Creating a culture of collegiality

i-f875c0b07d9b3cb6229668554781b35a-alice.jpgSo here I am in sunny and unsustainable Tempe, enjoying the warm weather and empty morning (the workshop I'm here to attend doesn't start until 1:30 local time). I spent this morning sleeping in (gasp!), chatting to my mom on iChat, calling a friend whose birthday it is (Hi, Sarah!), and -- even more shockingly -- beginning to read a new book.

The book is called Rethinking Faculty Work: Higher Education's Strategic Imperative, by Judith Gappa, Ann Austin, and Andrea Trice. I don't know Gappa or Trice, but Ann Austin is a truly marvelous human being -- I know her through my grad work at the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning.

Anyway, I came across this book while browsing online, I think, and thought it would be good for my research for ADVANCE. So there I was, reading through it in the hotel lobby, with my half-eaten toast and $3 coffee (yikes!), and then I read this section (p. 20, references left out for readability):

Early-career faculty, like doctoral students planning to pursue academic careers, are especially concerned about the nature of the academic community. When early-career faculty discuss what they value and look forward to experiencing in their careers, they often mention the hope of participating in a "culture of collegiality." Yet early-career faculty, as they begin to experience their careers, often express surprise and disappointment that their experiences do not match their hopes and expectations.

I literally stopped eating, hand with toast halfway to mouth, upon reading this section, because it was just what I had said to my airplane seat-mate just yesterday.

In fact, my seatmate was provost of Butler University. She saw I was editing a student's paper, and asked "Faculty or student?" That was nice that she didn't presume I was a student. :-) She introduced herself, and then did I, and mentioned I was in my second year of tenure-track at Purdue. She went back to reading her book, and I went back to my paper; and then she said, "Can I interrupt you for a second?" She said she was very curious to know whether there were any surprises I had about being in a faculty position.

I mentioned how I skew the distribution, what with two parents who are faculty members (at UW-Madison) and a husband who was a faculty member, but that I was surprised by two things -- 1) that I had to learn to say no when no one had actually given me a choice (particularly about whether to participate in something or not), and 2) that I had expected that, because of the unique nature of my department (that it was the first such department in the country, that it soaked up all kinds of good people in engineering education research into one place) that I had expected more intellectual stimulation and sharing of ideas. I had thought it would be common to have colleagues knock on one's door and ask one to look over a manuscript, or for one's opinion on some new idea. Not that this doesn't happen to me -- in fact, it happens more now than it did when I started -- but I confess it surprised me greatly last year.

The provost thanked me, said she had felt the same way when she started, and eventually after a bit more chit-chat, she handed me a card and said I should give her a call if I ever needed to talk about things as I progressed through my pre-tenure years. I felt this was a very generous thing to do, and was quite struck by how I missed that hand being held out, something I'm also feeling a lack of in my department.

So to read that book excerpt the very day after I felt was serendipitous. Hence the blog post, even though I'm supposed to be working on other things here. (That's okay, I have only one more ASEE review to complete...) I'll share other things I come across in this book too -- so far, it's clearly thought-provoking.

In fact, the rest of the section quoted above reads:

A strong academic community that values and includes all faculty members contributes to the intellectual vibrancy of a college or university, supports the bonds of commitment that link faculty members to the institution, and creates a climate that enhances students' learning. When institutional leaders recognize the value of nurturing a community that includes all faculty members, regardless of their appointments, they enhance institutional health and success.

Sounds good to me.

Those of you out there on tenure-track, was there anything that surprised you when you started your tenure-track job? Those of you not on tenure-track (at all, or yet), any surprises you experienced? Share your thoughts in the comments (and it might be helpful if you identified your job/identity [not name!] for us).

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It continues to surprise me that even though our institutions ought to be and profess to be invested in our success as researchers and teachers that they don't provide the support necessary to achieve that level of success. This goes along with your comment about needing to say no, even when not given a choice.

Where did you find coffee for only $3 in Tempe?

Oh, as for the cultural comments: it's been going on for a long time. It's really just a later stage of the breakdown that C. P. Snow observed half a century ago.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 26 Feb 2009 #permalink

I would say that the great dissapointment of my academic career was the lack of collegial intellectual interaction among my faculty. In graduate school, at two different institutions, there was a lot of intellectual interaction among the graduate students and (perhaps to a lesser extent) between graduate students and faculty. During my tenure I coauthored three small papers with other faculty members. There may have been one other paper coauthored by faculty during that period.

Our lounge was called the soft conference room. Three of my female colleagues went on Weight Watchers. I came in one time and listened to them for a few minutes. I then remarked that conversation in the soft conference room had degenerated since they went on Weight Watchers. They agreed.

Actually, in the 12 years since I retired, the faculty has become much more intellectually active, and I enjoy visiting. I also perversely enjoy the griping and complaining, which is no longer of concern to me.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 26 Feb 2009 #permalink

That is a good book. Along with your tenured colleagues, how many times have you worked with a part-time faculty member? Have you gone to lunch with a part-time faculty member? Do you know their names?

If you haven't, I encouage you to talk to the part-timers. You will be surprised at how much they have to offer to the "conversation" and "collegiality."

