Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Mentoring New Faculty

I guess I can do requests. Profgrrrrl picked up on a detail in one of the items I put in a to-blog list in my anniversary blog and asked for some information about our new faculty mentoring problem program. [That was a nice slip.]

I'm not going to give specific details about what we do here at Ishkabibble Community College, since this institution shall remain pseudonymous, but I'll try to describe both the good and bad sides of it.

Formally, our system for mentoring new faculty is two fold. Each new faculty member is assigned a mentor from among the t-t faculty, and the entire group of new faculty participate in a formal orientation program. There is also an informal third component whereby various faculty (such as the nut cases that populate our floor of the building) provide additional guidance, advice, and heads-up warnings about whatever is going on at a particular point in the semester ... and filling in the gaps and countering the non-science bias in the formal system. Besides, someone has to tell that now-tenured faculty member that "next month you're going to get a request to turn in X within a week or two, so start now." They are long out of the program, but there are things we do after tenure that we never did before it!

I should first mention a key detail: I was hired before the current system was put in place. Those who went through it would say it differently: they would say "I was spared going through the new system". (I would put it a different way: It would not have survived having me in it or ICC would be missing one of the few faculty to get perfect scores on student class evaluations. But I should also clarify that the current system has changed significantly during its lifetime due to feedback from the faculty who went through the first ones. One group was the Beta test, and you know what that means.) Indeed, I question whether I even had a formal mentor, but I can guess who was assigned to me and know full well why I would jump to that conclusion. More on that issue next. But I did have an excellent mentor/coordinator for the first class I taught at ICC, and got everything I needed from the wonderful nut cases on my floor, including one who was just two years ahead of me. However, there were some things I did not get that our new faculty get from the system we now have in place. One of those is camaraderie across the college within each group, but I still know several of my "class" on other parts of campus despite a very different system.


The role of individual faculty mentors seems diminished in the system we have, which is a bad thing unless the mentor is ineffective (as some appear to be). We do assign an individual mentor, but what happens there varies a lot depending on the inclination of the parties involved. It is not our main official way of getting faculty adjusted to this college.

One of my concerns is that some mentors do not seem to be well chosen. I would not assign as a mentor someone who punches a time clock with office hours. Who never goes to faculty governance meetings. Whose classroom expectations are so slack that a student wrote an article in the campus paper complaining about how unfair the departmental final was because the A students failed it. (Yep, that prof did not cover the syllabus or give tests that reflected the learning objectives of the course. This prof was also a product of the new mentoring system.) My mentor, if it was who I suspect, is much too casual to even mention being my mentor and probably limited involvement to asking me how things were going. Not that I needed any, but a walking tenured disaster case did need a lot of help and did not get it. (Not that he would have taken any advice, but that is a different story.)

I think we need a mentor training/mentoring program! Or, perhaps, more of an "it takes a village" approach to the new faculty. One of our problems as a CC is that we are too big to have intimate faculty meetings like at a small college, but also don't have the research groups that play that role at a large university. That is what I am thinking about for next year.

I also think several of us are going to increase our efforts this next year, because we are seeing some parts of the college culture and history slipping into oblivion.

Formal Orientation:

OK, to the main event.

I went through a multi-day orientation as a new faculty member that was incredibly intense. The proverbial drinking from a fire hose experience. About all I took with me was the knowledge that there were things out there that I needed to know more about. It was so rushed that I actually didn't even know where one of the places was. I had to get directions when I finally needed to go there later that year. That probably worked OK when they were hiring only a few at a time, but the new system of spreading this out over a year is a big improvement. More of a "just in time" approach. The part that was done that way for us, advising, was really effective. We got some specific training, then we worked side-by-side with someone who knew what they were doing.

In our current system, the new faculty are given a small reduction in duties on the service side (mostly advising and committees) in exchange for scheduling one meeting a week for orientation. They meet for a longer time before the fall semester for a total focus on HR (that took one day of my orientation as well) and first-day issues. There is also time for each Dean and department head to spell out how each fiefdom operates. Everything else (advising, governance, college culture, teaching philosophy, etc) is done in meetings that take place every week or so.

