Thinking like…

In the general discussion that ensued in at least one faculty gathering, I was encouraged to “think like graduate faculty!” This struck me as a rather strange piece of encouragement. In retrospect, I’d say my sense of the strange was more due to my naivete than anything else. I guess I’d thought we were all faculty in one college or at least one department.

As I think about that assumption, I realize there are vestiges of old school thinking in my reasoning. I’ve been socialized into an academic life that had undergraduate education as its focus. The important thing was to do a very good job with your undergraduate teaching. That’s the way we attracted good students, that’s the way we held good students, and that was the way we established our reputation with the field as teacher/scholars who knew what we were doing. Teaching graduate students, in my old school view, came either on top of these assignments or once you had established your excellence with undergraduates. Somehow in my old school view, I grew into this job thinking it was a duty to teach undergraduates and an honor to teach graduate students.

Not that we did poorly by carrying out that duty. Most of my undergraduate teaching colleagues had a hand in establishing recognized programs of excellence. The Apex program, a specialized concentration in primary education that was part of the elementary education program, won AACTE’s distinguished achievement award in 1976. One award, one program. The international award from ITEP the following year was icing on the cake. When Apex closed its doors in the late 80s, every innovative feature of that program showed up somewhere in the elementary education program: eg. strong participatory field experiences starting early in a student’s career, integrated campus/field assignments, advising and teaching cohorts of students who stayed together across their years in the program, a focus on thematic, interdisciplinary work with multi-aged groupings of students, team teaching by university faculty, competency based curriculum, self-directed learning, instructional decision making informed by close formative assessment, and so on. The Responsive Teaching Program, a special education concentration within the elementary program had high levels of recognition within the national special education community. If any faculty demonstrated a capacity to be effective in its graduate offerings, it was the undergraduate faculty. What has always been an issue, of course, was that it was hard to do two things at once – teaching undergraduates at a level of income generation that the institution required and teach large numbers of highly organized graduate programs and have enough time to meet the conditions for RPT.

It was only later in the 90s during one of my rear-view mirror checks that I realized excellence in undergraduate teaching was neither a necessary nor sufficient condition to teach graduate students, particularly doctoral students. Faculty were being hired to teach doctoral students and not teach undergraduates. Somehow, I’d missed the fact that graduate education faculty were different from undergraduate education faculty. Somewhere in the years between 1985 and 1995, two teaching worlds were created in the college, a doctoral level world and an undergraduate level world. One was held out to be of very high status, the other was kept to be the cash cow. That its faculty continued to push for the highest quality experience for its undergraduate masses is a condition for which we are now being required to seek redress. The highest quality experience for the undergraduate masses is evidently too expensive for the institution called UVM to support.

To go along with this separation into two worlds, we now have this idea that graduate and undergraduate faculty think differently. Interesting. Here’s what I gleaned from the discussion at that meeting about what it means to think like a graduate faculty member.

-Graduate faculty think that it is acceptable that their programs are neither cost efficient or cost effective. It is acceptable that their existence is paid for by other income producers within the college.

-Graduate faculty think ideal funding strategies occur through grants, fellowships, and contracts. You bring in enough money to do the work you want to do and to hire enough graduate students to teach the courses you might ordinarily be assigned to teach. These courses include undergraduate offerings.

-Graduate faculty think graduate students exist to further the research agendas of graduate faculty.

-Graduate faculty think the best instructional setting involves one that is small in number, intimate in inquiry, and based on the search for a particular truth. Though students are led to construct their own forms of understanding, it is the professor who illuminates the path. The best life is the life where you have a small number of highly skilled graduate students working with you on your research.

-Graduate faculty are bound to inquiry and research. The highest good is to have your work recognized by nationally recognized peers in the field and to bring in significant amounts of grant money to support your teaching efforts.

-Graduate faculty think good teaching involves small numbers of students engaged in discussion that is research based, inquiry driven, equity informed, and policy focused. The very best learning is learning that challenges the verbal and rational mind.

I’m sure there are more thoughts that graduate faculty think but these were some of the thoughts I recorded as graduate faculty spoke at the meeting. So, this conversation got me thinking about what it was that might typify the thinking of undergraduate faculty, especially if it were conceived to be different from the thinking of graduate faculty as was implied at that meeting of doctoral and other graduate program faculty. If graduate faculty thinking is good thinking, thinking to be aspired to as was implied, then the kind of thinking not wanting to be aspired to might be what defines undergraduate faculty thinking. Perhaps what was meant was a kind of dichotomy. The ideas I promulgate here are mine, advanced by this conversation.

