Thursday, August 28, 2014

Higher Education Programs and Public Comprehensive Institutions

Prior to joining the faculty at UNC Wilmington, I worked on two papers that examine public comprehensive institutions. When I started these projects, public comprehensives were just part of a panel dataset. I had never attended one of these institutions as a student, and my professional career had been confined to a single public research university. Over the past few months, I have thought about public comprehensives frequently, and my study of them has intensified. A number of questions have surfaced as I experience first-hand the unique features and challenges of what have been called America's forgotten colleges and universities.


One such question is the nature of higher education programs at public comprehensives. Without looking at the data, my sense is that there are many graduate programs in higher education at public comprehensives, despite the attention the concentrates around the big-name programs. As is true of all public comprehensives, these programs may be the workhorses of higher education credentialing nationwide. And they may increasingly employ graduate students seeking faculty positions in higher education. I offer below a few tentative observations on what it means to work and study in a higher education program at an institution like UNCW. My hope is to investigate some of these observations systematically in the near future. In the meantime, perhaps they will spark thought and conversation.

1. Were are a small island in a teacher preparation sea. This strikes me as common to many higher education programs in schools and colleges of education. Higher education programs are usually one small slice of a pie that spans all levels of education, and teacher preparation absorbs much of the limelight for good reason. Nevertheless, there are two reasons why the higher education islands at public comprehensives might be especially small and isolated. First, many public comprehensives began as normal schools, meaning teacher preparation is not simply a course of study. It permeates the history, identity, and mission of the institution. Teacher preparation may be one of the primary ways the institution serves the region, and K-12 education majors may be numerous. Second, there is a good chance that higher education programs are small in size relative to other programs or departments. What this means is that, when you work and study in a higher education program at a public comprehensive, many of the speakers and similar opportunities are geared towards K-12 issues. Other faculty have little sense of the research that you do or what careers in higher education entail. And even the dean, who may heartily support the program, rarely showcases your program. None of this is a travesty, of course. There is value in existing off the radar sometimes. And, thankfully, we're talking about educators here, and even if they don't "get" your work, your colleagues tend to be inclusive and sociable. You simply become accustomed to blank stares when asked to discuss your research or courses.

2. We are the only show in town. This observation is contingent upon the geographical location of the public comprehensive. But let's assume that many public comprehensives are, as their name often indicates, regional in nature. There many not be a plethora of other institutions nearby. This means that higher education programs at public comprehensives may well be the only credentialing body for professionals in the field. This is not at all problem. In fact, it may justify the existence of the program in the first place. However, it is possible that these programs become the go-to professional development service for campus employees looking to advance their careers. Depending upon the tuition policies for staff, this may mean that programs with a large number of campus employees bring in less tuition money. It may also mean that curricula skew towards practice and away from policy. On the flip side, having large numbers of campus employees enables a great synergy between the institution and the program. At UNCW, we have been able to work with current and former students to develop practicum sites, internships, and applied learning opportunities. Another dimension of being the only show in town--one that I had never considered--is that higher education programs at public comprehensives may well educate large numbers of community college leaders. As is true at other colleges, a terminal degree is increasingly necessary to assume high-level positions at community colleges. For many community college professionals, even those coming from strikingly different disciplinary backgrounds, a doctorate in higher education opens doors. This is a fantastic way for higher education programs to be engaged in local communities, but also has ramifications for curricula and advising. It strikes me that the curricula of most higher education programs features theories and research based upon institutions other than community colleges. Courses in community college leadership may need to be offered. And faculty (like me) may not have as much experience with community college career options and, therefore, need to do some homework to offer advice.

3. In a field with strong national organizations, we are regionally-inclined. I was trained at a public research university where the norm was that graduate students attended national conferences like NASPA, ACPA, and ASHE. Not only did we attend, many of us, as graduate students, worked to present papers and become involved. Public comprehensives tend to be regionally-oriented, partly because of their missions and partly, I suspect, because their budgets can't support travel to national conferences. As an applied program in a professional school at a teaching institution, research expected of graduate students differs from programs at larger universities, making presenting at a national conference more difficult. This observation may be specific to UNCW, where our program has only existed for a few years and the reality is that students are not expected to attend national conferences, often because there is not readily available funding to help them cover the costs. Those that are employed while working towards a degree could pay out of pocket, as many graduate students often do, but salaries in a smaller city could make travel to a large city for 5 days feel like a luxurious vacation. With this in mind, it does appear to be the case that our program is tapped into regional professional conferences, which provide rich opportunities for networking and development. The pull of increasing the program's profile over time may shift the culture such that participation in national organizations becomes more popular among students.

