Graduate School Courses Prepare Next Generation of Professors
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Rob Sleezer wanted a peek behind the curtain, he says, evoking images of Toto exposing the man operating the machinery in the Wizard of Oz. In this case, Sleezer was referring to what it's like to be a college professor.
Sleezer is studying microelectronics-photonics at the University of Arkansas. For a long time, his goal has been to be a professor. So, the doctoral student enrolled in a class offered this fall by the university's Graduate School to "pull back the curtain a little bit," he said.
The Graduate School has joined a growing trend among higher education institutions to provide formal instruction in how to be a successful professor. While many other programs offer occasional seminars or courses on university teaching, the model here includes two, 3-hour courses titled "Preparing for the Professoriate," one with a focus on teaching and the other featuring discussions of research and service activities beyond the classroom.
In addition, the Graduate School is seeking approval to offer a graduate certificate in preparing for the professoriate next fall that will require completion of the two core courses, along with two, 3-hour electives.
Dennis Brewer, associate vice provost for research and professor of mathematical sciences, co-chairs a committee that developed the professoriate program.
"We have been offering seminars and courses in this area for several years," Brewer said. "We decided to seek authorization for a formal graduate certificate based on a national program called 'Preparing Future Faculty.' We are compiling a list of appropriate courses offered around campus in various disciplines that can be opened to students pursuing this certificate."
Sleezer said the course has exposed students to activity behind the scenes on a college campus that they may not get a chance to experience otherwise.
"There is a lot happening at a university besides classes and research," he said. "Students typically are isolated from that."
Sleezer explained that, like many people with their sights set on a career in higher education, he had a narrow perception of university life based on his own experiences, and the class has opened his eyes to possibilities for teaching in settings that he had not considered before.
"Until this, I didn't think about teaching at any type of institution other than what we have here," he said. "My experience has been in research-oriented schools so that's the image I had in my head of teaching. This class has been a big revelation to me."
Students in professor William McComas' class on Thursday afternoons represent a wide variety of disciplines including mechanical engineering, molecular biology, public policy and food science. There are also a few students from McComas' own department – curriculum and instruction.
Some of the students are working on their doctorates; others have already completed them. What the students have in common is an interest in teaching on the university level.
Unlike Sleezer, Zeynep Kirkizoglu is somewhat unsure of her future once she completes her doctorate in industrial engineering. She came to the University of Arkansas from Turkey two years ago.
"I want to get a Ph.D. because I want to become a professor, but I have doubts, particularly about whether to pursue being a professor in the United States or to return to Turkey," she said. "This class is an opportunity to evaluate that goal. I'm learning things I had no idea about, such as how the tenure process works," she said. "I'm also learning more about the job application process. The only thing students usually see about that is the public presentation a candidate makes about research. In order to make a decision about something, you first need to know about it."
Writing a research statement and updating her curriculum vitae have been two of the most helpful assignments so far in the course, Kirkizoglu said.
Angela Hines, who is working on a doctorate in public policy, said she looked forward to the "job talk" students are required to make in the class.
"Everyone presents their research as in a job interview," she said.
Hines, who is African American, also said the assignment to interview university professors was meaningful for her. She chose four women, all members of minority groups, at various types of universities as a way of looking more deeply into the experiences of a select group of professors.
"The interviews brought up things I hadn't considered," Hines said. "They made me focus on what I really want, and I realized that I need to pay careful attention to where I apply. As a woman and a minority, I overlooked some things."
Those she interviewed said they experienced more challenges as women than as minorities.
"They said race had not been a particular issue," Hines recalled. "It's being a woman that is. If you want to have a family or have aging parents to care for, it's very important to consider the flexibility available in the position. At some universities, there may not be much flexibility because of the demand to publish.
"I'm taking a closer look at what a university expects of its faculty," she continued. "Because of this class, I feel I will be well-informed when I make a decision."
Patricia R. Koski, associate dean of the Graduate School, explained that the committee of faculty members who developed the program came from across campus. In addition to Koski, Brewer and McComas, the committee members are:
- Norm Dennis, professor, civil engineering
- Mike Miller, professor and department head, rehabilitation, human resources and communication disorders
- Cheryl Murphy, associate professor, educational technology
- Pat Slattery, associate professor, English
- George Wardlow, professor and department head, agricultural and extension education
- Kim Smith, professor, biological sciences
- Dawn Farver, doctoral student, civil engineering
"I think this is a critical piece of our offerings," Koski said. "University faculty outside of colleges of education typically have no training in pedagogy. That can make the first few years in the job really difficult. Some people don't make it, and it's hard on the students, too.
"We have excellent graduate students in programs campuswide, but teaching is different from learning," she continued.
Response to the program has been good, Koski said.
"Students have to decide whether this is worth their time," she pointed out, "but we believe this program will better prepare students for jobs they may have, and we greatly appreciate the partnership with the colleges on campus. The interdisciplinary nature is a great strength of this program."
The course being taught this fall by McComas is subtitled "Faculty Work Beyond the Classroom," which focuses on topics of interest to professors beyond their roles as instructors. Issues discussed include developing a research statement, strategies for finding and negotiating a job, the nature of employment in higher education, research ethics and grant-proposal writing.
The other course, to be offered in the spring, is called "Teaching, Learning and Assessment." The courses may be taken in any order.
McComas, the Parks Family Professor of Science and Technology Education in the College of Education and Health Professions, uses a textbook written by two of his colleagues. Christopher J. Lucas, professor of higher education and educational statistics and research methods, and John W. Murry, associate professor of higher education, last year released the second edition of their book, New Faculty: A Practical Guide for Academic Beginners, published by Palgrave.
According to the authors, it was long commonly believed that someone who was a good graduate student would be a good professor. This view is changing to the benefit of fledgling faculty members and students alike, they say.
"We can't assume every faculty newcomer will know at the outset how to fulfill their responsibilities and obligations," Lucas said. "The student ultimately benefits when we make college teachers as effective as they can be."
Like the fall course, the book discusses professional duties well beyond the classroom, offering information about characteristics that define academic culture, questions about professional ethics, recommendations for advising graduate students, advice about getting published in a professional journal, when to accept or decline a committee assignment and what materials to collect to document your work for tenure review, among many other topics.
"In this course, we look closely at research, service and interacting with colleagues," McComas said. "Our other text, Life on the Tenure Track by J. M. Lang, provides a first-hand account of a new faculty member's experience that provides many opportunities for discussion and reflection."
He also invites guest speakers for class, such as administrators who have experience in hiring and who can discuss the reality of life as a professor and some of the newer faculty members on campus.
"A new professor of biology, for instance, may have a clear idea of some aspects of the job, but faculty members face a variety of expectations depending on the type of institution and the department in which they serve," McComas said. "Traditionally, graduate students focus heavily on their content and only vicariously learn how to be a professor. With these courses, we are trying to flatten the learning curve and give our students the skills they need to get a job in higher education and thrive once they have it. I am delighted that the Graduate School has initiated this important program."
Patricia R. Koski, associate dean
University of Arkansas Graduate School
William F. McComas, Parks Professor of Science and Technology Education
College of Education and Health Professions
Heidi Stambuck, director of communications
College of Education and Health Professions