-Good undergraduate faculty thinking is thinking which creates ways to teach the largest number of students at the least amount of cost.

-Good undergraduate faculty thinking is thinking that aspires to generate enough revenue to support doctoral programs in the college.

-Good undergraduate faculty thinking is thinking which is solely about teaching. We don’t do research or inquiry.

-Good undergraduate faculty thinking is about transmission of information. It is about talking about good teaching, not good teaching.

-Good undergraduate faculty thinking is about teaching which is inspirational and impersonal; large numbers of very excited students in captivating classes hanging on the words of faculty who think outside the box.

Good undergraduate faculty do it all themselves. We don’t use graduate students, we don’t hire part time lecturers not matter how skilled or reflective they are, we do it all ourselves.

But surely that can’t be it. No one would say this is good teacher education. So being a good undergraduate faculty thinker can’t be the opposite of a good graduate faculty thinker, can it? Surely we aren’t being asked to do bad work. None of my undergraduate faculty colleagues think in these ways. I know how they think; well, most of them. These are good ways, in my book.

-Undergraduate faculty think the highest good is to graduate a class of young teacher leaders who have successfully managed the complexity of public school teaching in extraordinary ways.

-Undergraduate faculty think good teaching is collaborative, transformational, learning based, strength focused, skill informed, and assessment driven.

-Undergraduate faculty think good teaching occurs in remarkably diverse settings involving complicated combinations of learners. They seek out such settings to demonstrate good practice. Even in places where diversity is not immediately obvious.

-Undergraduate faculty think good teaching is modeled and aspired to, and measured by good learning.

-Undergraduate faculty generate research out of their teaching experiences and this research/inquiry generates programmatic direction.

-Undergraduate faculty think it is important to be close to their students. This is one way to increase student yield into the program. They meet parents, recruit students, talk with parents after students are in their programs, keep students on track, and on and on so that student numbers don’t slip. This is their responsibility and they accept their vulnerablity in this regard. Parents and lawyers angry over the grade of an undergraduate student are not uncommon occurrences for us.

-Undergraduate faculty think (know) we are the face of the University (UVM!) in the local schools. We negotiate difficult boundaries of practice, boundaries between program and school, professor to teacher, one classroom to another classroom, one teacher to another teacher. And all this must be done in a way that creates no ill will. Presidents and Dean and Department Chairs don’t like to get letters.

-Undergraduate faculty believe you can’t teach about teaching to large numbers of students and successfully generate student numbers at the levels we currently have. You have to engage students in the teaching, in the learning, in the field, in the campus classroom, and continually give your students responsive feedback about their work with young learners. That’s the way to attract people to your program.

I guess I’m still confused about what undergraduate faculty are supposed to think. I can’t imagine we are being asked to do what our research and our experience shows doesn’t work. Are we being asked to think differently than graduate program faculty? Do we have to earn the right to teach graduate level courses? Is it only our responsibility to be cost efficient? What’s the box we are being asked to think outside of? Is it a budget box or a program box? Can we be cost efficient and continue over, say, a ten-year period to continue to attract high numbers of students to the program? These are all interesting questions. They are questions for all of us. They will require us to get out of our silos and struggle with them across programs and across the strata of graduate and undergraduate programs. Answers to them will can divide us or bring us together in our fight to determine what our future is going to be.

I close with one speculation and one affirmation. I affirm that we are correctly and necessarily dealing exactly the right question right now. I admire the courage of our leader to bring it to us. I speculate there can be no high quality graduate program (M.Ed., Ed.D., Ph.D.) without a high quality undergraduate program, at least in a department/college that is configured as we currently are. Maybe we are headed for radical reorganization within this University. Maybe we are asking all of us to work together more equitably.

Comments anyone?

Published by

Charles Rathbone

Retired. Emeritus. Conducts a seminar on university teaching to doctoral students in the Rubenstein School of Natural Resources once a year. Board Member Vermont Interfaith Action, volunteer and advocate Burlington Bike Project, UDL consultant VSA Vermont, photographer, married, four children, five grandchildren, and one Golden Doodle. Embracing life, all of it. "Today is tomorrow's past."

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