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.
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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.
Incivility and lack of collegiality are on the rise in institutions of higher education (Cipriano, 2011). This phenomenon can range from disputes and tension at one end of the spectrum to violence at the other. There are many departments that suffer from non-collegial, uncivil, and nasty encounters between faculty members, faculty members and professional staff, and faculty members and students.
Curriculum changes or differences of opinion about what should be taught and how it should be taught can create tension in any department. And the budget situation in many departments can add fuel to the fire. Jon Bloch, chair of sociology at Southern Connecticut State University, offers the following points to keep in mind to help manage these conflicts:
Accepting and sharing responsibility for creating a productive work setting within the department and institution result, at least to a great extent, from how well each member of the community carries his or her own fair share of the common workload. The challenges faced by higher education institutions in the 21st century cannot be successfully mastered, nor can the efforts of dedicated professionals be sustained when the actions of a faculty member are divisive, uncompromising, and inflexible. In a similar way, it is destructive to a department’s morale and effectiveness when one or more of its members accept a significantly lower degree of responsibility for achieving a shared purpose. These elements lie at the heart of that salient, fundamental hallmark of successful interactions in academic life that is commonly called collegiality.
Two concerns are often raised when department chairs attempt to address breaches of collegiality through the faculty evaluation process. The first is whether they’re permitted to do so at all, since very few faculty handbooks list collegiality as a criterion for reviews. The second is whether evaluation is an effective means of dealing with these challenges, since collegiality is often regarded as something highly subjective and not measurable or verifiable in any consistent way. The first of these concerns can be dealt with rather quickly, while the second will require a much more extended discussion.
As a college faculty member, you speak to audiences both large and small on a daily basis. You know how to deliver information, create learning opportunities, and build engagement. And yet, presenting at a professional conference brings a whole new set of challenges. How do you establish credibility and authority among your peers? How do you make your session relevant for those who, unlike your students, have at least some familiarity with the topic?
Ongoing problems within a department can have profound consequences, including difficulty in recruiting and retaining faculty and students, loss of funding, and even program termination. While the health of a department cannot be the responsibility of a single person, the department chair plays a pivotal role in getting departments out of trouble and maintaining a healthy, positive direction.
What is intuition? It’s one of those terms that is hard to get a handle on. And yet teachers rely on their intuition every day. A situation unfolds in class: some kid in the back moves restlessly and takes an iPod out of his back pack. Those sitting nearby look at what he’s doing. A couple of them start whispering as he continues to fuss with his iPod. Some students in the next row glance backward. The teacher continues to present information. She pauses to ask a question, and all the while she’s sees what’s happening in the back of the room. She rightly assumes that she’s lost the attention of students back there. She opts for an abrupt break in the instructional action. She stops talking, turns to the board and, without speaking, writes a question there. Then she faces the class. “Stand up. Everybody stand up.” Students shuffle to their feet. “Now look at this question. Spend the next couple of minutes talking with the persons around you. In two minutes I want answers and examples.”
If some faculty do not fully embrace their role as academic advisor, don’t assume that they are indifferent to students’ needs or feel that advising is strictly a student affairs function. More likely, this reluctance is due to a lack of preparation and support.