Dirty lessons I have learned in an academic career

A baker’s dozen: dirty lessons I have learned in an academic career

Howard B. Altman

This coming December, I will retire after 31-and-a-half years at my current institution and a total of more than 36 years of full-time teaching. I’ve spent my entire career as a faculty member and faculty development specialist at three public research institutions. And over these years I have also had the privilege of working with faculty, department chairs, deans, and provosts at numerous other institutions that span the spectrum of American higher education.

As a result of these experiences, I think I’ve learned some lessons about academic life. Now, as I reach the end of an eventful academic career, I’d like to share a baker’s dozen of what I call “dirty” lessons, because they reveal some unpleasant surprises about academic life–surprises that our institutions usually fail to mention to faculty candidates when they court them for their first job.

LESSON NUMBER I: The academy can be a very lonely place.

While surveys consistently reveal that most faculty members are pleased to have chosen an academic career, this does not make up for the fact that many of them experience periods of genuine loneliness in their departments and institutions. Most faculty tend not to talk about their work–either in teaching or scholarship–with colleagues at their own institutions.

While some lucky faculty members develop close friendships with colleagues that transcend the academy, many–and perhaps most–lead private lives unknown to and untouched by their colleagues. Loneliness on campus can contribute to feelings of alienation and professional lives that seem devoid of meaning.

LESSON NUMBER 2: University administrators preach the virtues of teamwork and collaboration, but evaluate faculty primarily on the basis of individual accomplishments.

This is one of the truly insidious paradoxes of academic life at many (and perhaps most) research institutions. Team teaching, for example, usually counts only half as much as solo teaching in calculating “load.” Team research is fully rewarded only if you are the lead author or principal investigator. The more we collaborate with departmental colleagues, the less likely we are to be rewarded on a par with colleagues who work alone. At most institutions, at least in my experience, the concept of the department as a “team” is wishful thinking.

LESSON NUMBER 3: Colleagueship exists in the halls and, for the most part, in faculty meetings; it rarely exists in the classroom, library carrel, or laboratory.

Colleagueship in academe tends to be superficial and transitory. We greet our colleagues in the hall when we see them, and perhaps even chat for a few moments. But rare is the discussion among colleagues that focuses on what we do as teachers or scholars–or why we do it, or how we do it. Rarer, still, is the faculty member who sits in on a colleague’s class or lab except to serve as an evaluator for a personnel review.

And the irony is that most of us like it that way. We don’t especially want our departmental colleagues to watch us teach. We look forward to showing off our skills in front of an external audience at a national disciplinary conference, but most of us would be filled with anxiety at the prospect of doing the same thing for our colleague from the next office.

LESSON NUMBER 4: Most faculty eagerly make invidious distinctions between themselves and their colleagues.

This is reflected in every departmental deliberation about tenure, promotion, or salary increase. Professor A’s article had nine pages; Professor B’s had only eight. Professor C had only two teaching preparations last term, while Professor D had three. Professor E served on three committees, but Professor F chaired one and served on two others. Professor G’s book was reviewed favorably twice, while Professor H’s book has never been reviewed. Professor I’s manuscript has been accepted by Oxford University Press, while Professor J’s manuscript will be published by “Lesser-Light Press.” And so on and so forth. To paraphrase the old adage, perhaps we fight so hard because the stakes are so small.

LESSON NUMBER 5: The gulf between junior faculty and senior faculty is often much too wide, to the detriment of both.

Many junior faculty feel they work at least as hard as–if not considerably harder than–their senior faculty colleagues in return for far less financial reward, far less job security, and under far more stress. Many senior faculty see junior faculty as brash upstarts and sometimes as potential threats to their own fiefdoms: “They need to pay their dues, just as I did.”

Except for the occasional successful mentor-protege relationship, the majority of faculty tend to associate with their peers in rank or career stage: assistant professors with assistant professors, senior faculty with senior faculty. In these individual relationships, neither party benefits from what the other can offer, and the department is collectively the loser.

LESSON NUMBER 6: University administrators have little confidence in the ability of departments to evaluate the achievements of their members.

Here is another irony of the academy: faculty in any department are deemed entirely competent to render impartial and highly consequential judgments about the performance of their students, but their judgments are suspect when it comes to assessing the performance of their colleagues. And perhaps with good reason. Many a summative peer review either omits unpleasant details of a colleague’s performance, or exaggerates them out of all proportion. As a result, external reviews will always carry more weight with administrators than internal ones as long as departmental reviewers are seen as reluctant to render honest professional judgments.

LESSON NUMBER 7: Graduate schools have traditionally done a poor job in preparing prospective faculty for the actual duties they will face in an academic position.

While the current “Preparing Future Faculty” movement has certainly helped some prospective faculty members enter academic careers with a better understanding of what is expected, most doctoral candidates still don’t get to participate in such programs.

Unfortunately, unless a newly hired assistant professor is motivated to ask for help, the hiring institution is unlikely to offer any help to him or her in performing these duties more effectively. Most new faculty sink or swim on their own.

