Respecting Generalist Faculty: Helping Teaching Faculty Support Our Students
Unless you are at an elite institution in a highly specialized department that has no general education or service course teaching responsibilities, you need generalist faculty. Most academic departments at non-elite universities have to cover an increasingly wide range of courses—especially at the undergraduate level—with a small number of faculty.
Although we get our doctorates in specialized research areas, most of us—if we are lucky enough to get a full-time faculty position—need to teach much more than our specialized research focus. Someone whose scholarship focuses on Shakespeare, for instance, may work in a small department in which they need to teach surveys courses on English literature to 1800, Chaucer, poetry, the English novel, intro to literary theory, the history of the English language, and the occasional American literature course—not to mention first-year composition and advanced writing courses. Probably they have a four-course per semester load as well. This combination of demands can lead to exhaustion, complacency, and dissatisfaction of all kinds.
But generalists are what our students and our departments need. They teach courses for general education. Departments need generalists to teach courses that serve students from a wide range of programs as well as their own majors. We must give them what they need to not only teach effectively but also to ensure that long-range department goals—increasing the number of our majors, guaranteeing academic integrity, improving our majors’ content—continue to be met.
So, in that spirit, here are 10 things that generalist undergraduate teaching faculty require to be the committed and thoughtful faculty our students and our academic communities need them to be.
- Respect for the expansiveness of their preparation. Generalists know a heck of a lot. To teach well, they keep current in the large-scale trends in the discipline, and they are keeping fresh all the broad areas of knowledge they learned in grad school and which specialized researchers may allow to sink to the back recesses of their memory. A generalist English professor, in other words, needs to remember enough about the Great Vowel Shift, the American transcendentalists, and William Blake; a research specialist can let much of that slide to focus on Shakespeare and early modern England.
- A full participatory role in department meetings and in developing departmental and curricular policies. In a department that combines specialist and generalist faculty, generalist faculty are often undervalued in departmental governance. Perhaps that is linked to class and elitism. Odds are good that in such a department the generalist faculty are least likely to have tenure and most likely to have the lowest salaries, and that can translate—either through articulated policies or implicit biases—into the exclusion of generalist voices in the decision-making process. This is especially unfortunate since the generalist faculty are likely to be the most connected to students and in the best position to understand how they will respond to departmental actions—especially surrounding curriculum.
- A full participatory role in shared governance. As the faculty who work with the largest number of students, from first-year general ed students to advanced seniors in directed studies courses, generalist faculty see the implications of policy and other structural institutional and departmental decisions. They will know most easily whether a change to a tutoring program results in improved classroom performance; they will hear student concerns about disjunctions between the major curriculum and students’ career goals; they will hear first about scheduling bottlenecks.
- Access to professional development funding and opportunities. Generalist faculty need funds to attend conferences, present on the work they are doing in the classroom, and participate in professional development opportunities both on and off campus. This need often gets neglected for two reasons: money and time. Funding to travel (when budgets can accommodate it and the pandemic doesn’t prevent it) is often limited to faculty who are presenting research papers, which may exclude faculty whose teaching commitments make it unlikely that they have the time to prepare such presentations. Nonetheless, they need the opportunities to hear the work of their fellow faculty and to meet their colleagues. Such experiences are themselves rejuvenating.
- Varied (but not too varied) teaching assignments. When a faculty member has a heavy and repetitive teaching load, as most generalists do, burnout is always a possibility. Giving faculty members the opportunity to teach a different class periodically helps keep teaching fresh by permitting the faculty member to focus on different material and, perhaps, a different degree of student preparation. It can give faculty members a rejuvenating change of perspective. At the same time, repeatedly asking the faculty member to teach a different set of four courses semester after semester prevents them from having the time to reflect on what they are teaching and, more significantly, how their students are learning.
- Continuous curriculum development. Varying teaching assignments, while important, isn’t always practical, given personnel limitations. Some faculty members simply can’t or won’t teach certain courses, which restricts the possibilities for switching up course assignments. But ongoing curriculum development can make a change of habit more likely and more effective in achieving professorial and departmental goals. Devising new courses, perhaps interdisciplinary ones, can create inspirational opportunities for faculty and attractive course options for students while still fulfilling the department’s general education responsibilities.
- Reasonable class sizes. What counts as reasonable is going to vary by discipline and institution, of course, but students learn best when they have opportunities to receive frequent feedback from their professors and when faculty can observe how students are learning and adjust course structures and practices accordingly. Most institutions and departments won’t be able to provide graduate assistants who can lead breakout sessions or monitor online discussion boards.
- Job stability. Most colleges and universities employ a mix of tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty, and in most cases, the latter are on short-term appointments. This lack of stability may undermine the eagerness of these faculty to address difficult, politically sensitive issues in the classroom (for instance, anti-Black racism in the US), and it can dilute a faculty member’s ability to focus on the students in their classes as they are forced into a perpetual job-seeking frame of mind. Without the stability created by tenure or at least multiyear renewable contracts, such faculty may be unwilling to mentor students in multi-term (or multiyear) research or creative projects.
- Encouragement to stay informed about national conversations about higher education. Between the looming demographic cliff, fallout from the pandemic, the movement toward racial equity, politically motivated attempts to restrict class content, national conversations about the value of higher education, and garden-variety financial concerns, there is a lot going on in the world that affects our campuses and, in many cases, can constrain what we are able to do. The more that all of our faculty are aware of the issues our campuses are and will be facing, the better able they will be able to participate in forging solutions appropriate to our specific campus contexts. The more all faculty understand the larger contexts that campus administrators must consider when making decisions, the more likely it is that productive, collaborative conversations about future planning will occur. Institutions can help faculty, including those with heavy teaching responsibilities, to stay informed by providing campus-wide access to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and similar publications.
- An office that is appropriate for having FERPA-protected conversations with individual students. Faculty who teach a lot are likely to need to meet with a lot of students for conferences about misunderstood assignment directions, reasons for absences, and grades. Many of these conversations are going to need the privacy required by FERPA, which gives students control over who has access to their academic records. A shared bullpen office that we may remember nostalgically from our graduate school days is not appropriate, even though campuses are using shared offices more frequently, especially for adjunct faculty. There are ways we can be efficient about space that don’t require us to dislodge the senior scholar from their office but still provide appropriate, private space for those faculty who are, especially during the pandemic, spending more time on campus teaching than the senior scholar who can spend more time engaging in remote work.
We know that individual institutional circumstances are vastly different and that those differences require different solutions. We know, too, that COVID has worn everyone down; we are all (administrators, faculty, and students alike) frazzled. And often generalist faculty have borne a heavy burden during the last two years as we have struggled to help our students and our institutions cope with the pandemic. In addition to the items enumerated above and, of course, regular access to merit raises, an occasional institutional thank-you to the generalist faculty who work intensely and exhaustingly with our students can be a welcome gesture that helps them continue their dedicated work to support our students and our campuses.
Thomas M. O’Shea, PhD, is an assistant professor of English at Virginia Union University.
Constance C. Relihan, PhD, is the dean of University College and a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.