When I began my career as a faculty member many decades ago, I had the good fortune to find myself in an especially distinguished department at an especially eminent research university. It was the custom of this department to gather for a faculty luncheon once a week and then to proceed to a departmental seminar in which we heard either from a visiting colleague or one of our own members. In the discussion period following the talk, questions generally had more to do with the ongoing research of the interlocutor than with the research of the speaker. Since all members of the department tended to be engaged in consequential research, the overall quality of the discussion was high -- although proceedings tended to take on a somewhat predictable, ritualized character
To be sure, department members were sincerely interested not only in their own research, but also in the research of their colleagues, and would often engage in conversation on these matters. This was known as discussing one’s “work.” Teaching was not considered a part of such “work,” even though many members of the department were dedicated, effective teachers. Teaching was basically a private matter between a faculty member and his or her students. I had the distinct sense that it would not be to my professional advantage to engage in discussion about my teaching; indeed, I sensed that it might be the conversational equivalent of a burp.
Back in the 1950s, the sociologist Alvin Gouldner did some interesting work about the culture of faculty members and academic administrators at a liberal arts college. He was following up on Robert Merton’s general idea about the social significance of “latent,” as opposed to “manifest” roles – that is, how roles not recognized explicitly, and not carrying official titles, might be of central importance in social life. In the academic context, manifest roles would include those of “dean,” “faculty member,” “student,” etc. The latent roles that Gouldner found especially important were those of “cosmopolitan” and “local”: roles that were not consciously recognized by overt labels, but which were consequential to the actual culture and social organization of the institution.
Cosmopolitans were those whose primary focus was their profession, as opposed to the institution where they were employed. Thus, a faculty member in this category would, for example, take a job at a more prestigious university that was stronger in his or her own field, even if it meant a lower salary. (Gouldner’s research was carried out at a time when it was apparently conceivable for a liberal arts college to offer a larger salary than a research university). Locals, on the other hand, were loyal first and foremost to the institution; they were usually not productive as scholars. At the time of Gouldner’s study, administrators generally fell into the category of locals.
Much has changed since that time. There has been, with a general move toward cosmopolitanism on the part of administrators, who have developed professional associations of their own and are more likely to go from one institution to another. As for faculty, their world has seen a widening gap between elite cosmopolitans and indentured locals -- adjuncts tied to low-paying jobs only relatively close to home, not the kind of locals who have been given any reason to develop institutional loyalty.
A question, then, for faculty members today is how best to balance concern for their profession with concern for their institution. A likely way is to care seriously and deeply for one’s students – since they are, after all, a major part of one’s vocation, in addition to paying most of the bills. And this means taking a more intentional, sophisticated approach to teaching.
To be sure, different institutions have different missions. Research universities, in particular, are crucial to the advancement of knowledge and must thus concern themselves with leading-edge science and scholarship. Even here, however, not all graduate students are themselves headed for major research universities -- far from it. Thus, graduate faculties in research universities are coming to feel responsible for preparing students for the future careers they will actually have. In part, this will mean exploring possibilities beyond the academy. It will also mean creating effective programs for preparing graduate students as teachers for a wide range of students.
The development of such programs has been a focus for the Teagle Foundation in recent years. This has involved supporting universities in their efforts to expose graduate students to what cognitive psychology has taught us about learning; to the pedagogical approaches and styles that have proven most effective; and to which forms of assessment are most relevant to the improvement of teaching. More generally, it means leading faculty to feel that they are not only a community of scholars, but also a community of teachers.
It has been suggested that the preparation of graduate students for teaching would be well-served if there were different faculty “tracks,” with some department members being primarily responsible for preparing researchers while others are primarily responsible for preparing teachers. While it is certainly true that not all members of a department have to make the same kind of contribution to the overall success of the program, formalizing such a separation between research and teaching would simply reinforce the caste system already in place -- not to mention the fact that many distinguished researchers are also exceptional teachers and that student engagement in research is an important teaching strategy. So, while there might be some value in having a pedagogical specialist (or more) on the roster, it is not desirable to have a tracking system that segregates teaching from research.
