The Truths We Ignore about Faculty (and how to embrace those Truths)

I’ve seen it time and again…examples of exceptional teachers in higher education and some dismal failures.  We look to faculty to be the deliverers of our message and mission to the students at our institutions.  We hire them educated in their field of study and ask them to pass on the body of knowledge to [...]

I’ve seen it time and again…examples of exceptional teachers in higher education and some dismal failures.  We look to faculty to be the deliverers of our message and mission to the students at our institutions.  We hire them educated in their field of study and ask them to pass on the body of knowledge to our students from our institutional perspective.  

However, there are truths about faculty that we often ignore.  When we do, we do our students a severe disservice.  Here are some of those truths:

Adjunct faculty members and non-terminally-degreed faculty may be your best teachers. Maybe.  This is not a guarantee.  However, because they often have their “day job” to support them, they are often doing this because they want to give back, because they have a passion for it, or because they really have a good knack for it.

  • Embrace the Truth:  Don’t be afraid of using adjuncts liberally. Connect them with your full-time faculty in discussion groups about the field and what is happening.

In getting their education, faculty often miss the practical experience out in the field because the ivory tower is not field-based instruction.  As noted in the previous point, adjuncts are often employed in their “day job.”  Their job out in the “real world” hopefully aligns with their advanced degrees that they’ve put to use informing the field and letting the field inform what they’ve learned in their program.  However, many times those pursuing higher education faculty roles are not experienced in what the field is doing.  Instead they have the perspective of what the research has shown (at best) and an outdated perspective they gained in the ivory tower.

  • Embrace the Truth:  Connect faculty with field-based experiences through your field-based adjunct faculty in discussion groups about the field and what is happening.  Encourage your faculty to engage in field-based projects to gain more personal “real-world” experience. 

Faculty without accountability equals anarchy.  Without accountability to policies and standards through faculty assessment and reviews, faculty default to their latest whim.  We hope that they have a standard of decorum, but allowing the faculty to do what they want could be akin to telling a teenager to “behave” while you’re out of town for the week with no other adult supervision.  Will your place be standing when you get home?  How many times will the police be called to your house by the neighbors?  

  • Embrace the Truth:  Establish strong relationships with your faculty, first and foremost.  Leadership of them through relationship will allow for trust to be built between you and them.  So, even when you haven’t specified something that might arise, they will know you well enough to do what you’d prefer.  Develop an assessment process that holds faculty accountable for the things that your institution values.  Assure that they know the standards you have and that they adhere to them.  In the accountability system, find ways to catch them doing the right things exceptionally.  And a final point, if you don’t have it implemented, don’t implement a tenure system that avoids accountability for faculty.

Faculty are educated in their field of study, not to be teachers.  This is probably the biggest truth we ignore and I almost wrote the article just about this.  Most individuals reading this article are probably working with teaching institutions.  In those institutions, we expect faculty to know how to teach when they enter the academy.  In adult and online programs, where we use more adjuncts, we’ve figured out that we better do some orientation.  However, I rarely see much beyond an orientation for even that group.  Further, I rarely see even an orientation for traditional side faculty where they are expected to know how to teach.  Faculty, at best, come out mimicking the methods of their instructors.  That is a complete wheel of fortune model though.  Sometimes you get the $10,000 slot (in a few, rare instances).  However, “bankrupt” is all too often an outcome.  Faculty (may) know their content, but they are not often prepared to be good teachers.  

  • Embrace the Truth:  Recognize the commodity that you’ve “purchased” (the knowledge base of the faculty member).  Recognize that they have that but that the rest of their abilities may not be up to the standards that you have.  Then meet with all of your faculty to discuss good teaching and learning based on philosophy and theory that your institution has as part of its conceptual framework* for its programs.  Then train EVERYBODY that has faculty status. Don’t let them back in the classroom until they have gone through your training.  As noted above, assess for the things that you’re wanting to see in the classroom.  Then keep developing and training every year.  For faculty that are good at what they do, use them as mentors for more inexperienced faculty.  Set up content discussion groups and teaching methods groups.  

*If you don’t have a conceptual framework for your programs that you actually use to affect course development and delivery, back up to this step.  If you need help with this, call us.  

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