The Limits of Anecdotes
Thus far this semester, I’ve challenged two pervasive myths about mentoring. The first is that “mentoring” is a reliable and valid construct. In reality, mentoring means so many different things to so many different people that using the term can hinder the process of helping faculty to get their needs met. I also questioned the common myth that new faculty should sink or swim (aka "mentor thyself"). It’s an inefficient, ineffective, costly, and organizationally unhealthy way to transition new faculty into a campus community. This week I want to take it one step further by questioning a far more beloved mentoring myth: the best way to help new faculty is by sharing advice from our personal stories.
I recently attended a symposium where the professional development component consisted of a panel of three luminaries in the field sharing their pathways to success and offering tips for new faculty. This was followed by a question and answer period where audience members asked a wide range of questions and received advice from the panelists (based on their personal experience). The session went over time because the large crowd was desperate to have their questions answered. At the end, everyone seemed inspired and armed with general advice to publish, balance work and family, find their passion, and engage local communities in their scholarship.
As frequently happens in the academic world, I found myself looking around to see if I was the only person who found it odd that a room full of social scientists (people who analyze data for a living) were relying on anecdotal data instead of relying on the large body of empirical research in the faculty development literature. I also seemed to be only person confused about the missing explanation behind the inspiration. It’s great that one of the panelists learned to balance work and family life, but how did she do that? I love the idea of engaging local communities in scholarship, but was left wondering: how exactly does that work? Don’t get me wrong, I think sharing individual stories is an inspiring, community-building activity that provides early-career faculty with accessible role models. I also think it is a poor substitute for substantive, empirically-based, professional development training.
In my own academic career, I was never short on advice from senior colleagues followed by a personal story to illustrate the point. But the missing piece was always the same: HOW do you do ______ (fill in important piece of advice)? Luckily, I discovered Robert Boice early on in my career. And although I’ve never met him personally, his work led me to a wide body of empirical research on faculty development that was far more helpful to me than mentors giving me generic advice without any sense of how to make it happen. In fact, researchers have documented the problematic patterns of behavior that most new faculty fall into and how their behavior differs from highly productive rising stars. Researchers have also demonstrated that daily writing, support, and accountability lead to greater productivity for academic writers than the binge-and-bust method. And the only thing better than learning the empirical patterns that exist is realizing that the kinds of changes that new faculty members desire can be taught, implemented, and generate results in a short period of time.
The vast majority of faculty members I work are well aware that they must publish their research to meet their department’s standards for promotion and tenure. But they find themselves facing the core challenge of faculty life: the things that have the greatest built-in accountability are often the least important to promotion and tenure decisions while the activity that has very little, day-to-day, built-in accountability (writing) has the greatest impact on promotion, tenure, mobility and long-term success in the academy. So on a daily basis, most new faculty struggle to find time to write because they are dealing with the seemingly urgent demands of teaching and service. In this case, it’s not very helpful to be given the advice, “you need to publish” (they know that). But it is helpful to learn that writing 30-60 minutes a day, tracking your writing, and creating accountability increases productivity. It’s even more helpful to be handed a copy of How to Write A Lot, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, or Professors as Writers -- or, for those who have little time, it’s equally helpful to get the 60-minute audio version describing why daily writing works and how to get started that can be listened to any time. And for those who are desperate to get on the right track, it’s even better to be guided to a place (like the Academic Ladder) where they can track their writing within a community of support. In other words, the continuum of advice ranges in helpfulness from low to high:
- LOW: repetition of general information, illustrated by anecdotes (“publishing is important; that’s what I did.”)
- MEDIUM: teaching someone empirically documented skills and strategies to improve their performance (“here’s how and why daily writing will increase your productivity.”)
- HIGH: directing someone to the support and accountability they need to implement new behaviors (“here are the communities you can plug into to establish a daily writing practice.”)
It seems to me that taking an approach to professional development that is grounded in a body of research, involves ongoing personal assessment, and analyzes outcomes is a far more systematic path than trying to deduce how to enact general advice from a handful of individual stories shared at an annual meeting. In other words, why not approach professional development with the same rigor that we use to approach other questions and problems in our own research? We go to the literature, we read the patterns, and we experiment with them to see what works. At some point we need to ask ourselves: If I’m trying to improve my performance, do I want to try strategies that have worked for one person in the past or strategies that have been demonstrated to work for many people?
If you’re one of the mentorless faculty members I’ve dedicated this column series to, I encourage you to:
- Keep asking yourself: What do I need and where can I get my needs met?
- Continue imagining mentoring as a broad network instead of a relationship with one person throughout your career. You may want to complete a Mentoring Map to get a visual picture of who is in your network and what holes you still need to fill.
- The next time you find yourself receiving advice, ask the magic question: How exactly did you do that? You’re likely to get more helpful information, even if it’s based on one person’s experience.
- Familiarize yourself with the research on teaching, productive academic writing, academic time management, balancing work and family, negotiating, and healthy conflict as needed.
If you’re short on time, look for experts who already know this work and can teach it to you quickly and efficiently. They can be found on your campus (in a Center for Teaching Excellence or Faculty Development Center), in your professional organizations, or in the private sector. They are often called “faculty developers” (on campus) or “faculty coaches” (in the private sector) because they are trained to help you quickly close the gap between where you are today and where you need to be in order to get promoted. Best of all, they will help you to do so by drawing on the literature (as opposed to their personal stories).
I hope this week finds you differentiating between inspiring anecdotes, empirical research, and supportive communities. Each of these types of advice are helpful, but it’s important to know whether you need to know what to do, how to do it, or help in getting it done.
Peace and Productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore
National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity
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