This week I have been working on plans for our annual Chairs’ Workshop in August. Over the course of the year, if I see an article that I think might be of interest for department chairs, I throw it in a file (yes, a sheet of paper in a physical file…I know I probably shouldn’t be admitting that here!). This was the week that I pulled out those articles and started sorting through them. There was one article that caught my eye, “Why We Can’t Just Get Along,” by John Frazee. This piece appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 1, 2018) and offers some interesting insights into why faculty don’t always “play well with others,” especially within departments. Drawing on his experience as director of faculty relations at the University of Colorado – Boulder, Frazee suggests that there are characteristics of academic jobs, and people attracted to academic careers, that increase the likelihood of conflict happening among faculty in higher education. As I was reading Karen Cagialosi’s article, “But You Can’t Do That in a STEM course!” for our DigPINs class this week, my mind kept coming back to some of these characteristics.
The sentence in Cagialosi’s article that led got me thinking about this was on student agency and sharing power, “Student agency is ultimately about how we share power in our classrooms and work collaboratively with students.” Annotations about this included frustration with faculty who seem to actively “recoil” from the notion of collaborating with students and “don’t trust students with this agency.” The posts were focused mainly on student agency part of the quote but, as an administrator and sociologist, I was interested in the issue of sharing power. Why are some faculty open to and even encouraging of sharing power with students and others resistant? Having just read Frazee’s article, I wondered if some of the same aspects of our jobs that lead to faculty conflicts might also help us understand faculty member’s reluctance to use more open pedagogies.
While some of the personal characteristics that Frazee examines may also be helpful to examine, I want to focus on three institutional characteristics that he discusses. First, Frazee notes, that in some academic disciplines, collaborative research is not common, thus faculty do not have a frame of reference for this. Some faculty are not trained in, comfortable with, or recognized for scholarly collaboration with each other let alone with students. At Kenyon, this not the case in the sciences where some of the most innovative pedagogical strategies are being employed. However, it is true in other disciplines. In addition, as Frazee points out, the academic reward system is largely based on individual achievement.
The tenure system may also discourage some faculty from learning and adopting open pedagogical approaches. First, as noted above, the route to tenure is likely a singular one but also because, once tenured, the motivation to continue to innovate and grow is primarily intrinsic not institutional. I am not suggesting that most faculty abuse the privilege of tenure, but tenure is a characteristic of higher education that is quite different than other industries and results in fewer extrinsic sanctions for those who lack the internal motivation to innovate, grow, or remain “cutting edge” in their field.
Finally, Frazee points out, there is less mobility in higher education than most other employment sectors. In small, liberal arts schools like Kenyon, most faculty will spend their entire careers in the same institution. This is the type of place where professional identity is developed over time and teaching reputations create “must take” classes. The time invested in becoming a buzz-worthy teacher, however, may decrease the amount of time one can spend in publishing, and ultimately limit one’s occupational mobility. Thus, “for faculty members who don’t want to move on- and especially for those who can’t – the stakes can be very high.”
I can think of several where professional identity and campus reputation might make faculty hesitant to introduce new pedagogical strategies that share power with students. For example, a senior faculty member who has built their professional identity and reputation as a great lecturer may find the idea of introducing a new pedagogy that requires giving up some control in the classroom very scary. On the other end of an academic career are pre-tenured faculty, still looking to solidify their spot in the institution. They are likely to be developing and teaching multiple new courses so prioritizing mastery of new content areas and becoming an “expert” could feel like the safest route to obtaining tenure. Faculty from under-represented groups, and young female faculty, often contend with establishing their legitimacy and authority in the classroom. Utilizing pedagogies that share power with students in the classroom may increase these concerns. My point here is that context – who faculty are, where they are in their career, and how high the stakes are – is important in terms of understanding faculty who may appear to be “resistant, “especially when occupational mobility may be limited.
In summary, while Frazee’s article is attempting to understand why faculty conflict occurs and why it is hard to resolve, I am suggesting that the institutional characteristics he discusses can also help us think about why some faculty may be “resistant” to more open pedagogical models. To briefly recap these points: (1) collaboration may not be familiar in one’s discipline or rewarded departmentally or institutionally, (2) the reward system at most institutions is based on faculty’s ongoing, intrinsic motivation to innovate and grow due to the unique nature of tenure, and (3) low career mobility means the stakes for pedagogical innovation can be high regarding one’s professional identity, reputation, and job security.
The good news is that there may be ways the institution can address these roadblocks. Interdisciplinary research and teaching are increasingly popular with faculty and students, and institutions can encourage and support these types of collaborations. Tenure and promotion criteria can be revised to reward open pedagogy, student-faculty research, and classroom or other professional forms of innovation. Kenyon is currently engaged in this process and the science division is leading the way. In addition to the changes just noted, opportunities for faculty growth can be encouraged, expected, and resourced. This may include revised mentoring models, for all career stages, and departmental and institutional support and backing for our most vulnerable faculty. We need to think about how to encourage faculty, at all points in their professional development, to consider experimenting with new pedagogy models in an environment that supports and rewards their efforts.
Addendum: Just as I was preparing to post this blog a notice hit my inbox about a new article of possible interest. It picks up on many similar themes and offers a model for how to encourage and facilitate adopting new pedagogies.
Mercer, A.M., Lewis, J.E., Sutheimer, S. and A.J. Wolfson, 2018. Developing a Conversation: A Strategy to Engage Faculty in Pedagogical Change. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education.