Reinventing the Academic Self: When the Professional and the Personal Collide

Reinventing the Academic Self: When the Personal and the Professional Collide in Academe
by Dr. Debbie J. Williams, Associate Professor, Abilene Christian University

Parker Palmer has tenure. Parker Palmer is a white male who is positioned to make audacious claims. He calls us as educators to teach “who we are” in his book The Courage to Teach. He describes “good teaching” as a profession which “cannot be reduced to technique” because it “comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” He has received acclaim for coming to these conclusions.

sandwich-generation-from-retirementshop-dot-com I, too, have tenure; however, I achieved it in spite of my teaching who I am. Each time I enter the classroom, I enter with the training, with the expertise of an associate professor of English with a terminal degree. I also enter the classroom with a frantic over-preparation of a new instructor, not because I have a new teaching prep, but because at any time, I might be called into my role of care-giving daughter or mother of an addict. My teaching has to be structured so that my students can meet the course goals while, each semester, they watch me weave the personal into the professional because I, too, believe that good teaching comes from the identity and the integrity of the teacher. I am so impacted by this belief that I find myself unable to even begin this prospectus in a traditional manner.

My course goals, my knowledge of best practices and current research are framed in my life-long experiences as a caregiver. Family members’ terminal illnesses which are re-framed as chronic illness by advances in medical treatment and substance addiction which society schizophrenically (and poorly) addresses as both crime and disease force constraints on my academic life, limiting my time to engage in traditional scholarly pursuits and in traditional university and departmental duties. They daily give me pause about how to construct myself for my students, as my university reminds faculty that student development theory supports faculty being appropriately personal with students to better mentor them (Levine; Upcraft, et al; Chickering). Yet, these very constraints, when viewed as integral to my teaching identity can also facilitate academic pursuits, as they require researching with skepticism and abandon, filtering ideas with an equal trust in experts and knowledge of their limitations, and resourcefulness for learning in non-traditional ways from non-traditional sources. Re-thinking my academic role through these lenses demands the re-structuring of my classroom so that my students assume the role of co-creators of knowledge. It demands that I risk more, both in and out of the classroom, which looks to my students as a willingness to be interdisciplinary and to work with new forms of technology, both supported by “best practices” research (Fink; Glazier). To my colleagues, I simply appear different, struggling at every turn both to explore and articulate intersections between my professorial identity / integrity and university standards for traditional academic excellence and risking what credibility I have to be a voice for our “academic Others”—those whose personal lives and academic lives explode into each other yet who lack the sanctioning of tenure and/or rank and thus are easily professionally dismissed or ignored.

sandwich-generation-from-carestation-dot-agis-dot-com I am now in my second phase of re-thinking intersections between my personal and professional integrity. My “sandwiched” role requires me—as the only one with health enough to earn additional income—to work a second job to help family members meet basic needs. My university calls on me to make changes, too, in technology use, in pedagogy use, in perceptions of what student education looks like. However, the University does not change in its construction of what faculty “look like” and how faculty are to be evaluated. Interestingly, recent research evaluating the academy also neglects the need to re-think “faculty” from the perspective of socio-economic changes. (See, for example, Les Bell, Mike Neary, and Howard Stevenson, eds. Future of Higher Education: Policy, Pedagogy and the Student Experience. Continuum, 2009.)

This presentation will offer observations about re-thinking “faculty” and about the possibilities for enriched research and teaching which can result from taking the risk of teaching “who you are.” It will also offer suggestions for re-thinking the construct “faculty” as many more of us move into our “sandwiched” roles.

Photographs from retirementshop.com and carestation.agis.com.

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