Why do our universities assume that anyone with a newly received PhD is fully capable of performing all the duties of a faculty member with little or no institutional help? It’s not enough to provide a “center for teaching” when, on most campuses, fewer than 10 percent of the faculty will avail themselves of its services in any given year. In the minds of many faculty, asking for help is a confession of inadequacy, and no PhD wants to admit that! Administrators need to find ways to break down this faculty mindset. Letting faculty sink or swim on their own is tantamount to neglect.

LESSON NUMBER 8: Administrators are, for all practical purposes, invisible to faculty–especially at larger institutions.

Faculty at most institutions rarely get to see the president, the provost, or even their dean except on ceremonial occasions or when someone is in trouble. And invisibility breeds distrust. No wonder the “us vs. them” mentality characterizes faculty-administrator relations at so many institutions. Faculty know that administrators get higher salaries and better parking places. What they don’t know is what the president or provost or dean does to deserve these perks.

Campus e-mail networks offer the opportunity to break down the perceived cloak of invisibility and to foster better two-way communication between academic administrators and faculty members. But for this opportunity to become reality, a good-faith effort on both sides is required. If faculty feel their e-mails to the dean or provost disappear into a black hole, never to be acknowledged, “us vs. them” will remain a cherished faculty tradition.

LESSON NUMBER 9: Most faculty are convinced the university administration doesn’t care about what they think.

University administrators not only have allowed this to happen, but have often encouraged it through poor communication or active neglect. It would be relatively easy–and very inexpensive–to develop a culture of trust on our campuses. Alas, this rarely happens. Most academic administrators spend little time thinking about ways to enhance the job satisfaction of their faculty.

Even the best faculty development programs tend to ignore job satisfaction and focus exclusively on job effectiveness. Both are important. At a time when few of our institutions can budget for more than miniscule salary increases, other longer-term motivators must be found to sustain faculty commitment and performance.

LESSON NUMBER 10: The loyalty of faculty members is bound much more closely to their disciplines than to the institution that pays their salary.

This is one of the truly counterproductive traditions at most research universities in the United States, and it is almost inevitable when what a faculty member achieves off campus brings greater rewards and recognition than what he or she achieves on campus. This is more than just a matter of rewarding research at the expense of teaching. The truly mind-numbing feature of this widespread institutional policy is that it encourages people to spend no more time on their campus duties than is absolutely necessary. No wonder so many students complain about the bad advising they get from faculty. No wonder the quality of much undergraduate teaching has been lamented in books, journal articles, and conference presentations–and in the comments of students themselves on the rating sheets they fill out each semester.

LESSON NUMBER 11: Faculty evaluation is ubiquitous and constant in academe, yet most faculty learn little that is helpful from these evaluations.

Few other professionals undergo as much evaluation as do university professors. On most campuses, every course they teach is rated by their students. Peer and external reviews happen from time to time, as well. Post-tenure review every three to five years has become a reality at colleges and universities throughout the country. Every article we submit is judged for its suitability for publication and every conference paper presented is subject to instant feedback from the audience.

But does any of this evaluation enhance a faculty member’s future performance? One thing we do know for certain is that in evaluating instructional performance, student ratings in and of themselves rarely result in more effective teaching. Many years ago, Bill McKeachie, of the University of Michigan showed that student ratings bring about instructional change only when faculty do more than just glance at the scores and comments, then throw them into a desk drawer.

Significant instructional change requires faculty to spend time discussing the meaning and implications of their students’ ratings with a trusted colleague, or perhaps with the campus’s teaching improvement specialist. It also demands that they know of–or at least are willing to learn about–alternative classroom strategies that might improve student learning and/or satisfaction with the course. But how many of our universities do any more than just distribute and collect student ratings, then return the scores to the faculty member (with a copy to the chair or dean, perhaps)? And how many pay the slightest attention to what happens after those scores are returned to each faculty member?

LESSON NUMBER 12: Faculty development funding seems to be among the first items to be cut during times of fiscal belt-tightening.

This is another substantial irony. Administrators put out the word that faculty will have to “do more with less” in the form of larger class sizes, more courses to teach, less research and travel support, and so on. But they then deny these same faculty the training they need to “do more with less” as effectively as possible.

I expect some day to see a cartoon in The Chronicle of Higher Education that will depict a university’s administration building, over which hangs a banner with the message “where seldom is heard an encouraging word.” When times are fiscally tough, faculty development efforts are even more consequential. It’s easy to sustain a highly productive faculty at a time of budgetary expansion. But it takes planning, effort, and determination to do the same when the money isn’t there.

My final “dirty lesson” in this baker’s dozen is directed at my fellow faculty members themselves.

LESSON NUMBER 13: Only we faculty members can change the system.

Only the faculty has the power to see to it that the next generation of academics learns different lessons from those that I, and many of my generation, have learned. But often the hardest thing for a faculty member to change is his or her mind. We need to stop operating with a mind-set that proclaims, “If it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for you.” The “one-size-fits-all” model that we grew up with makes little sense for today’s multi-dimensional, multifaceted universities.

I have great hopes that some day some young faculty member will discover this list of lessons and remark, “Boy, I’m so glad things are different today!”

Howard B. Altman is professor of linguistics at the University of Louisville, where he also served as the founding director of the Center for Faculty and Staff Development.

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