Saturday, May 22, 2010

To dream the improbable dream

Once again, I am inspired by Tenured Radical for another entry. She was in turn inspired by another blogger, Africanist Tim Burke, who critiqued the health care system and compared that to others' critiques of academia--specifically, teaching in higher education. The Radical takes the comparison further, identifying ways we academics regularly fail students:

My guess is that many undergraduates experience college with the same sense of powerlessness and frustration that I experienced in the failed relationship with my first PCP. How many of you have colleagues who have no scheduled office hours? Who are abrupt and peremptory with students in a way that discourages them from seeking help, or even making contact? Who then blame students for not having come to office hours? Who are often unavailable even if they have posted office hours? Who give assignments without saying what they are for or what the student is supposed to learn from them? Who give grades without any comment or instruction about what is right or wrong with the paper? Who deal with students who are not learning -- not by teaching them -- but by sending them to the writing workshop, the learning center or for tutoring by another undergraduate?

As a (soon to be former) administrator, I have been in a position to act on some of these issues. When I met with a faculty colleague who was serving as an undergraduate advisor, I was shocked when he asked me why I spent so long with my advisees. "It only takes me a few minutes to check their schedule and make sure they are taking the right courses," he explained. "What are you doing with them all that time?"

All that time, I must explain, was only 20-25 minutes, but it seemed far too long to my colleague. I told him that we discussed their plans after graduation--how to find jobs or choose grad schools, their current part-time jobs, issues with roommates and classes, possibilities for summer internships and study abroad opportunities, and any number of other challenges and opportunities facing them. He was dumbstruck. He was "doing his job," as he saw it--making sure students would graduate on time. What I was doing was something different, but something I saw as "doing my job." I then realized that no one had ever defined the job for either of us, or trained us about how to best accomplish this job. Also, we never got feedback on this job, as no one had ever evaluated the advisors in our department.

So, when I became an administrator in the department, I instituted advisor trainings and annual evaluations. The evaluations were only available to me and each advisors themselves, though I occasionally used them with the associate dean to advocate removal of an especially poor faculty advisor. As a result, faculty learned how to be good advisors, faculty felt more confident in their roles as advisors, and advising  processes improved (as reflected on the evaluations).

There are some similarities between these issues in higher education and health care. Just like many professors are not trained or even briefed about the ins and outs of teaching and advising, medical school professors and patient rights advocates have decried for years the lack of focus in medical school on the interpersonal aspects of medical practice. TR's old primary care physician likely was not trained in "what works best" in interpersonal interactions with patients. She focused on what she saw as her job: assessing symptoms, identifying illnesses, and prescribing treatment. And she did not go "above and beyond" to find out what would best serve her patients. And there were no feedback loops, no evaluations, no bonuses or benefits that provided incentive for change. Hell, even TR's choice to leave the practice could be explained away as a "difficult patient."

I think the gauntlet that TR is throwing down is actually a call for academic administrators, faculty members, students services staff members, and students to work together to identify practices that work and those that don't, provide feedback and incentives for behavior and programmatic changes, and regularly evaluate how we are doing. I don't want to be all Pollyanna about this, but I think that most faculty members I know want to do a good job. They just often don't know what the job actually is or the best ways to do it. We studied our disciplines, and we are damn good at that, but no one taught us how to be good teachers or even ehat the goals and purposes of our roles are! There are those who slack off, but most act poorly because they don't know anything better or different.

For example, let's take TR's question above about people not holding office hours. I mean, why do we even hold office hours? Supposedly, to provide students with a chance to get individual feedback  advice, and guidance from their instructors. But students don't come to them. I have found that unless I require a meeting, or a student is in especially dire straits, I won't see a student in my office during office hours. In my setting, office hours don't work, and they don't help me as an instructor, administrator, or researcher--in fact, they eat into my potential work/writing time. So, I stopped having them (my syllabi say, individual appointments as needed) and made myself available my email, phone, and Facebook. And, lo and behold, I am hearing from students. I am likely,to get an instant message on Facebook or even (if they realize I am old and not actually likely to be up at midnight) a regular email with a quick question or concern. I also learned from more experienced instructors and teaching handbooks about coming early to classrooms and staying late to take student questions and concerns.

So, one might ask, why did I spend more time with my advisees than my peers? Why did I come up with new ways for students to connect with me, when other peers are holding required office hours and failing to connect with students? It wasn't for teaching and advising awards, though I have received those. It wasn't because someone told me it was an expectation. It was because, like TR and Tim Burke say, I was that confused and failing student who didn't understand how the system worked and needed help and support. So, I became the teacher/advisor I wish I had had. But as an administrator, I worked with faculty to change our expectations of ourselves, and tried to provide faculty with the supports and information they needed to be successful... and to help our students be successful.

And I also helped students understand the larger systems of which they and faculty are a part, so that they can set their expectations accordingly and advocate to get their needs (and some of their wants) met. Patients in health care settings have every right to want their condition and treatment explained in a comprehensive, caring, and thoughtful manner, but they don't have a right to expect home visits, doctor visits that go on endlessly, and 24-hour access to their doctors in this managed care environment. Likewise, students cannot get immediate responses on a 24-7 basis, individual training on every concept in a course, and special accommodations for every issue or concern.

Faculty within departments and across universities need to clarify our ultimate goals related to student learning and student success; identify and implement best practices for teaching, advising, and service; evaluate successes and respond to failures with new approaches; and set our own expectations for faculty performance, whose accomplishment we acknowledge and reward. This process needs to come from within the faculty, with input and information from internal and external constituents, and guidance and support from administrators and faculty leaders. Of course, we know this. I'm not writing anything new--just dreaming the improbable dream.

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