Navigating the New Professoriate

Michael G. Strawser offers advice for how academic administrators can help faculty respond to increased teaching, research and service expectations while dealing with a global virus.

June 2, 2020
 
 
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I have always been plagued by expectations. As an early career faculty member, I find myself battling a mix of energy-zapping mind games: impostor syndrome, systemic frustration, professional perfectionism (this list is, unfortunately, not exhaustive) and now a pandemic. I am sure I am not alone.

As some of you are probably aware, in 2017, Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill revealed what most of us already assumed: many of us, especially in higher ed, are perfectionists, and the desire to be perfect is increasing over time. In fact, in some ways, the race to be perfect is starting to define higher education institutions. And it may get worse, as younger faculty members continue to infiltrate the ranks.

No generation is immune from this überachievement mentality, but millennials -- those born between 1982 and 1996, according to the Pew Research Center -- are more at risk for perfectionistic tendencies. Ironically, as new faculty members, specifically millennial ones, struggle even more with increased self-expectations, institutions are generally expecting more of their faculty. The marriage sounds ideal, but is it?

First, some context. Decades ago, Ann Austin relayed several concerns about “modern” faculty expectations in her presidential address to the Association for the Study of Higher Education. After she challenged the faculty status quo, Austin reiterated the notion that forces of change would be coming for the next generation of faculty. Her concerns were prophetic: the new professoriate, in Austin’s mind, had to be prepared for public skepticism, financial constraint, new technologies, diverse student populations, new educational institutions, greater emphasis on learning outcomes, postmodern education approaches and changing faculty demographics. Sound familiar?

Today new faculty members arrive on campuses already challenged by their own self-pressures and the need to navigate significant external challenges, like the issues Austin mentioned in 2002. This is not a woe-is-us article, by any means, but colleges should be aware of such contextual factors as they onboard and lead new faculty members. Increased demands on faculty members are coming from all directions: from themselves, from the institution and from external stakeholders.

Within most institutions, the teaching, research and service expectations have increased -- in some cases, unofficially. For instance, with teaching, most of us have had to grapple with new course modalities as colleges have shifted to online education. We’ve also had to deal with refined instructional strategies and diverse student populations, while remaining committed to an engaging classroom.

In addition, as institutions continue to struggle to attract and retain students, the emphasis on the student’s experience has become increasingly paramount. Take, for instance, growing emphasis on high-impact practices. Such practices, while pedagogically sound, can add substantial time in both course preparation and implementation. In addition, like me, you have probably seen an increase in student desire for more accessible faculty members.

Our research demands have also increased over time. And all the while, expectations for public scholarship and interdisciplinary and collaborative projects that transcend discipline-specific knowledge have become more heightened.

The third leg of the stool, service, has always been a collegial conundrum. How much is too much? How many committees need your commitment? Faculty workload has increased, and faculty are working more hours than ever before. And, as the business of higher ed continues to expand, more personnel hours are needed to make the business run.

Further, it is well documented that service requirements may not always be equitable, especially for women and faculty members of color, and that some may do more than their fair share. But for younger faculty members, notorious for being achievement oriented to a fault at times, the division of service labor may become less manageable than it’s ever been.

Generally, I am a proponent of increased expectations both personally and professionally. But such increased expectations for teaching, research and service, without adequate and appropriate support, may lead to devastating effects, such as implications on faculty mental health or poor-quality teaching, research or service output.

How, then, can institutions and their senior academic administrators help faculty members navigate this new professoriate? And, especially relevant today, how can academic administrators help new faculty members deal with increased expectations while also navigating a global virus? Here, I share five strategies applicable for those in leadership positions for supporting faculty, especially new faculty, in the midst of ever-increasing expectations.

  1. Clarify expectations. The academic rumor mill is full of unwritten rules, and many expectations are communicated informally, not through written policies or procedures. The water cooler holds tremendous power, but make sure that faculty members understand what their expectations truly are. Clarify and remove confusion whenever possible. You can do this by refining your communication structures to include short, brief meetings or establishing clear guidelines for projects.
  2. Increase efficiency. This can simply be a matter of rearranging standard operating procedures. For instance, are scheduled meetings: 1) necessary, 2) valuable and 3) efficient? Do meetings with faculty result in clear action steps? Do meetings have an agenda? Do meetings have a flow that does not get hamstrung by one boisterous participant? More important, do you present an environment where faculty members are encouraged to bring the primary responsibilities of teaching, research and service together through participation in the scholarship of teaching and learning or other means that help them do so?
  3. Use tech platforms to your advantage, without overwhelming faculty members with more to learn or do. Can you send out agendas and requests via simultaneous editing tools? Can you use Trello for committee tasks or Slack for more urgent/instant communication (to remove that bottleneck logjam that is email)? In the midst of this tech revolution, think strategically about how new platforms can be used most effectively both in and outside the classroom.
  4. Lead by modeling work-life balance. The temptation for faculty members, as they are asked to do more or complete additional tasks, may to be sacrifice an even greater sense of work-life balance. If every new (and old) expectation is “urgent,” then little time is left for reflection, creativity and future-oriented decision making. Supporting faculty can be as simple as modeling an effective work-life balance. For example, instead of sending that email at 2 a.m. (knowing it probably will not be read until the following morning anyway), write it and have the automatic time release send it at 8 a.m. instead.
  5. Provide opportunities for mental health. As new faculty members grapple with perfectionist tendencies, they also tend to struggle with impostor syndrome and other mental health concerns. For some people, trying to be flawless as the institution tells you to accomplish an ever-evolving to-do list will be met with mental resistance. Faculty support in this climate, then, must provide avenues for mental health awareness and stability. This free guide by the Temple University Collaborative on Community Inclusion is an excellent resource for administrators and faculty members alike.

All this boils down to one key point: if we are going to increase faculty expectations, we must increase faculty support. As your institution leads faculty members in the new normal, raising expectations in all facets of the professoriate, while also requiring new or innovative mechanisms for reaching students and conducting business in what has become our new COVID normal, necessitates increased support. Asking faculty to do more, with more, is reasonable. But asking them to do less with the status quo, or in some cases with less, will yield less than perfect results.

Bio

Michael G. Strawser is assistant professor of communication at the University of Central Florida.

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