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Helping Future Faculty “Come Out” As Teachers (POD Essays on Teaching Excellence)

Posted by on Tuesday, February 28, 2012 in News.

CFT Assistant Director Nancy Chick previews an essay by Mark R. Connolly, University of Wisconsin-Madison, appearing in Essays on Teaching Excellence published by the Professional and Organizational Network in Higher Education.

Connolly places the experience of doctoral students interested in teaching into the context of his and others’ research on LGBTQ students (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or queer) to highlight issues of identity and struggle in the professional identities of future faculty members.  They may begin their careers wanting to be a professor who does research and who inspires students as they were inspired, only to learn that good research and good teaching are seen as mutually exclusive.  They must choose, and the message is that teaching is the lesser choice.  In this way, doctoral students who want to teach often repress a significant part of their “authentic faculty identity,” according to Connolly, not unlike LGBTQ people living in a dominantly heterosexual society. Specifically, the similarities include being constantly aware of the risk of being found out, feeling different and “other,” being professionally and emotionally isolated, and repressing that authentic self to try to “pass” as the dominant identity.  Connolly’s interviews with graduate students revealed stories of those who were disowned by advisors and even entire institutions after they “came out” in their desire to embrace teaching.

Connolly’s research is both illuminating and troubling.  A simple look at institutional types in the U.S. reveals that “Less than 300 colleges and universities (6%) grant more than 20 Ph.D. degrees each year. The diversity of American higher education means that nearly all of our graduate students will find employment in one of the other 94% of colleges and universities” (emphasis in original, “GradSTEP Preview”).  This understanding of the institutional landscape led graduate student organizers of the CFT’s recent GradSTEP  (Graduate Student Teaching Event for Professional Development) to create panels of early faculty members from places that differ from the typical research-intensive universities like Vanderbilt.  The panels were designed to help our graduate students see the variety of potential experiences as faculty members, including those that foreground teaching.  The sheer number of “other” types of institutions points to a need for future faculty members to embrace teaching as part of their work; however, Connolly’s essay offers something much more fundamental.  Beyond a pragmatic supply-and-demand argument, the pull toward teaching for some graduate students is a passion, a calling, part of their authentic selves, suggesting that Ph.D.-granting institutions should take a hard look at their vision of what it means to be a future faculty member.

This support for the work of graduate students, faculty, and instructional staff interested in their teaching is obviously central to the mission of the CFT, so its success on campus suggests an openness to what—according to Connolly’s research—might be seen by some as an alternative identity.  For example, the CFT’s Graduate Teaching Fellow, Teaching Affiliates, and Teaching Certificate programs offer a variety of opportunities for graduate students to openly cultivate their teaching strengths (and love) in a supportive community.  (Read what former graduate students have said they gained from the experience and view application materials here.)  Additionally, a panel of Vanderbilt’s own discussed the question “Why Does Teaching Matter?” at 2011’s GradSTEP. (Listen to an excerpt of the panel here.)

However, is there still work to be done?  How many future faculty at Vanderbilt still feel this need to remain “in the closet”?  What can be done across campus to make Vanderbilt an inclusive environment for its doctoral students?

Food for Thought:

If you’re interested in exploring the notion of your professional identity, Donald Hall’s The Academic Self: An Owner’s Manual (2002) provides a thoughtful framework for doing so through self-reflection and then through writing a professional statement that you may share with colleagues.

Photo by: Noukka Signe

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