Here, then, is the general goal: just as faculty members would never think of being unaware of what peers are doing in the same field of research, so they should feel a comparable impulse to be aware of what their colleagues are doing in their areas of teaching. And thus, the world of higher education can become even more a true community.
Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and former president of Barnard College.
Students at University of Minnesota might be getting access to official student evaluation data starting this fall, potentially ending dependence on the very popular, unofficial sites that professors deride.
As a writing and communication instructor, I read emails from my students with great curiosity, trepidation and, oftentimes, a feeling of helplessness. Whether the email contains a confession (“I’m going through a difficult time…”), an apology (“I’m sorry…”), an assumption (“I’m sure you’ll understand…”), a plea (“Please, please, please…”), or a promise (“If you grant me this extension, I swear I’ll…”), the student hopes to persuade me.
In the instances where a student’s email is unclear and unpersuasive, a harsh voice in the back of my mind asks, "Does this email reflect my failure as a writing instructor? Have I failed to communicate how the rhetorical knowledge gained through coursework can be transferred to other contexts and forms, including one of today’s most common forms of writing?"
These self-critical questions stem from my desire to empower students. College and university instructors hold a reputation for persuasive scholarship, as well as political and social advocacy. But do we value persuasion and self-advocacy in the classroom? Do we encourage rhetoric from students that could challenge and persuade an authority figure? That could persuade us?
I want my students to not only transfer knowledge across the curriculum, but beyond it. Rather than passively requiring explicit instructions on how to communicate effectively in every situation, I want students to proactively harness their rhetorical confidence when advocating for themselves in a variety of contexts. And yet, when I read a fragmented and/or unpersuasive student email, my typical response is not pedagogical. I give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the student’s request, and move on. My behavior resembles a busy manager rather than a concerned teacher.
Understandably, for many students, email is a venue of freedom and distance from academic considerations. An inbox with messages from family and friends, advertisements, and spam for vitamin supplements hardly seems a venue for thoughtful, intentional writing. In turn, as a teacher, it’s easy to read student emails as separate from the content of the course, an extracurricular and social exchange. After all, student emails are not part of an assignment with specific guidelines or a grading rubric.
I am by no means proposing that instructors add a “how to write emails” unit in their courses. It is the absence of formal instruction on “email writing” that provides us with an exciting opportunity, a voyeuristic glimpse into how a student writes beyond the confines of specific assignments. The email sheds light on the student’s rhetorical awareness, or lack thereof, amidst a moment of self-advocacy.
While the majority of instructors likely respond to student emails with an appropriate and fair response, in other instances we have a tendency to read student emails with suspicion or react with condescension. Many articles written by instructors about student emails reflect this mindset, with titles such as “More (Unintentionally) Funny Student E-Mail Messages to Professors” (Chronicle 2008). Much of the writing on student emails stresses the… well, the stress and annoyance caused by the high volume of “inappropriate,” “unprofessional," “impolite” emails.
Studies have examined teachers’ reactions to student emails, such as how politeness can impact a teacher’s perception of the student’s competence and character (“You are such a great teacher and I hate to bother you”, Communication Education 2014; “R U Able to Meat Me”, Communication Education 2009), but there are no studies that have explored teachers’ pedagogical responses to student emails. I wonder how many instructors intentionally provide constructive feedback on the persuasiveness of their students’ emails? How would this impact our students’ ability to advocate for themselves in the future?
Rather than bring the emails we receive into the virtual teachers’ lounge where we snicker or sigh, there might be great benefit for our students if we as communication instructors not only respond to the content of student emails, but also engage students in a discussion of their rhetorical choices.
Time is likely the biggest obstacle for instructors. Responding to student emails on both a practical and analytical level would push many of us beyond the limits of our days. Though perhaps a plausible starting point, a self-piloted project for this term, would be to offer five unsuspecting students who send me an email the opportunity to discuss their rhetorical awareness and transference. Sure, this form of guerilla teaching would catch these students by surprise, but that would likely make the interaction all the more memorable.
