Faculty Farm Team

Lawrence's new fellowships seek to teach future college teachers how to teach.
June 20, 2005

Research can be unforgiving in its time consumption, but well rounded faculty members also teach, design courses, and mentor students. In order to help multidimensional faculty members, Lawrence University began a pilot program to mold postdoctoral fellows for successful careers.

This month, the university announced its selection of the first eight Lawrence Fellows in the Liberal Arts and Sciences, who will begin the two-year program next fall. Not all of the details are worked out, but the program will seek to supply the fellows with plenty of mentoring to aid their teaching and course design, and will require them to be mentors to undergraduates along the way. While many research universities have postdoctoral fellows, Lawrence officials see their program as significant for its scope -- from the music conservatory to the physics department -- within a primarily undergraduate liberal arts institution. And Lawrence is bringing in an administrator to study the new program and make adjustments as needed so the eager young professors can have tailor-made training.

The program is the brainchild of Jill Beck, Lawrence’s president, who said it dawned on her amidst a series of one-on-one meetings she held with faculty members in the fall. Beck plans to bring in six more fellows next year, and to have a total of 20 on campus of only about 130 faculty members. "I felt liberal arts colleges should step up and take some of these bright Ph.D.'s and prepare them to be fine professors," Beck said. "There’s a deficit of emphasis on teaching in a lot of research institutions. We’d like to fill that chasm in, and say teaching and research can be interactive."

When the fellows arrive, they will be matched up with faculty mentors who will co-teach courses with them and help them design new courses. One of the expected benefits is a broadening of course offerings. "Right now, the faculty is stretched thin. We can’t have two professors with the same interest in our three-person philosophy program," said Peter Glick, a psychology professor who will be the program’s director.

"With two-year fellows, you can afford some overlap, and they can create new courses that follow from existing courses." Beck added, “We want to mentor them, but we want them to be able to be bold in their course proposals." To give the fellows time to be bold, they will teach only three courses in the first year, one in each term (Lawrence uses a trimester system), and four in the second year, as compared to the normal six classes per year.

Some of the fellows are already proposing new classes. David Sunderlin, a geology Ph.D. from the University of Chicago wants to teach a course on ice ages, and to allow undergraduates to study some of the material he has collected in the ice fields of Alaska. In such courses, Beck hopes fellows will begin to usher undergraduates into the research world and even to co-author papers with them.

Deanna Byrnes, who received her zoology Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin at Madison will probably work closely with Jodi Sedlock, an assistant professor of biology. Both share an affinity for bats. "She comes more from an ecology perspective, and I come from an evolution perspective. I think she’ll teach me how to take undergrads out into the field to do ecology," said Byrnes. The infusion of young talent is expected to help keep current faculty members on their toes, and on the cutting edge. “What I bring to the department is that I use molecular techniques to figure out evolutionary relationships.”

To make sure the program is working -- providing more research opportunities for undergrads and generating more courses -- Lawrence is bringing in Bill Skinner, a sociology professor from the University of Kentucky, to study the program itself. “We’re trying this across all the departments of a liberal arts university, and we will find out if it works,” Beck said. “Does this fill the gap between research for the Ph.D. and becoming a faculty member?”

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