Professor Nancy Drew to the Rescue

January 12, 2006

Here’s a mystery.  How does an author combine a fictional story about a naïve professor who encounters the strangest of characters at Higher State University -- where administrators lace brownies with marijuana to get them to agree with radical changes that could negatively affect their scholarship -- with the issue of faculty development? 

Thomas B. Jones, who has 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor of history, academic administrator and educational consultant, answers that question with The Missing Professor (Stylus), which he readily admits is a “rank amateur” writing effort.

“I had written several case study-discussion stories over the years intended for workshops on college teaching,” explains Jones, who most recently taught at Maple Woods Community College, in Kansas City. “I guess the faculty and administrators who participated in the workshops liked the issues I raised, and they seemed to enjoy the characters and situations. I’d been reading a ton of mystery stories by funny, wisecracking folks like Robert B. Parker and Carl Hiaasen, and the idea came to me that I could ‘embed’ informal case studies and discussion stories into a cheesy mystery novel.”

The 146-page book focuses on a protagonist named Nicole Adams, who, against the advice of her father and a faculty mentor chooses to teach at the struggling university, in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa. The antagonists are just about everyone else, including backward hat wearing students, evil-minded administrators, and a cat, Munchkin, who just can’t leave Nicole’s love life alone.  

Just how do these characters lend themselves to the issue of faculty development?

“The fact is most teachers and administrators don’t have much time to attend formal faculty development workshops, much less prepare for them to a great extent,” says Jones. “But bringing people on campus together to talk about a variety of topics, even for short time in casual circumstances, yields some hefty benefits down the line for faculty development. The chapters in The Missing Professor should be a good way to start useful discussions without a great deal of fuss.”

Inside Higher Ed recently had an e-mail conversation with the author, so he could explain more about his “novel” approach.

Q: Is faculty development an area that gets enough attention at institutions ofhigher education nationwide?

A: A colleague (Chet Meyers) and I wrote a book about college teaching back in the early 1990s. At that point, we didn’t have much to work with in terms of research and activities in the area of college teaching and learning. Within a few short years, things just seemed to explode --- new research and findings, the establishment of teaching centers, conferences devoted to teaching and learning, grants, and so on. Nevertheless, I’m surprised at how many colleges and universities don’t focus on faculty development in a useful and systematic way. We still have graduate students coming out to teach with little or no experience and understanding of the enterprise. Too many colleges and universities ignore the teaching and career development of their new faculty hires. Also, I’ve noticed a drop off in the establishment and the support for existing teaching centers and faculty development programs.

Q: In the book, Nicole is surprised that some students she encounters are so rowdy or complacent. What's the most difficult experience you’ve faced in teaching undergraduate students?

A: In the twilight of my teaching career, I taught the introductory U.S. history survey at a community college. For the first time, I encountered what we now call “classroom incivility.” I achieved legendary status among my colleagues for my inexperience handling a particularly difficult student. To my surprise, the problems I experienced (and subsequently learned how to deal with in a useful and progressive way) are not confined to one level of higher education. It’s lucky we have several good souls in faculty development researching and writing about the issue and providing strategies to employ in the classroom.

Q: Your book makes witty use of administrative plans, like "Push the Pedagogy." Is it a mistake for administrators to create so many complicated plans that seem to take up a lot of time for faculty members?

A: What a nasty question for someone who has been on both sides of the fence. Yes. Administrators create complicated and unwieldy plans that draw faculty away from far more productive activities. The problem is growing, too, since we have fewer full-time faculty to handle all the committee assignments and other obligations. (Say ... let’s recruit a slew of people from industry to be part-time faculty devoted to “service.”) On the other hand, faculty tend to spend a great deal of time debating and meeting about each and every issue -- without taking due responsibility for following through on decisions. It’s amazing how some faculty members can acquire such keen expertise on matters like marketing, budget building, community relations and so on, dispense crackerjack opinions once a month at the Faculty Senate meeting, and then go home and wait for somebody else to pick up the ball. But if not for administrative initiatives and faculty quarreling, what fun would is it going to campus every day (... well, for some, every other day).

