Vol. 5, No. 1: Spring/Summer 2009

Learning How Faculty Work and Live

by Keith Roach

IU sociology graduate students shadow faculty at Indiana liberal arts colleges to get an insider’s view of life as a faculty member

Kerry Greer is a hardworking student and a devoted teacher, but in August 2008 she was working hard at relaxing after her first two years of graduate school.

A doctoral student in the Indiana University Bloomington Department of Sociology, Greer was in California with her husband and son. She had planned the trip around what she thought were the dates of DePauw University’s new faculty orientation, which would kick off her yearlong shadowing of a DePauw faculty member. Instead the orientation was in the middle of her vacation.

She reluctantly flew back to Indiana for three days of orientation sessions, determined to make the most of the situation. It turned out to be an amazing experience.

“I was just blown away,” she says. “It was totally worth every moment.”

Greer was impressed by DePauw’s support for its new faculty and the emphasis the university placed on teaching and supporting its students. At a picnic dinner one evening, she met the woman who would serve as her mentor for the next year: Rebecca Bordt, an associate professor of sociology and the chair of DePauw’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. It was the start of what would be a valuable experience for both of them.

Greer and Bordt connected through the Department of Sociology’s Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) program, dedicated to helping graduate students develop the understanding and skills to fulfill all of the responsibilities they will have as professors, whether they work at a research university or a liberal arts college.

While graduate programs typically focus on research, the PFF option emphasizes teaching and the scholarship of teaching and learning. The job shadowing is one component of the PFF program. Each year up to five IU graduate students work with carefully selected faculty mentors at two Indiana liberal arts colleges—DePauw University and Hanover College—to get an insider’s view of life as a faculty member.

The university’s emphasis on teaching was one of the reasons Greer chose to study at IU. Chancellor’s Professor of Sociology Rob Robinson, a faculty sponsor in the PFF program, encouraged her to apply for the job shadowing in spring 2008.

The timing was perfect: after two years of coursework, Greer would teach her first IU course, Introduction to Sociology, in fall 2008, while she was shadowing Bordt. She devoted the semester to becoming a better teacher. “I really wanted to provide myself with a little space and time to reflect on my teaching,” says Greer, who had taught at Portland State University while earning her master’s degree.

As Greer has encountered concerns about teaching, she has brought them to Bordt when they meet every few weeks. Some of their conversations are immediately useful, such as discussions about how to develop a syllabus and evaluate students. Others concern how Greer can prepare for her career, including how to write a teaching statement that will catch the eyes of potential employers.

Because Greer and Bordt share a preference for working at smaller universities that prioritize teaching over research, they’ve talked extensively about how DePauw compares to the other universities where Bordt has taught.

Greer says one of their most important conversations was about the skills and class preparations that liberal arts colleges value. “With a liberal arts college, I feel like I really need to develop skills that speak to the direct needs of a department. These are usually much smaller departments so you need to be able to teach a broader array of classes” than at a research university.

On Bordt’s recommendation, Greer observed a research methods course taught by one of Bordt’s colleagues, and talked to him about how he approaches the material. Now she’s developing her own undergraduate research methods course, which she hopes to teach at IU.

Having a mentor, Greer feels, “is like having a good friend that has a really nice workshop. All of a sudden you can build something that’s far superior to what you can build with your shoddy little toolbox. It’s great because you have years of experience all of a sudden to lean on.”

Even an experienced professor like Bordt doesn’t have all the answers, though. “Some of the questions are hard, and so I really have to think about why I do what I do,” says Bordt, who has mentored six PFF students since 2000. “Some of the conversations have led me to rethink my approach to something. So I get a lot out of the mentoring in terms of the questions [the IU students] ask and what comes out of my mouth as I’m answering.”

One of Greer’s goals in the fall was to improve the in-class discussions in her Introduction to Sociology course; she admits that in the past, her group work “fell on its face—it was my biggest disaster in the classroom.” So she observed one of Bordt’s classes, where the group work was more formal than in her course and worked much better. Bordt assigned four students to each group and also assigned each student a role, such as discussion leader or scribe. At the end, the entire class had a final discussion together.

Greer and Bordt adapted the model from Bordt’s 20-person class to Greer’s 69-person class, and Greer’s group work “went from totally nonfunctional to functional and the students getting something out of it.”

Bordt also got something out of this process. After observing the class at DePauw, Greer asked Bordt why she stayed at the front of the room during the group discussions—why she didn’t feel the need to go from group to group to make sure the students were discussing the assignment. One of the reasons was because of the small class—Bordt could easily hear whether students got off-topic. But the idea stuck in Bordt’s head.

“In subsequent assignments in small groups, I have found myself doing more floating, dragging a chair with me from group to group, and listening to what they’re saying, offering direction, and asking questions to steer them on a path that I think is productive,” Bordt says. “Just her observation really changed my behavior.”

Flexibility is one of Bordt’s goals as a mentor. She comes to her mentor-mentee relationships with no agenda or list of talking points, preferring to be a “sounding board and someone who can introduce [students] to a teaching environment that is different from where they’re getting their Ph.D.” The students choose how often they meet with Bordt, what they learn about, and what they experience, so that each student gets what he or she wants and needs out of the relationship.

“It feels like more of a collegial relationship as opposed to an instructor-student relationship,” Bordt observes.

PFF participants have been hired at such universities as IU South Bend, Florida State University, and Hanover College, and two PFF alumni are Bordt’s colleagues at DePauw. “The connection through the PFF program really gave them a foot in the door,” Bordt says.

Associate Professor Matthew Oware sha-dowed a professor and did a predoctoral fellowship at DePauw before graduating from IU and becoming a full-time faculty member in 2002. DePauw and the General Board of Higher Education of the United Methodist Church honored him with an Exemplary Teaching Award in November.

Before completing her Ph.D. in 2006, Alicia Suarez shadowed Bordt and became good friends with her. She also taught courses at DePauw as a predoctoral fellow. After two years at Pacific Lutheran University, Suarez returned to DePauw in fall 2008 as an assistant professor.

Suarez credits the PFF program with confirming that she wanted to work at a liberal arts college, and she says the teaching experience and knowledge of the liberal arts setting that she gained in the job shadowing helped her when she was searching for jobs. “It completely shaped not only my career choices, but my career opportunities,” she concludes. “I think it made me a more marketable job candidate.”

This spring, Greer is working with Bordt to continue to improve her teaching, to learn more about the service commitments expected of faculty at liberal arts colleges, and to assemble a teaching dossier that she can use on the job market.

Greer also presented two papers—one on teaching and one on mentoring—at the Pacific Sociological Association annual meeting in April, and her experience in the job shadowing program has inspired her to mentor a student completing an undergraduate honors thesis. “It’s great to finally be in a position where I can start to give back,” she says.

In addition to helping her prepare for the next steps in her studies and in her career, Greer says the Preparing Future Faculty job shadowing has had more immediate benefits: “Right now, as a teacher today, it’s really valuable. It really helps me teach in the classroom. For me, that’s what really matters.”

Keith Roach is a writer-editor with the IU Office of Creative Services.

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