs delegate these introductory courses to the least experienced and lowest paid contingent instructors when these core courses are likely the only interaction most students will have with our specific discipline?  If there is indeed a “crisis” in humanities education, why are we giving away our greatest opportunity to cultivate vocal allies among students majoring in other disciplines to contingent faculty who, though most often excellent teachers, do not have the full investment or support of the institutions at which they are employed? Why do so many full-time and tenure-track faculty treat these “service” courses as punishments (like the “dreaded” Freshman Comp), or worse, hazing, when they are our best opportunity to come face-to-face with nearly every single student to walk through the doors of our institutions?

As I was reflecting upon these questions and the very productive discussions I had with my students about education, I began recalling things that tenured faculty had said to me in the past about teaching that “dreaded” Freshman Comp and other introductory courses, things like “Once you have tenure, you won’t have to teach those classes anymore,” “If you get a research job, you’ll spend hardly any of your time teaching at all!”, and “Once I was allowed to teach an upper-level course, I realized not all students are terrible”. These statements, though anecdotal, are not only insulting, but gesture at a general attitude in academia that teaching is always secondary to research and that teaching non-majors or “service” courses is beneath “real” faculty. This attitude is reflected in the percentage of adjuncts and graduate students who teach the core “service” courses at most colleges and universities. I began to ask myself, “How is it possible that we do not invest every possible resource in providing graduate students who want to teach with the tools to become engaged and effective instructors? How is it possible that full-time and tenure-track faculty can neglect the opportunity to advocate for the humanities with the largest audience for our work?” And finally, “What can we do to better prepare graduate students, encourage and invest in adjunct faculty, and motivate full time and tenure-track faculty to engage with the core curriculum and mentor graduate students and other faculty in order to prepare them for the teaching careers they are most likely to have?

Like all the other posts and suggestions in this series, this is not an exhaustive list, but is meant to be a concrete starting point for discussions about what full-time and TT faculty can actually do to ameliorate the conditions of the academy.

  • First and foremost, stop discussing teaching among ourselves-in the hallways, on social media, etc.,-as if it is a punishment that must be endured in order to do research. Talking about teaching this way is a disservice to our students and to all of the faculty—full-time, tenure-track, tenured, and contingent—whose work is primarily teaching. It furthermore contributes to the idea that contingent instructors, like graduate students and adjuncts, who often teach these core classes are “less than” their tenure-track or full-time counterparts.
  • Prepare students for the reality that they will most likely have at least one job in which teaching is their primary role and encourage them to feel motivated and excited by this reality instead of dreading it. As I illustrated in my first post , the vast majority of colleges and universities in the United States are institutions where teaching makes up 50% or more of the faculty member’s role, and students should be prepared for and excited by the prospect of teaching rather than dreading it or seeing it as the “dues” you pay before you get a “better” research job.
  • All graduate students in humanities programs who plan to work in humanities departments as faculty should be better and more thoroughly trained to teach core and introductory courses.  When I originally made these five arguments on Twitter, I got several responses from graduate students to the “better preparation for teaching” suggestion that could be summarized as “Well, that’s if you’re going to be working at a teaching institution.” Most of us work at teaching institutions and graduate students should start preparing to become excellent and engaging teachers from the first year in graduate school.
  • Encourage the same level of professionalization in teaching that we do in scholarship. Encourage students to publish in pedagogical journals and present at pedagogy conferences. Incentivize teaching excellence and pedagogical research in the same way we incentivize other kinds of scholarship.
  • Develop better and more comprehensive teacher training in your department. Many first-time instructors have never taken a course on teaching before they are handed a syllabus and put in the classroom for the first time. One solution might be to partner graduate students with a full-time or TT faculty mentor teaching a core curriculum course for an entire year while the student also takes a year-long pedagogy course, before he or she is put into the classroom on his or her own.
  • Full-time and tenure-track faculty members should include core, introductory, and non-major courses in their rotations so that they can be effective teaching mentors. We cannot be effective mentors if we haven’t seen the inside of a survey course in fifteen years.  If we regularly or periodically teach the same courses as our mentees, we will be better at engaging in real discussions about pedagogy.
  • We must educate ourselves about how to prepare graduate students for jobs at teaching institutions and community colleges. According to Rob Jenkins in the Chronicle, he is “constantly getting emails from graduate students saying that they’re interested in teaching at a community college but that their advisers—essentially, their career coaches—either don’t know anything about the subject, refuse to even discuss it as a possibility, or both.” Given where most humanities graduate students who want to be faculty end up—at teaching institutions—this attitude and ignorance is inexcusable.
  • Be excited about and engaged with teaching and pedagogy and model that attitude for your students and colleagues. More engaged teachers lead to more engaged students, which can build relationships with allies in other disciplines who will acknowledge and advocate for the importance of humanities education.

These suggestions are not, as I have stated, exhaustive, and like all the other posts in this series, they require collaboration. But, like the other posts in this series, at least some of the solutions proposed here are likely within our control and ability as full-time and tenure-track faculty members; they are concrete ideas that we can try out in order to make our profession better, taking charge ourselves instead of waiting for someone else to do it.  We can do better in how we train teachers and how we talk about teaching. We must acknowledge the importance of better training and professionalization, as well as making sure that we as full-time and TT faculty are involved with the core, introductory, and/or non-major “service” courses in our curriculum so that we can become better mentors and advocates for our disciplines.

As my discussion about my own students above indicates, many are hungry to discuss how to improve higher education, and we should be there to help them do it. Every year, thousands upon thousands of potential allies for the humanities disciplines walk through the doors of our colleges and universities, and so many tenure-track and full-time faculty have ignored the opportunities this audience presents for too long. We can no longer afford to treat “service” courses as punishments or the “dues” one pays in order to become a “real” faculty member.

If we as full-time and TT faculty do not take the opportunity to engage with nearly every student who comes to our college or university, often in the only class most will ever take in our discipline, as well as become better mentors to graduate students who want a faculty position and will therefore likely be teaching these “service” courses for most of their careers, then we do deserve to be replaced by people willing to do better.

Stay tuned for the fifth and final installment on refusal and resistance coming in the next couple of weeks. 

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  1. Posted by Angel Garvey

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