Q: What is the "scholarship of teaching"? Why do you think it's important anddo you really believe that faculty members like your character, Bernie Bierman, a classic campus cynic, can be convinced that it is useful?

A: For good background on the “scholarship of teaching and learning” I’d advise readers to visit the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Web site. For some examples of that scholarship, take a look at the Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.  The scholarship of teaching and learning takes off from the ideas forwarded in Ernest Boyer’s Scholarship Reconsidered. Basically, SOT&L advocates argue we should avoid the teaching v. research dichotomy and understand that scholarship is part of all our academic endeavors. The scholarship of teaching and learning should be seen as distinct, but interrelated to the scholarships of discovery, application, and integration. The movement picked up steam quickly, and it has some first-rate, persuasive advocates like Lee Shulman, Mary Taylor Huber, and Pat Hutchings.

As the chapter in The Missing Professor suggests, SOT&L is a tough sell, and sometimes for good reasons. I think most faculty members at this point will side with old Bernie Bierman. Looking at most of the scholarship that has resulted so far, I think the critics may have some firepower. At the same time, SOT&L is a positive step toward improved undergraduate education, and I hope it will succeed. At the least, it promotes scholarly teaching (and recognition and support for it), and that may have been the “original intent.”

Q: How should a professor use this book?

A: My hope is a professor will find it easy to join others in informal discussions of the issues and topics that have the most relevance (Let’s hear it for the 60s!). Faculty should have little trouble applying their expertise and experience to the various chapters in the book. Workshops, brown baggers, and teaching circles are some of the occasions a book like this can fit nicely. An individual professor, of course, can pick and choose among the topics represented in each chapter. The next step? Flip the book over to access the discussion questions and materials, have a glass of wine, and reflect on the betterment of higher education. Or, quick get the book back to Amazon.com or put it up for auction on EBay before the price drops.

Q: How can discussions about faculty development, which you say in the introduction to the book are easily prompted, lead to progress?

A: I think most of those involved in promoting faculty development will agree that the simple act of professors getting together to talk about teaching is a giant step on the road of progress. Anyone who has experienced teaching workshops involving faculty from different disciplines and departments will have more than a few stories about the energetic, useful discussions. Individual faculty members involved in these occasions more often than not are excited to talk about teaching and share experiences, good and bad. We tend to restrict our involvement with colleagues to disciplines and departments on a day-to-day basis, only venturing outside into the academic community when forced to do so. When it comes to faculty development and the improvement of teaching, that sort of isolation is hardly a good thing

Q: Can professors accomplish feats of faculty development on their own? Do administrators need to be supportive for it to work?

A: I think it’s very difficult to be your own faculty developer. With all the good teachers and hard-earned experience available to any professor within an academic environment, it doesn’t make much sense to be the lone individualist. And yes, administrators need to support faculty development with active involvement, brave decision-making, and proper funding. So what’s new?

Q: Ultimately, after her experience at Higher State U., Nicole doesn't want to be a professor. What does this say about the state of faculty development in retaining good professors?

A: I don’t think it’s so much a matter of retaining professors through faculty development. It’s more a question of supporting, motivating and sustaining professors who will be at an institution for a whole career. Almost every professor wants to stay in the academic life, and (I hate to say it, but) most would have a hard time getting a “real job” (even though we have the understandings and skills ready at hand to be successful). In the majority of cases these days, I think, the only way professors move on to a different job in academe is by means other than being an outstanding teacher – e.g., writing zillions of articles, coming out with the right sort of book at the most opportune moment, getting your hands on a big bucks grant, or ... going into administration.

So, if most professors will keep on keeping on as professors, the key is to have strong faculty development programs available from the start of a career to the end. Faculty development is necessary to (1) start new members of the guild, like Nicole, off on the right foot, (2) sustain and mentor professors through the coming years of tenure and promotion, and (3) provide senior professors with new opportunities and challenges as they face the last third of their careers.

I don’t think Nicole will leave academic life for good. I think she’ll find a way to return to her career in college teaching. But, before that day, she’ll have to decide what made her want to be a college professor in the first place and why she wouldn’t want to leave that life behind.

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