By Bill Brantley (not verified) on 26 Feb 2009 #permalink

One of the huge benefits in work environment I found, after leaving academia for industry (I'm in earth sciences), was the congeniality of the group at my current location was SO MUCH better than at my academic institution. There was so much competition amoungst the profs at our institution (status, grant $$, office space, research topics) that there was little-to-no collaboration. As a post-doc I had one of my best research ideas taken by a Sr. faculty member because I had the naivite to share it with a large group as a "guess what, isn't this cool, what do you think we could do to figure out what's going on?" discussion, only to later have it written into a proposal without me. And I was shocked that happened -- it was so NOT what I expected the environment to be like and not what I had been led to believe!

In industry we are working TOGETHER on the same goal. Still doing some research, but for a common cause. And that, again, was a giant bonus to leaving academia that I did not expect. (Disclaimer: Still can't get over the feeling that I failed because I left!)

K-12 educator here, but I have to echo everyone's comments. It's my fourth year and the lack of collegiality has been my number one disappointment. In the end, we all retreat to our own personal fiefdoms and don't want to be bothered. My two big pushes this year have had to do with revising our assessment practices and integrating technology. I knock on doors. I do presentations. I created a choose-your-own tech learning series.

The thing that drives me crazy is the lack of conversation. Sure you think my assessment ideas are crazy or that you don't think integrating technology is important, but at least talk to me and tell me why. Except for a very, very few all I get in response is polite nodding or arms crossed seething.

What I noticed during my postdoc years (and my husband's tenure-track years) was that not only there is lack of collegiality within a department or subfield of study, but advisers seem to be trying to compete with their advisees. It seems like most baby-boomers' want to eat their young.

The lack of mentoring is astonishing, with very few exceptions. And most of these faculty seem to have forgotten about all the help they got from their advisers when they started out. I'm not saying one should be handed things on a tray, I know one needs to work hard to succeed. But it would be less stressful for most faculty starting out not to have obstacles thrown in their way on purpose.

The lack of mentoring is astonishing,

That's a great point, Patchi. I've been trying to figure out exactly what it is that has turned me off of academia, and I believe that is one of the biggies.

I always imagined grad school would include much more mentoring than I received. And I'm not talking specifically about science, but more about other issues: writing/submitting papers, tips on giving talks, various career options, etc..

I love the idea of each graduate student being paired with a mentor with whom they could talk to about any issue that arises without worry. It would be even more beneficial for the mentor to be in a different department. That way the student can get a broader experience, and the mentor is at arms-length from the student's project/academic life. I've suggested this to the department, but nothing yet.

When I started at this job 10 years ago, I had a department chair who quietly developed a culture of collegiality. He would round people up to go out for lunch. He would rally people to a conference and then party like it was 1999 while he was there. He would read funny quotes from teacher evals at the semester kick-off meetings and he would prod specific people into working together on projects and papers. He would host a great back to school party on his own dime.

His plan worked. For the most part, we have a friendly supportive group that hangs out together at work and off-hours. Our kids are in school/daycare together, and various groups of us sometimes take family trips together. Our lunchroom is full of funny banter (sort of tenure-track trash talk). Having a leader with some social saavy can really set the tone for long term departmental collegiality.

By Female Enginee… (not verified) on 27 Feb 2009 #permalink

I was surprised by how few faculty members showed up for graduate student seminars when I started at my tenure-track position around the start of this decade. This seemed to me to be symptomatic of several larger issues concerning the graduate program then. Things have improved a bit since then, fortunately.

The technologically advanced way of networking amazes me...I learned about this blog from the Butler University Relations office. Evidently we have a internet trigger that lets us know when Butler or a member of the Cabinet show up on the web.

After reading this entry, and thinking back to my opportunity to meet Alice, I can tell you that I wasn't making an "effort" when I spoke to Alice, I was truly just interested in her, as I am most academics. When people ask me why I am so interested in faculty development, I explain that first and foremost, I am an educator. When I moved into administration, I did not leave that passion behind. I simply have replaced my focus on student academic development with a focus on faculty development....and a genuine interest in supporting faculty at all stages of their careers.

I am pleased that Alice made note of my outreach to her. But, she should also know that I gained from the interaction, as well.

By Jamie Comstock (not verified) on 13 Mar 2009 #permalink

I wrote an article for Inside Higher Ed called We Need Humanities Labs, because I saw in my practice working with grad students and professors that academics are particularly isolated in the humanities. But I can see by reading your blog entry and some of the comments here that isolation and non-collegiality is rampant even in some labs. How sad. Someone should do a research project on what makes the difference between a collegial department and a non-collegial one. Perhaps it's just one person at the top whose attitude trickles down. If that is a good research idea, please steal it and let me know what you find out!

I am a staff member/adjunct professor at a University and one of the things that struck me was the clear divide between faculty and staff. Everyone seems to deny that it's there, but it certainly exists. I have at least as much education as my faculty counterpart(plus a 7-12 teaching license), but I feel like there's an attitude that because I am staff, I am somehow apart from those on the faculty. I think that the kind of culture you speak of would be enhanced if we all truly were seen as collaborators, as opposed to 'tiers.' I am also the youngest member of my department(by about ten years), which becomes isolating as well, as most of my colleagues see me as different in that way too.