Mentoring in the Professoriate

I’m going to off on a little bit of a tangent this week.  This blog usually discusses topics related to teaching and learning in all educational environments. I tend to focus on my experiences and thoughts on technology and innovation in higher education settings but sometimes I also dip into the K-12 realm. Since I direct our university’s teaching and learning center, I also talk a good bit about professional development to build capacity with evidence-based practices and student-centered pedagogy.  But this week, I’m going in a little different direction.  I want to talk about mentoring collegiate faculty.

A few months ago, I facilitated a promotion and tenure panel discussion for faculty at our institution. Like most institutions of higher education, promotion and tenure at our university is a challenging and emotional process. The panel discussion was intended to inform faculty about the different stages of the process and to address concerns and questions. While most of the conversation focused on the types of materials to include in the application packets and how best to organize the application, there was clearly a palpable level of anxiety flowing through the room. While there’s no doubt that the promotion and tenure process is stressful, I felt like this was something different.  Some attendees seemed particularly confused, stressed and uninformed.  In a way, it was like it was the night before the final exam and some had just realized they had studied the wrong material.

In education, some instructors use “backward design” when they’re planning units.  Wiggins and McTigh first introduce the “backward design” concept in their book Understanding by Design.  Backward design means teachers need to “start with the end in mind.”  Rather than figuring out the content we want to teach, planning lessons and then testing students on what we taught, backward design offers something different.  In this approach, teachers start by asking what they want students to be able to do at the end of the unit.  The teachers then plan intentional lessons to help their students get there by scaffolding their development to make sure they’ve acquired the necessary skills to be able to be successful on the final assessment.  To some readers, “backward design” probably sounds pretty simple. But the approach was considered radical when it was first introduced.

I’m going to argue that we need a “backward design” approach for mentoring new collegiate faculty.  Returning to the panel discussion and the shocked looks that some of my colleagues displayed, it was clear that even though they were nearing a promotion opportunity, they didn’t feel prepared for the process or even knowledgeable about what “the end” looked like. After several years of navigating our institution, some didn’t really know how they were going to be assessed for promotion.  Sure, the application materials are on the university website and we offer similar panel discussions each semester. I’m also betting a few asked their colleagues on which committees they should serve or in which journals they should publish.  While this information and advice can be helpful, it does not provide ongoing mentoring that is scaffolded or developmental in nature.  It also requires that new faculty members self-evaluate their areas of need and seek out advice without really knowing what “the end” even looks like.

If we started with the end in mind, however, faculty mentoring would look different. In higher education, faculty are assessed on three main aspects: teaching, service and scholarship.  Rather than just providing advice or information as a new faculty member needs it, mentoring should be more a systematic and systemic effort.  And that’s what I’m planning to start next academic year.  I’m assembling a team of colleagues to “begin with the end in mind” and intentionally mentor a class of new faculty members into the field this fall.  While I doubt that it will reduce the stress related to the promotion and tenure process, mentoring may help the new faculty better navigate their first years at the university and feel that their development is being supported.

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