August 12th, 2008

Look to Midcareer Faculty for Learning Communities

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Studies on faculty careers show that faculty research publication productivity plateaus or drops at midcareer. However, this one measure of faculty productivity should not be mistaken as stagnation, says Shari Ellertson, an assessment consultant at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, who conducted research on faculty “vitality,” or the intensity of engagement with their work.

“What I was reading about midcareer faculty in the literature did not match what I was seeing, which was [midcareer] faculty members who were very excited, very enthused, and very energized by being involved,” she says. “I thought it was too simplified to say all midcareer faculty have this plateau. It’s not representative of how complex a role faculty have.”

What she found through her research is that midcareer faculty tend to have professional interests and needs that learning communities can fulfill. (A learning community as defined by Evergreen State College, one of the leading institutions in the learning community movement, is “a purposeful restructuring of curriculum to link together courses or coursework so that students find greater coherence in what they are learning and greater interaction with faculty and peers.) “Indeed, learning community experts Barbara Leigh Smith and Jean McGregor say that midcareer faculty are at the perfect stage in their careers to get involved with learning communities,” Ellertson says.

While new faculty are often engaged in research that will help them earn tenure, and while senior faculty are often interested in mentoring new faculty and leaving legacies, midcareer faculty are often interested in

  • finding new creative outlets,
  • networking and collaborating,
  • developing solutions to institutional problems,
  • engaging in interdisciplinary work, and
  • engaging more deeply in teaching and mentoring students.

One of the things Ellertson found in her research was that faculty who participated in learning communities were already engaged in teaching-intensive activities at the institutions. As a result, when recruiting faculty, the institution should not only ask, “What could we have them do that’s appealing to them?” but also ask, “Where do we find them?”

“I think we find them through our teaching and learning centers on our campuses,” Ellertson says. If a campus has no formal center, there’s still an epicenter of people who focus on teaching and learning through conferences and informal groups. Institutions can also invite faculty who have won teaching awards. “It seems a little bit obvious, but we aren’t always doing those things,” Ellertson says. “Those are opportunities to tap into the folks who are really interested in undergraduate education. It happens because of relationships.”

Because of the traditional relationships between faculty and students, interaction outside of class can be difficult for some faculty and students, Ellertson says. “Simply having a pizza party and expecting magical interaction to occur between faculty and students is somewhat unrealistic, because most [students and faculty] are unaccustomed to interacting with each other in that informal sense. Yet faculty in my study said that that was one of the unique things about learning communities-that there are these opportunities [for interacting with students] that just don’t occur otherwise.”

Student affairs staff sometimes believe that student development is their exclusive domain, Ellertson says. However, faculty have some student development experience, and their interest in deepening that experience can be a motivator for participating in learning communities. “Faculty know this stuff from their experiences. They might not be able to name the theory, but they know the cycles of their students, and they’ve seen it,” Ellertson says.

The motivation for most faculty members who participate in learning communities is intrinsic, Ellertson says.

Learning community work often isn’t recognized at the institutional or departmental levels, Ellertson says. It isn’t built into many institutions’ faculty reward structures. In addition, the faculty she interviewed cited departmental indifference-or even departmental resistance-as a drawback of participating.

“Some [respondents] said that their departments were oblivious to the fact that they were doing it,” she says.

On the other hand, faculty cited the pride and satisfaction they get from helping students as the main motivator for participating in learning communities. Faculty also said they liked helping build students’ citizenship by engaging them in civic-minded, service-learning projects.