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In Praise of Pinball Machines: Why Deans Should Teach

Leadership and Management Reflections on Higher Education

In Praise of Pinball Machines: Why Deans Should Teach

This fall, for the first time in a long time, I am teaching a class taken only by first-semester, first-year students. A required general education course that includes a lot of writing. And grading. I last taught about three years ago. All in all, I have taught maybe five classes since 2010.

I moved from being a tenured full professor to a 12-month, full-time academic administrator (initially, an associate dean) in 2005, so at the end of this semester I will complete my 17th year as a full-time administrator. It is a career path I never imagined for myself as I pursued my PhD studies on early modern English literature or as I published my research on 16th-century prose fiction (especially the works of Barnaby Riche) and worked my way up through the tenure ranks. I took the administrative path because (1) I feared who would be asked to do the work if I didn’t; (2) I needed a more flexible schedule than teaching permitted in order to accommodate pregnancy and early childhood care (that is, it is easier to reschedule a meeting than a class when your toddler has yet another ear infection); and (3) the systems thinking required for academic administration turned out to be something I am good at and enjoy. I did not become an administrator to avoid classroom teaching, but I did find that once I became an administrator, it was hard to give my students, especially graduate students, the attention they deserved. So I stopped graduate-level teaching first, then I restricted myself to low-stakes undergraduate courses: reading groups for honors students and first-year orientation courses.

Until now.

As I have written elsewhere, teaching has the potential to help remind us, especially while we are struggling with the pandemic that won’t go away, of the value of what we do. In all honesty, I will admit that while I am teaching partly for restorative reasons, I am also doing so because our budget is tight and we were scrambling to find faculty to staff some courses sections this summer.

Discussions about tight and shrinking budgets are continuing this fall (the demographic cliff is looming), and so I find myself bouncing between the optimism and rawness of new students; the frustration of faculty who are doing their damnedest to help students learn the skills they will need to succeed and who are feeling undervalued and vulnerable; and the pressures to develop a long-term budget strategy that will maintain our students’ success, reduce faculty burnout, and respond to fiscal realities. And while the movement among the needs of these three constituencies has me feeling a bit like I am living in a pinball machine, my work in the classroom is strengthening my ability to think through how to best engage with the other two constituencies with which I must contend.

In other words, I am glad I am teaching this semester. I think my teaching is strengthening my administrative skills, and that I think every academic administrator—especially those whose portfolios include supporting faculty, student success, or academic policies—should be responsible for teaching a class every couple of years. Richard A. Greenwald, writing in 2017, summarizes the case for the teaching administrator nicely:

It’s too easy to lose sight of the educational mission as an administrator. The news is always bad, the problems many, the work Sisyphean. In teaching, I am reminded of and witness the transformational potential of the classroom, which is at the center of higher education. . . .

We must remember that teaching is a nourishing act of hope. It keeps your mind in the creative and research world. It helps you recognize the hard work and changing economics of publishing that the faculty navigates in its quest for tenure. Teaching reminds us of the daily grind of education, how it builds class upon class, term upon term, year upon year. It provides a perspective that no spreadsheet can replace.

As someone who loves a good spreadsheet, I find that Greenwald’s reminder of its limitations rings true, and even halfway through this semester I have witnessed the “transformational potential of the classroom” and been reminded of how much joy there is to be found in working directly with students who are just beginning the process of figuring out their futures.

Teaching (as opposed to “professing”) is joyful work, but it is also hard and draining, and the current moment in which we find ourselves—in which enrollment is shrinking, the value of higher ed is under attack, and the pandemic has disrupted our students’ preparation for our classes—makes it even harder. University teaching in our new, COVID-endemic environment is different from what it was even in 2017, when Greenwald captured so poetically the value of the teaching administrator. We owe it to our faculty and our institutions to spend time in the classroom so that we are better informed about what our students and faculty need and how we can address their complex and differing concerns.

And what has my time in the classroom made apparent to me?

The pandemic has changed the way our students think about their classes. Students are now accustomed to having a range of course modalities, and they see their schedules—especially for general education courses—as even more malleable than they used to. We have taught students to be more aware of their health—both mental and physical—and they will continue to insist on that flexibility. For faculty that had been accustomed to insisting on classroom attendance before COVID, it can become increasingly frustrating to balance the need for students to be present to engage in planned classroom discussion or other active learning strategies, and the recognition that students want to control their own daily schedules in a more detailed way. Our institutions may need to rethink academic policies—such as those surrounding pass-fail grading options—that may have been introduced as a temporary strategy to cope with the pandemic and the rapid pivot to remote instruction.

The complexities of our students’ approaches to balancing their classes and their lives multiplies the challenges our faculty members are facing. Each of our faculty members is responding to emails from students, juggling requests for accommodations and extensions, and creating classroom plans that may or may not work (depending upon how many students can attend class) all while confronting increased complexity in their own lives. Our faculty are coping with all of the same personal difficulties that our students are facing in addition to the stresses inherent in trying to help college students succeed in their courses.

Both our students and our faculty are struggling as well to cope with the financial predicament of higher education. Rising tuition costs and decreasing funding for public education increase the stress felt by students who are struggling with college costs and teaching faculty whose salary levels and (often) lack of tenure exacerbate their financial anxiety. For faculty who witness students’ financial problems while experiencing their own, it can be difficult to hold a positive view of the administrative structures and administrators that can appear as impediments to greater opportunities for students and security for themselves.

This frustration may lead to even more insistent calls from faculty for transparency and open communication, but even the clearest and most frequent communication won’t resolve the underlying tensions that appear to put the needs of students, faculty, and institutions in seeming conflict.

In the face of this frustration, it can be easy to forget that there are huge amounts of optimism and hope out there among our students: they are eager to engage with their classes, campuses, and each other. Our students are not the individuals who are denying the value of higher education, and our teaching faculty are committed to ensuring that our students have every opportunity to achieve their goals. The decisions we make as academic leaders need to emerge from collaboration with and respect for our faculty. They need to honor the commitment of our students, who are a diverse and witty bunch of people who know that they are being left to clean up a world filled with a heckuva lot of problems they didn’t create. They don’t have a lot of patience for inequity, busywork, or doing things by other people’s standards. Neither do our faculty.

Our job is to make policy decisions that will enable these students to flourish within institutions that can weather the coming changes. Routinely putting ourselves into the undergraduate classroom helps give us the context we need to be sure we don’t undervalue or idealize either our students or our faculty members. Yes, teaching while being an administrator might make us feel like we are living within a pinball machine, but pinball machines are still among the coolest games there are.

Constance C. Relihan, PhD, is the dean of University College and a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.


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