In the same way a classroom’s climate is created jointly by teacher and student actions, a department’s teaching climate results from collective contributions. Of course, department chairs and other administrators play key leadership roles, but they alone are not responsible for creating the teaching climate. We all contribute by what we say and do regarding teaching. Sometimes we say and do nothing, and this too becomes part of the culture.
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During a conversation about evidence-based teaching, a faculty member piped up with some enthusiasm and just a bit of pride, “I’m using an evidence-based strategy.” He described a rather unique testing structure and concluded, “There’s a study that found it significantly raised exam scores.” He shared the reference with me afterward and it’s a solid study—not exceptional, but good.
I’m imagining that this department head works at an institution where budgets are tight, everyone works hard at recruitment and retention, and teaching is an important part of the institution’s mission. The wishes aren’t in any particular order.
Knowing how to handle student complaints is an essential skill for department chairs. In an interview with Academic Leader, Patricia Markunas, chair of the psychology department at Salem State University, offered advice on minimizing the number of complaints and managing those that do make it to the department chair.
There’s a long-standing tradition of informal sharing of pedagogical innovation among K-12 teachers and a whole line of research on this phenomenon, which is known as teacher leadership. The same type of informal faculty leadership exists in higher education as well, but there is very little research on this topic, according to Pete Turner, education faculty member and director of the Teacher Education Institute at Estrella Mountain Community College.
If your faculty meetings have turned into what feels like an excerpt from the Hunger Games, we have something that might help. When faculty meetings turn into a great big giant nasty-fest, where the aggressors walk away feeling self-satisfied, while the less fortunate (or non-tenured) walk away licking their wounds, it’s time to be proactive toward building a culture of civility. Without a plan, even the boldest faculty members can be shocked into silence by unexpected comments meant to target and degrade specific individuals. In some departments, passive-aggressiveness rules the day, where personal agendas are hidden within the safety of veiled insults that should not go unanswered.
When faced with a problem or challenge within your unit, your first inclination might be to immediately look for solutions. Makes sense, right? But when the problem or challenge comes from an individual or the way individuals interact—which is often the case—those who feel they are being viewed as problems to be solved might not appreciate being labeled as such. A better approach is a practice known as appreciative inquiry, which builds on strengths and what is working well to bring about positive change.
My office is on the first floor of the education building. I have spent 27 years in this building. Unless I have a meeting in another department, I rarely go upstairs. Recently, however, I started a daily routine of climbing the four sets of staircases in the building. Trying to slow the progression of osteoporosis in my right hip, I go up one set and down another three times as I make my way around the building. This physical activity has given me a chance to engage in some mental reflection. Here I will briefly share five observations on a career spent teaching in higher education with an eye toward encouraging newer faculty to achieve longevity in the profession.
Difficult conversations are inevitable in any organization. Understanding how they arise and how they play out can help minimize the disruption without avoiding the issue or alienating those involved.