Professors Have Feelings, Too

New paper makes the case for paying more attention to pretenure faculty members' emotions as a key component of their -- and the institution's -- success.

July 29, 2019
 
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Academics might be known for their intellect, but they have emotions, too -- and those emotions matter, according to a new paper on the pretenure faculty experience.

The mixed-method study, published in The Review of Higher Education, looked at assistant professors’ emotions regarding teaching and research, including their frequency, precursors and relationships with perceived success. It found that teaching was much more associated with positive emotions. Research, meanwhile, was associated with more negative feelings.

Why do faculty emotions matter? There’s a divide between qualitative research that consistently identifies certain factors -- namely clear expectations for promotion and tenure, collegiality and balance between work and home -- as important to faculty success, the paper says, and other quantitative research suggesting that those factors actually have limited influence.

Might understanding faculty members’ emotions help bridge that gap? Perhaps.

No qualitative studies to date “have directly asked professors to identify and describe their emotions related to teaching and research,” the paper says. And researchers “have not sufficiently examined the generalizability of the wide range of faculty emotions from qualitative studies beyond the emotion-related constructs of emotional exhaustion (burnout) or emotional labor.”

Phase 1 of the research involved collecting open-ended, qualitative data to address the following question: What are the most prevalent emotions experienced by pretenure faculty when teaching and conducting research? Phase 2 involved a quantitative study examining whether the range and frequency of pretenure faculty emotions found in the qualitative sample would generalize to a larger, quantitative sample.

Survey data was then used help answer two additional questions: Are there differences in faculty emotions between the domains of teaching and research? And what are biggest predictors and outcomes of faculty emotions?

Interviews with 11 faculty members identified 46 different emotions -- most commonly enjoyment, frustration, excitement, happiness and anxiety. A survey of 102 pretenure faculty members found more enjoyment, happiness, pride, satisfaction and relaxation regarding teaching. There was more frustration, anxiety, worry, fear, envy, shame, loneliness and hopelessness in research.

A more advanced analysis found that faculty members’ sense of control, value and positive or negative affect mediate the relationships of collegiality and balance with self-reported success.

The findings have implications for research pertaining to faculty success and development, as well as for university administrators who want to better understand faculty performance, the paper says.

Specifically, the findings “underscore the importance of examining not only traditional predictors of pretenure faculty success with respect to clear expectations, collegiality and balance, but also faculty emotions as experienced during teaching and research efforts.” Continued research on faculty perceptions of their work environment, their perceptions of value and control concerning academic tasks, as well as the “multifaceted nature of their emotional lives can help to inform faculty development initiatives and provide a fuller perspective on how to best promote teaching and research effectiveness in pretenure faculty.”

The study identifies certain limitations. For one, the vast majority (upwards of 80 percent) of interviewees and respondents were white, meaning that research on the emotional experiences of more diverse groups is needed going forward. The study notes it also only involved faculty members at two unnamed public research institutions in the Midwest.

Robert Stupnisky, lead author and associate professor of educational foundations and research at the University of North Dakota, has previously written about what motivates good teaching and supporting pretenure faculty members to help them find their intrinsic motivation. He said via email that his newest paper is “the most comprehensive study on faculty members’ emotions conducted to date” and that it provided “some very interesting findings.”

In terms of implications for institutions, Stupnisky found that perceived collegiality correlated with both teaching and research emotions, and perceived balance correlated specifically with research emotions. Collegiality was also a significant, direct predictor of control and value and an indirect predictor of success in both the teaching and research domains via faculty emotions.

So “a sense of belongingness” in the workplace appears to be a particularly salient factor in faculty emotional experiences. At the practical level, the paper says, pretenure faculty were found to experience a range of not only positive but also negative emotions. And “encouraging greater discussion of and emphasis on emotions in faculty in general could benefit faculty development.”

Efforts to increase how professors value teaching, or bolster faculty perceptions of control and value concerning research, for instance, should result in improved faculty well-being. And value for teaching may be improved by “providing faculty more choice in what, when or how they teach, by creating awards for outstanding teaching, or by ensuring suitable recognition of high-quality instruction in tenure and promotion deliberations.”

Faculty members may also value research more when institutions provide more time for research activities, such as sabbatical leave, institutional awards for community outreach or research innovation, or sufficient funding for pilot projects and conference travel. Similarly, the paper says, perceived control may be fostered by workshops on research-related issues, including open scholarship and obtaining funding, and mentorship arrangements with established colleagues to develop competence.

As "persistence and achievement in college students has been enhanced through brief interventions reminding them of the importance of controllable explanations for academic setbacks,” the paper says, “control-enhancing programs for faculty may also help to promote research success.” Correlational findings also suggest that faculty emotions may be improved through departmental and institutional efforts to bolster collegiality -- think formal teaching or research support networks -- along with professional balance (transparency or consistency in teaching, research and service obligations), and work-life balance (childcare, fitness and other programs).

Jasmine Harris, an assistant professor of sociology at Ursinus College, said she was fascinated by the article and could, in general, “understand how teaching could elicit more positive emotions than research.”

However, Harris said, echoing the experiences of many underrepresented minority faculty members teaching at predominantly white institutions, “I feel emotions like anxiety, fear and frustration in the classroom.” As an untenured black woman who teaches majority white audiences about inequalities in race, gender and class, she added, “I have to worry about discontent, disengagement and potential challenges to my power and position in the classroom in ways my white co-workers do not.”

In that sense, the negative emotions aren’t a response to the “literal work of teaching, but instead students’ possible responses to it,” Harris said. And negative emotions about her research are similar: Harris experiences what she described as fear and anxiety about how her research on black student communities will be reviewed, and frustration if or when an article is rejected for not including data on white students.

“At a more macro level, both sets of negative emotions” about teaching in research “are rooted in my status on the tenure track, but not yet tenured,” Harris said.

“I hope many of these negative emotions will dissipate after I’ve achieved tenure, but I won’t know for sure until that happens, so they remain for now.”

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