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The Departmental Gestalt: Fostering Student Major Identity and Program Pride

Institutional Culture Students

The Departmental Gestalt: Fostering Student Major Identity and Program Pride

Like many others in the trenches of academia, we’ve chaired, taught, and advised in a small, understaffed, underfunded, and oversubscribed program. While other understaffed and oversubscribed departments limped along, ours notably thrived, resulting in strong student program identity and pride. Key to our flourishing was providing points of unification and solidarity within the department. Though many academics may bristle at the sound of solidarity for fear their independence might be compromised, our commonalities did not threaten our faculty uniqueness and autonomy. It is worth repeating: finding points of shared identity and communicating them to students did not endanger our beloved capacity to self-govern our own academic work. In fact, our students were quick to point out how different we were from each other. To our university’s delight, these fortifying qualities cost neither any money nor additional resources. We evinced our unity in two key ways: (1) having common curricular reference points and (2) displaying interfaculty communication to our students.

Due to issues we were having with students’ writing and preparedness for entry to the work world and graduate school, we developed a program writing list of dos and don’ts (affectionately called the “Oh No-No List”) and concurrently assigned job and graduate school readiness exercises to corresponding disciplinary clusters within the major. Full-time and adjunct instruct faculty alike adhered to the writing list and, as such, presented a stable and constant boundary despite differences in topics, teaching styles, and assignments. Similarly, no matter which course or instructor students had, they all encountered similar (but not identical!) assignments (e.g., writing resumes in one cluster of courses, crafting personal statements in another). It turns out that this emphasis on and high expectations for excellence in writing became a hallmark of our program, contributed to our program’s reputation for rigor, and served as a point of pride for students’ own work and in their major. Students’ continuous effort toward postgraduate readiness gave them personal confidence as well as trust in the program. Despite the inevitable variability of course topic, instructor style, and assignment type, students witnessed a programmatic commitment and consistency with an implicit message: no matter where you go, whom you have, or what you are working on, these aspects of writing matter. 

Of course, communication among program faculty matters. But showing students that faculty communicate was essential in students’ experiencing the program as a cohesive whole rather than a collection of piecemeal experiences. This seemingly trivial but crucial element was tangible evidence to students of a cohesive unit, with uniqueness at the individual level and an integrated wholeness at the program level. As with any small department, division of duties was essential to providing our majors with basic services, such as advising, honors society, and a disciplinary club. Thus, one faculty member served as a mentor of the psychology club, a different one the honor society—thereby saving time, equally distributing the workload, and enabling us face time with our students. What was unusual, though, was that we attended each other’s meetings. Thus, students saw us on a regular basis, together outside of the classroom. We also referred to each other in our classes, mentioning both formally and informally other teachers. (“Oh, so how many of you were up late studying for Dr. Such-n-Such’s test last night?”) Occasionally, we attended each other’s classes—to either aid in teaching a subject matter, to watch students present, or to promote our own causes. One faculty member regularly recruited for research assistants from others’ classes, not just her own. Seeing one faculty member in another professor’s class indicated mutual support. These instances ensured that students experienced us as a whole unit, creating a program gestalt, one they then could adopt.

Even our regular, weekly meetings facilitated the formation of a secure base from which our students could work confidently and with trust because they knew we were acting in concert. During our meetings, we shared issues faculty were having with students, and as a result, other department members who had that student in class or that person’s advisor might subsequently address the issue with the student—again, demonstrating that instructors were not operating in isolation. (“Oh, Emily, Dr. So-’n’-So says that you’ve not been attending her class regularly, what’s going on?”) Surprisingly, the departmental minutes were instrumental in helping us notice these meetings’ importance. When we compared our minutes to our counterparts’ at another campus, we noticed their minutes never discussed issues with students but revolved around meeting deadlines and fulfilling obligations. One difference between the two departments was likely the cause: we met weekly, whereas our counterparts met only once per month for 90 minutes. It makes sense that by gathering infrequently, they had to focus on a month’s worth of tasks, while we could take care of those tasks as they arose, leaving us time to connect and address student issues—individual and collective.

At the time, we were both department cochairs and full-time faculty members. As department chairs, we have several actionable recommendations for administrators to promote this positive move in your programs. First, pass along this article and begin a conversation. Everyone in the program needs to fully own these ideas need, and so rather than a top-down edict, involve others in the conversation and solicit ideas organically.

If there is interest, discuss your shared values; be careful not to assume everyone’s values are the same. Sure, we had our program learning objectives, which supposedly united the aim of the curriculum, but they did not necessarily unite the faculty. Upon discovering those commonalities, brainstorm how you can clearly and collectively communicate them to students. This discussion, too, will help to discover your program’s identity, ways to capitalize on it, and convey that identity to students.

Similarly, we recommend that if you have access to meeting minutes, take time to read them. Notice how much of the minutes is devoted to simply completing tasks and how much seems to revolve around discussing student issues. Approach those minutes as an artifact; discover what they say and what they do not reveal about your program. Consider also meeting weekly. We know, it is one more meeting, but of all the meetings we endure, it is the one with the biggest payoff. Remember that it’s easier to cancel meetings than to make them. If you have weekly meetings on the books, that intentional, frequent communication will foster your department wholeness. Then discuss ways to display that contact to your students.

Finally, if you oversee other programs, identify those most likely to be amenable to these suggestions (to begin with). Have them take on these suggestions and solicit their feedback. These steps worked wonders for a small major of 120 students and, again, cost no money or resources. We are confident that your program, and ultimately the students, will only benefit from this integrated wholeness.

Trisha Prunty, PhD, an educator since 2006, teaches topics ranging from neuroscience to human sexuality. She specializes in building professor-student relationships, mentoring undergraduate research, and strengthening presentation performance. Her primary experience in small liberal arts universities, includes the University of Mount Olive, Lindenwood University–Belleville, and presently Blackburn College, trisha.prunty@blackburn.edu.

Diana Jacobs, PhD, has 27 years of experience as a psychology professor at small liberal arts institutions. Currently, she is founder of Flourishing Fox Coaching. She and her colleague, Dr. Trisha Prunty, have lively discussions of faculty issues on their YouTube channel, The Passionate Professors.

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