These are but a few observations as I ponder the nature of higher education programs at public comprehensives. Over time, I'll continue to give thought to what it means to be a new faculty member in a new higher education program at a public comprehensive. I'll also flesh out some of distinctions of graduate preparation programs in higher education at public comprehensives. One day, I'll start to collect some data to evaluate whether these observations are relevant outside my bubble. I invite others to share their experiences as students or faculty at public comprehensives to better develop this account.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Faculty Norming at a Public Comprehensive University

I recently completed a rite of passage for new assistant professors: new faculty orientation. Although this is my first tenure-track gig, it is not my first new faculty orientation. I helped organize new faculty orientation at my previous institution, a research one university. As a result of this experience, and the three-day academic bootcamp at UNCW, I've come to understand new faculty orientation as a norm-setting process. Professors are taught what it means to excel in their new university and helped to adjust to a new culture. New faculty orientation, in other words, is a reflection of the norms by which professors are expected to abide. As such, the format and content of new faculty orientation reveals a great deal about campus environments. Spending several days learning about my public comprehensive university was a startling reminder that attending a research one university did not prepare me for faculty life at every type of school.

At my previous institution, new faculty orientation was not mandatory and lasted one day. Only about one-third of new faculty showed up. A few remarks were given over breakfast by an academic administrator (though it is worth noting that neither the president nor chief academic officer were present). The presentation that probably received the most attention focused upon the promotion and tenure process, encouraging new faculty to start on the right foot by establishing their individual research programs. There were then two breakout sessions: one dedicated to securing grants and another centering upon tips for effective teaching. After lunch, new faculty were split into groups by college for more intimate conversations with facilitators. The event ended with a resource fair, wrapping up in the early afternoon. The fact that new faculty orientation was not mandatory sent a message about the strength of the academic community and the institutional commitment to developing junior professors. Overall, the core message of the orientation was to concentrate one's energies on their individual research in order to get tenure. These are faculty norms at the university, and collectively they form part of the culture in which I was socialized as a doctoral student.

By contrast, UNCW offered a multi-day introduction to the campus, students, and city. On the first day, we met two-dozen administrators across the campus, including the chancellor and provost. We learned about the make-up of the student population and the values of the university. For the last half of the day, we split into groups to consider various aspects of liberal arts learning objectives. This was the first of several sessions dedicated to teaching. That evening, we were invited to the chancellor's house for a swanky reception. The second day consisted of campus tour, including a detailed history of higher education in the state. We visited several facilities to showcase the university's contributions to the region and faculty engagement with the public. On the final day of orientation, we took part in a teaching institute largely related to applied learning, which is a significant initiative at the university as a result of its recent accreditation. The tone of new faculty orientation was clearly different from what I experienced at the research one institution. We heard over and again that faculty at UNCW cared first and foremost about the quality of their teaching. They were involved in the region. And you know what stood out most to me? Research was hardly mentioned. Tenure never entered the conversation.

Despite ending completely exhausted, I was impressed with the scope of orientation at UNCW. I was inspired and intimidated by the talented senior faculty members I met over the course of the event. They were running clinics in the community, leading study abroad programs, addressing food desserts in nearby housing projects. And they were clearly passionate about teaching. It was apparent to me that the university's teaching-orientation was not just rhetoric. It was the substance of faculty life. And I wasn't at all prepared for it. Sure, I had known in taking the job that the university was teaching-oriented. But this was the first time that this concept really sunk in. I saw it firsthand. In order to be successful, I need to put serious thought into the design of my courses and my practices as an educator. I have no doubt that research is still important. Tenure may not have been a discussion topic during orientation, but it is still part of the deal. Overall, however, my exposure to norms at UNCW confirmed that my doctoral training at a research one university did not prepare me for the realities of a public comprehensive institution. I spent the majority of summer thinking about nothing except my research program and journal submissions. I felt early pressures to begin building my tenure case. I fiddled around with courses, but generally figured I would follow the familiar formula of courses I took in my graduate program. I'm beginning to think this was the wrong strategy, one too heavily influenced by research one norms.