This part is run by our tiny faculty development operation, which is run by an in-house hire that I don't really respect. No significant classroom experience is a non-starter. It would be quite different if we had hired the candidate who did have that kind of experience, plus lots of experience with a variety of development tools (student interviews, classroom visits), but I suspect he turned us down (probably was on a pay-raise job hunt). Some of the presentations now come from faculty guests, and I think there will be more changes of that sort next year. If you go this route, the person in charge is crucial and it must be evaluated objectively each year.

Side comment: I did get some really good ideas from the talk given by the failed outside candidate, and got a great deal out of trying one of them this year.

The flaw in our present system that stimulated the comment in my "to blog" list is that the newest hires are uniformly clueless about how our college governance system works. I was too, but I had been deeply involved in governance at the university level as a graduate student, so I knew how one system worked. Nonetheless, ours has some idiosyncrasies that it took years for me to figure out and the lack of involvement by the new faculty had some consequences this past year. They did get a presentation about it, but it was clearly ineffective or did not connect.

The biggest problem with this one-size-fits-all approach is that one size does not fit all. We have hired faculty with years of teaching experience elsewhere (one recent hire came from a 4-year school that was easing its MS people out the door with dreams of being an R1) as well as total newbies (zero experience running an entire course at a college, or only experience with middle or high school classes). It is pretty insulting to treat both the same way. Actually, it is very insulting to tell someone how to teach when they are already a first-rate teacher ... maybe better than the person doing the telling.

Before going on to what else bugs me about this approach, a few words on what really works well. There are some things where one size does fit all. One of those is tenure and promotion. They spend many of their weeks on this, including work on their binder (I think they use the newly fashionable "portfolio" for this) and what it will have to include. If you (Profgrrrrl) are going to be bringing in several new faculty at a time into your department as you have alluded to, this would be a really good investment of someone's time. It is much narrower and clearer for our faculty than it might be for yours, but some things are universal and MUST be done right! Why not tell everyone the same story, and do an informal walk-through of what you need to put in it from the first year, second year (they also meet a few times during the second and third year), etc. Expectations. Tricks of the trade.

Aside: I was taught back in my post-doc days how to use a calendar to log things that need to go in annual evaluation documents, and that still pays off today. You can put it in a W*rd file or a folder, but the key idea is to note it as it happens so it is easy to pull together when you need it. Record keeping is essential.

What mistakes to avoid?

It is insane (I mean this literally, not figuratively) to pretend that methods that are the current fashion in a College of Education for a 20 person course on high-school writing skills or middle-school math skills or an upper-division philosophy seminar have any relevance to a 50 person lecture on Microbiology or the "majors" math and science classes we teach. A New Yorker cartoon showing students being asked how multiplication made them feel before they move on to division has made its way around our hallways. There is lots of research on teaching physics, but the little I have read is infinitely more than the person running the program has read. I am reminded of what Chad, aka Chad-zilla wrote about wandering around an active learning classroom in his 6'6" 260 pound rugby player body. Doesn't work. Terrorized students are not engaged students.

There are significant differences even within our own area (the sciences), because what works for majors does not work for non-mathematical gen-ed classes. We really should shift some of that program into our department, and use the opportunity to learn what other senior faculty are doing while helping the new ones figure it out.

There was also an element of indoctrination in the program. Some of it was good (they definitely need to know what to say and not say if they want to earn tenure) and necessary, but some of it strikes many of us as dangerous. That "some of it" has to do with a "student centered" philosophy where the only measure of learning is the fraction that pass a class. Now our college administration (both the Provost and the President) are on record as saying they view "learning" as what is measured by how a student does in the next class, but not everyone (or every Dean) is convinced. Worse, there are faculty who send students on to my classroom with the odd view that they should get two tries at every test and earn extra credit by going to office hours, and seem to have picked this up in the orientation and mentoring process. Those students will only get one try at my tests, and will be expected to still know the trigonometry they did not know when they took the final exam.

One of my goals for next year is to see if I can find out (in the form of actual data) how my students do after transferring to Wannabe Flagship University to study engineering. The idea is to get disaggregated data for kids who passed one or both of my physics classes before transferring and compare to "native" students and ones who transferred from ICC with their 60-credit AA degree but without taking calculus and physics at ICC. [The ones who go straight from being coddled to being herded are unlikely to do as well as my grads tell me they are doing, but I'd like to see the data.] I might also start looking at the math background of the kids who can't do algebra when they arrive in my class and see who gave them that B or C.

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