Thursday, December 11, 2014

Teaching What 'Professor' Means Is Big Challenge

(From the December 11, 2014 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

For years, when people would find out that I am a professor, they would ask me: “what are you a professor of?”

Aside from cringing at the use of a preposition at the end of a sentence, I would find this question a little awkward. I could answer it quickly and tell them I teach public relations, but that led to blank stares or even worse questions.

In a shoe store about a month ago the nice saleswoman was striking up a conversation as I tried on shoes. When we got to the part about me teaching public relations, the conversation felt like ill-fitting boots.

“So, that’s like talking to people?”

“Not exactly.” I then gave the officially sanctioned definition of the profession from the Public Relations Society of America. This was a mistake.

“So, it’s like sociology?” At least she didn’t call it “spin” or “getting the word out” or “publicity.” I decided to cut my losses.

“These shoes are just what I need. Thank you.” And in changing the subject and preserving the relationship, I exhibited a form of public relations, though the point was likely lost on her.

It gets even worse when people don’t ask about my subject matter expertise but the very nature of being a professor. They’ll ask “what class do you teach?” As if professors teach only one class. Three classes per semester is typical at most universities, though at “research universities” faculty may only teach two and spend more time on research. At other colleges, faculty may teach four courses but do little or no research.

They express shock that you have a PhD, even though that’s a minimum requirement for most professor jobs. Or they think you get tenure if you show up on time for two years. My own mother tells me she thinks tenure sounds like ten year and she gets confused.

Recently, when I got promoted to professor, the highest rank of professors, confusion really followed. “What?” friends would say, “I thought you already were a professor!”

Well, there’s the generic term professor and then there’s the more formal rank. Most professors on what is called the “tenure-track” are hired as assistant professors. This is just the rank title—it doesn’t mean you actually assist another professor, though in medieval days that may have been the case. After seven years, during which there have been several review meetings, assistant professors can go up for tenure and promotion to associate professor.

This is a daunting process. Candidates must show they are excellent in teaching, research and service. Teaching excellence is determined by a review of student evaluations, which are completed after every single class at the end of a semester. Other faculty watch candidates teach and review their teaching materials. Advising students is part of teaching and is also part of the record. As for research, candidates must show they have presented at conferences and/or published in appropriate journals or books. Finally there is this category called “service,” which means a faculty member has been on committees and/or taken an appropriate amount of administrative responsibility, as determined by colleagues.

In my time as a professor I’ve seen a handful of people not make it past this review process. So when someone says they have tenure, or are associate professor. it is a major accomplishment. After another seven years, the stakes are higher in all three categories. Candidates must be excellent or significant in all three to be promoted to full professor. It took me the better part of a summer to gather supportive documents into four large books for the committee in my unit (department) and at the college level to review.

Of course, by explaining all this to those outside of academia I expect a response not unlike that of students in an evening class—namely, a tired and indifferent expression, with eyes glazed like a Krispy Kreme.

So while it may be personally satisfying to have made it to the highest rank among college faculty, it is also humbling. I was humbled just the other day when I explained to someone that I was a full professor.

“What are you full of?” they asked.