Jared Berezin is a lecturer in the Writing Across the Curriculum program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
I am not your friend, but I do want students to feel comfortable approaching me. And I am not “Mr.” That would be my father.
Last week in this same space, Katrina Gulliver, made an argument regarding “an epidemic of familiarity among undergraduates” that directly implicated white male faculty for “resting safely in the comfort of assumed male authority.” I have witnessed this alleged epidemic in my very own classroom; and I have — much to the chagrin of Gulliver — done nothing to prevent it. Some, in fact, may even accuse me of silently fostering it.
Who I am is a white, male, millennial faculty member and college administrator who prefers creating a respectful environment in which my students are afforded the greatest opportunity for success without worrying about the same interaction in other classrooms. I have been known to occasionally teach in clothes that I could mow the lawn in and apparently a student or two have at some point said I was cool. That’s not my goal, however: I did not pursue a doctoral degree with visions of becoming Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society." Instead, I worry about making sure I deserve the respect of my students rather than expecting my title or position to simply demand it. I want students to respect me as an individual, not solely for my role, title, or degrees.
I strongly believe there is no need to rest on my apparent genetic laurels. I may be a white male, but this has nothing to do with why I am comfortable in a classroom. And more importantly, I think it has little to do with why students can respect me despite knowing my first name and using it if they feel so inclined. The underlying current of any college classroom involves a faculty member who is supposed to be more educated then the students on the topic being covered and understanding that this person will control assessment and grading. No matter how formal or informal interactions may be between faculty and students, those facts rest squarely in the backdrop of everything. If what students call me determines whether I am respected or not, I’m not deserving to be in a classroom.
Rather than worry incessantly about how an email is drafted, I am thankful students are asking questions. On the first day of class I consciously do not demand to be referred to by any particular title. There is no need for a lecture on why I want to be called Dr. Miller, Professor, Will, or even Master of the Universe. I may have a reputation for being laid-back and getting good teaching evaluations, but I also carry a hefty DWF percentage. Being informal does not imply that I am an easy A. In fact, I’d argue the opposite. If students respect me as an individual, I firmly believe I am able to push students to do more because of that mutual respect.
In an era of discussions throughout higher education about flipped classrooms, student engagement, and whether faculty should be a sage on the stage or a guide by their side, some faculty seem to be forgetting the importance of place, comfort, and feel in determining how to run their classes and manage their relationships with students. Like Gulliver, I did not use first names with my undergraduate instructors and still struggle using the first name of my dissertation chair. In fact, I still have nightmares about accidentally slipping and using the first name of a particular faculty member during an office hours meeting and the subsequent tongue lashing I received. Yet I did not lose respect for her nor her for me. Because the interaction fit the expectation for that particular faculty member.
And that is my major concern with the line of reasoning used by Gulliver yesterday. Without question, certain colleges, programs, and student bodies necessitate different levels of familiarity between faculty and students. Even perhaps more importantly students do need to be exposed to professional work behavior. Unlike Gulliver, however, I believe a part of that process is being able to navigate different environments and interactions. Students are fully capable of discerning what is acceptable with one faculty member and is not with another. If we look at today’s work environment, it is hard to believe that a student would fare well attempting to enter the workplace at Zappos.com or Google if they demonstrated the type of behavior Gulliver mandates with students.
In short, it is about fit. I am at time envious of my friends and colleagues who wear bow ties, five piece suits, or even just sports coats to class every day. But that’s not me. And I do not view colleagues any differently who wear Vans and comic book t-shirts into the classroom. What I wear, how I allow students to address me, and the way I conduct class sessions does not make me an inferior instructor or complicit in some alleged epidemic of familiarity. In my experience, it creates the learning environment that I feel best allows students in my classes to succeed.