To anyone looking to go on the job market this fall, I urge you to give thought to faculty norms and how you will fit in a campus culture that may differ significantly from where you trained. If you decide to take a job at a public comprehensive university, consider that teaching-orientation isn't just rhetoric. Don't give into the temptation of assuming that, regardless of the school, research is the crux of faculty life. In many ways, teaching is what makes public comprehensive universities vital to higher education. At a time when colleges and universities are subjected to constant critique and scrutiny, there are places whose culture places a premium on teaching and engagement. I'm thrilled to be at such an institution, even if its norms caught me off guard.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Many Faces of Academic Work

The act of creating an essay, irrespective of its resemblance to "legitimate" scholarship, is for me the essence of academic work. Over the past three weeks, I have been settling into a new city and, therefore, writing very little. I've managed to put together a few posts, one of which, surprisingly,  received a wonderful amount of circulation. Aside from these posts, however, I've largely been preoccupied with other activities. And the lack of writing has on many occasions left me feeling slothful. Today, I decided to pick apart the notion that writing is the basis of academic work. In the end, I feel like I've been doing a great deal of work, much of it academic in nature. I want to bring these activities to light, as a reminder that we shouldn't trap academic work in rigid boxes. (A hat tip here to David Perry, who pointed out that academics often fail to see themselves as workers.)

One of these non-writing activities is making it possible to write in the first place. By this I mean that I've spent a large chunk of energy working to carve out time and space to be contemplative and calm. Having just moved, this activity in practice entails unpacking boxes, arranging furniture, installing requisite technology, and catching up on lost sleep. It means seeking out community by subscribing to the local paper, finding a gym, and testing out markets. It means having a space where it feels appropriate to write. Attempting to write before each of these steps were completed proved impossible for me. I would argue that they are building blocks of academic work. Even those who are not moving often (and many academics, it seems, are moving constantly) need time each year to re-establish a rhythm. It may be the case that some academics have mastered doing work anywhere and anytime. For the rest of us, the process of creating conditions conducive to creativity most definitely is academic work.

A second activity that has commanded my attention is planning courses and attending teaching-related professional development. Teaching is something that most academics do, yet a colleague remarked to me this past week that we spend remarkably little time talking about it. Designing a course takes time, especially if its goal is significant learning. I've been reading, taking notes, tweaking syllabi, and building online spaces for student to access materials and connect. In order to do this, I've had to severely compartmentalize my thinking. It hasn't been possible for me to design courses and write at the same time. This is certainly true on the days that I've attended an applied learning seminar at my new university, which is phenomenally helpful, but leaves little time to write. I imagine that I'll soon have to strike a balance. In the meantime, we should acknowledge that preparing to teach and working with others to improve teaching is academic work. And it is hard.

A final activity that has become my modus operandi is walking in a perpetual state of confusion and curiosity. I know very little about where I am or where to go for resources. I don't know people in my department, so I've tried to walk around and strike up conversations. To have some presence before things get too busy. Questions have filled virtually every available free space in my brain. For example, on my first day in my office, I put a few books on the book shelf, opened my laptop, looked around and mumbled: "What do I do now?" I spent two hours trying to figure out how to work the copier. Seeking answers to questions has either left me relatively immobilized or sapped me of energy. Being confused or looking for answers to questions may not go on my third year review, but it's work in which many of us engage.

I'm happy to be writing today, as it means I might be on the cusp of finding my groove. But I shouldn't beat myself up if this is just another random sprinkling of words into a sea of non-writing activities. Because many of those activities, despite their lack of prestige, are not simply necessary to do good work. They are work. I would venture to guess, in fact, that they constitute the bulk of academic work, no matter how much attention writing gets. So, having found a moment to reflect and write, now it's time to get back to it. Happy working, one and all.