Faculty should make expectations clear to students, but in an era where higher education faces regular attacks from outside actors, should we really be casting stones at each other regarding interpersonal style and choices? So, Dr. Gulliver, I apologize for not helping you out. But, in the grand scheme of things, I am considerably more concerned with making an environment that works for my students and I then worrying about you thinking I’m “down with the kids.” After all, am I not here for the kids? There is an important difference between formality and professionalism that appears to be misunderstood by some in the academy. I feel more comfortable teaching in jeans and being called Will than being Dr. Miller with a necktie on. Yet I’d welcome someone to attend one of my classes and suggest that I am ineffective as an instructor for these reasons.
Will Miller is director of institutional research and effectiveness and teaches at Flagler College.
Is it just me, or are we witnessing an epidemic of familiarity among undergraduates?
They’re all calling me by my first name. Is this happening in your classroom too?
I’m not that much older than a lot of my students, generationally (I’m apparently just on the cusp between being an echo-boomer and a millennial, for those who keep track -- but old enough I don’t think they’re mistaking me for a fellow undergrad). However, I feel like their grandmother when I receive their emails, and clutch my pearls when I get a message addressed to “Hi Katrina” (or just “hi”) from students I haven’t even met.
Perhaps this has struck me particularly as I went from living in Germany, where even to colleagues I was “Frau Gulliver,” to teaching in Australia where students seem surprised I even have a last name.
As an undergraduate I never addressed my teachers by their first names (and I walked 10 miles a day, neck deep in snow ... believe me, I KNOW how fogeyish this all sounds); for me becoming a grad student and getting onto first names with my adviser was a big step. I’ve felt it sends a message to graduate students that they are more like colleagues than undergraduates.
I address my undergraduates as Ms. or Mr., in the classroom and when I reply to their emails. Some get the hint but many are apparently oblivious. I’ve tried joking about it when students use my first name in class, or writing in emails that I do not do first names with undergrads. It’s hard not to come off as uptight, and some students seem genuinely surprised. Other times it’s clearly an attempt to rile me with some disrespect (typically coming from male students who like to undermine female authority).
But I understand that students are often confused about how to approach their teachers at university. The world of academic ranks is all pretty confusing to anyone outside it, and the various titles on people’s doors doesn’t really help (Do any associate professors and vice presidents people get emails addressed to “Dear Associate” or “Dear Vice”?).
Add to that the fact that many undergraduates will be in classes led by T.A.s who tend to go by first names (and are themselves graduate students). I think this is where part of the confusion starts for undergraduates. They’re not clear on all of the respective statuses of the teachers they encounter.
Into this mix too there is of course a gender dimension. I’m often addressed in class as “Miss.” I recently asked students about this, and I was told it was a habit from high school, where they were used to addressing their teachers in high school as “Miss” or “Sir.” I pointed out that these terms are hardly equal, and that they are quite welcome to call me Sir (nobody took me up on that one).
I’ve always been of the view that I don’t want to undermine my own authority in the classroom by dressing like the students, inviting them to use my first name, or making any other gestures towards “being down with the kids.” I find many other female academics also take this approach.
To add to the confusion, in most departments there is the species of (white) male professor, who wants to be seen as “cool” (you know the one, who shows up dressed like he’s come to mow the lawn), who invites all the youngsters to “call me Dave,” resting safely in the comfort of assumed male authority. If you’re one of these guys: you are not helping the rest of us.
(For those who are going to slam me for being uptight, watch your privilege).
I also feel it’s our job to teach students how to behave in a professional setting, and not sending the kind of emails that are all lower-case is part of it. (Lisa Wade quoted the hilariously awful email she received from a student when she was visiting another university to give a talk -- read it here.) Addressing someone you don’t know by their first name is also something that won’t always win you any prizes in the real world.
So I’ll keep insisting on formality from my students, even if they make comments about my being pedantic or bossy on their student evaluations. And I thank goodness I’m not the friend of mine who received an email from a student that started “hello kitten.”
Katrina Gulliver teaches at the University of New South Wales.